Fontaines D.C. @ The Grammy Museum [9/13/22]
Written by Sonja Stott on September 25, 2022
It’s an exciting time to be Irish, and so getting the message that Fontaines D.C. were being interviewed and then performing at the Grammy Museum was a sweet embellishment, and a way to celebrate the Dublin-formed band who now sit with the few of their countrymen sharing the title for Best Rock Album nominee.
Since releasing their first album, considered a “perfect debut” in 2019, acclaim for the band has continued to follow an exponential curve. Having surfed the wave of post-punk revival before diving into more eclectic genres, Fontaines D.C. found their niche in “rock music, with a literary heart. . .bringing rich language to themes of working-class anger, austerity, gentrification, refusal of authority and the elusive prospect of escape”. Their newest release, Skinty Fia, is a thick-skinned and tenderhearted analysis of longing and alienation, bred while living in the octopus’ head that is England. Tackling the brutal resilience of Irish cultural identity (“I Love You”, “In ár gCroíthe go deo”), Skinty wields this lens to also explore expat love (“Roman Holiday”), paranoia-inducing voyeurism (“The Couple Across the Way”), and the fouler folds of human behavior (“Jackie Down the Line”, “Nabokov”). As a whole, the album is a refinement of Fontaines’ prior work, enhanced with baroque choruses, industrial influence, and one exasperatingly sweet accordion.
The Clive Davis Theater is seating only, carpeted flooring. The flat chill temperature, the lights along the aisles, and the intimacy of the space make me feel like I am in-flight on some luxury airline. The catch, of course, is that cameras are prohibited, so I meekly rise to the challenge of taking adequate photos on my phone older than the band’s first singles.
Grian Chatten (vocals), Carlos O’Connell (guitar), and Conor Deegan III (bass) man the panel, looking bored the way only rockstars and teenagers can. Their answers are thoughtful, though their posture reflects the exhaustion of tour life. They, each in their own way, look like frequenters of the Rose Bowl flea; All of them appear to be orbiting some vintage trend: Deegan in western wear down to his cowboy boots, O’Connell in a robin’s egg suit with silver buttons on the sleeves, and Chatten in 90s skatewear, loose jeans and a Rusty Wallace NASCAR shirt that looks like it sped through a thousand wash cycles. O’Connell and Deegan are both sporting darker roots under bleached mops.
Chatten fields most of the questions, describing his songwriting process in periods of transmit and periods of receive.
“Right now I’m in receive. I’m writing in my head between your questions and my answers,” he tells the interviewer. “I’m trapped, but it’s a nice cage.”
While the band is close–their friendship formed over their love of poetry while at the British and Irish Music Institute–their songwriting technique is rooted in independence. Without such independence, “it’s a case of too many cooks in the kitchen.” Instead, “the flesh, and skeleton of a song is built by one person, and the rest is toyed with by other band members”.
On fame, there is a collective paranoia of their characters and art becoming corrupted, dehumanized. O’Connell describes their scheme to see Patti Smith give a lecture at Trinity. To attend, the boys crashed the college’s induction day to get fake student IDs. O’Connell brought a Yeats collection as a gift for Smith, and with the power of fellow Irish singer Glen Hansard, their quest ended in pints with the rock legend. To see one of their idols, someone seen as a music god, as just a person, created a level of cognitive dissonance. A truth that was as relieving as it was disturbing. “We feel insecure about our fans not seeing us as human, and were keen to disprove that feeling.” Despite their newfound fame, Chatten wants to “keep punching up,” worrying that settling in will corrupt his work in the form of “some fifteen minute cocaine song.”
I too don’t like fan behavior that leaves artists feeling dehumanized. In my mind, the best fan is one who leaves the artist alone outside of attending concerts and listening to their music. They don’t owe me anything, and to think otherwise feels like entitlement. O’Connell’s commentary reminds me of the aggressive behavior of Mitski fans leading her to delete tweets politely requesting a refrain from taking videos at her concerts. Her fans were quick in melting her down the moment she no longer fit their image of divinity.
