Fontaines D.C. on ‘Skinty Fia': “It’s really important that we do have something to say”
It was the final straw for Grian Chatten and his adopted home city of Dublin. Taking the air on a stroll around the bustling Temple Bar area, the singer of Fontaines D.C. caught sight of a gaggle of young admirers shadowing him from a distance. Walking around corners, he quickened his step; glancing over his shoulder, at every turn, his pursuers were still there. Sweating lightly, he began to jog. The party behind him followed suit.
In what sounds like a scene from a silent-picture comedy, Chatten ducked into a shoe shop. Stalling for time, stalling for time. In a sign of “the kind of stupidly obliging person I can be when I’m nervous,” the singer “decided to try on a shoe that I didn’t have any intention of buying.” Needless to say, by this point those he sought to escape had joined him in the store; they too were walking up and down the aisles pretending to assess footwear. “Eventually they said, ‘Excuse me, sorry, can we get a photo with you?’” he recalls. “That was rough for me, you know? My heart rate was going fucking 90 [to the dozen].”
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In the Republic of Ireland, and in the United Kingdom, the rise of Fontaines D.C. has been stratospheric. Formed in Dublin in 2017, such was the group’s disorientating ascent that the trendsetting British radio station BBC Radio 6 Music nominated their debut LP, 2019’s wildly applauded Dogrel, as its record of the year. In the broadsheet press, The Times, the U.K.’s paper of record, described its successor, 2020's A Hero’s Death, as “a superb album by one of the best new bands of our time.” When it comes to drawing a crowd, in the space of just four years, the quintet have gone from playing in spit ’n’ sawdust pubs in London’s East End to appearing before 10,000 people at Alexandra Palace. In the foothills of spring, the group’s third album, Skinty Fia, released this month, is already one of the most anticipated rock events of the year.
The suspicion with which Fontaines D.C. regard such trinkets is likely a testament to their musical worth. With a sound that recalls the tension and violence of punk forebears the Stranglers, and which keeps assured company with the very best of European alternative music — Wolf Alice, most notably, and IDLES — the idea that the Dubliners would be minded to play nice was for the birds. “We get a Grammy nomination [for A Hero’s Death, in the category of Best Rock Album], people like us, blah blah blah,” guitarist Carlos O’Connell told The Times last year. “And for the first time in my life, family members were telling me how proud they were. Funnily enough, it made me feel worse than when they were telling me to quit and get a proper job.”
Good for them. But for Chatten, the unintended consequences of success pose an obstacle to his job as a writer. Each day, the 26-year-old pens “lyrics and poetry, and little bits of prose”; accomplishing this requires that he “be a part of the thing [he] seeks to observe.” Not just this, but the singer describes himself as “an anxious person” who finds it “very difficult, when someone is being complimentary, to deny them… a little bit of time.”
It was fine when such entreaties occurred once or twice a day, but in Dublin, he was staring into the lenses of strangers’ camera phones “four times in an hour.” In such a small city, it soon reached the point where he longed for “people to just not know what I do so I could experience Dublin.” Little by little, “all these corners of Dublin were taken away from me, or at least that’s how it felt.”
Which is why, for his audience with Alternative Press, Chatten is speaking from the flat in London he’s shared with his girlfriend for the past 18 months. These days a resident of Camden, the city’s most chaotic neighborhood aglow with musical history, within five minutes’ walk from his front door the singer is able to reach the steps of Camden Market on which the Clash stood on the cover of their first LP, the train station in front of which Madness posed for the front cover of Absolutely, and The Hawley Arms, the pub frequented by Amy Winehouse. As a resident of Europe’s only megacity, at once Chatten was able to regain his absent anonymity. And living in Camden? Put it this way: He’d have to walk the streets naked to get himself noticed ’round these parts.
There are stranger matters, too. In the 100 years that have elapsed since the Republic of Ireland broke free of British rule, the two countries have enjoyed a complex relationship that is further complicated by the fact that six of the island’s counties remain a part of Great Britain. As Chatten speaks, there hangs behind him a framed picture of Shane MacGowan, the singer with the Pogues, who in 1988 sang about the imprisonment of six Northern Irishmen wrongly convicted of bombing a pub in Birmingham, England’s second-largest city.
Forty-seven years after this infamous miscarriage of justice, on the week of their singer’s interview with Alternative Press, the last of Fontaines D.C.’s five members completed his move to the English capital. “It was a classic case of follow the leader, you know?” the singer says, in what might just be a joke. “[I’m] the Queen Bee… those hapless followers followed me over.” Disembarking on England’s green and pleasant land, the music-makers soon discovered that, even in a city as complex and cosmopolitan as London, the discordant melody of empire still lingered in the air.
