Last year Fontaines D.C. released their debut album Dogrel, which went on to be our favorite album of the year. Here we are, barely a year later, and the band has already returned with their sophomore album A Hero’s Death. It’s a triumphant return that slaps the idea of the sophomore slump right in the face. The band returned with an effort that is not only as good as what came before (if not even better) but sees them re-shape their sound in ways fans may not be expecting.
Last month we had the pleasure of chatting with the band’s guitarist Carlos O’Connell over the phone. Speaking from Dublin, he gave us some great insight into their mindset going into recording this time around, the first scrapped session of the album out in Los Angeles, meeting the new set of expectations, and the way that producer Dan Carey helped them find their way once again.
This is one of my favorite interviews that we have ever done on the site, thanks to some really genuine and well-thought answers from Carlos.
Please find our conversation below.
Will: Hey Carlos, thanks for taking the time to chat with us today. Are you in Dublin at the moment?
Carlos: I am yeah, been here a couple of months now.
W: How are you doing with everything going on during this crazy time?
C: It’s been good, to be honest. It’s been good to be a little slow-paced and to go back to what is a more normal way of living for me. It’s nice to relax and focus on writing without any sort of time pressures. Few distractions as well.
W: Your new album, A Hero’s Death, will be released next month. Were there ever any conversations about postponing it with all that’s happening or did you consider it a good time to give people something new?
C: It was definitely something that was talked about a lot. The original plan was to release it at the end of May. Then there were conversations about postponing for an entire year. Then we settled on doing it during the summer. It just seemed like the best idea to everyone. We didn’t want to wait that long and wanted to let the album live in people’s ears before we get to tour it.
W: You guys only released Dogrel a year ago and toured seemingly non-stop and yet have another fantastic album ready. When did you guys start writing this record and find the energy to record after so consistent touring?
C: We started writing it kind of just straight after finishing Dogrel really, anytime we’d meet up we would start working on tunes. We had a few days a week off in-between festivals and I think we made sure we would always have three days off, of not gigging or traveling, and those three days every week we went and wrote all day. So we really didn’t take any breaks, which probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do, but I suppose we came out with a good album at the end of it.
We actually had to record it twice. We recorded it in L.A. after our last American tour was over. We stayed over in October and recorded at Sunset Sound. But we actually scratched all those recordings, it didn’t feel right, you know? Even though everything was there for us to record a good record, it just didn’t feel right, I don’t think the energy was there. So we decided to go back in with Dan Carey, who did Dogrel, as soon as possible and he freed up some space in January. And that time was really amazing. It was like we did all the touring over the year, we knew the record was good, we had the record done and already recorded it once, we just had to do it again in a more comfortable setting. It was exciting to go back in and work with Dan again. I believe he’s just an intrinsic part of our sound really at this point. After doing that in January it was a great relief and a great ending of the first chapter of Fontaines: going in to record with Dan again and then finishing that chapter recording the second album after all the ups and downs of the year after the release. It felt like a good point to start off again after finishing that record with him.
W: After the critical acclaim of Dogrel there are understandably different expectations the second time around. Did you guys feel any of the external pressure and how did that help shape the record?
C: We really tried to ignore that pressure. I think we managed to while we were writing it. We didn’t go in thinking of what album we were going to write or what album we should write. We just went in to write and write anything and entertain any creative ideas that came up, just to entertain it, even if from the get-go you knew it wasn’t going to be a Fontaines song. Which allowed us to explore music a lot more in-depth and to not repeat ourselves. But also to not completely purposely change the sound to avoid repeating ourselves either. We tried to get into a natural space where our creativity got to happen without the expectation of the public that Dogrel had attracted.
I think we successfully did that. Although I think recording the record was a lot of pressure when we did it in L.A. anyway. I think we did feel a bit of that pressure getting the sound right and all of that. Kind of like the idea of how Dogrel, I think, has a very specific sound that sounds quite different to other albums that are out there. We didn’t want to do an album that sounds too generic in the production, or too polished. I definitely felt pressure while we were doing that.
That was the main reason we went back to Dan because we knew that he had such a big role to play in what made Dogrel special as a recorded piece of music and really just wanted to have that again. Not repeat the same style that it had in production but find something that was special in us again. Dan seemed to be the only person who could do that really.
