Some bands form at school, some at university, while others get together through a chance meeting in a pub. The Meteor Award-winning Ham Sandwich, however, decided that music was their destiny at a crucifixion party one Easter night in Kells. It figures. Of all of the bands doing the rounds in Ireland at the moment, they have perhaps the most unique sense of style and purpose. That bizarre social gathering wasn’t quite the start of the story though. All five members came across each other at various points in their native Kells, from Johnny Moore and Podge McNamee’s childhood bonding over stolen toys to Niamh Farrell’s arrival from Scotland, Darcy’s school days and a workplace meeting with Ollie Murphy.
If this combination of personalities wasn’t enough, putting them together in a small County Meath town was another thing altogether, especially Podge. ‘It brought out a bit of a perversion in me,’ he enthuses. ‘Most people in Kells are really shy. It’s such a small town where everybody knows everybody else’s business, so there’s a lot of shame in being noticed. I thought, screw that. I felt that I could express myself, I enjoyed people talking about me. It’s crazy that people care what you do. I never gave a crap.’
It was inevitable, perhaps, that Podge should end up in a band, even if he himself wasn’t quite sure of the route he wanted to take. ‘It was kind of strange. I used to annoy Johnny about being in a group,’ he muses. ‘ I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I just wanted to be in one for some reason. I showed up at our first rehearsals with a guitar I didn’t really know how to play and they asked me to try singing. It seemed to work. I was a kind of a Bez figure who learned how to sing.’
It was when Podge and Niamh started to sing together that the character of Ham Sandwich began to develop, imbuing their songs of love and loss with extra drama. ‘There’s an underlying tension in a lot of our songs,’ agrees Niamh, ‘almost like we’re singing to each other. Even when we’re singing the lyrics together, there’s that relationship going on. I think people like that.’ ‘I can’t think of an awful lot of strong male/female vocal bands,’ says Podge, ‘who are well known anyway. There’s the Magic Numbers but that’s just harmonies really. It gives us a slight uniqueness, especially in Ireland. We’re not ashamed of it. There’s no ego involved: it’s whatever works best for the song.’
Johnny picks up on the idea: ‘The album itself is built on the whole theme of heartbreak and there are lots of different things going on. When you listen through it, it makes sense where it’s going. It’s never, -you sing this line, you sing this line etc’. The male and female vocal makes sense in our songs because in a relationship, both sides feel the same thing: they’re just not saying it.’
It’s early February and the three have joined State in advance of the release of their debut album Carry The Meek. Anticipation for the record is high, buoyed by a Meteor Award and reams of positive press, but it’s actually the result of a far longer process that has seen the band develop their craft gradually, all under the banner of their own record label, Route 109. This, as Niamh explains, was always a conscious decision. ‘At the back of your mind, when you start a band, you probably think it would be great to get a record deal,’ she muses, ‘but as you see all your friends around you getting picked up and fucked around by labels, you grow to realise that it’s not the best idea. Doing it yourself is harder but it’s worth it in the long run. You own everything yourself.’
‘Everyone we knew who was in a band from back home who got signed, got burned,’ agrees Johnny. ‘We started to ask ourselves what the benefit was. It’s like a bank loan, except that at the end of it, the bank treats you really mean and fucks you around. Five people can get a good bit of capital together. If we’d been signed, we’d have been dropped by now. Any band needs to develop. You can’t expect to be able to do stuff immediately. When things go wrong, at least you know why they’ve gone wrong. I know so many people who were kept in the dark and when they do get dropped, someone tells them what happened. If they’d known, they could have done something.’
If this part of their approach was very now, the other strand was decidedly traditional – releasing a series of singles, five in fact, before Carry The Meek had even surfaced. Part of the reason may have been pure financial logic, but for Niamh it made sense on other levels.
‘Every single was a definite progression for us,’ she explains. ‘You could see more and more people buying them, more and more people getting interested as we went down the line. They were coming to the gigs and collecting the records that they’d missed when they hadn’t heard of us. It was much better than releasing one single and then going straight in and making an album. It would go straight into the bargain bin.’
