Inhaler: "When we came out of lockdown, we had a lot of things to get off our chest"
'It Won't Always Be Like This' is an adage that has pulled many people through the last 16 months, but it's also the title of the debut album by one of the most promising guitar bands to emerge from Irish shores in recent years.
The four members of Inhaler are perched in a line on a sofa in their rehearsal space, staring down the barrel of a webcam and logged onto Zoom. It's probably not how they envisaged doing promo for their debut album when they first formed at school, but things, of course, have changed over the past year and a half.
Things have changed in the past five years for the Dublin band, too. They met as kids, with Elijah 'Eli' Hewson, Ryan McMahon and Robert Keating finding a musical affinity and dabbling in playing together from the age of 12. When guitarist Josh Jenkinson officially joined the fray five years ago, Inhaler began to take form and they recorded their first songs when they were still in Transition Year.
The biggest difference between the band now and they band who are on the verge of releasing their debut album on a major record label, says Hewson, is simple. “Probably facial hair,” the frontman and guitarist quips, laughing. “No, I think what's different now is that maybe we've taken it a bit more seriously than we would have back then. When the pandemic happened, it kind of forced us to mature a little bit because we came straight out of school and into being in a band. I think you get into being in a band so you don't have to grow up. We were touring for two years and then the pandemic hit, and it felt like everything could go away very fast – and we didn't know what was gonna happen to the band, or when live music was gonna come back. So it felt like everything was in jeopardy; it definitely forced us to grow up and kind of focus on the album. We thought 'Well, if writing music is the only thing we can do [right now], let's just put all our energy and focus into this album, and really make it the best we can.'” He stops to consider his reply, smiling. “Yeah. So facial hair, seriousness and the album.”
The title track of the album was one of the first songs that they wrote and recorded together, but it has proven particularly apt for the times that we live in. In early 2020, Inhaler were building momentum on an international scale, thanks to promising early singles like 'Ice Cream Sundae' and 'My Honest Face'. They had been placed highly on the BBC's 'Sound of 2020' poll and had just returned from a tour of Japan when the pandemic began to shut down the world. Drummer Ryan McMahon admits that it was an uncertain time for the band.
“Naturally, we were really concerned, yeah,” he nods. “All of a sudden, we'd come off tour and the world shut down – all of a sudden, we were confined to the houses that we grew up in, so we didn't really know what the future of the band was gonna be. But after about three or four months, we eventually managed to get over to London with the songs that we had written in that space of time; half the album was written in the first lockdown, pretty much. So as frustrating as the delay was, in the long run we're kind of happy that it was delayed - because otherwise we wouldn't have had as good an album as we do now. It would have been something entirely different, it would have meant something entirely different, the title might not have been the same... the whole thing would have been different. So as horrible as the pandemic has been for many different reasons, selfishly it has made our songs and our band better.”
Some of Inhaler's influences on the album are obvious; Hewson says that '80s and '90s bands from Manchester and Liverpool in particular played a part, and they spent time in the latter city rehearsing before things shut down. When I suggest that Echo and the Bunnymen may have been one of their touchpoints, there is a chorus of agreement from all four.
“And weirdly enough, Talking Heads were a big inspiration for the album,” adds Hewson. “We've always loved them. I think our first big influences were from that Manchester late '80s, early '90s bands – Oasis, Stone Roses, all those rite of passage bands for a 16-year-old. That was really what inspired us to start writing music. Before that, we were into heavier stuff like Nirvana and Metallica and Motorhead. You go through the different stages.”
“And when we were kids, The Beatles were the one that kind of started it all off for us,” bassist Robert Keating chimes in. “I think that's the way for most musicians; the Beatles ignite your love for music.”
“We definitely have a really wide array of music tastes and we all listen to different types of music on our own,” agrees Hewson. “For us, that's one of the fun things about being in Inhaler – that we have so many different influences and we're not tied down to one sound or one type of sonic. We literally try and take inspiration from wherever we can get it from, whatever's a good song.”
“Like, 'Who's Your Money On?' sounds like New Order meets Talking Heads, whereas 'In My Sleep' is us trying to be Thin Lizzy,” says Keating with a grin.
