Fontaines D.C. On Sinead O’Connor, Cocteau Twins, Rear Window, And More Inspirations Behind Their New Album

Polocho

Fontaines D.C. On Sinead O’Connor, Cocteau Twins, Rear Window, And More Inspirations Behind Their New Album

Polocho

Under The Influence is a new revival of a very old Stereogum franchise, in which we ask artists to talk about the inspirations behind their albums. From other music, to film, to novels, to stray notes left behind by friends, and who knows what else, this is what’s on people’s minds when they’re writing the songs we eventually come to know and love.

Fontaines D.C. have returned with Skinty Fia, their third album in just over three years. Just as it was between Dogrel and A Hero’s Death, a lot has changed in the Irish quintet’s lives in between albums. There was, of course, the pandemic that changed all of our lives — for them, it meant their relentless touring schedule ground to a halt, and they found themselves face-to-face with normal, daily life again. Over time, they each relocated to London, the lockdown demos they’d worked on alone in tow and a new chapter in a new country brewing for all of them.

As a result, Skinty Fia is already worlds away from the scrappy young band telling tales of a fading Dublin on 2019’s Dogrel. Fontaines are older, more reflective, and now grappling with their identity as expats. At the same time, they’ve continued to grow subtly more adventurous in their music. Skinty Fia has glimmers of the same world-weariness that characterized A Hero’s Death, but much of its music is more urgent, less burdened. From stunning opener “In ár gCroíthe go deo” to the infectious jangle of “Jackie Down The Line” to the swaggering dance-tinged title track and on to the roiling mini-epic of “I Love You,” Skinty Fia finds Fontaines pushing their sound in discrete little directions — blending the visceral qualities always present in their music with moodier textures.

As you may have gathered from our review earlier this week, we’re big fans of the album over here. So, on the occasion of its release, we hopped on Zoom with Grian Chatten and Conor Curley to talk about some of the inspirations behind Fontaines D.C.’s great new album.

Sinead O’Connor

GRIAN CHATTEN: I wouldn’t say she was an influence before, but I did listen to her. I was really into a tune by her called “Never Get Old,” off The Lion And The Cobra. That and “Troy” and hits like “Mandinka” — the stuff I was into when I was younger. It was only during the writing process of this record I started listening to full albums of material. Songs like “I’m Stretched On Your Grave,” which to me has this ridiculous, amazing urban kind of trad vibe over this hip-hop beat. I couldn’t believe how well she made it work. That was an influence, initially, for tunes like “Skinty Fia.” “Troy” and a couple of tunes off The Lion And The Cobra were big influences on “In ár gCroíthe go deo.” That epic vocal style with Irish inflections. I was very interested in doing something like that.

On most days that’s my favorite song on the album, I just thought it was very special piece of music. Especially the way the background vocals give it this otherworldly quality, hanging there the whole time but subtly shifting later in the song and really changing the tone.

CHATTEN: There’s a bit of that in “Troy” as well. There must be a similar kind of note I play there. There’s a tension between the major and the minor of the same chord. I don’t know the theory of it. The chord that’s implied for the first two thirds of our tune is minor. The vocals shift from a diminished chord, or something like that, to a major chord. It gives you this feeling of reaching the summit of a peak and the clouds opening up and there’s a triumph. A note of hope.

The first time we talked, back in late 2018, we talked a lot about Gilla Band and their specific Dublin references and how that inspired you to write directly about your surroundings. Then the Pogues aren’t Irish in the same way, but there’s been those other moments where you are tapping into current or old Celtic elements or Irishness musically. Now this album has you mulling over your Irish identity as expats. Was listening to something like Sinead’s music a way of consciously digging back into an Irish heritage artistically?

CHATTEN: It’s difficult to know whether the desire to be inspired by those things was there before they arrived. I think I unconsciously seek out things I know are going to work for inspiration for things I want to express. There’s a level of communication or something that translates across seas about Sinead O’Connor and her early stuff that maybe isn’t there in a lot of the Pogues stuff. There’s a genuine reach about it. I think that was probably something I wanted to understand a bit more through listening to her records.

John Williams’ Stoner

CHATTEN: I’ve always been interested in blowing up a small or seemingly insignificant moment or detail up and seeing everything in that. That’s what I found on every page of Stoner. It’s an apparently unremarkable life written to such detail and with so much insight. It’s more empathy than emotion. It’s an unemotionally written novel. It gives the reader all the work to do in that regard. It could essentially be a diary, or an itinerary, with well-communicated moments.

I think that book really influenced songs like “The Couple Across The Way.” There’s an almost clinical mundanity. “The Couple Across The Way” was inspired by something that was really happening in my life, a couple across from me and my girlfriend. I came up with the title first and then when I read Stoner that really embellished that world for me and gave me a lot of language or imagery to draw from in order to express what I felt about that. It’s still quite difficult to express in words, it’s ineffable. That’s why Stoner is hard to explain as a book. It basically just traces the life of a professor, that’s all it does. But it’s an incredible documentation of a person’s life, and in its documentation it’s an argument for the importance of every life no matter how quietly lived.

