On The Brink With Fontaines D.C.

Long before their debut album landed, the hype machine was in full power for these five Irish BIMM graduates and the inevitable rise of Fontaines D.C. As each single landed, you wondered where the filler was. By the time Dogrel arrived, it was one of those debut albums that left you dumbfounded. A distillation of the best parts of early 2000s indie rock channelled through a love of post-punk with moments of noise sitting comfortably alongside melodic tenderness. Lyrically there’s an abundance of satisfying imagery and wordplay to get stuck into, unsurprisingly considering their initial bonding over their mutual love of poetry. Since the album was released the band have been touring relentlessly, touring with hype-contemporaries such as Shame or IDLES and leaving Dublin City behind to spread their music around the world. So intense has it been that just two hours before this interview was due to begin, the band made an announcement that they would be cancelling their remaining shows due to health issues. Surprisingly, the set at Nijmegen’s Valkhof Festival that evening was still to go ahead, but clearly, this announcement was not a decision that would have been taken lightly.

Before the interview began, our photographer Judith Zandwijk was on hand to take some portraits of the band. The energy was low, their faces looking exhausted and half-filled wine glasses looking as though they were threatening to drop at any moment. Lighting a cigarette looked like it was a chore. They remained polite and tried to respond positively to Judith’s attempts to get them to smile, but you could see the struggle within them to make their smiles convincing. “Who’s that playing on the main stage?” frontman Grian Chatten asked at one point, breaking up the silence and perking up slightly at the sounds of Whispering Sons. It was a brief moment of levity that was short-lived, but strangely sweet. Once the shoot was over, the rest of the band went their own way as I sat down with bassist Conor Deegan to talk about how things are.

Fontaines DC- Valkhof Festival -ATL - @JudithZandwijk-7

How’re you doing? You seem a little tired.
Yeah, it’s really busy. We’ve been on the road since March.

The cancelled dates came as quite a shock. What happened?
It’s just a lot of stuff that builds up and that’s all I really want to say, I don’t want to say any more.

Fair enough. Your touring schedule is pretty relentless, is that something you chose to do or just something that you fell into as a result of the success of the album?
A bit of both. We’re always really ambitious people who want to go as far with music as we can, and because it’s our first foray into music at all as a band, we didn’t know what to expect and what the expectations would be of us. We didn’t know the amount of work it would take to be successful and just said yes to everything. We started doing as much as we could. We were going to all of these places and doing all this touring and that’s just a reflection of our ambitions and expectations of the label and what they want us to do.

How far removed does your life feel now compared to those writing sessions where you were creating these songs?
Half the album has been around for a year or two, and the other half we wrote last summer in Dublin. Is your question “How far do we feel removed from the writing of the first album“?

I meant more about your lives; so much has happened in such a short space of time. When I looked at you all out there getting your photos taken just now and thinking of the difference between that and how things must have been not so long ago.
We’re all fundamentally introverted people and that’s obvious when you listen to our album. It’s difficult when you’re introverted and you’re being placed in an environment where you’re forced to be extroverted every second of the day. It can be very draining, but we learnt a lot. It is very far away from the people we were around when we wrote the album and the lives we led. Luckily we had two or three days off in Dublin and went off to write two or three songs for the second album a month ago and it was straight back to that sense. It felt so good, as though we were getting back in touch with who we are.

That’s good to hear that you got that opportunity and it went well.
Yeah, we were nervous about it to be honest with you; it’s one of those things that you think about. Is that a switch you can turn back on or is it something that you’ve unplugged that you can’t plug back in?

Do you feel any more weight of expectation on writing songs now compared to how it was before?
Honestly, yeah. There’s going to be the expectation when there are all of these great reviews that came out for the first album. There are all the fans who are coming to your shows now which is amazing. They have expectations of what you’re going to sound like and what they want from you.

Do you feel that ever influences you and the decisions you make or do you try and stay detached from it?
We try to stay detached and follow the train of thought that brought us to the first album and keep it going. We try to keep all the other stuff removed because there’s no use artistically and creatively to someone patting you on the back and saying “That was really great“. That has nothing to do with connecting with your emotions and connecting with your memories and what you want to say. If anything it can just cloud your judgement. If you buy into it too much, what makes a good song in your mind would change from expressing myself in the song and doing it the best service I can of arranging it to accentuating that feeling of wanting to please people. We try to avoid that as much as possible which takes a lot of mindfulness.

