In-fighting. Self-doubt. An entire scrapped album recording. This is the story of ‘A Hero’s Death’, and how it helped piece Fontaines DC back together again.
Grian Chatten, coffee in hand and sat next to bandmate and guitarist Carlos O’Connell, is recalling a time mid-way through one of Fontaines DC’s many European jaunts in support of ‘Dogrel’ - the 2019 debut that propelled the quintet from buzzy Dublin newcomers to one of Europe’s most in-demand bands in the space of barely a year. It’s objectively a successful time; one that was categorised by endless sold-out gigs, constant radio play, and capped off with a slew of ‘Album of the Year’ plaudits. Or so it looked from the outside.
“Everyone was at a point where we were carrying a litany of resentments against each other,” the singer recalls in a strong, slightly mumbled Irish brogue. “Nobody [in the band] represented a friend, everyone was a business partner who was fucking you up a bit. Me and Carlos were pretty bad at one point in Europe but we just really, really fucking addressed it. It’s those moments that I’m probably the most proud of, more than selling out Brixton [Academy] or anything - our ability to turn things around with our friendships.”
For, more than a simple tale of doubling down on the hype and riding the success of their debut into the ring for a second run, the journey to new album ‘A Hero’s Death’ is one of watching things edge towards the precipice and clawing them back. Of - aptly for its title - letting go of certain expectations, and learning to prioritise what matters the most.
“I’ve come to realise that I didn’t deal with anything last year. I just went through it and forgot to take a step back and make sense of everything around me. I just kept going,” Carlos nods. “I always thought of it like the album got more successful than us, so you’re always chasing that success. We were always a step behind, and things were already ahead.
“We weren’t ready for that.”
If Fontaines weren’t sitting on an album that genuinely pushes them forward in unexpected and exciting directions – a record that proves they’ve made it through the wilderness, and come out stronger and more self-assured on the other side - you could easily chalk their journey so far up as a cautionary tale.
Speaking to the pair, who are living together during lockdown for interview purposes such as these, every measure of success is given a doubtful caveat. Carlos notes that all were going through “different personal issues” during that year, but if, as Grian attests, “the thing that traps a lot of bands in that hamster wheel is a fear of losing something and not striking while the iron’s hot”, then Fontaines DC spent 2019 at boiling point. Each notch further up the career bedpost was deserved, but it also came at an overwhelming speed.
By the time the band - completed by guitarist Conor Curley, bassist Conor Deegan and drummer Tom Coll - were due to play London’s 2,300-capacity Forum, they’d already sold out Brixton Academy several months in advance. “It’s a perfect storm for not [processing things],” says Grian. “When you’ve literally got Brixton in the bag, and you’re doing [the Forum], it means nothing. You’re not even there - you can’t relate to it.” Though Carlos recalls the later Academy show as being “really special, really emotional,” the singer is still reluctant to fully invest: “All of those things are amazing, but you do have to be careful about caring how much people like the record, too. When you have 5,000 people literally, physically in front of you, inviting you to put your sense of self-worth in their hands… That’s how paranoid I get about these things…”
Grian clearly seems to have spent time wrangling with the internal complexities of being front and centre of the year’s most-hyped band. If, as he semi-jests, as an Irishman “the greatest sin would be to accept a compliment,” then he’s had to wrap his head around being bombarded with them. “It’s not the quantity of it necessarily, it’s the quality - people aren’t just saying you’re a good band, it’s like, ‘You’re fucking AMAZING, man’. So as soon as you let that in, then that becomes your life source,” he explains. “I react almost violently to compliments then because I’m trying really desperately not to let them in.”
Lauded by the press as a troubled young poet, a sort of Connell from Normal People for the indie sphere, he speaks of how the band’s oft-written mythology - a group of young lads who bonded over a love of the written word - even began to warp their view of themselves. “The craic is, we told the truth about who we were, but this idea of our background as a band [became such] pure narrative that we started to disown our memories and think of them instead as part of our branding.
“I think I probably did take myself a lot more seriously, walking around with a book in hand all the time on the first album,” he adds with an element of mischief seeping in. “I think to an extent, having released that album and got that out of my system, I was a bit more freed up to take myself less seriously.”
Today, the pair rattle between the two modes. At times they’re very much the epitome of the romantic young artistes - Carlos bearded and earnest, Grian decked in a baker boy hat and dungarees, somewhere between a young Lennon and a Victorian chimney sweep. At others, they’re more than willing to take the piss out of themselves. When we bring up the pertinent decision to begin LP2 with a track called ‘I Don’t Belong’, Grian rolls his eyes: “‘I don’t wanna belong’ and all that kind of shite… ‘I was not born into this world’, all that fucking… I mean, I was obviously really fighting with the idea of any external presence,” he concedes.
