Irish Band Channels the Spirit of Punk, and James Joyce

Irish Band Channels the Spirit of Punk, and James Joyce

DUBLIN — In one week in July, the Irish rock band Fontaines D.C. went from the Glastonbury Festival to Copenhagen to Barcelona to St. Petersburg to Moscow. At the airport on the way back from that last stop, the frontman, Grian Chatten, wandered off to buy some headphones while the rest of the band got on the plane.

Chatten had to kill the better part of the next 24 hours, waiting for the next flight. He passed the time, he said, by “drinking bad Guinness until it tasted like good Guinness.” In the air, he kept going with plenty of free wine. Eventually, Chatten made it back to Dublin and to his parents’ house — or “gaff,” as he calls it — where he lives between touring.

Later that day, in an interview with his bandmates at a pub near the studio where they rehearse, Chatten had a rolled cigarette in his hand and a Flann O’Brien novel in his overcoat pocket. He recalled that he was still drunk when his dad came to collect him at Dublin Airport. But the old man wasn’t upset at the boozy state of his son, Chatten said: “He joined in when we got home!”

The vagaries of rock band road life may not pair naturally with filial domesticity, but that’s just where Fontaines D.C. is at right now.

A tour for the band’s debut album, “Dogrel,” released in April, has taken Fontaine’s D.C. all over Europe and the United States. The summer has been a blur of major festival dates, plus a punchy performance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and a nomination for the Mercury Prize, a major British music award.

Fontaine’s D.C. is an anarchic guitar rock band in a bleep-bloop present. And unexpectedly, it’s become one of the biggest Irish breakout acts in years.

The emphasis is on Irish. The band references Ireland’s famed literary tradition — from the works of giants like James Joyce and William Butler Yeats to lesser-known figures like the poet and novelist Patrick Kavanagh — as inspiration. They don’t seem afraid of how unhip that might sound in 2019.

The formula on “Dogrel” is simultaneously timeworn and specific: over guitars and drums, Chatten delivers oblique, compact poems about Dublin. “You know I love that violence that you get around here, that kind of ready-steady violence,” Chatten singsong shouts on the track “Liberty Belle”: It could be a hand sweep toward Ireland’s bloody history, or a nod toward a rough night out in the city.

The band’s five members, all in their early 20s, met as songwriting students at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute in Dublin, and initially bonded over their shared love of those lions of Irish words. The band grew, naturally, out of their friendship and shared interests.

For a few years starting from 2016, they ambled about playing local gigs and shuffling through sartorial phases, they said: In one, no matter the weather, they wore Echo and the Bunnymen-inspired long coats; in another, it was all women’s crop tops.

They spent as much time rehearsing as they did writing verse, the bassist Conor Deegan recalled. They’d go to pubs and pass a shared notebook around the table; they self-published chapbooks and slipped them into bookstores. They put on readings with other writers, including a soap salesman-poet they met in Sweny’s, the drugstore that features in Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

“We pounded each other down to our bare emotions,” Chatten said, remembering those times. “And that’s why we’re friends for life. And enemies for life.”

That kind of open intensity and proud sensitivity might explain why a traditional white-dude rock band has hit a nerve, when the world seems to need anything but more white-dude rock.

“I certainly don’t think that there’s any element of machismo” to Fontaine’s D.C., Chatten said.

“We’d just sit and read books and drink pints and think fancifully,” Deegan added.

Mesmerizing early seven-inch singles like “Chequeless Reckless” and “Hurricane Laughter” caught the attention of the American indie label Partisan Records, which signed Fontaine’s D.C. in November 2018. Then “Dogrel” was released, and the band’s lives were upended. They were living on rice and Tabasco not that long ago, Deegan said; nowadays, he added, the label worked them to the bone with festival dates.

The band’s last chance for a vacation, a few precious days in Mexico City, was stolen by the offer to play “The Tonight Show” in New York. Their next chance for a break, Conor Curley, a guitarist, mumbled, could be taken away “by a [expletive] gig on the moon or something.”

But the hard work was worth it, Chatten said: Fontaines D.C. wants to give the world a view of Ireland that neither accepts antiquated clichés nor rejects the past.

Even so, the band’s love of Joyce and Yeats is unusual; young punk-adjacent bands aren’t supposed to love dusty books you get assigned in high school. A fellow Dubliner, Sally Rooney — perhaps the most famous young novelist in the world right now — has taken shots at her literary forebears. “I hate Yeats!’ she told the Irish Independent newspaper in 2017. “How has he become this sort of emblem of literary Irishness when he was this horrible man?”

But Chatten said Ireland was “sitting on a gold mine of history.”

“For us to pretend it doesn’t exist is for us to become a whitewashed, faceless country, which means we are essentially robots with particular accents,” he added.

His deep interest in Ireland’s history and culture went back to coming from somewhere else, the singer said. He was born in Barrow-in-Furness, England, though he was raised in Ireland from the age of 9 weeks. “I was insecure about my Irishness,” Chatten said. “I wanted to achieve an understanding and a verification.”

Another band Chatten likes that fixates on Irish things is Girl Band, he said, a Dublin trio whose song “Um Bongo” revolves around a mundane local street snack. “For Girl Band to scream the words ‘chicken fillet roll’ over and over again — it’s so poignant,” he said. “Not all romance has to belong to the past. And if we can accept that as a society, I think we might be happier. Or at least more romanticEventually, the band had to leave the pub. They were meeting with their record label, the drummer Tom Coll said: There was “anxiety-inducing” 2020 business planning to attend to. Before they got up, Chatten took a last gulp of his Guinness, then reached through a forest of empty pint glasses for a takeout menu from a Moscow cafe that was lying on the table. He’d scribbled down some scraps of verse on it during the tour. “I don’t know if you want that,” he said, handing it over.

On the back were scrawled fragments about a “salvaged life to live again” and “heaven through the fog,” “Irish mind” and “Irish eye.” It was a romantic thing to do, to hand over a note covered with half-baked poetry — and perfectly on brand for a band so unafraid of seeming naïve.

“Later Sam,” Chatten said to the bartender as he strolled out.

“Yeah,” the bartender answered. “See you on the TV shows.”

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