Fontaines DC's Grian Chatten: It's hard not to be led by the mass adulation

Dublin band Fontaines DC burst onto the scene with their boisterous debut album Dogrel last year. Frontman Grian Chatten talks fame, politics and pressure with Alex Greene

Fontaines DC – Grian Chatten, Conor Deegan III, Conor Curley, Carlos O’Connell and Tom Coll. Picture by Ellius Grace/PA

MANY bands have faced the dreaded difficult second album. After a successful debut, a perfect storm of timing, high expectations, fear of failure or a lack of ideas can send a band plummeting – or at least produce a lacklustre effort.

The Strokes, MGMT and Klaxons all arguably failed to live up to the perhaps unrepeatable standards set by their debuts.

When Fontaines DC started work on their follow-up to the Mercury Prize-nominated Dogrel, they were more than aware of this.

“Nobody we ever worked to put pressure on us,” explains frontman Grian Chatten down the phone from his home in Dublin. “But it’s difficult not to listen to the voices of thousands of people watching you every night. It’s hard not to be led by the mass adulation.”

Dogrel marked out the five-piece as a post-punk group continuing the jagged, contrarian legacy of bands like The Fall. It was, safe to say, a critical success, reaching number four in the Republic and number nine in the UK albums charts.

Still, Chatten says the band – himself, Conor Deegan III, Conor Curley, Carlos O’Connell and Tom Coll – felt shackled by its success.

“We fortified our creative process from the get go,” he asserts. “As soon as we had our first review the reality of the absurdity of feedback – how ridiculous that all seems – it scared us a bit. The point was, we protected ourselves.

“I think you know where I’m going with this. I’m basically saying we are writing for ourselves and nobody else.

“At the same time we weren’t trying to consciously be different. We were trying to originate a second album organically.”

Indeed, A Hero’s Death is a different beast both in terms of its sound (darker and more impressionistic) and mood (expansive and often cerebral).

“Part of the reason for our philosophy of ignoring your past endeavours is because it alleviates some of the fear of not being able to replicate all that,” he adds with a sharp laugh.

Chatten performs live with a furious intensity, spitting his lyrics across the stage with a look that is both dead-eyed and energised. Critics have compared him to a young Johnny Rotten and his words to those of Joyce and Yeats. In conversation, however, Chatten is calm and considered, speaking with lyrical ease.

He says he only writes his lyrics on scraps of paper, avoiding notebooks entirely, to maintain the “ephemeral nature of creativity”.

“If you hang on to every word you write and keep it there – that can be quite intimidating,” he says. “To have nothing but the sense all of your best work is in the future, that feels healthy to me.”

The shift in tone on A Hero’s Death was prompted by the band’s love of groups like The Beach Boys and Broadcast who create entire worlds with their music.

“Those poppy chords – it’s sentimental, it’s heartache but it’s obscured by your inability to see it,” he says wistfully. “It’s almost like looking at a fireplace through teary eyes.”

If Dogrel was a love letter to Dublin, A Hero’s Death addresses a space entirely of the band's own making, prompted by a period of relentless touring that almost broke them.

“I really felt like we had no place for the last two years,” Chatten recalls. “Our environment was constantly changing so there was a great sense of disconnection between ourselves and anything outside of us and the band.

“We wanted to create for ourselves a place we could write about. We didn’t have Dublin anymore. We didn’t have anywhere and I didn’t want to write about being in a van and being a successful musician.”

Chatten and the band are discovering that the price of success is fame – something that doesn’t sit well with them.

“I’m a little bit anxious about my place in Dublin,” he admits. “Dublin is obviously a relatively small city and I get recognised quite a lot now.

“I loved Dublin when I could live as a street rat. I loved it when I could drink cans on the street and do whatever I want. I could really feel like part of the furniture here. And obviously I can’t really do that as much now.

“I don’t really want to be ringing up celebrities and trying to hang out with them. It’s not my scene.”

While the band have done their best to avoid the trappings of fame, they allowed themselves one run-in with a celebrity – Aidan Gillen.

The Irish actor, best known as scheming Littlefinger in Game Of Thrones or ambitious Tommy Carcetti in The Wire, appears in the surreal music video for the album’s title track.

Their request came after Gillen asked for a ticket to one of their gigs.

“We were all fairly sceptical but he said ‘Yeah’ and he did it for a pint,” Chatten chuckles.

But because of lockdown, the pint never materialised. Instead the band sent him a bottle of whiskey to enjoy at home.

Fontaines DC are a political band, unafraid to speak on subjects like Brexit, Irish politics and the power of youth – but life on tour has led to a disconnect. Chatten says: “The problem with all that for me is that I have been on the road for two years.

“I’m back to Dublin now and I just feel that if someone was going to be asked about politics, there are probably maybe a million more qualified or educated people to ask at the moment.”

He adds: “I feel an awful lot of pressure when people ask me about Irish politics because I don’t want to misrepresent a country that I haven’t really set foot in for a while.”

Unsurprisingly, Chatten is already thinking about the next album. What comes next for a band hell bent on never looking back?

“I’m not sure what kind of subject matter is looming,” he muses. “But I can feel something coming and I am reconnecting with traditional Irish music a lot more than I have over the last year.

“We became obsessed with a few Irish ceilidh bands and Irish bands in general. We took them with us on the road and we let them fill us up with nostalgia all around the globe.”

:: A Hero’s Death is released today on Partisan Records.

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