Fontaines D.C.’s ascent has been nothing short of stratospheric, but their third album ‘Skinty Fia’ might very well be their best yet.
Words: Jake Hawkes. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Fontaines D.C. have an intimate connection to their immediate surroundings. While some music can be nebulous, too broad to be anchored to any one place, everything Fontaines have put out has been the direct result of where they are right now.
‘Dogrel’, the debut album that launched them out of pub function rooms and into proper venues with sold-out crowds, was a love letter to Dublin, the city where they formed and grew. Follow-up ‘A Hero’s Death’ was a response to the pressures of touring, a rootless and opaque record that helped them shed what remained of the post-punk clothes they’d been forced into by the press.
So where does that leave ‘Skinty Fia’, the band’s upcoming third album? Coming after their relocation to London, it’s full of references to Ireland. The title, meaning ‘damnation of the deer’ in Irish, is an obvious place to start, but there’s a current of Irish identity running throughout every song. This isn’t the everyday Ireland of ‘Dogrel’, but the remembered Ireland of a diaspora community, deeply embedded in London and across the world. If their debut showcased Dublin through the eyes of someone who’d spent their life there, then ‘Skinty Fia’ is about being Irish outside of your home and coming to terms with what that means.
“I don’t know what the next chapter in our lives is, so I can’t say what our next album will sound like”Grian Chatten
“My favourite thing about the phrase ‘Skinty Fia’,” says vocalist Grian Chatten. “Is that it’s a phoneticisation that we invented in order for it to be understood. The phrase is an old Irish curse, but the spelling is anglicised. I think that sums up the whole idea of the album and this idea of an Irish diaspora for us – how culture changes and is changed to become more easily understood.”
It’s been common throughout history for immigrant communities to group together, recreating a nostalgic image of home to cope with the strange and unknowable. With this in mind, it’d be easy to assume that any issues Fontaines D.C. had with Ireland would have faded away. But while the band enjoy Irish pubs and have Irish friends, they’ve resisted slipping into a rose-tinted view of their home country.
“I draw inspiration from Ireland, even when living over here,” says Grian. “But I find it a less romantic place. There are serious issues there, which have only been exacerbated in the last five years. In some ways, those issues make me enjoy living here in a selfish way because I can afford to move out instead of struggling away at my parent’s gaff. People don’t believe you when you tell them it’s harder to rent out there than in London, but it’s way worse.”
We’re talking to him, along with lead guitarist Carlos O’Connell, in a pub in deepest darkest South London. It’s just across the way from producer Dan Carey’s studio, where the band have been working all day, along with rapper Slowthai. Grian complains of callouses from too much tambourine playing as he orders his Guinness. It’s midweek, and the pub itself is almost completely empty, although an ominously advertised pub quiz is supposedly starting in an hour’s time. Better get on with it, then.
“I think being in London as an Irish person is similar to how people from the North of England probably feel here – there’s a divide there, a small air of ‘you’re not from here’.” Grian continues once we get back to the table. “I do still find it very exciting, though. There’s an expansive nature to this city which is still fairly alien to me, having grown up in Dublin. London’s a nice city to disappear into – Dublin’s so small that it can be hard just to walk down the road sometimes.”
“It wasn’t that natural to move here,” adds Carlos. “Grian moved, then the pandemic left us all not knowing what we were doing, and I think I was the first one after that to get a place. I was looking at flats, and I just didn’t see why I’d get another place in Dublin, so I came over here instead. We’ve got a rich life here, full of friends who show us an enthusiasm for the city.”
“I grew up in Madrid, so in many ways, I was an outsider when I moved to Dublin anyway,” he continues. “I looked at the city through the window my Irish family showed me, and that’s always felt a part of me. But in the same way, when we moved to London, no matter where in London or what our lifestyle is, we’re always looking at this city through the lens of an Irish person. This city to us is impacted by the history made by Irish people, and the attempts to crush that by the English, so no matter how welcoming or unwelcoming London is, I already have preconceptions about this place. The flipside of that is that there is a very strong Irish community here that we entered London through. We didn’t just arrive as five lads who didn’t know anyone – we were surrounded by Irish friends.”
When immigrating to a new country, communities don’t just group together out of shared nostalgia, but also at times against a host nation that can seem at best disinterested, and at worst openly hostile, to their existence. Areas of North London, including Cricklewood, Kilburn, and Camden Town, saw waves of Irish immigration throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. These immigrants brought their culture with them, still clearly seen in historic Irish pubs, including the Dublin Castle and the Boston Arms (located below The Dome, where Fontaines recently played) and the London Irish Centre in Camden Square.
