HamsandwicH are one of Ireland’s most consistently entertaining live acts. It took them 12 years to achieve a Number 1 album with “Stories from the Surface” but from talking to Niamh Farrell ahead of their appearance at the Ballincollig Winter Festival it seems all they really want is for you to have a good time.
“Oh yes people said “White Fox” should have won the Meteor Choice Award”, says Niamh when I ask her about the bands recent nomination for the award with their highly acclaimed “Stories From The Surface” released in 2015. “For me that doesn’t matter, we’re delighted with the reaction to the album and reaching #1. We went from a longlist of 100 to the top 10 and that’s amazing”.
Known for their live performances I asked what goes into preparing for a show. “We never let ourselves get bored and there is a certain amount of gusto. We get a high from watching an audience leave smiling and that’s how word goes around. We want to have a bit of a party and a bit of a laugh. There’s no distance between us and the audience, it’s really interactive. You have to have that connection”, she adds. “Then there are gigs like playing in Christchurch which we just did and you have to spend a couple of weeks with the different elements of planning. After the sit down for the setlist then there’s rehearsals on how we’ll play each song. Reworking the structure and rejuvenating songs. They change and shift to make them sound as good as possible. Especially for something like Christchurch we had to make it sound as good as if it had been electric”. Then there are the covers. “We have a couple in our repertoire that we keep in our back pockets. They can pick up a crowd. And it depends on the gig. We asked people at the end of a gig to stand for the National Anthem and then played “Ghost Towns” by the Specials. We are enjoying paying Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” at the moment too. I love Kate Bush and I was hooked on singing her live so we had to pull it back. She’s there if the occasion calls for it, but it can be dangerous to rely on a cover”.
You may have noticed that HamsandwicH have a thing for strong female artists. When I ask Niamh about her own influences she says she’s a “mixed bag”. “I grew up in a house that was full of Irish and Traditional music. My Uncle and Grandad were both fiddle players, there was a lot of Mary Black and my own Dad was into Suzanne Vega and Paul Simon. When I came into my own I was listening to grunge and rock like The Smashing Pumpkins. I was definitely influenced by the people around me”, she says. Even now you can hear the Traditional and Folk influence in Hamsandwich’s music. “But later on I got into Donna Summer, Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, Kate Bush and Blondie. Strong women who don’t give a shit and do what they want. They managed to keep some sense of self ”, she says. I ask her what she thinks of pop stars and their squads these days? “It’s not bad for young girls to look up to modern pop stars. As you get older though you need a sense of self and you have to look at these people and what elements of them are similar to you and what inspires you. You need to be your own role model and appreciate yourself. That’s important”, Niamh adds.
Over the years it’s clear that not just Niamh but all the Hamsandwich’s have a clear sense of self. I ask Niamh about her own approach to image. “I don’t know where the glitter started, maybe after “White Fox”. But I love dressing up. Halloween is a favourite time of year, it’s better than Christmas. I guess I was looking for something fun to do and was watching a lot of makeup tutorials and I just decided I’ll do an American football stripe. It’s brilliant because it hides dark circles and is very flattering so I stuck with it. I need to find a new look now”, she adds. “I’m forever changing my hair and outfit. Myself and Podge just wear what makes us feel happy. We do consulate each other and ask for advice but we just have great fun with it. Podge has the most unbelievable clothes. It’s nice to keep changing it up. I never buy expensive clothes. It’s all ASOS or H&M and it’s doesn’t bother me if someone in the audience is wearing the same thing as me. We perform and tour so often I need my clothes to be interchangeable and durable. The dressing up part of this is my favourite part”, Niamh says.
We talk about the last time I had seen the band play in Dolan’s Warehouse in Limerick. “Oh yes, I remember that gig! That was a great gig, the album had just gone to #1”, exclaims Niamh. I tentatively approach Niamh asking about the subject matter of “Stories From The Surface” which was clearly a relationship album. “Oh yes, it covers different aspects within a relationship. You know, “Illuminate” was about being young and carefree and not giving a shit! “All Worth While” was written by all three of us it’s about how a relationship turns into a friendship and looking back on that. On “Apollo” I was enjoying a new relationship and the excitement of that. The album is an amalgamation of all our feelings on the subject. It’s just one of those things that happens when you are sitting down writing. On previous tracks it was obvious someone was writing about an ex. We all know it, but you just don’t ask, you just work on the lyrics or whatever. After all this time we have a good understanding of each other”.
Speaking of, I ask her what is the most challenging aspect? “The recording side can be stressful and frustrating at times. I live to do gigs, that’s where I want to be. But obviously recording aids the gigs so it has to be done. Poor Karl (Odlum, their producer) he is almost our psychiatrist. You spend time in a room with Karl and you get to bitch and he just says “leave it in here and sort it out”. But if you’ve been with anyone in a band for 12 years there are going to be rows. The recording process is where the most grief gets aired. You just have to be open and honest and stand your ground if you believe in something”, says Niamh.
What has been the highlight for her? “Most recently, New York! We went there to play CMJ, which we had never done before and it was out of this world. I spend the whole time going, “Oh my god, there’s steam coming up from the street! Oh my god there’s a yellow Taxi!” You have to go over with the eyes of a 12 year old child. It was so much fun! We had time to ourselves on the trip so went rowing on Central Park Lake, all the touristy stuff. We played four gigs and people came back to us and were interested in getting us back over. Which was the whole point”, she says. “Did you have much of an entourage with you?” I ask. “Well there was the five of us and the extra sandwiches, you know partners, the crew, technicians, so a few of us! We had no gig on our last night so we went to see Villagers and John Grant perform. We got pretty hammered and went to this Karaoke bar called Sing Sing. We were waiting in the main area for our private room and these two big New York guys are up singing “Empire State Of Mind” and all the guys are nudging me to get up to sing the chorus, they see it and I get called/pushed up. But once I was there I just unleashed my inner Alicia Keys! It was incredible! It’s incredible to have had such an amazing trip to New York and here we are our last night there singing “Empire State Of Mind”, yes that was a highlight”, she laughs.
It is great to see the band enjoying such great success when they have taken the long road to achieve it. Early on they decided to release on their own label (Route 109A) and do things on their own terms. The name was also an issue in the beginning but now I don’t think anyone could imagine it being anything else. With how things have changed in the music industry would they have done it differently? “It’s just the way things went. We said no to signing at the time. If it happened now it might stand to us better because we’re older and wiser about deals and contracts. But you need to have alot of knowledge and background before you do. We watched it happen to friends who ended up losing their own music due to a contract. Not to say we’re not glad we stuck to our guns. It makes achieving a #1 as an entirely independent band very exciting and “wow, we definitely did this”! But doing it yourself means that along the line you make mistakes, but you learn as you go, you make contacts, create business relationships, and build up lovely connections with people who know how you want things done. It’s totally doable. More people are taking it into their own hands and creating their own indie labels”, she answers.
HamsandwicH are performing at the Ballincollig Winter Festival Thursday January 28th
Check out festival details here http://www.wintermusicfestival.ie/
Follow HamsandwicH on http://www.hamsandwichmusic.com/