“We’ll never do a second album again,” jokes Inhaler’s Elijah Hewson, feigning the exhaustion that, at this time last year, was very real for the well-coiffed singer-guitarist and his Inhaler bandmates.
After two years of pandemic dormancy, the Irish pop-rockers stormed the stage in 2022, amassing more than 100 gigs in support of It Won’t Always Be Like This, the group’s blistering post-punk-goes-pop 2021 debut. The album, which was largely written and recorded during COVID, hit No. 1 in the U.K. and the Dubliners’ native Ireland, shocking the new-coming foursome.
And so came the need for a worthy follow-up — this time on a working band’s notoriously chaotic schedule. But the tireless lads pulled it off, booking long studio hours in early 2022, between tour stints and festival sets.
Just 15 months after their thrilling curtain-raiser — and with nerve-racking slots at Glastonbury and Lollapalooza now in the rear-view — Inhaler returns with Cuts and Bruises, another jangle-and-thump effort full of confidence and anthemic abandon, out this Friday (Feb. 17) through Geffen. The guitar-heavy sequel sharply merges callbacks to the band’s ‘80s muses — The Stone Roses, Joy Division — with touches of American fascination, courtesy of the band’s run of packed club shows across the U.S. last spring. Suddenly Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan have joined the party as influences.
After last year’s hectic return to normalcy, the band — Hewson, bassist Rob Keating, guitarist Josh Jenkinson and drummer Ryan McMahon — plans for a busy 2023, with another list of festivals booked, not to mention opening slots for Harry Styles and Arctic Monkeys. It’s easy to imagine a 1975-like obsession before this next album cycle is finished, although the band mates, who have been making noise together since their early teens, can scarcely believe any of it.
Billboard caught up with the ascendant band to retrace their wild 2022, unpack the origins of Cuts and Bruises, and learn how a well-timed documentary influenced their promising next chapter.
How was your very busy 2022, and being able to get back on stage and debut songs written in pandemic isolation?
Ryan McMahon: When we went back to gigging, seeing all these new, unfamiliar faces, singing back the songs was quite a shock to our system. And that was crazy for us to get back out touring and going into places in America, for example, where we never thought we’d be able to go and people knew our songs. We were talking a lot about how we’re very guilty of feeling like we’ve got this sense of imposter syndrome in our minds. We don’t feel worthy, in a lot of ways, of some of the things we get to do.
How has the reception been with U.S. fans, who have been a little slower to catch Inhaler fever?
RM: It’s surreal, because we always pictured America as this fictional place.
Elijah Hewson: I think people [in America] listen to music in a really different way than they do in Europe. Not that it’s like they don’t listen to music as much in Europe, but I feel like when we came here, right off the bat, people were very warm to us and we felt like it gave us a lot of drive and a lot of it made us feel like, oh, “Come on, lads.” And I guess it’s that age-old thing of Irish people coming to America and feeling like the whole world’s at their feet, at their fingertips.
Since you last spoke to Billboard, your debut album, It Won’t Always Be Like This, hit No. 1 in several countries, including your native Ireland. What’s it like to have a chart-topper in your own country?
RM: We still almost feel like it didn’t happen. I mean, when you get into a band when you’re 12 or 13, you don’t ever think that you’re going to go and take on the world with your boys. You just want to get into a room and make noise, because you’re not really that good at anything else. And so fast forward nine, 10 years later, and you wake up to find out that your album that you wrote during a pandemic is No. 1 in the country that you grew up in? It’s hard to put into words, really.
Let’s talk about the new album. First off, why call it Cuts and Bruises?
EH: I think we kind of realized that being in a band is maybe, sounds silly, but more of a commitment than we thought. Not in a sense that we have to work, but I think in relation to our relationships with each other. It’s a little bit like a marriage, and I think there’s always going to be a little bit of residual scar tissue left over after so many years of working and playing with each other.
We’re starting to realize that it’s important to look after those relationships and pay attention to them, and we have a responsibility to look after each other. And I think that just kept coming up, after the pandemic and being on the road together, it just felt like the only thing we could write about. So I guess the title reflects that, in a way. And it’s not a serious injury. It’s something that we’re able to brush off and heal from.
