After performing one of the most memorable sets at this year’s Electric Picnic, Niamh Farrell of HamSandwicH speaks to Patrick Kelleher about the challenges of songwriting and the joys of performing.
Irish band HamsandwicH have always been a group that work to their own beat. Since their early beginnings in 2003, they have been highly individualistic. Everything from their unusual name to their decision to release their music on their own independent label suggests that they refuse to buy into a music industry that doesn’t always value music in the way it should. Despite this, the band has been one of the staples of Irish indie music, and has been consistently popular over the years. Having just finished a hugely successful set at Electric Picnic, the band are still on a high when OTwo speaks to them.
Niamh Farrell, lead vocalist for the band, has been delighted with the reception to their most recent set of songs. Their album Stories from the Surface was released last April, topping the Irish charts in the process.
“When we play the new songs, especially off the new album, it has been getting really good reactions,” Farrell says. “Even at Electric Picnic, for example, at the main stage we would have played a couple of new songs and I don’t think that half the crowd had ever heard those songs before… But they were still dancing, and that’s what we wanted; we wanted people that even if they’re walking by hear a snippet of song and go ‘Well, that’s really cool’. We just want people to have a bit of fun.”
Farrell knew while still recording the album which songs were likely to be popular at the gigs. “In Perfect Rhymes was the one on the new album that I thought people were really going to grab on to,” she says. “I can kind of see that at gigs, people singing along to the verses and the chorus and stuff, and that’s one I really love singing live, so it’s great to get their response back.”
The recording process can be complex for the kind of music the band make, and this is certainly seen in Farrell’s favourite song on the album, ‘Broken (Start Over)’. “It was kind of one of these songs that was the elephant in the room, and we knew we just had to strip the song apart and kind of build it up again,” Farrell explains. “We set about that, and we done [sic] it, and what we came out with in the end was… my favourite song on the album. We haven’t gotten around to playing it yet cause it’s quite… it’s the most electronicky [sic] sounding one on the album, so it’s a hard one to translate live, because it’s kind of low and kind of quiet, so we need to figure out an arrangement I guess, so we can do it justice live.
Making their latest album was a difficult experience in some ways, taking longer than expected. “With the last album it took a lot longer than we thought, because we were very fussy, and we were under a lot of pressure to get it out at a certain time. The pressure wasn’t working to our favour… because when you know something isn’t ready, and people are saying ‘you need to have it out now!’ and we thought, look, there’s no point in rushing something, because if we rush something, we get it out there and you realise… we should have taken at least another couple of months. So we kind of went look, we’ll scrap the date to have the album out.” While the album took longer to release, she says that she is glad they chose to take the time. Farrell notes that the end result is much better than it would have been if they had caved under the pressure.
“It was kind of one of these songs that was the elephant in the room, and we knew we just had to strip the song apart and kind of build it up again.”
Perhaps a part of the reason the making of the album was difficult is because of the personal emotion invested in their songs. “There’s a lot of personal stuff in there,” Farrell says. “We kind of have this thing now where we’ve known each other from twelve years [sic], if Podge starts writing something, I know what he’s talking about without even saying it… Some of the stuff is quite personal, especially for example with ‘Ants’. John was writing about something personal that happened to him, and without even asking him what it was about I knew what it was about. I didn’t have to ask, so I kind of continued on the vein of that story. I came up with the chorus and he did all the verses and it kind of moulded together; it’s a nice way to work.”
For Farrell, they have been influenced by a wide array of talented and varied musicians. She cites The Smashing Pumpkins as being her “go-to band” when she was younger, and also notes that music was very much a part of her upbringing. “I was always surrounded by music growing up, a lot of Irish traditional music more so. My uncle plays the fiddle, and my other uncle plays the banjo.” Other than The Smashing Pumpkins, she cites Kate Bush as an influence, and says that she has been “really getting into the more female side of musicians and singers”.
The band have been busy touring with their new album and bringing their music to as many places as possible. They have a lot lined up for the next few months. We’re off to New York in October… And then hopefully we’ll be looking over to London and going back over to do a couple of gigs in the UK. We did two gigs over there a couple of weeks ago that went really well for us in a venue called Islington, and we just want to get back over there… Then we’re going to hopefully do another small tour around Ireland in November.”
The band’s status as one of the greats of indie Irish music is perhaps at an all-time high right now. With their most recent release, HamSandwicH has never been so self-assured in their musical ability. Farrell finishes by noting the pleasure of the company of their band. “It’s fantastic that we’ve gotten to share all these times together over the years, you know? It’s nice to do it with a bunch of people that you like being around.” The strong bond between the members of the band is clearly HamsandwicH’s greatest asset, as they continue to travel the world together with their unique sound.