K Paoletter 15: Gold Harps on the Side


“Dear dirty Dublin” hasn’t been so in some time. Far from the gritty, working-class town of Joyce’s or even Heaney’s day, by some measures Dublin is now the most expensive city in all the European Union to live in, and is only growing more so as financial services firms fleeing London and Brexit keep alighting there. Even in a non-figurative sense, Dublin has been cited as “cleaner than European norms.” Odd, then, that this new Dublin, sanitized and capital friendly, should have birthed Fontaines D.C., as incendiary a rock band as has emerged in recent years. Despite playing the sort of bedraggled post-punk most associated with ‘80s college radio, the band has been profiled widely by magazines and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, appeared on the Tonight Show, and their debut album, Dogrel, even cracked the top ten of Billboard’s chart in the UK. 

In an age that has seen guitar-driven music ebb to the furthest periphery of pop culture, a new rock outfit finding any kind of mass audience— let alone an international one— is no small feat. Much of the appeal of the group seems to be in how they fuse their throwback sound with the famed Irish literary tradition. The story goes that after meeting as classmates at a music academy in Dublin, the five bandmates-to-be bonded over Yeats and Joyce. “They’d go to pubs and pass a shared notebook around the table,” the New York Times wrote in its profile of the band last month, “they self-published chapbooks and slipped them into bookstores. They put on readings with other writers, including a soap salesman-poet they met in Sweny’s, the drugstore that features in Joyce’s Ulysses.” Such writerly affectations only cemented the band’s commitment to distilling the energy of the Irish capital into music (to whit, the “D.C.” in the band’s name stands for “Dublin City”). As frontman Grian Chatten told Stereogum, “There’s so much poetry innately in the colloquialisms of people in Ireland. You don’t really have to strive to speak poetically if you’re speaking in the Dublin lingo, you know? It’s just impossible to live in that and not churn it out.” 

At the same time, the antecedents of the music that accompanies that churn is not hard to grasp. On the Tonight Show, bassist Conor Deegan sported the same Velvet Underground t-shirt he wore in the choppy, home-spun video for the single “Too Real.” The hard-edged, maundering sound the Velvets injected into the veins of rock in the late ‘60s is everywhere on Dogrel. Their guitar work alternates between crunchy power chords and sliding, atmospheric licks; a clatter of drums and symbols is always lurking, ready to surge to the forefront. The result is eleven precisely tailored tracks, each one veering from one musical idea to another in order to speak a piecemeal truth about feeling down and out in an ascendent city. 

Though “Liberty Belle” is the album’s hair-raising standout, “Too Real,” is probably more representative of their approach to songwriting. It opens with a boppy riff that, with a half-hearted holler from Chattan, explodes into a classic wash of drums that drop just as quickly away into a uneasy backbeat. The group swerves between headyness and disillusionment in that minute or so of instrumentation, an emotional tug-of-war that’s channeled by Chattan when he sings, “None can revolution lead with selfish needs aside, as it stands, I’m about to make a lot of money.” Even the chopped up syntax of this lyric reinforce the muddiness of the politics here— the only clear takeaway is that last bit. 

As the song continues, Fontaines D.C.’s literary ambitions become more clear. After the chorus, Chattan pivots into a more legible mode, but does so only by cribbing from T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” singing, 

The winter evening settles down

the bruised and beat up open sky, six o’clock

The city in its final dress

And now a gusty shower wraps the grimy scraps of withered leaves all about your feet

And then the wringing of a twitching hand

Six o’clock, six o’clock

This passage is little more than a flight of fancy; the next verse echoes the first, again destabilized by that backbeat and the guitars that rise over it, mimicking slide-whistles. Vague notions of revolution are dashed against an image of a city exhausted by labor, all of it swallowed again by that refrain: “I’m about to make a lot of money.” “Is it too real for ya?” Chatten asks again and again as the song concludes. “Is it too real?”

Money, it turns out, is as deeply woven into Fontaines D.C.’s music as poetry, even if it’s the latter component that has drawn the most notice. “Money is the sandpit of the soul” becomes the refrain for “Chequeless Reckless”; in “The Lotts,” Chatten sketches out an interaction between a beggar “looking for a few coins” and a passer-by who asks him, “What you want, son? Manger for the evening or a presidential run?” Even on the album’s opening number, “Big,” Chattan’s chorus of  “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big” is easily read as much as an aspiration for wealth as for fame. 

