While the music scene lies dormant around him, Fontaines D.C.’s Carlos O’Connell has actually found a way to play some gigs.
When we speak via webcam, the Irish guitarist is on an extended holiday with two musician friends – James McGovern from The Murder Capital and Lewis Lazar of Oracle Sisters – on Hydra, the Greek island that Leonard Cohen made his home in the Sixties. The trio have settled into an informal routine of playing cover versions to patrons of a bar in the main town a few nights a week.
“It’s been such a nice thing, playing to maybe 50 people sitting on different tables in a little square,” he says. “I forgot that feeling. There’s something really special about it.”
It’s a huge change of pace from 2019, when O’Connell estimates the post-punk quintet played close to 200 gigs everywhere from Mexico City to Moscow. That year they released an explosive debut album, Dogrel, which united sandpaper guitars with poetic lyrics delivered by singer Grian Chatten in a Dublin accent thicker than Irish rainclouds. It was nominated for the Mercury Prize and followed quickly this summer by A Hero’s Death. The band’s second long-player slowed things down and deepened the murky atmospheres, and proved so popular in its first week that Taylor Swift’s team had to bring forward the CD release of her Folklore album to make sure she had enough sales to take the number one spot.
It’s the best rock album of the year, but without the constant touring they did the first time around, it’s not so easy to hold public attention. They’re promoting the standout track, A Lucid Dream, as a new single, and have been filming “isolation versions” of most songs from their scattered abodes in London (Chatten), Dublin (drummer Tom Coll), Paris (bassist Conor Deegan) and New York (guitarist Conor Curley). They also filmed two full gigs without an audience in Dublin over the summer, at RTÉ Radio Centre and Kilmainham Gaol, which was the last time they were all in the same room.
“It’s hard to know how well this record is doing. It’s not as demanding in terms of our time and energy, and any kind of response is online, so it’s not easy to grasp,” says Chatten, who joins the conversation belatedly thanks to a Whatsapp update preventing him from accessing the Zoom link – the tedious convolutions of 2020 meetups. He’s an intense fellow, a rare smiler, who has welcomed the enforced break from life on the road.
“It was as if we lived a series of Fridays for two years and forgot the reason for a weekday,” he says. “We forgot what other treasures are available – the feeling of cooking your own meal, or even the satisfaction of cleaning up after yourself, not that I do it that much. It took me a long time to get back to loving that feeling of autonomy and solitude. I found myself hanging around petrol stations getting very excited, and I even went into Kings Cross station just to be near that sense of transit because it makes me feel at home. I’ve been so institutionalised towards living like that.”
The five bandmates met at music college in Dublin. None of them actually grew up in the city – O’Connell was born in Madrid, Chatten in Cumbria – which might explain the stark romanticism with which Chatten sings of the place. “I could lay you right down on these lively living streets/And still you’d not know how the city heart beats,” he declares on Television Screens. The title of A Hero’s Death comes from a Brendan Behan play and the cover features a statue commemorating the 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland, which largely took place in Dublin.
“It’s like with expats, the Irish diaspora, how thoroughly they covet that culture and wear it around them. Because I was born in England I always had this sense of non-Irishness, so I’d spend a lot of time and effort on trying to out-Irish and out-Dublin everyone else,” the singer explains. “It made me learn Dublin more thoroughly than a lot of people who in comparison maybe took it a bit for granted.”
Now that they’re “gravitating towards London” – he now lives in Islington with his fiancee and O’Connell and Curley are both moving there soon – the subject matter may change in future music. “I don’t see myself creatively benefiting from this city as much, but that’s cool because I’ve been encouraged to fall in love with books again.” He has favourite spots in Hampstead Heath and Richmond Park where he goes to read.
Not that the Taylor Swift connection extends beyond the fact that they shared a release week, but it sounds like he’s been struggling with the attention that comes from such a rapid upward trajectory: barely known at the start of 2019, booked to play the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace in 2021. In the early days of the band he worked in the restaurant of a five-star Dublin hotel, and it dented his self-belief.
“In the space of a year, I went from bosses clicking their fucking fingers at me instead of learning my name, to playing in front of thousands of people who knew all the words. I can feel really undeserving of other people’s attention. Why am I being interviewed? I’m no more insightful than the next person. It’s not always like that. Sometimes I am charged with confidence. But that finger click is still there.”
Somehow, the band managed to write A Hero’s Death while in the middle of that year of relentless touring. “Certain limitations are conducive to creativity,” says Chatten. “Having a time limit works for me. Having only two guitars to choose from, or not much leeway in terms of software, gives rise to interesting ideas and sounds because the imagination steps in and saves the day.”
“We really did make an effort to prioritise creative time,” adds O’Connell. “We don’t do this to stand in front of a massive cheering audience. We do it because we need to write. We need to get into a room and make music.”
So while others might enjoy the fame more, these guys are as happy playing in a Greek taverna as Brixton Academy. It’s this outlook that’s going to help them to last well beyond the current vogue for unpolished rock bands with sensitive lyrics.
“In 10 years’ time I would just like to have a good relationship with my creativity,” says Chatten. “I don’t want us to be any particular size, just as long as I have a relationship with the thing that has provided a sense of meaning since I was nine or 10 years old. That’s really it.”
A Hero’s Death is out now on Partisan. Fontaines D.C. play May 27, Alexandra Palace, N22. alexandrapalace.com