Despite the huge Irish population in England and the historic British rule of the country, understanding of Irish history and culture within Britain is still frustratingly low. “Even the most ostensibly woke people would struggle to put the line on the map between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Some of them probably don’t even know there is a line,” Grian says with visible annoyance. “The conversation just feels so underdeveloped, and I don’t know why that is.”
“I’ve met people, liberal people, who actually think Ireland is in some way part of the UK and don’t see why that would be offensive to say,” says Carlos. “This country is built in a way that there’s no ownership taken over its mistakes – if you want to be generous and call them mistakes. It colonised half the world! How can it not teach the actual history of what happened? There’s so much injustice in taking this attitude of ‘leave the past in the past’, which is fine if you know your past, but you can’t just forget it because it doesn’t paint you in a good light.”
This bubbling anger is present throughout ‘Skinty Fia’, but nowhere more so than on opening track ‘In ár gCroithe go deo’. The title is Irish for “in our hearts forever”, a phrase a family wanted to be inscribed on a gravestone in a Church of England graveyard. After a legal battle, they were told that the inscription would not be allowed without a translation lest it is seen as a “political statement” due to “the passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic”. Despite feeling like a ruling from the height of the Troubles, this was a decision made in 2020.
“They don’t want to teach this in schools, but by rule and regulation, they’re still discriminating against Irish people? It’s very telling.” Grian shakes his head as if in disbelief. “We’re not foregrounding our Irishness as an intentional aspect of our makeup as a band; it’s just a reality. This energy is very real to us and to people in Ireland. There’s a righteous anger there, and why shouldn’t we harness it as a colour in our palette? It helps me engage with the tracks when we play them night after night, to know that I’m singing about something worth singing about. It’s not reflective; it’s us singing about something we want to change and the friction that it causes. As long as there continues to be that friction, we’ll continue to be inspired by it.”
“I almost feel like saying it was all bollocks, and I’ve never read a poem in my life, just so it can be ours again”Grian Chatten
This anger that permeates the Irish experience is deeply rooted. During British rule of the country, use of the Irish language dwindled, with English favoured in schools and everyday life, leading to the situation where the use of the language can be taken as an overtly political act in Britain, no matter how innocuous. Despite this, there’s been a recent revival in the language’s use, with it now taught in schools and championed as an important part of Irish heritage.
“[James] Joyce once said that the Irish accent is the ghost of our language,” says Carlos. “Our accent is the accent of a foreign person learning a language and speaking it with their native accent. The physicality of that language is amazing because you develop these muscles as a kid. You’re growing your own instrument, and it’s always going to carry that – it’s not just an accent, it’s a part of the music and a part of our culture.”
“You know Tommy Tiernan, the Irish comedian, once said: ‘The English language is a brick wall, and “fuck” is my chisel!’,” says Grian, laughing. “Different phrasing, but he’s saying the same thing. The English language doesn’t suit the Irish soul. Some languages just don’t fit in your mouth properly – English is a square peg in a round hole for us.”
All of these feelings and realities blend together on ‘Skinty Fia’, but that’s not to say there was any conscious narrative laid out before Fontaines sat down to write the album. Even though the pandemic gave the band a breathing room they’d never had before, it was still more of a plunge than a thought-out project.
“We’re responding to a call,” says Grian. “This album hasn’t been a squeeze to get out; it bled from us by necessity. It’s inspired by moving country and being faced with all these different versions of Irishness which we’d never considered before. It was us donning the cloth of our culture. That feeling was a moment in time – I don’t know what the next chapter in our lives is, so I can’t say what our next album will sound like.
“One thing that has changed is I don’t feel as trepidatious about picking up different instruments,” he continues with a smile. “Not like I’m fucking Noel Gallagher picking something off the wall in a studio and giving it a go, but the songs we hear in our heads aren’t always two guitars and a bass and drums – sometimes they’re more nebulous. It’s just now we’ve got the confidence to realise that. There’s more scope.”
“I do think we would always have done that, though,” says Carlos. “From the moment the first album was done, we knew the next one would be different, and the same after the second. By the time we’d written ‘Dogrel’, we’d left ‘Boys in the Better Land’ and ‘Liberty Belle’ behind. We were never gonna let ourselves get boxed in. That was part of the reason why we put ‘Dublin City Sky’; on the first record, which was a total trad [traditional Irish music] ballad. Maybe another band would’ve just tried to make ten bangers, but I don’t think that was of any interest to us.”
This constant search for newness is present throughout ‘Skinty Fia’. Whether it’s the understated menace of ‘Big Shot’, the gentle romance of ‘I Love You’ or ‘Skinty Fia’ itself, which boasts an almost industrial feel, it’s clear that the band are always seeking to push themselves. Even songs that skirt closer to a ‘traditional’ Fontaines sound show an ever-growing lyrical maturity and deftly avoid treading the same boards as previous outings. ‘Bloomsday’ is one such track, named after the annual celebration of Irish author and poet James Joyce.
