"It was like a romantic vision of this forgotten thing, we thought it was beautifully symbolic..." - hmv.com talks to Fontaines D.C.
In the relatively short time they’ve been on the scene, Irish post-punk quintet Fontaines D.C. have created a big impact. Their 2019 debut LP Dogrel earned the band a Mercury Prize nomination and shot straight into the top 5 on the UK Album Chart; it’s follow-up A Hero’s Death arrived just a year later and saw them nominated for a Grammy.
Since then, all five members have emigrated from their native Dublin to English shores, settling into life in London as best they could as the pandemic raged around them and restricted their ability to socialise in their new environment.
That sense of displacement looms large on their third album Skinty Fia, which arrives in stores this week (Friday April 22) and finds the band ruminating on what it means to be Irish in a foreign land – especially one whose relationship with their homeland has been so historically fractious.
Ahead of its release we spoke to bassist Connor Deegan about the inspiration behind the album’s title, why their perspective on Irishness has changed since moving away, and the live album they recorded at an infamous Irish prison…
So this’ll be your third album since 2019 – you’ve been pretty prolific so far, has all the forced downtime of the various lockdowns helped with that, or do you write a lot anyway?
“We’ve always written a lot, we wrote a lot when we started the band, going into the rehearsal room, because it was more exciting to us than just practicing a lot of the time, you know? It still is. We’re supposed to be rehearsing for a European tour, we had two days of rehearsal and ended up writing new songs.”
Did you end up with a lot of material to choose from for this record?
“Yeah, and as you said because of the lockdowns we did end up with a lot more material than usual, because it wasn’t like we had something we were avoiding doing, and we had nothing but time to do it, so we were all separately writing from each other and we had 40 songs in the end, I think, or 40 ideas for songs anyway, going in. So we worked through them over the space of a couple of months, saw which ones had something to them and finished them out. We whittled it down to about 20 songs, then whittled that down to an album."
Was there any particular track that kicked things off or set you down a certain path?
“I can’t really remember. We wrote the first two in Dublin before we all left in summer 2020, ‘In Ar GCroithe Go Deo’ and ‘I Love You’. We had the verse for ‘I love You’, and actually ‘In Ar GCroithe Go Deo’ was already finished by then so that would have been the first song. And it did set out a certain sound, but the topics only came to light once we’d all emigrated and we’d got a little bit of perspective on Ireland.
“It was a funny thing, I feel like the actual Irish experience of being abroad, especially in London, was accelerated by COVID because not only are you in this little island of Ireland in London, where you’d be in these Irish pubs normally, it was sort of exaggerated by being in these little bubbles, so it was forcibly restricted to only people you knew.”
It must’ve been quite a strange experience putting an album together in the middle of that. How did that affect the way the songwriting worked between you on this album? You mentioned you’d all been writing separately…
“Yeah, well, it really just depends. If somebody comes up with a good idea then well work on it, it’s very democratic in that sense, so for this album Carlos [O’Connor, guitar] had a song that was pretty much fully written, Grian [Chatten, vocals] had one he’d pretty much finished by himself, but mostly we write together in the room, I’d say more than half the album was like that.”
Is that the case with lyrics too?
“Yeah, again it’s on merit, you know? Mostly Grian is the best at writing lyrics so he writes them most of the time, but Carlos wrote the lyrics for ‘Big Shot’, and on other records I’ve thrown in a few, [guitarist Connor] Curley’s thrown in a few lyrics, written some songs, stuff like that.”
The title Skinty Fia is an interesting one – “The Damnation of the Deer” in English - where does that come from?
“It’s an old Irish curse word, basically, an archaic one, if you can imagine middle English or something like that. But it kind of held on in the older generations, people who’d now be in their 80s or something. Tom [Coll], our drummer, grew up in an Irish-speaking area of Ireland, his first language is Irish, he never spoke English until later, but the mad thing is that he’s forgotten all of his Irish now pretty much, he probably has about the same level of Irish as the rest of us have. We think of it as this really strange thing that he has a distinct memory of speaking Irish as a kid, he remembers this great auntie he had that would bang her elbow or something and she would say ‘Skinty Fia!’.
“So it was like a romantic vision of this forgotten thing, we thought it was beautifully symbolic of the leaving of Irish culture, the Irish identity, how it’s being forgotten over time and becoming more and more of a memory. And the Irish Red Deer, as well, is a beautiful symbol of that because it’s this beautiful animal that’s extinct now. And also it’s cool because it’s basically like we’re getting to put ‘for f***’s sake’ or something like that on the front of an album cover!”
Does that idea feed into the lyrical themes on the album?
“Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s a different perspective on what it means to be Irish, compared to our other albums. Dogrel was very much about Irishness as a unifying force, because while there are different stories and characters, and different things happening, they are all unified by their Irishness. Whereas by the time we got to this album, Irishness has become the thing that alienates us. Well, maybe not alienates, but it casts us as being different, and that’s a very different experience. So while the subjects are the same, the experience and the perspective is very different on this album.”
