We’re at a point in time where art seems to play second fiddle to financial gain. People want to be famous; people want to be rich. We applaud mediocrity and watch as the transient players in the music industry come and go. Isn’t it about time there was a change? Could it be that this change is here in the shape of four young Irishmen?
Hailed as the biggest British name to hit the music scene this decade, and aptly dubbed The Answer, these Downpatrick natives are taking the U.K. rock and blues circuit by storm, and rest assured, there is nothing mediocre about this band. An overnight sensation that’s been brewing for six years, the band first got together in the Spring of 2000. Lead singer, Cormac Neeson, tells the story of the remarkable circumstances in which the band came about.
“Mickey (Waters) and Paul (Mahon) had a few songs together and were looking to put a band together, and I was recommended to them. I was working in New York at the time, and got a letter saying if I was coming home anytime soon, they wanted me as their singer,” explains Neeson.
Although tempted by the initial offer, Neeson was busy in New York and nothing more seemed to develop until a twist of fate saw him enroll in an ethnomusicology course at college.
“The first morning, I was handed this Brazilian guitar called a cavalcanto. Not knowing how to play the thing, I turned to the dude next to me and asked him if he’d swap instruments. It was Paul!”
Now properly acquainted, Neeson, Mahon, and bass player Waters began rehearsing together. Soon, with the addition of drummer James Heatley, The Answer was ready to pose the right questions. When asked about the origins of the band’s name, Neeson smiles fondly at the memory and nostalgically explains.
“The name has become a kind of emblem that means something about this band, and gives us the drive to always push ourselves to becoming a better band. Originally, it was nothing more than just needing to find a name we all agreed on. We were just sitting around, trying to decide on the name, asking ourselves ‘What’s the answer? What’s the answer?’ Then James, our drummer, suggested we call ourselves The Answer, and it just stuck.”
Neeson laughs at the memory, then more seriously goes on. “It was also kind of a reaction against the whole indie scene at that time. We just wanted to say, here’s rock and roll, in your face; if you don’t like it, that’s tough.”
The state of the modern music scene is obviously something the frontman feels passionate about as he talks about the band being part of the new rock renaissance, rebelling against the current trend of manufactured music.
“I think something the music world really lacks these days is substance, you know, bands the kids can really hold onto for longer than an album and a couple of hits. It’s important to us as a band that the music goes deeper than your Radio One pop charts.”
Currently on a headline tour of the U.K., The Answer is a band that works hard in all aspects of their music, but there’s no doubt they are predominantly a live band. Having honed their craft playing the Belfast club and pub circuit, they have gone on to play much bigger stages supporting some of their heroes such as The Who, Deep Purple, and Whitesnake. Most recently, they played with Paul Rodgers at a memorable gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Neeson’s eyes light up at the mere mention of that evening.
“The Albert Hall gig was a dream come true for me personally. We’ve supported some great blues and classic rock bands, but Paul Rodgers just meant that little bit extra to me. I still rate him as probably the best living rock and blues singer; he’s just got the soul.”
Free is obviously a band that have been a big inspiration in creating the group’s sound, as are other blues rock giants Led Zeppelin and Black Crowes, yet The Answer melds influences together in a way that leaves their music sounding fresh, as though they’ve just invented rock and roll for the first time. Neeson talks through how the band gets its sound.
“We’re all quite individuals in our musical taste, with our influences ranging from Metal bands such as Tool, to a lot of the old blues stuff, Howlin’ Wolf, John Mayall, Peter Green, and so on. But where we all meet in the middle is the music that we play, and it’s a music that we’re all very passionate about.”
This passion for the music and a love of playing is a major factor in the band’s appeal, with the band’s enthusiasm always transferring to their audience and reflected back at them. When asked where this passion comes from, Neeson puts it down to the songs.
“There’s no set structure in the band as to who writes the songs, and usually everyone’s involved. Generally, we just jam and let the tapes roll, then develop ideas into a song. Because everyone has put ideas into every song, they’re a part of that song and I think when we’re playing them, live and in the studio, everyone’s equally involved, equally passionate about the music they’re playing.”
The band’s debut album, Rise, has received worldwide critical acclaim. They are obviously very proud of what they’ve achieved in such a short space of time. “I’m proud of everything about the album,” says the frontman.
