Fontaines D.C. Talk Simple Guitar Rigs & the "Proper Adventure" of DIY Touring | Interview

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell / Staff via Getty Images.

Fontaines D.C. formed in Dublin in 2014. Almost a decade later, they're at the top of the world.

Made up of singer Grian Chatten, bassist Conor Deegan III, drummer Tom Coll, and guitarists Carlos O'Connell and Conor Curley, Fontaines D.C. put a stylish spin on goth-y rock.

They started to build a cult following in 2018, when they put out their debut album, Dogrel. It sat alongside the output of emerging peers like Crack Cloud, shame, and Dry Cleaning—kindred spirits pushing post-punk in exciting new directions. Fontaines D.C. further cemented their status as rising legends in 2018, when they released their second record, A Hero's Death.

But it wasn't until last year's Skinty Fia that Fontaines D.C. truly came into their own. Produced by enduring collaborator Dan Carey, the LP is dark and energizing. Murky guitars and brooding vocals rest atop pristine rhythms. It captures Fontaines D.C. at their finest, and led to extensive tour dates supporting the Arctic Monkeys.

Hot on the heels of a show at Red Rocks, Reverb caught up with O'Connell and Curley. Zooming in from a nondescript backstage, they talked about drum mic'ing techniques, simple guitar rigs, the joy of DIY touring, and more.

Fontaines D.C. - "I Love You"

You're currently on tour. I'm curious how it's been to be back on the road.

Carlos O'Connell: Good, man. It's been solid shows throughout. We're supporting The [Arctic] Monkeys, and so the rooms are really big.

Conor Curley: We just played Red Rocks, which is honestly a bucket list for any band. That was cool.

That's the dream! Sounds super sick. It's crazy that you played Red Rocks. I've been a fan for a while, so it's cool to see you guys at the top of the world a little bit.

CC: We need our own show there, man.

CO: Top of somebody else's world.

CC: Invited into the top of someone else's world.

Well, welcome and congrats! I'm sure you've been asked this many times before, but can you talk about your individual backgrounds as musicians and how that all led up to Fontaines D.C.?

CO: I mean, we met fairly young. We were all about 18 when we met.

CC: We went to music college. Everyone, except Tom (Coll), did songwriting in college. So we all kind of met as acoustic songwriter-y type people.

CO: Yeah, sort of, like, "one-man band."

CC: Then we realized that it's more fun to do things with people. Playing shows on your own is a lonely world. I don't know man, I just grew up playing punk tunes—like, Green Day and NoFX and stuff like that in, like, a little ratty teenager band. And when I got to the age, I decided that I'd rather give music a go and fail but know that I'd given it a go.

Now that you've toured the world a fair amount, I'm curious how you think being a band from Ireland has impacted that. Do you feel like those roots have shaped your transition to what is now, essentially, international stardom?

CO: I don't think it makes a difference being from Ireland. You get out and you're just in the world. I think the only thing we brought is that we've sort of been true to where we came from.

We were entwined to fit into the wider world. We just did what we did, and at the end of the day, everyone shares the same sort of individual feelings, no matter where you're from. I think when you tap into those, the background almost becomes secondary.

I'd love to talk about your music creation process and gear a little bit. To start, I'm curious what your general songwriting process as a band is like.

CO: There's kind of, like, two different ways that it goes. One way is that a song is brought into the band that was started individually by the member. Grian, from the start, has done most of that—bringing the individual songs in, with a few exceptions on the different albums and stuff. And then that song gets worked on in a room.

And then the other way it can happen is, we're five boys in a rehearsal room and we start playing something and someone says, "That's good." And you start building on top of that.

CC: You cultivate excitement about an idea, and then once everyone's pointing in the same direction, the song gets finished. I think that's my favorite way to write. And then whenever communication is purely true, trying to finish a song, it's really electric. It's really exciting.

Fontaines D.C.: KCRW Live from HQ

I hear a lot of post-punk in your music, but there's also more of a modern rock sound there as well. I guess I'm curious how you feel like you blur the lines between traditional rock music and stuff that sounds more eclectic and groundbreaking.

CO: I don't think we're aware of that. I think we just make music that sounds good to us. I'm just trying to make it as best as possible. We're all music fans, we all listen to a lot of music and share music with each other, which informs this communal taste, I guess.

Any good band probably has that. Where everyone is in-tune with the way they look at music; have a similar understanding of it, therefore we don't clash as individuals. But I think it's just about making stuff that sounds good to us. It doesn't really matter where it's coming from.

CC: Definitely, yeah. I think there's more modernity creeping into our music, mainly because it's very exciting to look at a script that's not written rather than leaning on '80s rock 'n' roll or '60s garage or whatever.

If you're introducing these ideas that you haven't heard in songs, then you're kind of looking into space a bit. And that's a really exciting thing for us.

