“Lads, we’ve made the wall!” Inhaler’s Ryan McMahon shouts through the bowels of Dublin’s famous old Olympia Theatre to his bandmates. Situated slap bang in the city centre, only footsteps away from the chaotic tourist hub of Temple Bar, the Olympia is a cornerstone of Irish musical culture, with thousands of stories to tell.
As NME follow the band through the labyrinth of rooms and corridors backstage before the second of their two sold-out shows at the start of December, posters and photos from every worldwide star imaginable present themselves. Robbie Williams was here in 1997, as was Bowie, while R.E.M. chose the venue for a five-night world tour open rehearsal a decade later. Then you have Adele in ‘11, Johnny Cash in ‘93, Paramore in ‘17.
The section of this historical walk of fame that interests the young four-piece most, though, comes as you get closer to the stage. Scaling one of many flights of stairs in the backstage maze, we enter a room solely featuring posters of the newest Irish acts to sell out a show at the Olympia. In the hours between their first and second shows at the venue, an Inhaler poster has been added to the wall alongside sold-out gigs from Hozier, Dermot Kennedy and more. “I never thought we’d make the wall!” guitarist Josh Jenkinson says, somewhat dumbfounded.
Sitting upstairs in their dressing room, the band – who will release second album ‘Cuts & Bruises’ on February 17 – reflect on their history with the venue, and how these two hometown shows serve as a bridge between the past and present. “The last time we played here was four years ago supporting Blossoms, which was the night that we met our manager,” McMahon recalls. “This is a blessed building.”
“We surrendered our ego a long time ago” – Eli Hewson
One Olympia gig that particularly stands out for the band was when they came here together in 2015, pre-Inhaler, to watch Royal Blood. “It’s weird, because now we’ve met them and messaged them, but back then they were gods to us,” frontman Eli Hewson reflects.
“Too many people think it’s an ego battle to just meet someone,” bassist Rob Keating adds, with Hewson laughing: “We surrendered our ego a long time ago. We’ll just tell you we’re such big fans of you!”
Inhaler enter 2023 as indie’s brightest rising hopes. 18 months ago, they became the first Irish band to top the UK album charts with their debut album in over a decade; ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’ also became the fastest-selling debut album on vinyl by any band this century. With upcoming shows this year with Arctic Monkeys and Harry Styles, and a second album that furthers their sonic vision and charisma, they feel like shoe-ins to become festival headliners and arena-dwellers in the very near future.
Across their first few years as a band, the four Irishmen have cultivated a deeply dedicated audience that have propelled them on this path. On ‘Cuts & Bruises’, the wisdom gleaned from their years on the road is shown on a second album that sees them get musically tighter, and emotionally open.
Apparently it wasn’t always this way, though. “Singing just came out of necessity for me, because no one else was going to do it,” Hewson says. He recalls an early gig in school, where the band’s friend Sam decided to take up lead vocal duties, with Hewson on guitar. During a cover of The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’, the band fired up before their friend decided he couldn’t go through with singing, blaming it on a broken microphone. “I didn’t want to sing, but at that point I sort of had to…” Hewson laughs.
Despite reasonable assumptions based on his family history and upbringing as the son of U2’s Bono, Ireland’s most famous musical star, Hewson didn’t see it as inevitable that he would end up a frontman and lyricist. It was only when he was forced into the role and “discovered the craft” that he began to enjoy his new role. “I realised it was an amazing art form in the end, but I wasn’t really the most literate teenager,” he says.
For the first few years of Inhaler, the band would write music together, with Eli as the de-facto vocalist. “The gig would come,” he says, “and I’d lie to the band that I had lyrics ready to go,” before he’d make them up on the spot during the performance. As with any new band of childhood friends, it took a while for the four members to find their place within the group and settle into their own defined roles.
Hewson says he’s still discovering his lyrical and vocal style, and describes the writing process for ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’ as a series of “happy accidents”. He says: “A lot of the songs were written when we were a lot younger, and the lyrics would just sort of happen. It all came from rehearsals and I never actually sat down and thought about the lyrics as their own thing.”
“Singing just came out of necessity for me, because no one else was going to do it.” – Eli Hewson
Listening to the record-breaking debut album, the idea that it was borne out of these initial hesitations seems almost ridiculous. Packed with heartfelt and melody-filled songs, the record’s appeal straddled traditional indie band stardom and the pop fringes of their contemporaries including Declan McKenna and Sam Fender. Lead single ‘My Honest Face’ is emblematic of this, a song destined to soundtrack indie discos for years to come. Here, Hewson wrote with the utmost confidence and swagger people had expected from him.
Inhaler’s debut album was released a week before the UK exited lockdown in July 2021, and while they hit the road to finally tour the album, work on its follow-up ‘Cuts & Bruises’ began. The band use the words “manic” and “intense” to describe the process of creating music amidst all the noise and constant upheaval.
