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Fontaines D.C. on the mutated Irishness of their new record ‘Skinty Fia’

Frontman Grian Chatten breaks down the band’s third album track by track

By Brenna Ehrlich

The five members of Fontaines D.C. pose in a line against a red background
Fontaines D.C. (Photo: Filmawi)

As an Irishman living in London, Grian Chatten deals with a lot of bullshit. His name isn’t Paddy, but that doesn’t stop bullies from calling him that. Then there are the jokes about the IRA, the leering men asking him to say, “Top o’ morning!” when he’s just trying to have a quiet drink with his girlfriend. And the people blatantly telling him: “Go home.”

These experiences can’t help but make their way into the music of Fontaines D.C., the band Chatten fronts — specifically on the band’s third album, Skinty Fia, out April 22. “A lot of it is revealing itself to me to be largely informed and influenced by Irishness existing in England,” Chatten says of the LP, “and mutating and becoming a new kind of culture in general.”

Fontaines D.C. first broke out with their 2019 album, Dogrel, written in their native Dublin, which earned them a spot on the Mercury Music Prize shortlist. Fontaines became a fan favorite for overlaying barked poetry over tense, garage-y instrumentals, recalling the chaotic brilliance of the Fall and more modern acts like Sleaford Mods. Their second record, 2020’s A Hero’s Death, written mostly on tour, won the band rave reviews  — including from Rolling Stone — and a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Album.

According to Chatten, Skinty Fia (titled after an old Irish swear meaning “the damnation of the deer”; see below for more on that) started coming together when members of the band were back in Dublin during the pandemic. One inspiration was a charity-shop accordion that Chatten’s mother gave him for Christmas. “It was just one of those things,” he says. “It was put in my hands and then I was away for a couple of days, walking around the gaff playing with very little knowledge of how to play. … I realized that that was an interesting place for me to go on the next record.”

The rest of the album took shape back in London during dreamy night sessions at the band’s rehearsal space. “There’s a kind of healthiness to writing during the day. It felt very structured or something like that, and easy,” Chatten says. “I think we just wanted to see what would happen if we did it during the night so things get a little bit less certain.”

The result is a record that merges accordion and doomy electronica, Nineties alt-rock and Irish angst. The first single, the sinister “Jackie Down the Line,” is out now — and, below, Chatten breaks down every track of the upcoming evolution of Fontaines D.C.

“In ár gCroíthe go deo”
There’s a story in the papers about a woman from Coventry in England. I think she was an Irish woman who moved to Coventry. She was an old woman, she was called Margaret King. She died, and when she died her family wanted to commemorate her Irish heritage by including the words “in ár gCroíthe go deo” on her gravestone. The words basically mean “in our hearts forever.” It’s just the heartfelt message, but the church of England itself ruled that it was … at risk of being perceived as a political slogan, so they refused to allow the Irish language to exist on an Irish person’s gravestone. The shocking part, which I’ve left to the end of the story for dramatic effect for you, is that this is two years ago. This wasn’t the Seventies or anything like that. This is at the start of the pandemic that this happened.

To consider Irishness and to perceive Irish as inherently sort of linked to the IRA or terrorism or anything like that, it’s just deeply upsetting to hear. We read this when we went back to Ireland for the start of the pandemic. I just felt like I was looking down the barrel of the gun, of going to this country that doesn’t really welcome people who are Irish. It still considers people from Ireland something not to be trusted and threatening. A lot of the album is built upon that experience, that feeling. Something we’ve experienced a lot over here in London.

“Big Shot”
It’s the only song in the album whose lyrics I didn’t write. Carlos [O’Connell], one of our guitarists wrote the lyrics and he wrote the main riff and everything like that. He’d be able to explain it a lot better, but what it means to me is … I think of Carlos as someone who battles sort of gloriously with his ego, which is being stroked and mutated over the last few years because we’re in a relatively sort of successful band. It’s about his struggle to divine or delineate the real from the superficial and the material.

“How Cold Love Is”
Love’s a double-edged sword, you know? I think the song was influenced by addiction, which is something that runs in a lot of families. Not just mine, but a lot of families. It’s the sort of duality of things to both comfort you, provide you with warmth and encouragement and safety, and at the same time while doing that, rob all the change from your back pocket, you know what I mean? That’s kind of what I was interested in.

There’s got to be tension in order for it to be an interesting thing to write about. I’m not interested in writing a straight-up love song. I mean, I am, I just think it would be really hard because I don’t know how to write without that kind of duality or that tension or a duplicity almost. There’s no hope without tragedy and all that.

“Jackie Down the Line”
I think it’s interesting in this world where it’s incredibly important to be good, it just makes it very, very alluring to write from the perspective of somebody who doesn’t want to be good or doesn’t feel the need to pretend to be good. I think the song would be summed up with the word “doom.”