“There’s quite a variety in the songs, but all of them seem to represent the band well. If I had to choose two of my favourite tracks from the record, it’d be ‘Under The Sky’ and ‘Memphis Water.’ ‘Under The Sky’ because it just represents where the band is at this point in time, and maybe points toward the band’s future and where we might take the sound. I’d choose ‘Memphis Water’ because it was recorded after the rest of the album, in a small studio in Northern Ireland. It was written the evening before we went into the studio and recorded the next morning. It was recorded completely live with no overdubs, so it has this natural, live feel that’s just so hard to capture in a studio.”
Neeson goes on to sum up their debut effort and the message behind it. “We’ve made what is essentially a snapshot of where we are at the moment. We’ve made an honest record, representing what we believe in.”
The record was recorded at the legendary Olympic Studios, London; a place so deeply rooted in rock and blues history, with legends Led Zeppelin, The Stones, and Hendrix all having recorded there.
“There was no shortage of inspiration,” admits the lead singer. “You’d be sitting in the cafeteria and Eric Clapton would walk in. You just get this feeling that you’re in this historic centre of the rock and roll world, and it was impossible not to feed off that.”
The band has come a long way, but the last six months have really been a roller coaster ride for Neeson and company. They’ve gone from being relative unknowns to being the most talked about Blues/Rock band since the Black Crowes emergence on the scene in 1989.
“The band’s been together six years, and we’ve worked really hard in that time,” states Neeson. “But we got our record deal about a year and a half ago, and things have really kicked off from there.”
The band has obviously proven their abilities through their performances, both in the studio and on the road. When asked if he has a preference between playing live and the studio, Neeson pauses, weighing them both up in his mind.
“I find that the two act as antidotes to each other. Ultimately, we’re a live touring band, and we love being on the road. But at the end of three or four months touring, it’s nice to get into the studio, just for a change and a bit of normality.”
The Answer has been on their current headlining tour since the beginning of October and have met with enthusiastic audiences all over the country. “We’ve done three gigs so far on this tour, all of them sold out,” states Neeson proudly, “It’s quite gratifying to finally see the fruits of our labors.”
Having supported a variety of musical legends, The Answer are now making a steady move to step out from the shadows of their heroes and are rapidly building a dedicated fanbase throughout the U.K.
“It’s important you don’t get labeled as the eternal support band. It’s important to get out there and do your own shows, and that’s what tours like this are all about. Plus it’s a great feeling knowing the crowd came down to see you and not the band that’s on after you.”
The band has remained humble and true to their roots throughout their rise, and Neeson cites his proudest moment and a highlight in the career of the band as a recent gig in Belfast.
“It was essentially a homecoming for the band; that’s where it all started for us. So to get back to Belfast, and see faces that have been with you from the start, and then latch on to the hundreds more people who’ve come down to see us, it was just a really nice experience.”
As with any hard working band’s rise to the top, there are inevitably going to be some low points as well as highs. However, when asked about the band’s down times, the lead singer grins sheepishly.
“There haven’t really been any to speak of. It's all been great, really. Though, naturally enough, I really don’t ever like to read a bad review about our band. Even though ninety-nine out of a hundred reviews have been great, it’s the one bad one that sticks in your head. It knocks the wind out of you for a while, but I’ve since learned to become thicker skinned. It’s all just part of the job and if you put yourself in the public eye, anybody has the right to say whatever they want about us. You just have to put up with it.”
This optimistic approach highlights the band’s love of playing their music, and as Cormac says, “We’re making a living playing music we love and it’s something we’ve always wanted to do and dreamt about. You can’t complain about any of that!”
If there’s one thing that strikes you about these Belfast rock n’ rollers, it’s that they are a band that does not conform to the current commercial music scene. Providing the contemporary Blues/Rock scene with the soul and power of traditional Blues/Rock, as well as relighting the way for future Blues based Rock bands, The Answer are obviously destined for great things.
If they can continue with the tremendous work ethic and traditional sensibilities they’ve displayed so far, they could become one of Britain’s leading Blues/Rock acts, and in years to com,e Rock and Blues fans alike may view Rise as a modern landmark in the genre.
Neeson, however, is very down to earth about his band’s potential success, stating that they are just focusing on the tour at the moment and spreading the word about the new album. But beyond that, who knows what The Answer have in store.