First Published May 2017
THE ‘HAM SANDWICH’ EVEN A VEGETARIAN SHOULD LOVE
(Photo Credit, Dara Munnis)
We’ve all heard the saying about how you should never judge a book by its cover, right? Well, the same applies to judging a band by its name. And as far as the latter goes, I have to hold my hands up and confess to such a crime. For far too long I’ve ignored Ham Sandwich because of their name alone. Being a vegetarian, of course, may also have played into my reasoning a little bit. I don’t like ham sandwiches anyway, let alone as a band name of all things! But, the loss has been mine, and I can say that with my hand on my heart. As far as the band goes, that is!
In doing my research for this chat with the band’s lead singer, Niamh Farrell, I listened to their music for the first time. I mean properly listened to it, not just a few seconds here or there. And the result? Well I can’t get their song ‘Illuminate’ out of my head, for one thing. I also don’t want to. I love it. The same with ‘Ants’, and ‘All Worthwhile.’ And I’ve got an order in for all of their albums. I’ve got myself some catching up to do on this one! If the band’s music alone didn’t win me over, then some time in the company of Niamh definitely would have anyway. For a fun interview on a Monday morning, this one will take some beating.
The main reason Niamh and I were chatting was because Ham Sandwich are performing at the award-winning Bare In The Woods festival in Portarlington next month. I began by asking Niamh if the band were looking forward to playing there on June 11th?
“Yeah, definitely. Cos’ we’ve never played it before and we’re really excited about it. It’s a great, really mixed line-up, which I really like about it. It’s definitely got something for everybody. So yeah, we can’t wait for it. It’s the first year I think that it’s moved to a three-day festival, so that’s exciting for the guys who run it, ya know, being able to have way more music on, with so many great Irish acts on the bill as well. Yeah, we’re really lookin’ forward to it.”
Will they just be coming down on the day they actually perform themselves or will they be able to take in one of the other three days of the festival as well?
“We’ll probably be there on the day we’re performing cos’ I’m nearly sure we have a gig on the day before it as well, so we’ll travel down probably early enough and get to see some bands during the day. I think Helmet are on the same day as us and I know our drummer is really lookin’ forward to seeing them, so it should be a good night. We’re definitely gonna stick around. We kind of always tend to do that at festivals when we can, cos’ it’s just always such a nice buzz. You get to see people you haven’t seen in a long time and it’s always a really nice vibe.”
From Niamh’s point of view as an artist, I wondered what makes a festival a great one to perform at?
“Hmm, gosh that’s a very good question. I don’t know, there’s so many different elements. We’ve played festivals on rainy days and on sunny days, and definitely the sunny days would be better than the rainy ones! [laughs]. It doesn’t really matter what time you’re on at at a festival either, I don’t think, because people who go to festivals tend to be up-and-at’em early, ya know, and out watching music and stuff. So the time of the day is not a factor really. Stuff that’s more family orientated as well, it’s always nice to see families in the crowd and kids out for the day and dancing along. That’s always great. There’s a mixed bag of things that all lead to a good festival.”
Without necessarily naming names, had Niamh ever experienced any festival disasters during her time in Ham Sandwich?
“Yes! [laughs]. Yeah, there was one time we played somewhere and there was a guy cutting out a part of the stage with an angle grinder right behind Ollie’s drums, and you could hear it all through the drum mic. That was a bit of a disaster! [laughs]. Yeah, a bit of a nightmare! And I remember once we played a festival somewhere that had to actually be called off because the rain was so bad that the stage started sliding down a hill!! [laughs]. We stayed the night at the festival but all the music was called off, but there was a party inside this massive big tent that had been put up. Stuff like that does happen, but I think it always turns out to be a good laugh in the end, no matter what the disaster [laughs].”
Ham Sandwich‘s latest album is the critically acclaimed ‘Stories From The Surface’, which was released in 2015, so it’s still a relatively young album by any measure. But that fact not withstanding, have the band begun work on the follow up yet?
“Yeah, we were away for a songwriting weekend to kind of get our heads back together again. We’ve been sending demos to one another and stuff, but this was the first time we got together in a while to actually write. So yeah, we’ve got some good ideas on the go. The plan is to just work on stuff like that and see where it takes us. We haven’t got any solid plans in place yet. We don’t have a date for an album release or anything like that. We kinda just want to see what we can come up with first, ya know.”
