Hark! Tucked in the corner of an upstairs bar at London’s O2 Academy Brixton, a not-so-secret party is getting underway. Having just won Best Band In The World at the BandLab NME Awards 2022, all five members of Fontaines D.C. are belting out traditional Irish song ‘The Auld Triangle’ – but their raucous singalong isn’t being attempted alone. Kildare-born comedian Aisling Bea, who presented them with the gong, is here, too, leading a chorus of loud and lager-fuelled (or, err, out of tune) vocals.
“It’s a big night for the village,” she shouts, proudly waving around the band’s iconic NME middle finger trophy in front of a team of snappers. “Just look at what these boys have done!”
Indeed, tonight has been a celebratory moment for Ireland’s finest. The Dublin quintet – vocalist Grian Chatten, guitarists Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley, bassist Conor Deegan and drummer Tom Coll – have won their first-ever award as a band, having met in music college five years ago. “Look at the state of us – we’re delighted,” says Chatten as they stumble into the Winner’s Room to be interviewed on-camera by NME. When our reporter asks what it means for them to have won, Curley responds immediately: “It’s about time.” Both the band and team behind the camera erupt into enormous, bottom-of-the-belly laughter.
Skip back a few weeks, however, when the band are merely nominated for the gong, and the mood is slightly less jovial. In fact, Chatten is holding his fist to NME’s face. Don’t panic, though: there’s no scuffle to be had. Instead, we’re sat with him and Coll in the corner of an east London studio, waiting for the rest of the band to arrive for their NME Big Read photo shoot, and Chatten is showing us the small tattoo of a shamrock that adorns his right wrist. It’s a tribute to both the physical and emotional journey that he – plus his bandmates, with the exception of the Paris-based Curley – made when they left Dublin two years ago and moved to London.
He suddenly turns to look at us face on: “Do you think I would’ve got this tattoo if I didn’t feel any sort of guilt for moving away?”
The thrilling songs of ‘Skinty Fia’ (which translates from Irish to “the damnation of the deer”), the band’s third album, trace the exit wounds of leaving their city behind: loneliness, betrayal, paranoia. They pick at this shared scar tissue relentlessly, as if breaking it down will reduce the pain. The wistful ‘Bloomsday’ sees them longing to return to Dublin’s “rain, bars, pints and camaraderie” over a rumbling drum section, while ‘Roman Holiday’ tackles the band’s newfound displacement from Ireland head on: “I don’t wanna see the Queen / I already sing her song,” sings Chatten.
“It’s difficult to stay in touch with Irish culture while you’re not there. You grapple with guilt” – Tom Coll
“When Irish people move to London, they definitely wear their identities on their sleeves more,” says Coll. “It’s difficult trying to stay in touch with the culture while you’re not there. You find yourself grappling with so much guilt because you want to make the country better while you’re away.”
At the start of the first lockdown, the band’s shared anxieties about moving to London were exacerbated when they came across a story in The Irish Post about the late Margaret Keane, who died in July 2018. The family of the former dinner lady, who had lived in Coventry for most of her life before passing at age 73, had originally planned to have the Irish epitaph “In ár gCroithe go deo” – which translates as “in our hearts forever” – engraved on her headstone. However, a court of the Church of England ruled that the Gaelic phrase could be interpreted as “political” or “provocative” if displayed without an English translation.
The decision sparked righteous, widespread anger among the Irish community; not least the members of Fontaines D.C., who wrote ‘Skinty Fia’’s eerie opener ‘In ár gCroíthe go deo’ (“Gone is the day / Gone is the night” goes the haunting refrain) in its wake. “The story really hit home, because we were about to move to a place where this shit is happening,” says Chatten. “I just found it very revealing; it unravelled this cynical distrust in the British perception of Ireland. It was like, ‘Ah, but you’ve never really trusted us, have you?!’”
In February 2021, the decision was overruled after three years of campaigning from Keane’s daughters. That very same day, the band had laid down the group vocals for the song’s opening mantra – before emerging from the studio to hear the news. They soon sent the song to the Keane family via email, who then proceeded to play it for their mother at her grave.
“The whole situation was very triggering for me. It broke my heart,” says Chatten. “I want to say that the family’s acknowledgement of the song is really validating, but it’s not an award. All I care about is that we have their blessing to release the tune, which is the most important thing.”
Both Chatten and Coll currently reside in areas of north London, where Irish immigration to its suburbs – particularly Kilburn in the north-west – in the late 20th century was so great that its community dubbed it ‘Ireland’s 33rd county’. As for the frontman: living and working in the capital with his fiancée – despite his initial reservations about the city – has left him in “in a better place mentally and emotionally; I’ve got routines in my life and I am now more mature, confident and thick-skinned,” he says.