“It actually seemed to benefit us in some mad way,” Keating reflects. “I think we’ve realised that time pressure and being thrown into things is better than having a lot of time. We just seem to get things done a lot quicker.”
Hewson adds: “We had such a hard time making this record. We thought, ‘Aren’t you meant to enjoy making a record to some extent?’” Thoughts of a dreaded ‘difficult second album’ lingered. Through exhaustion from tour and external pressure, the process became a “struggle” for the band.
As with ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’ and the band’s initial teething problems, ‘Cuts & Bruises’ sounds a world away from its tumultuous creation. Even more bombastic and confident than its predecessor, the hooks are stronger, the lyrics more considered and connected, and the stadium-sized dreams blatant. On ‘Love Will Get You There’, Hewson cuts through the anxiety and uncertainty on an ode to love and perseverance, something that permeates the whole album. “I’m not dead, I’m feeling so alive / Yeah, there’s a deadly desire,” he sings with a burning passion and energy to open the track.
“It wouldn’t have felt right to do a really sad sounding record after the pandemic,” Hewson says, manifesting positivity in these beaming tunes. “It’s a little bit more under the microscope, this album. It’s less broad.” As he explains, the songs are exclusively about love, but through the prism of touring, the lack of intimacy that comes with that, and the whiplash-like changes in his life. “I’ve never been able to write about anything else but love, for some reason,” he laughs. “But it worked for The Beatles…”
During the recording process, the band decamped to The Nunnery, a disused convent in Dublin where they laid down over 40 songs while also turning it into an HQ for their creative peers, who would stop by to offer advice and work on their own artistic projects. After cutting that collection down to 11, they recorded in London with longtime producer Antony Genn, cutting through the uncertainty of the time to lay down a focused album about change, growth and love.
The Fab Four were to have a big impact on ‘Cuts & Bruises’. On tours and in their houses, the band worked their way through Peter Jackson’s mammoth seven-hour documentary Get Back, a warts-and-all reconstruction of the band’s tumultuous sessions for ‘Let It Be’ in 1969. Like the rest of us, the band found comfort and inspiration in witnessing the untouched and often dull parts of the glorified group. Witnessing the extensive and sometimes exhausting process of writing in a room together that Jackson’s film shows, Inhaler let go of the abstract idea of perfection and embraced the messy and non-linear parts of making music.
“You’re watching the greatest band of all time and go through their own problems and their own struggles. You think, ‘That’s a perfect record – how could there be anything wrong with it?’, and then you see what their relationship was like. It gave us a sense that, though we were at loggerheads sometimes, we were all working on something that felt good and felt right.” The closing song to their upcoming album, ‘Now You Got Me’, came “out of nowhere” in a few hours after struggling for days. “It was those little bursts of magic we saw in Get Back that we were searching for,” the drummer says.
The band describe themselves as being in a “weird niche,” sitting between a full-blown guitar band and something closer to a pop act. “We don’t think of ourselves as a boyband,” Hewson says. “We’re not in the pop mainstream but we’re not a proper rock band.” Finding a catchy name for where they sit, it turns out, was left up to Sam Fender. “We’re alternative pop, lads” Fender told them backstage at a festival, McMahon reveals. Space for bands such as these has opened up through the eclectic listening habits of Gen Z fans and the end of genre-based tribalism. Fans have come to Inhaler from both pop backgrounds and indie fandom, and this mix sees them – along with Fender and their contemporaries – shaping festival line-ups.
To confirm this straddling of worlds that the band find themselves in, 2023 will see them support Arctic Monkeys on a full European tour and play alongside Harry Styles at Dublin’s legendary Slane Castle. “It still isn’t really resonating that we’re doing it,” Hewson says of the upcoming Monkeys shows. “But they’re the most lovely and welcoming guys, so we’ve just got to try and be the best band we can.”
“We’re searching for better leather jackets as well,” Keating laughs. “It’s hard to not feel like a child when you’re around them,” he adds, reflecting on the chance to head on tour with a band so formative in Inhaler’s musical education. Like the Monkeys, Inhaler put stock into rockstar cliches to a certain extent, but are resolute to not allow them to compromise their vision. Like Alex Turner, they also have Hewson, an impossibly cool, swaggering frontman.
“We’re just being honest with our ambition. Do you think Oasis didn’t want to be the biggest band in the world?” – Eli Hewson
To hone and evolve their live show, the band took their opportunity across 2022’s festival season to become keen observers, soaking in all manner of sets from across the genre spectrum to feed back into their own performance. Alongside world-conquering sets from Arctic Monkeys, who Inhaler supported at a handful of 2022 gigs, they also marvelled at the exquisite, smooth, sultry psych of Khruangbin, the crossover hardcore crunch of Turnstile, the Aussie groove of Parcels, Radiohead side-project The Smile and Primal Scream’s evergreen genre-blending.
