THE NEW SCHOOL OF OLD SCHOOL
Northern Ireland's The Answer Is Hard Rock Classicism Fully Aware Of History, But Totally Invested In The Future
“Yeah, lotta good stuff on here,” says Cormac Neeson, vocalist for Northern Ireland hard rock band The Answer. He’s examining a two-disc compilation I’ve purchased, The Essential Rory Gallagher, while we’re stopped at a traffic light. It’s an unexpectedly sunny Sunday afternoon, and we’re driving through Belfast toward the Falls Road, the main drag of the Catholic/Nationalist section of his home city. Neeson bears a close enough resemblance to Gallagher that if a rumored biopic becomes a reality, he wouldn’t be a bad choice to play the legendary blues-rocker.
Despite growing up during the latter years of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland, Neeson is a friendly, open guy. He shows me the Falls Road building in which he was born. Murals on multiple corners honor victims of bombings, dead hunger strikers and the like. On one lavishly painted wall, the scope of the subject matter is broadened out to encompass global issues – there’s an anti-Bush mural, one in support of Cuba and another advocating Palestinian statehood. We walk up and down, reading the walls, then it’s back into the car for the trip to the Loyalist/Protestant main drag, the Shankill Road. It’s not a long journey – only a few blocks separate the Falls Road and the Shankill, a fact that reshapes an outsider’s impressions of the Irish conflicts. There are so-called “peace lines,” barricades that can be as imposing as a cement wall or as simple as a white line on the pavement, that separate the two neighborhoods, but it’s much easier to travel the city than it was during Neeson’s childhood. There are older Catholics who’ve never been to the Shankill, and old Protestants who’ve never been up the Falls Road, he tells me.
Belfast is a city that celebrates its history, some might say especially the dark stuff; there’s an exhibition commemorating the Titanic, built in a Belfast shipyard, and one of the city’s tourist attractions is the Europa Hotel, described as “the most bombed hotel in Europe” after 33 attacks between 1972 and 1994. Perhaps this reflects something innate in the Irish character, something that manifests itself in a feeling for the blues as well. Seen in this light, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, and Thin Lizzy all seem like links in a chain that ends (for the moment, anyhow) with The Answer.
The band’s been together for nine years, gigging incessantly in pubs and halls of varying sizes around the UK and touring Europe where it’s fiscally viable. Its first album, 2006’s Rise, was a slow-burning success in Europe; two years ago, it was reissued as a two-CD deluxe edition, packed with acoustic versions of songs, covers, live tracks, etc. The first single, “Under the Sky,” offered a crash course in the Answer’s musical influences and ambitions – Paul Mahon’s guitar has all of the crunch of Led Zeppelin and Free, while bassist Micky Waters is every bit his childhood friend’s equal, playing a co-lead role rather than merely providing a foundation. Drummer James Heatley hits with ferocious impact, driving the band relentlessly forward but somehow never overplaying. And Neeson’s vocals are astonishing, combining blues feel and raw lungpower in a way that’s equal parts Robert Plant and Chris Cornell. Indeed, “Under the Sky” and its follow-up, “Never Too Late,” sound like what Audioslave could have been – a hard rock sound that’s fully aware of history, but totally invested in the future. The Answer isn’t a bell-bottom-sporting retro act like the Black Crowes, but it isn’t courting indie rockers like Kings of Leon or My Morning Jacket either. They’re classicists getting over on pure rock and roll energy.
That classicism has won them a fistful of high-profile fans and endorsements from rock royalty. In Europe, the Answer has opened for Deep Purple, the Who, Whitesnake, Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. Jimmy Page even praised the band at an awards show in 2005. At a December 2007 show, preserved on the tour-only CD Live at Planet Rock Xmas Party, they were joined onstage for two songs by former Free and Bad Company vocalist Paul Rodgers. And when I meet up with them in Dublin, they’re completing a several-months-long term of service as AC/DC’s opening act on the Australian band’s first world tour since 2001.
The band recognizes this for the opportunity it’s been, though there were jitters at the beginning. “We were nervous when we started, ’cause it’s AC/DC, everyone wants to see them,” admits Mahon. “It’s been a while since Stiff Upper Lip, and fans don’t care who the support act is, you’re gonna get hit with bottles. We were told, don’t leave any silence cause they’ll start booing, cheering for Angus.”
Fortunately, Mahon and the band have been able to win the crowds over. “America was really good to us,” he says. “They didn’t throw anything, didn’t boo us. Europe was tougher – in Paris we went on [stage] to boos. After the first song, though, they were cheering.”
When you see the Answer live, its appeal becomes viscerally apparent. Dublin’s O2 Arena holds somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 people, but it has an open floor with no seats – which gives it the feel of a club. The rest of the patrons are in tiered rows of seats ascending up the walls, but that open floor makes the show feel incredibly intimate, especially when AC/DC vocalist Brian Johnson and lead guitarist Angus Young come down the runway that’s part of their stage set, and into the middle of the crowd.
