The Irish music scene is bursting at the seams with fledgling talent right now – and there’s another rising band to add to the list.
Meet Kilkenny’s The Wha – a four-piece that splice wry lyrics depicting the glorious, carefree days of youth with the warming, classic sounds of indie rock.
They join the likes of fellow breakthrough Irish acts, such as Fontaines D.C., Just Mustard, Girl Band, and Sinead O’Brien, continuing to make waves with their expansive sonic pallets.
The Wha’s urgent lyricism and joyous grasp of melody takes inspiration from the likes of The Beatles and Brian Wilson to novelist Jack Kerouac and satirist Flann O’Brien.
Early singles 40 Odd Years and Innocents firmly marked their intent, with the latter picking up airplay on former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce’s BBC Radio 6 show.
This year the quartet, consisting of school pals Finn Cusack and Sam Cullen, and Marek Lech and Abe G Harris, returned with the swooningly brilliant guitar pop efforts Blue For You and Young Skins, both produced by the legendary Stephen Street, who’s worked with the likes of Blur and The Maccabees.
The partnership encapsulated their commitment to the songwriting craft, glistening instrumentation and luscious melodies over Street’s magic to create rousing indie pop numbers.
All aged between 19 and 20 with a bright future ahead of them, The Wha represent the youthful driving force of Ireland’s accelerating arts scene.
Daily Star Online caught up with Sam and Finn to talk about growing up in Kilkenny, singles Blue For You and Young Skins, the Irish music scene, working with Stephen Street, and their influences.
Hi guys. Firstly, who are The Wha and when did you form?
Sam: “Me and Finn used to play in bands from the age of 12 upwards in Kilkenny. We started writing songs when we were 15. We wrote songs for a year and got the other two guys – Abe and Marek – in the band.”
What’s Kilkenny like to be in a band?
Sam: “It’s pretty nice. It’s a nice place to live. It’s a town pretending to be a city. It’s pretty small. You get to know everybody that lives there. It’s the perfect place to grow up, it’s really beautiful and safe. You’ve got every type of group there. It’s a lovely place to grow up. We don’t live there now though.”
Where are you based now?
Finn: “All over the place. I’m in Waterford. We need to move in together to keep the dream alive.”
How’ve you found lockdown? Have you been able to work as much as you’d like?
Sam: “There’s no way we were going to be able to practice because we were isolating in different places. I found it productive. You can do a lot on your phone these days.
“We’re both writing loads of songs individually. We just haven’t had the chance to get together and pull it out of the bag yet.”
“It’s a good time for us. If you haven’t got too much financial strain there really is no excuse why you shouldn’t be hitting your prime. It’s free time and there’s so much s*** happening in the world!”
It must be a strange time for an emerging band like yourselves. One minute you’re working together and then bam, everything stops. How important is it not to get fazed by that?
Finn: “Very important. You can overthink it to death and think ‘oh God, if this hadn’t had happened what else could we have done?’, but everyone else is in the same boat. There’s nothing you can do.”
Sam: “It’s sad because we were going to be quite busy this summer. There is always next summer.”
On more positive news, you’re about to release new single Young Skins. How was it written and were you influenced by anything when penning it?
Sam: “I wrote that one. I was really struggling with it one day. Then I met Finn in a cafe. I was really frustrated because I couldn’t finish it.
“Finn was like ‘slap a chorus at the end of it, man! It doesn’t even matter!’ That’s what I did when I got home. A very inspirational chat.
“We go to this pub in Kilkenny called the Pumphouse all the time. It’s pretty dark and you get people of every generation going there.
“Sometimes it feels like we’re the kids, which we are, the fat nosed, bratty little kids that are getting drunk while the rest of them are put in their place.
“I thought that would be a cool perspective for a song. It’s a tale from the perspective of an old drunk man staring at young people.”
Would you say your lyrics are observational?
Sam: “Sometimes, I think so. It’s all very imaginary as well and it could be a bit self absorbed observation. I like a story and a setting in a song. Me and Finn learned how to write songs together.”
Finn: “I write one, and he’ll write one. it’s 50/50.”
Do you share ideas together?
Finn: “Yes but less so now. Probably at the start we did more. I think we probably should start doing it again. It’s much easier to get through.”
Sam: “Even just conversationally we share a few ideas and stuff.”
I love the video for it as well. Are they home videos?
Finn: “Our drummer had an noughties video camera and there were a handful of videos when we were really young, and then a handful of videos of a week we spent in Dublin, and then just forgot about it.
“During lockdown, Dave thought ‘f*** it, I’m just going to put them all together for a video to Young Skins’ because, you know, it’s a song about us.”
Do you enjoy the music video side of things?
Sam: “It’s hard coming into it because we’re all musically creative people. Abe’s a painter. But it’s hard to have a visual identity when you’re not a filmmaker. It’s even harder to feed reference points to other people.
“I think it’s something that develops with time and opportunity behind it. I get more anxious about singles covers then I do about the recordings of these things.
“You can get anxious with music videos I think. When people hear a song they may think of the visuals that go with it, rather than think of something for themselves.”
Young Skins follows the release of Blue For You, a real classic sounding track where you worked with the legendary Stephen Street. How did working with him add to the sound and what did you learn?
