Indie Music

Fontaines DC: ‘We can generate ideas that sound like they’ve been carved in stone for a thousand years’

Carlos O’Connell isn’t merely excited about the release of Fontaines DC’s new single. He’s “giddy for it. I’m giddy,” he emphasises, reclining in his dressing gown in a sunlit corner of his north London home. His attire is far from rock star loucheness: it’s 9am and the guitarist has already been up for hours with his one-year-old daughter. “There’s no time to get ready!” His effusiveness doesn’t feel like a stretch: the prospect of any new material from the celebrated Dublin band is thrilling enough; the fact that Starburster marks a wholly unexpected sidestep into antic, irreverent, Korn-inspired nu-metal is enough to make any interested parties come over slightly light-headed.

Yet later that afternoon, Fontaines frontman Grian Chatten is finding it difficult to muster the same enthusiasm. Perhaps because he can’t quite bring himself to listen to the thing – or, in fact, any of the band’s forthcoming fourth album, Romance. He tells me this from a more stereotypical hot seat, a characterfully cluttered old-school pub in Camden Town, although he’s not cleaving to rock cliche, either. We are on the Diet Cokes and the only pharmaceuticals around are his ADHD medication, which he remembers to take halfway through the interview. “Want one?” he offers, snapping the blister pack.

There are four whole months until Romance is released in August: is there a chance Chatten may give it a spin in the meantime? “I’m considering it,” he says, seriously. “Which is more than I could have said for any album we’ve done before.”

Those previous albums were raging successes, winning the band a Brit award, Grammy and Mercury prize nominations and, in the case of 2022’s Skinty Fia, a place at the top of the UK charts (its predecessor, A Hero’s Death, narrowly lost a well-publicised chart battle with Taylor Swift). They also put the five-piece in the running for best rock band in the world, though they have little competition for the title.

Yet you can understand why Chatten finds it hard to revisit them. Fontaines’ 2019 debut Dogrel – a blast of penetrating post-punk teeming with pickaxe-like hooks – spotlit Chatten, who might as well have been shouting his jagged evocations of small-town malaise down the phone at you. A Hero’s Death and Skinty Fia gilded the clattering bones of their original sound with simmering atmosphere, baggy swagger, and clever but memorable melodies. Yet they were still essentially vehicles for Chatten’s vocals: guileless, strident, uninhibited. “I’ve put a lot of myself out there the past few years,” he says.

Chatten’s solution to this overexposure is – somewhat counterintuitively – to go bigger. In the autumn, Fontaines supported Arctic Monkeys on their US tour; before that, Chatten saw Blur at Wembley. Both showcased what he saw as the appealing “universality” and reciprocity of the stadium experience; ocean-like crowds chanting lyrics about big emotions seemed like a way of sharing the burden of self-expression, a kind of “armour” for the artist. Chatten decided a potentially arena-filling “grandiosity” would be Romance’s animating principle. “I didn’t want to write, like, a Champagne Supernova, but I did want to do something that felt like it was deep within and far without,” he says, with his own trademark grandiosity, one that jars in the best way coming from this slightly uneasy 29-year-old in a pair of poppered 90s trackies.

The sweeping singalong strategy is also a way of transcending the theme the band has become synonymous with: Romance is Fontaines’ “least Irish” album, says Chatten. Until now, the country has been setting, subject and spectre, rendered through densely referential lyrics (the DC in their name stands for Dublin City; the rest refers to singer Johnny Fontane from The Godfather). Dogrel opens with the line: “Dublin in the rain is mine / A pregnant city with a Catholic mind”, while penultimate track Boys in the Better Land caricatures an Anglophobic cabby: “He spits out ‘Brits out!’, only smokes Carrolls”. Jackie Down the Line, from Skinty Fia – an album which reckons with the internal conflict of leaving Ireland for London – initially seems to be about an abusive relationship, but that warps like a stereogram when you hear Chatten’s belief that it’s really about “Irishness surviving in England”.

O’Connell thinks the band’s focus on Ireland was always about something broader; he says the songs were ultimately “meditations on identity and belonging, understanding your own place in the world”. For Chatten, it’s just “a colour I didn’t really feel like painting with at the moment, especially with the intensity with which we did. I don’t want to write something that feels like a sequel.”

Hence: Korn. In a break with their signature style, Starburster sees the band channel the forbidding nu-metal pioneers in a “tongue-in-cheek” trip down memory lane, says Chatten. For O’Connell, it was an exercise in post-ironic nostalgia towards “this thing I loved when I was 14 and stopped listening to for years and now I love again”. He also cites the Californian band’s contemporaries Deftones and Alice in Chains as influences. But for Chatten it’s Korn – a band that “scared the shit out of me as a kid” – and Korn alone (“I fucking hate Limp Bizkit and don’t even really like Rage Against the Machine”).

Most nu-metal sounds like a panic attack in sonic form; Starburster literally is. In January, Chatten was travelling to the studio to record some “shite lyrics” for the track when he had a panic attack. He sat down in London’s St Pancras station, completely “stultified”, he says. “I couldn’t talk to anyone. I couldn’t leave the table, because I wouldn’t be able to pick up the right things.” The only thing he could do, he found, was rewrite the words of the song. The result is a dark, funny maelstrom of wild, flailing desire, Chatten’s way of airing his frustration with his actual physical “inertia; not being able to get the motor going inside me”. Panting punctuates the ranting, echoing the hyperventilation he tends to experience with a panic attack.

Chatten used to get panic attacks a lot before he started medication for ADHD; he received his diagnosis three weeks after the St Pancras incident. Previously, he would have them attempting to leave the house, running “up and down the stairs 12 times” to ensure he had everything. “With each trip, I’d be chipping away at my self-confidence, feeling like I’m incapable of looking after myself.”

