- 21 Oct 22
Perennial pop heroes, and the best thing to come out of Kells since that fancy book all the Yanks queue up to see, HamsandwicH have outdone themselves with their new album Magnify. “This is the music we’ve created and we want people to hear it,” they proudly tell Pat Carty. Photos: Miguel Ruiz.
A confession to start with. Despite constant badgering from their manager who I’ve known for a few years, handsome Stevo Berube, I’ve never really paid any serious attention to HamsandwicH. All that changed as the scales fell from my eyes and ears at this year’s Electric Picnic, where their performance on The Salty Dog stage bowled me over. They’re sitting in front of me now – Niamh, Podge, and Darcy – so apart from the obvious I’m-old-and-lazy-reason, I ask them why some might adopt this attitude? Is it the case for bands who’ve been around a while – HamsandwicH first started plotting in 2003 – that people have already made up their minds about them, long ago?
“With us,” says front woman and most identifiable face Niamh Farrell, “it’s not necessarily the longevity of the band, I think it’s more to do with the name, especially years ago, which would have turned a lot of people off.”
It is, let’s make no bones about it, a stupid name.
“It is a stupid name,” she concedes, as Podge McNamee (vocals, guitar, ukulele) chuckles beside her. “It stopped people even checking out our music, but it’s definitely a thing where people come up and go, ‘Geez, I’ve never seen you before. I loved that gig!’”
“It usually happens at the Picnic as well,” Podge continues. “They walk past a tent or the main stage…”
“People are milling around, they’ve heard of us somewhere but thought ‘that’s obviously a joke band’ which is understandable, completely.”
Niamh may be right in saying that, but I, and anyone else who was equally foolish, was very wrong to be thinking anything of the sort. Podge looks at it another way, “There’s bands that have had one massive hit like Boo Radleys or Sultan’s Of Ping F.C. We haven’t had a massive hit, there’s just a different opinion about us. When we released White Fox [their second album, in 2010], ‘The Naturist’ surprised people, it was the first time it sounded like we were actually writing serious music, and then ‘Ants’ came after that, but you still feel you have to keep on knocking on people’s doors to show we’re not sticking around for the craic, like.”
Women In Rock
Do HamsandwicH, with a visible front woman, not fit in more with the Irish music scene as it is now than they perhaps did ten or fifteen years ago?
“A little bit,” Niamh thinks. “But your age is a factor. I’m not a twenty-year old woman anymore and I think the music industry nowadays would definitely have more opportunities for someone younger, youth is definitely a currency.”
She is, however, quick to agree that things have changed for the better when it comes to gender balance.
“It is amazing. We’ll be together twenty years next year so it’s lovely to see the scene change and evolve. There’s definitely more female voice out there and amazing female voices at that. Incredible talent.”
“Look at Amyl and The Sniffers!” Podge interjects. “Women are way more hardcore than any men.”
“That’s ‘cause we have to put up with a lot of shit,” says Farrell, which leads neatly to my next question, has it become any easier for ‘Women In Rock’, or is it still shit?
“I think for musicians, maybe, but for everything else surrounding music, like producers, sound engineers, techs and people who work behind the scenes, that’s still a very male dominated area. That might take a little bit longer to change because it’s more set in its ways. I don’t think it’s out of any badness a lot of the time, it’s just ‘this is a male space’, but in terms of music I think it’s changed big time.”
“We made a conscious decision to get Emily Lazar [Grammy-winning engineer who’s worked with everyone from Coldplay to Wu-Tang Clan] to master the album,” guitarist Darcy leans in. “There’s only a small percentage of women in that side of the business. We’re so glad we’re going with her, not just because she’s a woman obviously, but it’s a nice bonus if we can spotlight that issue.”
Is it possible that you weren’t taken suitably seriously earlier on by a male-dominated industry because you are fronted by a woman?
