Rebels without a pause
The greatest bands have always treated the rules of the music industry as something to be broken. Where instinct, rather than calculation, sets them apart from the rest of the pack.
It’s just over a year since Fontaines DC released their debut album Dogrel, a record which defied artistic expectations - it certainly wasn’t the post-punk homage many mistakenly labelled it as - and was a commercial success to boot. Despite spending most of 2019 on the road, they’re about to break the rules again with the release of their second record. A Hero’s Death not only manages to dodge the yips that artists often get on record number two, it’s a giant leap forward from its predecessor. What’s even more remarkable is the speed at which it was written. To add even more industriousness to the mix, they recorded it twice; bands simply don’t do such things, but Fontaines DC aren’t your typical band.
We last met them in February 2019, over a pint in a London pub, but this time, with lockdown in full swing, our conservation takes place via Zoom. Guitarist Conor Curley appears on screen first, from his Mum’s house in Dublin. He’s recently returned from two months in New York, where rather than wander the streets of Manhattan, he maintained a hard lockdown. “I haven’t been doing anything too crazy since I got back,” he tells me, “and I haven’t had the want to either. I’ve been liking the idea of just staying at home.”
Singer Grian Chatten and guitarist Carlos O’Connell appear on the screen a minute later, and with the relaxation in social distancing, they’re sat next to each other. Curley quips, “They’re exchanging more than just COVID-19” while Chatten bats back: “Yeah, it’s a lot more infectious.”
The trio, alongside their friends, bassist Conor Deegan and drummer Tom Coll, have seen their lives change since we last met, but their next stint on the road is on hold for the time being. As well as giving them a much-needed breather, with lockdown starting to lift, a semblance of normality is returning to their lives.
“We’ve just been chilling out, rehearsing a load, doing a bit of writing and enjoying being able to play music together again” Curley explains. The city they brought to life so vividly on Dogrel is also coming back to life, albeit with baby steps. “It’s weird, the pubs only opened on Monday,” Curley tells me. “You have to spend at least nine euros on food, you can drink for ninety minutes and then you get kicked out, but the difference in walking around the city. Everyone’s smiling, it’s like a completely different city.”
The pause of lockdown also offered an opportunity to reflect on how far they’ve come in such a short space of time. O’Connell tells us that the previous evening they watched footage of their show at The Lexington in London. “That was December 2018, and we were blown away thinking that a bit over a year later we were playing Brixton Academy,” he explains. “I didn’t realise that until last night to be honest, it’s actually been real fast.”
Moving fast isn’t the modern template for bands. The norm is to release a record, tour for two years to maximise a bands revenue, that primarily comes from live shows, and then try and write another one. “It seems that’s the attitude the music industry has adopted,” says O’Connell, “where you have one body of work and squeeze as much juice out of a band as you can. I don’t know how much longevity there is in that, by the time those two years are over there’s not much left of the individuals in that band. How can you expect them to write a good record, when they’ve been away from creativity for two years in a row?”
Fontaines DC have been on the road relentlessly since Dogrel but are ready to return to the ring again with A Hero’s Death. The speed with which they wrote album number two was simply because they had to embrace their creativity, despite the travails of touring endless cities across Europe and the US, explains Chatten: “Part of the reason the turnover was so quick for this album is that it was just necessary. It wasn’t careered along by other people’s hopes and expectations. We didn’t look at Dogrel and think ‘Oh, the “Boys in the Better Land” did well, we should make sure there’s a “Boys in the Better Land” song on this album.’ We wrote privately and we released publicly, and that’s the way it should be.”
They also found a passionate advocate in Johnny Marr. As well as naming them as his favourite band on an Instagram Q&A earlier this year, the former Smiths guitarist helped them out during their set at last year’s Glastonbury. “Someone told me they were only able to bring one guitar to Glastonbury,” Marr tells me. “They were flying in from a gig somewhere and it was something to do with bringing their gear on the plane. It meant that if something went wrong, they’d be stuck and it’s not something you want to happen at Glastonbury. So I loaned them one of my guitars. I think they ended up using it.”
O’Connell defines Glastonbury as, “the point that things got bigger than we expected them to, really quickly”. They were scheduled to play the BBC Introducing Stage, before the organisers had a last-minute rethink. “We got offered the John Peel stage two days before and suddenly we had this massive 10,000 people show,” explains O’Connell. “We had two guitars between us that were in bits, that were definitely going to break. He gave us one of his guitars and said, ‘You’re touring for a bit, keep it until you get better stuff.’”
