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Saturday 3 December 2016

'If Bono told us to change the band name I'd tell him to get on his bike'

interview

Ham Sandwich
Ham Sandwich
Ham Sandwich

The Famous Five. The Stephen Hawking Treadmill Experience. These are just two of the (terrible) band names that guitarist and co-vocalist Podge McNamee suggested at an early Hamsandwich rehearsal session.

The goal was clearly to make his fellow musicians laugh and one of them almost made it through. Eventually, however, Podge and the gang arrived at a winner.

"We just stopped at Ham Sandwich," says Podge, "and that did get a laugh, but..." But it stuck.

There were another 60 names on the list, and Ham Sandwich was the best. More than a decade into their career and the Irish five-piece still can't get through an interview without the name coming up.

Sure, three albums in 12 years is pretty good going for an independent crowd (the warmly-received Stories from the Surface recently debuted at number one on the Irish album charts).

But you can't help but wonder if that ridiculous moniker might have held the band back in previous years.

joke

"I think at the start, it did," says lead singer Niamh Farrell. "At the start, people were like, 'ah, they're just a joke band' and kind of just fobbed us off maybe, but I think then [second album] White Fox really seemed to be the turning point for the name.

"We took the space out and it really seemed to bring people to the idea that it is just a name, like, you can do whatever the hell you want with it."

So, Ham Sandwich became Hamsandwich.

"I think it's kept things interesting in a way," says Podge. "It's funny, we haven't done enough in the UK, but I heard stories of DJs just seeing the name and laughing.

"But then obviously - thankfully - playing it and being like, 'oh...'. They were actually more impressed."

Famously, Bono once advised the act to consider a name-change.

"I think now at this stage, we are Hamsandwich," nods Niamh. "I couldn't imagine us being called anything else."

Drummer Ollie Murphy goes one further. "If Bono said that to me again," he quips, "I'd tell him to get on his bike."

Evidently, things are good in the Hamsandwich camp. Number one album; potential summer festival appearances in the pipeline; an Olympia gig at the end of the month - it's been a long time coming for a band that left a five year-gap between record releases.

Not that Niamh and Co ever disappeared, or indeed, took their foot off the gas.

touring

The new album required extra time, what with the band squeezing in recording sessions amidst a busy touring schedule that saw them support Bon Jovi at Slane, Arcade Fire at Marlay Park and Mumford & Sons at the Phoenix Park.

"You do get afraid that people are gonna forget about you," explains Niamh (32), "and kind of go 'where are they gone, are they broken up'? Stuff like that, but at the same time, we were still around, we just were gigging our faces off."

Podge believes 2015 could be the year that all five members of Hamsandwich devote themselves to the cause full-time. The critics have spoken - they've just made the best album of their career.

The Kells, Co Meath outfit, too, believe this to be true, even if they can't get their heads around the "crazy" number one.

Surely, the major labels are starting to take an interest now? "It would make things easier," says Ollie of any future contract offers, "but it would depend on the deal, because we've been doing it for so long that it's very hard to give over control."

"I think a lot of labels know we're no spring chickens now, and I know no-one wants to be taken for a ride, like, because that's quite easy to do," adds Podge.

Ollie agrees. "If you can do it yourself, and get a number one, why would you? But outside of Ireland, it's a different story."

Indeed, international territories require an extra push. It'd be a huge help for a band with American and European audiences.

Again, this could be their time - they're ready for it.

They've certainly worked for it, overcoming various internal hardships (a line-up change) and tragedy (the band's manager, promoter and booker Derek Nally, passed away in 2010) to become the kind of band that could easily break on through to the other side.

Niamh always knew that there was more to Hamsandwich. Podge (34) recalls joining the band for the sheer hell of it.

"It's funny, because I actually only joined the band just because I wanted to be in a band," he smiles. "It was hilarious, it was like the most amateur audition you'll ever see. And I literally came to the first rehearsal, not having a clue what my role was!"

So, what if this hadn't worked out? Did he and the others have a plan B? "Eh, selling fruit on Moore Street," laughs Podge.

Hamsandwich wonder if they have another 12 years in them. "I'll be like Debbie Harry then," jokes Niamh.

But they won't give up. It's a tough slog, but this is what they've always wanted to do, especially Farrell.

When I ask if she would encourage her young son Oscar to one day pursue a career in music, she recalls her own experiences at having won over her mother's approval.

"I think it's a case of encouraging them to do what they want to do and encouraging them to feel that they're free to do what they want to do. I'd never, like, force him to do music just because I'm involved in it," says Niamh.

"When I was growing up, when I started with the band thing, my mam was kind of like 'aw, now you need to be going to college and doing this', you know what I mean?

"Then she saw [the band]. It was a gig in Whelan's, and she said she just cried for the whole thing, because she was like, 'I just realised then that you were doing what you wanted to do'. So I'd encourage that."

"I think I'd be horrible!" laughs Podge, contemplating life as a future music-maker dad. "I'd be like, 'Do you like playing guitar? Well you be better be good. Don't make a show of me! I'd be like a critic..."

 

Stories from the Surface is out now. Hamsandwich play the Olympia on Friday May 29

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