Tales of the City
Every city has its own story, but it’s often the job of its artists to bring these stories to life.
The list of bands who’ve provided a voice for their cities is endless, but the cream of the crop are those whose songs transcend their hometown. In the mid ‘80s, Manchester had The Smiths and Compton had N.W.A while 20 years before that Velvet Underground brought a corner of NYC to life.
Now Dublin - an evergreen breeding ground of storytellers - has a new team of narrators in Fontaines DC - five friends who formed a band that merged their love of poetry and music.
As I’m waiting to meet them on a crowded rush-hour street in West London, the unmistakable swagger of a band walking up the road towards me comes into view. With long coats, leather and denim jackets, Fontaines DC clearly aren’t part of the rat race. Singer Grian Chatten, bassist Conor Deegan, guitarists Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell and drummer Tom Coll say their hellos and we walk up to Hyde Park to take photos. Their gang mentality is immediately apparent, but one can’t help but warm to them straightway as the Irish gift for meaningful small talk kicks in: they ask how big Hyde Park is, what part of Ireland my parents came from and what type of camera our photographer uses.
When we sit down in a nearby pub to talk, their closeness and intellectual curiosity comes into even sharper focus. Chatten is a charismatic firecracker - a natural as a frontperson - but during our conversation, each of them brings a different element of the gang to the table. Underlining his commitment to the cause, Coll had the title of their song “Sha Sha Sha” tattooed on his arm six months ago. The song contains the line “I feel like an old tattoo” and when I tell him it looks brand new, Curley quips “It only stopped scabbing last week, he puts cream on it every day!”
As we start talking, some of them - bar Deegan, who recently quit smoking - make some rollies for later. I ask about the nature of the habit and Chatten’s answer sets up the hour we spend in their company: a mix of intellectuality and a refusal to adhere to rock’n’roll clichés: “People relinquish control after a certain point of addiction, with guys like Shane McGowan not being able to quit no matter what. I think it’s because their frame of what’s extreme and what’s acceptable has moved up so many notches. They’re much closer to crazy shit than we are.”
There’s a line in their song “Chequeless Reckless” - “An idiot is someone who lets their education do all of their thinking” - that I’d thought about when I first listened to their debut record Dogrel. Everything I’d read about them before led me to believe Fontaines DC were a punk, or post-punk band, but “Too Real”, a take on modern blues, replete with slide guitars played with beer bottles, made a mockery of such labelling.
Dogrel mixes the ferocious energy of “Hurricane Laughter” and “Big” with the tender balladry of “Roy’s Tune” and “Dublin City Sky” without skipping a beat. I tell them that I don’t get the punk or post-punk band angle at all and they breathe a sigh of relief. Curley simply says: “Thank you.”
Their music is anything but trying to fit in with genres or scenes, Chatten tells me. Rather it’s the words and sounds that bring their worldview to life: “It’s an attempt to represent our perception of our own reality as fairly as possible. If it turns out to have a particular BPM or distortion on a guitar, then that’s just the way that the world sounds to us” he explains
“I know it sounds very hifalutin and idealistic, but that’s what we’re doing. Maybe it won’t be until the album comes out, when all the different facets of who we are get expressed that people will stop talking to us about post punk.”
To be fair, I’ve mentioned it as well, I say. O’Connell smiles: “You’re asking about it in the sense that you’re pissed off about it and think it’s lazy, but most of the press is going to go for that link. If you put something together that creates a scene or a movement, it’s easier to sell it and write about it.”
“Shane MacGown took his Irish culture and lyrics, added the energy of punk music and found something new... there was no band that sounded like The Pogues before The Pogues, and I think that was our journey as well” - Conor Curley
Chatten believes attempts to create scenes are often money-making exercises and references comparisons that have been made with Shame, their tour mates from last year: “People say “They’re a similar age, they both wear baggy pants, tend to shout every now and then and forego melody on some of their tracks.”
He cites the likes of Apple, Spotify and DJ’s “who want an influx of a particular style that’s been proven to work before” but he’s surprisingly magnanimous about the why’s and how’s behind such bracketing, mainly due to his belief in what he and his friends have created together with Dogrel.