W: You sort of touched upon a question I had so I’m going to try to merge them into one. What exactly was it about recording in L.A. that didn’t felt right? And during the recording process, were you guys trying to push the limits of what you could do sonically, or was it something that just sort of happened on its own naturally?
C: Yeah I think when we went to L.A. we purposely went there to be far away from home to be in an uncomfortable place where we thought it would reflect positively on the creative outcome. But I think it did the complete opposite. I think it was way too far from home and the complete opposite to where we come from. A big American city, very superficial, at the end of the day, L.A. is that, isn’t it? L.A. has a big persona. Even though it has a lot to offer, there is a surface there that is excited by fame and charisma and it just felt difficult to make music the same way when we were so far away from where we came from. Then we did it in a big legendary studio that is meant to sound amazing, but all of that studio time felt very different than recording with Dan. Everything is very isolated, you don’t have your amp right beside you, you’re hearing mixes through headphones while you’re playing and all that kind of stuff. I think all that, to me, puts me off. I’ll probably go deaf while I’m very young, but I love hearing very loud music. Where I’m from, it moves me physically. I feel like trying to capture that kind of performance that is so physical when you’re only listening to what everyone else is playing through a set of headphones is virtually impossible.
Whereas when you go to Dan’s studio, it’s a small room that the desk is in the same room that you’re playing, the amps are there in the room right beside you and it’s loud. We did something with him where we set up the studio in the way that the sound that we were hearing live, almost sounding like it was mixed. The way everything was placed, we had the bass amp placed right in front of the kick drum facing the band. Tom [drummer Tom Coll] was the only one that couldn’t hear all of this.
So facing outwards from the kick drum, one of the guitar amps and one side of the bass amp, kind of slightly angled inwards and the other mirroring that. So myself, Deegan [bassist Conor Deegan], and Curley [guitarist Conor Curley] were standing on the other end of the room looking at Tom and this wall of amps. So that sound we were getting was almost panned and mixed the way the recorded should sound. As you’re playing live you’re hearing exactly how it should be mixed, but it’s coming straight from the amps and not going through anything. It’s an incredible experience to do that, you’re playing to the finished product in a way as it’s literally happening. It moves you a lot and there’s a great energy there.
Dan’s attitude to recording a record is to capture a moment. It’s not to capture the best performance that can happen. It’s to capture a moment that feels like everything is being moved like the plane was being influenced by the music that’s being played. So mistakes don’t matter, mistakes are a part of that and the anxiety that comes with that, which may actually have a good effect on the overall sound. It’s very liberating. We also never listened to the takes – so we played through a song and thought it felt good, we would decide that was the take. But if it didn’t sound good, we would delete that and play it again. We never listened to two takes of the same song. Just from the feeling in the room, we would know if that was the right take or not. It’s a very different approach to what happens in the studio but it’s what makes it special.
W: Dogrel had a lot of the personality of Dublin. Would you say This time around, did your newfound life on the road really shape the new album?
C: Absolutely. Completely. Dogrel was a record about Dublin that people expected. We knew that we couldn’t meet that expectation of “another record about Dublin” again because we hadn’t spent any time in Dublin since recording Dogrel. So we never once thought about writing another record about Dublin like that, as it would’ve been a lie. So in the end, the record ended up being quite a surreal one. A record that sort of creates its own world around it because when you lack a constant place, the only thing you have is what’s left inside of you, that’s the only constant. You have to shake that yourself and bring yourself to a place that’s happy and means something. That’s the essence of that. There’s a lack of place, so it just looks inwards rather than outwards, as there’s nothing outside when everything changes so fast outside, it’s impossible to grasp anything or to find any sort of deep meaning in anything around you that comes and goes so quickly.
W: I’ll admit when I first saw the report of you guys hinting of Beach Boys influence on the new album it was a bit of a surprise to me. But you can hear it on tracks like “Sunny.” How did that influence start to soak into your sound this time around?