“Maybe, but we were a bunch of messers when we started out. Who knew what might happen at our gigs?” says Niamh before Darcy concedes that “we weren’t taken seriously because we didn’t take it seriously.” Podge puts the question to bed by adding that “we were taking it as seriously as a twenty-year old would take anything seriously.”
When I ask if there were any memorable examples of sexism directed towards her, Niamh remembers one particular night.
“We supported Whitesnake in the Olympia.” I take a minute to try to think of a more incongruous pairing while she continues. “Somebody shouted for me to get my tits out and I thought ‘this is a different kind of crowd’.” A completely different crowd, I’d wager, although I’m sure there’s very little of that class of messing these days now that Mullingar’s Mistress Of The Bass Arts, Tanya O’Callaghan, has joined Coverdale’s gang.
HamsandwicH have been proudly independent throughout their career, releasing all records through their own Route 109A label, named after the bus route from their native Kells to Dublin, but did any of the big companies ever come knocking?
“We had to do an audition kind of thing in The Factory [the rehearsal space on Barrow Street where U2 used to spend a lot of time]. It was the middle of the day, there were four seats set up. It was very awkward. I do not remember enjoying it.”
Podge takes over from Niamh to provide some background.
“We released an EP and the last track was a cover of a band called Against Me, who weren’t that big at the time. Sony wanted our version of their punk song, which was a bit more laid back, for Minidisc or something pretty big. I think José González ended up being on it instead.”
“I think Jet were chosen for it,” says Darcy.
‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’? Untold riches were there for the taking, surely? Podge continues.
“Against Me initially said no, ‘we’re a punk band!’ They changed that to, ‘Yeah, but we want all the money’. We were going to get about fifty grand, which at the time would have been amazing, but it never happened. They were still interested in us so they sent a guy over. He loved us, he was singing along with a big grin on his face in The Factory. Then he went on holidays and, apparently, he got a call from Sony while he was by the pool telling him he’d been laid off.”
“Did he recommend us and they were like ‘What is this shit? you’re fired!’” Niamh laughs.
“He went straight from our audition and signed The Flaws [Choice-nominated Monaghan rockers who ceased trading in 2016],” Darcy remembers. “They were signed. He lost his job. They were in limbo. If we had got that money, I don’t know if we’d still be sitting here.”
“I think we’re gone beyond anyone signing us,” Niamh reckons. “They want someone they can mould. Nobody’s going to mould us. We’re already moulded!”
Under The Microscope
No signs on any fungal growth on the new album, a big and sparkly pop delight called Magnify. Started before the lockdown and then derailed slightly, like everything else, although “we worked quicker because we spent less time in each other’s company and Darcy in particular had a new hunger”, it’s now with us at last. It was trailered by insanely catchy – if you happened to be passing Whelan’s on the night in question you’d have heard me whistling it repeatedly as I waited for Hot Press snapper Miguel Ruiz to finish his work – ‘ELECTRO~WAVE’. I might wonder, given my advanced years, if the line “Do you still feel like your life’s a Saturday night?” is a more mature person’s grumble, but Podge puts me straight.
“The truth is it’s a real bitchy line where I’m giving out about someone who hasn’t started to take responsibility. There’s shit in their life that should start being responsible for but they’re just ignoring it and treating their life like a party.”
“We wrote the riffs before lockdown,” Darcy recalls. “I played Podge the verse and he put down something really quickly, and when it goes quickly, you know it’s good. I said we’ll do it like a Bowie thing – ‘Electro~WAAAAVE’. Then we were like, ‘this is a radio song now, fuck!’ because we didn’t want to go that way, but you have to have at least one.”
Given the song’s gargantuan chorus and the fabulous accompanying video, courtesy of band mate Barry Chapman, one would have assumed it took up immediate residence at the top of radio playlists. This wasn’t the case, apparently.
