When I saw Fontaines DC for the first time, at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, I found myself caught in the middle of a brawl as the band thrashed on stage under harsh light. The playful throwing of elbows in the pit had turned to throwing of fists, and all of a sudden, I was beneath the scuffle as they collapsed to the floor wailing on one another. As I was pulled off the ground by a kind group of strangers, I found myself reminded of the punk shows that happened on the Bowery in the not too distant past, back when the block was “where you would never want to end up,” according to Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz in an excerpt from his forthcoming book that was recently published in The New Yorker. He continues: “The long history of the Bowery is one of crime, misadventure, debauchery, desperation, and death.”
It’s a strong contrast to read about through a modern lens, as the route one takes on their way the Bowery Ballroom is peppered with art galleries and boutique restaurants while CBGB’s iconic emblem has been replaced by a John Varvatos logo. Time moves fast, and sometimes it pays to force yourself to slow down and take a look at what truly makes the world around you beautiful.
It’s with this mindset that Fontaines DC hit the studio to record their sophomore album, A Hero’s Death. After years spent on the road supporting their buzzy debut Dogrel, the band was starting to lose touch with themselves. “I think I lost an ability to get out of my comfort zone by touring so much,” guitarist Carlos O’Connell tells me over the phone in mid-July, four months into an international lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Playing shows, however big or small, became my comfort zone. And anything outside of that was really uncomfortable for a long time. Socializing became uncomfortable. Things that would have made me happy before, all that stuff became uncomfortable to do.”
The album was completed just before the coronavirus pandemic really set in, but seems prophetic in its emphasis on being comfortable with one’s self in isolation. A bit more brooding and reflective than the band’s debut, the album is a meditation on life, individuality, and finding a home in the midst of constant movement. “It’s hard to remember your identity when you’re seen only as a touring band,” O’Connell explains. When the virus-induced lockdown descended upon the world, he retreated from his home in Dublin to the countryside. “I was very remote. You do that then you just learn to find what was there before the band started taking over your entire life.”
The band sounds wiser on A Hero’s Death, perhaps informed by their newfound worldview, expanded by two years on the road. “We just came to accept that we were feeling differently and the music we were to write shouldn’t in any way keep in mind what we’ve written before,” O’Connell explains. “We should just be allowed to write as honestly at the time of writing it. I look forward to playing these songs live and I don’t really know what the performance will be like. I’m excited to see what it feels like to be full of energy and feeling vulnerable at the same time.”
Where Dogrel was rooted in the desire to do something greater than what was attainable in the small world that existed in the band’s purview, A Hero’s Death investigates the possibility that the thing you were looking for might have been within yourself all along. It encourages the listener to join the band in their musings, and each song could soundtrack a different worldly reaction to introspection — “Love Is The Main Thing” underscoring one’s pacing while “A Lucid Dream” takes on a more aggressive approach.
Before lockdown, you could see a certain intensity in the band as they performed on stage. A Hero’s Death takes this intensity and focuses it inward, finding a young band fully in control of their craft, utilizing their influences and experiences to inform their approach, all the while not compromising themselves or their initial mission. Fontaines DC are as close to “the real deal” as a punk disciple will find in the 21st century.
My lengthy conversation with O’Connell has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What is it like to have a glimpse of how big the world is and then all of a sudden be confined back to your hometown that you worked so hard to get out of?
It’s made me really look back and made me sad that I didn’t take in most of the world. I didn’t get to experience it. I think we kind of always aspired to get out there and do something bigger than what we were presented in our upbringing. Everyone in my generation had that aspiration to get out and do something bigger than themselves. I think if you get lost in that, you lose track of a lot. If you can be fulfilled with not much around you, you’ll be the happiest person in the world. And I think artistically, for me anyways, that’s what happened. I was able to just be completely focused creatively and make more music throughout this whole time knowing necessarily that it doesn’t have to be for a new album or with the band or anything like that. That it’s just my creative outcome. That’s a part of me, not a part of where I am or how big and successful we get.
I’ve seen a lot of friends of mine who wanted to be in music and emigrated abroad, for a better life and a more exciting life. And they’ve all returned because you want to open up your home when a global pandemic is going on. A lot of them are realizing that they don’t really want to go back to what they were doing. They’re actually happier at home than these expeditions they did to bigger cities. At the end of the day, they were stressed out all the time trying to do something that was meaningful, and it didn’t happen. Because it doesn’t happen, it has nothing to do with the outside world or what you surround yourself with. I think there was a lot of good to take with this whole new situation. I just hope that none of that is forgotten.
How did international touring affect your worldview, in general?