And of the somewhat blunt nature of finishing the record with a track simply entitled ‘No’? “This is how much meaning there is in this,” laughs Carlos. “We were writing it and I said to Carlos, ‘Do you have any ideas on what to call it, Carlos?’” picks up the singer, “And he said ‘No’. And I was like, ‘Perfect’.”
Born simultaneously of intense soul-searching and a reigniting of some all-important humorous camaraderie, the road to ‘A Hero’s Death’ was evidently a winding one. It was also one that took them a very, very long way away from home.
Cut from the rainy streets of ‘Dogrel’’s Dublin to a scene in Los Angeles. The drinks are flowing, the crowd are colourful and Fontaines DC are… “We played this weird night in LA where we performed in a wrestling ring with a load of burlesque dancers and, what do you call them… dwarves?” begins Grian. “Mexican wrestling mixed with burlesque and strippers,” Carlos grins.
“They weren’t strippers, they were dancers,” insists his bandmate.
“Naked dancers,” nods the guitarist.
“We played a cover of ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ - 10 minutes long with about 16 solos and I was covered in baby oil,” he continues. Pause. “It was good fun, like.”
If there was a looming question as to how the band would pick up from a debut so fully invested in their home city, having spent all of 10 minutes of the interim time in it, then Fontaines’ first response was clearly to go in as opposite a direction as possible. Leaving town to head to the Hollywood Hills, they pitched up at the world-famous Sunset Sound Studios - former home to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones and endless others - to begin work on round two.
“We were excited by how different the feeling was gonna be in LA. The album was all [written], and we had the idea that it was gonna be a lot sunnier than it actually is and we’d be in a hot climate,” begins Carlos. “A sad pastiche of sunniness,” Grian interjects, “not pure Teletubbies…”
“But it just didn’t really work,” the guitarist continues. “To think of our first experience in the studio with Dan Carey when we were recording our first single, then to think a couple of years later being in LA in this super cool famous studio going around in a convertible. It’s like, what the fuck? We were so far away from where we came from. We wanted to do something really fucking different and it didn’t work out because we realised that all we really need to have everything is a small room and to work with someone who cares about our music.”
“It sounded too polished. It sounded like a big cocaine second album at times,” Grian explains. “Whereas the whole thing we learned from working with Dan in the first place is that your mistakes and your idiosyncrasies are the things that should be brought to the fore and you shouldn’t necessarily be comfortable with the sound of your own records.”
A dense, sprawling release that touches on the rattling urgency of old (‘Televised Mind’, ‘A Hero’s Death’) but primarily veers in softer, more introverted directions, Fontaines’ second is an album that sits squarely at odds with the notion of a swift follow-up to success. It may be arriving barely more than 12 months after its predecessor, but in those 12 months the quintet have acutely looked their intentions in the eye and chosen their path.
Deciding to ditch the LA sessions and, by proxy, an entire finished album, they returned to Dan Carey’s studio last October with a renewed sense of themselves. “Being back in that studio just brought us all back to the very start of it all,” says Carlos. “You remember what it was like going in there for the first time, thinking about how we were so young and innocent and excited. When we do it with Dan Carey, it sounds like us, like Fontaines DC - the same band we were four years ago, playing a small venue in Dublin.” “There’s no ego, you’re not trying to convince the producer you’re a genius, you’re just wearing your… warts on your sleeve?” posits Grian, with an eyebrow raise. “There’s some poetry for you…”
To the outside ear, ‘A Hero’s Death’ might represent an audible about turn for the quintet. It is markedly not ‘Dogrel’ pt II. The band on this album are not - in terms of antagonistic youthful ambition - the same band.
But in other ways, you sense they’re closer to the band that pricked up a nation’s ears with their integrity and visceral way with words than they have been since those first public moves. They’re friends, who’ve had all the possible wayward carrots dangled in front of them and still chosen to return home and do it the proper way.
“I genuinely, GENUINELY don’t care if we get any bigger at all,” shrugs Grian. “I personally don’t mind getting big as long as the music is still ours. There’s people that might feel like, I don’t wanna be played on Radio 1 because all they play is fucking bullshit. But I think there’s something really amazing that a platform that would only look at a certain type of music changes where they’re looking because you’ve made something that resonates,” Carlos reasons. “If that’s the way we become more successful, by more mainstream media turning their eyes towards our music rather than us changing to be in their vision, then I don’t mind that. I’d be happy to take that.”
He looks knowingly towards our Zoom camera: “And then probably complain about it in two years and say it’s the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
‘A Hero’s Death’ is out 31st July via Partisan.