“We were approaching the guitar as if it were a synth”: Fontaines D.C. on changing things up for new album Skinty Fia
Fontaines DC guitarists Conor Curley and Carlos O’Connell tell us about the old gear and new attitudes that informed new album Skinty Fia.
Fontaines D.C.. Image: Filmawi
“Jesus, the fucking years are getting on, aren’t they?”
Conor Curley, it seems, has a way with understatement. The Fontaines D.C. guitarist is mulling over the yawning space that has opened up since the Dublin band released their acclaimed second album A Hero’s Death in the summer of 2020, at the height of the early Covid-19 pandemic.
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A sometimes agitated, often meditative work that was the product of scattered writing sessions during the punishing touring schedule around their similarly heralded debut Dogrel, it has emerged as a survivor. Its songs found their way into hearts and minds even without the visceral release of live shows to hammer things home.
“I actually think we were fairly lucky in the sense that we somehow benefitted from that record coming out in the time it did,” Carlos O’Connell, Curley’s guitar partner, observes. “The record came out in a time where it could be really understood. It’s an insular record. It offers an introspective, isolated point of view. We’re seeing it live now and people are mad into it. People know all the lyrics, you know, it’s quite amazing. It’s impossible to know how it would have gone but I don’t know how it could have gone better if we were allowed to tour it.”
O’Connell’s surprise at people responding to A Hero’s Death neatly exemplifies a disconnect that seems to exist between Fontaines D.C. as musicians and the way that their music has been framed by the press and received by ‘the industry’ (gross). For all the bubbling outside narratives, like the one that wants vocalist Grian Chatten to come out and proclaim that he’s the 21st century’s James Joyce, and twinkling baubles, like the Brit Awards and Grammy noms that trailed in the wake of their second album, they appear more focused on the granular nature of song construction as a means of communicating where they’re at.
That much is obvious from only a quick skim of their third album, Skinty Fia. The band emerged from lockdown with demos clutched in their fists and found that they’d all begun moving on in similar ways. “We had a couple of songs that we were really excited about and we started going through all the demos that we had been working on,” Curley says. “It was just really exciting. Some of them were fully formed ideas and others were soundbites of something that we wanted to try that would have been new for us.”
O’Connell points to You Said, a relatively low-key, mannered anchor at the heart of A Hero’s Death, as an important jumping-off point. On Skinty Fia, Fontaines D.C. are patient in a manner that they haven’t been before, favouring interlocking, textural guitars that play off percussion, settling into patterns that dare the listener to zone out before the walls come tumbling down.
“Something we’ve always done is not to overcomplicate anything, you know? It’s all about vibe,” O’Connell says. “You need to get there, and also figure out a way of maintaining that without being boring. That’s what we’ve been developing and finessing since we started the band. With this record, we all got a lot more excited by electronic music, especially electronic music that was made by bands in the 1990s. That led us to looking at our pedals differently, almost approaching the guitar as if it were a synth, being able to manipulate the sound and, to a certain extent, for it to be unrecognisable.”
If A Hero’s Death was about feeling disconnected from Ireland while eating up miles on the road, then Skinty Fia is an examination of what being Irish means when you’re ensconced in another place, namely London, with all the history, heritage, baggage and bullshit that comes along with it. “It covets itself and reinforces itself,” Chatten recently told Uncut’s Laura Barton. “I think people get more and more Irish when they go to different places.”
The first song is essentially the album’s mission statement, both musically and thematically. In ár gCroíthe go deo, which means “in our hearts forever”, references the case of Margaret Keane, a native of County Meath whose family wanted to use the phrase as an inscription on her gravestone in Exhall, England. The Chancellor of the Diocese of Coventry initially rejected its use without an English translation as it might be “seen as a political statement” because of the “passions and feelings connected with the use of Irish Gaelic”.
“That is basically saying that for being Irish and actually trying to maintain a grasp of your roots, you are a terrorist,” O’Connell says. “Even when you’re in the ground, like,” Curley adds, with a sense of disbelief that feels like it’s been dampened into weariness by experience.
The song runs a second shy of six minutes, building gradually into a remarkable latticework of sounds: thrumming bass, off-kilter drums, thunderous guitars and Chatten’s voice, which rebounds off a gnawing choral phrase. “I don’t think Curley starts playing until three minutes in or something like that, you know? I basically play this exact same thing for six minutes. And that song doesn’t feel repetitive,” O’Connell says. It is, he believes, about choosing your moment.
“One thing that I was thinking about when we were doing the guitar parts was one of my favourite musicians at the moment, Paul Quattrone,” Curley elaborates. “He’s the drummer of the Osees but he also has a band called Warm Drag. His music is quite sample-based. He uses all these old rock ’n’ roll songs and he’ll detune them and put them over electronic drums.
“Whenever you’re pushing a button to enter a sample, you’ll wait until the perfect moment. Whereas if you’re a guitar player, you want to jump the gun and be like, ‘I’m in now!’ So it was about trying to think of the guitar as though you’re looking at it on a computer or something: that’s where it should be, instead of just thinking through ego.”
Skinty Fia was recorded with returning producer Dan Carey but the band dragged the Speedy Wunderground impresario out of his London studio to a residential spot in Oxfordshire in pursuit of that same-but-different goodness. “To us, the album sounded bigger,” Curley says. “I think through working with Dan, whenever you record, it’s nice to do simple things – if the record wants to sound bigger, then let’s go to a bigger place, you know what I mean? It had a bigger live room, the control room was massive and had huge speakers. Everything fed into what we wanted the album to be.
“I feel like the first two were very close to our personalities at that time, and how we were playing. They’re quite introverted and kind of closed sounding. We just wanted to be able to broaden all the soundscapes. It was also just an amazing time. It was my first time going to a residential studio. It was probably one of the best two weeks of my life.”
Both Curley and O’Connell’s approaches to playing might have changed on Skinty Fia but the tools of the trade were largely carried over from sessions on A Hero’s Death, aside from regular washes of 12-string from a Fylde guitar that was built for and borrowed from the troubadour Richard Hawley. Curley remains a devotee of his 1966 Fender Coronado and again turned to his Johnny Marr Jaguar for the spicier moments.
“It was just about adding a few pedals,” he says. “A big one I used a good bit on the record was an Industrialectric Echo Degrader. That pedal is mad, like. I use that in the song Nabokov for these skittering delays. Whenever I did the demo for that song, I just did it on Logic. But then actually trying to recreate that with a pedal was proving really hard. Dan just brought out this box and it did it. I was like, ‘This is incredible’. I started using my two delays together and using what we already had in different ways. That seemed a lot more creative than getting new gear.”
O’Connell went back to the well with a pair of Mustangs – his own ’66 and Carey’s ’65 – along with his P-90-equipped Jazzmaster. “We went to LA a couple of years ago to attempt A Hero’s Death before we actually did it with Dan,” he recalls. “We had 20 guitars in that studio or something like that. We went mad, you know. We rented loads of vintage guitars, all these amazing pieces of gear. And in the end, they just became distractions. You’re always trying to find a space for a guitar on the record and that becomes counterproductive. Since then, I’ve felt like I want to limit myself to something I know very well. And that’s it. So I recorded with the same guitars I tour with.”
For both of them, being in Fontaines D.C. has changed how they approach guitar. It’s often the way. You, your ego and your ideas of what it must be like to be up there, people reaching out from the front row to tell you how brilliant, how incandescent you are, fall by the wayside as you start to make music that matters to you on a more substantive level. “You serve the song,” O’Connell says.
Fontaines D.C.’s Skinty Fia is out on April 22 through Partisan.