“In a sense, I don’t blame them to be honest and frankly I don’t care that much about being boxed. I’m very confident people will stop talking about us like that after the album comes out, hopefully anyway, because then we can go ‘Have you not listened to our fucking album?’
“There’s a song called ‘Dublin City Sky’ which is basically a traditional Irish melody.”
Curley thinks that instead of comparisons with their peers or trying to create manufactured scenes, there’s a much simpler connection to be made with Fontaines DC’s development as a collective in Shane McGowan’s transition from his first band The Nipple Erectors to The Pogues. Despite having their demos produced by Paul Weller, The Nips’ take on punk didn’t set the world alight, but Curley sees similarities in their development: “We started out as a three-chord punk band with simple drums, but it got to the point where we didn’t want to be boxed in by that creatively and that’s where the sound ended up.
“Shane took his Irish culture and lyrics, added the energy of punk music and found something new. There was no band that sounded like The Pogues before The Pogues, and I think that was our journey as well.”
As with Chatten, Curley can’t wait for Dogrel to be released. ‘That feels like the final thing: you can exhale and be ‘It’s in the world, it’s in the atmosphere now.’ We’re just waiting for that closure.”
Album number two is already in progress and Deegan tells me that they wrote two new songs the previous week. I ask how they feel about playing new songs live now that they’re in the spotlight, where they’ll be uploaded online before they’re even recorded? O’Connell remembers a video of a skeletal version of “Too Real” when they played at a Glasgow bar called Bloc+ last year. “We’d only started writing it that week and it wasn’t structured at all, the parts weren’t there but we just played it. The gig was uploaded to YouTube, but you listen to it now and it’s all over the place, it’s insane. We used to do that all the time, write something, be super excited about it and then play it live.”
I’ll include a link to that show in this interview, I joke, and O’Connell laughs, “No, please don’t!” Chatten also passes on the offer. “No, you’re alright, just put a quote from us saying ‘Take us as we are’.”
The question of whether they should continue playing new songs live prompts an intriguing debate and insight into how they work together.
CURLEY: “Are we done with that now? That we can’t write a song and be like “We’ve got a gig this weekend, so let’s play it?”
O’CONNELL: “I don’t think we can do that anymore.”
CHATTEN: “I’m still up for doing that. I thought you were saying “Are we done with playing “Too Real?” now?”
CURLEY: “No, I was saying are we done with that? Is that part of our thing gone, that we can’t play new songs?”
CHATTEN: “No, we need spontaneity.”
CURLEY: “Yeah, you only get a gauge of what works and what doesn’t from playing a song live, especially the ones that are a bit more sensitive to arrange.”
Chatten turns to me and says, “We’ve turned this into a band meeting, sorry!”
The consensus is they’ll continue to road-test new material. “It’s something you’re still fresh and excited from and represents your current state of mind, otherwise you’d feel like you’re playing a homage to the person you were six months ago,” concludes Chatten.
When Deegan floats the idea of reinterpreting “Too Real” live, O’Connell asks if anyone’s seen Elvis Costello’s performance at Rockpalast in ‘78, where the songwriter completely rearranged his then one-year-old debut record My Aim Is True. “The songs were recorded incredibly on that album but then he took them somewhere completely different live. All the arrangements and parts were changed, it’s an amazing performance and it’s so different to the album. It opens the tunes up; he expands the sections and they become so alive as songs.”
Fontaines DC haven’t had time to reinvent their songs just yet, with the last year spent on the road and recording Dogrel. Chatten is circumspect about what’s changed for them as people in that time: “There’s a period of adjustment when your life starts to become what it is for us now. It takes a while for your head to adjust to it and for it to seem like normal. It’s a new normality that we’re faced with and that can be rough, but I think that personally I’m coming to the end of it now.”
Nonetheless he feels there’s a wall between them and most of the people they encounter on the road: “You’re probably never going to see them again, everyone we meet after a show is treating the night like a big event and they’re going out afterwards, but we’re just heading back to the inside of a van.”
