A conversation with Irish indie-rock sensation Inhaler

Fresh off the release of their sophomore album “Cuts and Bruises,” WSN spoke with Irish rock band Inhaler about representation and vulnerability.


From left: Josh Jenkinson, Robert Keating, Elijah Hewson and Ryan McMahon. (Courtesy of Lewis Evans)

Ary Russell, Contributing Writer

The Irish rock band Inhaler has decided to take a more stripped back approach on its sophomore album, “Cuts and Bruises,” in comparison to their earlier work. “Cuts and Bruises” is filled with sirenic instrumentals and honest lyricism that speaks to the devotion, heartbreak and sentimentality that arise on the road to stardom. Behind the band’s enigmatic stage presence and elaborate production, which is reminiscent of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, are just four best friends — frontman and guitarist Elijah Hewson, bassist Robert Keating, guitarist Josh Jenkinson and drummer Ryan McMahon — who are obsessed with Guinness beer and cowboy hats.

Garnering praise from  Louis Tomlinson, Noel Gallagher and Elton John, Inhaler’s artistry has matured since the release of their very first single, “I Want You,” back in 2017. Despite the group’s recent successes — reaching number one on the Irish album charts and amassing more than 1.7 million monthly listeners in Spotify — one thing is still certain: Inhaler is just getting started.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

WSN: Having released your latest album, how are you feeling about getting back on the road?

Elijah Hewson: I’m excited. We’ve got more people on tour this year and less space on the bus so that’ll be interesting. But I think either way, it’s just a really big opportunity to see different things and meet new people, it gives you that extra boost of enthusiasm you need to get through the hangovers and long drives.

WSN: Do you still get nervous about shows, or are you accustomed to the stage by now?

Ryan McMahon: It depends on the gig –– where you are and the size of it. I mean, we find that home shows in Dublin are where we’re probably a bit more nervous than usual now. Everyone you’ve ever known is there, and your family is there, so you can’t get away with being — or trying to be — cooler than you actually are. They’ll call you out on that afterwards.

WSN: What makes a good performance? What leaves you thinking, “I just killed that!”

Elijah: [Laughs] That rarely happens.

Ryan: If the audience is jumping up and down looking like they’re having a good time, but you feel like you’ve played a shit gig, you’re kind of just like, “Well, everybody else seems to like it, so it’s cool.”

Elijah: When we feel like we’ve done really good, there’s no disagreement about it. In the camp, when you come off, everybody just kind of nods to each other like, “Yeah, that was serious. That was the shit, you know?”

If it’s not, I’ve definitely come offstage a couple times and been, like, “I dropped that at that moment, I kind of messed that up or whatever.” But there’s just some nights where we just all feel super in unison and everybody’s just steaming down the tracks. But it’s rare. I think that everybody can feel that we’ve all excelled, you know.

WSN: For this upcoming show, fans started lining up around 5 a.m. How does it feel when you guys walk up to the venue and you already see a line around the block?

Ryan: I just hope they have enough water. Today it’s really hot here. I mean we still kind of struggled to really come to terms with — and accept that — people will wait outside at 5 a.m. just to watch us play for an hour and 10 or 20 minutes. Our fans are some of the sweetest people we’ve ever met. They’re also really, really funny. We feel blessed to be able to say that that’s a part of our job or what we get to do for a living.

Elijah:  I kind of envy them because it’s such a sense of community, it just seems like everybody’s really nice to each other. It’s just nice that we can be facilitating something like that, even though we never imagined that that would ever happen with our music and stuff. It’s a big honor. Really, it’s crazy.

WSN: Rob, I did a little bit of digging and I found that you have a Spotify playlist called “Songs From Home.” It got me thinking about all the things you have to give up in order to be on tour. Could you talk a little bit about the mental, physical and emotional preparation it takes to be away from home for so long?

