Fontaines D.C. frontman Grian Chatten thinks that everything, good and bad, that has happened to his band over the past few years can be traced back to a piece of advice he once received from a friend. The singer was on a train to Dublin city center, headed to his first-ever job interview, and bumped into a mate who asked if he was still making music. Then came the pivotal moment of counsel. “I reckon you could do something,” he told Chatten, “but you just have to go a bit fucking mad for a while.”
Chatten took that to heart. It was a message he used to inject the Irish quintet’s early days with what he describes as an obnoxious arrogance, a feeling they channelled into their seething post-punk of their stellar 2019 debut, “Dogrel.” They weren’t done with going a bit mad yet, though — far from it. Next came throwing themselves full-throttle into an accompanying world tour, with all the heavy drinking and reckless living you’d expect from a band with a deep appreciation of the Irish poet greats. Then the inevitable burnout arrived, an emotional and physical breakdown out of which their second album, “A Hero’s Death,” emerged.
Released last summer on Partisan Records, it’s up for best rock album at the Grammy Awards on Sunday (March 14). Blending the rabid thrills of their debut with a restrained, downbeat minimalism, it ever-so-slightly resembles early R.E.M. with a hardened, Dublin edge and Guinness on its breath. Chatten’s poignant lyricism perfectly capture the clash of enlightenment and confusion of life in your mid-twenties. His words often sound like the pearls of wisdom you might say at the perfect point of drunkenness, just before you can’t say anything at all. It’s an astounding record, but Chatten doesn’t look back at its creation with anything but horror.
“I mean, it was truly horrendous at a point, it wasn’t fun,” sighs the amicable 25-year-old in his thick Dublin accent, speaking over Zoom from his home in North London. “I don’t think I’ll be looking back at Polaroids of that time and thinking, ‘Ah, you know, it was actually quite a craic!’ A lot of it was categorically not good. When we made the record, we were all absolutely fucking exhausted. It’s caused all of us physical and mental damage in some way or another.”
In Chatten’s instance, that has manifested in a case of insomnia. He has trouble sleeping now because, for months on the road, the band just didn’t. They drank, played shows, got stuck into the after-hours activities, snatched an hour of shut-eye here or there, repeat. Readjusting to life in lockdown was one long decompression process.
Even when Fontaines D.C. (the D.C. stands for Dublin City – they were originally called The Fontaines until they discovered a U.S. band had already nabbed the moniker) were playing to five people in Dublin, they acted like they were the biggest band on the planet, says guitarist Carlos O’Connell. Everything began to go a bit topsy-turvy when the success they had always imagined actually started to happen in real life. “When we wrote the first album, there was nothing else going on, so we could entertain every single idea,” says O’Connell, on a separate Zoom call from his London home. “On the second one, we were kind of like, ‘There is no space for any bad ideas on this record’.”
They may have put themselves through the wringer, but it worked. Upon release, “A Hero’s Death” reached No. 2 both in the UK and on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart. A fiercely independent rock band on a breakthrough independent label (Partisan’s roster also includes IDLES and Laura Marling) had become a mainstream success. But, still, no-one was prepared for a Grammy nomination. Despite having one, the members of Fontaines D.C. still aren’t sure how they nabbed the nod.
“We had no idea that we were in the running for a nomination,” recalls Chatten. “I was in my flat and our manager had come over to visit. He was sat on this couch across from me and he just goes, ‘What the fuck?!’ — which is usually a bad sign with him. He came over to me but didn’t turn the phone round or tell me what it was. He loves suspense, it took 10 minutes to get it out of him, and he goes, ‘You’ve just been nominated for a fuckin’ Grammy!’ There was no playing it cool whatsoever. He’s 42 years old, you’d swear he was 16.”
“It was the biggest kind of shock of good news that I’d ever experienced,” beams O’Connell, who had to receive the message by text because he’d avoided all his manager’s calls, thinking he was going to be forced to do an interview on his day off. “I think it’s an amazing achievement, for the music to travel that far, to the ears of the people who decide on Dua Lipa and Harry Styles and Billie Eilish that, ‘Oh, that band from Ireland should be on there too.’”
“A Hero’s Death” making an impact in the U.S. brings everything full circle. The album’s expansive sound — these are songs that are allowed to breathe and relish in their imperfections — was influenced by the wide open spaces and sprawling landscapes they trawled through while on an American tour. To wit: Chatten’s Beach Boys obsession resulted in the “bap-bap-bap” backing vocals of the title track. “It was America where we really got that sense of not being anywhere after a certain amount of time,” he says. “America influenced ‘A Hero’s Death’ as much as Dublin influenced Dogrel.”
The band have used lockdown to clear their heads and go again. They’ve already made headway on a third album but first they can enjoy a victory lap for the record that took everything out of them. “I won an egg and spoon race when I was in school, but I’ve not won anything since,” cracks Chatten.