When they come back to Dublin the experience isn’t dissimilar. Whilst the bonds with their close friends won’t change, their connections with acquaintances are now very different. “Everyone sees the change from the outside and suddenly success becomes a thing,” says O’Connell. “With the people you know from bars, but aren’t very close with, suddenly the way they perceive you is completely different. The only topic of conversation they want to have is about the band.”
I put it to them that there’s a wonderful sense of excitement when a band takes off, where years of work reaches fruition, but Chatten feels it’s actually a double-edged sword. “It’s difficult when people start to treat you with more respect because they know of your achievements. When a compliment is flung at you insincerely, that’s harder to swallow than having insults thrown at you. With a compliment you take it, study it carefully and you make sure it’s not going to detonate” he explains, “Beforehand you didn’t think about that, it was like a lost cause and the only thing that mattered was whether you liked what you were doing.” He pauses and adds the caveat that after years of writing and finding his voice, perhaps he’s being over cautious.
“Maybe that’s just me having low self-esteem and being weak in that sense, but I think it’s good to be aware of these things. We’re slightly more distrusting towards people, they might actually be sincere, and you panic about that. Socialising becomes a bit of a hellhole and going from touring to your local bar can become a nightmarish jump.” Deegan recalls a recent evening with mutual acquaintances and whilst he loved seeing them, as he headed home their parting words were “By the way, I’ll send you a demo.”
Perhaps this caution with outsiders is due to the closeness between them as friends and collaborators. Having met at college, they bonded over a mutual love of poetry, specifically the Beats, W.B. Yeats, Walt Whitman and James Joyce (referenced on “Boys in the Better Land” - “And the radio is all about a run away model / with a face like sin and a heart like a James Joyce novel.”)
O’Connell explains that, “the whole element of the mundane in Beat poetry was the first spark that excited us.” Rather than being a movement that simply represented ‘50s US counter-culture, he feels their writing is still resonent today, and makes a comparison with the Beats that explains why they treat flattery with caution, where artists are chroniclers of society, rather than seeking fame for fame’s sake.
"When I think of someone who understands the value of poetry in all forms, I instantly think of Iggy Pop as a great rock'n'roll poet." - Grian Chatten
“To us, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs were three guys who met in college but they weren’t writing poetry that was measured or ‘I’m going to be a great poet because I’m exploring words and language.’ It was more ‘I’m living and I’m excited, I’ve got these two friends and we’re exciting each other.’ They became something so absolutely important in history and they influenced so many people after that. We felt ‘They’re a generation and that could be us.’”
Whilst the legacy of the Beats has seen them become cultural icons, O’Connell feels that, “they’re just people and once you realise that your creative output seems a lot more valuable and it’s easier to validate that. For me that was the big point of excitement and thinking “There’s no reason to not do this”, because why not?”
Curley loved the Beats, “because it wasn’t like a musical scene. When we started getting into Beat poetry it wasn’t just one poet that inspired us, it was a collection of them. Later on we found out about Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan in Dublin and it’s the same idea, creatives being in the same kind of close circles, and it made it relatable.”
The conversation moves to the idea of mixing music and poetry. I suggest that the roll-call of rock’n’roll poets typically includes the likes of Mark E. Smith, Morrissey, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Shane McGowan, but Chatten singles out his own hero of the art form: “When I think of someone who understands the value of poetry in all forms, I instantly think of Iggy Pop as a great rock'n'roll poet. He’s got that perfect sensibility of what belongs and exactly what the coherent feeling is that he’s trying to portray. If Iggy was to apply the same poetic musings to his music as Morrissey does it obviously wouldn’t work, but it’s that sensitivity and sensibility that in my mind makes him a total poet.”
Chatten feels there’s just as much value in the more primal approach of The Stooges as there is with “Elvis Costello and people who are maybe more cerebral. It’s all different forms and I think being a poet is about being able to recognise those different forms in people and the way they talk generally speaking, not even just to do with music.”
