- 06 Aug 21
The gestation period has been longer than planned, but Inhaler's It Won’t Always Be Like This is every bit the classic debut album they promised. Joe Strummer, Tony Soprano and more get a namecheck as they hang out at HP Central with Stuart Clark. Photography: Miguel Ruiz.
“We’ve got to deliver a debut album that’s as good as the first Clash or Strokes record. If you don’t aspire to that you shouldn’t be in a band.”
That was Josh Jenkinson setting the bar stratospherically high for himself and his Inhaler brothers-in-arms when we last met them 19 months ago backstage at The Button Factory where they were playing the first of two sell-out Christmas shows.
They’d found their Stephen Street/Butch Vig/Martin Hannett/Steve Lillywhite/George Martin in the eccentric shape of Antony Genn (more of whom anon) and were looking forward to applying the finishing touches to their meisterwork and then embarking on the sort of epic No Sleep Til’ Boise, Idaho tour that singer Elijah Hewson’s dad and his mates did when they were Inhaler’s age.
What happened next was both an XXL sized pain in the butt and the reason why young Mr. Jenkinson’s bold assertion hasn’t come back to bite them on that same bum.
“When the first lockdown happened I thought, ‘You can either sit around moaning at the injustice of it all or make this work to your advantage’, so I wrote… a lot,” Hewson says of the six songs on It Won’t Always Be Like This that were mere twinkles in his eyes in December 2019. “It’s not a ‘lockdown record’ but the heightened emotions we all felt during it definitely fed into – let me see if I can remember them all – ‘Totally’, ‘Who’s Your Money On?’ ‘When It Breaks’, ‘Slide Out The Window’, ‘In My Sleep’ and ‘Strange Time To Be Alive’, which totally sounds like it was about lockdown but isn’t.”
It being too early in their career for a London Calling or a Sandinista – I’m not the only person in the room with a major Joe Strummer fixation – the inclusion of each new song meant the axing of an old one like ‘Ice Cream Sundae’, a fan favourite from way back. Mama Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd liked it so much that she used it to soundtrack one of the pivotal scenes in her last Dublin-set film, Herself?
“That’s the first I’ve heard of it,” a surprised Hewson says. “Was it any good?”
Cracking despite – or perhaps because – of its tiny budget and available for him to watch now on Amazon Prime. Given the widescreen cinematic nature of Inhaler’s music, you imagine that their IMDB listing will be increasing exponentially.
“You don’t need a budget to make a good film, you really don’t,” Eli reflects.
“We’ve made music videos on our own using a mate’s camera that are among our favourites,” Ryan notes. “If there’s budget to throw at a good idea, great – but money is no substitute for creativity.”
The sextet of new Inhaler songs received an enthusiastic ‘thumbs up’ from Antony Genn who’s the mixture of drill sergeant and surrogate mother that all young rock and/or roll bands need lest they start believing their own hype.
“I think we told you before that he’s into The Stranglers but has a Beethoven tattoo,” Eli laughs. “He was a member of Longpig, Pulp and The Hours, toured with Elastica and formed The Mescaleros with Joe Strummer so he’s totally sympathetic towards you as a musician. We’re currently writing our second album, which we intend to record again with Antony because he’s been such a good mentor to us. He’s also the most charismatic person I’ve ever met.”
Given that Eli was once in the same room as David Bowie, that’s quite the accolade. Some home truths were dispensed before Genn, who’s also written a ballet and soundtracked Peaky Blinders, agreed to work with them.
“When we went to Antony first with ‘Ice Cream Sundae’ and asked ‘Will you record this for us?’ the answer was ‘No, you’re shit.’ We were like ‘Really?’ and he said ‘Yeah.’ And I’m really fucking glad he did because it was true and no else had had the balls to tell us.”
What was on his shit-list?
“Number one, we couldn’t play our instruments,” Ryan reveals. “Myself, Eli and Rob had been jamming together since we were thirteen, learning covers of our favourite bands, which are always going to sound half-decent because they’re such great songs. The making a loud noise bit we were good at, but we weren’t in any way proficient. Josh, who could play his instrument, joining was motivation for us to try and get better but, Ant was right, our better still wasn’t good enough.”
“It was frustrating hearing stuff in our heads that we weren’t able to play on our instruments,” Eli says. “We met Ant at exactly the right time. He inspires us to get better and better and better – and still tells us we’re shit!”
Having spent so much time living in each other’s pockets, it was a shock to the Inhaler systems when Covid forced them to hunker down in their respective family homes for four months.
“We went from being best mates travelling the world together to having to stay within our allotted 3kms and only being able to see each other on Zoom,” Ryan reflects. “All that uncertainty really messes with your head or at least it did mine.”