‘It was like giving ourselves little exams in how we were doing,’ smiles Johnny. ‘You learn something with first one, something more with the second one and by the fifth, you know what it’ll take to put out the album. Everybody knows what they have to do. It’s like we served a little internship with our own label.’
The development of Ham Sandwich has been quite remarkable, transforming them from quirky outsiders to one of the names to drop by those in the know. Yet this is no case of hype over substance, as the likes of -Words’ and -Click..Click..Boom!’ have established their credentials as a barbed pop band -par excellence’. It’s gone hand-in-hand with the development of their own, definite style. ‘We’ve stuck with our designer Laura from the beginning,’ stresses Niamh, ‘because if you chop and change your artwork, you may as well change your name. From the very start, we had a certain style that we wanted to stick with, the photos and the doodles. It gives people a sense of association with us in their mind: they look at a CD and know it’s Ham Sandwich. Podge is equally adamant. ‘From my experience of buying albums and singles, the artwork is incredibly important,’ he enthuses. ‘I completely hound the shit out of Laura: I’m surprised she still gets on with me. Nothing gets by unless I OK it.’ Despite the dark and sometimes off-the-wall nature of their public image, the mainstream media has been queuing up to make use of Ham Sandwich’s time, particularly TV. Not that some of the offers have impressed Johnny.
‘We were offered a famous Irish talent show and we turned it down on principle,’ he reveals. ‘Some shows you have to do and they’re great to do, but to do something where you’re supposed to be held up as something to be admired and the show itself is about to treat people like shit, it wasn’t the situation we wanted to put ourselves in. I don’t think it’s right for a band who’ve earned it to go on TV and tell those people that they’ll get a dream out of it.’
A far more successful, yet unavoidably bizarre, experience was their visit to The Late Late Show. These particular fish felt a touch out of water that night. ‘I wasn’t nervous,’ professes Podge, ‘but I did feel slightly uncomfortable and I think that reflected in my performance.’ Niamh is more forthright. ‘You looked out into the crowd and it was all older people. We sat there, thinking -how the hell are they going to take us?’ They had Dickie Rock’s son on doing the showband thing, which all the people would know. At first, you’re like -bollocks’. It’s scary going in. You’ve watched it for years and you wonder what it’ll be like. You assume that everybody would be highly strung and give out to you all the time. When you go out there, though, everybody’s so nice to you.’ ‘Afterwards you go into a pub in Kells and you get pints for free,’ laughs Johnny. ‘It’s like a milestone for bands in Ireland. Once you’ve done that, it proves that you’ve achieved an awful lot of what you want to do.’ ‘It gives you cut-throat experience,’ says Podge. ‘You can go back and see what you did wrong. So by the time we did Podge & Rodge, we were completely comfortable.’ What’s perhaps most surprising is that the Ham Sandwich experience seemed equally at home with Pat Kenny as it did with the foul-mouthed puppet brothers from Ballydung, despite the pretty vast differences in their audiences. Niamh, for one, sees no problem.
‘You have to give everybody a chance. It’s a really bad idea to try and isolate your audience to your own age group, try and get in on a scene and stay there,’ she notes. ‘You have to do these things because there are a lot of different people who like your music.’ Johnny sees it the same way: ‘If you’re in a band and don’t want as many people as possible to hear your music, that’s ridiculous. We’ve come from that Irish background of trying to spread the music, entertain people and tell stories. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t tell those stories to other generations. Your music should be presented so it’s accessible to everybody.’
Two weeks later and the evidence that desire is working is clear. In a single day, their debut album is released, they play an in-store at HMV in Dublin and later that evening, pick up the Meteor Award for Hope of 2008, voted for by 2FM listeners. Their surprise and delight is evident, in contrast to the response of some other winners. They head off to the official party, get refused entry because they have the wrong coloured wristbands and end up entering an indie club at Whelan’s to a heroes’ welcome. The mainstream may be beckoning but Ham Sandwich aren’t quite ready to give up their independence just yet.
Photography by Rich Gilligan.