A few days after our interview, Rolling Stone’s David Fricke reviewed the band at SXSW - where they emerge as the breakout band of the festival. Chatten is labelled as a “post-punk Brendan Behan” and the band are compared to The Fall. None of the band are huge fans of The Fall, says Chatten, but he investigated them after their name kept cropping up in reviews. Whilst he isn’t convinced with the comparisons, Chatten admires Smith for aligning himself with modernist poets such as Ezra Pound and T.S. Elliot and his relentless desire to blend music with creative thinking: “With Mark E. Smith, it’s the intent that draws it all together. What makes him interesting is his vehemence in coming across as not a didactic person of a working-class background, but someone who was ‘I’m going to make Rock and Roll as intelligent as it possibly can be. I’m going to tackle ideas.’
“He was so ambitious lyrically, yet in a way that was more prosaic than what was done before. That’s what really appeals and endears me to about Mark E. Smith, more than his actual lines.”
Whilst Chatten is the main wordsmith, Fontaines DC aren’t a closed shop in terms of lyrics, Deegan explains he wrote a line in “Dublin City Sky” while “Roy’s Tune”, a beautiful, heartfelt ballad and a keystone on Dogrel, was written by Curley. It was his first attempt at consciously writing lyrics for Chatten, after years of sitting with a guitar trying to sing: “I was on my own in the rehearsal space and I wrote a drum loop and a guitar line. I’d never written singing before; but with that song I set it up where I approached the mic the same way as Grian does, just standing there and started singing.”
"There was a massive fire between all of us in terms of our collective enthusiasm towards literature and poetry: we encouraged each other to write as ourselves and exchange things all the time" - Grian Chatten
When Curley wrote “Roy’s Tune”, he was living with Chatten in a room in Dublin that the singer describes as a “squalid shithole”, where they slept in the same bed as they couldn’t afford to rent a bigger place. At that point Curley had lived in Dublin for four years and had reached the point where he was so engulfed in the city it became a natural source of writing material. “I never saw any of my family because I was working all the time, so anything that I heard going on in the streets was what I took in. The first line “The breeze in the night time will kill you stone dead” was pretty much what I heard from a guy getting kicked out of a bar in Dublin. Compared to the rest of the album, that song was different for us, it took a bit longer than the others, but I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
Chatten turns to Curley: “I love that song as well and part of that is because I didn’t write most of the lyrics - it allowed me to take that step back. It takes a massive degree of empathy to write with someone else’s singing and personality in mind.” He raises his Guinness and toasts the guitarist, “Fair play to you, cheers my man.”
The singer chooses the word “accelerators” to describe his bandmates, where the dynamic is mutual inspiration. When I ask about the importance of collectivism as a band, he returns to the time the five of them met at college in Dublin. “There was a massive fire between all of us in terms of our collective enthusiasm towards literature and poetry. We encouraged each other to write as ourselves, exchange things all the time and, maybe most importantly, we introduced each other to other poets. Through holding these lads at a justifiably high reverence and regard, that’s what made me want to get better. I couldn’t have written any of the lyrics if it wasn’t for the influence and the inspiration they’ve all given to me.”
Whilst they came together in Dublin, the five friends are all from different parts of Ireland. Chatten was born in England, where his mother comes from and his family moved to Dublin, his father’s hometown, when he was two months old. Chatten asks Curley where he came from, “You were born in Drogheda right?” Curley laughs and says “Where I was born, there wasn’t a hospital to get born in! I’m from Monaghan just to clarify, where does a guy go to get born around here?!”
My parents are from Limerick and I’ve always considered myself Irish, I tell them, sharing a memory of my Dad taking me to see The Wolfe Tones as a teenager. Chatten lights up: “You saw The Wolfe Tones? No way man!” while Curley adds “I bet that was a wild gig!”
I tell them it was a wild night for a 12-year-old, but it got wilder when I went to see The Pogues without parental guidance on St Patrick’s Day, a rite of passage for any second-generation Irishman in London when I was growing up. It led to being labelled a “plastic paddy” at school - just like Shane McGowan, a Londoner with an Irish background who went to private school in Westminster, but sang in an Irish accent.
“I don’t know if that’s plastic though, is it?”, says Curley. Chatten adds “I was born in the North of England, so I’m a plastic paddy as well then. We should just revoke the title ‘plastic paddy’, because we’re 100% of the party.”