He says things have improved on that front, but it’s clear he still gets anxious – especially in public. Rock stardom may not have the attendant fame it once did, but phones have made Chatten feel “doubly exposed for half the celebrity I am”. He is perturbed by people filming him and strangers Googling him in plain view. Recently, in a cafe, he ended up cancelling his order and leaving because all “these people were staring at me”.

The bad news is that Chatten is destined to become even more recognisable; I would be very surprised if Romance, a new creative peak, doesn’t fast-track Fontaines to those prospective arenas. Does their trajectory frighten him? “Yes, but I’m up to the challenge of getting better.”

That trajectory has been a remarkably old-fashioned, reassuringly meritocratic one: no viral hits, no big label leg-up – Romance marks their signing to XL – no starry co-signs. The band – which also features Tom Coll on drums, Conor Curley on guitar and Conor Deegan III on bass – formed in Dublin in 2014, having met as students at the city’s Bimm music institute; Chatten was born in Cumbria but they all grew up in Ireland, bar O’Connell, who spent his childhood in Madrid, although his mother is from Dublin. (I’m speaking solely to Chatten and O’Connell, as Fontaines prefer not to be interviewed as a group.) Then, they just “gigged and gigged and gigged” their way to recognition, says Chatten. They paid their dues – extortionate Dublin rents meant in the early years they dossed down in a disused business centre full of beds (“Curly shared mine. It was awful”) – but Chatten can’t say there were years of frustration; broadly speaking, Fontaines have had a seamless rise.

Ultimately, the only way to be a successful young rock band today is to genuinely rival the greats – and Fontaines do. That’s partly because all their songs feel like undiscovered classics, to the extent that I wonder how often O’Connell worries they actually are forgotten favourites as he writes. “All the time!” he replies breezily, face haloed by prongs of faded pink hair. “Sometimes you’re like: fuck, that’s that other Beatles song.” Especially strong melodies stop him in his tracks. “But if you can’t place it then you just hope it’s not a rip-off,” he says, very much the nonchalant foil to Chatten’s brow-furrowed overthinker.

All that thinking is the other key to Fontaines’ success: it’s helped Chatten write lyrics so scintillating they make you yearn for the days of album liner notes to pore over. As a child, Chatten’s father bribed him with packets of football stickers to memorise poems; he also alerted him to the poetry of pop songs. Soon he was listening to Bob Dylan and the Cure, copying out the words to Just Like Heaven and having a go himself. In retrospect, he thinks, he was trying to reach beyond the banality of everyday life. “Robert Smith isn’t going out on the pints and saying words like that to people, but in the current day we can generate ideas that sound like they’ve been carved in stone for a thousand years.”

Chatten does do a great line in plausibly ancient truisms. “They say they love the land but they don’t feel it go to waste / Hold a mirror to the youth and they will only see their face,” he sings on I Love You, Skinty Fia’s dismayed ode to an Ireland left behind. That song also showcases the musician’s piercing specificity (“Now the morning’s filled with cokeys tryna talk you through it all / Is their mammy Fine Gael and is their daddy Fianna Fáil?”). It’s all deeply considered, brilliantly rendered and very deliberate.

Despite relinquishing their focus on Ireland, Romance’s moreishly gorgeous finale, Favourite – a jangling whirl of circularly melodic, rainbow-lit melancholy reminiscent of Morrissey’s Why Don’t You Find Out for Yourself – does sound like a love letter to their home town. O’Connell isn’t sure: “It’s hard to know when Grian writes the love songs if it’s about his fiancee or if it’s about Dublin.” Chatten says he was trying to capture the feeling of “George’s Street, Camden Street in Dublin in the rain, outside the pubs there”, although his main subject was “booze and drugs, and depression … darkness as a warm bath to slip into”.

In person, Chatten comes across as friendly and self-effacing rather than downbeat or tortured, but his answers do read rather bleakly on the page. At one point he suddenly starts fretting about his ability to parent his future children if he gets writer’s block. “This relationship I have with creativity is what will keep me stable enough to raise kids. If that thing I have with the songwriting goes, I’m worried I’ll be a hard person to be around.” I try to reassure him that once he has children it’s unlikely he’ll have the mental space to even think in those terms. “Anyway, Carlos has a kid and he’s really creative and it’s all good,” he nods.

For O’Connell, having a child has made the band’s jam-packed touring schedule for 2024 – a string of festivals leading up to a European and US tour – a positively relaxing prospect: “You get more sleep on the road than you do at home.” Last year, he took paternity leave from the band’s Australian tour for the birth of his daughter with his partner, French actor Joséphine de La Baume. It was a “super easy” decision: “I wanted to do everything perfect for her.”

O’Connell isn’t sure how much of Romance the band will be “allowed” to play at summer festivals before its release, but can’t wait to showcase their enjoyably brash new look, an amalgam of shiny sportswear, nu-metal jean chains, Keith Flint-style cyberpunk and grungy androgyny. O’Connell spearheaded the style; Romance’s songs made him see “neon green everywhere”.

It’s the first time the band have had a considered, holistic aesthetic. Initially, says their frontman, “we had a vague idea of ourselves under-dressing. I loved wearing the same shirt every day for two weeks and shit like that.” This being Chatten, however, it is no surprise to discover that his grubby top was actually doing double duty as a profound metaphor for his conflicted views on fame, success and the blossoming legacy of Fontaines DC.

“It was almost a way of counteracting the sense of upward trajectory of the band at the time,” he says wistfully. “It just made me feel like nothing’s changing.”

Romance is released by XL Recordings on 23 August. Starburster is out now. A European tour begins 12 June including dates at Glastonbury and Reading & Leeds festivals.

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