Robert Keating: When we’re home, we just shut off. I don’t think we necessarily do things on purpose to prepare for the tour. It’s more just not doing anything so we’re just spending time with family and friends, very much not going out. And when I’m home, I genuinely do so little. It’s almost pathetic. I just watch TV and go for walks. But then when you’re on tour, it’s the polar opposite because you’re doing something every single day. Your days off are then in new places, so then you’re spending your days off going out and stuff. I think it’s just kind of being able to relax when you have the time off.

WSN: You often hear a lot about these famous artists who were essentially musical prodigies from the time that they were five. You talked a little bit in other interviews about how you picked up your instruments a little bit later. Did you experience any feelings of imposter syndrome?

Elijah: I think that the three of us were kind of learning how to play our instruments at the same time because we’ve been together since we were like 13, except Josh joined when we were 16. Before that, it was just hopeless, it was tragic. 

When Josh joined, I think there was like a rock there, then we could hide a bit better. It’s like his playing was so great compared to ours that we just all picked up off him. And even though we’d been playing for so many years, we hadn’t made that much progress. We spoofed our way into it, and I think we’re still kind of spoofing it, really. A few of us had lessons when we were kids, but it’s not until your passion actually ignites for the instrument that you get going.

WSN: Josh, you’re like the glue of the band. Can you talk about what it was like from your perspective?

Josh Jenkinson: To be honest, when I joined we just started doing more gigs. I think when you play gigs, if you can’t play, it just doesn’t really happen. Playing shows every day helps, because you just end up getting better at it. But I definitely think we weren’t good until 2019. I’d say that’s when we started playing really good as a band. Before that, we were just all learning — and then it all clicked together, which was nice. But I definitely don’t think I was the glue. 

Elijah: You were.

WSN: I’d like to switch gears a little bit to talk about your new album, “Cuts and Bruises.” In what ways would you say this project is different from your debut?

Elijah: The only thing that we’ve said about this album was that we wanted to let the songs breathe a little bit more. Whether that was putting less information in the mix, recording less or trying to spend less time on things, it all amounted to a big difference. With the lyrics, we wanted to tell a bit more of an honest story of where we were at. The album is a little bit more realistic, I guess. The first album was very idealistic, joyful and defiant –– it had big statements and felt youthful. This one feels a little bit more, I don’t know, grown up. We feel like we’ve matured a bit on it. 

WSN: What was the hardest song on the album for you guys to make?

Elijah: It was “When I Have Her on My Mind,” because Josh had this really good riff. I won’t say incredible, because he’ll hate me, but he had this really good riff, and we were playing it in soundcheck on the last American tour. Then, in the studio, we just had to find a song that was going to be as good as the riff. I think we got there in the end, but I still think the riff is definitely the main feature of that song — it’s very catchy and stuff. It took a lot of experimentation. It was a bit of a head scratcher, for sure. We were still kind of writing it right up until the mixing, to be honest with you.

WSN: In the songwriting process, what kind of vulnerability is needed for you guys to make music as a group?

Elijah: A lot of vulnerability.

Ryan: You need to be almost entirely vulnerable, especially if you go down a path of getting up on stage in front of a bunch of people every night. That’s probably the most vulnerable situation anybody can ever find themselves in. I think you need to leave most of your ego at the door when you go into the process of trying to make the best song possible.

WSN: I have a question for Josh. Since the alternative and rock genre is mostly dominated by white men, how important is it for you to be a Black musician catapulting into mainstream success within the rock genre?

Josh: Kele Okereke from Bloc Party was a big inspiration for me wanting to do music, because I was like, “Oh, cool. He kind of somewhat looks like me, so I could do it.” I hope people feel that way about me and go, “Oh, that guy kind of somewhat looks like me, and maybe I could do it one day.”

I try not to think about it, because I don’t think it’s a prominent feature a lot of people are watching out for. But if I made one person want to start playing the guitar or be in a band, it would mean the world to me.

Inhaler will be performing in New York at the Manhattan Center Hammerstein Ballroom on March 17

Contact Ary Russell at [email protected].