Finn: “With Blue For You, it was simple. He brought in a bit of punctuation but something that we would never have thought of something so genius. A little sprinkle of magic. It was a dream. Everything that he suggested you were like ‘oh, of course’.”
Sam: “It was very simple and effective ways of making s*** sound amazing that he’d built up throughout the years. Very efficient, I thought. He’d be able to read the room very well if you were struggling to get a take.”
Finn: “He’d come in say take a break and have a chat.”
Sam: “It was cool having him in the same room.”
It must be great to have someone of his stature taking you under his wing. Are you going to take anything from those sessions looking ahead?
Finn: “Definitely. I think it’s taught us more than we realised, just being around him.”
How would you describe your sound? With these recent singles, is it the direction you wanted to go with The Wha?
Sam: “We always focus on the song craft first. I didn’t really imagine we’d have the sound we have now. You can’t really foresee that. But with the blending of musicians, this is what we sound like.
“There are guitar players that we are into that we never thought we would be into, and singers and songwriters. I don’t really know what name I’d give it.”
Finn: “I don’t think we focus that much on trying to put our sound on it. The songs are more recognisable than our sound.”
You’ve got the songwriting craft there but sonically the songs sound big too.
Finn: “That’s the natural, youthful exuberance.”
Sam: “Every band that Stephen Street has worked with is pretty much every band we idolise and dream about. That must be put onto the sound as well. It’s not like a conscious thing of ‘this is my reverb pedal’. You see people with Johnny Greenwood’s set up in their houses and they’re like ‘I’ve got the Radiohead sound’. We don’t do that.”
Are you releasing an EP? Is that the next step?
Sam: “It’s going towards that but we haven’t discussed that yet.”
Would that be a goal?
Finn: “We’ll see how it goes, like. It might make more sense to release singles, or it might make sense to release an EP. It’s leading up to something anyway.”
Sam: “The goal is to have a plethora of albums. 10 albums and then we’re done, in the next year!”
Are you looking forward to getting back out on the road? Do you prefer that side of it to the recording side?
Sam: “I had just started really getting into the live shows. I thought we were getting really good. Then we had the carpet ripped out under our feet.”
Finn: “You can’t compare the two, really. It’s not one or the other. I would get more buzz off playing live.”
Where’ve you played already?
Sam: “A few venues in Dublin. One in London. The occasional festival slot.”
Would you like to tour around the UK and Ireland?
Sam: “That’s the dream, man. Travel with style around the world, one city at a time!”
You’ve had a lot of support already from the likes of BBC Radio 6 and Radio X, and other publications. How important is it to have that backing?
Sam: “It’s a good push to have and it does improve your state of mind slightly when you hear the song being on the radio. When Mike Joyce played Innocents, I don’t think we had a label. He played it on his show.
“It’s good for self belief and good to get the word out there. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
What do you think about the Irish music scene right now?
Sam: “I think there’s a lot happening. It didn’t feel like that for a long time.”
Finn: “It’s a good time to be in a band from Ireland in regards to the rest of the world. People have figured out there is good stuff going on over here.”
Sam: “There have been some really amazing bands over here over the past few years.
“It’s a strong scene at the moment and I’m glad Ireland’s being put on the map. But it is only Dublin being put on the map.
“There are great bands from Cork and Limerick that nobody’s heard of.”
Finn: “The scene is starting to get a bit stuck in counties. If you get big in Dublin, you get big in the whole country. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Sam: “All roads lead to Dublin in Ireland.”
Why do you think that is? Because Dublin’s the capital?
Finn: “I suppose so. There’s a music college there and a lot of the bands that are big there are coming out of that.”
Sam: “It’s still very positive at the end of the day.”
What about yourselves, who were you influenced or inspired by?
Finn: “When we started writing songs the Last Shadow Puppets’ second album had just come out. That was one of the main things that made us want to start writing songs because we loved it so much.
“That one hit us at the right time. It was sunny the week it came out.”
Sam: “We had nothing to do but listen to it over and over again.
“Finn’s dad’s record collection is mad. Lots of 80s and 90s indie. My dad was really into Bruce Springsteen, all the dark Bruce Springsteen stuff.
“The list keeps going on. It never ends.”
Finn: “The Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello demos. There are three of them and they’re amazing. That was a big one as well.”
What about your contemporaries?
Sam: “Powpig are good. black midi are insane. For me at the moment Girl Band are a very solid band. What do you think Finn?”
Finn: “I’m not really tuned in that much, to be honest. I’ll probably just end up listening to Bob Dylan at the end of the day.”
But Bob’s got a new album out.
Finn: “Yeah, that’s good. He’s still contemporary! Bob Dylan!”
Sam: “He’s still contemporary!”
What are your hopes looking ahead?
Sam: “I’ve been thinking recently that because of the whole Covid no gigs thing. My hopes are to have all the things we ever write released in some form.
“If that’s a self published thing or whatever, just to have a body of work at the end of the day. If people would like to listen to it now and support us, that’s great. But if we die in the future, people look back on it and think it’s good, that’s good as well. As long as it’s all out there.”
Finn: “Just to sustain what we’re doing. it doesn’t have to be at any particular level.”
Sam: “An obviously headline Saturday night Glastonbury, which is every band’s dream. And ours too! We’ll see what happens.”
Young Skins and Blue For You are out now via Chess Club Records
Follow The Wha on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter