Last month on Chicago’s north side, hundreds of fans lined up down Broadway and around the corner onto Lawrence Avenue as early as 2 PM. It was a cold, typically windy spring day in the Uptown neighborhood as fans waited for doors to open at the Riviera Theatre, Irish rockers Inhaler and opening act Sun Room set to take the stage six hours later.
Touring in support of their second studio album Cuts & Bruises, 2023 has seen Inhaler’s profile continually on the rise in America. Following a 2022 St. Patrick’s Day performance at Chicago’s House of Blues, Inhaler nearly tripled the size of their sold out Chicago audience almost exactly one year later at the Riv.
It’s the result of hard work amidst a hectic year which will see the group joining Arctic Monkeys for a run of European dates this May before sharing the stage with Harry Styles at Dublin’s Slane Castle on June 10, 2023. The group will also head back to Chicago for a pair of shows as opening act for Pearl Jam in September.
Prior to the Riviera concert, the group performed an early lunchtime set for lucky fans and listeners of Chicago adult alternative radio station WXRT.
“You know, getting up early to do those things is not always our strong point,” said Inhaler vocalist/guitarist Elijah Hewson with a chuckle. “It’s not easy to channel the whatever it is we channel at 9 AM,” he joked.
“When you have foggy eyes, you can’t hide,” added bassist Robert Keating with a smile. “I think you feel a little exposed at that hour of the day.”
On stage at the Riv, Inhaler kicked off a frenetic set in front of a raucous young crowd with “These Are the Days,” the first single off Cuts & Bruises. One of the biggest reactions came later as the group tore into “Dublin in Ecstasy,” Inhaler forced to pause the show soon after as emergency crews removed an overheated concertgoer from the general admission floor during the band’s encore.
“Well, Chicago, you never let us down do ya?” mused Hewson of the impassioned capacity crowd earlier, the audience exploding as the opening riff of “When it Breaks” rang out. “You have a good St. Patrick’s Day? Still goin’ by the looks of it,” he joked, learning to embrace his role as frontman. “That’s commitment.”
I spoke with Hewson, Keating, drummer Ryan McMahon and guitarist Josh Jenkinson backstage in Chicago about learning on the road, how touring informs both relationships and the 11 tracks that make up Cuts & Bruises as well as the benefit of forging a unique identity on their own terms. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
Jim Ryan: Over the course of the last year and a half, you guys have done these major festivals: Glastonbury, Lollapalooza. What do you learn on those massive stages in front of giant crowds that’s applicable as you head back on the road now?
Ryan McMahon: I suppose you just learn how naked you feel on a massive stage in the middle of the day. Your eyes get widened to how much work you still have to do. With these shows that we’ve been doing, it’s just been really nice to have a second album under our belt. People are coming to the shows that do know us – and they sing back some tunes that we didn’t really expect that they’d gravitate to as much as they have. It’s been a hectic year for us.
Ryan: You guys played live so much before entering the studio to record Cuts & Bruises. How did that impact proceedings once you started recording?
Elijah Hewson: I think it affects everything – I don’t think as much as we realize until we’re kind of touring or in the studio. The more time we spend – not even playing but also just talking – we’re just more tuned in. And then we kind of work better as a team. So it definitely influenced when we recorded the second album – having come in off tour basically. We were much tighter and we were able to work quicker.
Ryan: These songs sort of hit upon the impact of touring – the effect the road can have on relationships (even relationships with each other within the band). How does that general idea of touring and the road inform Cuts & Bruises?
Hewson: Entirely. It was all kind of from that perspective. It’s weird. You’d think that being in a tight, enclosed space would make you closer – but I think it just pushes you further apart in a weird way. And I think dealing with that, and trying to figure out how to navigate it without getting stuck in your feelings, is important. I think we wrote these songs so we could hear them ourselves, you know? I think you just need to remind yourself where you were five years ago. We were all in a rehearsal room playing every day together. You can kind of lose sight of that a little bit I think. But that was what the point of this album was really – just to get back to that feeling.