“Even if you’re a bit of a loner, social interaction is essential to how the brain works,” Eli agrees. “We did a gig on March 6, 2020 for the Annie Mac Show in a London venue called The Lexington, which was the best – and last time – we ever played. We’d been hard at it touring for two months straight, taken a week off and were supposed to be going to America until suddenly the border was sealed and we couldn’t. Even then we thought, ‘It’s swine flu, it’ll be over in a month.’ Selfishly, though, it was beneficial to us because we got the time off to recoup mentally and physically and come up with half a new album.”
As a result, It Won’t Always Be Like This is a very different beast to what was originally planned.
“Before the pandemic, the album was going to be more a compilation of singles,” Eli resumes. “If we had two or three days off we’d go into the studio, record a song and then resume touring, which was great fun but meant that instead of immersing ourselves in the experience we were dipping in and out. I’m not going to say it was fate because if it was fate’s a bastard, but it gave us room to push ourselves and experiment.”
I hate using the M-word but with its different textures and willingness to take musical and lyrical risks, It Won’t Always Be Like This has an air of maturity you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a bunch of 21-year-olds.
“That’s a testament to the amount of growing up we had to do in that time period,” Ryan reflects. “We went straight from school to being in the band full-time and living the dream, which is the perfect excuse to push off being an adult for as long as possible. But once our livelihoods were taken away and the entire world shut down, we had no choice but to reflect on everything. It gave us time to mature as people, as songwriters and as musicians.”
Whilst it’s the new songs that propel It Won’t Always Be Like This into territory previously occupied by Joe Strummer and Julian Casablancas’ mobs, the title-track dates back to the first time the four of them shared a rehearsal space.
“It’s a teenage song about a girl I liked, but when the pandemic struck it took on this whole different life,” Eli reflects. “The world is on fire, but here’s some hope for the future.”
Despite him saying that lockdown has brought them even closer together, there must be moments when they want to punch each other’s lights out.
“There are always arguments, aren’t there?” he says.
“Yeah, but we’re able to navigate each other better now,” Ryan responds before Eli tellingly adds: “We know how to press each other’s buttons too!”
Who’s the most dramatic member of the band?
“You can tell by the hair,” Eli says giving his luxuriantly tressed friend a sideward glance.
“I’m the most flamboyant but it comes with being incredibly handsome and a drummer,” says Ryan who insists no digs were thrown when they ran round the States first with Blossoms – “We’ve so much to thank those guys for” – and then on their own.
“What we did have were flat tyres, equipment not working, equipment going missing and then drummers going missing,” he continues. “I’m always at the gig but not necessarily at the right time. Being unable to tour the past year has been really tough because we were in such a good place with the crowds getting bigger and their reactions more intense. We loved playing shows and having a laugh afterwards with our crew who are the ones who’ve really had it tough in terms of their livelihoods being taken away from them. We’ve all missed being in that travelling circus, where every day is a new adventure.”
Hell hath no fury like a man scorned on ‘My King Will Be Kind’, a symphonic romp, which angrily declares: “She says I’ve got no love/ I fucking hate that bitch/ Cause she takes and she takes/ She won’t give/ And they love/ But I still don’t fit in.” Is this going to result in a cease and desist from an-ex girlfriend?
“No, the song is about our generation being sucked into extreme idealisms online,” Eli clarifies. “I watched this documentary about a group of kids called Incels, which means involuntary celibate and hating women for not wanting to get with them, which is the most tacky vile thing. I wrote ‘My King Will Be Kind’ from their perspective and that line is supposed to make you flinch.”
In adopting such a misogynistic persona, Eli is likely to reignite the “is it okay to say it if you’re in character?” debate, which has enveloped everyone from Alice Cooper and Eminem to Cardi B and NWA.
“Yeah, we had a conversation in the studio about whether we should include that line,” he admits. “If you listen to what rappers have been putting out for forty years it doesn’t really compare and also, every time we play it our fans – male and female – sing that line at the top of their lungs. How do you leave it out?
“I think you can choose to be offended and if somebody is I’m deeply sorry but it was never my intention,” he continues. “That should be the root of it – what was the intention behind it? Obviously there are lines but in art you can’t say that something’s offensive if you don’t know where it’s coming from.”
Eli gets even more animated when I ask him if he considers himself part of the ‘woke’ generation.
“It doesn’t apply to me,” he states. “We’re definitely respectful and maybe more switched on to people’s feelings, which is a good thing, but I find it hard to identify with our generation taking on the role of ‘cleaner uppers’ and setting things straight. We like a bit of mess.”
“Part of the reason you’re in a band is so that you can behave badly,” Ryan agrees. “I think it’s a cornerstone of our generation to be as good a person as you can, but I feel people are too quick to jump to conclusions and aren’t able to critically think for themselves. It’s interesting – we’ve all this social justice but we’re living in a way more polarised world than it was ten years ago.”
“It’s crazy,” Eli nods, “we’re going backwards.”
The College of Psychiatrists said recently that “the gravest threat to the mental health of young people in Ireland today” is cannabis. As young people themselves, what do they reckon?