“Bloomsday is this pilgrimage that fans do every year,” explains Grian. “But it was sort of founded by Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, and Flann O’Brien [all Irish poets, playwrights, and authors]. There’s footage of them at the first Bloomsday, in black and white and sort of sped up like all those old films are. They’re just enjoying themselves, and I saw us in that, walking in the so-called footsteps of these great men. But there’s a melancholy in there too, because I wrote it partly to let go of my old idea of Ireland. I was clinging to this youthful dream of Dublin, and I needed to get off of that treadmill of romanticism. It felt like celebrating the last birthday you’ll ever have.”
This conflicting view of Ireland rears its head again and again when talking to the band. In leaving the country, it feels as if they’re more determined than ever to understand it and show it to the world. The logical end point of this attitude is ‘The Couple Across the Way’, a trad-inspired ballad that is played entirely on a hand accordion Grian was bought for Christmas. Slow and meandering, it evokes Irish folk music without giving itself over to nostalgia in a way that no modern band has managed since the Pogues over 40 years ago.
“My mam bought me that accordion for Christmas, and I drove everyone mad learning to play it all day,” Grian says, laughing. “I was walking up and down the stairs, and they were creaking, and the accordion was creaking while I worked out how to use it. I just have an obsession with getting something to sound how I hear it in my head, so I wasn’t even thinking about whether the finished song would work on the album; I just needed to do it. I do think we’ve developed enough personality and a character that’s unique to us, so we can pull off various arrangements, and it’d still sound like Fontaines. Unless we do a disco album – we’ve been flirting with that idea for a while.” He grins, and we don’t think he’s being serious.
It’s the kind of throwaway joke that both Grian and Carlos engage in throughout our conversation, something that wouldn’t be surprising if not for the overblown media image of the band as brooding poets who are happiest when alone reading Yeats in a Dublin dive bar. This mantle of the Irish band who are deeply in touch with the balladry of their home country wasn’t a complete fabrication but quickly mutated beyond all recognition, often overshadowing the band’s musical influences and forcing them into a box they weren’t comfortable inhabiting.
“That was all true; we really did bond over poetry,” says Grian, picking his words carefully. “But if that personal history of ours is fetishised to the extent it has been, we start having a bad relationship with it. It’s actually a part of our life, and it’s started to feel like it belongs to the press and isn’t ours anymore. I almost feel like saying it was all bollocks, and I’ve never read a poem in my life, just so it can be ours again.”
He pauses, drumming his fingers on the table. “It just… snowballed. Every interview we did added to this myth, and every interviewer was keen to embellish on it. It got to the point where we built up a collective resentment of poetry and trad music and stuff. I do think that’s why our second album sounds less Irish than our first and our third, because it was a period where we were completely sick of it.”
“I felt like a cliché of myself every time I read a book of poetry”Carlos O’Connell
“I just felt like a cliché of myself every time I read a book of poetry,” adds Carlos. “I remember the turning point, which was this really shitty day I had around the first album. I went into the Garage Bar in Dublin, which was our local place, and I sat down with a book, just to be on my own. A couple of lads walked in the door and came over because they knew Fontaines, and suddenly I realised that… that I was performing. Not in my mind, but in other people’s, and that really stopped me reading poetry for a long time – I still don’t have the same love that I used to have for it, because I can’t feel intimate with it. It always feels like there should be a camera on me because I’m living out this image of the band in other people’s heads.”
“We were robbed,” says Grian, simply.
These early experiences with media mythmaking could well have led to a much more guarded approach in interviews or anxiety about how the band were perceived more generally, but Fontaines seems genuinely nonplussed by the reaction their music gets. “We protect our relationship with our creativity,” explains Grian. “To me, that is the most important thing in the world because I don’t ever want to fall out of love with songwriting. It’s really important that nothing crosses that line; it’s a sacred thing. But that also means I don’t think we feel as vulnerable actually releasing the music, because it’s just about writing it and loving it as a band. Even if it was the best-received thing in the world, I don’t see the point of creating a clone or a twin of a tune – it’s laborious.”
“Accepting we have a bad relationship with our creativity would be devastating,” agrees Carlos. “So we just won’t ever allow ourselves to get to that point. If you’re going to write to a brief, you might as well quit and go and do literally anything else. Our albums come from necessity, not obligation – something which I hope will always be the case.”
Taken from the April 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Fontaines D.C.’s album ‘Skinty Fia’ is out 22nd April.