C: I think a big part of the Beach Boys influence was the arrangements. I think Dogrel was a record that was really direct and we were trying to peel off a bit of music that wasn’t necessary and write songs that were straight to the point, where every single section or note that’s played is completely necessary. We had that attitude towards music for a long time and then the Beach Boys opened the idea up that you can explore arrangements a lot deeper, and you can let go of that sense of immediate directness and just explore music in a deeper way to point out something new that’s not necessarily there firsthand. It’s just inspiring and I suppose it makes you a lot more ambitious when you start appreciating those arrangements.
For us, we always think it’s about writing a good song and not about big sections or anything like that. But The Beach Boys have that perfect balance between good songs and incredible arrangements.
W: One of the most striking things on both records is your ability to juggle the energetic rockers with the poetic ballads that tap into a more vulnerable side. How do you strike such a balance and is it something you guys strive to do during the writing/recording?
C: I think it’s something that happens. All the sort of slower songs were the songs we would tend to write, we never wanted to just ignore them. The greatest ambition for the band was to create a platform where we can write all these songs that move us physically and with whatever kind of energy, but also to be vulnerable at the same time. It was difficult at the start to have the confidence to merge those two.
You know when you write a fast energetic song with a good groove and set of lyrics, you know that will work live and move people. But you need a lot more confidence to pull off the slower vulnerable songs. We find writing those to be as important, and sometimes more. At the end of the day, Fontaines is our creative outcome and we want to be able to tap into those sides. At the very start of the band, we were very influenced by the Velvet Underground, they would’ve done that. They were able to make rock and roll bangers and then absolutely beautiful ballads that are really emotional. They had so many different sounds that could have influenced a decade of music. I suppose there was always that ambition to do that, and with this record, I think we have done it more than with the first one. It’s hard to say how it will come across, but so far I’m quite confident that people will get it and that both those sides of music are executed to the best they can be.
W: I saw you guys at that first Union Pool performance in New York and a lot has changed for you since then. But even then, it was a sold out show and there was a buzz in the air during that show. Can you talk about your relationship with NYC?
C: I absolutely adore New York City, we all do. In 2016 I spent a few months over there and had a brilliant time and lived on 5th Avenue in Manhattan with a girl I met and explored that side of New York, and then the other side of it where I hung out with all the different punk bands in New York and crashed on their couches because I had nowhere else to be. New York opened itself to me and was a place that was incredibly welcoming on both sides.
I found it to be a generous city and obviously it’s covered in culture, history, and art is fascinating. The New York scene in the 70s with music is so important to me and poetry as well with the Beat Generation. There’s a book called the Poet in New York by a Spanish poet named Federico García Lorca, which was written in the late 20s/early 30s, and it was a Spanish guy from a raw background who came to New York and found the city to be a living entity and wrote this incredible book of poetry. It was an Ode To New York. It’s been one of my favorite books for a long time. So before I had been to New York, I had read so much about it and listened to so much music that depicted it and I just wanted to spend time there.
I learned to hate it as well, I had some hard times there as well. But it offered me so much and it’s a place that I find to be so alive. So going back to New York for the show was so exciting and it meant a lot to us to make an impact there. We just loved going there and I can’t wait to go there again. We’ve enjoyed all those shows, the two at Union Pool, Music Hall of Williamsburg, Bowery, and the one with Idles at Brooklyn Steel. Every single show we’ve played there has been brilliant.
W: Your tour with Idles was quite a perfect pairing. What was it like touring with those guys?
C: It really was! We knew Idles for a bit, just bumping into them before we signed to the label (Partisan Records) and we always had a good connection with them. That’s what it was, a great balance. I’d love to tour with them again. We were only just starting, our record had only just come out, and we had never done a big tour of the States before. Obviously they’d been touring relentlessly for a couple of years so we learned a lot from them, how to do things right. It was a lot of fun. They had their shit together and we didn’t…at all (laughs). We learned a lot looking up to them.
We had this shitty little van that you had to pop your suitcase on your lap the whole time you’re driving. They just had it all sorted. They find different things that they have to do every day to make stuff feel good on tour and can’t forget to do. Like Bowen (Idles guitarist Mark Bowen) is really into meditation before every gig, and I’ve never done anything like that. So before every gig, we’d get into their splitter and meditate for 15 minutes or half an hour and tried new things like that every day that felt good. But there’s just a lot to learn from them. They give everything on stage, they’re a very different band than us. It’s quite inspiring how much they let go and give it all. And every single show they play is brilliant, it doesn’t lack something. You can see they’re grateful to be doing what they’re doing and they want to give everything back. We really. had the time to make good friendships with them
W: Thinking back to this same pre-release time for Dogrel, what have you learned this time around going into this release that you wish you knew back then?