“It’s going to be a better show,” Hewson says of the band’s 2023 outlook. “It’s not just five lads on stage chancing their arm anymore; we actually have to step up and make it a real thing.”
Later in the day, the first glimpses of this evolution come at a rapturously received and almost intimidatingly slick second show in Dublin. Alongside the majority of ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This’, the band debut a handful of tracks from ‘Cuts & Bruises’, and bring back the raging, emotional song ‘Dublin In Ecstacy’, a song that appears on the new album despite having been written half a decade ago. “We played it last night after four years,” McMahon tells us before the second gig, “and I just heard someone shout, ‘fucking finally!’”
This devotion and rabid love shown to the band from their fans also pushes them closer towards the pop realm, and despite Hewson’s earlier disregard for the term, Inhaler – spiritually at least – don’t feel a world away from boyband status. “They’re everything that’s been missing from guitar music,” a fan tells NME outside the Olympia, one of a hundred or so waiting in the December cold all day. Providing the moshpit-ready crunch of your favourite indie band and the swooning charisma of pop stars, they’re a crossover band with no compromise on either end.
The previous night, as Keating recalls through snorts of laughter, security accidentally opened the doors for the venue a few minutes early, while the band were trudging through by the front of the stage. “It was like Lord Of The Rings, when you can hear the Orcs coming but can’t see them yet,” the bassist howls, recalling having to duck for cover like he was in prime Beatlemania.
Despite Hewson’s father, the core Inhaler fan also appears unaware or ambivalent towards the music of Bono and U2, instead fixated only on this young new star. “For me and for us as a band, we’ve known that there’s going to be doors open,” Hewson told NME in 2019 of their clear head start, while being equally aware of the need to stand alone as their own band, and a good one, in order to stick around. “Those doors will shut just as fast as they open if we’re not good. It’s the pressure to step up our game and not be shite.”
As the second Dublin show closes with ‘My Honest Face’, another soaring and emotional gem from Hewson, the band depart as hometown heroes, ready to rest and recuperate before a 2023 destined to send them to the very top.
“I’ve never been able to write about anything else but love… but it worked for The Beatles!” – Eli Hewson
It’s a superbly ambitious show, and that’s a word that doesn’t scare Inhaler in the slightest. “There are a lot of bands that are ambitious for the wrong reasons,” Keating tells us at the Olympia. “We don’t get on it or get hammered. We don’t go to shoots or award shows just to be there. Everything we do, we care about it and we think about it.”
“You see interviews with big artists from the ‘90s,” McMahon adds, “and they can’t remember anything from back in the day. We want to remember this, because it’s such an amazing thing to say we have done.” True to form, after a quick hello to friends and family, the band get an early night ready for their final gig of 2022 in the south west of Ireland the next day.
Bedtimes aside, the drive that really sets Inhaler apart comes through their music, and an unflinching belief in themselves. “There are some bands who are content with making music that they can consume themselves,” Hewson says. “Our thing is, ‘Why can’t we make pop music that is also authentic?’ A lot of people think that pop music is a scary, zeitgeisty thing that can make you lose your creativity, but Nirvana and The Beatles – all these great bands – were pop bands. We’re just being honest. Do you think Oasis didn’t want to be the biggest band in the world?”
On ‘Cuts & Bruises’, this drive feeds into the album’s sound as well, an unashamedly shiny and glossy record. “People used to say that The Clash sold out with their second album because they went to a big studio,” McMahon says, “but what’s wrong with wanting to have a good sounding record and get as many people as possible to hear it? Why do we have to categorise ourselves or pigeonhole ourselves into this weird cult way? We want as many people as possible to hear us.”
To reflect this ambition further, the band parrot words spoken to them by producer Genn, a one-time member of Pulp and Elastica who has gone on to write and record with Robbie Williams, Scott Walker, Jarvis Cocker and more. As well as sculpting their sonic identity, he also serves as band dad and motivational speaker, as Keating reveals.
“When we were making the first album, he told us: ‘Alright lads, you’re halfway up the mountain, and you’ve just got to push to the top!’ But then we came to write the second album, he turned around and said: ‘Oh no, what’s that?! It’s Mount Everest! The mountain was only a hill all along lads! The second album is the real mountain…”
Between albums one and two, Genn told the young band, there’s a bridge you meet on the way up the mountain. “If you get to the bridge, there’s the [Arctic] Monkeys!” Keating recalls him saying. “There’s The Rolling Stones! The Killers! They’re looking at you from across the bridge lads!
“He drives us mad with it, but he is right,” the bassist smiles, as Inhaler keep looking up the mountain towards these pillars of indie history, hoping to join them at the top table. “You have to keep pushing for the very top,” he says. “We’re not here to be a mid-bill festival band, and if you don’t keep moving then you’ll die on that bridge.”
Inhaler’s ‘Cuts & Bruises’ will be released on February 17