Dean: What Makes Music Sound Irish?

Fontaines D.C. have enjoyed a rise that Neil deGrasse Tyson would be happy to describe as meteoric. That there’s been something of a backlash against the band is not at all shocking. To some, the attention Fontaines D.C. receive feels unjust when groups they see as just as worthy struggle to attract anything like the same notoriety. Criticising little-known art is not a noble pursuit. But when a certain amount of success is attained, watch the detractors go to the mattresses.

Personally, I think Fontaines D.C. are an excellent band. Raw, energetic and just a little bit ragged, they splendidly blend storming post-punk rhythms with poetic barstool songwriting. Here’s a young group that demonstrate the eternal truth that marvellous rock ‘n’ roll music isn’t about perfect notes, it’s about the power of the performance.

But it doesn’t matter if you have the musical chops of 1,000 John Coltrane clones. Drop ill-advised sound bites and you’ll expose yourself to negative energy. For Fontaines D.C., one such unfortunate quote came earlier this year when, in an interview with Vice, singer Grian Chatten opened up about the influence of fellow Dubliners Girl Band on his own group’s sound.

“They presented a new Dublin, and a new Ireland, to us,” said Chatten. “The lyrics are colloquial, and quite Dublin-specific—‘chicken fillet rolls’ and stuff like that. They brought those things, for the first time, into Dublin music. Before that, the only way to sound Irish was to be fuckin’ ‘diddly-diddly-aye’. They modernised Irish music massively.”

This assertion irked the hell out of a lot of people for its perceived lack of respect for Irish traditional music and erasure of recent Irish rock history. In the band’s defence, some of the online chatter I saw did twist the quote. Chatten wasn’t saying that all Irish music before Girl Band was “fuckin’ ‘diddly-diddly-aye’” or whatever. He was saying that prior to the emergence of Girl Band, trad music – with its fiddles, flutes, banjos and bodhráns – was the only way of evoking a recognisably Irish sound.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a bad take. But Chatten’s clumsy assertions elicit the question: just what makes music sound Irish?

The obvious answer is: native styles, instrumentation, vernacular and accents. This is true of every region on Earth. Trad music’s rich history strongly associates it with Ireland – an association that is strengthened by thousands of brochures, television ads and postcards. People who have never set foot on this island are hardwired to link these sounds to romantic Irish imagery. The stereotypical image of the fiddling paddy bothers some – which is probably why Chatten was so aggressive in his choice of language – but that these tropes are part of our cultural DNA is undeniable.

(Little fact for you: Ireland is the only country in the world with a musical instrument, the harp, as its national emblem.)

Bands like The Pogues – a confirmed Fontaines D.C. influence – took all our assumptions about what makes music sound Irish and doused them in punk flavours. Their use of trad instruments and Shane MacGowan’s brogue-heavy vocal style were geographically specific. That’s why The Pogues were able to hijack “Dirty Old Town”, a song written by Ewan MacColl about Salford way back in 1949, and make it sound uniquely and quintessentially about Dublin.

Fontaines D.C. make music with an affinity, a yearning, for the city. There are obvious indicators: Chatten’s burly Dublin accent, the lyrical references to specific landmarks, the rich cast of characters that populate the songs, lyrics that focus on issues afflicting the city. When you hear a ballad like “Dublin City Sky”, and its depiction of rain-drenched nights, drunken dances and cold markets, it’s tough not to feel a spike of feelings for the old capital.

But there’s something else. Something intangible. Deep within the rough production and rickety orchestration, you can feel the rhythm of the city. It’s as Dublin as the work of James Joyce. If he were alive today, the literary immortal would have to concede that his modernist avant-garde writings can’t get you jumping like this furious five.

Still, does Fontaines D.C.’s music sound more Dublin than, say, Luthorist’s Hueco Mundo? Released earlier this year, the NUXSENSE rapper’s excellent solo album opens with a recording of a Luas stop announcement – pretty much its only overt geographical indicator. But when I listen to the Brazilian-born emcee’s hushed rapping over producer Sivv’s languid beats, it evokes feelings of surly 4am stumble through Dublin.

It’s a similar story with Girl Band. Take the industrial zone rattle ‘n’ clank of “Umbongo”. Or the gnarled guitars and propulsive drums of excellent recent single “Shoulderblades”, their first new track in almost four years. How can a group encapsulate Ireland when their music sounds like it was recorded inside an enclosed metal room?

Yet perhaps more so than any other local artist, Girl Band tap into the chaos and disorder of Irish youth. They’ve provided a soundtrack to an era when art spaces are being shut down and affordable housing has evaporated. The group tackle anxiety and mental-health issues with a power that few Irish artists in any medium can match. Bottling that frustration makes them more of the city than nods to local chicken-fillet rolls, garlic curry-cheese chips or any other of our national food favourites.

This is the modernization of Irish music that Chatten was talking about – the assertion that there is no single way to sound Irish.

Chatten might have stood accused of disrespecting antique Irish sounds, but, equally, artists who reject the perceived tenets of Irishness can suffer a push-back. I’ve long seen a snark in Irish hip-hop circles against rappers who revel in specific regional sounds or, rather than use local accents, tune their voice to a more neutral style. But there should be no restrictions on ingenuity. Artists are free to sing or rap in whatever way feels appropriate for them. There’s no bonus points for doing things a certain way.

Traditional Irish music will always be associated with this nation, like blues music made anywhere on the globe will always owe a debt to the United States’ deep south. But the idea of “sounding Irish” can start to feel restrictive and oppressive. We’re diversifying our stylistic pallette at a fast pace right now. With a bit of luck, the borders of Irish music will never stop being challenged.

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Dean Van Nguyen: Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth, race relations and Dublin.

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