“It didn’t, really,” according to Niamh. “There was a couple of our fans saying online that it was a bit too far away from the HamsandwicH they love.” “You have to be careful how far you go from what people know but we’re still willing to try,” reasons Darcy, to which Niamh admirably responds, “Where’s the pleasure in doing the same fucking album every single time?”
“You have to get it playlisted on Spotify, it’s the only way to survive. I think we were still doing a traditional release, getting it to radio and hoping,” Darcy explains. “We do have some friends like Ed Smith on Today FM and Fiachna Ó Braonáin on RTÉ 1 and Dan Hegarty on 2FM who are all great but it’s been terrible that Paul McLoone is no longer there because he was fantastic for us.”
Would you say there’s not enough support for Irish acts on daytime radio?
“No, unless you’re on a label,” Niamh says, matter-of-factly. “Radio during the day is like a playlist that’s made by a… robot. They don’t have time, it seems, for people to be able to discover new music. After nine o’clock, on you go, fill your boots, but that’s no good to people.”
Is that what the audience during the day really wants?
“I think they would embrace new music. People listen to the radio actively or passively. If they listen passively, great. It’s still getting into their ears, but people who are listening actively might find something that they like. It seems like the stations don’t want to do that because it doesn’t fit into the playlist they want to create of the chart music and the songs that are viral on TikTok. When we started out you had Phantom and so many other avenues for our record. If you’re a new young band starting out there’s not a lot of opportunities out there, which is kind of sad.”
Niamh pauses for breath so I ask her, if she had the ear of the powers that be, what would she demand.
“A higher percentage of new Irish music on the radio, like they have in France.”
You can’t argue with that. If those stations are looking for something to play, they could do a lot worse than other Magnify standouts like ‘Fired Up’ with its angry-sounding lyric where “you take the credit while I pay the cost”
“It’s a therapeutic revenge song for me,” Podge reveals. It sounds like he’s giving out about someone in particular, the same person he’s having a go at in ‘ELECTRO~WAVE’? “It is!” he admits but, gentleman that he is, he won’t be drawn any further on who it is, despite my pleas.
‘All My Blood’ has a striking central image of offering the full content of one’s veins to ease the suffering of another. It does appear to be speaking to someone who’s going through a hard time.
“We wrote that after a Hot Press night we did,” Darcy remembers. “A night for mental health in Smock Alley. I was watching the speeches and I thought our songs do have a theme of loves lost and relationships but we don’t have a song about metal health and reaching out. Other people have these songs and they mean a lot.”
“Darcy wrote the line ‘All My Blood’ and it’s based around that,” says Podge before Niamh adds, “We’ve all been in that situation with people and you would give all the blood in your body to help them if that’s what it took, it’s that extreme of being there for somebody.”
“It could be a father to a child or a brother and a sister, it can work on many different levels, and it’s the one song that did the best out of all the singles.”
A Pleasing Circularity
The last cut on the album is ‘Good Friday’ which I’m assuming is a call back to the fact that the band formed on that once dry day, way back in 2003.
“We met, officially, on Paddy’s Day, and then we started the band on Good Friday. It’s a bit of a love letter to where we have been as a band and where we have come from as a band, our journey, and I think it fitted really well to put the little recording of Derek in there because there’s no way we would still be here if it wasn’t for him.”
Niamh is speaking fondly here of former manager Derek Nally, the beloved promoter and walking music encyclopaedia, who passed away in 2010. Darcy recorded the clip at their rehearsal studio the night they launched their debut single ‘Sad Songs’ in 2005 and it features the great man enthusing about Steve Vai at Vicar Street, of all things. That would be a nice place to end the interview but it’s not the end of the story. It’s not easy being an independent band but the ‘sandwicH are determined to keep going.
“We’re here to present our art without being too far up our own arses,” says the commendably plain-speaking Darcy. “This is the music we’ve created and we want people to hear it. On the sleeve of Magnify it says that this album was funded by live events. It’s sponsored by people who buy this music and love it, no record company or government gave us the money, and we’re very proud of that.”
As well they should be.