Yeah, it does sound like you’ve put a lot of conscious thought into this whole subject. In that sense, your first album is an accumulation of the tracks you’d written to date over different periods and sessions. Are you tempted to take a more cohesive, thematic approach to the second album?
What the second album is going to be is still emerging to us; the concept of what the first album was going to be only really emerged after half of it was written. At the point where we knew what the feeling of it was going to be. Right now we’re at the stage where we have four or five songs that we would put on it but don’t know whether or not we are going to put on it, so we don’t know what the central feeling of the album is going to be. We have to conceptualise it a bit more to see what it’s going to say and what kind of album it’s going to be. I couldn’t really say to you whether or not it’s going to be a collection of individual songs. To answer your question more specifically, I think it will be more coherent and of a particular thing.

I’ve got to say, one thing I did particularly like about the first album is that the re-recordings of the songs that already existed as part of the Darklands Versions, the difference in sound between songs like Boys From The Better Land sounded so much more coherent and raw than the original versions. It gave it so much more energy and is so much drier, it gives you a much more distinct sound.
Thank you. We had an ethos going into the album that we wanted it to sound like we were playing it live. We wanted people to come to the show and think that the sound of the album and the show were the same. We wanted to make a live album in a sense, like the (Rolling) Stones. If you listen to The Strokes’ first album, it amazes me that album was recorded live, or live in the same way we did it. That’s the ambition we had because that’s what our idea of what a band should be is, it’s a live animal.

So playing live is a big part of the experience and what you are about?
Yeah, for sure.

As introverted people, how have your relationships with each other fared being on the road so much in small spaces?
It was great at first because we were all mates and we were going around seeing all of these amazing places, exploring, drinking and having parties every night, playing these great gigs in places we’d never been. It was amazing at first, but once it becomes the norm of your life and you’re sitting in airports or buses all of the time, and you’re always with the same people every day, it becomes different. It’s not like we’re not friends anymore or anything like that. We’ve gotten to know each other and respect each other a lot more in a different way. It’s a deeper relationship in a way because I’ve gotten to know that Carlos needs space sometimes, for example. I’m not going to go talk to him and try to have a laugh because he just wants some quiet time. I know that now and we all know each other well. We’ve gotten much better at resolving fights and disagreements about things because we have to be together the whole time. It’s made us much better at communicating with each other, it’s like a weird fucked-up counselling.

In many ways, it’s more intense than a relationship with a sexual partner, because it’s work-based, it’s friendship based and it’s so intensive over such long periods of time. It’s good to hear that you take a healthy approach to those relationships. With Girl Band returning, who I know are an influence of yours, they’re a band who have suffered from a lot of mental health issues as part of their rise in notoriety. What do you do to make sure you’re OK with the way things are going?
It’s funny the things you think of that you learn from other people. I don’t know if you’ve seen a copy of the vinyl of our record?

No, I haven’t
There are photos of us on the inside which are portraits. Initially, we wanted that album cover to be taken by a French photographer called Richard Dumas, he’s an amazing guy who did the inner portraits which I really love. He was talking to us about touring because he travels a lot for work and told us that when he’s in a hotel room, he has a lot of things with him that he doesn’t need but they make him feel a lot better, like a picture of his wife on his desk. Lots of little things that make hotel rooms, no matter where I am, feel like mine. I said “That’s really interesting and really cool” but at the time I thought that was a bit extreme because I was going out and was always on a great party bus. Now that we’re settling into being professionals and treating it as work because we don’t want to burn out, it’s really handy to have things like that which give you a sense of home and create your own space wherever you are. Also taking the time to go off on your own and see the place you are, so that you don’t just feel like you’re being shuttled round everywhere. We didn’t get any time today to see Nijmegen unfortunately, but yesterday we were in Valencia and got an hour or two to walk around between soundcheck and the gig and got to walk around the festival. It was amazing having that feeling that this is the best job in the world. We get to walk the streets of Paris, even if it’s only for an hour we’re there. We got a day off in Brooklyn one day and I got to walk around the East Village in Manhattan. I’m a guy from the west of Ireland in Mayo, from a town of 16,000 people and suddenly I’m in Brooklyn going “What the fuck?”.

