From pub shows to touring the world in space of a year, Irish post-punks Fontaines D.C. are currently riding the crest of a wave of popularity on the back of their critically acclaimed debut album Dogrel. It’s a record that has gotten some serious rave reviews thanks to a potent melding of evocative James Joycean poetry and boisterous, riff-driven indie rock – not unlike the Pogues armed with loud guitars rather than banjos and accordions. ZACK YUSOF caught up with guitarist Carlos O’Connell to get the lowdown on hectic life in a band that’s currently being hailed as the breakout act of 2019.
There’s plenty of heat surrounding Fontaines D.C. at the moment, thanks in large part to your rigorous touring schedule and the marvellous reception that Dogrel has deservedly garnered upon its release back in mid April. Did you guys think that things would pick up as quickly as it has done for the band?
No, not at all. Before the album, it was kind of down to us being clever about what we were doing. Since the record has come out, things have escalated really, really quickly. It kind of happened out of nowhere as well. We were touring and then all of a sudden, it was like, “fuck, what’s all this going on?” So yeah, it’s kind of taken us to the next level completely by surprise. It’s hard to get your head round it at times, you know? We’re aware of what’s going on but at the same time, I don’t really understand it yet. We never really intended it to be like this. We just wanted to make a record that we all thought was good and that would stand the test of time. We didn’t intend it to go on and change any part of ourselves you know? We just wrote the record that came from our hearts and it’s been received incredibly and I guess that’s the bit that’s hard to understand – something so personal that has somehow managed to be accepted and loved by so many people. It’s been mind blowing.
Dublin is at the centre of a lot of songs on Dogrel. Can you talk about the band’s relationship with the city? Listening to your record, you guys seem to have a love/ hate relationship going on with “The Dubs”. Is that correct to say?
Yeah, sort of. I mean, it’s like any relationship. At first there’s an extremely romanticised period you know? A honeymoon period, I guess. And then, there’s the understanding. You figure out that you are truly in love. And then you find out that it’s not as perfect as you once thought and so you have to try and understand it and that’s what I think we’ve been trying to do with the city. There are bits that we love (about Dublin) – in the truest sense of the word. But with love comes understanding and we’ve had to listen to the city to try to figure out its flaws and how it really works. And the best way we can do that is to write about it. I think Grian (Chatten, the band’s singer and main lyricist) has written a lot of lyrics about the city trying to understand it in order to be more comfortable and happier (in it).
How did you come up with Dogrel as an album title? Dogrel is a type of working class Irish poetry and as a distinctive word, it seems to describe the band and its music perfectly…
We are very influenced by our traditional Irish music, especially The Dubliners. We liked a lot of the music and a lot of the songs and we figured that if you took the lyrics separately, it’s just dogrel. And then we figured that the influence to many of our songs really kind of stems from that. So we just wanted to give our album a name that represented our influences.
Is Dogrel a concept album of sorts?
It wasn’t written as such. We always write songs and we are music lovers. Half of the album was written over three months before the recording and the other half was written a year before that. I don’t think we ever knew that we were writing a concept album or anything like that. We were just writing songs and there were a few (songs) that didn’t cut the mustard and make the record. The songs that did make the record obviously do go together thematically but that was more a case of us writing about the same theme from different perspectives. When we write a new song, we’ll think its the best one in the world. And then we’ll write another and think that one is the best song in the world. It’s easy for us to forget what we did last week. When it comes to making a record, we have to get our white board out and list down all the songs that we have. We never think of all our songs as one piece, you know?
Did you have an idea about what the record would be like when you started? Did you guys have a clear notion about the kind of record you wanted to make?
Going into the studio, we did have a clear idea of what kind of record we wanted to make. Even before we had the songs written, we did know that we wanted a record that was raw, that sounded live like a record from the 70s where it really did feel like an actual band playing. That kind of music is really important to all of us so we wanted to make a record that was just like that. We couldn’t make a record that was over-produced, had a big sound and was polished you know? It does tickle your ears, that kind of record, but then you listen to something like The Velvet Underground and it sounds so alive, you know? There’s nothing better than that.
What was recording that album with Dan Carey like? Did you guys work hard with him to capture that live energy in the studio?
