“Ladies and gentlemen, we are The Answer!” At least, that was frontman Cormac Neeson’s opening line at the Mean Fiddler, on November 1st 2006. Such was my first encounter with the quartet of County Down rockers, with their bluesy hooks and equally-fetching looks.
Well actually, I’m telling a lie. My inaugural introduction to The Answer was after I read a quarter-page excerpt on their story in Kerrang!, of all places. It’s notoriously a playground for either the big-money-makers or the GhD-fringed teenage heart-breakers; that’s probably why the passage on Northern Ireland’s most interesting recent musical export was only about 12 lines long. Still, “for fans of Free, Thin Lizzy and Led Zeppelin” was enough to grab my attention; out I went, and sought my copy of 2006’s ‘Rise’. Hold tight.
And ‘Rise’ lived up to the verb of its namesake. After 2009’s release, ‘Everyday Demons’, and a kaleidoscope of star-studded rungs on their CV, they’re cooking a storm for 2011 baby, ‘Revival’ – released on October 3rd. And apparently, it’s their best yet. As I walk into the Universal UK building to meet three of the boys, I can’t help noticing how relaxed they all look, as they bask in the dishabille sweetness of growing rock n’ roll success. Let’s talk classic blues, Clutch and creating pizzas with The Answer…
RM: You’ve discussed the history of the group in previous interviews, including Cormac being in the States at a time when the band was merely a foetus of a brainchild; James finishing his degree in psychology before things took off, etc. Are you all fatalistic about the coming-together of the group, or do you think it was very much a chain reaction of cause and effect, and being in the right place at the right time?
Paul Mahon (PM): “Definitely fate, wasn’t it? Even for guys who were such…y’know…dedicated musicians, we never really made a real band until this one, which was quite strange, I think, growing up. So I was always waiting for something, and it came along before long with these guys. Definitely fate, I’d say.”
Cormac Neeson (CN): “I mean, those guys got in contact with me, as you’ve probably read about, in America, and I didn’t really return their calls when I got home! It was more a case of…I’d enrolled in an ethnomusicology course in Belfast, and on the first day, this guy came in late, and there was only one spare seat, and the guy sat down beside me, and the first thing, well, not the first thing, but one of the first things he said to me was: ‘I was just reading a list of names on the door…you don’t know a Cormac Neeson in this class, do you?’, and I said: ‘You’re being cheeky here, eh?!’ [Laughs] And Paul explained that he was who he was, and that he’d been looking for me to come and try out for the band. And that’s when we got our first rehearsal organised, and it all happened there, y’know. So, if that’s not fate…”
RM: Being the epicentre of many of the influences of The Answer, predominantly the blues, do you feel American audiences respond differently to your music than UK ones? Not just in your native Ireland, but also Britain, Europe, etc…
Micky Waters (MW): “Yeah, it’s different, like it’s different to go from England to France, or France to Germany. Every state’s very, very different. Like the whole West Coast: some people are too-cool-for-school; the East Coast maybe let their hair down a bit more; Mid-West, they just go mental for rock n’ roll! I think it’s different all the way across. But there’s definitely more appreciation for classic and blues rock n’ roll, I think, in the States than there is here.”
CN: “I think, y’know…you play a show, say, if you go to the AC/DC audiences, there’s a weird difference between an American AC/DC audience and a European AC/DC audience. I mean, in America, it seemed to be more of a family-orientated event: everybody will have their car parked, and parties, and their barbecues…and then come in, and it’ll be all seated, so people will have a lot of space to stand, whereas in Europe, it’s just like every man for himself; every man and woman for themselves. They’d start crowd-surfing from about half an hour before we step up, y’know, The Answer step up, which is always good for us! But when you go to America, you do get a real sense, maybe not so much at the DC shows, but just from walking around places, like Memphis and New Orleans, Nashville and Vista, you get a real sense that you’re walking the well-trodden ground. You’re driving along the banks of the Mississippi, and you’re thinking how the blues just made its way up this river, and then that’s how it all began. It’s a special place down in that Deep South.”
RM: So no more pizza-selling in New Jersey for you then, Cormac?