"Their whole relationship with each other is fuelled by music" - Dan Carey, producer of A Hero's Death
I ask Marr what he likes about Fontaines: “Well, they’re a really good band for a start,” he says. “That may sound obvious, but by that I mean they sound like they actually play in a room together and hang out together. Not all band’s sound like that these days. Fontaines have their thing, you know it’s them when you hear them. And the most important thing is they have good songs and really good words. They seem to have an agenda, and a good one at that.”
Dan Carey, founder of the Speedy Wunderground label and producer of Dogrel and A Hero’s Death has a similar perspective. “They’re a band in the true sense of the word. They have a really similar, very definite taste and they listen to stuff together. When we finished the sessions, we’d end up sitting in the studio playing and jamming. It was all about being together and making music.
“Their whole relationship with each other is fuelled by music. If they’re on a tour bus, rather than pissing about doing nothing they’ll be writing songs, because they have to, not because they ought to, they’ve got to get this material off their chest. The music is partly a vehicle for what they’ve got to say, but it’s also something they need to express in itself.”
A Hero’s Death is the sound of a band who don’t follow the rules, where the songs shift gears effortlessly. “It’s just self-expression.” Chatten tells me. “You get an idea that hits you when you’re walking on the street, you run home to play it on the guitar and try to make it as beautiful as possible. We’re not sitting in the van going ‘We should write a song like this’, that level of obvious planning is just pure imitation. You should let the song feel its way out of you, as opposed to designing the frame and then putting the picture in it.”
When I talked to the band last year, Chatten quoted the words of James Joyce in a letter to the art critic Arthur Power to explain Dogrel: “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world: In the particular is contained the universal," he wrote
I put it to Chatten that the line might also serve as a metaphor for A Hero's Death: “I was actually thinking about that quote in reference to this album as well,” he says. “It’s funny how you did too. Lyrically I’m looking inwards for most of it really. When you look inwards, you discover the necessity for a mantra, like ‘Love is the main thing’, ‘Life ain’t always empty’ or the whole story of “Sunny’”. These are just universal themes which exist within each of us. So yes, that’s bang on.
“I like writing alongside my interests, in the sense that I like how the last three books I’ve read will subconsciously have an impact on my writing, whether it’s the style of them, the wit or the specific energy. Your current and past reading material can become a memory album for your writing and I like using literature to change my own voice, as well as just reading it.”
"Over the last ten years there hasn’t been that many bands doing anything exciting with guitars." - Carlos O'Connell
I ask Marr if Fontaines are proof that the never-ending theory about the death of guitar bands is a myth? “I’ve been asked about that since 1983,” he replies. “It’s not actually happened yet.”
“Guitar bands are going to be around, always,” adds O’Connell. “If there’s only one guitar band that manages to do something interesting, I don’t think the question is about what instruments they’re using, the question is ‘Does it stand the test of time, is it interesting and refreshing?’ I’d like to believe that we’re doing that and achieving that, but it’s true, things get boring. Over the last ten years there hasn’t been that many bands doing anything exciting with guitars.”
Chatten thinks it’s actually been far longer: “Guitar music has been produced terribly for the most part for the last twenty years. It’s gone down this hole where everything is incredibly compressed, everything is like a block and is as full, healthy and fat as it possibly could be. For me that makes no sense, initially guitar music and Rock and Roll was about exposing the nuances and idiosyncrasies of humanity through these instruments. So to absolutely kick that away like Foo Fighters? Their guitars sound like fucking jet engines.”
Curley comes up with a metaphor that draws the biggest laugh of the conversation: “It’s like chickens being stuffed full of steroids for KFC, as opposed to the good free-range stuff that you can get nowadays,” he suggests.
Rather than sounding like chickens given a dose of steroids, the guitars of A Hero’s Death move restlessly from the furious stomp of “Televised Mind”, the loudest and most powerful Fontaines have sounded, to the gently picked “You Said” and “Oh Such a Spring”. The leaps in tempo are testament to their growth of their arrangements and playing, but as with all of the greatest bands, they’ve got a producer who understands how to harness their power in the studio. In Carey, they’ve found their Stephen Street or Owen Morris.
“Dan had a big part to play,” O’Connell explains. “The way he produced Dogrel was so weird, he did a production that was new at the time, where you could actually listen to the lyrics and the music. He’s been asked by producers and big mixing engineers ‘What the fuck happened there? That mix sounds wrong, like you didn’t actually mix it?’ but it’s completely on purpose. He was trying to capture what we actually sound like… without any of those steroids.”
