Fontaines DC leader Grian Chatten on live return to Belfast and their recent Covid scare
David Roy speaks to Fontaines DC frontman Grian Chatten about the punky and poetic Dublin guitar band's imminent return from self-isolation with a show at Custom House Square in Belfast
"I'VE just had my third negative PCR test so I'm a free man now," explains Fontaines DC leader Grian Chatten of emerging from self-isolation in the wake of one of his fellow band members testing Covid-positive.
"It was only one person who got it, so they are still isolating," explains Chatten, who's on his way out to meet up with bassist Conor 'Deego' Deegan in London for a jam session when he takes our call.
"Deego's here because he's over from Paris where he lives at the moment. He has natural immunity because he had [Covid] recently enough, so me and him are just going to go in to our little writing room and have a little jam and just chill out for a couple of hours, just to get back behind some instruments."
The fast-rising Dublin quintet, which also includes Carlos O'Connell (guitar), Conor Curley (guitar) and Tom Coll (drums) are currently chomping at the bit to re-assert their reputation as one of Ireland's most reliably ferocious new live acts – not to mention actually being able to get out and promote their acclaimed second album A Hero's Death, which hit number two on the Irish and UK charts this time last year and saw them being nominated for multiple awards including Best Rock Album at the Grammys (they lost to The Strokes).
The Fontaines recently endured the agony of a false start last week when, having played their first show for 18 months at the Roadmender in Northampton, the group discovered an unnamed member had been struck down by coronavirus – forcing the cancellation of that night's show and a subsequent appearance at the Latitude Festival.
"It was heartbreaking, really", recalls Chatten, who hails from Skerries and formed Fontaines DC back in 2014 with friends from Dublin's British and Irish Modern Music Institute after bonding over a shared love of poetry and post-punk.
"We had one gig back and it was amazing. The crowd were absolutely f***ing mental, to be honest with you – they had more of a 'caged animal' vibe than we did, they were totally ready to go straight back into it, y'know what I mean? They were even giving the security some light trouble.
"We really enjoyed it, but afterwards I did just kind of have to sit down and go 'right, how did that feel?'. I was apprehensive really, just kind of on the cusp of dissecting it or analysing it a bit.
"So I was just getting started with that and then the scare came: we had the tests the next day. All of our crew were just starting to load into the next venue in Lincoln and myself and a couple of the lads were isolating in the bus until we got the results. The crew had just about got the rig inside when we had the news and they had to turn round and bring it back out again. It was crap."
Even now, the Fontaines frontman is still coming to terms with this tantalising brush with a return to normality – and the effects he felt of having been away from live work for so long during the pandemic.
"We came out with the song Hurricane Laughter, " he recalls of kicking off their fateful Northampton show with this mesmerisingly noisy early single, a highlight of their 2019 debut LP, Dogrel.
"We kind of just wanted to dust off the cobwebs immediately with a relatively old one that we actually used to open with, like a 'safe' big opener. But once we got into the set a bit I did become aware of my fitness a bit, to be honest.
"I've been relatively healthy over lockdown and that, but there's a very particular type of fitness that you build up when you're touring – your lungs have a certain elasticity to them.
"I dunno, I feel like I didn't economise my energy. I think I got a wee bit over excited at times and then paid for it on the next tune. But it was just nice even to have to deal with that after so long."
Punters here will be able to judge the Fontaines' level of match fitness in just a couple of weeks' time: the next date in their diary is an outdoor show at Belfast's Custom House Square which, with the cancellation of last year's date at Botanic Gardens, will mark the Dublin-based band's first return to the north since their triumphant Ulster Hall gig in December 2019.
As such, it will be local fans' first opportunity to experience the band's latest set of songs live – or rather, their most recently released set: album number three is already mixed and ready for release early next year, it seems.
Given that Belfast's Fontaines fanatics have now been living with A Hero's Death for an entire year, new tunes like Televised Mind, I Don't Belong, Living In America and the album's title track are likely to generate an intense reaction on a par with the 'old favourites' from Dogrel like Boys In The Better Land, Too Real and the aforementioned Hurricane Laughter.
"I sort of like that idea that, because of the lack of touring and performing in front of these people, they've got to generate their own relationship with the songs without my involvement," muses Chatten of the protracted gap between album release and touring.
"It was definitely strange releasing the album during the pandemic – though the main reason it was strange for me was that we wrote it in such a maelstrom of excessive touring [for Dogrel].
"It was a product of that and it was completely written in order to sort of achieve a sense of autonomy, d'ya know what I mean? When you're living such a rigorously itinerarised life where you're literally allocated 10 minutes a day of 'me time' it all becomes a bit much and I think we kind of wrote ourselves away from that. We wrote ourselves a refuge in a way – not to sound too airy-fairy about it, but it was real to me, that kind of feeling.
"Releasing it then in what felt like a vacuum was mental, because it nuanced the clamour of the touring with the silence of Covid. It was like a black pen on a white page. I still kind of find myself forgetting that we have an album released, to be honest with you."
As for Belfast, it seems the band remember the last Ulster Hall show well and are looking forward to coming back up the road to us again for what's set to be an incredible evening of outdoor music, now also featuring quality supporting turns from eclectic London indie punk outfit Goat Girl and Galway shoegaze revivalists New Dad.
"It's been ages and I honestly can't wait," enthuses Chatten.
"I remember the Ulster Hall show really well and it was amazing. I also remember that before we played, myself and Curley went down the road to this pub to meet a couple of mates.
"I forget the name of the place, but when we went in there was these lads up playing the guitar and singing. Eventually they noticed us and asked us to come up and sing a song, so me and Curley went up and did a Pogues cover and something else with them.
"It set a really nice precedent before the show because it kind of locked you back into that place of you being present and playing music because that's what you love to do, as opposed to just fulfilling these touring obligations, y'know? That made it an especially nice gig for me."
:: Fontaines DC, Goat Girl and New Dad, August 13, Custom House Square, Belfast. Tickets via Ticketmaster.ie