JOE meets... Ham Sandwich lead singer Niamh Farrell
The name may be a slight cause for concern, but there’s no doubting the quality of Irish act Ham Sandwich. JOE catches up with lead singer Niamh Farrell.
By Robert Carry
JOE: How would you describe your sound for people who are not familiar with the band?
Niamh: When people ask me I normally say indie/pop. If you think along the lines of Blondie and the Pixies or something like that, I’d say that’s the best way to describe it.
JOE: Is that the type of thing you’ve listened to over the years?
Niamh: I’d be into Blondie and Kate Bush as far as female vocalists go but then I would also be into the Smashing Pumpkins and the National. There are bands that all of us like and then everyone has a couple of their own favourites, so it’s a big mixed bag of influences really.
JOE: Just to jump back a bit, when did you first decide you wanted to get involved in music?
Niamh: I lived in Scotland for 10 or 12 years. Then I went to college and studied performing arts and I knew then that I wanted to get into something along those lines, whether it be acting or singing or whatever. I did that for a year and during that time I got into a band. I realised then that it was what I wanted to do, that I had found my niche, so to speak.
I was always singing in choirs and things like that when I was younger, but that was definitely when I realised that this was what I loved. Something kind of clicked.
JOE: How did you meet the other band members?
Niamh: I met two of the lads first when I was doing volunteer work at the Paddy’s Day Festival. They were from Kells and they knew Ollie and Darcy. We were into the same music and so we decided to give it a go. They roped in Ollie and Darcy and we started writing stuff. That was about seven years ago now.
JOE: So where are you from originally?
Niamh: I’m from Rialto in Dublin. The rest of the lads are from in-or-around Kells.
JOE: I heard that a couple of the members went to that school in Navan where everyone famous ever to come out of Meath seems to have went to…
Niamh: (Laughs) Yeah, two of the lads went there, I think it’s called St Pat’s. The likes of Dylan Moran, Tommy Tiernan and a few others went there. Supposedly they all had the same English teacher who was apparently amazing. They would have been in different years but they had the same teacher.
JOE: There was a bit of a gap between Carry the Meek and White Fox. Musically, how would you say the two albums differ?
Niamh: The first album was more of us finding our feet and finding who we were. We definitely got more comfortable with the second album, in terms of instruments, and more of us were involved in the writing the second one. I guess you’re always trying to find yourself in the sense that you don’t want the second album to sound like the first. You’re essentially on a journey yourself and you kind of take the audience along for the ride with you. But it’s definitely more grown up than the first one.
The first album was more rocky, but there is a very set group of people who would listen to that. With the second album, we wanted to write something that was a bit more of an open book, that different people, even if they liked pop music, would still listen to and enjoy. We wanted to write something that was a bit more accessible I guess.
JOE: So hopefully it will open you up to a wider audience…
Niamh: That’s what we hope anyway. It would be great to have more people listening to our music. Even people who have listened to the first album and decided it wasn’t their cup of tea, might come to the second album and think it’s more to their liking.
JOE: And you’ve a new single coming out at the beginning of Feb I believe…
Niamh: We have. It’s called Ants…
JOE: I’ve listened to it a couple of times actually, it’s a really good tune.
Niamh: Ah thanks a million! We have a video to go with it…
JOE: I’ve seen it, that video is something else, isn’t it?
Niamh: It’s brilliant, it’s absolutely brilliant. Marc Corrigan did the video for us, he’s an amazing artist. He did one of our previous videos, for Broken Glass – it was live action but was drawn over with like a cartoon affect. He came to us again and said that he had an idea for a video for Ants, and that happened to be one of the songs we were releasing as a single.
We asked him to give us a 10 second teaser clip, and when we saw what he did, we thought, this could be good. When he finished the video, it was more than I expected. The reaction to it has been phenomenal. We’ve been watching the view counts on YouTube, and they just keep going up.
Ham Sandwich, Ants:
JOE: So you’ll be working with him again then…
Niamh: Definitely, if he’ll have us back!
JOE: So you’ve a string of gigs lined up as part of the promotion for the new track as well… do you enjoy that part of it, touring and performing live?
Niamh: I love it. That would be the main reason why I do this. Recording is great, but it can be stressful as well. Going around the country and playing places, especially places you’ve never played before, there’s a bit of excitement about it. There’s a buzz you get out of playing to people who might not have seen you live. I actually love that part.
JOE: And you’ve got to play some decent festivals over the years as well of course…
Niamh: Yeah, we played Electric Picnic, which was amazing. We’ve also played in Le Cheile and Mitchelstown, which are two absolutely brilliant Irish festivals.
JOE: What should people heading along to one of your gigs for the first time expect… what sort of response do you get from the crowds?
Niamh: Podge makes sure to get the crowd involved, he’s a bit of a messer at times. There always tends to be an air of madness to our gigs and we use confetti and stuff like that. We like putting on a proper show rather than standing there looking at our feet and just playing the songs. We want people to have a laugh as well as listening to music.
You know yourself, I love gigs that have a buzz about them, when the band is really chatty with the audience and out to have a laugh. It’s nice when there’s a bit of interaction and we try to make that a key element to our live shows.