You guys used to say you were very inspired by poetry, that this was an original interest you all bonded over. Do you feel as if your reading habits or literary interests have shifted over the last few years?

CHATTEN: Yeah, I don’t really have any interest in Beat poetry or writers anymore. As uncool as it sounds, I’m interested in reading perfectly formed sentences and well-balanced verse. That kind of stuff excites me. I think it always did to an extent, but it does a lot more now. Poetry was kind of ruined for us for a while. It was spoken about so much by us and by the press — you know, band formed off of poetry or whatever, and then we were asked about it all the time. We became that, and it began to feel performative to even read poetry let alone to discuss it amongst ourselves. It kind of fell out of our lives for a while, and it’s only recently crawling back into it. In a way, it’s been a good thing, because we shed the skin in terms of what we were interested in in terms of poetry and literature and we’re emerging slightly anew.

Rear Window

CHATTEN: It’s the same kind of thing as Stoner. Both that and Rear Window can be seen as being related to the lockdown and pandemic, in the sense that you’re all the sudden faced with a new set of limitations in terms of what you can and can’t do, and in that you have to allow your imagination to fill in the gaps a bit more. With Rear Window, it’s the story of someone who’s confined to their apartment because of a broken leg. He’s got quite an active life usually, and now he’s got nothing to do besides sit in his apartment and become paranoid and cast aspersions on the people he sees in the opposite apartments from his block through his binoculars. He begins to put this narrative together in his head and whether or not it’s real is unclear.

I think Stoner is a similar thing: Its patience gives you space to project your imagination on to the world in order for it to be more interesting. A world without distractions, so you have to create your own distractions. Rear Window was immediately what I thought about when I was going to write “The Couple Across The Way.” Our apartment backed on to another block of apartments, and there was this elderly couple who lived across from us and they’d have these incredible resounding arguments where they’d really scream horrible names at each other and stuff. Every so often, the man would come out to the balcony, and he’d look left and right, kind of take a big deep breath, then turn around and walk back in just to do it all again. To see them reflecting onto us or us reflecting onto them, what we have in common or don’t — that was too tempting to not draw from.

You’ve mentioned the pandemic a bit. Did you find that was impacting your writing in general, or gave you space to write in a different way?

CHATTEN: I think I had access to regular life a little bit more. I don’t really know what “regular life” means, but I saw the same street on a daily basis, lived under the same roof, bought my fucking milk from the same person. I had — I say “had” because we’re about to go on tour for 12 months — I had access to a life of consistency which allowed me to relate to these stories a lot more.

That’s sort of ironic. So much of the pandemic conversation was about “When can we get back to normal life” but for you as a touring musician it was closer to normal than your actual non-pandemic jobs. You had time to actually situate yourself in rote lives again.

CHATTEN: I haven’t been making albums for that long. But to me there always has to be a thing for it to be an album otherwise it’s just a mixtape of tunes. There has to be a definitive chapter in order to give it necessity as a record. I think the first album, obviously we’d been accruing inspiration for that for the first 20 years of our lives and we had a lot to get off our chest. It’s the debut, it’s obviously going to influence how you sound and how you communicate yourself. The second record, we had the necessity to write ourselves a refuge from our rigorous touring schedule. The third record, we have a thing now where we’ve all moved to London. We have this new perspective on Irishness from over here and we’ve had a life in which we are made to feel slightly not at home all the time through British prejudices against Irish people and stuff like that. Which has honestly been pretty good for inspiration.

I’ve a lot of examples from just the last few weeks. Tom was in a pub recently and he went to the bathroom and a couple of lads came in and he overheard them say “There’s a lot of fucking Irish in tonight, better check for petrol bombs before we leave.” That kind of craic happens all the time. That’s ample fuel for my suspicions that people aren’t as welcoming or open-minded over here as they like to make out. My girlfriend apologizes to me on behalf of others all the time after nights out. I don’t know, it’s fine.

Albert Camus’ The Plague

CONOR CURLEY: It was actually when I was in New York during that [initial] lockdown, I kind of numbed my mind by making demos for so long. I was reading, but it all seemed like distractions. So I was like, fuck it, I’m going to read this book and see what it feels like. I think what I took from it was the idea of coming to terms with stuff that is already there. There’s always a plague, there’s always shit out there that’s going to kill you. It’s only when you give it a name that it causes hysteria. I suppose I took an awareness from the book. When I finished it, I definitely felt… I didn’t think I was going to get what I did out of the book.

Grian mentioned how poetry kind of got ruined for you. In terms of how your interests have changed, were you interested in Camus before?

CURLEY: No, it was always something I wanted to start, but I suppose my reading was always a bit more looking for beautiful prose, which The Plague does have. I wasn’t looking for philosophy… or I was, but sitting on tour buses and all that kind of stuff, you kind of want something that makes you feel like life is beautiful and art is amazing and all this stuff. Even talking about that novel Stoner among us, it’s a light and dreamy conversation to have rather than starting to talk about The Plague with people, you know?

