Ahead of their new album Magnify’s release next week, HamsandwicH talk about The Dubliners star, Harry Styles, the evolution of the band, and the sudden death of their manager
Guitarist and sometime vocalist with Kells’ non-standard pop triumvirate HamsandwicH, Podge McNamee has fond memories of meeting Ronnie Drew in Whelan’s in the early 2000s.
The legendary Dubliner walked into the toilet in the music venue on Dublin’s Wexford Street smoking his signature cigar, and went into the only cubicle, leaving the door ajar. Standing at the urinal, Podge noticed he was in the presence of greatness – albeit greatness answering the call of nature – and seized the chance to strike up a conversation.
“I was initially having good craic with him. I said: ‘My father would have loved The Dubliners to play at his 21st but couldn’t afford you.’” A reply soon came out from the cubicle, in that distinctive gruff brogue: “And he still couldn’t afford us!”
“So, we were having a harmless slagging match when I asked him: ‘How come you’re always on The Late Late Show, Ronnie?’ With that, he emerged from the cubicle, took the lit cigar out of his mouth and said “f**k off”, before walking out of the toilet with his cigar back in his mouth, “as myself and a random lad at the urinals looked at each other”.
In fairness, Podge had probably heard worse from his own father, Paddy. Not least on HamsandwicH’s first tour in June 2004, supporting American rock band My Morning Jacket.
It started inauspiciously when their van broke down on the way to the gig in Belfast. In a panic, Podge rang Paddy, who had loaned them a red Toyota LiteAce. So exasperated by Podge’s increasingly frantic questions on the side of the motorway, he eventually told his budding rock star of a son: “There’s a gallon drum of diesel in the back. Set fire to the van, and walk away.”
And did you follow his advice? “No, we fixed the diesel filter and just about made it to the show on time.”
Expect plenty of sparks next week as HamsandwicH’s new album Magnify is hopefully going to set the Irish music industry on fire. Or at least superficially singe a few cynics who presumed the band didn’t have a record as brilliant, and sonically evolutionary, as this in them.
Written over three years between Dublin, Meath and Monaghan, Magnify, the band’s first album since Stories from the Surface in 2015, has been a long time coming.
The first demo was recorded in early 2019 before they started working on it properly in the summer of 2020. The plan was to put it out later that year but “for obvious reasons”, says lead singer Niamh Farrell referring to the pandemic, “that didn’t quite go to plan”.
The positive is that you can hear the well-tended craft on ‘Good Friday’, ‘Work of Art’, ‘Run Run’ and ‘Electro Wave’. On the latter, Niamh asks: “Do you still feel like your life’s a Saturday night?”
“I think it’s about someone who isn’t taking responsibility for growing up,” she says. “They are still going out and living a crazy life and not settling down when they probably should.”
“The song was written just as we went into the first lockdown,” says guitarist Brian Darcy. “So I assumed it was about life changing for the worse and the fear of isolation that was creeping into everyone’s lives. That life was never going to be the same again.”
Life was never the same again for HamsandwicH when Derek Nally, their manager who championed them from almost the beginning, died of a heart attack on July 15, 2010. His voice can be heard on ‘Good Friday’.
Podge’s memory of seeing Nally for the first time was from the stage in Whelan’s in 2004 as the band were playing a gig. With his permanent grin, he was watching the performance, leaning against something near the double doors that lead to the bar.
“He was easily the oldest person in the room and I kind of roasted him because he stood out like a sore thumb. He laughed it off in good spirits and spoke to us after the gig. He said he saw huge potential in us and he felt like we were ‘a real headliner type band’. I remember those words and felt so encouraged.”
Within weeks, he was managing the band. “There’s a video of us from 2008 when we won a Meteor award in the RDS,” says Podge. “He jumped up higher than any of us when we won. He was like a proud and pleasant father figure to us all.”
Niamh says: “He believed in us when we didn’t even believe in ourselves. We wouldn’t be where we are now without him.”
Brian adds: “He always knew what was coming down the line. He knew that hedging your bets on a male/female combo was where it was going back then. He always had a CD in the car that he wanted to give to you as he thought it might help our songwriting or guitar style.
“I discovered later on that his uncle and my grandfather were cattle dealers many years ago. He loved telling people this when he would introduce me as this amazing guitar player – which I wasn’t.”
