Fontaines D.C.
Image: Ellius Grace

“We’re Not Brits, We’re Irish”: Fontaines D.C. On Identity, Introspection & Why Guitar Music Does Not Need Saving

It’s been just over a year since Ireland’s Fontaines D.C. unleashed their debut record Dogrel on an unsuspecting world. Since then, Dogrel has catapulted Fontaines D.C. into the position of the next big thing in guitar music. A top 10 UK record, sold out worldwide shows and critical acclaim will do that to a band.

On the one hand, it is an undoubtedly great thing, the stuff most musicians’ dreams are made of, brought to life in all of their imperfect glory. On the other hand, though, such success brings with it an unfamiliar pressure. The question of ‘what’s next?’. After having their entire lives to write their first record, a band suddenly has to create the next one on a timeline, while meeting all the demands their newfound status brings with it. That pressure has been the breaking point for the many young bands. If A Hero’s Death, the band’s second album is anything to judge it by, it won’t be the breaking point for Fontaines D.C, but the making of it nearly was.

In the lead up to the release of A Hero’s Death, guitarist Carlos O’Connell jumped on the phone to talk us through the rise of Fontaines D.C., how success led to tensions within the band, the pressure that comes with being ‘the next big thing’ and how, despite it all, they brought A Hero’s Death to life.

MF: Carlos thanks for talking to Music Feeds, how’s existence treating you today?

Carlos O’Connell: It’s quite nice today to be honest with you, because I’m out at a pub, catching up with a lot of old friends who moved away from Dublin [and] have come back home due to the COVID-19 situation. A lot of my friends, pretty much everyone is back. So the last few weeks have been nice in that sense. It feels like we’ve gone back in time to 2016 before the band kicked off. I’m only [home] for a couple more days, I’m going back to Madrid on Saturday, so I’m trying to take it all in as it is right now, because I know it probably won’t be like this ever again.

MF: That sounds like a nice relaxed mode to be in before you release a new record and everything gets crazy again. How are you feeling about the release of ‘A Hero’s Death’ happening during the ongoing chaos of 2020?

CO: I’m feeling really good about the record. I’m starting to realise now that we’ve stepped back from touring, and we aren’t playing the songs, every night, that this new record is really different from the first one. I’m excited to see how these songs live in the world and what they do.

It is a strange time to put a record out, we’ve put a lot of work and effort into making it, and we’re doing a lot now coming up to release, but once that finishes, there’s not that next step of getting out and touring. So that feels a little odd. Having said that, [it] is a new time, an exciting time for us. I was talking to Curly about this yesterday, and we agreed that at least it isn’t doing the same thing over again. We’re trying to enjoy it for what it is now while hoping and knowing that it’ll never be like this again for any of other records.

MF: It is a strange time to be alive, let alone be making and releasing records, but it sounds like you’ve all got the right attitude and are trying to find a way to make it a positive experience. Another thing that will be interesting for you is seeing how the record is perceived, without the live gigs happening, are you looking forward to that?

CO: That’s true. I guess we’ll probably see that reaction online, which is a bit different for me, because I’m not usually all that engaged with what’s happening online, but this time around I’ll have to be. I’m a bit of a desperate romantic, in a sense, I’ve spent my entire life, hating online interaction and trying to do as much as I can, in the real world. I have found myself during this whole time using the internet as a good way to connect with those that matter, so I can’t negate that or ignore that that is the reality of the world right now. So I don’t have to continue to pretend to hate it and avoid it, due to a perceived lack of humanity, I now know that there’s a lot of humanity present that I’ve been negating for most of my life.

MF: Well it is nice to know that COVID-19 has had a positive impact on your relationship with the internet! It has also had a positive relationship with me and your music, as it allowed me to listen to your new record ‘A Hero’s Death’, which is a very different offering to your debut ‘Dogrel’. ‘A Hero’s Death’ is much less tied to Dublin and a lot more philosophical in its lyrical and sonic approach. What was the impetus for that change in direction?

CO: Dublin was so heavily present as a theme on Dogrel because that is all that we knew. That was our surroundings for when we wrote that record. This time we didn’t have that. We didn’t have a place that felt like home to draw influence from. So we had to look inward, in search of inspiration. We were all feeling a sense of displacement and isolation within the band, so we all had to look inward and we discovered a lot of things about ourselves, and we used the music in a way that allowed us to know what we all felt. So in that sense, it is a much more introspective album than Dogrel. Both Dogrel and A Hero’s Death have one thing in common though and that is honesty. That is something we feel people will connect with.

That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to about the record coming out, is seeing how people relate to it, as for me, making the record was a way of dealing with this sense of isolation, and given that everyone in the world has been going through some form of isolation in the last few months, it’ll be interesting to see how people connect with it. Even though I personally felt more isolated while I was constantly on tour, than I do now, I know that’s not going to be the case for most people. So in that sense, it feels like the perfect time for the record to come out.

MF: That’s an interesting observation that you make there, that you felt more isolated in the chaos while your band was blowing up than you do now. You guys have been pretty honest about the fact that the speed of which your band took off, caused a fair bit of tension in the band. Was making this record how you go through that?

