Inside The Making Of Fontaines D.C.’s New Album ‘A Hero’s Death’

Grian Chatten and Carlos O'Connell in conversation...

The past two years have been utterly electrifying for Dublin group Fontaines D.C.

An intense, stark, overwhelming live proposition, their debut album 'Dogrel' broke out far beyond the post-punk underground, winning colossal plaudits in the process.

It remains an emphatic listen: potent and poetic, it's immersed in the grit and soil of Dublin, while reaching ever-outwards.

Touring almost non-stop – Clash saw them move from should-be-shut-down sweatpits through to the cavernous Kentish Town Forum – Fontaines D.C. then surprised fans by going straight back into the studio.

New album 'A Hero's Death' follows hot on the heels of their debut, re-uniting the Irish band with South London producer Dan Carey.

Out on July 31st, it's led by that careering, anthemic title track, with that forceful promise: "Life ain't always empty…"

Clash arranged a Zoom call with Fontaines D.C. pair Grian Chatten and Carlos O'Connell to explore the making of the new album.

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You guys have a hell of a work ethic, the pace feels relentless. Is ‘A Hero’s Death’ truly a new chapter, or does it stem from the same energy that fuelled ‘Dogrel’?

Grian: I think the album’s written with kind of… due ignorance to ‘Dogrel’ y’know? In the sense that I thought was healthy.

I didn’t want to engage with the fact that there had been an album before in any sense – I didn’t want to consciously write anything that was ‘different’, or alternatively write anything that was similar in order to appease anyone. It’s quite easy to get tempted by those options, I think, when it comes to a second album.

The thing we wanted to do, and we realised after a bit of thought, is that we just wanted to express ourselves in the same way we did when we started the first album. It was conceived as a separate chapter but I think because it comes from the same place and the place has hopefully remained honest there is an inevitable sort of inevitable inherent continuation.

Were you guys able to write on the road? Or do you feel that part of the energy of this record is that everything is kept up inside, until it began exploding outwards?

Grian: I mean there was definitely a bit of that. I think it was necessary to start a lot of those ideas on the road, to not be held back by the limitations of being on tour. Purely in order for them to explode outwards whenever we did have the chance to sit in a room and just put our heads down. A lot of it definitely came directly from being on the road.

Carlos: I think as well that a lot of the record was written out of necessity, to balance out of how we were feeling, to give ourselves a sense of meaning. On the road, you’re on a very strict schedule – it was written when we were down or all over the place, mentally. I think we had to capture what we felt like.

It’s quite easy to feel nothing when you come home on a tour break, after a long tour, I feel totally numb for a while. You just don’t care about anything – I don’t want to leave my bedroom. There’s a lot more to sort of ‘fix’ by writing when you’re actually feeling that.

How do you find some kind of balance there between the amazing success that everything has had and the actual physical and mental pressures it must exert on you?

Grian: Mark Bowen from IDLES meditates. I reckon that’s probably the closest thing you can feel to refreshing yourself. I’ve tried exercise and going for walks and stuff but it has a sense of being contrived, being forced. I think reading is good for me, writing was probably the best thing we did over the whole period for our heads. Carlos, what do you reckon?

Carlos: Writing was definitely… sometimes it’s hard to bring yourself to do that because you can feel so disconnected from everything, from yourself. Whenever you do have those moments you always know that’s the best thing you can do, go somewhere quiet and sit down and write. Whenever you do that everything is fine and everything makes sense and you feel closer to yourself which allows you to be closer to the rest. A lot of the time I think we’re all wandering around so detached from ourselves that it’s very hard to feel any sort of intimacy with the rest of the boys and that’s only fixed when you give yourself that minute to sit down and think.

Do you feel like the album in a sense is a reaction to that, and to the impact that touring had? Or do you feel like what you did in the studio with Dan exists on its own terms?

Grian: I definitely think it’s a reaction, yeah. Personally I don’t like confining it to being about how hard touring was when that’s what we’ve wanted to do all of our lives. Writing has always been the way that I’ve kind of proved to myself my own existence.

When you’re kind of feeling up in the air all of the time you start to feel like your character has been bled out and you’re becoming everyone else. Then suddenly you realise there’s one joke in the room and it’s fine when everybody hears it and everybody laughs, or doesn’t laugh, whatever, that everybody’s on the same frequency all the time. You don’t really have too much opportunity for autonomy.

Writing is a great way to see yourself in existence, like see yourself on a piece of paper or hear yourself in a recording. That’s what it does to me. It’s proof that I was here. Or I am here. That’s where a lot of the impetus for writing the second album came from. So in that sense, yes.

You’ve described these songs as ‘imaginary universes’, what do you mean by that? Is it about getting outside of yourself to observe things as an adjunct to your own life?