The Answer doesn’t get the use of the runway for its show, but they still manage to play to the crowd quite ably. Maybe it’s because it’s a home-country gig, or because of the copious amounts of alcohol the venue is selling, but the crowd seems astonishingly friendly and enthusiastic. The band takes the stage at a run and hits hard, boiling through seven songs – three from its debut album and four from the new one, Everyday Demons. Neeson dances in a weird, shuffling style when he’s not leaning into the microphone and belting out the lyrics, as Waters and Mahon bounce back and forth on the stage, cranking out furious, complex hard rock riffs while Heatley attempts to pound the drumkit through the stage. Despite the music’s aggressive nature, though, there’s a looseness to their songs; they’ve got the same feel Black Sabbath had in the early years, where guitar and bass would wander far afield, only coming together when it was time to hammer home the chorus. Waters and Heatley are a rhythm section equal to Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, if not John Paul Jones and John Bonham. In this regard, they swing like a wrecking ball, combining an instinctive grasp of blues dynamics with the pulverizing roar of the hardest rock.
It turns out that the band isn’t even performing at full capacity. Two days later, I’m interviewing Paul Mahon, Micky Waters and Cormac Neeson on board their fancy tour bus, parked outside of Mandela Hall in Belfast. The three have just finished a well received in-store appearance and signing session at the local HMV, but the sold-out show booked for that night has been cancelled. James Heatley is nowhere to be found – he’s eventually located at a hospital because it turns out that he’s been playing with a fractured hand for somewhere in the neighborhood of two weeks, including the O2 Arena performance. It’s eventually determined that he’ll have to be replaced by Carl Papenfus, of the Irish band Relish, for some of the Answer’s European stadium dates with AC/DC.
“When we started, we just wanted to play Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and Free and Black Sabbath and write stuff in that vein,” says Mahon. “We weren’t scenesters at all, so we had no idea there was this segregation – that you had to play a certain type of music to get on local radio and get gigs and stuff. So the first year, we played with Franz Ferdinand, the Strokes, the indie-disco type bands like the Rapture. We’d go on first and then it’d be all them. We’d be playing to no one and then all the cool people would come in.”
The band bonded through these lean years of scrambling for gigs, which at least partly explains why there have been no lineup changes in nine years. But as Waters says, “There’s actually video footage of our first practice somewhere, and you could see even in that the way it just gelled” when Neeson, the last to join, arrived. “It sounded exactly the way it sounds now. There was no intention to go, ‘Let’s be a classic rock band,’ – it was very organic and natural, just the way everybody played together.”
Eventually, the band was drawing hundreds of fans to gigs throughout both halves of Ireland. “Then we went to London and it started all over again,” laughs Waters. “It’s so much flavor of the week [in England]. If there’s one band that’s successful, like for example Razorlight, you’re guaranteed a month later that there’ll be a hundred. And they’re all the same bands, they just change their names to try and get that breakthrough. There’s a ton of Kaiser Chiefs, there’s a ton of Razorlights. But we had two, three hundred shows under our belt, so we could bang out a half-hour set and impress people, because we were very good. And the industry saw it, and said ‘Yeah, there might be a bit of time for this.’” The Answer signed with Albert Music, the production company that brought AC/DC to the world in the ’70s.
A surprising amount of that live energy, that showmanship, translates to CD, especially on the new Everyday Demons. Opening cut “Demon Eyes” is closer to metal than the Led Zeppelin/Free territory of Rise, and that momentum is sustained throughout the disc’s 12 tracks. “We’re trying to take a step away from the whole retro thing,” says Neeson. “This time around, we have a clearer idea of where we slot into modern music as opposed to just trying to harken back to our influences. I think we definitely set out to write songs that had a bite to them, that were akin to getting punched in the face for three and a half minutes.”
Now, as both Mahon and Waters make quite clear to me in separate conversations, they’re intent on becoming the next great hard rock band, quite literally taking over from Aerosmith, AC/DC etc., who are (let’s be honest) just too old to keep going much longer. And a big part of that is breaking into the American market. Waters admits to being a fan of the Darkness, and seeing that band as a model for a commercially successful 21st century hard rock band, but he also admits there was a strong element of Brit gimmickry to the band, which may have accounted for their one-hit wonder status in the States. He doesn’t think that the Answer will have the same problem. “I think the American public can see through [gimmicks],” he says. “What we do – it’s for real. And hopefully that message will be carried across to the American public.”
Guitarist Mahon says, “There’s a strong British blues thing, but in the UK it’s only appreciated by older people, whereas in America, I still think kids get into rock and roll – they’ll hear Aerosmith and Van Halen and love it as much as a kid in the ’70s did. In America, you have to entertain, it’s not just about being cool. The classic rock bands had that, and it’s not lost on us.”