Friday 19 April 2019

'You really want to leave a mark and not get caught up in the bull****' - meet Irish rockers Fontaines DC ahead of the release of their debut album Dogrel


Exciting the critics: Fontaines DC are touring in the US next month
Exciting the critics: Fontaines DC are touring in the US next month
John Meagher

John Meagher

The Dubliners and Dubliners. Both the great trad band led by the inestimable Ronnie Drew and James Joyce's masterful short story collection have left their mark on Fontaines DC.

This most hyped of Irish rock bands places great importance on the two and if you speak to the band's members for any length of time, it won't be long before they rhapsodise about how the former captured something of the working-class Irish tradition while the latter forever evoked a set of characters caught in an emotional paralysis in the early years of 20th-century Dublin.

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Bassist Conor Deegan says both helped influence the band's debut, Dogrel. It may be a garage rock album of a thrilling variety but there's definitely a trad influence there, not least on the memorable closing track, 'Dublin City Sky'.

"We've been inspired by a lot of music," Deegan says, "but the best of Irish trad is something that really connects with us and I think you can hear it in the way Grian [Chatten] sings and in the arrangements."

The album's title, he adds, is a reference to the rough-edged street poetry popularised by the likes of The Dubliners and by such spoken-word artists as Stephen James Smith today.

And, lyrically, frontman Chatten has succeeded in capturing an everyday Dublin that's not often featured in the work of his contemporaries. There's also, for good measure, a namecheck for James Joyce in one of the tracks, 'Boys in the Better Land'.

"I read a lot and Dubliners is one of those books that really resonated with me," Chatten says. "It's a beautiful blueprint for an album, lyrically anyway. I love the way it delves into the humanity of different people in different situations. And the level of empathy that Joyce has for the characters is what makes it so relatable today. I was also fascinated by the aesthetic and heart of Dublin he captured in that book and I'd love to think we have captured something of Dublin on this album."

'Liberty Belle', one of the standouts and a song that helped many sit up and take notice of the band, is rooted in the history-soaked Liberties area of the city and named after a pub there. "It's a very inspiring place," guitarist Conor Curley says. "There's still so much of the character of Dublin there, but it's under threat thanks to gentrification and you just hope all the new stuff they're building there doesn't take away from the area." Time will tell: at present, a frenzy of hotel-building is changing the complexion of this part of Dublin 8, tarting up streets whose very scruffiness was part of the charm. The Fontaines DC might be seen as a quintessential Dublin band, but only Chatten grew up there.

He hails from the north Co Dublin harbour town of Skerries - a long way from the Liberties. He sings with a distinct Dublin accent, but it's not nearly as pronounced when he speaks. Both Deegan and drummer Tom Coll are from Co Mayo (Deegan wore an old Mayo GAA jersey during the band's scintillating performance on Sky Sports' Soccer AM last weekend, much to the amusement of their fans on Twitter). Curley hails from Co Monaghan and guitarist Carlos O'Connell - of Irish extraction - spent his formative years in Madrid.

And yet, their love of Dublin is palpable - and their outsider appreciation for the place calls to mind the late non-Dublin poet Louis MacNeice who wrote, in homage of the city, that it "holds my mind with her seedy elegance". Even the covers of their seven-inch singles featured photos of such celebrated old Dublin 'characters' as Thomas 'Bang Bang' Dudley and Patrick Joseph Marlow, aka Johnny Fortycoats.

"We came here after school and really threw ourselves into life in the city," Curley says. "We met in college and got to discover the Liberties - and other parts of Dublin - together. There was that shared experience."

They haven't been spending much time in Dublin's fair city of late, however. In the space of two years, they have gone from releasing a well-received single and playing pub gigs to ecstatic reviews at SXSW in Austin, Texas, tour dates all over Europe and playlists on the BBC.

They have excited critics both here and abroad and at the start of the year, Fontaines DC were among the names being touted as ones most likely to make it. They've also signed to the hip US indie label Partisan Records, home to IDLES, the adored English rock band that caused a great deal of excitement when they played Vicar Street during the week. Fontaines DC will support them on a series of US dates next month. But first, there's a glut of headline shows in the UK to negotiate this month.

The release of Dogrel next week will, in a just world, get the band noticed among those who've yet to make their acquaintance and if they have been hyped, theirs is something of an old-fashioned story of building organically.

"We were able to develop as a band for the first year or so," Curley says, "and to learn from our mistakes. If it feels as though we're fully formed, we put a lot of hard work into that."

An inquiry about whether or not luck has played its part in helping the band get this far is batted swiftly away by Deegan.

"I think we are making our own luck," he says. "We've put all our energies into this and into making the songs the very best they can be. I think we connect with people because they see something authentic in what we do." The quintet all attended the BIMM 'rock school', located in the heart of the Liberties, and they were as taken with the streets around them as they were by the curriculum. Chatten credits the place with helping him to realise that he was a born frontman.

"I always saw myself as a singer-songwriter and then in first or second year I was ask to sing a Strokes song while being backed by a band of musicians. I felt completely relaxed up there and as confident as I had felt in a long time and that was the start of it really."

He is unsure, however, if such rock schools can prepare bands for the realities of a notoriously tough industry.

"They say you can read about war but you don't know what it's like until you're in a war. It's the same with this business."

"If I took anything from BIMM," Deegan adds, "it's how superficial people can be and how they can get wrapped up in charisma, how good looking someone is, or how they put themselves across as opposed to the quality of their songs. Even the lecturers would seem to pick people based on things like that. I thought it was pretty unfair. We're in an art college and I thought it was supposed to be all about the art, but it's not. But that's actually a pretty good way of gearing yourself up to how the outside world is." That world has been pretty good to Fontaines DC so far, but the three members that meet Review say they are only too aware about how fleeting hype can be. "You really want to leave a mark," Chatten says, "and not get caught up in the bullshit.

"There's blood all over it," he says, glancing down at a vinyl copy of Dogrel on the table in front of him. "There's a lot of us in it. If somebody puts as much of themselves in it, maybe it deserves a listen. I think we've captured something. We've captured something of being in Dublin, in Ireland, in these times. We haven't just put our hands around nothing."

'Dogrel' is released on Friday

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