Until a few weeks ago, Grian Chatten had never found the time to sit and listen to the birds sing in the wee hours of morning. The Fontaines D.C. frontman hardly paid attention to the natural rhythms of his north London neighbourhood until a break had forced his hand at the start of the year, during which he moved to Camden with his fiancée.
“I’m really happy that it’s fucking sunny, like,” he says, strolling through Hampstead Heath, a park buzzing with the noise and adrenaline of open water swimmers cooling off in the sun. “I have more energy, and I am finally seeing things around me in a new way.”
For Chatten, the pace of touring as part of a Grammy-nominated band manifested in physical and emotional illness; he was partying hard and burning bright, while struggling to adjust to the claustrophobia of life on the road. Mere hours after NME last spoke to the 27-year-old in February 2022, he travelled to Paris, alone, to “recharge” before a run of shows that would take in over 100 dates in a year-long period.
At this point in his life, Chatten was two albums deep – 2019’s Mercury-nominated ‘Dogrel’ and ‘A Hero’s Death’, released the following year – and had been celebrated for his searingly honest songwriting, and the deep contours of his brooding voice. A month later, Fontaines D.C. would go on to win Best Band In The World at the BandLab NME Awards 2022, before their third album ‘Skinty Fia’ topped the charts. This momentum will only continue: in August, they’ll support Arctic Monkeys on a US arena tour.
To fully comprehend Fontaines D.C.’s rise over the past five would be a feat for anyone, let alone Chatten. Anxiety took hold of him while the band were touring ‘Skinty Fia’, gripping with increasing ferocity in the months leading up to a three-night residency at London’s Hammersmith Apollo last November. Yet he found some semblance amidst a relentless schedule by finishing an exemplary debut album in ‘Chaos For The Fly’, alongside longtime producer Dan Carey [Kae Tempest, Foals]. The record would prove to be a galvanising force in his recovery.
‘Chaos For The Fly’ is ripe with sensory detail, from the heat of an endless summer’s afternoon (‘The Score’) to the sound of disembodied voices echoing through a worn-down arcade (the brassy ‘Bob’s Casino’). The latter picks at emotions from the distant past, having largely been inspired by the faded splendour of Skerries, a seaside town north of Dublin in which Chatten grew up. In the two weeks he spent recording, his relationship with melody became more complex as he delved into an interest in musical theatre, particularly Stephen Sondheim‘s Sweeney Todd. “I was also listening to ‘The Rainbow Connection’ from The Muppet Movie. It’s an unreal song, enhanced by the fact that it’s sung by a puppet of a frog,” he adds, laughing.
As he talks, Chatten clutches an iced coffee, using the plastic straw for emphasis and jabbing it in the direction of the pavement. “I think the subconscious reason for writing the new record, I suppose, was to fire a flare up into the sky and see if any help comes back,” he says. “I realised that I just wanted to feel understood. This album is the first step towards that feeling.”
NME: ‘Chaos For The Fly’ marks the fourth album that you have released in four years. Why do you need to stay so busy?
“I have a relationship with creativity that supersedes a lot of my relationships with people. I am in constant dialogue with songwriting – it’s what I turn to at any point to feel normal. My manager has said that I need to take a break, but it’s like you’re running on a treadmill for an hour, and when you get off, your legs keep going until you hit something. Sometimes, you know, I think of it as a ‘pirate’s life for me’ sort of thing. I don’t want to reconfigure my routine, as I’ve been lucky enough to make a career out of it, but this break from touring has been really good for me.”
Much of the record explores the idea of putting down roots. Are you feeling more grounded in your own life?
“I think so. I did a really weird thing where I went straight from Tokyo – where we finished the tour – to LA on my own without a real plan, or even a particular fondness for the city. I went because I associated LA with being purely on tour, and I was afraid of not being on the road; taking a step back from performing can be quite scary when it’s such a big part of your identity. I bought some equipment to record out there, and then I was on a call with a counsellor who specialises in speaking with touring artists. He advised me to take a break and stop writing. That’s quite a profound thing: to try and imagine yourself outside of what you do.”
How has your relationship with touring evolved over the years?
“Around ‘A Hero’s Death’, I was really struggling to reshape myself to fit this new kind of lifestyle, and I was dealing with fatigue… and mental illness; the depression that occurred. The anxiety was pretty intense as well. I was just sick of not fucking living anywhere for five years. I didn’t even think about the fact that half a decade had passed without me feeling like I belonged anywhere outside of a tour bus.
“I was having fits of anxiety and rage, and was locking myself in rooms mid-soundcheck. I’d sing two lines of a song like [‘Skinty Fia’s] ‘Nabakov’; the level of intensity that the song demands means you would be exhausted by 4pm in the afternoon. To realise my disconnect with that song really, physically upset me. I had to fuck off, I had to run away. [The fits] started happening a lot on the last tour.”