CO: Definitely. We didn’t really understand what was going on around us. Everything was different. We had no constants. No sense of normality of any kind. It all happened so suddenly. That had a negative impact on our connection as a band. So we had to pause and write a new record, get into that room, surrounded by each other in order to find home. For us, home is that feeling, in that room. We had to find out if that fire still existed, and I’m glad that we did that because we proved to ourselves that no matter what was happening in our lives, or in the world, we’ll always have music as a force of life.

MF: One thing that stood out to me on Dogrel was how poetic you are as a band. What is it about literature and poetry that you connect with?

CO: A Hero’s Death isn’t as heavily influenced by literature. The first one was though because literature gave us a world we could escape into, while also giving us a way to embrace the world that we were in. Between the two of those things, we could find a way to be happy. Literature and poetry showed us a different way to perceive Dublin.

MF: Have you felt any pressure to follow up ‘Dogrel’? People have called you ‘the next big thing in rock’ or ‘saviours of guitar music’, do statements and expectations like that weigh heavily on you? Secondly, does guitar music even need a saviour?

CO: There’s a funny thing that Johnny Marr said about us, in an interview recently, when he was asked that exact question. His response was more or less that he’d been being asked that same question since the ’80s. It’s this constant misnomer that guitar music needs saving. Music is just music. The relevance of music in culture depends on whether people relate to it or not. So to define that by instrumentation, doesn’t make much sense. People will respond to music, based on whether you make them feel anything or not.

As for the pressure, we were hyper-aware of it. We didn’t want it to influence or impact the record in any way. We wanted to approach this in the same way we did the first album. Act as if we had never written that record. I think we achieved that.

I’d be lying if I said that isn’t something that caused us anxiety. That success and recognition and that position on a pedestal is a very fragile thing. When you have it, you know that it can be taken away, at any time, and that is a pretty scary thing. That the one thing that you fought for your entire life, could be taken away so easily. It took me a while to understand that we are who we are and what we are, not the reaction that what we do creates.

MF: Speaking of reactions to success. You’re definitely one of the biggest bands to emerge from Ireland in quite some time, but I keep seeing you identified as being the “UK’S next big thing”, as a proud Irishman, does that get annoying?

CO: It does get pretty annoying, especially when it shows itself blatantly in a tweet or in an article when someone just directly claims us as a UK band. It can get pretty irritating. We’re not Brits, we’re Irish. To an extent, though, that’s just what happens, being Irish the Brits see something they like and they’ll claim it. It doesn’t ever seem to go the other way though, so it is pretty annoying.

MF: Especially when if this record doesn’t do as well or one of you slips up or something, you’ll immediately go back to being ‘that Irish band’ right?

CO: Exactly! Not that it is all bad though, I mean the UK is one of, if not our biggest market, and we have to be thankful for that, because, in the Irish industry, no one seems to pay attention to you, ’till you’ve made some form of impact internationally. So it does kind of go both ways, if you want to make an impact within the country, you kind have to go away.

MF: Moving on from playful political debates, what’s the one thing has been the most memorable experience for you, personally, in the last 12 months?

CO: Brixton Academy was an amazing career highlight. That was the biggest ever headline show we’d played. It was a new feeling playing that room. So that was a big moment.

Then just yesterday we played a live stream from Kilmainham Gaol, that was pretty cool. It’s a place where a lot of political prisoners were held in the 1900s and a place where a lot of prisoners were executed. So to play in those surroundings and feel the history of the environment, feel the legacy of people and moments that are so important to our history as an independent country, that was a special experience. It had even more impact I think also because we haven’t been playing together, so being able to put on a performance, together, in such an iconic place, after all we’ve been through, felt really special.

MF: That’s perfect as an answer too, because it brings the two concepts of achieving fame abroad and your cultural connection to home, together perfectly. The duality of Fontaines D.C. in two memories. It is also a perfect place to end an interview bu before I let you go though answer me this: if you were stuck in a van, cruising around Europe and you only had a cassette deck and three cassettes, what albums are Fontaines D.C. listening to on their euro adventure?

CO: The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground, The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy and the Lash, Beach Boys – Pet Sounds.

MF: What a collection of records. I’d happily hitch a ride in that van!

CO: I’m going to go listen to them all in a row now. I’ve made myself excited.

MF: Thanks for talking to Music Feeds, hopefully, we’ll get to see you in December!

CO: Thank you for the chat, I really hope we get to play those dates because I really want to get down there and play to those crowds we hear so much about.

‘A Hero’s Death’ is out this Friday, July 31st. Global pandemic allowing, Fontaines D.C. are scheduled to play a handful of Australian headline shows this December. Dates and details below.

Fontaines D.C.Australian Headline Tour

Tuesday, 8th December – SOLD OUT

Metro Theatre, Sydney

Tickets: Handsome Tours

Thursday, 10th December

The Triffid, Brisbane

Tickets: Handsome Tours

Friday, 11th December – SOLD OUT

Croxton Bandroom, Melbourne

Tickets: Handsome Tours

Sunday, 13th December – SOLD OUT

Corner Hotel, Melbourne

Tickets: Handsome Tours

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