“Blindboy Boatclub stated in a podcast that the number one contributor to people’s bad mental health is not being able to access mental health treatment, and I 100% agree with him,” Ryan reflects. “Those psychiatrists should perhaps focus more on fixing our mental health system because it’s broken.”
“I would be lying if I said I haven’t smoked cannabis before but I definitely think it’s dangerous because the stuff that’s out there is often contaminated (with synthetic cannabinoids),” Eli proffers. “I’ve heard about horrible things happening in Germany where people are becoming addicted to the chemicals they’re spraying pot with. It’s probably been exacerbated by lockdown. If you’ve been smoking weed by yourself the whole way through, that’s basically the start of a horror film.”
Eli is likely referring to a recent Vice Germany investigation, which found that cannabis has been spiked with substances like Spice, K2 and PRG, which share many of heroin’s addictive properties.
They’re quick enough to give their opinions, but would Inhaler consider themselves a political band?
“It was never the intention but we’ve got like-minded ideas and speak honestly about how we feel,” Eli says.
“There’d never be a racist in this band or a Trump supporter,” Ryan adds. “We all have the same mentality and if we have something worthwhile to say about something we’ll say it…”
“If asked,” Eli says finishing Ryan’s sentence for him. “We’re not going to make grandiose pronouncements but if you ask me about, say, homelessness, I’m going to say my piece.”
What does he think about homelessness?
“It’s a national disgrace,” he asserts. “Dublin was so packed and busy before lockdown that you didn’t fully realise how many people are living on the street. When the city emptied out and you saw all those tents being set up in doorways it really hit home. The other thing is no one’s carrying cash anymore so if you see a homeless person in the street and they’re asking for a couple of bob you’ve nothing to give them. It’s horrible.”
He’s well used at this stage to his old fella’s carry on, but what did Eli make of his older sister Eve playing a beautiful but evil bodysnatcher in lockdown TV must-see Behind Her Eyes?
“If you think she’s scary in that, you should try living with her for eighteen years,” Eli deadpans. “She was born to play that role! There’s about fifteen different personalities in my family so nothing they get up to surprises me. But, yeah, it was nice to see her on the telly nailing it in a lead role because she’s been acting for ten years now. It was a crazy series. I was there thinking, ‘Okay, I’ve a grasp on what’s going on now… wait… no I don’t!’ Even the twists had twists.
“The big TV thing I did in lockdown was watch The Sopranos for the first time. You fall in love with Tony immediately; he’s such a presence on camera. During the recording of the album we all watched Love/Hate, which was very dark but also very funny. The acting and the story were brilliant.”
Does he have any acting genes himself?
“Definitely not,” he smiles, “just blue jeans. I also loved that Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart documentary. I hadn’t realised that the whole ‘Disco Sucks’ thing was based on racism. People were going to these baseball stadiums and burning black soul music. I guess every movement gets hijacked and can be interpreted in different ways.”
Asked whether he considers Inhaler to be part of a scene, Eli shakes his head and says, “No, we’re pretty self-contained. There are bands we’d relate to, though, like The Murder Capital and Fontaines D.C. whose last album was a great friend to have during lockdown. We’re taking a Galway band, The Clockworks, out on tour with us in December. They’ve been signed by Alan McGee so hopefully we’ll get to meet him and hear all his Creation Records stories. I’d have a lot of respect for Dermot Kennedy – it’s great to see Irish artists going into the mainstream – and you’ve the likes of Kojaque and Denise Chaila making brilliant hip hop that’s so of its time and place. Even though we don’t all get to hang out, there’s a great sense of camaraderie and rooting for each other because we all know how difficult it is to get out of Ireland.”
Talking of going into the mainstream, Inhaler got to virtually spend St. Patrick’s Day this year with James Corden and the five million Americans who tune in nightly to the other Late Late Show.
“Man, fifteen minutes before we jumped on that Zoom with James Corden is the most terrified I’ve been in my entire life,” Ryan admits. “I was like, ‘If I slip up and say the wrong thing, we’re done!’ In this day and age you could tell someone they look nice and it could be taken the wrong way.”
Did James look nice?
“He looked wonderful! Thankfully, someone came on the Zoom beforehand and briefed us so the interview itself was super-chilled and nice.”
You can go pretty much anywhere in the States with an AK-47 slung around your neck, but say “fuck” on network TV and the whole fabric of American society starts to unravel.
“We didn’t test the waters but, yeah, the outrage is selective,” Eli notes before telling us how much Inhaler are looking forward to releasing all that pent-up testosterone next month when they head out on UK tour.
“We’re doing our own shows and a few festivals,” he enthuses. “I’m not sure if there’ll be mosh-pits at any of them, but if there are I’m diving straight in!”
• It Won’t Always Be Like This is out now. Inhaler play Belfast, Limerick, Cork, Killarney and Dublin in December.