The five members of Fontaines D.C. met as students at Dublin’s British and Irish Modern Music Institute. After bonding over their love of Beat poetry and Irish luminaries James Joyce and Patrick Kavanagh, the fivesome started a weekly pints and poetry club, poring over their favourite verses and flexing their own poetic muscles.
Soon, however, they were yearning for a louder form of expression, and in 2014, Fontaines D.C. was born. Led by Grian Chatten’s distinctive lead vocals, the quintet set about applying their poet fascination to a raw, back to basics rock’n’roll template. Over the next couple of years, they played the small pubs and clubs of Dublin to death before expanding their orbit to include Galway in the west and Cork in the south.
Fontaines D.C. made their first journey across the Irish Sea to London in May 2017 in order to promote the self-released single, ‘Liberty Belle’. The Dublin band became frequent London tourists over the next couple of years, performing in the majority of the UK capital’s well-regarded small, independent venues.
By late 2018, Fontaines D.C. had been endorsed by the influential BBC Radio 6 Music and signed with indie label, Partisan Records. It was around this time they played a sold out show at North London bar and venue, The Lexington. The band has gone on to release two critically-adored LPs and be nominated for Grammy and Brit Awards, but the Lexington show remains a sentimental favourite.
It’s for this reason the band elected to return to The Lexington for episode #2 of the Jim Beam Welcome Sessions, performing the track, ‘I Was Not Born’, from their second album, A Hero’s Death. In light of this, we thought it was the perfect time to underline the confluence of factors that make Fontaines D.C. one of the most exciting guitar bands in contemporary music.
Watch Fontaines D.C.’s performance for Jim Beam Welcome Sessions
Grian Chatten’s voice
There’s a lot to like about Fontaines D.C., but Grian Chatten’s voice is key to the standalone distinction of both A Hero’s Death and the band’s debut album, 2019’s Dogrel. In a manner akin to Courtney Barnett or Alex Turner, Chatten doesn’t dilute his North Dublin accent one bit.
There’s often an element of protest apparent in Fontaines D.C. songs—the line “I was not born, to do another man’s bidding,” is a prime example—but Chatten’s voice never dons the cloak of irony. To the contrary, his vocals convey the impression that every line and utterance is genuinely felt, as though he’s right there, experiencing it firsthand.
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Chatten’s judicious enough to not describe his song lyrics as poetry, but there’s no denying the poetic flair on display across Fontaines’ two LPs. In the lead up to Dogrel’s April 2019 release, the band dropped two singles that garnered international acclaim: ‘Too Real’ and ‘Big’. “I’m about to make a lot of money,” Chatten declares on ‘Too Real’, while ‘Big’ reads like a play-by-play commentary of the band’s ascent: “My childhood was small,” sings Chatten, “But I’m gonna be big.”
Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find Chatten’s worldview to be more curious and expressive than these early statements of intent might suggest. “The winter evening settles down,” goes the speak-sung second verse of ‘Too Real’. “The bruised and beat up sky; six o’clock / The city in its final dress.”
‘A Hero’s Death’ is perhaps the most quotable of the band’s tracks, and it ends with this knockout maxim: “If we give ourselves to every breath / Then we’re all in the running for a hero’s death.” Even ‘I Was Not Born’, one of the slimmer entries in the band’s lyric book, isn’t without its poetic flourishes: “All you antiquated strangers, all throwing in the towel,” sings Chatten, pity in his throat. “To do another man’s bidding.”
Rapid stylistic progression
Although routinely described as a post-punk act, Fontaines D.C. came to prominence via four independently released singles—‘Liberty Belle’, ‘Hurricane Laughter’, ‘Chequeless Reckless’ and ‘Boys in the Better Land’—that run the gamut from Ramonesy rock’n’roll revivalism to bloody-knuckled punk primitivism.
By the time they’d signed with Partisan Records and started working on Dogrel, Fontaines had moved on to the noisy post-punk of ‘Too Real’, the garage rock bluster of ‘Big’ and the melancholic grace of the mid-tempo ‘Roy’s Tune’.
A Hero’s Death was recorded fewer than 12 months after the release of Dogrel, but it’s no mere replica. The detailed guitar textures of late-‘80s The Cure suffuse opener ‘I Don’t Belong’, while track two, ‘Love is the Main Thing’, echoes the anxious murk of Closer-era Joy Division. ‘I Was Not Born’ is pure, glorious Velvet Underground worship, while the title track sounds like a krautrock/doo-wop mash-up as played by The Heartbreakers.
They’ll make you want to join a band
Effusive; that’s the word that comes to mind when listening to Fontaines D.C. Much of the band’s energy emanates from drummer Tom Coll, who has knack for conceiving intelligent and somewhat aberrant rhythm patterns without ever attempting to steal the spotlight—a skill reminiscent of The National’s Bryan Devendorf.
Guitarists Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell sound equally engaged whether playing an angular, Rowland S Howard-style lead riff or thrumming the shit out of a D-chord. Bass player Conor Deegan is a master of staying out of the way—in fact, it’s his economical bass playing that prevents their sound from ever descending into chaos.
As for Chatten? Just observe the look of pride on his face as he gazes back towards the stage from the dancefloor in the Welcome Sessions performance. Oh, to be in such an invigorated and egoless band.
They’re a cut above their peers
Fontaines D.C.’s emergence coincided with a wellspring of guitar music coming out of the British Isles. Before releasing Dogrel, Fontaines landed support tours with South London post-punks Shame and Bristol woke-louts IDLES. The band’s producer, Dan Carey, has made records with the likes of Goat Girl, Squid, Warmduscher and Black Midi in recent years.
Chatten and co. have also spoken of the formative influence of Dublin outfit, Girl Band, whose wit-soaked and conspicuously experimental approach made the young Fontaines lads feel like music from their home city could be anything but safe.
But there’s something uniquely rich about Fontaines’ music. It’s not that they’re technically better or more stylistically unique than their affiliates, but Fontaines’ discography is already a thrilling document of a band constantly in flux and yet always sounding like they’re exactly where they ought to be.
What creates this impression? Fontaines D.C. aren’t pretending to be the finished product—the sly experimentalism of A Hero’s Death is evidence of the band’s industriousness. Then there’s Chatten’s lyrics, which you can imagine will be the focus of many academic papers and devotional tattoos in years to come. In short, Fontaines D.C. feels like history in the making.