Carey wanted to translate the feeling of watching a band that can play together so well onto a record. “You can’t stop a gig,” he tells me. “It just has to happen but once you’re in it, you’re in it, and the audience gets pulled along with that momentum.”
The idea they came up with for Dogrel was to record four batches of three songs each. “We made a pact to go ahead with that process, no matter what,” continues Carey. “Each section was treated as one thing and we’d play them from the beginning to the end. If anything went wrong, we’d wipe it and start again, so there was only ever one version of it in existence.”
Playing one song in a single take is daunting enough, but Carey thought that playing three in a row would bring them to creative heights in the studio. “It’s a really tense way of doing it. If you’ve played two songs that go well, there’s a lot riding on the third one. By the final quarter of the last song everyone’s on the edge, but it makes for a really exciting recording.”
It was also Carey’s way of capturing the energy of the first time he saw Fontaines play, at The Five Bells pub in London two years ago: “You bring that feeling you get at a gig, that there’s no going back and it gets more intense as it goes on. There’s not many bands that can perform like that, that process wouldn’t work for everyone, but they can, they’re so, so good.”
Carey modified the process for the recording of A Hero’s Death. “The nature of this record is different, it’s more introspective in some ways,” he explains. “I put an extra amp in the room that was playing out this crazy noise, that was like a member of the band. I did that a little bit on Dogrel but it’s much more extreme on this record. I made a mix of almost everything going through a modular synth and a filter, it was like this strange being that was in the room with us.”
Another element that’s been heightened on A Hero’s Death is the use of repetition, be that musically or lyrically. “It was certainly conscious,” says Chatten, “but what wasn’t conscious was that the first three singles (‘A Hero’s Death’, ‘I Don’t Belong’ and ‘Televised Mind’) would be the three strongest examples of repetition on the record!”
I hadn’t thought about that until you mentioned it, I say. “I hadn’t either,” replies Chatten, “until a load of people started saying it. Repetition is still a style that I’m interested in. I like the re-appropriation of a line over different points of reference, or even just the same one, and how your brain is almost forced to look another way. It’s like being presented with three doors - you have to pick one and the first time hearing it you feel like you’re back in the same room. There’s a level of surrealism that I like, but there are also places on the album where I like the rhythm of a line. I’ll be listening to stuff like Roni Size and The Prodigy, that soundbite feeling, where it’s almost a sample.”
Chatten asks me suddenly: “So, do you like the record?” The last time we spoke he was wary of compliments, but I tell him that what I like about A Hero’s Death is that it’s not Dogrel part two. Even though it’s more introspective in parts, its themes are both more universal and poignant; the songs have broadened too. “Cheers, I wanted to ask you, but thanks.” Curley adds with a laugh: “If you ever don’t like one of our albums, don’t be afraid to say it to us!”
There was a universality to the band’s recent performance of the album’s title track on Later… with Jools Holland. Shot with the five of them in separate locations, it was emblematic of lockdown, the tragedy of having to keep one’s distance, but ultimately the joy in finding a connection, even if it’s via video link. Their individual roles are there in technicolour: Chatten singing as if performing to an empty stadium, O’Connell sipping red wine and playing in a caravan, and Curley, Coll and Deegan studiously wringing controlled noise from their instruments.
They worked on the recording with Carey, who laughs when I ask how it came together: “That was a mission. We sent guide tracks to Tom, and then he sent a drum track back. I sent that track to Carlos and mixed his track in. It was an epic process and we had to film it as well, but it was amazing.”
“When we look back on doing that recording in years to come,” Curley tells me, “we’ll be amazed at how that was what we had to do at that moment in time, to put out any content of us playing music together. It’s a real stamp of time thing that I think we’re going to enjoy watching in a few years, whenever things are completely back to normal.”
The question of when that normality will return is hanging over them at the moment. They’ve rescheduled tour dates for the new record to next March, but there’s still uncertainty over what will happen if there’s a second wave of COVID-19. “Obviously, it’s a possibility,” says Chatten, “but we’re going to try to experience and acknowledge the achievement of going out our biggest tour ever, even if it doesn’t happen, and glean something positive from it.”
The next time Fontaines do hit the road, they plan to give each other a lot more space. By their own admission, the gruelling tour for Dogrel not only affected their creativity and friendship, but also their mental health. Chatten explains, “I’ll tell you why I find it particularly arduous and corrosive - after a certain period of time, being on the road robs you of stimulating conversation. Stimulating conversation usually happens with people you haven’t spoken to in a while, or maybe you’ve never met, but on tour you’re looking at somebody and you know everything about them. The conversation is ‘How much bread is on the rider today?’ That dampens your creativity, and it robs you of your energy for living.”
