The rise and rise of Fontaines D.C. – in conversation with Conor Deegan III

Dune Pride: Fontaines D.C. From left – Conor Deegan III, Conor Curley, Grian Chatten, Tom Coll, Carlos O’Connell

Technical issues ensured I was 10 minutes late getting hold of Fontaines D.C. bass player Conor Deegan III, aka Deego. But if he was rattled by that – with another appointment lined up 20 minutes later across Dublin City, the band base that provides their initial suffix, so to speak – he wasn’t letting on.

Then again, there is that key line on the title track of their new LP, A Hero’s Death, telling us, ‘Never let a clock tell you what you got time for; It only goes around, goes around, goes around’.

However, there’s an air of professionalism about this band, also featuring Grian Chatten (vocals), Carlos O’Connell (guitar), Conor Curley (guitar), and Tom Coll (drums). Hard living maybe, but friendly with it, and definitely focused. I saw it when they played a short set at Preston’s Blitz nightclub when mighty debut album Dogrel came out last summer – going on to earn a Mercury Prize nomination and BBC 6 Music’s Album of the Year status – and it’s still very much part of their make-up.

A bit of background first, with Grian born this side of the Irish Sea (just … in Barrow-in-Furness) but growing up in a Dublin seaside town, while Deego and Tom hail from Castlebar in County Mayo (Deego’s been known to wear Mayo GAA tops during live performances), fellow Conor is from County Monaghan, and Carlos grew up in Madrid. But they met in Dublin, attending the British & Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM), bonding over a love of poetry, their name taken from Al Martino’s singer/movie star character Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, Vito Corleone’s godson; the Dublin City initials added to differentiate from an LA outfit.

Self-releasing their first single in May 2017, ‘Liberty Belle’, in tribute to the Liberties, the Dublin neighbourhood where band members lived, that acclaimed debut LP – like this one, on Partisan Records –  followed within two years, its title in homage to doggerel, a form of working-class Irish poetry that’s eased itself into the English language over time since the 17th century.

With introductory excuses behind me, I asked Deego how he and his bandmates – who were set to perform at the 50th anniversary of Glastonbury Festival, perhaps the highest profile casualty of so many this summer – had fared during the lockdown.

“It was actually really nice, weirdly enough. Me and Carlos went to Mayo in the west of Ireland, quarantined there with some friends in a cottage by the sea.”

Those who saw the band’s cracking promo video for new LP title track ‘A Hero’s Death’ on the BBC’s Later with Jools will be familiar with that location, its lyrics described by Grian as ‘a list of rules for the self’. Funnily enough, I was going to ask Deego whose dresser that was behind him in their socially-distanced promo film.

“That was our friend’s Granny’s house, while she was living with their parents.”

And where did frontman Grian record his part? Where’s that headland?

“That was in rural Dublin. He’s from a seaside town in Dublin, so it was probably there.”

Such a great way to announce a return, this scribe hooked from the first listen, its repeated ‘Life ain’t always empty’ mantra over an ever-building, stunning track mesmerising. And while I’d only had a couple of plays of the new record – out on July 31st, its title inspired by the line, ‘Everybody’s looking for a hero’s death’ in The Hostage by Irish playwright Brendan Behan, and the album art featuring the statue of mythological Irish warrior Cuchulainn that stands in Dublin as a commemoration of the Easter Rising – when I spoke to Deego, I could already tell it was a grower, very different but equally sharp, not so immediate as Dogrel.

That said, three of the first tracks to resonate were apparently among the oldest – the title track plus ‘I Was Not Born – its Wedding Present-like guitar (around the time of Bizarro, and perhaps ‘Bewitched’ in particular for these ears) towards the end jumping out at me – and the similarly-urgent ‘Televised Mind’. In fact, all three remain just as powerful a few more lsitens down the line.

“Yeah, ‘A Hero’s Death’ was written when we listened back to Dogrel first, so that was probably written in October 2018, with ‘I Was Not Born’ around the same time, and ‘Televised Mind’ maybe a little later.”

Yet there’s even a different feel from those tracks to those on the first record, and that to me suggests constant evolution. They wouldn’t necessarily have fitted in any earlier.

“Yeah, maybe. I think we just kind of had sounds we wanted to explore and mess around with, certain songs like ‘Living in America’.”

Now there’s a case in point, one suggesting that earlier experimentation I hinted at. It could almost be The Jesus and Mary Chain in places. Anyway, carry on, Deego.

“But then, like you say, there are certain songs which are a development of what we were doing on the first album, like ‘A Lucid Dream’. I think that’s kind of like ‘Too Real’ in a way.”

