“Ireland could really benefit from a socialist government”
After starving to live music for two years, it’s joyous, hilarious and invigorating to stand in a room full of roaring Cockney accents: ‘Dublin in the rain is mine, a pregnant city with a Catholic spirit’.
Five hundred Fountains fans are packed into the Dome at Tufnell Park, a small venue in a converted Victorian community center, for an intimate fundraiser for War Child. It’s a considerably smaller night than their last London show at the 10,000-seat Alexandra Palace, and also something of a homecoming, as the quintet is now London.
Every time I’ve been back to Ireland recently I feel a lot of anger
Since A Hero’s Death was released in the summer of the first lockdown, Fontaines DC has raised the sticks in London. Singer Grian Chatten lives with his fiancée in Kentish Town, where Karl Marx and George Orwell once called home. “It’s cheaper for me to live in London than [for] any of my mates in Dublin,” Chatten said on Zoom from his London flat. “It’s not even a cheap neighborhood. It’s just much more accessible and affordable.
Large swathes of north London were informally known as the 33rd county of Ireland. It was the playground in the 1980s of the Pogues, who were a key influence on Fontaines DC. The displacement and spread of Irish identity informs their third album, Skinty Fia, elevating its title from an unusual Old Irish phrase for “the damnation of the deer”.
“There’s a metallic nature to Skinty Fia,” Chatten says. “It sounds both modern and archaic. To M [Coll, the drummer] suggested it as a track name. Skinty Fia was a phrase her great-aunt used as a substitute for a swear word. [The drummer has christened his traditional Irish label Skinty Records. ] I said, “F*** the track, what about the album?” The Damnation of the Stag expresses how we feel about our fading Irish identity and how we try to hold on to it.
During the pandemic, Chatten has found the English metropolis a more relaxed and tolerant environment than Ireland. “Every time I’ve been back to Ireland recently I feel a lot of anger,” he says. “A few weeks ago, we were filming an interview in Dublin. Two of the guys on the team were trying to get into a pub with us afterwards. A man at the door made a homophobic remark. Later that evening we were in a taxi and the taxi driver leaned out the window and yelled something racist at a boy on the street. Things like that happen all the time, but this was different. Yelling at people for not taking restrictions as seriously as another person and so on. It was a very polarizing time. I’m not necessarily saying London is better, but people definitely seem happier.
Skinty Fia opens with In ár gCroíthe go deo (In Our Hearts Forever), which was an epitaph that an Irish family in Coventry wanted to have inscribed on a headstone for their mother, Margaret Keane. In 2020, the Church of England initially refused permission for an Irish inscription without an English translation, despite numerous precedents such as “Duirt mé leat go raibh mé breoite” (I told you I was ill) on Spike Milligan’s gravestone in Sussex.
There is very little discussion of how the English still speak poorly to the Irish
“We first heard about it in the Irish Post,” explains bassist Conor Deegan. “We went into the studio and started recording the song. When we came back to finish it, the decision had been reversed, literally halfway through the recording. We sent the song to the Keane family and received an e e-mail from them a few days ago. They actually played it for their mother at her grave.
The group is completely humiliated. “The Keane family is the only person in the world I care about,” Chatten admits. “All the journalists and fans can come and see us as much as they want for this track and it wouldn’t matter. It’s really overwhelming. We’ve been busy with rehearsals and recording alternate versions. We just got this via text message, thrown into the whirlwind of this busy schedule, so it hasn’t really sunk in yet.
Not all Irish experiences in London were positive for the band. “I was called Paddy while I was here,” Chatten said. “I went to a comedy night with my fiancée two months ago. The first comedian started a joke about how people in Northern Ireland might identify with trans people. He said people in the North identify as British in the same way trans people identify as a different gender and started to impersonate someone from Northern Ireland. Everyone in the room was pissing themselves laughing. Then he said, ‘I know, I know, but can you just put down the Molotov cocktails please?’ Everyone laughed again. I got up and walked out.
