HamsandwicH: Moving past the name and up in the game
The band are on a rising trajectory with a new album and new direction
Podge McNamee (second from right): “People heard HamsandwicH and thought we were a joke band . . . People heard ‘White Fox’ and they know we’re serious and they know we’re in this for the right reasons. But so many people judge a book by its cover. We’re all guilty of that.” Photograph: Dara Munnis
Interviews with bands before a new album comes out can be strange affairs. The interviewer has heard the record and the act have obviously heard the record, but the wider world has yet to have their say on it. Expectations and apprehension are the way of the walk about how the new record will be received by the fanbase, if it will attract new champions and how the album will fit the band in time.
But Niamh Farrell has no time for such caution. As far as the HamsandwicH frontwoman is concerned, their new album Stories from the Surface is a hit.
The proof? “It’s the only album of ours that I’ve listened to loads,” she declares enthusiastically to her bandmate Podge McNamee across the table.
“After Carry the Meek was mixed and mastered, I never listened to it again. The same with White Fox – when it was done, I never went back to it. But this one is different. I think it’s because I’m really proud of the songs and what we’ve done. I can sit and listen to it almost as an outsider.” She stops just short of thumping the table and cheering.
McNamee may not be as cut and dried about the merits of the new album at this stage compared with the rest of their catalogue, but he recognises a good one when he sees it. “It has more of a je-ne-sais-quoi factor than White Fox,” he says.
That’s certainly one way to describe it. The new album takes the Kells band into very interesting waters. White Fox and especially the gorgeously wonky unexpected radio hit Ants showed that HamsandwicH were not the band many thought they were.
Similarly, the new album displaces more notions and expectations about what they’re about, with a clatter of songs – the last four tracks in particular, from To Replicate to All Worthwhile – which are full of bittersweet, elegant drama and the kind of divine hooks which most bands strive for years to find.
Then again, let’s not forget that HamsandwicH have toiled for years to get to this point. Blessed (nay, cursed) with a name you won’t forget in a hurry and a decade-plus career punctuated with as many lows as highs, it’s perhaps a sign that good things do happen to good people that they’re currently enjoying an upward trajectory.
McNamee is the one who brings up the vexed question of the name.
“People heard HamsandwicH and thought we were a joke band. It does still apply a bit, though not as much as it did. People heard White Fox and they know we’re serious and they know we’re in this for the right reasons. But so many people judge a book by its cover. We’re all guilty of that.”
Everything changed for the better with 2010’s White Fox, though the omens for their second album were not great. Their longtime manager Derek Nally died when they were preparing to record it and it was an album created without founding member and key songwriter John Moore, who left the fold earlier that year.
“We were never in the band as songwriters at the start,” says McNamee. “It was primarily John who wrote the songs, though we’d pitch in with music and lyrics, so we were relatively new when it came to songwriting when we started White Fox. We didn’t have much time to do it and we were thrown in at the deep end.”
“It was around the same time that Derek had passed away so it was a tough time,” adds Farrell.
“But I think it gave us the kick that we needed. None of us were prepared to jack it in. We knew it was going to be hard but we all wanted to make it work. I remember going ‘we have to do this now’ and ‘we have to go balls to the wall and get it out there’.”
Ants was the wake-up call which made them cop on to their own songwriting abilities.
“They were the first lyrics that me and Niamh wrote by ourselves,” says McNamee. “When you are writing your first set of songs and you know people are going to hear them, you do question yourself. You ask am I a lyricist, am I capable of writing songs that people will want to hear?
“You’ve nothing to lose so you go for it. And when it gets the reaction it got, you realise there’s something in it. You get a boost in confidence as a band, you know you’re not the plasterer’s assistant.”
Ants changed a lot of minds about the band, but it clearly has had an effect on the band’s outlook this time out too.
“For some reason, we thought an album was supposed to be like how the band were live,” says McNamee.
“There’s nothing wrong with that but we clearly made a decision here not to limit ourselves. Why do that when we can do whatever we want and try out all our strengths? No one really minds if a song is different live. It’s a bit boring if it’s the exact same, isn’t it?”
They also found new ways of working and one of the album highlights Broken (Start Over) is an example of this.
“We knew we liked the song, but the demo we lived with for so long was so different,” says Farrell.
“It was the elephant in the room because it just wasn’t right and it was the only song we had left to do at the end. We sat there and went ‘what the hell do we do with this song?’
“So we stripped it back and deconstructed the chorus and took everything out and let Danny [Kalb, album mixer] tweak a few things.”
Now that the album is in the bag, it’s time to play those songs in rooms and fields up and down the country and further afield. That was the big pay-off for Farrell the last time around. She lists gigs with the Pixies, Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons, as well as appearances at the Electric Picnic and Benicàssim, as highlights.
“Things like that make it all worthwhile and it drives you on to go back into the studio to see if you can do it all again and do it better.”
She’s looking forward to getting her knees shaking again. “Before I go onstage at the big gigs especially, my knees shake uncontrollably. It’s pure nerves and it’s mad. But if you didn’t have nerves, something would be wrong.
“Once you get out on stage, though, the nerves turn to adrenaline within a split second and it’s the most amazing feeling in the world.”
Stories from the Surface is out now on Route 109A Records and is reviewed on page 12. For tour dates, including Dublin’s Olympia on May 29th,