That’s great that you get the chance to do that. So often you hear from bands that they’ve been to all of these places but don’t get any time to see any of them. That they’ve been all over the world to all these places but they haven’t actually been to any of them. It’s good that you’re finding a way to make that work.
You have to, otherwise you’d be robbed of your desire to go back to a place. You’d feel like you’d seen everywhere. I know now that I haven’t really been to this town, I have to come back here if I want to see it properly.

Yeah absolutely. I’m from the UK and I’ll admit I knew next to nothing about Nijmegen before moving here, but then you see how this city transforms during De Vierdaagse week every year, shutting the entire city down and it’s humbling to think of events like these on this scale which you’d otherwise have no reason to know about.
It’s so cool.

It’s all of those little cultural things that you’d have no reason to know if it weren’t for going to these places and discovering them.
Yeah, like the fact that the town of Glastonbury exists. That’s a town.

Fontaines DC- Valkhof Festival -ATL - @JudithZandwijk-8

Did you have a good time at Glastonbury Festival?
Yeah, it was amazing. We got a bit of time to hang out with friends which was amazing. The gigs were really great, the John Peel and the Rabbit Hole shows were some of the best that we’ve ever played. Enjoyment-wise and just with the idea of what we want to be as a band, raucous and weird.

What makes a good gig for you?
Something unpredictable happening that makes you feel like you’re in the moment and anything could happen. That feeling is the heart of rock ‘n’ roll: spontaneity and unpredictability.

Did anything happen with the Glastonbury sets that were a bit different from the norm?
The Rabbit Hole gig was particularly strange, it was 4 o’clock in the morning on the Sunday night of Glastonbury, or the Monday morning I suppose, and everyone there was fucked off their faces and we weren’t far behind them. It was just so crazy.

Moving on to your music videos, there always seems to be an element of humour to them and are often very distinct. I’m wondering how much of that is down to the director and how much do you get involved in it all?
For all of them except for Roy’s Tune we were heavily involved, specifically me to be frank. Roy’s Tune was Liam Papadachi and that was his vision of things and it was great and I’m glad that we did it to get their interpretation of what the song looks like visually from the sound. With the other ones we just had ideas. We worked closely with Hugh Mulhern for Too Real, Boys In The Better Land and for Sha Sha Sha. Between the two of us, we just created a load of ideas for what they were. I gave him a load of references, and rolls of scraps from the void and he pulled them all together and made the most amazing thing.

Quite a lot of collaboration then.
Yeah, which was great and he did an amazing job. I am really happy with the videos for Too Real and Sha Sha Sha. I don’t know if you’ve seen them, have you?

I have yeah, the Too Real video in particular, I like the surreal aspects of it and directorial decisions which go in the opposite direction of what you’d expect?
We wanted to get something that was a little bit ridiculous to make sure that it didn’t come off that it seemed that we wanted to look really cool. Too Real is based on Finnegan’s Wake with the man falling off the ladder down the manhole to his death and then his wake. It’s a James Joyce book, you know? The circular nature of the book and how it goes into itself at the end? That video has the circular nature where it starts with the end being the start and that’s what we feel like with Too Real. The music is very circular and very disorientating. We brought those two together but then we were like “If we do that as a video, we’re going to come across as trying to be smart and interesting and cool” and completely undermine people being able to appreciate the art because they’d be too focused on the aesthetic of what we’re trying to put ourselves across as. We just said, “Let’s put ping pong balls in our eyes to make ourselves look ridiculous so they know we’re not taking ourselves too seriously“. It’s just about saying something.