“There’s a slight level of discomfort in being Irish in this city,” he says. “You’re reminded that you’re not where you’re from on at least a weekly basis. And we still hear the odd [derogatory term] ‘Paddy’ being thrown around. A few of my mates have been told to fuck off home and things like that. [Sometimes] it’s a lot more subtle… microaggressions and stuff like that. But in a way, things like that gave us the impetus to really bring our third album over the line. We could easily have written an album without having anything to say because we just love writing music. But I think it’s really important to make sure that we do have something to say. [Being in London] made us want to change things as we saw them. It also made us covet and idealize and grow closer to our own Irish identity as well.”
Technically speaking, Grian Chatten is in fact English. Born in Cumbria, in the far north of the country, he moved to Ireland barely a month after moving out of the womb. The fact that he and his bandmates are today part of a now centuries-old Irish diaspora can also be traced back to Great Britain; it was during the London-imposed Great Famine of 1845-52 that people in Ireland first began crossing oceans en masse in search of different lives. The Pogues sang about this, too, in the deeply moving “Thousands Are Sailing.” Nowhere was this exodus more evident than in the New World of the United States of America. Fontaines D.C. discovered this firsthand at a concert at the Great Scott club in — where else? — Boston, Sept. 8, 2019.
“I remember when we played… you couldn’t move for American-Irish,” the singer recalls. “And I felt that I was being looked at as [being] this unusual pedigree of Irishness, which is funny because my ma is English. One of the unusual things you hear from Irish-Americans is that a lot of them seem unaware of just how far Ireland has come in the last 100 years. I think a lot of them would be surprised if I told them that we have gay marriage in Ireland. Stuff like that. I remember we played one gig, and a [non-Irish-American] person asked if we were still all eating potatoes and riding around in carriages.”
During this time, Grian — it’s pronounced like “Ian,” by the way — Chatten was on Fontaines D.C.’s first tour as a successful band. “I didn’t take well to it at all,” he remembers. “I developed insomnia… to a very real extent.” Giving up the ghost of sleep at 4 or 5 a.m., he would rise from his bed and head out to buy a beer from a vending machine in the lobby of the bargain-bin U.S. motels in which the group were billeted. On tour in Europe, he once went nine days without a wink of sleep.
Three years later, things seem different. A year of “relative domesticity” due to the pandemic means that the singer has found solace in having “people around me who I can trust to be there the next day because I’m not flitting around everywhere.” These days the sandman arrives at an appropriate hour, too, “which is a huge thing.” As well as this, Chatten has learned to become “a little bit more engaged in discussions about our own band, and about me.” He’s no longer content to “sit back and let it all spiral out of control.”
Good for him because by the time you read this, Fontaines D.C. will be back in the United States on a world tour that will last, off and on, mostly on, until next year. Chatten says he views the excursion as “being my last chance of really living like a young person,” the point after which he can no longer “justify being an irresponsible git.” Out on the road, Chatten savors “the lack of good food, the late nights, living in a mess — I love all that.” But the clock is ticking on this kind of thing. “I’m going to have kids at some point,” he says, “so this is my last chance to be the kid.”
Often are the times when he “wonders how I went from writing a chord progression and expressing what it’s like living in Dublin to saying all these weird corporate one-liners [for American radio stations], you know?” The thing about that “you know,” by the way, is that it does expect a response. “I used to worry that my gradual acceptance of those things was an erosion of [my] character. I think it’s probably the opposite — or I hope it is at least — because I do say no to things, I do have a semblance of integrity left.”
And here we are, at last, at the real point of conflict for the singer in Fontaines D.C.: the writing and making of music versus its promotion and projection. About this, though, Chatten shouldn’t worry; poetic and poised, the ovation granted to his group’s material is born from its honesty to itself, and to its authors. This is not calculated stuff, and neither is it obvious.
The opening song on Skinty Fia, “In ár gCroíthe go deo,” for example, is inspired by the true story of the death of an Irishwoman, Margaret Keane, in the English city of Coventry, and of the Church of England’s initial refusal to allow the Gaelic translation of the words “In our hearts forever” to be inscribed on her gravestone. To Irish eyes, not to mention rational minds, the decision smacked of racism and xenophobia; to the top brass of England’s official religion, permitting the family’s request was akin to sanctioning a potentially subversive political slogan on sacred ground. (The decision was subsequently overturned on appeal.)
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“This happened when we were spending some time in Ireland during the pandemic,” Chatten says. “We were totally shocked by it, so we wrote the song… [when] the family saw the tracklisting, which was published somewhere, they got in touch with us and asked us to send the song over. So our management did that. Last week, we got an email saying that they really love the song, that it’s completely appropriate and that they played it at the gravestone.”
Asked to quantify his response to the Keane family’s email, the answer from Chatten contains all one needs to know about Fontaines D.C.
“It made me feel a hundred times better than a Grammy nomination,” he says.