I think I lost an ability to get out of my comfort zone by touring so much. Playing shows, however big or small, became my comfort zone. And anything outside of that was really uncomfortable for a long time. Socializing became uncomfortable. Things that would have made me happy before, all that stuff became uncomfortable to do. I think its probably had a detrimental effect in that sense. I don’t think I was able to see things for what they are because I was never grounded or settled.
What would you say is the virtue in finding spaces where you feel grounded and settled?
I think it’s all about being comfortable within yourself and knowing what it is that’s important to who you are. I think for a while, when being so absorbed in touring, you convince yourself that you’re defined by your band and your band’s achievements and your band’s songs and what they have to say. And I think there’s a lot more to myself and each one of the lads than all of that. I think it was easy to forget that. Music for me is one of the most important things in my life but then I developed a sense of anxiety over being able to always be ahead of myself, musically and creatively. I think there’s a lot more to life than your musical outcome.
There’s simpler things in life that will give you a sense of wholeness and they are part of the definition of “self” for each person. I think constantly be on top of all those different things is to be grounded. It has definitely been a bit of a rollercoaster being all over the place, changing city by the day, to being stuck in one place for four months, now. To go from one extreme to the other for me has been a roller coaster. I feel quite grounded here for a time, but I go through areas of not really understanding if I am grounded or if I am fulfilled or if I’m missing something. I suppose I will always miss something if I’m not touring and I’m not writing and I’m not with all the boys because that is a big part of me right now. We’ve all learned a lot from this.
Getting away from the more existential stuff, and into the music itself, I want to ask about your live stage presence. It feels very referential of some of the classic bands from the hey-day of punk.
I’m obviously a big fan of those punk bands and the New York punk scene, as well. But what happens when we play live is a physical reaction to the music. Music definitely has that power to move people, both emotionally and physically, and that’s a beautiful thing, that connection to body and spirit. That’s what happens when we play live, we’re just moved. I don’t think it’s restrained in terms of influence. At the end of the day when we listen to the music, we’re really looking for that connection and if you’re listening to an artist that doesn’t have that connection with their own music, you probably wouldn’t be interested in it. I suppose, if we were to share something, it wouldn’t be any sort of on-stage persona, but a connection with our music.
A lot of bands are talking about how to keep momentum during this period of uncertainty with regard to touring. Some are even pushing their albums to later in the year, in hopes that there will be an avenue to playing shows by the time the record comes out. But A Hero’s Death is so reflective and meditative that it might actually be good to release it during this time when people have time to just sit with it and understand it.
Yeah. I’ve been thinking about it a bit and the record was mostly written last year when we were on tour, and tour, in hindsight, seems like quite an isolation period in my mind. I think it might be really good time for this record to exist in the world because it was written from a point of isolation, trying to find something outside of that. So I actually think that this time might be very good for the record to be out there and people might find some comfort in it in the same way we found when we were writing it.
It also feels like the record is in part about maintaining a sense of individualism and feeling comfortable with yourself as you, especially in a world where having an individual persona is becoming rarer because of the internet.
Yeah, exactly. Everyone wants to be an individual so badly that all the differences become the same. We’re not defined by our differences anymore but we’re defined by the similar, when everyone’s trying to shy away from that which makes you similar to someone else.
And people who do have an individual identity sometimes use it as a brand and not so much as a… person.
So many people having this urge to broadcast themselves and their lives is scary to me. I find it even scarier now that [Fontaines] have this platform where we’re meant to broadcast ourselves, but I really don’t want to. We’ve always tried to only have a presence in the world that is dictated by the music that we put out and not anything else because thats the only part of myself that I want to broadcast. I find it quite scary how people, even though they don’t have something like music or art that can be useful to other people, still have this need to broadcast their daily lives instead of taking it as what they’re made of. Strange world we live in, especially now. It seems like even more now, because we’re isolated and in lockdown, that people are living through their screens even more than they were before. It’s scary.
You would think that all of this downtime would result in a spurt of creative energy but I’ve heard a lot of artists says that it’s actually the opposite because they’re just so confined and there’s nothing to inspire.
Yeah, for sure. I went thru a creative period in the start of this when I went to the countryside because I went to someplace new and I had a lot of time to look within. But as soon as I left the countryside and I was put back into the city, the city felt like the most uninspiring place ever because its the place that should be alive.
I always like to ask this: What would you say is the mission or thesis statement of A Hero’s Death?
It’s quite a dark album. I do feel it’s an overall, positive journey. It’s an album that is not scared to look within and into the deepest and darkest aspects of individual humans and humanity. And you find the light at the very end. Not from the outside world, but that light is within and just needs to be found hiding down deep.
A Hero’s Death is out July 31 on Partisan Records. Pre-order it here.