Grian: I think lyrically our first album was very much a commentary. I think I explored myself through other voices, lyrically. I had an actual city to provide me with inspiration. And then the constant revolving doors of touring life renders everything meaningless because you’re faced with its transience. Everybody who shakes your hands, you’re going to forget them in five minutes. It doesn’t matter if you do because you probably won’t fucking see them again. It’s just this shutting down of engagement and reaction with the outside world. I found that in itself incredibly uninspiring. The second album was made from the world we had to build ourselves, a refuge.

How much of the album was fully written by the time you went into the studio?

Grian: I’d say about 90% of it was written by the time we went into the studio. There was a couple of things that happened in the studio, things we left unfinished, we weren’t sure we wanted to use them or not, it felt right to finish them there.

Carlos: We tried to approach it as close as possible to ‘Dogrel’ – we had it completely ready to put it down on tape. There’s definitely a lot more small things that happened in the moment in the studio that weren’t planned for. With ‘Dogrel’ we knew exactly what everything was going to sound like, what we were gonna play.

Grian: ‘Dogrel’ was an album where by the time we went into the studio we’d been touring it loads with small shows, before we put it out we had been playing it. We weren’t touring in any way like we were last year but we had been playing all of those songs a lot so we knew exactly how they worked. Whereas even though the songs are completely written for this album you don’t necessarily know exactly how they work when they’re performed. In that sense, there was a bit that happened in the studio but we mostly had everything ready.

It must be refreshing in some sense to remove yourself from that outward relationship with an audience every single night and just look at each other, and focus again on what that chemistry is.

Grian: For sure, in a sense that was part of why we needed to write that album. To go back to being the band that, in a way, no one knows about. I’ve learned that when you write music, and we write music as a band, that it kind of belongs to us for a period of time before release.

Inevitably when you put it out I don’t necessarily feel like it does belong to us any more, they’re their own thing. In a sense there’s heartbreak in that and there’s also a really nice feeling about it. So it was great going back to being five lads that own all of these songs and are excited about them – I really tried to cherish that. I listened to this new album so much before it’s release because I wanted to feel the music as our own before it’s out in the world, which I think I didn’t do enough with ‘Dogrel’.

Dan Carey is renowned for his ability to really get bands working in a natural and organic way. Did this end up being quite a quick process then?

Carlos: We knocked it out quick. The thing is, maybe people might not understand that some things sound quite synthetic every now and then but they’re all pedals that the lads have worked out really well – in ‘Lucid Dream’ for example that intro is a guitar pedal. It’s not like we had much to buff up in the studio, a lot of it was already done.

Dan did bring that expediation – he essentially set up the room as a practice space with microphones and was just like: “Play your whole album for me there.” We’d get stuck twice maybe, during the whole album, and figured out what it was and then move on. The whole album was probably tracked in a week.

Grian: Most of the songs tracked were just one take, or two takes. That’s something Dan is really particular about – he allows you to be in that mindset of completely avoiding and completely forgetting about the idea of perfection when you’re recording. I don’t think Dan believes in that – I’ve kind of stopped believing in that, working with him.

Carlos: That’s the thing that’s most important about the way Dan records. I think the moment you start recording with separate booths and you have your amps in one place and the drums in a different booth – you’re hearing in your headphones through the roughest mix possible, it’s impossible to know if the take was good or not until you listen back to it. Doing that in a studio is where a lot of time is lost. That’s how Dan achieves the quick recording session because you don’t listen back to anything.

Was the studio process quite pressurised?

Grian: I think we just like cats with a ball of string. We were so distracted by how fun it was to make music with our friends, including Dan. The pressure to get a good take, or a take that we were happy with, certainly was there. There was no ‘the label are paying for this’ or ‘the fans are expecting this’ There was nothing like that – it was just friends marvelling at the endless possibility of music. 

Carlos: If we all had time off and we were all in London and Dan had time off we would probably be doing that anyways. We would all end up in a studio and just play music and record it real quick to be able to listen back to it. The way he creates the environment, you just feel like you’re doing what you love for the sake of it. I think that, to me, that takes off any pressure. This is the album we’re going to put out, it feels so good.

It’s a record that is being released into a truly extraordinary moment in time.  

Grian: I do think the conception of the album as an introspective journey would suit the environment of people in lockdown. I agree with that. But then certain songs, it feels weird, like ‘Televised Minds’… I don’t know how well that song is going to work if you can’t dance! I always thought that song was going to be blasted in those small , cramped clubs in Dublin where we used to play. But then, that’s the nice thing – I would love for more people to have more time to sit down and internalise, if they wanted to, the slow, more experimental tracks on the album.

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'A Hero's Death' will be released on July 31st.

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