There is another Irish band that has inadvertently played a part in Inhaler's story, although it's a topic that we have understandably been asked not to discuss during our conversation with them. As you may have guessed, Hewson is the son of one of the most famous frontmen in the world, Bono. It's the elephant in the room of every Inhaler interview, but it's impossible to avoid: Eli bears both a physical and vocal resemblance to his dad. Even so, it's clearly unfair to judge Inhaler on such terms and begrudging accusations of favouritism, nepotism and having a head start on the ladder have thus far proven unfounded.
“Yeah, you can say that again,” McMahon cuts in, laughing.
“I think in the beginning a lot of people were coming to see our band with a pre-bias, with assumptions and making comparisons, and stuff,” continues Hewson. “But I think we really just took that on board and tried to own it, because there was nothing we could do about it. We just wanted to play music and I think now, we've overcome that. We play gigs and we have our own fans, we've built our own fanbase and we've put in the graft. It feels like we've kind of put that behind us, to be honest. But yeah,” he nods, shrugging, “it was definitely a tricky one.”
Despite their connections, Inhaler have managed to keep their feet on the ground. They celebrated signing their record deal with Polydor, they reveal, not with champagne and cocaine, but with a trip to a fast food restaurant.
“Honestly, it wasn't significant - I think we probably went for a Nando's,” recalls Keating with a laugh. “I think we kind of just didn't believe it, really. I mean, you sign a deal and you see it in all the movies or read it in books, and there's champagne and drugs on the table when you sign. With us, we were so young as well; we were only 19, so I don't think it had really hit us that we had just signed a deal. And I think we'd been thrown on tour straight after as well – I think we had a gig the next day, so it seemed almost insignificant.”
“I think having a major label like that involved and doing a deal like that, it was such a big thing that we maybe put it to the side in our heads, and tried to just forget about it and just get on with the job,” Hewson agrees. “It's weird: especially for a guitar band, it's quite strange to get a deal like that so we're very lucky. So I think it was just a bit shocking. We didn't have a big blow-out, I think we just went for food and then did the gig the next day.”
Songwriting within the band works differently each time, and it was the same case with the album – even during lockdown. There was one writing session conducted over Zoom - “That was an awful experience,” says Hewson with a groan” - but lyrically, it was important not to get bogged down in what was happening in the world.
“It's funny; I think before corona, when we were a bit younger, a lot of the songs were about the girl that you liked, or whatever – that kind of teenage stuff,” Hewson nods. “And I think when corona happened, it forced us to write about something a little bit broader. But it's still an overwhelmingly optimistic record. It's just about a moment in time, and people our age during this time. It's not a concept album by any means, but it definitely has a message. But we'll let you guys figure that out and interpret it however you want. We just wanted to write a really positive record.”
Being one of the most hyped young guitar bands on the music scene right now can have its upsides and its downsides, but Inhaler are simply trying to get on with things. They are all looking forward to touring, particularly now that they're all 21 and of legal age in places like the US. Writing has already begun for album #2.
"It's really nerve-wracking,” admits Jenkinson, referring to the hype machine. “But I think one thing we can find solace in now is that we've finished the album – so whatever happens, happens. I think at the start when we started recording it we felt a bit of pressure, but I think we really pulled it together.”
What about Inhaler's long-term ambitions, though? Do they want to become the biggest band on the world? The unruffled Hewson is characteristically diplomatic with his answer, although his bandmates all seem to agree.
“We just want the biggest reach possible,” he shrugs. “We just want as many people as possible to hear our music, and hopefully get something out of it. Just to feel something when they hear our songs and for it to not just be another song you hear on the radio – for it to actually mean something to someone.”
His bandmate Ryan McMahon has the final word. “'Biggest band in the world' sounds kind of attractive,” he says, grinning broadly before they sign off Zoom for the next interview on the promo carousel. “But I suppose longevity and a loyal fanbase is what we'd love to gain now, more than ticket sales or album sales.”
'It Won't Always Be Like This' is released on Friday, July 9th.