HamsandwicH were formed on Good Friday in 2002 in Drimnagh, Dublin, when Podge met Niamh at “a Crucifixion party”. A what? “It was just a party really but there was a life-sized painting of Jesus on the cross there,” explains Podge. “So, we gave the party that name.”
Not long after, the band came into being, augmented by Brian on guitar and Ollie Murphy on drums (who left in 2019). Money was hard to come by, as were decent instruments. “In the early days of the band Podge didn’t really own a proper guitar yet,” says Brian.
The morning after a gig in Cork, a hungover Podge saw his dream guitar in a shop window. The price tag was €650. Undeterred, he went in with the rest of the band and played the guitar for 20 minutes. He announced that he was in love with it and told the band he was “a little short” on the price. Asking his bandmates to loan him some money, they chipped in €50. He said he was still short. Asked by how much, he said by €600.
For us to get on that same iconic stage was some buzz
“He only had a tenner on him,” laughs Brian. “In the end someone in the band went to the bank and loaned him the money to buy it. But I always thought that going into a shop to buy a guitar with €10 and coming out with a brand new one was very Podge.” Shiny new guitar on board, they released their first single ‘Sad Songs’ in the summer of 2004, followed by ‘St Christopher’ and ‘Words’ in 2006.
Gathering momentum, they released their debut album Carry The Meek in 2008, as well as play Glastonbury festival that year, and released the White Fox album in 2010.
In 2013, they supported Bon Jovi at Slane Castle. “I always remember growing up my dad and mam talking about how they saw Thin Lizzy at Slane,” says Niamh, “and then for us to get on that same iconic stage was some buzz.” A year later they supported The Pixies at Marlay Park, Dublin.
“When their 2015 album Stories from the Surface went to number one on the official album chart in Ireland,” says their manager Stevo Berube, “it was the first time a totally independent and unsigned act debuted straight into the top spot. HamsandwicH have always been an underdog in the Irish music scene.”
Asked about their influences, Podge said during the recording of Magnify he listened to a lot of female-fronted music like New York band Big Thief and New Zealand singer Aldous Harding. “I was really enjoying the raw, nursery rhyme-like lyrical content from both of these amazing songwriters.
"Aldous is almost chameleon-like with a vocal range that’s beyond impressive and her voice is so multi-functional, yet somehow she still seems to make it work. Adrianne Lenker’s [lead vocalist and guitarist of Big Thief] raw, beautiful and exposed voice really draws you in.
“And we definitely wanted to emulate that immersive, delicate side to our songs, and Niamh’s voice, in tracks like ‘Run Run and ‘Work of Art’.”
Niamh adds: “We all have very eclectic music tastes. It’s a real mixed bag when it comes to what influences the music. I love Radiohead but I also love the new Harry Styles album. Darcy wrote a lot of the early demos on a laptop and a midi keyboard, which definitely directed the sounds more towards synth/dance tracks.”
“It’s an evolution,” says Brian. “If you look at our first album, Carry the Meek, it dealt with the things someone in their mid-twenties. It was very centred on love lost and break-ups, like on songs such as ‘Words’ or ‘Sad Songs’.
“The new album was written by people in their thirties. We wanted to write songs like ‘All My Blood’ – that’s about reaching out to people in your life who maybe are on the brink and need our support without asking for it. On this album it’s about making peace with the choices we’ve made and choices other people have made. There’s a maturity to the writing certainly.”
If not quite to all the band members perhaps. Brian recalls at an early gig – “the worst one I’ve ever been part of” – how Podge fell on top of him, “face to face and wouldn’t get up off me for about 30 seconds”.
What’s the most ridiculous rumour you’ve heard about HamsandwicH?
Podge: “That we split up.”
Brian: “That Podge was going on tour with The National as a replacement for their singer Matt Berninger.”
Do you have philosophies or ideals which you apply to your personal lives?
Brian: “Make sure you surround yourself with people you can laugh with in life.”
Podge: “Try to treat people with respect and enjoy life as much as you can. Try to get things right at the start.”
Niamh: “I started yoga over the beginning of lockdowns. And it just helped my head and heart in a big way. It definitely helped me work on myself and just know myself a bit better. That translates into my life in general and I feel better, have more confidence and just love life a bit more.”
HamsandwicH release their new album ‘Magnify’ on September, 30 via their own label Route 109a Recordings