Curley thinks part of the problem is the shared mentality of touring life - if one member is feeling down, it transmits to the rest of the gang. “Your emotions almost become group emotions and you can’t understand why you’re feeling a certain way,” he offers. “That can end up really confusing you, especially when you’re doing something that you love and that you’ve worked so hard to do. It was a learning curve of trying to define what you’re actually feeling - ‘Is it real, or is it part of a group mentality?’”
"We’re lucky to be at that refreshed stage in our friendship again with this massive, forced break... that’s when the creativity becomes really exciting. There’s an element of conspiracy.” - Grian Chatten
O’Connell discovered a lot about himself going through low spirits on the road, to the point where he felt guilty sharing what was troubling him with the others. “You can be going through a shit time,” he recounts, “and you feel ‘Is it unfair to put this on my friends, when they should be enjoying being on tour?’
“You feel like a burden if you have bad news to bring, so you end up keeping it to yourself. That’s something you wouldn’t do with your friends if you weren’t constantly on the road with them, if you’d be feeling like shit, you’d call your mate.
“There’s no space for self-exploration on the road, so it’s impossible to take the time that you need on your own and to understand what you’re going through. The most private place is a pub or a café, and it’s only private because you’re surrounded by strangers. That’s pretty exhausting and you don’t get that time when you’re off the road either. You have to keep up your relationships with your friends and family, so that you’re there for them. It’s definitely a lifestyle that doesn’t allow for any privacy at all.”
After such an intense period on the road, one of the upsides of lockdown has been the renewal of their friendship as a collective. “In the sense that we’ve stopped seeing each other as the reason for our own sleep deprivation,” explains Chatten. “but as competitors and as an impetus to write. We’re lucky to be at that refreshed stage in our friendship again with this massive, forced break, it’s really uncommon. When it functions like that - as friendship, as opposed to band members - that’s when the creativity becomes really exciting. There’s an element of conspiracy.”
As well as realigning the bonds of their friendship, their siege mentality of ignoring any outside noise also returned: “What we were bearing in mind, from the beginning of Dogrel even, was that as soon as people respond, if it’s good or it’s bad, we have to completely ignore that.” Chatten adds. “In terms of the relationship between ourselves and our own creativity, we put serious importance on that, and we take care of that.”
O’Connell returns to the lessons he learned in 2019 with incredible candour. “It’s definitely been hard sometimes maintaining the friendship through the last year. It was very easy to become isolated within touring, but the time off has put a lot of things into perspective, for me anyways. I’ve learned to see how I wasn’t open about most things when I was on tour.
“I think we were all guilty of that at some point last year, it definitely made us all isolated from each other and from ourselves as well, because you can only carry your own shit for so long before you start ignoring it and pretending it doesn’t exist. It has a very detrimental effect on your mental health and… everything really.”
As well as feeling isolated from himself and his bandmates, O’Connell found it impossible to enter a creative state when he was, “completely ignoring what was actually going through my head, just to be able to survive. I had to go through that and come out of it and realise that had happened, for it to never happen again. It’s been a really big journey friendship-wise and personally, and all of that affects you creatively.
“It’s made me able to spend time on my own, work on music on my own and be proud of it to bring it to the band. Before that, I was keeping everything from everyone else - and from myself - so how are you going to bring a song into a room when you’re not even able to talk about how you’re feeling?” He pauses and then laughs, “That might be fucking way too deep there!”
"At the moment we’re five people rediscovering their inner child and having as much fun as possible in the rehearsal space." - Grian Chatten
If the channels of communication aren’t flowing within the band, it must be hard to get that joy of being five people in a room where you say: ‘Listen to this?’
“During lockdown I really missed not having the lads and being able to share the excitement about an idea that you have,” Curley explains. ‘That side of our friendship is obviously associated with our work, but it’s also just a very pure form of friendship… Jesus, I feel like I’m trying to match Carlos here in terms of soppiness!”
He puts his shades on in a faux rockstar pose and jokes: “Well, I just love the lads so much you know?”
Album number three could be here sooner than we think, Chatten reveals as we end our conversation. “We’ve been flat out writing and we’re still doing it with absolutely no plan for it,” he explains. “If something emerges in the form of an album from this litany of songs we’re writing for fun, then yes, we’ll probably release it, but at the moment we’re five people rediscovering their inner child and having as much fun as possible in the rehearsal space. It’s not that scene where the walls are covered with eyes.
“It’s just the five of us, and some quiet ideas.”