Inhaler were once the “world’s worst heavy metal band”. Formed under a different name when their members were just 12, they were apparently so terrible that their parents expressed doubts over any future music career.
What a turnaround. Ten years later, the Dublin four-piece are one of the world’s most promising young rock acts, already with a No 1 album under their belts. Their debut It Won’t Always Be Like This, which charted in both the UK and Ireland on its release last year, seemed tailor-made for stadium shows, with its anthemic choruses, layered guitars and frontman Elijah “Eli” Hewson’s keening, reverb-laden vocals. On “Slide Out the Window” he croons dreamily, voice held aloft by bright guitars and shimmery percussion, before the whole thing lurches, slip-sliding into something darker, more chaotic.
If that all sounds a touch familiar, it’s possibly because their singer’s dad is Paul David Hewson, better known as U2 frontman Bono. “You can’t get away from DNA,” the 22-year-old says with a grin. He’s sitting with his bandmate, bassist Robert Keating, backstage at Nos Alive festival in Lisbon, Portugal. We’re in the shade yet it’s still blisteringly hot; Keating cracks a joke about their Irish skin feeling the burn. In the past, they’ve come across as a little reticent; Hewson’s earlier comments have sounded like ploys to distance themselves from the inevitable U2 comparisons. Today, though, they are open and voluble – Hewson makes self-deprecating digs about his height next to the taller Keating – and well-aware of the assumptions people might make about them.
“I don’t mind talking about [my dad], because if you try and shy away from it…” Hewson shrugs, pushing his mop of black hair out of his face. “I’ve been very fortunate in my life, and I’m not gonna act like [that isn’t the case].” He’s more bothered that people think Inhaler had their success handed to them: “This was the only thing I ever wanted to do,” he says of the band. “There was a point when I wanted to be an architect, but I’m not smart enough. I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.” Keating recalls playing to “seven people – two of them were my parents” at a festival in Ireland when they were first starting out. They did the tiny venues, the summer tours… More recently, they’ve picked up support slots for Noel Gallagher and Kings of Leon; in August they’ll join Arctic Monkeys in Turkey and Croatia. “Pinch-me” moments. “I think a lot of people assume our band went straight into the big leagues,” Keating remarks, prompting Hewson to quip: “I wish that was true!”
It doesn’t take a detective to realise that Hewson’s parents raised their children to put in the work. His older sister, actor Eve Hewson (The Luminaries, Behind Her Eyes), has said in a previous interview that she and her siblings were never handed money, and never would be. If anything, their parents warned them to think twice before pursuing a career in the arts. “I remember having a conversation with my dad where he was like, ‘You know, this is no joke. If you do this, you’ve got to mean it,’” Hewson recalls. “I’m very proud to be his son. He’s accomplished so much.” As for the musical comparisons: “I don’t mind sounding like him – he’s a good singer!”
It’s only now that Inhaler feel that they’re really onto something. “It’s the first year we’re not losing money,” Keating says. “So we’re blessed, we’re happy that we did the work before the pandemic.” During lockdowns, they agreed that they’d never complain about a tour or promotional schedule again (“we’re regretting that now…”). “We wind each other up, know how to push each other’s buttons,” Keating says. “But we wouldn’t want to be with anyone else.” Their newly released single, “These Are the Days”, shows they’re already keen to move forwards. It’s their most danceable track to date, with a throbbing Eighties bass line that demonstrates their love for bands such as New Order. Jubilant synths skip alongside a racing electric guitar hook, as Hewson sings: “These are the days, I don’t miss the feeling of being alone.”
“The lyric used to be, ‘These are the days I miss the feeling of being alone,’” Hewson tells me. He changed it amid the isolation he felt in Dublin, unable to play or even hang out with his bandmates. “It’s funny, because I think everyone got too used to being alone,” he says. “[Coming out of lockdown], I found social interactions quite awkward. But it’s good to be around people again.” They want to give people something to “jump up and down to”, as proven in album track “Who’s Your Money On”, which riffed playfully on the juddery intro to “Blue Monday”.
“When we started the band 10 years ago, picking up the guitar was like the most uncool thing you could do,” Hewson says. “But we stuck with it, and now you’ve got Sam Fender, Fontaines DC… I think there’s been a flip.” I suggest that there also seems to have been a boom in young musicians who are dedicated to mastering their instruments, as opposed to just “getting by”. Keating jokes that the band in fact have zero discipline: “If it weren’t for the fact we formed at school we’d be a terrible band. It was years of error.”
“We didn’t feel like we’d succeed,” Hewson agrees. “People were like, ‘When will that finish?’ So that made us want to go harder.” Even playing the John Peel stage at Glastonbury this year, the band found room for self-criticism. “I felt like I’d been in a warzone,” Keating says with a grimace. “We didn’t feel good about it after. You can get in your own head, and we’d built it up so much.” They wanted to decompress after the performance but, Hewson says, “Glastonbury is a big schmooze-fest”, and people kept stopping by their dressing room to congratulate them. “We’re very self-critical,” he says. “We’re working on it.”
They’re working on their songwriting, too. With a few exceptions, Hewson’s lyrics tap into universal themes such as loneliness and heartbreak. But you get the sense that he’s itching to be more daring, offering an early glimpse of this in “My King Will be Kind”. Written from the perspective of a misogynist incel, it includes the eyebrow-raising line: “I f***ing hate that bitch.” A few (myself included) misinterpreted it on first listen, thinking it was a poorly judged breakup rant.
“Yeah, I know,” Hewson grins. “It’s so abrasive – I remember having the conversation in the studio like, can we actually do that?” Yet there’s something brilliant about watching their female fans enjoy the catharsis of screaming it back at the band during their live shows. By now, those shows are a major draw – less raucous than those of their Irish contemporaries, Fontaines DC, but just as rammed. Seeing those fans there is more important to them than any accolade: “We didn’t really care about the No 1, we were just glad people were enjoying the record,” Hewson says. “And the day after we were like, what’s next?”
The video for ‘These Are the Days’ is out now