How important is the humour which underlies things like that and a lot of your lyrics with their dry observations? How important is it to not come across too po-faced?
It’s a really difficult balance to get. If you listen to (Bob Dylan’s) Blonde On Blonde or Highway 61, Dylan is just a great lyricist and he’s free in those albums compared to his previous albums, and that freedom is what lets him be silly and funny and still makes the songs great. I think it just gives him a sense of freedom as opposed to being tied down to really serious art. I think it’s something that we aspire to but haven’t necessarily given yet. I think that our music and lyrics can be very serious but I think that when we play them live then perhaps they come across less so. I think Boys In The Better Land comes across very light-hearted when we play it live.

Yeah, I can see that, it’s got a very anthemic sound to it that’s easy to get caught up in, which on stage just gets maximised 100%.

In addition to the influences that you’ve been outspoken about like The Pogues or Girl Band, do you proactively seek new music around you to try and bring in other influences when writing new music or do you just let it all wash over you naturally?
It’s very much a stream of the narrative of our lives. We’ve been friends for six years and in a band for three or four and we’ve been hanging out with each other a lot. We’ve discovered bands together, we discovered Girl Band together, and we discovered Oasis together, which is fucking crazy. For example, we were doing our American tour with IDLES and the way the tour was routed meant that it went from the west coast to the east coast and we drove all the way to the south. We were driving through the desert for a week and a half all the way through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and then finally to California. The whole way were listening to country music. Listening to Lee Hazlewood and all of this other stuff because we wanted to feel like cowboys. Driving through the desert and it’s 30 degrees outside and it’s just the open road and you, then you show up, play a gig and then you go again, playing through the night, driving through the day. It really put us in touch with the feeling of being there. We wanted to experience what it felt like. The way we were driving was like manifest destiny, it was the way that America was explored as well; as we were driving from New York along to the west coast and finally discovering California and seeing the Pacific Ocean. We all love the Beach Boys so it was a huge thing for us to be at the beach in California. We ran to the beach and jumped in the sea, it was amazing.

Had you been to America before touring there?
A couple of us had been for different reasons but we were mostly there for SXSW in March and the two New York shows, but that was our first major amount of time there.

You’ve toured with IDLES and Shame. Did you find it influential at all spending so much time with other artists on a similar trajectory of popularity?
I wouldn’t be influenced by either of their music, and while I do like them it’s not about that. They’re just mates and contemporaries I suppose. It’d be really weird if we were influenced by them or if they were influenced by us because it’d just be a weird echo chamber. I don’t see the point of it really. Imagine if Fontaines DC had a song which sounds like IDLED while IDLES exist, what’s the point in that? We’re too busy listening to Bob Dylan or Lee Hazlewood now, we haven’t had time.

So that’s the influence we should look out for in the new album then, some Lee Hazlewood.

Nice. With poetry being something that each of you has a shared love for, do you ever share the lyric writing responsibility?
For the first album, it was mostly Grian apart from Roy’s Tune which is mostly (Connor) Curley. I have two lines on Dublin City Sky just because I gave him some lines which were a good fit. That’s indicative of the way we think about it because while Grian did think of the lyrics for the first album, we raise the bar together. We edit, does that make sense?

Yeah, it ties back into the relationships that you have with each other and finding what every individual does and needs.
I didn’t write all of my bass lines on the album. Grian wrote one or Curley wrote one. I wrote the guitars for Big and Grian wrote the bass line. It’s all collaborative. I play bass but I don’t write bass. Do you know what I’m getting at?

Yeah, because the bass drives a song but if you want to write something then you might want to use something with a bit more sonic range so you might pick up a guitar.
It’s more that we’re just very collaborative and there are no limitations in who does what.

In that sense, is your songwriting more about jamming ideas together as a group or writing pieces individually and bringing them to the group or does it vary from song to song?
It varies from song to song. Most of the first album is collaborative but with the nature of the lives we’ve been living for the last six months we have mostly been writing individually together. If we have days off Carlos and Grian will go off and write, or Curley and me. Then they’ll show me demos which they have on their phones which they arranged yesterday. Last night we were sitting around drinking wine and listening to the demos and then we threw ideas at each other.

