AFTER finishing in the top five of the BBC’s prestigious Sound of 2020 poll Inhaler, named after the singer’s asthma condition, were gathering momentum having won fans and built a following across Europe, America and Japan.
There was much anticipation about their debut long-player coming out later that year after the Dublin four-piece of lead vocalist and guitarist Elijah Hewson, bassist Robert Keating, guitarist Josh Jenkinson and drummer Ryan McMahon had released a string of melodic, hooky and memorable singles that found their way onto mainstream radio while shifting 10,000 tickets for their tour.
Like the rest of the world, their year was written off and that initial success quickly dissipated. “It was pretty heartbreaking” admits Hewson of those plans being mothballed. “It was heavy, we didn’t know if we could do anything ever again.”
With that apocalyptic feeling, the four-piece that formed while attending St Andrew’s College in Dublin in 2012 retreated, went back to living with their parents and eventually got back to what they knew best: writing songs in a shed.
“We had to stop being a touring band and become a studio one. It was like a pressure cooker at the time because it was the only thing we were doing; we weren’t playing live, you couldn’t go for a drink with mates or have a party or hang out with friends which is what people our age want to do. We just had to focus on the music.”
It Won’t Always Be Like This was going to be a compilation of the band’s singles, an impressive run of 45s including Ice Cream Sundae, Falling In and We Have To Move On. Hewson, on Zoom in front of a Bowie Heroes poster, admits lockdown brought about a new intensity and conviction in their attitude towards the album, so much so that none of the aforementioned singles made the final tracklist.
“We controlled what we could control which was writing music and we wrote lots and that inadvertently affected the album. If we didn’t have that time; I don’t know what it would have sounded like.”
The band’s drummer Ryan McMahon interjects: “significantly less good”. Debuting at No1 in the UK album charts in July, they became the first Irish band to top the charts in 13 years. Amid a vinyl revival, their debut is the fastest-selling in physical sales of any band this century.
Hewson is the son of U2’s Bono. Comparisons to that other Dublin four-piece can be clunky. “I did listen to a bit of U2 when I was a kid,” he says.
At points, Hewson’s voice recalls a more innocent pre-fame Bono from albums such as Boy or October and, like the old man, he’s not afraid to tackle political issues and cultural happenings such as on When It Breaks: “It’s our interpretation of this strange and imperfect world we’ve come to live in”.
As blues legend BB King once suggested to a young Paul Hewson in the 1988 film Rattle and Hum: “You mighty young to write such heavy lyrics.”
My King Will Be Kind takes on misogynist ‘incel’ culture predating the Southampton shootings in August. “She says I’ve got no love/ I f***ing hate that bitch/ Cause she takes and she takes/ She won’t give/ And they love/ But I still don’t fit in.”
Some critics took the words literally, leaving some to question Hewson’s maturity or character. Taking on a problematic persona such as Bowie’s sociopathic wife-beater on Lodger’s Repetition or Alice Cooper’s darkly comic account of necrophilia in I Love The Dead can be a complicated business these days but, for much of the record, it’s an album by young men capturing all the abstract beauty of life in your early 20s.
“Most of the lyrics are me spewing random stuff into the microphone and trying to make sense of it. Often I say stuff subconsciously as to what a song could be about.”
Of course, that is open to interpretation, which is the allure of these songs. It Won’t Always Be Like This, the album’s title track and a 2019 single, became a lockdown anthem despite being written some years ago. “It’s 52 in dog years now”, says Hewson. “It’s funny because we didn’t design it to be about the pandemic, it naturally came about. It’s really about growing up and wondering what the future will be like. I remember having a conversation wondering if it was too on the nose, but it felt perfect.”
Elsewhere, there’s a strange lockdown energy that inhabits the record, perhaps something of the anxiety we have all felt at different stages since March 2020.
“We did so much growing up as people and that is reflected on the record. It captures that period of time musically and lyrically. We were going through so much and that’s all made it onto the record but only for the better. There are another five or six songs that are on the album from that time”.
It Won’t Always Be Like This isn’t just a moment of guitar pop ephemera or what was described as ‘landfill indie’ back in 2008 to address how formulaic and stale the genre had become.
Former Pulp member and album producer Antony Genn wasn’t afraid to tell the band when they were dull to push them on. Hewson also points to guitarist Josh Jenkinson, the last member to join in 2015, as something of a catalyst, forcing the other three to up their game. The musical chemistry between them on A Night On The Floor is palpable.
“That’s the beauty of it,” explains the guitarist, “I take the rhythm and let Eli loose and start ripping around. That’s where he does his best. I do the dub and the echo guitars inspired by old reggae and dub tunes.”
A four-way split on the songs (like U2) has ensured democracy works for Inhaler, saving the usual disputes over royalties. “The songs are credited to the four of us”, explains Hewson, “it’s always been that way right from the start. At school, so many people loved singer-songwriters or solo artists and we kind of missed bands that write songs together. It serves to keep everyone equally invested in what we are doing. That’s the beauty of writing; we don’t set rules, it’s not like Josh is the lead, it depends on the song. In the studio, we are really spontaneous.”
The ambient Strange Time To Be Alive is further evidence of that. “If we didn’t have to write singles we’d just make albums with loads of tunes. We wanted to do something that people didn’t expect from us, the singles don’t touch on that but we love doing that kind of music.”
Being friends with a shared interest in bands from the north-west of England and the west of Scotland such as The Jesus and Mary Chain (former member Douglas Hart does Inhaler’s artwork and has directed band promos) “gave them an anchor” suggests Hewson.
“We all grew up listening to the same music, like Joy Division and The Stone Roses, all those indie bands we love. There is a Celtic thing with so many Irish people moving to places like Manchester and Liverpool, it also must be something to do with that. Also experiencing so many things over the years with the lads makes the glue even stronger, it’s not like we’re punching in a clock; we’re making music and having fun.”
The brushstrokes of synth and guitar anthems recall New Order at their 1980s peak and the more recent offerings of the alternative Baltimore synth-pop group Future Islands. After moving up the bill for a Transmit festival performance in Glasgow, Inhaler are once again gathering a head of steam while working their way through Scotland’s most famous venues – the next being a sold-out show at the Barrowland Ballroom this month. “It was at King Tut’s that we had our first experience of what a Glasgow crowd can be [in 2019] the last one we did was SWG3. Our bus driver is from Glasgow, he was really happy we sold it out, we have heard so many myths and legends about that place.”
Inhaler play the Barrowland Ballroom on October 10