A short and far from exhaustive list of Irish artists who left their country in search of greater opportunity abroad: James Joyce; Samuel Beckett; W.B. Yeats; Cólm Toibín; Oscar Wilde. In music, The Pogues did too, leaving Ireland for London as their fame took off.
In most of these examples, there was no choice, an overseas transition simply a necessity for developing careers, a means to an end. Fontaines D.C. embarked on the same journey recently, with all five members moving to London from Ireland in the span of about a year. Drummer Tom Coll considers their decision: “It’s a very well-trodden path, the Irish moving to London,” he says.
“It’s a big trope at first, travelling the same pathways people have been travelling for the last hundred years or so. Sometimes you come across conversations with people that are a bit ignorant of history which is difficult sometimes but for the most part it’s been alright.”
Sitting beside Tom is guitarist Carlos O’Connell, the pair an instinctual combination when Rolling Stone speaks to them over Zoom. Tom emotes enthusiastically, Carlos is more reserved, pausing pensively before relaying answers. We’re here to talk about Skinty Fia, Fontaines D.C.’s third album, a collection of songs marked by a keen awareness of the distance that is now placed between them and their homeland.
That’s why the album title is such an important touch, and it’s Tom the rest of the band has to thank for it. Skinty Fia is an Irish phrase that roughly translates to “The damnation of the deer”. “It’s one of the Irish colloquialisms from the northwest that I got from my dad,” Tom explains. “He was a native Irish speaker and it was always this phrase that was in the family. But it’s one of those old phrases that’s fallen out of use, you know? I told it to the lads and it sat well with all of us. It’s really a poetic expletive.”
Over the last few years, it wouldn’t have been surprising to read the words “poetic expletive” in a description of Fontaines D.C.’s sound: the British press has occasionally been prone to using crude terms such as “post-punk poets”, a clunky signifier of the band’s Irish roots. It’s something that Carlos has little time for. “I just don’t think that we have anything to do with them,” he says bluntly when the current British post-punk revival is mentioned, accompanied by a laugh from Tom. “It’s completely different music to them. All you have to do is listen to us and them.”
Moving to another country always comes with an intense grappling with identity. For some, the simple act of going to an enclave pub and having a drink with a fellow emigrant suffices; for Tom, it involved starting a record label called Skinty Recordings. “That was a little project I started between finishing the writing of the record and getting back to touring,” he says.
“I had the idea of starting my own label and putting out all this old Irish music. That really means a lot to me. After we’d finished writing Skinty Fia, I was looking at months with nothing to do during lockdown and having nothing to do doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve got to have a bit of a focus. So it was a cool project, it was fun.”
This goes for anyone who does what Fontaines D.C. have done: the call of home is always wrought with an innate sense of guilt for having left in the first place. For a band at the levels of success they’re at now though, this feeling perhaps only deepens. It’s particularly evidenced in the visceral “I Love You”, with its references to the Irish political parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
Or consider the haunting opener “In ár gCroithe go deo” (translates to “In our hearts forever”): the song came from a moving story in The Irish Post about a woman living in England who wanted to have the inscription on her gravestone but was warned by The Church of England that the Irish language was “provocative” (that they later discovered that the woman was going to be afforded the inscription after all is a curious little footnote).
Maybe that’s why there’s a restlessness felt throughout Skinty Fia. The songs are more languorous and impressionistic, guitar lines hazily drawn out to the max. There’s a striking search for self, both personally and sonically, within the album.
There might be a clear attentiveness to the past but on Skinty Fia, that doesn’t mean they’re weren’t looking forward. “I’d say it’s much poppier,” Carlos says about the album’s evolving style. “I think the whole thing is madly different. I think every song is just so different from each other. The approach to the music on Skinty Fia is different to the last album too. There was much more detail in the production this time.”