You just touched on your communal taste a bit. I'm curious if you could talk about some of the artists that fall in there that you look to for inspiration.

CO: There's kind of everything, and it changes all the time. I can tell you what we're listening to before we get on stage is usually what we're most excited about together. Nowadays, there's a lot of Korn on the speakers. A lot of hip-hop. There's this guy called A$AP Ferg that we listen to a lot. And then there's always just classics as well. There's stuff, like, older, traditional Irish music. I guess another big one for the last year has been Sinéad O'Connor.

CC: Massive Attack.

CO: Primal Scream has been a big one for us for a long time.

CC: My Bloody Valentine.

CO: There's been a lot of '90s stuff as well. We've gotten into earlier Nirvana.

CC: Smashing Pumpkins.

CO: Deftones; Alice in Chains.

CC: Deftones is a big one. I think the feeling of Deftones tunes is, like, unmatched. It's just so fucking cool.

CO: But it really is constantly changing. I don't think it has much band roots. A couple of weeks ago, we were listening to a lot of Zamrock—a lot of psychedelic, garage rock from Zambia. We just love music.

CC: Lee Hazlewood is always a good one when you're touring the States.

CO: Leonard Cohen; Elliott Smith.

We can go soft, we can go hard… and weird. And sort of more folk, in terms of traditional music from different cultures.

Getting into your gear a bit: do you have any favorite guitars that you play, or amps or pedals? What does your guitar rig look like?

CC: My favorite guitar is a Fender Coronado, Wildwood, that I just got before this tour. And then amp is just a Twin Reverb, always. Just because when we started, when you're getting backline in venues or you're renting backline, Twin was just the one that everyone had that was not fucked up.

I feel like I maybe tried to toy with using Vox AC-30s but they were always broken and crusty. Twins are just the same all the time. It's a really good, clean base to build on. It has nice low-end. That's it.

Pedals… I'm not a massive pedal guy, to be honest. I just try to have a nice overdrive. I use a Strymon echo. The saturation on that is the best I've heard, anyway, for what I'm trying to do. It's really transparent. It's just, like, a preamp. It drives the amp just a little bit more than a Twin sounds naturally. That's me, for probably 95% of the set.v

CO: My favorite's a '67 red Mustang—really small scale. Kind of a kids scale, I think. I have a Twin Reverb as well. Pedals it's just sort of, like… it seems kind of complicated, but I actually see it as quite straightforward. I have a couple levels of drive and a couple different levels of modulation; tremolo and flanger, really—that stuff. And that's about it.

I think it's more interesting for us to have pedals that do very little on their own and to push the limits of those pedals combined with others, rather than get a really complex pedal that makes all these weird sounds and is just its own thing. I don't think we find that very inspiring.

Fontaines D.C. Gear

What basses and bass amps do you guys play?

CO: We just have a Fender Bassman. It's just a straightforward Fender bass amp. In terms of basses, it's always sort of been a P-Bass and a Jazz Bass; Fender, again.

CC: P-Basses are just the best. They're just the best-sounding basses. It's hard to compare them. When you play other things, they sound good. But they just don't have that force.

One of the things I really love about your music is that I feel like you have a really clean drum sound. But your guitar and vocal processing is often more murky. I'm curious if you could talk about how you record percussion. Are there any pieces of gear or techniques or technology you use to get your drum sound?

CO: I don't think so. It's really straightforward, really. On the records, it's always live in the room. The drums are in the same room as the amps.

CC: The first record, the drum sound is a lot closer. We recorded it in a studio that had quite a small live room. And our producer Dan Carey has his drums set up on a concrete palette. He can produce it to be quite close. I suppose that the first album is more of that post-punk sound that you were talking about.

And after that, we've been trying to explore the idea of expanding the drums and having more room mics. You know, in the '90s that really exciting drum sound that's big—that's the direction I suppose we might be going now. And then we ended up having some sort of smash mic somewhere to add a bit of grit. That's pretty much it.

For talking about an instrument that I don't record, I feel like that was pretty good.

CO: We've done a couple of different techniques with the drums on the last album, where the stems of the kick and snare were recorded live through a Twin Reverb. And then we re-recorded that and added that as, like, drum machine grit to the mix. The base is mainly just a drum kit in a room. Depending on how big the room is, the drum sound is determined by that.

The vocals and guitar tones feel very dark, in a cool way. I'm curious if you could talk about how you dial into such a sound.

CO: I think we're just dark people, man.

CC: Menacing. That's our vibe. We always want something to be a little bit, like…

CO: Fucked up.

I don't know, man. I think it's just the way we sound.

CC: It's the sound that attracts us. There's a certain element of, I suppose, like, a gothiness. Like, that kind of goth-y guitar that The Cure has. It's just kind of reverb and the playing style.

CO: Reverb and driving the amp.

