Fontaines DC: 'There was a longing for home'

Fontaines DC have completed work on their second album. Here, the Dublin five-piece speak with Ed Power about the recording process and life under lockdown
Fontaines DC: 'There was a longing for home'
Fontaines DC. 'It’s just shocking that the political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have gotten away with ignoring the signal for change that was given in the election result.' Picture: Ellius Grace

In early March, as Ireland hurtled towards the unknown, Fontaines DC played their final full concert before the shutdown. 

They barnstormed through a headliner set at the Rock Against Homelessness night at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, pushing past the exhaustion of 18 months of almost constant touring.

Halfway through, the band debuted a new song. "Life isn’t always empty, ” sang frontman Grian Chatten. “Sit beneath a light that suits ya / And look forward to a brighter future”.

The music was bleak and caterwauling. And yet the lyrics to 'A Hero’s Death', the title track from their forthcoming second record, resounded with optimism and resilience. All these months later we can agree that if ever there was a moment when optimism and resilience matter then it is now.

March was a weird time. Covid-19 had finally reached Ireland. There was also turmoil over the general election result and the historic swing among younger voters against the old guard of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. 

Six months later, as Fontaines DC prepare to release 'A Hero’s Death', bassist Conor Deegan talks about that period, and the election specifically, as if it was a dream. What, if anything, has changed?

“It’s just shocking that the political parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have gotten away with ignoring the signal for change that was given in the election result — whatever you say about how you feel about Sinn Féin,” he says.

He feels the young, caught in the pincer grip of soaring rents and sky-high living costs, have essentially been ghosted by the political establishment.

“If they’re not following the election results and they’re kind of ignoring the fact so many people voted for Sinn Féin … then they’re only interested in keeping themselves in power and that’s really shit. 

"They’re supposed to represent the public good. Instead they’re representing their own private interests, which is staying in power.” 

Every so often a band comes along that captures the lived experiences of young people at a pressure point in history. 

In Ireland today that group is Fontaines DC.

It is true that their songs aren’t explicitly political (they are instead steeped in the urban poetry of Brendan Behan and James Joyce). 

And they aren’t one for grand, empty provocations. And yet, something about their 2019 debut Dogrel, seems to speak to what it is to be young and struggling in Ireland today. 

Fontaines DC capture the grit, the despair — but also the hope and idealism.

“We wrote the songs from a place of genuine experience and observation,” says Deegan.

“Because they were true to us, people saw themes to them. The struggles in our lives are the struggles in other people’s lives because we live normal lives. The rent problems. Our songs, inadvertently to a degree, came to resonant.” 

A Hero’s Death is one of those great second albums that takes everything you liked about its predecessor and amplifies it. It’s catchier than Dogrel, bigger and bolder too.

“We just kept going with what we were doing with the first one,” says Deegan. 

FONTAINES DC release their sophmore album 'A Hero's Death' on July 31  Picture: Richard Dumas
FONTAINES DC release their sophmore album 'A Hero's Death' on July 31  Picture: Richard Dumas

“A whole year of touring … affected our headspace writing the album. There was a lot of longing for home and finding ways to deal with constantly being displaced.” 

There were moments of madness. Especially as the band ploughed through an exhausting tour of the United States. It really was a baptism. There were nights when the schedule allowed just an hour for sleep.

Something had to give. Last summer it finally did, as they cancelled a number of festival shows due to “health issues”. They were burning the candle at every end. And suddenly there wasn’t anything left to burn.

“It’s so dualistic,” says Deegan of the stresses of life on the road. 

“In one sense you are being recognised every day — on stage, by people in the audience. They’re all going, ‘you’re great’. You step outside the door and you’re a stranger. You can’t speak the language.

“You realise what these things are actually worth and what they’re not worth. They’re kind of superficial in a sense. 

"It’s great that people enjoy the music  — don’t get me wrong. It’s great they are coming. It’s just not the same as having your family beside you, your friends.”

In the press release promoting the album, Fontaines DC announced that one of the influences on the record was the Beach Boys. This provided mirth and befuddlement. But only among those whose knowledge of the Sixties hitmakers doesn’t extend beyond 'California Girls'.

The Beach Boys were one of the greatest pop bands ever. Yet theirs’ is also a story encompassing death, madness and excess. Charles Manson even had a walk-on part. The more brightly their music blazed, the deeper the shadows.

“It became kind of far-fetched to people who had only a superficial understanding of the Beach Boys’ music,” says Deegan. 

“When you listen to Sixties music, this idealistic surf and sun music, you know that the doom is coming. That the end is nigh. It gives it this real fragile beauty.” 

Two-fifths of Fontaines DC hail from Mayo so it is perhaps inevitable conversation turns to the recent television adaptation of Castlebar-born Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

“I related to it so much,” says Deegan, who along with drummer Tom Coll grew up in the town. 

“They might have changed the name to Sligo. But you can definitely tell it was about Castlebar. Connell’s struggle with mental health really affected me. I know so many lads my age who struggled with that, have difficulty talking about their feelings.” 

He spent the early part of the lockdown in a cottage owned by a friend’s grandmother in rural Mayo (guitarist Carlos O’Connell isolated there too). 

After the mania of the road, the stillness was initially welcome. As with us all, however, he could only sit around doing nothing for so long.

 “It was really nice for the first couple of weeks,” he says. 

“There was an opportunity to catch up with friends and family, watch movies and stuff like that. Stay in bed. Have a shower regularly. But [now] I feel really bored all the time doing nothing. 

"When you’re used to being productive and you go from that into lockdown you feel you are wasting your potential for doing things. That can kind of get you down.” 

A Hero’s Death sounds effortless but making it was anything but. Fontaines originally recorded the album at storied Sunset Sound on Sunset Boulevard in LA, where Prince made Purple Rain, the Rolling Stones recorded  Exile on Main Street and the Beach Boys Pet Sounds

But they were dissatisfied with the results and so scrapped the project and started over in London — at considerable expense.

“We knew it wasn’t the album we had imagined,” says Deegan. 

“I’ve gone back and listened to it a bit now that we’ve started doing press. It’s a pretty decent album. If we had put it out, people would have gone 'this is good'.

 “But they wouldn’t have got the full picture of what the songs are supposed to be. It was very expensive. It cost a lot of money to re-record. 

"It was a big decision. Our label head got behind us. We’ll be paying off the cost of making this album for a long time.”

 - 'A Hero’s Death' is released on July 31

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