I’m loving the LP more and more with every listen, from opening track, ‘I Don’t Belong’ right through to reflective closing number, ‘No’,  the introductory number coming with its own neat promo video, directed by Deego. And there’s much to wallow in throughout the record, tracks like ‘I Don’t Belong’ carrying the air of the early feel of WriteWyattUK favourites The Wolfhounds. And there are those surprising moments, like on the reflective ‘Oh Such a Spring’, all seemingly some way away from the live tour de force we heard last time around.

Fontaines Five: Conor Deegan III, Carlos O’Connell, Conor Curley, Grian Chatten, Tom Coll (Photos: Richard Dumas)

In fact, I can’t better the part of the official press release with the album suggesting Grian – and the band in turn – is ‘sounding like someone riddled with angst yet resolved to protect their own freedom at all costs’ on the opening track. It adds, ‘If not a retreat, it almost sounds like a defensive rebuke of ‘Big’ — Fontaines’ last album opener, the one that rushed out the gates hungry to consume the whole world while proclaiming ‘My childhood was small; But I’m gonna be big!’. The fact that Fontaines D.C.’s new album A Hero’s Death begins with ‘I Don’t Belong’ is hard to take as anything but a pointed inversion, the music moodier and the lyrics more searching. Though the tone is noticeably different, the introduction is no less intentional: This is not the same Fontaines D.C.’ And as Carlos adds, “When we wrote this album it was a reaction to the success of Dogrel. We started to feel very detached from who we were when we wrote Dogrel.”

It’s now 15 months since my first live sighting of Fontaines D.C., arranged through Preston’s premier independent record shop and occasional label Action Records. And there was definitely something there that made me think this band were going places. I’m not always right, but there was real presence on stage, and true chemistry between them all. They knew their way around each other and had clearly gelled well together. They made it seem effortless yet raw.

“Yeah, we actually worked our arses off rehearsing in the summer of 2018 when we were set to go in to record the album, having never done that before. We were really nervous, and we couldn’t believe we’d managed to fool them into giving us a record deal, that kind of mentality. But we also knew, ‘Now we must do the work’, thinking, ‘Oh shit! We need to record these songs’. So we got them really tight. I learned so many things about songs, like the chord progressions that were going on, bar counts, all these sort of things.”

Last year, apparently they toured 50 locations throughout Ireland, Europe, and North America, including dates with Shame and Idles. They also played nine sets at SXSW in Houston, Texas over five days, selling out venues.

I recall coming up after the show at Blitz with my youngest daughter to get the LP signed, I told Deego, just one of many in that awkward situation where you’re trying too hard to say something interesting. And it can’t be easy, being sat there making small talk back.

“It’s actually something you don’t ever get used to. To do it right you need to be present, otherwise you’re kind of there with glazed eyes – some kind of dickhead, not respecting the fact that people have come to see you and want to talk to you. You have to engage with all those people in a genuine way, knackering as that is.”

They were nothing less than courteous though, to a man, yet looked so tired. And that was only the beginning of that UK leg of a first headline tour.

“Yeah, we were coming off the back of two to three years’ solid drinking in Dublin as well, so we were kind of weakened from the get-go.”

I think that’s what he said, although I initially googled ‘Gecko’ to see if it was a Dublin beer. I did find a Honduran craft beer, so maybe he was namechecking that. Perhaps the manufacturers could send me a case so I could so some further research.

On a similar subject, Grian felt the band found themselves growing not only distant from one another, but distant from themselves, saying, “We experienced full journeys where we didn’t speak to each other. It wasn’t because we didn’t love each other anymore. Our souls were kicking back against walls that were closing in. We had no space for ourselves. Our souls had nowhere to live, nowhere to lie.”

Has this lockdown, I asked Deego, given the band an unexpected chance to reflect on a mad couple of years, and put things in perspective?

“Yeah, sure. I think we’ve all got a lot more appreciation for our jobs. And they’re good jobs, y’know. It’s easy to get swept up in the stress of it and not see the bigger picture.”

With all the praise for the first album from fans and critics alike, it would have been easy to be swept up by the hype. It must be difficult to ensure you’re not affected. But I guess this enforced break has helped. Besides, many bands in that situation have gone on to disappear up their own backsides.

“Yeah, I think the way we were all raised means I don’t think any of us are super-capable of getting massive egos. But there’s still hope – we could still turn into dickheads!”

How would you compare this LP to Dogrel, which I guess was your take on that vital first album, like The Clash or The Jam’s In the City or The Undertones maybe (incidentally, Undertones Mk.II frontman Paul McLoone, a presenter on Dublin’s Today FM, has long since championed the band)? That first record featured an immediate set of songs you’d lived with a little longer, and was perhaps more of you in a raw sense. Whereas this one seems more experimental or crafted.