CC: It's the coolest thing to us. It's what we want to feel when we listen to those sounds, and you feel that darkness. But it's a beautiful darkness. That's what you're trying to achieve.

Are there any other important pieces of gear that we haven't talked about that you feel like shape your sound as a band?

CO: Not really, man. It's all pretty straightforward.

CC: It's a lot of Fenders.

I think writing is kind of the main thing. The gear serves the purpose of being on-stage and working every night. Sometimes the guitar does inform a riff or a way of playing. But mainly it's just expression that gets that stuff happening. Like, the murkiness and stuff.

I'm curious if you could talk a bit about the recording process of your last album, Skinty Fia.

CO: We went to a bigger studio on the last one, and you can really hear it. The drums, anyways, are a lot bigger and tighter than the first two records. But the process was sort of, like, the same.

We do the instrumental tracks live. We try to limit the amount of takes we do to a minimum. It feels like the more repetition you do of the same song, the excitement just gets sucked out of it. And then we record the vocals over those instrumentals. And then we spend a few days doing overdubs and doubling up guitars or instruments that are not the core of the band.

Dan Carey has been a great collaborator for a while, and he does a thing where he takes a feed from the two guitars and the bass and puts them through a little mixing desk and into a chain of effects that he then sidechain-compresses to the kick drum.

And that's just this live, atmospheric track that's being created through everything we're doing. And the intensity of it is being controlled live by him, depending on how much he's letting it take over the track or how much is in the background. That's something that happens live while we're doing the take.

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He rarely does any overdubs himself, apart from the synth he has, called the Swarmatron, which sort of creeps in and out. That's Dan's signature sound, which he tries to get in there, everywhere. He's never used it wrong.

CO: It's a crazy sounding instrument. You tune it with a screwdriver; you tune it to the note, and then it can add fifths or thirds or whatever. It's got an amazing sound to it. I've never seen one since, and I don't know if anyone else in the world knows how to use those things.

CC: I think he's probably the best player in the world.

CO: Recording the last album, we had prepared so much for it, as well, that we knew the songs really inside and out. It kind of freed up our heads. That mixing process was going down the real philosophy of the album and how each song should interplay with each other. It was a really good experience. It was during Covid as well, so it just felt like we were at a residential studio on a different planet.

Looking forward, is there anything that you have lined up that you can tease?

CO: We're working on music. We want to sort of, like, get another record going. It feels like it's probably not that long in normal terms, but we've been quite quick in turning albums around. I feel like this year we took a bit of time off, a bit longer than before. But it still feels pretty fresh. We're just working on stuff.

Being on a support tour means we have quite a bit of time, so we get to work songs out here, backstage. We have a couple acoustic guitars; a couple of little keyboards; samplers and drum machines. We can kind of start arranging and writing stuff right here.

CC: Because we had a lot of time off, we have more demos individually to go through. So we're getting laptops out and just advising each other and working on parts with different instruments.

CO: I've been using this little keyboard a lot on this tour. It's the Yamaha CP Reface. Like, a three-octave little keyboard that emulates a Rhodes and a Wurlitzer. It's got these brilliant effects built into it—very simple effects, but if you know how to push them in a certain way you get really interesting sounds out of it. It's been a really exciting texture to have in the stripped-back setting where we can write all the time now.

Before, we'd been limited to acoustic guitars. And now you can start hinting at what the guitars can sound like, the atmospheres you can create. We've been using that keyboard quite a bit back here. It's really exciting. That's a piece of gear that I bought a few months ago that definitely started informing a lot of writing, actually. If we didn't have it, we'd be approaching things differently.

It's a great synth. I have the DX Reface, so different. But I love it. It's a fun little toy.

CO: It's more than a toy, I think. It's an absolute fucking beast. I definitely want to be playing it live.

CC: You're going to turn it into a keytar, aren't you?

CO: I'm gonna turn it into a keytar, yeah.

I have one more question. Can you talk about some of the coolest experiences you've had playing in the band over the years?

CO: It's been a lot, you know? The first one that comes to mind is Primavera last year. It was the main stage, and it was fucking packed. I think there were 60,000 people there watching. It was unbelievable.

CC: That was insane. It was, like, five o'clock? Six o'clock? There was no business for it to be that packed.

I think the coolest thing in the band—I think about it more and more—is when we used to tour on our own in the van. There's just this idea of, like, five people putting themselves through this.

Like, suddenly you're in Warsaw and you're running out of fuel on the tank and you're hoping that there's gonna be a fuel station coming up. But it adds this real sense of proper adventure. There's no one there to help you. But you're surviving and you're playing shows. That's the coolest part of it. If anyone's in a band, I'd be jealous if they were, like, "We're going off and doing this." I'd be, like, "That's the fucking best shit."

CO: That's where the memories are created, for sure.

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