Working with Dan Carey was great. He was completely on the same wavelength so it was easy working with him. He proposed the idea of trying to record the whole thing as a live performance, like a gig, but we didn’t have enough tape reels. Tape reels are only 15 minutes in length so we recorded in blocks of 15 minutes and we did the whole album in those blocks. No song was recorded on its own but rather in a block of two or three songs. So if we fucked up the third song, Dan would have to wipe the whole tape and we’d start again from the top. So yeah, there was a bit of pressure. Ultimately, when you are working on one song at a time, you can tend to get lost in the process trying to make it perfect but when you are performing three songs in row, you tend to forget about it and perform as if you are performing live. Once we got used to the process, we clicked and from then on, it was really quick. In the end, it was two days of tracking the album and two days of overdubs. The rest of the time was spent mixing.
Let’s talk about the creative process. Songs like Roy’s Tune, Liberty Belle, Boys In The Better Land, Dublin City Sky and Big are all so lyrically evocative and heartfelt. Where do these songs come from? Do you guys all work on the lyrics and music together?
Well for this record, most of the lyrics came from Grian. Roy’s Tune, half of the lyrics were Curley’s (Conor Curley, the band’s second guitarist). Musically, I think it came from a lot of different points. The way we work, somebody will have an idea on their own and bring it in. Sometimes, it will be us playing together in the room and then we’ll lock in on an idea. Other times, it’s a case of rearranging somebody’s initial idea. Basically, we always try to collaborate as much as possible on everything we do.
One of the coolest things about Fontaines D.C. is the way you guys come across as a very tight unit, not just as a band but as a group of friends. How important is that relationship to the makeup of the band?
It’s the most important thing there is. If by the end of our first year of heavy touring – learning how to do that and by the end of it achieving whatever it is we have achieved in the music business but at the expense of our friendship because the pressure is too high or we didn’t want to tour that much or whatever – none of it would have meant anything then. The guys in the band are one of the most important things in my life, you know? We just happen to love the same things and we do the same things together but there really would be no point in doing it if we didn’t like each other. Not liking each other – that would be an absolute tragedy.
Your life has obviously changed beyond belief in the past year. Has success made your life better? Is success all its cracked up to be?
In terms of change, 50% of my life is better, 50% is worse (laughs). The hardest thing about all this is all the travelling. Seeing the world and playing gigs is great – I mean, it fills you up with life, with emotion… you do feel alive you know? But then you feel quite trapped and dead when you’re travelling for sometimes 20 hours straight. So it’s very important to cut off from work for your mental health. For me it’s very important to have something that’s mine that I just go to that makes me feel alive in the same way that you would be when you are playing a gig. I have few of those kind of things – writing, which is something I haven’t been able to do too much of recently; photography, which is something I adore and do as much as I can; and then there’s always reading. Touring with all its highs and lows is a very fragile environment for the mind so you’ve really got to take care of it. It’s really important to keep grounded. We’ve decided that we don’t want to be a band that over tours because the standard of touring in the industry right now is fucked. It’s pretty inhumane I think.
Touring the world as Fontaines D.C., do you sometimes feel like evangelists for modern Irish culture?
The Irish thing has definitely been a talking point for everyone but it feels good for it to be like that, you know? It feels good to be bringing our culture around and for that to be getting a lot of appreciation. A lot of our favourite poets are all Irish and they are known for that. Not trying to be part of any legacy or anything but we’ve always tended to go with doing things that feel right. I mean the lyrics, Grian’s accent, which is hard to ignore… we’ve never had to compromise any of it at all which is quite something.
With all your new life experiences, do you reckon that everything that’s happened to the band in the last year will inform your writing? Perhaps your new material won’t be so Dublin-centric next time around because your world view has been expanded?
Definitely, 100 percent. At the end of the day, the only thing you have is what’s around you so that’s what you are going to write about. I don’t think the next one is going to be another album so rooted in characters and place. So far, our new songs are going different places. Travelling tends to make you look outward but travelling as much as we have done makes you pretty introspective so I think the next one may well be in that vein.
Finally, any plans to tour Australia in the near future?
It’s not going to be this year because we are all booked up but we will definitely be there in 2020.