JOE: You mentioned that you’ve been listening to the National a lot lately, who else have you been listening to?
Niamh: I’ve been listening to a lot of Feist at the moment actually, I think she’s fabulous, and the National would be one of my favourite bands of all time…
JOE: When did you start listening to the National? I only came across them when they released their last album…
Niamh: I remember a few years ago I was brought to see them in Whelan’s – I got too drunk and I had to leave early! I actually wasn’t that mad into them at the time. I mean I appreciated them and thought they were good from the few songs I saw, but I didn’t get into them. It’s just been the last year-and-a-half that I’ve started listening to them again and thinking, why did I get so drunk? (laughs). I’ve seen them live since but the fact that it was in Whelan’s… I was like, you idiot!
JOE: Can’t imagine they will be playing there again any time soon. But Matt Beringer (lead singer from The National) is something else all the same…
Niamh: He’s unbelievable. We went to see them in the Olympia when they came back to Dublin for three nights. You would think they might just run through their songs, but the guitarist was chatting to the audience the whole way through and then Matt Berringer climbed off stage and came into the crowd. The atmosphere at their gigs is phenomenal and the music is incredible. They would be a massive, massive favourite of mine at the moment.
JOE: What is your view of Irish music at the moment, how do you think we’re doing?
Niamh: I think we’re doing great. I think we’re doing brilliant. There is some astounding Irish music out there now. Two bands that I really like at the moment Cloud Castle Lake and Kid Karate and James Vincent McMorrow is fantastic.
There’s another band I just came across a while ago when we played a gig with them in the Mercantile, called We are Losers. I don’t know how to describe their music, I suppose it’s a type of surf rock but kind of sad at the same time. But they were absolutely brilliant. When you see bands like that coming out it’s clear that Ireland has nothing to worry about in terms of the music it produces.
At the beginning, we got an awful lot of stick over it. People were going, 'Just change your name!'
And I don’t think that will ever stop, I don’t think there will ever be a lull because I think Irish people in general, deep down, are in a sense very creative and very musical. It’s such a shame that more countries don’t look to here to see what we’re coming up with. It tends to be, ‘What’s coming out of America, or what’s coming out of England?’ Very rarely do people look to Ireland and think, hold on a sec, they’re sitting on a gold mine.
JOE: It seems as well that it’s not just people from abroad failing to take notice of what we’re producing here, a lot Irish people tend to look first to America or the UK before Ireland…
Niamh: Exactly, yeah. And it’s a shame. I think there needs to be more Irish music played on radio stations. I think that’s the key. You have people in their cars at drive time, sitting in traffic. You stick a couple of Irish bands on and it just takes a couple of people to go, ‘that’s really good.’ Then they pass it onto their mates, who pass it onto their mates and it takes off.
Also, if you’re into Irish bands then you’re paying pennies to see a gig, whereas if you’re going to see whoever at the O2 then you’re paying the guts of €60!
I think there needs to be more music shows on the TV that look at Irish music Ireland too. We used to have that show with Dave Fanning on a Sunday morning on RTE, he used to play videos and have people in. You’re starting to get that again with Ceol [on TG4] and Under Ether [on RTE 2]. I definitely think if we had a few more shows like that floating around, and not put back to 11 o’clock slots at night, I think the effect it would have on Irish music would be huge. Bands would start getting noticed in their home country and wouldn’t be thinking, ‘We have to get out of Ireland if we want to make it.’
But I guess the charts are still extremely prevalent. Most people who are buying music are still going for your Lady GaGas and Kanye Wests.
JOE: It seems like the popularity of American music can have a weird impact on bands here too, there seems to be a lot of Irish acts that are obviously aware of the success of the American acts and so adopt American accents when they sing…
Niamh: It’s kind of strange alright, although I’ve been told by some people that there’s a slight Americanisation to my voice! But as I said, I’m listening to The National and Heist (one is American and the other is Canadian), so sometimes it’s hard not to be influenced by what’s around you and the music you listen to.
JOE: So fill me in, what’s the craic with the band name?
Niamh: Oh God! We were sitting in rehearsals one night and we had just played a gig in the Voodoo Lounge that used to be on the quays. We played under the name of The Famous Five or something shite like that. It was so bad that we just said, if we’re going to keep doing gigs then we need a name and we need a name fast. We were coming up with silly, jokey names, and one of the lads came up with The Stephen Hawking Treadmill Experience. Then one of the other lads said, “What about Ham Sandwich?”
We all kind of stopped and thought, that’s actually not bad. It’s kind of funny and a bit mental and our stage shows at the time were nuts, so we thought it suited us. At the beginning, we got an awful lot of stick over it. People were going, ‘Just change your name. Just do it. Seriously, just change the name!’
I suppose we were a bit stubborn at first and then I think it got so far that we couldn’t change it because then we would have been known as ‘so-and-so, formerly known as ‘Ham Sandwich’ and there’s nothing worse than having to put that on a poster. But people have started warming too it.
As well as that I think the name has surprised a few people. They might hear the name and think they wouldn’t like the band, but when they hear us they go, ‘That’s actually good.’ It’s that old thing of never judging a book by its cover…
JOE: We’ll leave it there so Niamh, thanks for million.
Niamh: Nice chatting to you.