Fontaines D.C.: ‘We Don't Set Out To Represent Our Country; We Set Out To Express Ourselves’

26 January 2023 | 10:43 am | Mary Varvaris

The band’s bassist, Conor “Deego” Deegan III, talks about the post-punk label, the expectation to represent Ireland, and storytelling upon the group’s first-ever visit to Australia.

(Pic by Filmawi)

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Fontaines D.C. have been making waves since releasing their debut album, Dogrel, in 2019. The album saw the Irish post-punk outfit nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize award – while the award was won by British rapper Dave and his excellent debut, Psychodrama, receiving the honour of a nomination so early in their career is outstanding.

The band have been credited with being part of a post-punk revival alongside British bands Idles, Dry Cleaning and Shame. Bassist Conor “Deego” Deegan III says that receiving those accolades early in their career brought the band extra self-esteem, “but I think if you rely too much on that stuff, then when it's gone, you fall apart. You need to rely on something a bit more solid for your own sense of self-worth.

“And as for the whole genre thing,” he adds, “I think that really depends on where you're at in your career. At first, it was very beneficial for us to be lumped in with these other bands with this genre tag because it was part of the conversation about music at the time.” Every time he looked at festival line-ups in 2019, he knew every single band on the bill.

The group have also received comparisons to Joy Division and The Fall, two easy parallels to draw when you have a deadpan yet expressive singer and a bass player who can make the instrument sound like a lead guitar (The LottsTelevised Mind).

Beyond critical acclaim, Fontaines D.C. have fans in Arctic Monkeys vocalist Alex Turner. The guitarist, Carlos O’Connell, told NME that they played Primavera this summer, just before Beck. The Loser singer asked Alex Turner what music he was listening to, and he said the only thing he listens to is Fontaines. O’Connell added, “Arctic Monkeys are just so iconic because they were so important when they came through.”

Another fan is Cillian Murphy, who you might know as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders or Dr Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow in Batman Begins. The Irish actor talked about six songs he loves with the BBC. On the track Liberty Belle, he said, “These boys are really exploding. I saw them on [Late Night with Jimmy] Fallon on the telly recently, and they just looked like they knew exactly what they were doing. The album, Dogrel, is fantastic. Every single tune, they’re relentlessly themselves. This is one of my favourite tracks on the record.”

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Fontaines D.C. have come a long way in just four years. In July 2020, the band released A Hero’s Death, a comforting album to listen to during the Covid-19 pandemic. With its repeated refrains, mournful guitar swells, and bursts of energy (A Lucid Dream, the title track, I Was Not Born), their second album provided mantras to keep going when it felt impossible. The record was nominated for Best Rock Album at the 2021 Grammy Awards but ultimately lost to The Strokes’ The New Abnormal.

In April last year, Fontaines D.C. released their third album, Skinty Fia – a saying that translates to “the damnation of the deer” that drummer Tom Coll’s great aunt used to say as a substitute for swearing – to further acclaim. The record peaked at #24 on the ARIA Albums Chart and #1 in their native Ireland.

“To be totally honest with you, we were able to make the albums we were able to make because we're all introverts in a certain way,” Deegan shares. “When we got into a room with each other, we found a place where we could express ourselves to each other.

“We found people who were on the same page and had a similar worldview,” he adds. “There’s a lot of solace in that. We made the rehearsal somewhere we wanted to be for speaking to each other and writing, but when it comes to performing live, though, they're very different sides of a person.

“On stage, you happen to be extroverted and communicate yourself differently for people to pick up on because they can't read your mind. It was lucky that we were that way so we could write the tune, but then we'd have to figure out how to transmit and mutate ourselves differently. And that took a bit of figuring out.”

The band have grown in confidence while performing live. At Reading Festival last year, a fan named Dexter was holding a sign to join the group onstage. Dexter did join Fontaines D.C. – he was given a guitar and played the Dogrel number, Boys In The Better Land, for an ecstatic audience. “We're not saying no to that ever happening again,” Deegan says about the possibility of an Aussie fan joining them on stage, “We don't really want to make it a thing that happens all the time; we want to keep it a very special thing.