On our last tour in U.K., it was a ritual of mine to listen to … do you know the actor, Andrew Scott? I used to listen to his readings of Dubliners. Every day I’d kind of find a room of space on my own and just spend like an hour just listening to that. It was kind of like a form of meditation and it’s a great way to share the hangover as well, because the most certain thing to me about having a hangover is the numbness that can come with it. Andrew Scott’s voice taking a hand and leading me through the Dubliners … you shed that numbness very quickly, I find. I think he actually cries at the end of the story “A Painful Case.” You can hear him actually cry. I think it’s him crying in real life because I don’t think it makes any sense as a dramatic decision on his part as an actor. I think he must be really crying there.

It’s interesting for me to dissect what that song means, because I think what it means is, [I’m] saying goodbye to Dublin, without realizing it. I’m kind of saying that this is the last time I’m going to sort of trace the steps of [James] Joyce and Flann O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh and walk these streets and be in love with the rain and in love with the pubs and the stone buildings and the ghosts of the past. Am I really being influenced by that anymore? Has it been run dry for me? Am I becoming desensitized toward it? That’s what that song was. There’s a kind of great sadness to that.

“Roman Holiday”
I think it’s about wanting to sort of go out and embrace London as an Irish person. I’m trying to kind of convince my girlfriend to come out and enjoy this… it’s like adventure, you know what I mean? The reason I use the word “embrace,” trying to talk about this, is because in a sense, especially when you surround yourselves or almost insulate yourself with people who are from the same area as you in a new country — most of my friends here are from Dublin as well — the effect is that you begin to look for it or love it. You want reminders of the fact that you’re part of this group of people that are still sort of mocked and told to go home. At some point, you start to wear as like a badge of honor, and that’s what that song is. It’s a celebration of that flipping, from it being a bad thing into a positive thing.

“The Couple Across the Way”
I was living in a flat with my girlfriend [and] there was a couple across the way. It was like a Rear Window kind of setup at the back. There was a little courtyard and across from the courtyard, there was a really old couple. They used to have really turbulent and loud arguments. You’d hear them really screaming at each other. They’d be roaring their heads off. During the argument, the man would just come out onto the balcony and he would look left and right, and just take a deep gulp of air. Kind of hang his head and collect himself and then turn around and go back in.

How could I resist, as a songwriter, the physical metaphor of looking across at a potential reflection of myself and my girlfriend in a few years to come and also vice versa, to see us as a reflection of them? It’s like a physical manifestation or physical metaphor for empathy.

“Skinty Fia”
“Skinty Fia” is an expression that our drummer’s great auntie used to say. She was an Irish-speaking person, like strictly Irish-speaking, exclusively Irish-speaking person. She used to say that as kind of like a colloquialism. I never heard it before Tom [Coll] said it to me recently, but it was a substitute for a swear word, basically. If she drops something, she’d say, “Ah, skinty fia.” It roughly translates as “the damnation of the deer.” I don’t know, it sounds like mutation and doom and inevitability and all these things that I felt were congruous to my idea of Irishness abroad. Like if you go to Boston, that expression of Irishness. That’s skinty fia to me. That’s that mutation. That’s a new thing. It’s not unlicensed and it’s not impure. Just because it’s diaspora, it’s still pure. It’s just a completely new beast.

Those are kind of the themes I wanted to explore in the album. The song itself is just about a doomed, paranoid relationship with influences of alcohol, drugs, and paranoia. … I’m sure in some way, that’s how I feel being here, that there’s this doom ringing in my head and I don’t know why.

“I Love You”
It’s like the most normal title ever. I wanted to write a song called “I Love You” because I thought that it was a challenge that interested me to write a song about so kind of an ostensibly cliché topic and attempt to make it interesting and my own, unique. It just turned out to be another song about Ireland, of course. I kind of feel like it’s in two parts. Spiritually, there are two parts to it. I’m in a position there where I’ve made something of a career from trying to connect with and render the culture and country that I come from and try and express it and in turn and in doing so, understand it myself and help other people understand it. That’s what I think I’m doing.

I’ve moved from that country. I’m now living in a country that is responsible for a lot of the chaos in the country that I’m from, that still kind of looks down on that country. I feel guilty for having left. I feel like I’ve abandoned Ireland to some extent. Not that it can’t survive fine without me, but I feel like I’ve taken all this crap from it creatively, and then I’ve just left. I have this kind of strange feeling of guilt toward my leaving of Ireland.

[Conor] Curley, our guitarist, wrote all the music and the title. I think he just felt kind of consumed by the spirit of [Nabokov’s] writing and wanted to relay that musically. He had this piece of music and the title, and then I wrote the lyrics more or less in one go. I think the lyrics are about almost like a perverse take on … it’s compromise in a relationship sort of rendered as civility.

It’s an exaggeration of a compromise that’s necessary to a functioning relationship, to the point where it sounds pathetic. I just wanted to kind of put myself in that position, in that song, to express how it feels to no longer have absolute independence and autonomy over your life, when you decide that you are in love and you want to share your life with someone. There’s lines like, “I will be your dog in the corner, and I would light your cigarette.” It’s just this subservience that I wanted to use in order to express the element of compromise that’s necessary.