The band’s charismatic frontman Grian Chatten still handled a lot of the songwriting but a lot more leeway was afforded on Skinty Fia. “Grian brought in songs that were pretty much finished, like ‘How Cold Love Is’ and ‘Roman Holiday’, but I brought in ‘Big Shot’, which I’d done on my own,” Carlos explains. “But the rest of the songs kind of just happened in the room.”
“’Jackie Down the Line’ was you and Grian in the room,” he adds with a quick look to Tom. “I do think this album is the most collaborative over the course of the three. Even ‘Nabokov’, for example, is (Conor) Curley’s baby as well. There was so much more writing in the room, which was cool.”
One anchor, however, was the continued presence of the increasingly renowned British producer Dan Carey, head of the label Speedy Wunderground, who joined them for a third time. There was a clear reason for doing that. “Having done all three records with him now, he’s kind of a sixth member of the band now really,” Tom concedes with a laugh. “He just gets what we’re trying to do. He’s such an amazing producer, he’s great at soundscapes and stuff, but he’s also just an amazing person to be working alongside.”
The new album’s direction makes sense when you consider the band’s first three releases as a loose triptych: their acclaimed debut, Dogrel, dealt with the colourful places and characters of Dublin, a local band embedded in their locality; that was followed by A Hero’s Death, a classical sophomore touring record imbued with disillusionment and dislocation; Skinty Fia arrives now as a reckoning with Ireland, a band grappling with fame and the tormenting push-and-pull of home. There’s a sweet circularity to what they’ve done.
Would the band be a different proposition if they’d remained in Dublin perhaps? It’s something that Carlos refutes. “I’m not so sure. Fontaines is a refuge for all of us I think. We go in there [the band] to sort ourselves out.” He pauses before adding: “I suppose there would have been different things influencing us at different times if we’d stayed in Dublin. I think speaking musically though, I don’t think it’s influenced by place that much anymore.
Back in the day, I think it had more of an influence: you couldn’t share music as much so songs would be established in certain geographical places. But I don’t think that happens anymore because everyone listens to everything now. It’s a total privilege to now listen to music that comes from every corner of the world.”
If Carlos wanted proof for his argument, it dutifully arrived on their current tour. The songs on Skinty Fia might have a strong Irish leaning, but that hasn’t stopped international audiences from strongly connecting with them. “’I Love You’ has gone down insanely well,” he recalls. “And ‘Jackie Down the Line’ has always gone well whenever it kicks in.
“The longer ‘Skinty Fia’ [the title track] is out there, you can see people getting into it a bit more. We played it for the first time in Madrid the day before we put it out, and you could just see people being like, ‘what’s going on with this?’ By the end of the song though, everyone got it. It’s just one of those songs you need to give time.”
Geography comes up once more. Fontaines D.C. have been trying to make their Australia debut for several years now, their plans severely disrupted again and again by the pandemic. “It’s been like three years in the making,” Tom says, his expression at once a grin and a grimace. “Hopefully when it does happen, it’s good like. It still feels so long away.”
When they do finally arrive here in 2023, it sounds like they’ll be eager to explore the country’s music scene. For several minutes, the pair wax lyrical about their favourite Australian artists. “We were talking about it earlier actually, there’s always been amazing artists in Australian music, with Nick Cave and Rowland S. Howard,” Carlos insists.
After obvious mentions of Amyl and the Sniffers (“they’re class,” both say in unison) and Courtney Barnett (“she’s so cool,” is Tom’s assertion), Carlos then offers a more surprising name. “There was an artist a few years ago called SPIKE FUCK,” he says. “They were unbelievable. They released an EP called SMACKWAVE that was fucking amazing. It had lo-fi production, with lots of 808 drum sounds and spacey vocals and guitars. It was like a lo-fi version of “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazarus.
Dogrel came out in 2019; A Hero’s Death came out one year later. After the release of Skinty Fia this week, that’s three major releases in just four years for Fontaines D.C.. Surely they can’t keep this daunting productivity up for much longer? “I don’t know,” Tom laughs. “We’ll see how we go. We’ll see.”
Fontaines D.C.’s Skinty Fia is out now.