C: I’ve learned that it’s very easy to overlook your personal issues and sadness and to let that sadness turn into anger if you’re physically tired all the time. I wish if I could go back, I would have sat with myself a lot more and thought about what is actually making me feel bad and try to deal with it. Rather than relying on that crutch of “oh I feel like shit because I’m tired,” that just turns into being pissed off and resenting things that you shouldn’t be resenting because it has nothing to do with the actual issue.
I think I didn’t take in a lot of last year the way I should’ve because I didn’t know that. When you don’t deal with your problems, everything turns grey and it’s impossible to find joy in anything and you don’t know why and you find excuses or reasons that are completely wrong because you’re not allowing yourself the time to process things. There’s always something going on in everyone’s lives, everyone always has something shit going on. That’s just like a fact. But I’ve just learned you have to be aware of them and try to understand the best way possible and get the help you need if you do need it and to deal with specific issues at the time they’re happening so you can enjoy what’s around you. I think we spend a lot of time ignoring a lot of things and life just goes by you. I sort of wish I could repeat last year and do it differently. But the only reason I can see this is because I’ve had these three or four months of lockdown where all I’ve had is time to spend with myself and seeing things differently.
That’s what I’ve learned and what I’m going to carry on forward into the next tour because what we have is something that most people don’t get and if I let it all go and it passes me, I’ll regret it a lot one day when I have a lot of time to think back. I am grateful I can see it now and can’t wait to tour again.
W: Every time I’ve seen you play you particularly have gotten a bit bolder with your stage antics. What can we expect the next time you’re in town, is there a balcony leap in your future?
C: (laughs) I don’t know, maybe. One of the last shows we played at an old theater in Dublin called The Olympia, we had five or six bands playing the show that we curated to help raise money for homelessness here in Ireland. It was a really special show and a brilliant night but I kind of lost my shit at that gig and climbed up to the balcony and I was up there, sitting on the ledge with my legs hanging over the crowd and swinging my guitar around and the strap broke and the guitar went flying. Luckily it landed in the pit and just missed a security guard that was standing there. But that could’ve been a fucking disaster (laughs).
I can laugh about it cause nothing happened but I don’t think I would be laughing if something had happened. So I think that made me a bit scared, to be honest. I actually don’t remember any of that but I saw a video someone had sent me. That’s the furthest things have gone but sometimes when playing you get into these episodes where you’re in a trance.
W: And finally, what stuff has helped you pass time being stuck at home (movies, music, books, tv, etc)?
C: For the last few weeks I’ve been reading this Irish writer Kevin Barry and I started with Night Boat to Tangier.
W: No way, one of my good friends just recently let me borrow his copy to read. As well as Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
C: Oh yeah?! She’s actually from the same town that Tom and I are from! But yeah, Night Boat to Tangier is a brilliant book, I read it the week before and it’s one of the fastest books I’ve ever read. I really recommended it. I’m reading some of his short stories as well and some plays by Lorca and I started the quarantine reading this book The Unbearable Lightness of Being Novel by Milan Kundera.
I’ve enjoyed reading a lot. I’ve been writing a lot of music as well. In the first half of the lockdown I was in the countryside in the West of Ireland by the Atlantic and I had a lot of space to write and record. So I spent two months doing that and came back to Dublin and now the time in Dublin has been hanging out with the boys in the band and practicing and rehearsing playing through the album and writing some new stuff with the band already.
W: Wow, already?!
C: Yeah, the holiday of going back in was to practice the album because we have a couple of things coming up that we have to do, a few sessions that we’re recording. We’re the kind of people that can’t really do that and practice and focus, we always kind of get sidetracked with new ideas. So that’s been pretty good going into the room and just exploring new ideas again altogether. It was good having the time to explore ideas on my own and bringing into the room with the band. This time has actually been productive and peaceful to reflect.
A Hero’s Death is out at midnight. If you haven’t already, pre-order it here.