In a way, the pandemic bought you guys extra time to fine-tune your first album. But Cuts and Bruises was made in the real world, in between a rigorous touring schedule. How much harder was this one to finish?
EH: Switching between those two processes was very exhausting. And I think we all kind of crawled out the back end of 2021 just feeling like we were just really, really — not burnt out, but I think we’d given everything that we could, and I think in some ways the pressure of that, and the spontaneity of it, and the speed at which we did things probably did help the album. And thankfully, we had our producer [Antony Genn] in there to kind of light the fire under our arse, as he often does. And that really kept us on the straight and narrow while we were back in the studio.
How did this new influx of touring experience — and growing confidence in your abilities — influence the writing of Cuts and Bruises?
EH: I think we learned a lot of lessons on the first one, and I think when we came into the second we had a better picture of how we wanted to do things. … I think the main thing we said is we wanted less information, to let the songs breathe a bit.
I think we were just more confident, and you don’t have to add as much if you are confident in the songs and material. And that was the basis of what we went off and I think it guided us pretty well. But other than that, I mean, you’re going in hoping that you come out with something at the end that is bigger than the sum of its parts. I don’t think anybody really knows what they’re doing. And as David Bowie said, “If you knew what you were doing, it’d be boring. You’d be disappointed.”
Is there one song on the new album you’d point to as the guiding light for what this project is trying to say?
EH: Maybe “Now You Got Me,” because it’s about committing to something, and a lot of the lyrics are about joining the band and stuff like that. And I think that paints a picture, for me, of the whole album and where we are right now.
RM: [The song] sums up just the overall residing theme of it being an album of love songs, about loving your friends, really.
You guys talk a lot about being in a band and your commitment to each other. I know you all watched The Beatles documentary Get Back, which touches on some similar themes. How did that impact how Inhaler functions?
EH: It couldn’t have come out at a better time for us to be preparing to go into a studio to make a new album. And it was also very interesting for us to watch that and watch some of the conversations that they’d be having with each other as the biggest and best band to ever exist. And we’re just watching it going, “Hey, we argue about that!”
The lead single “These Are the Days” is a big, anthemic song. How’d you land on it to introduce the new album?
JJ: It was funny, because “These Are the Days” was kind of overlooked at the time but we played it to our producers and our managers and they were like, “Hey, there’s something there. Let’s get cooking on that straight away.” Even though it was one of the later demos to arrive, it was one of the first songs we’d finished and we thought it was a good way of coming back into releasing music and saying, “Hey, here we are again. Are people still interested in us?” It just worked out in that way.
How about “If You’re Going to Break My Heart,” which is a departure for you guys? It sounds like an American folk or country song.
RM: That came to us from listening to a lot of Bob Dylan and The Band and Bruce Springsteen, and us falling in love with America, really, and touring it and visiting places like Nashville and sort of familiarizing ourselves a bit more with country music and the storytelling that goes behind that. In music, country artists are the best storytellers. I think that’s what we were aiming for. I think that song actually came fairly naturally to us in the studio, because it’s not super rigid-sounding. It’s a lot more loose and it sounds like a live band, which is, again, what we wanted to achieve with this record.
What does it mean to you to be a rock band in 2023 that’s still finding an audience in real life, especially as so many artists your age are living on TikTok?
EH: It’s everything to us. When we were kids, the most uncool thing you could do was pick up a guitar and join a band. And everyone was like, “Oh, that’s cute.” I think we were just doing it for ourselves, really, because that’s how we found each other — we just wanted to listen to Stone Roses and Joy Division, and it drew us close.
And we saw Arctic Monkeys came out with AM in 2013 and that was very guitar-driven, and “Do I Wanna Know?,” it was a huge single, and I think that gave us a little bit of hope. And I also think that maybe people are just sick of hearing stuff that doesn’t feel authentic. And I think it doesn’t get much more authentic than hearing the clang of a guitar, and that’s a very visceral, physical sound. Maybe that’s why people like listening to bands like us, I guess. But we’re still like, a “pop and roll.” We’re not like idols. We’re still very kind of freaked out that this has even happened.