CN: [Laughs] “No, that was one of the conditions of the boys!”
RM: It’s great that you’ve mentioned your AC/DC connections, because I wanted to ask you all about your CV in a supporting role. You’ve notably supported many classic rock icons: besides DC, there’s Aerosmith, The Who, Deep Purple and Whitesnake. When you started out, did you aspire to a similar ‘classic’ sound, or a more unconventional approach to rock n’ roll?
PM: “I don’t think we thought about it that much, or that deeply; we just kind of got together, and wanted to make music that was a reaction against what was going on at the time, which was kind of the dregs of Brit-pop; nu-metal was kind of at its peak…”
RM: That old chestnut…
PM: [Laughs] “Yeah, it was maybe the early days of garage rock: The Strokes, and all that kind of stuff. So we thought…a band like The Black Crowes were kind of, I think happy to represent the 70s and that kind of stuff for a long time. And they were even starting to peter out a little bit. And there was no-one else holding that end of things up. So we thought: ‘Obviously, there’s a vacuum that we could fill.’ I guess as we went on, and everyone goes: ‘Oh, you’re retro this, you’re retro that’, there was a bit of a chip on the shoulder to do something new, something a bit more modern, but I don’t think it was that contrived. We just did what we did.”
RM: What about you guys [Micky and Cormac], what do you think?
CN: “Well, if you’re gonna be in a rock n’ roll band, I think it’s necessary to tap into the energy and the spirit of that kind of thread of raw human emotion that, y’know, dates right back to the blues, the Delta blues, and that’s been there ever since – right up through the Led Zeppelins of this world; right up through the Guns N’ Roses of this world; through the Grunge movement; Paul mentioned The Black Crowes; and y’know, there’s too many bands around these days that turn their backs on that honesty; that raw soul, is the simplest way to describe it. And I think we, from the start, we understood and respected that kind of power that exists in rock n’ roll music, and we tried very hard to do that justice. But also, it’s important that we’re not just regurgitating, and that the music that we play has a relevance. And we wholeheartedly believe that the music that we play is very relevant. It’s not just turning over old riffs and old ways of doing things; we have a very unique style, and a very unique way of doing things, and that just makes The Answer unique.”
RM: It’s interesting to hear your thoughts on the nature of blues music itself; I want to ask you guys a question specifically related to that a little bit later on. Relating to blues artists, though, I was excited to read about your duet with Paul Rodgers, at the Planet Rock Radio Christmas party in 2007. Considering also your cover of Free’s ‘Fire and Water’ on ‘Revival’, a song from the 1970 album of the same name, does the work of Free or Bad Company influence The Answer at all? Possibly Rodgers’ singing style on you, Cormac, or Paul Kossoff’s guitar playing on you, Paul?
PM: “Yeah…it’s funny; we always get tagged with the ‘Free’ thing, the ‘Zeppelin’ thing. I never really thought, listening to our stuff, that it sounds like Free. I mean, obviously, Cormac has an influence from Paul Rodgers, and Paul Kossoff is a massive influence on me; even Micky takes a little bit from Andy [Fraser]. But I never thought our songs, when you analyse them, sound like Free. But when you get into the influences, yeah. I mean, ‘All Right Now’ is the first solo I ever learned note-for-note. So my, kind of, blueprint for playing the guitar comes from that: from his vibratos; when he bends; when he phrases. So yeah, that’s a massive influence. But Free are very ‘sparse’; there’s a lot of space. I think we fill that space up a little bit more.”
RM: I think you’re heavier than Free, as well.
PM: “Yeah, definitely.”
RM: What do you think, Cormac?
CN: “Yeah, I mean, that duet, it was a dream come true for me. He’s still to this day my favourite singer, and probably the biggest single influence on my singing-style. And even in the kind of way he holds himself on stage; I know he’s a lot more ‘controlled’ than I am [Laughs], but whenever you watch that old footage of him perform, that music’s just flowing through him, and he’s feeling every note. And along with Rory Gallagher – that kind of live passion that Rory lets go, lets out of him whenever he used to play live, back in those days –, those two guys just really have had a massive influence, just on my general approach and attitude to getting up there, and enjoying what I do.”
