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Music

Fontaines D.C. Discuss New Album 'A Hero's Death' and Art in a Pandemic

Photo: Pooneh Ghana / Courtesy of Partisan Records

Fontaines D.C. guitarist Conor Curley speaks with PopMatters about their influences and the flatness around promoting their new album, A Hero's Death.

A Hero's Death
Fontaines D.C.

Partisan Records

31 July 2020

As someone who attends a lot of live shows, I have found the dearth of performances this summer, due to the pandemic, to be particularly devastating. One of the acts I'm missing is Fontaines D.C., a group of Irish lads who experienced a huge rise in stardom following their 2019 release Dogrel, a sharp, poetic rock record that Rough Trade deemed their number one Album of the Year in 2019. I watched the band perform in tiny venues last year and was expecting to catch them at festivals this year. It's such a treat to watch the group, singer Grian Chatten, drummer Tom Coll, bassist Conor Deegan III and guitarists Carlos O'Connell and Conor Curley, tear up a room.

But every band engaged in such heavy touring is likely to experience a bit of burnout. Fontaines are no exception. Their antidote to the touring grind and monotony of the road was to work on the follow up to Dogrel. When announcing their second full length, A Hero's Death, back in May the band released a video for the title track, featuring Aiden Gillen (Peaky Blinders, Game of Thrones) playing a late-night show host suffering from a crisis of identity and confidence. The video tapped into Fontaines' conflict as they also said that "the album serves as a conscious effort to subvert expectations, to challenge themselves and their listeners, and to sacrifice one identity in order to take on another -- one that is fully their own".

When I spoke with Fontaines guitarist Conor Curley about A Hero's Death at the end of June, the band had just announced 2021 tour dates in Europe and were poised to release a new video for "Televised Mind". The group wasn't in a room together for the video. Still, not long after, Fontaines participated in a benefit for Focus Ireland through Other Voices #Courage2020 series, which saw them playing in Kilmainham Gaol. Curley spoke with PopMatters about the flatness around promoting the new record, his influences, and his favorite song from the album.

You would have been at Glastonbury this weekend, as you were last year. What's it like actually having a break from touring? Are you guys individually or collectively enjoying this unfound break of time off from touring?

Yes, it's a complex thing. At the start of all this, we were all really relieved that we've got this time off that wouldn't have been there otherwise. It got us all a chance to write a lot, writing our stuff. We were all in different parts of the world -- I was in New York, but the lads were in rural Ireland, and Grian [Chatten] was in Dublin. We were excited to be able to have time. That was one thing that we didn't have for the past two years.

It did get a bit hard after a while because if something's in your life for so long, like touring and especially the nature of it, traveling around, it was easy to run away from certain things on the road. After a while, you're going to have to deal with who you are. If you don't have that touring musician part of yourself anymore, you're going to have to rediscover what the core essence of yourself is again. It's a healthy thing to have done.

All of us are just itching to get back out on the road and get to play a few songs.

Well, touring should be exciting. There is already a huge demand for your recently announced UK and Europe shows. Some of them are already sold out. How are you planning for any unforeseen consequences / pandemic-related concerns on the road?

We just have to go with what we have in front of us at the moment. I thought it was crazy at the start of this. Our management was telling us, "we're going to cut these two tours." Then the next week was like, "there's going to be no festivals in the summer." The tour in October and November is still going ahead. Then every week, it's just going to change.

All we can do set up shows that we hope are going to happen, and we hope that people will want to go. But if worst comes to worst and they get canceled, then it's the same as it is for everyone. People get their money back from the point of sale, and we go back to the drawing board and hope and pray that something will work out eventually.

We're still releasing music and doing stuff around that. It's crazy releasing a new album around such a flat environment of live streams and Zoom interviews and stuff like that, but it's just what the world is now.

In a few years, on the next album or whatever we're doing, traveling and doing press, we're going to be like, "wasn't it crazy, that time when we had to do everything on laptops?"

So how have you been enjoying your downtime? What have you been reading or enjoying during the pandemic, whether it's a book or a TV show or a film?

I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? at the start. That was different from the stuff I usually read, and it was crazy enjoyable and cool to read the book that inspired the whole world. I'm reading The Plague at the moment by Albert Camus, which every like fucking mid-20s, fucking think they're switched on, person's reading, makes me feel really fucking mad. It's really cliché. I should have read it before, but it's a good book.

Then I watched Twin Peaks, all of Twin Peaks, which I never watched before. It got me down a really big David Lynch wormhole, but that's what I've been interested in. That kind of stuff. I watched a really good movie as well -- Brick with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. It's a fucking amazing movie.

I've been listening to your new album and reading the lyrics for the new material -- how poetic it is. What's the collaborative process on lyrics? I know that in school, you guys collaborated on poems.

There's no real hard and fast rule to this, but it's all Grian doing the lyrics. He has a very clear idea for all the songs, and he was writing from his best stuff, so it just kind of came from him.

There's always a room there for us to collaborate for anything, even stuff that I had been working on or Carlos O'Connell has been working on. We're always at hand and always able to share the writing of lyrics the same way we are with music.

In other recent interviews with you guys, one influence on this album that came up was the Beach Boys. What have been some other influences? It's certainly a different sound from your previous album.

A big influence on me was the music of Rowland S. Howard. He's our guy. He was the original guitar player for the Birthday Party, and then he went off and had his own career with a few bands. He has this improvisational, cowboy, gothy-style of playing, really dark surf style of playing with single notes and dark chord progressions. Then there are influences that remain from the last album like the Cure and stuff like that. And some garagey influences in there as well on songs like "I Was Not Born". Those were kind of the newer ones.