He thinks there is more to it than post-Brexit toxicity. “There is very little discussion about how badly the English still talk to the Irish,” he claims. “As an Irishman living in England, I would love to go to a regular meeting where I learn how to deal with these things in a calm, non-aggressive way. It’s the laughter that hurts. The joke itself n It’s not as bad, but what really scares me and isolates me is being in this pool of laughter. I feel alone and unwanted.
The singer enjoys many aspects of London life. “I love going to exhibitions,” he enthuses. “We never know exactly when we are going to have a day off, so it will be at the very last minute. You can hop on a subway and go to a big gallery where you don’t need to book in advance I love how you can get any type of food and how many different communities and cultures thrive.
Born in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria and brought up in Skerries, Chatten is a keen observer of the nuanced cultural differences between our islands. “The conversation around the class is an entirely different thing here,” he says. “It’s something people learn from the start. Meeting a very chic person in London is like spotting a wild animal. I found myself in Chiswick of all people a few months ago. All these young guys walked past me looking like Boris Johnson. You realize that people talk like that in real life. It’s mental.”
The dominant duopoly of Irish politics gets a catchy mention on the album’s second single, I Love You, which lashed out at “the audacity of Fine Gael and the failure of Fianna Fáil”.
I don’t remember The Troubles…but I think what the current government is doing in Ireland is an atrocity in itself
“The difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is almost arbitrary,” says Deegan. “When I first went to vote, I remember reading their manifestos. One seems a little more economically conservative and the other a little more socially liberal, but essentially they are both extreme centrists. These are the two parties that adults have fought, killed and died for, but they are almost exactly the same thing. No wonder their names are nearly identical.
Chatten thinks an alternative to the current grand coalition of former Civil War enemies is long overdue. “I think Ireland could really benefit from a socialist government,” he says. “Some time ago there was a tweet from a guy working in property bragging that Ireland has the highest rents. It was a flex touting exorbitant wealth and a call for landlords and to vulture funds. Young people just don’t see their votes working effectively. Give them a reason to vote. Listen to them.”
Like many youngsters, Chatten sees Sinn Féin as a viable option. “I really like Mary Lou [McDonald],” he said. “I don’t remember the Troubles, and I know people who don’t want Sinn Féin in government at all, but I think what the current government is doing in Ireland is an atrocity in itself, and we have to be realistic about it. .”
Politics aside, Chatten loves Lankum and thinks Irish culture enjoys a purple stain. “It’s a hopeful time for Irish music,” he says. “I know the London scene quite well because my fiancée works for Rough Trade Management. I find a lot of things that happen in Ireland very interesting whereas a lot of things in London are tainted with irony. There’s a culture here of being embarrassed to take yourself seriously.
In 2021, Fontaines DC became one of the few Irish artists to be nominated for a Grammy, following in the footsteps of Hozier, U2, Sinéad O’Connor and The Chieftains. “I was sitting in my goof in London completely bored out of my tree during lockdown waiting for something to happen,” Deegan recalled. “Our manager Trev just texted in our group WhatsApp chat: ‘Guys you’ve been nominated for a Grammy’. I called him to check he wasn’t peeing. It was a good buzz in the middle of absolutely nothing.
There was no opportunity to perform live at the ceremony or physically attend. “It was a total reflection of the times,” Deegan continues. “We booked a hotel room when there was still a limit to how many people could be in the room at once. We went there with our girlfriends and our manager, all dressed up and waiting for a Zoom link to The Grammys. We were told The Strokes had won, so we closed the link and sat there watching the same people we see every day.
Teenagers come in and say they started playing drums or guitar because they really love us
Chatten wasn’t particularly taken with all the hype and hype surrounding the shindig. “I have numbness to what relates to my inability to feel something so huge,” he says. “It doesn’t matter as much as Margaret Keane’s family playing our song at her grave.”
Earlier this month, Fontaines DC were crowned the best group in the world by NME. No matter the awards and accolades, they are always very touched by the feedback from young fans.
“Teenagers come in and say they started playing drums or guitar because they really like us,” Deegan says. “It reminds me of my early days in music and all the passion I had back then. Music is a powerful emotional outlet and a definition of identity. To have someone say something like that and understand that what it means to him is incredibly special.
Skinty Fia is out on Partisan Records on April 22.