RM: And speaking of that kind of passion and emotion, this might seem an obvious question to ask, since you’re all musicians, but you’d be surprised at the amount of people who don’t really ‘get it’: when you hear certain music (certain notes with other certain notes; particular melody lines with vocal lines; or something that ‘hits you’), do you really ‘feel’ it internally?
CN: “Yes! I think you’d have to be dead on the inside not to get it! [Laughs] Not to get a twang from time to time!”
RM: Actually, there are a lot of bands bringing some of the old-school blues and rock n’ roll style back to the table. Clutch, for instance – incredible at Download. Are you guys fans of Clutch?
MW: “Oh yeah. Didn’t see them this year – saw them at High Voltage last year.”
PM: “Were they doing the main stage at Download this year?”
RM: No, they did the second stage. They should have done the main stage, though – the turn-out was immense, and I didn’t realise just how good they are live. But alongside them, the likes of Black Stone Cherry, who I understand you were supporting one time, are touring with Alter Bridge in November; Orange Goblin are confirmed for BOA 2012; Black Country Communion’s debut movie is being released to cinemas in November; Airbourne supported Iron Maiden for the first portion of their UK tour, etc. There’s been a good deal of resurgence of the older, groovier style in recent times.
MW: “There’s a very healthy rock n’ roll scene out there. I think kids want to go to rock shows now, as much as want to go to ‘Indie’ shows, which is a real turn of events over the last five years.”
RM: It’s a fantastic turn of events. But do you think that with that resurgence, there’s been any pressure to commercialise it, or carve the edges off it at all?
MW: “Hmm…not really. I mean, they’re still doing the ‘old-school’ thing in bands like Clutch, or any of the bands that you mentioned, so, I don’t think changing it’s their aim.”
CN: “It’s almost like it’s just still a massive, but unbelievably strong underground scene. I mean, from my perspective, this album is all about just doing what we do, and getting the right producer, the five of us combined, to just make the album we’ve always wanted to make, y’know. I mean, that’s not influenced by anything other than our own personal preferences, and love for what we do.”
RM: Let’s touch on that anticipated album in question, ‘Revival’. How do you feel you have developed, not only as artists and musicians, but also as people, in the progression from 2006’s ‘Rise’, to 09’s ‘Everyday Demons’, and finally to 11’s ‘Revival’?
MW: “Our experience from so much touring and travel has definitely affected our angle, maybe style of song-writing, as well. There’s more content, and I think everybody’s far better at performing and playing than we were in the first two records. And I think also we put more effort and time into writing this record as well: almost a year. We came off the AC/DC tour; we were on a high; we’d just had the best year and a half of our lives. And basically, a week later, we got straight into the rehearsal rooms, and started writing, and we just kept writing constantly; we didn’t know when to put a full-stop on it. It wasn’t until the guy who produced the record, Chris ‘Frenchie’ Smith, came over, and said: ‘All right, we’re about to stop now.’ And even then, we didn’t really stop; we kept going, right up to the studio.”
RM: There’s a lot of material involved in ‘Revival’; you were all very much workaholics with it?
MW: “Yeah, absolutely. Every minute we were awake, kind of thing.”
RM: All that passion you were talking about, yeah?
MW: “Of course. And it really comes across on the record, I think. There’s not one dull moment; it’s definitely a bit of a grower. Every time you listen to it, even now, you hear something new.”
RM: Those kinds of records are always the best. I mentioned to you guys earlier that I wanted to ask a question about the blues, as a style of music: why do you think the blues manages to survive so many musical ‘recessions’, so to speak, and continues to touch people as strongly as it always did?
MW: “I guess because it comes from the heart, y’know. It’s soulful; it means something to everybody. It’s never ‘in fashion’, and it’s never ‘out of fashion’; it’s just sort of always there. I guess it doesn’t really shoot itself in the foot like some pop acts and nu-metal things do; it’s just pretty much down-the-middle, I guess.”
CN: “’Cause it was the first form of popular music, it really appealed to your human side, y’know. It appealed to the soul, and that thread’s just never gone away, thankfully.”