The way Fontaines D.C. attacks the concept of money feels more pathological than how the rock bands of earlier generations did. The over-the-top irony of the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Money” feel even derpier now (“Money, get back. I’m alright, Jack, keep your hands off my stack”) than even its cash register intro does, and the maudlin suspicion Patti Smith bring to the subject on “Free Money” verges on patronizing (“Find a ticket, win a lottery. Every night before I rest my head, see those dollar bills go swirling ‘round my bed”). Fontaines D.C. are hardly capitalist boosters—“money is the sandpit of the soul” after all— but they do come across as more honest about the central role money plays in their lives, and in the city they call home. That’s what I mean by pathological: not that the band has some Freudian fixation on wealth, but that they have internalized money as a foundational force shaping their world. 

Disdaining money while aspiring to rake it in in bales, as earlier groups might have, is so obviously disingenuous that a band as principled as Fontaines D.C. seems to be would hardly be able to stomach the contradiction. They even begin “Chequeless Reckless” with the proclamation, “A sell-out is someone who becomes a hypocrite in the name of money.” The way to avoid being a sell-out, I guess, isn’t to not pursue money, but rather to just be upfront about it. 

Hearing the label “sell-out” spat out with such disgust in 2019 is a bit destabilizing. Setting aside Fontaines D.C.’s disdain for hypocrisy, selling out has long since ceased to even be an act worth being hypocritical about— selling out is the whole point! The ethics espoused in the early ‘90s by another clear Fontaines D.C. inspiration, Fugazi— wherein the cover price for shows was initially capped at $5— appear deeply out-moded in the streaming era, where touring is the only way a musician can hope to make a decent living. 

Even if millions of Spotify users were streaming the tracks on Dogrel every month, that would only translate into a couple thousand bucks for the band to split up five ways. With average monthly rents in Dublin surging past 2,000 Euros this year, charging pocket change for shows is hardly a recipe for a sustainable career. It’s no accident that the heyday of Ian MacKaye came at a time when much of the other D.C. was still boarded-up and neglected. One imagines that $5 policy would’ve been a slight bit more challenging to maintain were he to come up now and have a $2,000 lease in Columbia Heights to contend with every month. 

The situation is hardly better in the other once hollowed out towns that cradled thriving music scenes in the 20th Century. Affordability and creativity may have once gone hand-in-hand, but as the success of Fontaines D.C. exemplifies, it’s not like the insane cost of living in places like Dublin precludes artists from thriving there. All it means is that money, now, can no longer simply be sneered at. Making it as an artist means getting paid, even if pursuing that result makes you feel a little queasy. Is that too real for ya? Is that too real?

In July I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Andrew Thompson, who runs the data science website Components, on a project where we analyzed some 18,000 cable news transcripts to tease out which figures in the Mueller Investigation received the most coverage from MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN. My essay on our findings is here, and there’s more where that came from— over the next couple months we’ll be releasing several other essays that use data to examine some different corners of the media ecosystem. Stay tuned, and check out the other cool stuff Components has put out, including Liz Pelly’s piece on Spotify streaming data and the interview between Andrew and the journalist Barrett Brown about the divergence between the New York Times’ print and online editions. 

My old chum Annie Fish is in the midst of a really exciting project wherein they go back over the catalog of music they released as Violet Mice and write up liner notes for each and every song. Violet Mice has released a ton of material over the years (we’re talking like 17 albums, people), so as you can imagine this is quite an undertaking— and that’s before you get into the emotional labor of revisiting art you created in freaking high school and trying to tease out what was driving you at the time. Whether or not you listen to Violet Mice (and you should!), Annie’s liner notes are really fascinating looks at how a person formulates and refines a creative practice. To get access to the project, all you gotta do is head over to their Patreon and kick them two bucks— easy!

Thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing. You can find me on my website or out on the patio with my laptop and a mint tea, savoring those last few steamy days of summer. 

Your pal,