How do you feel like your process of healing impacted the sound of the album?
“I mean, my perspective has changed so much, so I can’t really speak for how I will feel later down the line. At the moment, I’m dealing with such a strange nostalgia for being on the road, even though it was tough. It’s similar to the feeling I have towards Dublin, in that I don’t want to face it. It’s complex and emotional. But by virtue of its intensity, it feels like something I can tap into whenever I need.”
What did working on a solo record offer you away from being in Fontaines D.C.?
“It was like taking a picture of the band and putting a line around me, and reminding me where I stand separate from them. To be honest with you, I feel like I went really deep into my own head, and I was plumbing these depths of darkness, depression, and isolation. The lads offered themselves up as people to talk to, but then it’s kind of like talking to the walls – no offence. These new tunes were my way of exploring that, so it was a relief when I started working on the record. It’s like reclaiming ownership over my music. My only regret is that I didn’t take longer to make the record, as it was over in a flash.”
Did you share any of the songs that you were working on with your bandmates before recording the album?
“That’s the weirdest thing – none of them have really heard it. We work so closely together, and there’s a lot of mutual respect between us. But whenever they walked backstage and I was listening to the mix of the album, I would immediately turn it off. I just remember my hand jumping to the speaker; I’d like to think that was because I wanted to go at this alone without any advice or compliments.”
In the time since you started the band, how do you think the dynamic has changed?
“I think in the past year, some boundaries were knocked down. You know, I think we started to get a little bit more stoic and cold towards one another – I’m not the only one that has found it difficult. But for example, when I started to have those fits, which were apparent and unignorable, it opened up some airways for more honest discussions to flow. I mean, look, I fucking had to ask them for help at one point, and that changed the environment in a healthy way. It’s like, every now and then you’ll have a really difficult, intense discussion with someone and realise how unhappy you’ve been – and how much you needed to have that chat.”
“I’d like to set up a few different outlets of musical expression. I’m into the idea of having 40 albums under my belt”
Do you see this album as a standalone release, or would you like to work on more solo material in the future?
“I mean, if it goes down like a lead balloon then I’ll be traumatised [laughs]. While I’m relatively young, I’d like to set up a few different outlets of musical expression. I’m quite into the idea of having 40 albums under my belt. It just takes so long to press something to vinyl in this day and age, and when you’re a writer who writes a lot, I think that can be quite daunting.
“I think after our first album [as Fontaines D.C.], I didn’t really stop to smell the roses; we had a playback in Dublin, and I was sitting there writing the lyrics to ‘A Hero’s Death’ while listening to our debut. I think part of that came from feeling very antsy that I only had one body of work out; I wanted to almost dilute it by releasing a second – maybe I was just afraid of being judged.”
Where does your drive to constantly keep pushing forward come from?
“I think there is an anxiety towards having a multifaceted picture of me out there. Like, I don’t want to be judged as a person for how I lived on Tuesday, as I will change within a week or month. I think a reason that a lot of people get into music is because they have a need to be understood.”
Do you think if accolades such as your Grammy nomination and BRIT Award came earlier on in your career, you would have found it harder to cope?
“Yeah, I would have been fucked. The universe has been good to me in how it has divided these big things out. And the idea of working on a solo album has been flying around my head like a fucking fly for years – no pun intended. Not to downplay the album, as I put a lot of work into it, but it felt like swatting a fly that had become really annoying. The idea of having some time off to relax was probably a bit scary for me, so I was probably like, ‘Right, I’ll finally do that solo album then’.”
What headspace are you hoping to enter your next project in?
“I feel like I very much know what the next [Fontaines D.C.] album is going to sound like. The pearl of the idea is there, but I am still working out how I am going to move forward with it. You know, I’m 27 now, and I like the idea of doing one more really youthful record, whatever that means.”
How are you preparing for the forthcoming tour with Arctic Monkeys?
“I don’t know what to expect – we haven’t done a support tour since the first album. And Arctic Monkeys are playing better shows now than ever, Alex [Turner] completely owns his stage presence. I think if you were ever going to model your career off a band, you’d look to Arctic Monkeys. What really excites me about them is that they have maintained their credibility while becoming as big as they are. People I know are still holding Arctic Monkeys listening parties in their gaff when a new album drops – there’s still this cult passion that’s managed to weather the storm of the band’s success.”
What is your definition of success now?
“I’m really proud of the fact that I’m getting happy again, to be honest. I’m letting go of all the suspicions, resentment and bitterness that plagued this solo album. I also think working on these songs was a nice way of forcing myself to breathe outside of Fontaines D.C. for a little bit, and to look down at my hands and remember I exist, you know?”
Grian Chatten’s debut album ‘Chaos For The Fly’ is out now via Partisan Records