“For me the important difference between Irish people and English people is cultural,” says Deegan. “It’s historical in fact, it’s our heritage. You have that heritage because of your parents and you have the culture, so you’re as Irish as me. It doesn’t matter where The Pogues were born, they could have been born anywhere. It’s legitimately Irish culture, it draws on the heritage of being Irish and part of that is passion.”
That passion permeates the songs of Dogrel. “Liberty Bell” takes its title from what was a historically working-class part of the city called The Liberties, that in recent years has grown as a tourist attraction. According to the area’s website, The Guinness Storehouse gets just under two million visitors a year through its doors. I put it to them that it feels that there are two very different sides to the class system in Dublin - and two very different stories - that the co-existence of poverty and increasing gentrification feels like an important thread of Dogrel. “No, I don’t think you’ve got it wrong,” answers Chatten. “These are things that have deeply affected us, so much so that I felt they had to be written about for my own ability to understand them.”
He doesn’t feel it’s “necessarily about classism or about class, it’s more about the sickening amount of homelessness that there is on the streets of Dublin and I’m very deeply affected by it. It’s very difficult to just walk by and not do anything about it.”
Many of Dogrel’s songs are about a feeling of going around in circles, but in marked contrast, “The Lotts” a song that shares its name with area just across the river from Liberties on the North Side of Dublin takes it to the point “where people meet their dead end in life, whether it be drugs, homelessness or people getting priced out of their own gaffs,” Chatten explains.
“But it’s also a pub and a street where heroin has showed up. It’s a tiny, little boxy pub, I think it’s called ‘The Smallest Pub in Dublin’ and there’s a lot of hard drinking done in there.”
The band used to practice in a street behind the pub and Chatten remembers “the street was strewn with syringes and people freebasing there. It’s a small street, it’s like a tiny alleyway, we used to have to walk up there all the time.”
So is the Dublin of Dogrel a metaphor for a tale of a city, where the story is broader and beyond class? “Exactly!” says Chatten. “It’s the going-nowhereness of modern life in its many different forms. No matter what class it is, these are the particular things that have stood out to me and that have made it onto the album. I write about what I’m affected by, and they happen to be in the shape of people who have very little or no money, or drink problems, or any form of addiction. These are the things that have affected me thus far. There’s just so fucking much of it, even as you as feel you’ve reached your limit for being able to understand it.”
Two weeks before our conversation, the band arrived at Dublin train station the morning after playing a show in Limerick. Chatten explains he went to the bathroom in the station and, “there was a guy on heroin, nodding off on the mirror. It was straightaway, I hadn’t even left the station. I walked outside - it took me about five steps - and there was a couple spreading tinfoil on the grass outside the station, ready to shoot up. So that was three people within fifteen steps.”
"I write about what I’m affected by, and they happen to be in the shape of people who have very little or no money, or drink problems, or any form of addiction" - Grian Chatten
Walking away from Dublin station he was followed “by this big bunch of lads, who demanded I give them cash.” He gave them some money but not the amount they wanted, because he didn’t have enough. “They started following me, asking me for money over and over again and I realised there was nothing I could do. I was being pressured and intimidated, but the point is, it reaches a point where I can either lash out or I have to turn it into something. It happens too often for me to digest it with what I have, I can’t meditate my way out of it, so I have to write about what I see with things like that - it’s the only way that I can then understand it.”
The best artists write what they know, I say, where they create a universality from their perspective and experiences, just as the Beats did. Chatten answers: “Exactly, do you know the line by Joyce ‘In the particular is contained the universal?’ It’s all over the tourist bars in Dublin and that shows how easy and sellable his poetry is, in that they can take a beautiful quote and stick it in a bar like that.” O’Connell jokes about another line that’s well known in the city, this time from Samuel Beckett, “Dublin university contains the cream of Ireland: Rich and thick” and Chatten quips “Or is it “Rich, thick and always float to the top?”
Giving their current trajectory, floating to the top feels inevitable for the quintet. Joyce’s line was part of longer sentence, “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.”
Like Joyce and The Beats, Fontaines DC's tales of the city are based on real life stories, tales that aren’t boxed to a genre, or even just about Dublin. Instead, and like the best stories, they’re something much better than that, they’re the particulars of the universal.