While I was listening to "I Was Not Born" [I was not born / into this world / to do another man's bidding], the lyrics are defiant. I am perhaps reading more into it. Are there Black Lives Matter protests happening over there?

Yes, as much as anywhere, there is here. Especially those things that are being addressed -- this systematic racism due to a country like Ireland being predominantly white. For years and years, people in the black community having to live with little bits of racism in their lives that are just taken as normal, the vocalization now for those things to be taken out of our society. It's a really strong vision at that moment, and that it's one that we fully support and try to do anything we can to help.

Are you revisiting your lyrics in this time?

No, not really. We're too close to our music to revisit it to see other meanings. Our music is very singular to us. We can't think about it in a different way because it's just too firsthand for us to ponder on an idea, what meanings they'd have.

I really like people finding new meaning from a song that was written before all this. Finding a meaning that resonates with them in a different realm because that's the beauty of music. Generally, people have always done that. I did that -- songs from the past that make me feel things about stuff now. Such is the power of music.

Last year, you were writing these songs between festivals and gigs. I don't know what period of the year but in the summer of last year when you were heavily touring. Can you describe the writing process of this album?

The writing process was a self-imposed refuge from all the traveling and all the commitments that we had. No one was telling us that we needed to write this album in that amount of time, but it was understood between us that we would feel a lot better about the work that we were doing if we had another album to show. Just the idea of playing Dogrel -- we've probably been playing those songs for two years maybe, -- those songs are really old. Because the album was released last year, more people were listening because it had just come out. But those songs are very old to us.

So the shows are going to start getting stale to us unless we were able to start bringing in new songs to excite us. That's the thing about having new songs. If you start playing them live, you don't know what's going to happen. Those songs develop in their own way. They become the live versions of those songs. We play everything like it is on the album. But when there are different energies and different shows -- the excitement of doing those songs -- we knew then that we would be well-equipped to tour for another year having that with us. That was the mindset of us writing the album.

The cathartic element of writing to get out certain frustrations that we'd had of our feelings of being overworked was prominent at the time. Obviously, in hindsight now from last year being such an amazing year, we were overworked, but it was still one of the best years of my life. You just use what's going on in your life now.

When you're bringing the new songs into a live setting, do they adapt based on the feedback you may have received during the live performance? Is it collaborative with the audience in that regard?

Yes, that's how we started finishing songs. Whenever we started playing shows, we'd write a song on a Monday, and play it at the show Saturday or whatever. From that performance, from people's reactions, you can tell what kind of song it was and what kind of way we could end it.

Fast forward to now, it's a lot harder for us to do that because there's a lot more people listening, so we can't just do that all the time. Write a song and play it live because then it's just like ten videos on YouTube of this new song. Then there's pressure -- is that going to be released or stuff like that.

The new album, the only example that I can think of is "Televised Mind". We played at South by Southwest last year, and there are videos of us playing [that song]. It's a different song now -- because it's an energetic song, it benefited from us playing it live a few times to see how to pace it to make it a more uptempo, as we would say in Ireland, banger.

When you say banger, I was thinking of club bangers. I watched the Sold for Parts documentary about the band. You talked about your interest in different kinds of music before you became a guitarist in this band, I should say. Are you influenced by genres [other than rock] still?

Yes, definitely. Very influenced by drum 'n' bass. Any kind of electronic producer really that does... synthesis or modular things or the drum machines and stuff like that. It's a lot more of a learning process. It's good to put your mind to how that stuff is created, especially when you're just dealing with two guitars, bass, drums, and vocals -- which you can look at from one perspective for too long, and then it becomes a bit stale.

Even just the culture of other music scenes, be it electronic or hip-hop is always just really interesting in certain unsaid rules of live shows and just the way that people conduct themselves differently. It's very fascinating to me.

So would you consider bringing drum machines into future songs?

Yes, anything is possible. I wouldn't doubt it. If we could convince Tom [Coll], our drummer, to operate a drum machine, then it will happen. [Chuckles]

I read you recorded first in Los Angeles, then you scrapped it to record it again in London. What happened in LA?

In LA, there was just a loss of communication over what the songs that we had demoed were going to be. I don't think [it] suited us for the album that it is. There was just some loss in translation. Whenever it was apparent that this wasn't the album we selected to make, the immediate antidote was to work with the guy that had understood us so well before, Dan Carey.

He has an amazing way with us. I know he has an amazing way with every other artist that he works with. Maybe we might have taken for granted the fact that when there's a relationship like that where there's an understanding on where you want to bring things. He's very good at giving us a certain freedom to try things. You should cherish those relationships and build upon them. It just seemed right. When we finished it with Dan, we knew that this was the album that we wanted to release.

That's good to hear. So do you have a favorite song on the album?

My favorite song on the album is probably "Televised Mind". We've been rehearsing pretty recently, so we've been playing the songs indoors. Every time we play "Televised Mind", I'm just excited for it, for people to hear it. For that to be a song that exists in the world is incredibly exciting for me. I think it's like a perfect mix of genres that I love. Yeah, that's my favorite song on the album.

I really like "Oh Such a Spring", another slower one. It's a beautiful ballad.

Photo: Courtesy of Partisan Records

"Oh Such a Spring" is one of my favorites so far, but when I play through the record, every time I find something different I stick on. The record is different from Dogrel.

I will say, just to remark on that, that we, as a band, are very aware that we might not be giving people Dogrel number two. That there might be people expecting that. Although there could be some form of backlash from people, we fully endorse this album we've made, and we love all the songs that we created. Hopefully, people will respect us as artists that are developing -- being able to go down different lanes with songwriting and just being able to develop as humans as well.

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