“Yeah, we’ve come a long way, and touring makes you a little more introverted in a way. We were listening to a lot of mellow songs, kind of de-stressing in the van, and that kind of impacted on our style of writing.”

There’s mention in your press release of ‘60s influences like The Beach Boys, Suicide, Leonard Cohen and Lee Hazlewood coming through, and that comes over in particular on the penultimate song, the delightfully-dreamy ‘Sunny’, not least with its Brian Wilson qualities, a lovely bit of wonky and twangy guitar, some gorgeous harmonies, and subtle strings.

“That was actually the song we were going to try and build the album around, try and go in that direction. But we also wanted to write authentically and genuinely, and the other songs we ended up writing sounded nothing like that, so …”

A few artists have inevitably seen their records put back these past few months, and that can lead to frustration if you’re enthused about new material you’ve written since. Was that the case with you? Was this a good time for songwriting for the band?

“Yeah, definitely. We’re in writing again now, in the rehearsal room, seeing what comes out.”

And were there songs held back from this latest LP?

“There were tracks we cut off the album, but I think we were just trimming the fat. We did the same with Dogrel.”

You clearly work well with Dan Carey, who produced both this LP and your debut at his studio in Streatham, south London.

“Oh yeah, he’s a great dude. He’s a really great producer.”

By this stage, it sounds like Deego is setting a house alarm and is starting to walk across town, the sound of traffic cutting in here and there. I’m nearly done though.

When you went into the studio, were the songs pretty much fully formed? Or was it work in progress?

“For the first album the songs were more or less fully formed, but for the second we’d recorded in LA already and had got a little confused over the identity. They kind of needed re-orientating. They were essentially the same but just needed a new haircut … or like a scarf or something.”

Speaking of which, have you still got the bleached hair we see in the afore-mentioned band promo version of ‘A Hero’s Death’?

“I do actually. The roots are coming out a little bit, but I might re-dye it.”

It’s a good look. And in conclusion, this new record doesn’t suggest you’re a band out to try and give us Dogrel Pt. II, as great an album as that was, compromising your own development for the sake of a couple of hit records.

“No, I don’t think so … unless we wrote a double album or something like that.”

Well, there’s something to look forward to. Maybe a Dublin Calling, seeing as I mentioned The Clash earlier. And now you seem to be getting closer to touring again, are you looking forward to that?

“Yeah, very much so. It’ll be good to be back out on the road.”

There are some big venues this time too.

“There are. We played Brixton Academy last time, so I think that kind of warmed us up for all of them apart from the Ally Pally (Alexandra Palace, South London). That’ll be a massive show.”

It’s all happened so fast for them, or at least that’s how it seems to me. I wrote after your Blitz show in Preston, ‘They’ve a hard slog ahead if they’re to carry on unaffected by all the hype, but they’re up to that judging by the recorded product and relentless itinerary so far. And whether this is the start of something ‘Big’ or just a brief aligning of the stars is irrelevant.’ Now I can see – just from a couple of listens to the new record – they’ve well and truly moved beyond that stage. They’re definitely here to stay.

When you set out on this journey at music college in Dublin, did you have a clear vision of where you should be headed, and if so, have those expectations and goals changed by the year?

“I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I think our expectations have become more specific, because we’ve got a clear image of how the music industry works and how our path has gone on, but when we were young we were very ambitious and always had this idea of being a massive band. That’s just the way you dream. You don’t dream of playing in small rooms, do you?”

True … although I’ll always prefer those more intimate settings.

“Oh, I do love playing those places. Don’t get me wrong. But when you’re young and starry-eyed … you dream big.”

Even if your childhoods were small. Well, as long as you stay out of the stadia, I’m happy with that … selfish as that may seem.

“Ah … is that too far? How big is a stadium?”

That’s a good question … I guess I’m talking tens of thousands, capacity-wise. Getting on for U2 type fame. I’d still rather see you do a week of dates at a smaller venue.

“Ah … well, you better avoid the Ally Pally then.”

I guess I could make an exception for such an iconic venue. And I couldn’t be more pleased for you, really. I’m just glad it’s going so well for you.

“Ah, cheers – thanks a lot!”

Liberties Takers: Fontaines D.C. are hoping to be back over in the UK come next May, all being well, COVID-19-wise.

After a scheduled appearance at France’s Levitation Festival in October, four dates in Australia in December, and – moving into 2021 – 18 European dates between La Riviera in Madrid on March 10th and L’Olympia in Paris on April 1st, Fontaines D.C.’s next 15 UK dates start with two shows at Manchester Academy on May 7th and 8th and finish at London’s Alexandra Palace on May 27th. For full details (including more about how to pre-order the new LP) head over to fontainesdc.com. You can also find tour tickets via metropolismusic.com, seetickets.com and ticketmaster.co.uk.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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