The interviewer opens up the conversation to the audience, picking a raised hand from our little pack. I prepared a question when the prospect was mentioned, and the adrenaline from the possibility of having to speak in front of so many strangers makes me deaf and stupid. The interviewer points. I turn around to make sure he’s not motioning to someone behind me before asking:
“From a technical perspective, what do you think non-musicians take for granted when listening to your records, especially in terms of finding your own sound?”
“That’s a deadly question, but in a good way.” Chatten describes that the part that gets taken for granted the most is the whittling down of songs. As a writer, the editing process is something he looks forward to, even though it can be grueling. “We’re constantly in motion, trying to turn 21 notes into only four.”
It gives me a painful new perspective on the dozen songs that didn’t make it onto Skinty Fia. Each was fully carved out, constantly refined, only to be sidelined. Chatten describes these songs as things he fell in love with and then had to abandon. I imagine them existing in some liminal ether, only to be released if the band is sweatpant clad and in need of fast cash (their words not mine).
“Does that answer your question?”
It does, partly.
“Yes, thank you” I croak. The follow up question comes to me in the middle of my “thank you”. The interview ends, and I leave to find a drinking fountain before the performance starts. I find myself right behind Chatten, making his way to the restroom. It’s my opportunity to ask, to at least thank him again for answering my question, but instead I silently follow him like a duckling until I reach the fountain.
Being so close to Chatten, having the opportunity to elaborate on my question and failing to do so makes me feel crazy. I want to be the anti-fan fan I see myself as, capable of breaking past the initial starstruck feeling to interact with just another human, or at least have the compassion to know he is tired and leave him alone. I stand by the entrance of the greenroom, strategizing for another chance to speak with the band before I ultimately get a grip and go back inside for the concert.
Now joined by Connor Curley (guitar) and Tom Coll (drums), the energy shifts into something restless. Chatten paces erratic circles around the mic, while Curley, Deegan, and O’Connell labor over their instruments. “A Lucid Dream” pulls us in, and serves as an echo surrounding the corrupting and dehumanizing powers of fame. With lines like, “Are you opposed/To being anyone else/Other than you/And they just want to come to your place/And see you sing,” the toll of personal identity being reduced and misappropriated is paid proper. The song serves as a palate cleanser, getting us acquainted before we start chewing on Skinty. Sweating adrenaline, the band picks up extra tempo in their live show, only slowing for an acoustic “Couple Across the Way.” Chatten’s Dublin accent is harsh and thick, and while the smallness of the enclosed curtained stage makes Fontaines look like figures in a shadow box, their sound overflows the theater, each song leaving a physical resonance and a mental one.
While “Boys in the Better Land,” a high tempo hit and an ode to Dublin City, feels like a perfect finale, I’m glad they end with “I Love You” instead, about a more conflicted relationship with the Emerald Isle. Chatten cradles the mic, his forearms up in defense, covering his face. The promise of love is delivered with pleading reassurance. The affection is pulled away, the rose tint revealing the atrocities of Ireland that make it tempting to flee; The high suicide rate, political turmoil, and the long-nailed fingers of the Catholic Church. Chatten steps away from his curled stance with the accusation: ”this island’s run by sharks with children’s bones stuck in their jaws,” which is in reference to the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, where hundreds of children of unmarried mothers were taken, neglected, malnourished, and buried in unmarked graves.The “first overtly political song we’ve written” hangs heavy, the lights glow the same slick red featured on the album cover, before returning to plain fluorescence.
We file out of the theater. The sound of the set rocks through our ears enough so that the soft hum of Phoebe Bridger’s “Kyoto” in the background sounds underwater. I’m reminded of an interview I read of hers, where she mentioned coming close to meeting Patti Smith too but ran away in fear of being another “person telling her how inspiring she is”, of being a Punisher ( Bridger’s definition of an overly eager fan, the type that lingers. Bridgers describes her Punisher phase: ”I hung out at the bottom of the stairs for James Blake at the Troubadour where there is no other exit. I was like, ‘He’s trapped, but he’ll be glad to talk to me.’”). This festers in my mind as I take a moment to “check directions” (to wait for the band, Yeats-less, to say something, to see them off stage, I don’t really know). I walk to my car still feeling the glow of adrenaline, but also the only piece of Irish heritage to survive three generations of American assimilation: guilt.