I’d read somewhere that Niamh once confessed to never having listened back to ‘Carry The Meek’, the band’s debut album, or indeed, to their sophomore collection ‘White Fox.’ And yet, she’s also admitted that this isn’t the case with ‘Stories From The Surface’, which she has no qualms about listening back to. I wondered if Niamh knew why this was?
“Yeah, well I wouldn’t be listening to it [‘Stories…’] every day or anything! [laughs]. I don’t mean it like that. I don’t know. It’s not that a lot more work went into it, but it was a real journey of an album for us to make. So I’m really proud of that album. Not to say that I’m not proud of the other ones, of course. I think as well, that just as a person when you listen back to something you did, what, like nine years ago, you’re a bit like, ‘Aaaagh’, ya know [laughs]. It’s just kinda weird to listen to it sometimes. But making certain songs on that album [Stories From The Surface] were definitely a journey for us, and they changed a lot over the course of writing and recording and stuff. And we’re really proud of how they turned out in the end.”
Ham Sandwich‘s second album, the aforementioned ‘White Fox’ was among those included in Tony Clayton-Lea’s 2012 book, ‘101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die)’, a noteworthy achievement for any band, let alone for any band’s second record. And Billy Corgan, he of Smashing Pumpkins fame, once requested a copy of Ham Sandwich‘s album so he could listen to their music while he was here in Ireland. When things like that happen, I asked Niamh, what on earth does it feel like?
“Just that it’s all kinda nuts really! That you’ve helped to make something that people want to hear and they really enjoy. It’s unreal that somebody thinks one of your albums should go into a book like that. It’s unreal that someone should think that about something that you helped to make, it’s a little bit surreal when something like that happens. But it’s all great, like, it all adds to your reputation and what people think about your music.”
And when things like I had mentioned do happen, does it change how you approach making music from then on?
“Not really. I think if you let yourself feel the pressure of something like that, you’d be doin’ yourself an insult. What we do is we just want to make music that people will enjoy, and that we’ll enjoy, too, because we’ll have to play these songs [laughs]. You can’t really let yourself be pressurised into thinkin’ we have to write another album that will get us into another book! [laughs]. Because you’re goin’ about it all the wrong then and I think you’d probably make music that would be a bit insincere.”
On the subject of making music, I wondered how the songwriting process tends to work within Ham Sandwich?
“With us normally Darcy or Podge will come in with a guitar melody and riffs and things, and then what we do is we all sit down together and work out the bass and drums. And once we have the basic structure of the song, the guys will play it over and over, and myself and Podge will work on the vocals, melodies, and lyrics. Sometimes it might just be three of us, or four of us, or even two of us, ya know, but it kind of always works the same way. We build it up like a lego house, putting the bricks on top of one another. And then we might kind of mess around with the structure once we have the vocal melody a bit more solid, that kind of thing. It’s an interesting process, and different people do work in different ways. I was talkin’ to another musician yesterday about this, and I was tellin’ him how we work. And he was like, ‘Jesus, there’s no way we could work like that!’ They do it an entirely different way, but each to their own. I think everybody does it a different way.”
Does being a mum affect the way Niamh writes now?
“I don’t know. I guess, yeah. I guess ‘Illuminate’ was kind of about youth and being young. I guess yeah, it maybe makes you look back a bit more on your own childhood. But as far as writing about being a mam, no, I haven’t written one of those songs yet [laughs]. I think it makes you look back and appreciate what your childhood was, because you’re watching somebody else go through that now, and trying to guide them along the way.”
Every band, in their early days, tries to get as many opening act spots as they can with bigger bands because it’s good for their profile. And once upon a time, Ham Sandwich just happened to open for….Whitesnake?!
