Fontaines D.C. went from playing pubs to Brixton Academy quick enough to give most bands whiplash, with debut album 'Dogrel' picking up well-deserved accolades left, right and centre. They capitalised on this success with a relentless touring schedule which would grind anyone down even if it was meticulously planned, which was most definitely not the case. "There were nights of being allocated two hours on a plane as our time to sleep between gigs," says singer Grian with a wince. "It was a bit much." The words may be understated, but the results weren't – a run of cancelled festival dates as the band crashed out from the exhaustion of burning the candle at both ends for months at a time.
Fast forward a few months, and they were back touring and writing their second album before being forced to pump the brakes again – this time for that worldwide pandemic that cancelled literally everything. Despite what feels like a run of bad luck which would derail most bands, Grian is optimistic when we catch up with him ahead of the release of new album 'A Hero's Death'.
"We were really thrust into it after 'Dogrel' came out," he explains. "And I don't think any of us had achieved any sense of domesticity or maturity, so we're learning to accept the slower pace and appreciate things like fucking taking care of your gaff, just cleaning up." He laughs and pulls at the back of his lockdown-length hair. "So I think the pandemic is going to have an impact on us as a band in a weird way, because there's going to be that added sense of maturity once we get through the other side. I think we all appreciate the people that work with us a lot more too, which is nice."
If it sounds odd for Grian to be counting "doing the hoovering" as a plus point of a worldwide shutdown, that's probably because you didn't spend the last 18 months touring the world with two hours off each day which you then spent writing an album. "It was pretty non-stop," he says. "I think the most time we had off in one block was... a week? It was definitely relentless, but it did feel necessary to us, even though we could've gotten away with doing a lot less. I look back, and I still empathise with our year younger selves, because it makes sense that an excited young band with a fire under their arse are going to say yes to everything at the beginning. We had such a sense of gratitude about being able to play, so we just took on more than we could handle – I think this time 'round I feel more secure in myself, and we all feel a bit more able to put our foot down."
"So yeah, the touring took it out of us, but I think what a lot of people don't really understand about the writing is that it's a necessary expression for us – there was no contractual obligation or pressure coming from anywhere else, we just wanted to write songs and make music because that's what makes us feel better about ourselves. We were on tour, and it was easy to lose any sense of who we are, and I definitely feel like we all became aware of this potential for all the magic of it to be lost, ground away by the schedule. For us, conceiving ideas for songs in the van or on tired days sitting at soundchecks is a way of regaining that, you know?" He pauses, before adding with a grin: "Mostly it's just for the fucking craic though, making songs is fun, and sometimes you just need a way to make a Tuesday into a good Tuesday."
The displaced nature of how 'A Hero's Death' was written means that it's a very different beast from the band's debut, which was as much a love letter to Dublin as it was a statement of intent. Gone are the violent bursts of frantic energy and poetic lyrics about a fast-disappearing face of the Irish capital, replaced with an atmospheric unease and more opaque, dislocated subject matter.
"There's no commentary about Dublin whatsoever on this one," Grian explains. "'Dogrel' was all about what was happening right in front of me in Dublin, but this album is more about what's happening inside me. We just had no sense of environment or place whatsoever, which is a feeling that can really fuck with you. We'd wake up, and someone would say to you 'oh we're in Germany now', and you'd feel like saying 'well prove it'. So there just wasn't a chance to write an album that was similar to the first, even if we'd wanted to. You can't write an album about an environment when you don't have one – we just had to make a refuge and a place for ourselves inside our heads, as a survival mechanism. So this album is more of a soundtrack to that than it is to any particular real city or place.
"I know it sounds boring, but we also didn't want the album to be any form of reaction to the first one, either. If we were to rebel against the sound and the expectations of people, then we're still being warped and manipulated by those expectations. Going flat out to write a song that was trying to surprise people would be compromising our creativity by kind of anti-pandering. This album is different to the debut, for sure, but we didn't make it like that purely as a reaction to 'Dogrel' – I think that would be as untruthful and cynical as writing 'Dogrel part two' in its own way. We just tried our best to ignore the fact that we'd ever released an album before, just go in and hold up a mirror to how we felt."
Writing the album may have been a release for the band, but the enforced isolation has limited the band's ability to do any promotion around it, especially with any hopes at playing a gig pushed into the distant future. "The major impact is that you just feel so uninvolved in the album," Grian shrugs. "It's easy to feel uninvolved in your own life in a strange way, which is a confusing feeling to have, but also it is interesting to step back – I think it's good to have one point in your life where you get to step back and watch the spectacle unravel without your involvement in it. It means you can take in the farce of it, how funny it all is. When you're involved in it you tend to take it quite seriously because it consumes everything you do, but we're sitting here and gauging people's reactions, even betting money between ourselves on things will go, it's a laugh.
"I don't want that to come off wrong though," he clarifies. "I'm not unbelievably thick-skinned, and I do still care if people do or don't like the record. I think the perpetuation of the lie that people in bands just don't give a shit about what anyone thinks of them isn't good for anyone, it's bad rhetoric. It's good to admit that you're sensitive to these things, but on the other hand, I am trying not to be. I'm trying to be forgiving of myself and who I am – there are more immediate people to impress in my life, like friends and family, they come first. I think I'd be ok with the album not going down so well because of how much myself and the lads have gotten out of it."
And have they decided how they'll work the new material in live, when they're finally able to get back on stage? "We've thought about it, for sure," he says. "We played six songs from the new album at the Brixton show, and there was no way we could prepare for it with the same level of disengagement as the previous 60 shows, where we treat it like a gig, and we play 'Dogrel', and it all clicks together because it's the same album. There are certain tunes on the second album that I was really nervous about people understanding, and I do personally feel very differently about this album than the last one. But what I do like is that we're going to have the opportunity to genuinely express more aspects of ourselves live, which is something that doesn't get enough credit from musicians, it's so important to sustaining positive mental health.
"One thing we found difficult about playing the first album every night was that there were so many songs like 'Hurricane Laughter' for example, where it just is what it is, and sometimes I don't feel like 'Hurricane Laughter'. At least now there's more scope for me to get up there and feel a bit similar to something that we're playing up there.
"I'm also looking forward to playing something fresh for the first time in a while, because it's so easy to get detached from the meanings of the songs when you play the same set constantly. I can still associate with them and tap into the person I was when I wrote them, but I can't say for sure – it does make me worry that there are certain colours and elements to who I was when I wrote them that I'm forgetting about, but you just have to accept that that's the nature of the game. It's a wonderful thing actually, when you change as a person, and a song becomes relevant to you in a different way, when it all comes full circle."
It's a lot of pressure to put on a new album, especially with a lead-up where you're not legally allowed to do much except sit at home and think, but Grian insists that the band are barely even thinking about 'A Hero's Death' day to day. "We're looking at our third album now, not sitting around listening to the second one." He smiles briefly. "It's a very different feeling, because the second one was written on tour and we just had to start writing first and ask any questions later, it was a really organic way of doing it. But now we can sit down, take stock and clearly decide what we're going to write about. I never really wanted to be the kind of Johnny Rotten style writer, much as I love him, where I could stand there and say 'this song is called 'Bodies' and it's about abortion'. I never wanted to be that oblique, but at least now I've got the chance to, and maybe album three will have some more of that in there. I guess you'll just have to wait and see."
Taken from the August issue of Dork. Fontaines D.C.'s album 'A Hero's Death' is out 31st July.
Featuring Declan McKenna, Fontaines DC, Another Sky, KennyHoopla and more.