Oh OK, so you do find some time to get enough space to actually get your instruments out and work on new things, you don’t have to do it hypothetically because you’re on buses and planes so much.
There is a lot of hypothetical writing as well. I see Grian on the bus and he’s got his headphones in and he’s writing the lyrics on his phone, then he’ll stop and just record a drum line into his phone using his mouth as an idea of a drumbeat for a particular song. Carlos and Curley have got GarageBand on their phones now so they just do that. We’re in a bus, what else are you supposed to do?

Fontaines DC- Valkhof Festival -ATL - @JudithZandwijk-9

It’s a good use of time, it’s got to be quite frustrating having all of that time travelling and not being able to do anything practical with it.
Writing songs always feels like cleaning your soul anyway.

Do you feel like your soul has gotten dirty enough since the first album to be able to create something new?
I think that the time that we’ve spent touring has been separation enough. I know that sounds crazy because we’ve been playing it every night, but we haven’t been seeing the effects and we’ve been lucky because we haven’t really seen the effects of what people think of this album and the effects on our egos. As I told you about that story with Lee Hazlewood in the south, we’ve just been living our best and getting into things together again. I think the second album is going to be fundamentally different because we are fundamentally different. I think that it’s going to be very interesting. We’re probably going to be recording it in LA so it’ll have the experience of being in LA compared to Dublin.

Why was that particular choice of location made?
Because of the idea of the contrast between the clean sunniness of it during the day and the debauched darkness of it during the night. It’s something that we’re really interested in right now; the idea of that and other factors that go into recording meant it makes a lot of sense.

Are you looking forward to getting some time back in Ireland?
Yeah. Just to see my family, they’re getting older every year.

How do you deal with that, keeping in touch with people back home?
It becomes something you have to do consciously. Consciously you have to go “I have to keep in touch with this person” or we’ll drift apart. You’re not there to go for pints on a Saturday night, so you have to get in touch and say “Hey man, how’re you getting on, how’s work going with you?” and they’ll be like “Oh fine man, how’s touring going?” and I’ll be like “It’s grand“. Just keeping in touch with all of your mates so you still have mates when you go back home.

Even if it’s just mundane conversations, at least you’re still in each other’s lives.
Yeah, definitely. The connection isn’t being weakened.

And it isn’t just the case that every time you do talk to each other you’re like “So…what do you do with your life these days?“.
That’s dreaded.

Has the success of the band changed any relationships on an individual basis?
Honestly with some people: yes. Not the important ones, the important ones are all the same. My friends who I was close to before the album started doing well are the same, my family are still the same. If anything my parents are much happier with me and what I’m doing with my life because before they thought I was just a waster musician and now we’re doing well. The point of what I’m saying is that there are people who you wouldn’t have seen for years and wouldn’t have been interested in you who are now coming forward to be friends with you and want to hang out. They message you on Facebook with “How’re you getting on? Do you want to go for a pint?” which is a bit sick really. I was always a human, we were always two human beings.

How do you handle those conversations? It must be quite awkward.
I haven’t really figured it out yet. I don’t know. I’m happy that these people are back in my life, fundamentally we are mates but the transparency in the reason leaves a bitter taste.

Yeah, that’s interesting, it ties back to what you were saying earlier that if you surround yourself too much with people who tell you everything you say or do is a great idea, it can really distort your outlook on life. I mean it’d feel great, you’d feel like Kanye or something, but you’d become more and more detached from reality.
Yeah, and reality is where the music comes from. If your mentality is going around thinking “I’m great, I’m great, I’m great, I’m great” then what’s your next album going to be about? “I’m great“. Ten songs called “I’m real“.

The interview ended at that point as it was time for soundcheck. An hour later and they were back on stage once again. Any doubts that they may not have it in them for one last show were blown away within seconds of an intense opening of Hurricane Laughter. The crowd responded with the last-breath ferocity of an audience watching out the closing act of a festival giving everything they had left. The band and crowd fed off each other in a feedback loop of intensiveness. At one tender moment, frontman Grian took a moment to shake the hand of Judith who had managed to put a smile on his face during the earlier photoshoot. From this performance, you’d never think that anything was amiss, though just because things look fine it doesn’t mean they are. The cancelled dates will disappoint many, but it’s easy to forget that behind these shows are five humans.