Ryan: Especially the way that the music industry continually moves away from the idea of the album, I feel like one of the most underrated elements of songwriting is storytelling. But it seems like it’s a big part of Cuts & Bruises. How important is storytelling to what Inhaler does?
Hewson: I don’t think it’s inherently in the DNA of what we do. But I think that we were so inspired by a lot of American songwriters on this album just from being in the States so much. People like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are unbelievable songwriters and storytellers. And I think it must’ve rubbed off on us a bit and we wanted to tell a bit more of a story. To be honest with you, the first album was like, we had a bunch of songs and a bunch of sounds coming out – but then it was like, “Oh yeah, you actually need to write lyrics to these songs…” And it was just kind of like filling in the gaps. But this record just felt a little more personal. And there was something to say.
Ryan: I know a few of the songs on the album were sort of kicking around for a bit. How many of them were you guys hanging on to?
McMahon: “Dublin in Ecstasy” was a song we wrote when we were like 17 or 18. So I suppose that is the oldest song on the album. “Just to Keep You Satisfied” was written pretty much the day after the first album was mixed and mastered and put to bed. So there have been a few that have been tinkering around for a while. But “Dublin in Ecstasy” was a very early song that we used to gig before the first album came out. And our fans gravitated toward that song very early for reasons we’ll never know. And for years they just kept asking, “Where did it go?” Because we stopped playing it. So it sort of fit the theme of us wanting to get back to the place of being a band again – an actual band. It felt right to add elements of our early touring life onto the record.
Ryan: “When I Have her on my Mind” is one of my favorite new tracks. It reminds me of the last few Johnny Marr albums. What were you guys going for on that one?
Hewson: It’s funny that it reminded you of Johnny Marr. Because we were trying to do like an American take on that – more just in the sound of the guitars and stuff. We usually do a lot of stuff on like the neck and the middle but not the bridge. The bridge has that very strong 80s guitar, like distorted sound. And we weren’t afraid to use it on that song for some reason. We wrote on tour and Josh wrote that riff. And you are very inspired by Johnny Marr aren’t you?
Josh Jenkinson: Yeah.
Hewson: So maybe that’s what you’re hearing. But it’s a great riff. And then we were like, “F—k… Now we’ve got to write a song that’s as good as the riff!” I think we got there. But it’s tough.
Ryan: What is it about Johnny Marr’s playing for you, Josh?
Jenkinson: When I joined the band, that was one of the first bands that we listened to as a group. It was either Joy Division or The Smiths. Stone Roses as well.
Ryan: Obviously, come the second record, you hear all of the stereotypes: make or break, sophomore slump, all of that cliche stuff. But you guys were around for almost 10 years coming into album two. How would you say you’ve grown as songwriters?
Hewson: A lot. I think having the shorter amount of time has forced us to make snappier decisions. You’ve got to think on your toes a little bit more. There wasn’t time to argue about say the drum snare – even though we did (but just for half the time we did on the first record). Stuff like that. I don’t think I felt that nervous until we’d actually finished it. And then you’re waiting. I remember feeling like last January, “Yeah, this is definitely going to be better than the first one.” Just with what we had – and we had nothing. We had a few demos and bits hanging around. And I was feeling good about it. But I think then it’s like the closer you get to the reality of it, then you start to second guess. But we couldn’t touch it at that point.
Robert Keating: Our fate was sealed.
Ryan: One of my favorite things about this album is that it’s kind of difficult to pigeonhole. Writers like to try and do that. And it was sort of comical reading some of the attempts. How important is it to you guys to ensure that you’re forging ahead and avoiding those trappings while continuing to establish a unique identity wholly on your own terms?
Jenkinson: That’s what we’re all about really. We don’t want to do the same thing twice. We try not to at least.
Hewson: We don’t make a conscious effort to avoid things – but sometimes we manage to avoid things pretty well. I guess that’s kind of the way bands find their sound is by doing that.
McMahon: It’s funny when people pigeonhole us – because they always have different ones. And it kind of puts that case to rest.