The thing you said about there always being a plague — that’s an acceptance of, like, a pervasive dread. Did that sneak into the album for you?

CURLEY: I think so. An awareness of mortality with everything — even our careers. We’ve been a band that’s almost hyper-aware that we never wanted to become stagnant or bore people. I think that’s why we wrote so quick. We wanted to divert people’s attention away from something they just liked for the fear they’d be like, “No, that’s actually boring.” Which is an easy thing to have the ideology of, but a tiring thing to commit to. [Laughs]

Primal Scream And Cocteau Twins

I’m thinking back to SXSW in 2019 when you were already playing “Televised Mind” and it had a bit of Madchester thing — which I feel like connects aesthetically to Screamadelica — before it became heavier on A Hero’s Death. But there are also very different eras of Primal Scream.

CURLEY: It was actually XTRMNTR.

That’s interesting, because “Skinty Fia” reminds me of that late ‘90s moment where some of the British rock bands were trying to mess with electronica.

CURLEY: “Skinty Fia” has a lot of gated effects on the drums. Then whenever I did the demo for “Nabokov” — there’s a song on XTRMNTR called “Accelerator.” It’s that halfway point where you have this intense energy from having these effects on drums, but then the guitars are still like Iggy. I thought that was such a good mix. Individually, we all developed as home producers, doing demos. We all had the vocabulary to try and do songs like that more so than we ever had. Even the list of people who worked on XTRMNTR — Chemical Brothers, Kevin Shields, David Holmes. Primal Scream were always like that, but it was such a melting pot. This collaboration, the five of us, we were bringing in more tools. It felt like that.

The first album, it felt like: We are a gang, we are a unit. On the second one, there was a lot more dislocation and it seemed like you all were arriving at something together but were maybe more siloed in your interests. When Grian talks about Sinead O’Connor and you talk about Cocteau Twins or Primal Scream, were you all more atomized in your listening habits given the lockdowns and being in different places from one another?

CURLEY: Definitely. There was maybe more ambition as a guitar player, as well, with what I wanted to get out of the album. What kind of things I wanted to take on. I never really get there, but I always thought: Whenever I’m trying to do something as a guitar player, if something really blows my mind — like Robin Guthrie’s guitar playing in Cocteau Twins — then it’s incredible. It ties into My Bloody Valentine, this more endless feeling with the guitars. Everything else before was about trying to get the power out of hitting the fuck out of your instrument. On this one, with a little bit more care and effects, it was trying to let them do the damage.

Right, “Nabokov” sounds like a shoegaze-y song in terms of its guitar, but a very scuzzy and corroded one, not pristine like Slowdive or dreamy like Cocteau Twins or something. Do you envision wanting to push further out with that direction of your guitar work?

CURLEY: I think so. I’d like to do that but do it in a way that it’s still a tool and not a trademark. Do you know Warm Drag? He’s the drummer of the Oh Sees. His music is quite sample-based, but often old rock ’n’ roll tunes. I thought that was so cool. Say it’s an old rock riff — instead of treating it like it’s the whole song, it’s just a sample. You can let the song live and then once that moment comes, you’ve got your finger over the button like, “That’s when it should come in.” That’s what I was trying to see with guitar parts. That’s where it should come in, or it should breathe a bit longer. It’s hard because you’re sitting there for a while like, “Oh, I’d love to be playing now.” [Laughs]

Was there a specific part of the Cocteau Twins’ career you were digging into?

CURLEY: I do like the earlier albums, but Heaven Or Las Vegas is just undeniable. It’s so swaying and endless. I don’t know what’s actually going on. If you asked me whereabouts would his hand be on the fretboard whenever he’s playing, I have no fucking idea. It sounds high, it sounds low. He could playing one note or two notes. I think that’s something I’d like to do more. I think Carlos did well with that on this album. He’d be playing and I’d think, “Where the fuck is that?”

Wings Of Desire

CURLEY: I had heard about it because I’d watched a Nick Cave documentary, and he’s in Wings Of Desire. Whenever I got back from New York to go to London and work on the album, I was in Dublin for a night and I watched it. It’s the most poetically beautiful movie about an angel who no one sees but he’s watching all these different facets of life go on. It was incredibly effecting. It just spoke to me. It seemed like the perfect time to watch it, because I was leaving America and go back into London, which used to be Europe. It has a really nice solitude to it, and we were going into work. Our work is trying to discover emotions or pass things by and collect them. It seemed to fit with what that movie was.

Grian was saying that about Stoner and Rear Window, him having time to fixate on mundane things amidst the pandemic. Wings Of Desire seems like a more dreamlike version of that.

CURLEY: Right, the angel wants to become human. It comes back to mortality and all that stuff. Living this kind of dreamlike lockdown, who knows what’s fucking going on, and then the idea of working is the most grounding thing. Not knowing if we were going to play again but knowing if we wrote tunes… knowing if we’re able to work on something then we’re human again.

Skinty Fia is out 4/22 via Partisan.

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