“I've gotten to a level now where I feel more comfortable on stage most of the time,” the musician continues. “And I think it's completely true of the rest of the band. After years of playing with each other, I think there's this thing where, you know, even though there are so many unpredictable, chaotic things that can happen, once you figure out how to keep playing through it, and that the gig doesn't fall apart just because things happen. You can actually use them to your advantage.”

A wonderful thing about the band’s music is that it’s uniquely Irish. On Skinty Fia, in particular, Grian Chatten tells stories about being an Irishman living in London. The singer also features little historical and cultural touchstones. Of course, the title track is the most surreal but most freeing of the lot – the song is eerie and menacing and hints at Chatten’s future collaboration with the British electronic music duo, Leftfield.

“It's a funny thing because we don't set out to represent our country; we set out to express ourselves,” Deegan chuckles. Indeed, but the pressure is unsurprisingly added when they’re labelled as a once-in-a-generation band by some outlets. “We have a lot to get off our chest about Ireland, and then, inadvertently, we end up making an album about Ireland or the Irish experience in different ways.”

Dogrel is very much based in Dublin. Their third album, meanwhile, is far more abstract and tangibly real in terms of the Irishman’s experience of living in London. “We were just singing our songs about our lives, and then people put it on us that that's representing Ireland or something, you know?”

Deegan confirms that it’s nice to hear people say that his band is doing a good job representing Ireland, “but when the other side asks, are you actually representing Ireland? Are you representing it well enough? I mean, Jesus, it's an entire country of so many different types of people. How are we ever going to be able to represent them all without just writing a big encyclopedia? I mean, we're making a 40-minute-long album.”

On Skinty Fia’s sublimely intense album opener, In ár gCroíthe go deo (English translation: in our hearts forever), Fontaines D.C. tell the story of the Irish woman, Margaret Keane, who lived in Coventry, England, when she passed away, and the bids to rid the Irish saying from her gravestone. “She couldn't get that expression engraved on her gravestone because the Irish language was deemed too political, even though it just means in our hearts forever,” Deegan says, sharing his relief that Keane’s family won an appeal to have the epitaph on her gravestone.

Margaret Keane’s family invited the band to visit the grave site. While Deegan couldn’t be there, he says the rest of the band “shared a really beautiful moment” with the family. “I think when you make music in some way, you're trying to create a universal experience from something from a specific thing you've experienced yourself. To relate to others in some way helps them process it, whether just to have an outlet or catharsis. It's rare to be so directly specific; it is actually such a rare and amazing thing. And I'm happy that that's happened because what is music for?”

On Nabokov, Fontaines D.C. sound like a classic Brit-pop band (they’re a 90s alt/grunge band on Jackie Down The Line, too) – “That's interesting that you say that,” Deegan pipes in, “I think that probably got passed on Grian’s lyric and the vocal melody.” But Curley is the one who wrote Nabokov, who was aiming for the halfway point between Exterminator by Primal Scream and the album, My Bloody Underground by Brian Jonestown Massacre.

A lot is going on during that song, so much so that it caused the power to go out when the band performed it at the Irish American Heritage Centre in Chicago as part of NPR’s Tiny Desk (at home) concerts. “Oh my god, that was so random,” Deegan laughs. “We found this really nice setting to have a performance… like, okay, we're in Chicago, and there are all these quotes from all these amazing Irish writers, and stuff on the walls, and all these books surround us… It seems like the perfect setting for us to play, right? I guess they just didn't ever fathom that they’d have a live rock and roll band playing live, interrupting the power grid.”

Fontaines D.C. are making their Australian tour and festival debut this February. Punters can catch the band at Laneway and sold-out headline shows - find more info on the band’s website.

*  The headline shows were initially booked following the release of Dogrel. Aussie fans have been waiting a long time for this one.