Do you tend to have a clear idea of what you want to do with an album at the outset?
“It’s actually one of the things that, without knowing it, we were quite wise about being younger, in that we didn’t ever set out an idea of what we wanted to do at the start. I think if you’re going to do that you have to be someone like David Bowie and be really committed to the idea of what it’s going to be. For us, we just write songs and express our emotions, then when we have a few songs together we can get a vision, and it’s only once we have five or six songs that we think are really great. That we know what the album is going to be about and what it’s going to sound like. Then from there we can finish it off with songs that fit into that. But it’s not like we’re writing songs to a brief.”
Were there any particular reference points for what you were going for on this record?
“XTRMNTR by Primal Scream was a big influence on the guitar work and the drum sounds I think, also Nine Inch Nails are becoming more of an influence for us, it’s this really interesting electronic stuff that’s also really alternative as well. For me, Pixies and Kim Deal have been a big influence on the bass sound, it’s really different on this record.”
You’ve worked with Dan Carey again on this record, you seem to have built a strong creative partnership there, what makes him a good fit for you guys?
“He’s a very positive guy, he loves music and his enthusiasm is really infectious. By the time you’ve finished writing a record and you go in to record, especially when we were doing the first one, we’d been rehearsing and rehearsing these songs and we kind of got to a stage of tiredness. You have that uncertainty when you’re making your first record. And the second one, maybe not so much with the third one. You’re thinking: ‘is this good?’ So when you have this guy who’s an established producer coming in and he’s speaking about things that you’ve done with so much enthusiasm, it really gives you confidence. Not only that but he’s great at deciphering the silly words that we use to describe music. Each band has its own language, you know? We might describe something as ‘spanky’ or something and he’ll be like: ‘Oh, I know exactly what you mean’."
Since your last album you’ve also recorded and released the Live album Live from Kilmainham Gaol. Obviously that’s a place with a rich and dubious history – what inspired that as a choice of venue?
“It was actually organised by the Irish Arts Council, amazingly so. We jumped at the opportunity to do it.”
Isn't it basically a museum now?
“It’s kind of a museum I guess. But it’s a pretty scary museum. I don’t think I’d want to be taking my kids there.”
We’re assuming you couldn’t have an audience in there at that point? It must have been quite eerie?
“No, it was right in the middle of the pandemic, May 2020 I think, so it was just a really strict crew, us, our manager and the hosts. And yeah, of course, the history of it and of Irish political martyrs being assassinated by the British. Then you get to play a song like ‘Dublin City Skies’ in there with the sound bouncing back at you off the walls. And the silence is really important in there because you’re reminded of the dead very readily by the silence.”
Have you had much of a chance to play the new album live yet?
“We’ve been playing some of it live, yeah. We’ve been playing ‘Jackie Down the Line’, ‘I Love You’, ‘Skinty Fia’, and we’ve also been dropping in the last song on the record, ‘Nabokov’, at the last few gigs. They’ve been going down really well. It’s a funny thing with ‘Skinty Fia’ though, because at the start of the song people are looking at you like you’ve got ten heads, you can see them thinking: ‘am I at the right concert?’ And then by the middle of the song, once it kicks back in, they get it and they start to move. But with ‘Nabokov’, I think it’s the best song we’ve ever done to be honest, but because no-one knows it yet it’s been a mixture of people either loving it or going ‘what the f*** was that?’”
What are your touring plans looking like for the new album?
“Super, super busy. We have less than a week off after the European tour, which is a month, and then we go to America for a month and then start festival season for 12 weeks. Then we have another American tour, another European Tour, a UK tour, blah blah blah.”
You must be itching to get out on the road again?
“Yeah it’s been great gigs again and seeing people enjoying it, seeing some places again, getting off the couch and earning some money. Sometimes I find it really tough though, personally, because I have to leave my girls behind and I’ve become so used to seeing them every day and then suddenly you’re in a long-distance relationship. Same with the other guys as well I think. That is tricky because you’re trying to figure out where you commit your heart to, and suddenly it’s not so straightforward any more.”
That said, is there anywhere you’re really looking forward to?
“Yeah, the American tour in general I’m looking forward to because we haven’t been there in a while, and I’m interested to see if it’s still just the drunk Irish-American trying to smoke a joint kind of crowd. The man expressing the repressed identity that he never really had and trying and smoke up a load of hash in the middle of our concert.”
Are you already thinking about your next record yet?
“We’re trying not to think about it, but we’re writing it already. We have a bit of a problem in that we just love writing songs together, jamming when we’re supposed to be sound-checking for a gig and stuff like this. So we’ve been writing a lot and we’ve a couple of songs already that are great, to be honest. I’d say we won’t be putting it out in the next year, but we’ll be writing it anyway.”