Kells, County Meath
The difference a few years can make in the life of a band can be many things, not least surprising and educational. They say a week is a long time in politics, but a few years in music is multiple lifetimes. And so HamsandwicH, the band you thought you knew very well, has turned into HamsandwicH, the band you second guess at your peril. You can tick the boxes here: Within the last two years the band perform at Slane Castle, personally invited by Mumford & Sons to support them in Phoenix Park in Dublin, play at the President of Ireland’s Garden Party and recently scored the number 1 album in Ireland. They have sold out 2 headline show's Dublin’s prestigious Olympia Theatre 2 years in a row, supported Arcade Fire and The Pixies at Marley Park last summer, and stuffed out the Electric Arena tent at Electric Picnic. Not bad going for a band once battling with the dreaded ‘quirky’ tag, is it?
You can see the difference when they perform onstage – where there was once a band that seemed to revel in the occasional ramshackle live show now there is self-confidence, assurance and a sense of humour that is less slapstick and more on the subtle side.
It has been almost five years since the release of HamsandwicH‘s garlanded second album, White Fox, and while it remains for many something of a masterclass in quality indie pop (it featured in Irish Times’ writer Tony Clayton-Lea’s acclaimed book, 101 Irish Records You Must Hear Before You Die) it is now viewed by the band as just their very astute second album.
“It’s good that the songs on White Fox are still loved,” says Podge McNamee. “For such a short album it’s had a remarkably lengthy life, and to be honest, reworking White Fox through many gigs slowed down the writing for the new album; in fact, we almost rewrote White Fox, and that was something we weren’t used to. Most bands will tell you that the real way to learn your material is to get out of your comfort zone, and strip the songs down to the bare bones.”
HamsandwicH realised that being uncomfortable isn’t necessarily a bad thing - you learn from your mistakes, you experience things you wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
“That’s what has made writing songs for the new album so good and exciting,” continues Podge. “We’ve fallen in love with song arrangements, and discovered that we all have a strong knack for it. The new songs sound bigger, although not through any conscious decision on our part.”
“That came off the back of playing so many gigs with so many musicians on stage,” adds Niamh Farrell. “It was very natural for us to progress to the level of wanting more of that on the new album. Unlike with White Fox, when we play the new songs live we’re not reworking them because they’re already there for us.”
“We’ve become more conscious of layering,” says Podge. “It allows us to sound different yet it’s completely us, and that’s difficult to achieve.”
“Stories From The Surface”, the album that went straight in at number 1 is produced by Karl Odlum (who also produced White Fox and the band’s 2008 debut, Carry The Meek). With Karl at the helm again, the album was recorded throughout Dublin in 2014 in Westland Studios, Windmill Lane Studios, Bow Lane Studios as well as his own studio. Along with such a continuous thread stitched throughout the band’s ten-year existence is – as Podge has referenced – a quest to be different yet distinctive.“You want to aim for, achieve and retain these,” says Niamh, “so that people can listen to the new material and know it isn’t going to sound like previous albums, yet it’s still going to sound like HamsandwicH. You want, ideally, people to hear the song on the radio without the DJ or presenter introducing the band name, but the listener will know it’s us.”
The new album has been mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound in New York; what attracted the band to him was his recent work on the St.Vincent, The National, and War On Drugs albums. Having also mastered seminal albums by Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, John Lennon, amongst many others, Greg Calbi can now add HamsandwicH to his esteemed ranks!
“Stories From The Surface” is mixed by Danny Kalb, who’s work with Beck, Ben Harper, Karen O, Rilo Kiley, Neon Neon, just to name a few, was a bonafide attraction. “We met Danny and he is such a hard working optimistic guy you can't help but like him; his mixes opened up a new dimension for HamsandwicH”, muses drummer Ollie Murphy.
Alongside the challenges of forging individuality within a commercial framework is the band’s work ethic, which over the years has ricocheted from pillar to post, but which latterly has landed in quick-setting concrete. They pay tribute to their former manager Derek Nally (who died suddenly in July 2010 just before the recording of White Fox) as being the person to have drilled such disciplined sensibilities into them.
“The biggest change about this new album,” admits Podge, “is that we’re majorly fussy about it. Most artists will say that the best ideas come easy, without much effort in the creative process, but that’s debateable. Throughout the gathering of the new material, we worked very hard and had many ideas for each song. Ultimately, we didn’t want to write anything contrived.”
Perish that thought! With their new material, HamsandwicH have turned into a different, better band, not only more confident in their collective abilities but also in who they are and what they do.
“The longevity of White Fox helped us to become more assured,” remarks Niamh, “especially in our live shows. That has a knock-on effect on going in to record new material – it’s an absolute boost.”
“Musically, we’re braver,” adds Podge. “By saying that, we’re not trying to show off our improvement as a band, we’re just celebrating it.”