“Oh Jesus, yeah, we did [laughs]. Oh God. I remember the phone call with our late manager, Derek Nally. I was living in an apartment in town and getting up one morning and getting the call. He’d ring one of us every day anyway, so it wasn’t something out of the blue. He said, ‘I’ve got ye the chance to support Whitesnake, their support band has pulled out for tonight, tomorrow, and the next night’, I think it was. It was just nuts! The kind of thing where you just say, and without even thinkin’, ‘Yeah, alright!’ [laughs]. Oh God, thinkin’ back on those gigs now, it was just hilarious. Us, a bunch of messers called Ham Sandwich goin’ out to a crowd of older men with heavy metal hair and tee-shirts! It was a little bit nuts, ya know. There was a lot of choice things shouted up at me during the show! [laughs]. But it was very exciting for us at the time, I remember we were all really buzzin’ about it, ya know, we were like, ‘This is huge! This is Whitesnake! And in the Olympia!’ I think it was our first time to play the Olympia too. It was definitely an experience! [laughs].”
We’re in that part of the year now where all of the big festivals and gigs, from Bare In The Woods to Electric Picnice to Slane, are within sight. So what’s the best gig that Niamh had ever been to as a fan?
“There’s a couple. I vividly remember going to see The Cure at..Witness, I think it was? Or was it Oxegen? But I remember getting up to the front and I think I cried through the whole thing! [laughs]. And LCD Soundsystem at the Cradaddy stage at the Electric Arena, that was unbelievable. And I saw Christine and the Queens last year at Longitude, and that was an amazing show. A completely different kind of show. With that kind of indie/electro pop, there’s no instruments on stage, it’s just her and two dancers, and it was just incredible. Incredible!”
And is there anyone Niamh would love to see perform ‘live’ but the opportunity just hasn’t presented itself yet?
“Hmm, that’s a good one. Let me see…Radiohead, yeah, Radiohead. I’ve never seen them before. I’ve seen some of the ‘live’ stuff they’ve done at festivals in Europe this year so far, and I need to go and actually see them ‘live’ myself. Cos’ most of my friends have seen Radiohead at least three times now [laughs], and I haven’t even seen them once! So they’re at the top of the list, for sure.”
Niamh and the band have been on the scene in Ireland for long enough now to surely have encountered some things that could, at best, be described as pet hates, in terms of some of what tends to happen all too often. So, I was curious to know what one change would Niamh make within the scene, if it was within her power to do so, that she thought would be a major change for the better?
“Bands being offered ‘exposure’ for playing music! That STILL happens! I was only talkin’ to another couple of musicians about it yesterday. It’s kind of a runnin’ joke among ourselves at this stage, ‘Yeah, I’ll give ya some exposure for playing’, ya know what I mean! But it pisses me off, it really does. Because so many young bands get caught up playing an hour and a half gigs for FREE because somebody says they’ll get them some exposure from it, or promising them that someone in particular will be there, something like that. An end to all that bullsh*t would be nice, because it is rife in the music scene. And it will always be until people start manning up. Because you can say no to these things. You don’t have to say yes to everything. You might be promised a good bit of ‘exposure’ for it, but you might end up looking back on it and thinking, ‘I really shouldn’t have done that’, or whatever. Young bands need to realise that they have it in their power to just say no! They can say they’ll do the gig if they get their petrol costs covered, maybe get a few beers, and even fifty quid towards the fact that they’ll be travelling to play the gig. But I see so many people getting caught in the trap of spending their own money to go and work, basically! Ya know what I mean? Which is nuts, like. People have to realise that musicians are providing a service. When you go and you do your gigs, you’re entertaining people. But there’s certain people out there who really devalue that, or don’t even think it has a value! It’s just music, like [to them], and sure music should be free! And that’s such a shame.”
Pretty much in the same way that downloads, being able to buy a song for as little as ninety-nine cent, has also devalued music, I suggested.
“Absolutely! And what’s happened now is that people don’t buy albums anymore, they buy singles. They buy songs. But by doin’ that you can miss out on that gem that can be on an album that you’re not gonna hear otherwise. And when you think of it like that, it’s such a shame. Cos’I remember buyin’ cds [albums] and you’d go and you’d listen to the whole thing over and over again. Whereas nowadays, people hear a song on the radio and they go, ‘Oh that’s great, I’ll buy that’, without ever even lookin’ at any of that person’s back catalogue of music. They’re so much being lost because of that!”
~ Ham Sandwich are; Niamh Farrell, Podge McNamee, Brian Darcy, David McEnroe, and Ollie Murphy.