RM: I think it helps that in blues music, the instruments really ‘speak’ as much as the singer; being played in such a way to mimic the voice, it’s obviously a very humanistic and personal kind of art.
The Answer: “Absolutely.”
RM: I’ve got a last couple of questions for you before you go and get absolutely slaughtered…
The Answer: [Laughs] “Us? Never!”
RM: I wanted to direct this one at Paul: I’ve read that you’re quite into 80s metal – I think you said that one somewhere, Cormac…
CN: [Laughs] “He’s a slag, isn’t he?!”
MW: “He’s a bit of an 80s encyclopaedia!”
RM: I’ve also read that your dad was a jazz musician, too?
PM: “Yeah, he dabbled!”
RM: Do you have quite an eclectic mix of influences, besides Paul Kossoff, whom you mentioned earlier?
PM: “Erm…yeah, I guess. Well, the 80s metal’s where it all began, and I grew up listening to that stuff. And it never really left me. My favourite…I’m gonna say guys like Mick Mars, and Jake E. Lee’s probably in my top three guitar players of all time. And a lot of people go: ‘Who, or why?’
CN: “Who?” [Laughs]
PM: “If you listen to the first Badlands record, you’ll hear exactly who and why. I remember someone playing that record to me, and saying: ‘This is what Jimmy Page was trying to do’, [Laughs], which was quite a bold statement! That was maybe pushing it a little bit, but I kind of understood what he meant by that. Yeah, so all of those, and I love Steve Vai, even to this day – as much for his philosophy on life as his guitar playing, which obviously, I love too.”
RM: He’s an interesting guy, isn’t he?
PM: “He is, yeah. I mean, I could go on all day, talking about it…I’m gonna give Jake E. Lee and Mick Mars, ’cause everyone overlooks them, a bit of a name-check, and of course, Steve Vai, for his overarching philosophy on life, as well.”
MW: “Satriani, he’s another one. Such an underrated guy! Chickenfoot rock!”
RM: What’s your favourite Satriani album?
MW: “‘Surfing With The Alien’…”
PM: “That’s a good one, ‘Surfing With The Alien’.”
RM: Were you a fan of the self-titled one?
MW: “Paul would have played it to me…”
PM [To Micky]: “That’s got the track ‘Home’ on it, hasn’t it?”
CN [Pretending to fall asleep]: “Aaaarggghhh!”
RM: I’ve got one last question for you boys – hopefully this will wake you up, Cormac! Desert-Island Disc: If each of you could take three albums with you onto a desert island, what would they be? Get in line, gents…
CN: “I’d say probably ‘The Beano Album’ – The Bluesbreakers; ‘Siamese Dream’ – Smashing Pumpkins; and I’m gonna have to tip the hat to Paul Rodgers and say ‘Fire and Water’. I liked his Muddy Waters tribute album, too. That was very, very good.”
MW: “I’d say ‘Rise’, ‘Everyday Demons’ and ‘Revival’!” [Laughs]
RM: [Laughs] I can give you a Kleenex to wipe yourself, if you’d like one, Micky!!!
MW: [Laughs] “They’re good records! I’ll take ‘Who’s Next’ – The Who; ‘Exile on Main St.’ – The Rolling Stones; and ‘Appetite for Destruction’ – Guns N’ Roses.”
PM: “It’s tough, but…I’ll go with ‘White Album’ – Beatles; ‘Are You Experienced?’ – Jimi Hendrix; and ‘Passion and Warfare’ – Steve Vai. Get an instrumental record in there to listen to!”
The Answer could take The Best of the Cheeky Girls to a desert island; they’d still be cooler than John Travolta’s mum. They may be slightly beardier than I remember, but they’re just as passionate, just as interesting – and if ‘Revival’ is anything to go by, just as talented. Catch them on the trail of their UK-Ireland October blaze-up: from Whelans, Dublin on the 1st, to The Garage, London on the 28th…but with a drink in their hands and destiny on their side, the only thing The Answer need to worry about is fending off all those ladies…and finding a decent pizza place, in Cormac’s case…
Photography by Adam Skelton