Yet their relationship with Irish identity, they both say, will continue to inform the way they carry themselves throughout London. Coll points to Chatten’s tattoo again, which he says was done by Curley’s fiancée. “I don’t know how I would be able to explain this [tattoo] to 20-year-old me,” Chatten responds. “I would’ve slagged myself off for getting this.” Why? “Because there’s no need for that sort of loud expression in Ireland. There’s instead power in numbers.”
Produced by the band’s longtime collaborator and Speedy Wunderground label head Dan Carey, ‘Skinty Fia’ pushes beyond steely, rhythmic punk that they made their name on with 2019’s Mercury Prize-nominated ‘Dogrel’ and its follow-up, the sprawling ‘A Hero’s Death’, released a year later. The former was a runaway hit, entering the Top 10 of the Official UK Albums Chart and landing the band a slot on the John Peel Stage at Glastonbury the summer it was released. Its predecessor saw them level up again, receiving a Grammy nomination in 2021 for Best Rock Album, and taking them to headline a sold-out Alexandra Palace in London last November; in a four-star review of the show, NME said that they “transcended their punk roots to become true rockstars”.
Similarly to its predecessors, the majority of ‘Skinty Fia’ was recorded live to tape over a two-week period, but for Chatten, its creation has been all about “becoming braver and getting rid of the fear”. He adds: “Whenever I have an idea for a tune, it doesn’t necessarily exist in a world of guitars and drums, even though those are the tools that we have to express ourselves with. I’m getting increasingly bored and unsatisfied with writing for just a bassline and a drum kit.”
Coll notes that, at the moment, the band “aren’t listening to much guitar music, if at all”, while Chatten cites ‘ATLiens’-era OutKast, and Kanye West – particularly the rapper’s seminal ‘808s & Heartbreak’ album – as current favourites. He continues: “I’d like to unlearn the sounds of ‘Dogrel’; otherwise we’ll have the same ideas coming into our music again and again. We could probably throw away the guitars eventually, and the music will still sound like us. I don’t think people would be that mad if we decided to do that, either.”
On ‘Skinty Fia’, then, don’t expect a complete overhaul of the band’s sound à la Arctic Monkeys with ‘Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino’; instead, there are moments of quietly confident experimentation that make this change of pace seem tantalising and limitless. The intricately crafted title track is a staggering encapsulation of what they’ve sought to achieve by tearing apart the seams of their sound: its crackling trip-hop melancholy makes for a dark, alluring jam that resembles a murky rave, all heat action and unexpected sounds whooshing in and out of earshot.
“Slowthai has an incendiary quality. His charisma reminds me of Mick Jagger” – Grian Chatten
Its centrepiece, however, comes in the form of the mighty ‘I Love You’. Chatten describes how it was “recklessly written” during a jam session; after taking a solitary walk around the block, he wrote the song in less than an hour. The band chose to keep the recording’s eccentricities in, too: for an extended section of the song, the drum track peters out, simply because Coll popped outside of the studio to collect a Deliveroo order and left the rest of the band to continue playing.
At the climax of this brilliantly claustrophobic song, Chatten unloads two diatribes against the current political tensions in Ireland. Within a 30 second burst, he references the unelected coalition government of the country’s two dominant parties (Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael), Ireland’s high rates of young male suicide, and its severe housing crisis. There’s also a nod to the late 1960s’ Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home controversy, which saw excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 that uncovered the bodies of 796 babies buried in a sewage tank in Tuam, County Galway. “This island’s run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws,” he caws at one point.
For Chatten, writing it was like “getting rid of the elephant in the room. I felt like I was physically standing in the middle of a storm, where all of these issues – things that have happened in my own life, plus the tensions in Ireland – were all spinning around me. Sonically, when the song calms down, it represents how I was able to take a breath after I’d addressed everything that I needed to. I’m ready for the discussion and to fight our corner.”
He says that his creative tension comes from wanting to connect with as many people as possible, but not wanting the music of Fontaines D.C. “to be seen as an ideology”. He’s arguably mastered that balancing act on ‘I Love You’; his lyrics are emotionally charged yet impressionistic, eluding easy answers. Perhaps there’s nothing left to say when you’ve given all of yourself away.
“I don’t think I could ever write an obtusely political song. It would have to be more about how certain events affect me and my psyche,” he explains. Chatten has no interest in speaking to the moment, either. The critical acclaim that followed ‘Dogrel’, which largely praised his confrontational fury towards Dublin’s class divide, “fucked me up”, he says: “I started writing tunes on a guitar at the age of nine. Two decades later, people are looking to me for answers. What the fuck do I know?”
He continues: “There are some bands who are trying to go head-to-head with world-renowned philosophers. They’re stepping up to a plate that isn’t for them. Just because you’ve written a couple of good albums, doesn’t mean you can skip a whole PhD. That, to me, is completely delusional, and I have no interest in doing that.”
“We aren’t listening to much guitar music. If at all!” – Tom Coll
In February, a video emerged of Fontaines D.C. in the studio with Slowthai and his producer, Kwes Darko, plus the aforementioned Carey. Today, both Coll and Chatten remain tight-lipped on any details of a future collaboration, but they say that the recording session taught them how to make music deliberately sound like samples, a technique that they’d be open to experimenting with in the future.
“Slowthai has got an incendiary quality,” Chatten enthuses. “It’s just so refreshing to work with somebody who has an incredibly open mind. His charisma reminds me of something that I read about Mick Jagger before, where those around him would be able to identify his distinctive voice in an instant. That’s what Slowthai is becoming.”
The Northampton rapper isn’t the only artist that the band would be open to working with – Chatten beams as he suggests another left-field collaboration prospect: Lana Del Rey. “I just want to write some tunes with her. Her music leans into an era of cinema that I love, and she writes in a way where people can find stories in her music. I honestly think we’d do a really good tune together.”
Beyond the music, though, Chatten remains distinctly private. In a few hours’ time, after our shoot wraps up, he will board a train to Paris by himself. He’ll stay there for four nights, he says, with the intention of writing, reading, and exploring the city alone in order to “gather together the pieces of myself” before he leaves for tour. “I don’t really know what to do with myself right now. I feel as though I have two characters – I’m worried about stepping back into the version of myself that I am on tour,” he says. “I don’t even know how to prepare to get back on stage.”
In late March, several weeks after our interview, Fontaines D.C. kick off their European tour in Madrid, Spain. The 17-date trek precedes almost a year’s worth of gigs and festivals across the UK, Ireland and North America, including a main stage appearance at Reading & Leeds Festival, a support slot for Sam Fender at his huge all-dayer at London’s Finsbury Park this July, and their first-ever arena shows in Hull and Swansea in November. There’s even an Australian jaunt in the diary for early 2023, too.
It’s shaping up to be a gruelling schedule by anyone’s standards, but particularly for this band, who have a difficult relationship with life on the road. When touring ‘Dogrel’ throughout late 2019, Chatten suffered from prolonged bouts of insomnia. “I used to wait in the lobby of the hotel when the lads went off to bed after a gig, and then just get a beer from the vending machine and sit there,” he says, before inhaling deeply. “I’d watch the sun come up and then we’d all get back in the van the next morning, as though nothing had happened.” Today, looking ahead to that European tour, Chatten says his sleep schedule while on tour has improved, but he still can’t eat before a show.
Given Fontaines’ growth over their three albums, does he think he’ll ever reach a point where he won’t be able to perform certain songs?
Chatten repeats the question back to NME, before looking upwards while he contemplates an answer. “Sure, go on,” he says before referencing a youthful, much-loved ‘Dogrel’ track. “There are times where I don’t feel like ‘Liberty Belle’-Grian – I’m not even sure if I connect to that person today.” The song has been noticeably absent from the band’s recent live shows; he says that, when he doesn’t feel grounded and present on stage, he can’t perform a song that is “so euphoric, joyous and celebratory”.
“I’d like to unlearn the sounds of ‘Dogrel’; otherwise we’ll have the same ideas coming into our music” – Grian Chatten
He also tussles with another track from the first album; one focused on ambition: “The other song that I specifically struggle with performing is ‘Too Real’,” he adds. “I’ll still sing it, but for me, it’s very easy to say that you’ve got a healthy way of connecting with your own tunes, but six months into touring…” He pauses, scrunching his brow. “You almost have to start looking for things that aren’t Beatles-esque prescription drugs in order to get by.”
However, last year’s Green Man festival in the Brecon Beacons, which Fontaines D.C. headlined, proved to be a turning point. Coll reckons that show “will be a highlight for the band forever”, while Chatten recounts an emotional breakthrough he had on stage. “That [festival] was the moment where I thought to myself, ‘I know how to play big gigs now,’” he says. “Before then, I was anxious about bringing small gig-energy to big venues. People are hard to ignore when there’s only 300 of them, but it’s much harder if there’s close to 20,000; it’s like trying to navigate a whirlwind of disbelief.”
Chatten is clearly aware that all he went through has led to here. But throughout our hour-long conversation, he laughs every time he describes ‘Skinty Fia’ as the band’s “best album”. He’s curiously unsure of himself when talking about the record, but also shares a warm, thoughtful smile, leaving NME with a sneaking suspicion that he’s contemplating what being named Best Band In The World might mean for Fontaines D.C. Maybe – though he’d never let it on – he’s really bloody proud about it, too.
“Compared to our other albums, I’d rather be called ‘a band of a generation’ or accept another crazy accolade for [‘Skinty Fia’]”, Chatten concludes. He tips us a comedy wink. “Because you know what? This time, we deserve it.”
Fontaines D.C’s ‘Skinty Fia’ is out now on Partisan Records