Alternative Ulster Comes of Age

Cormac Neeson and Tony Wright remember the high points of Belfast Music Week

Quite aside from the fizz and fireworks of the 2011 MTV EMA were a series of shows that will, for the musicians involved, be remembered as the highlights of a magical month for music in Belfast.

In the days before Lady GaGa and Selena Gomez entertained the glitterati, Cormac Neeson of The Answer took to the stage with Therapy? to sing ‘Alternative Ulster’, a song that was 15 years old before Justin Bieber’s backside was the size of a button.

‘I remember thinking that physically and metaphorically, this is a really good place to be right now,’ says Neeson. ‘Sharing the stage with Therapy?, who are one of my favourite bands, singing ‘Alternative Ulster’, which is one of my favourite songs. It was a special moment.’

Both Therapy? and The Answer have established themselves as world-beating bands, through graft and dedication that began in Larne and Downpatrick respectively. For Neeson, who has just launched The Answer’s fourth album Revival, the performance at the Ulster Hall was a high point in a ten-year career.

‘It was brilliant being slap-bang in the middle of this brilliant thing that's happening in the city,’ he says. ‘Things are going really well with all four of us in the band. The new album’s been well-received all over the UK, but it was just great being involved in all that is good about Northern Ireland right now.’

The song ‘Alternative Ulster’, written by Jake Burns of the band Stiff Little Fingers in 1979, was a sharp punky rant against all that was wrong with Northern Ireland at the time. Burns couldn’t have known that more than 30 years later his lyrics would become the unofficial anthem for the country’s creative, secular side.

‘That song alone is a great reference point to see how far Belfast has come over the last 15-odd years,’ says Neeson. ‘It’s laden with lines that are now null and void, 'the RUC dog of oppression is barking at your feet'. The RUC doesn't exist any more. Alternative Ulster is, to use a Therapy? term, about ‘going nowhere’. But now you've got bands making it at international level. Beyond that, Belfast has become a hotbed for proper, exciting musical talent.'

‘Bands like Cashier No9, And So I Watch You From Afar and General Fiasco are having this success, and you find that more people from the industry across the water are coming to Northern Ireland. Ten years ago I didn't see that there were any other options other than to go to America or elsewhere in the UK. That's thankfully no longer the case.’

Neeson mentions And So I Watch You From Afar, who were this year named as the Best Live Act at the first Northern Irish Music Awards. But despite success in Europe and the American release of second album Gangs, the quartet have lost founding guitarist Tony Wright, who is now pursuing a solo career as VerseChorusVerse.

Wright did, however, rejoin his former bandmates at the Ulster Hall as part of a final farewell during Belfast Music Week. The young singer also cites Stiff Little Fingers and The Clash as inspirations for his new venture. ‘Stiff Little Fingers were always an inspiration,’ he says.

‘I'd probably be more on the side of songs like 'Tin Soldier' and 'Wasted Life', as I didn't grow up in Belfast; I grew up in a nice little seaside town where we didn't have the army on the streets, so to speak. But Cormac got it spot on: ‘Alternative Ulster’ is now, almost, the mainstream.’

Although Wright isn’t a big fan of Snow Patrol, he watched them perform to a crowd of 15,000 at Belfast City Hall. ‘I did get rather emotional,’ he says. ‘It was very touching. I remember seeing Snow Patrol play in the Empire to ten people.

‘It was really bizarre because there were meat wagons around, these signs of an alternate past. I know Snow Patrol aren't the coolest band, but I didn't care because it was so nice to be in Belfast and to have something like that happening.’

Wright is optimistic about launching his solo career from Northern Ireland. Although performing can sometimes be a thankless task, fellow musicians, buoyed by the vibrancy in Belfast, remind him why he does it.

‘I performed at the Belfast Calling show, where 30 acts played acoustic sets. Sometimes, at shows that size, people don’t care about the music. There were a lot of people who'd been drinking all day.

'Afterwards, Duke Special came up to me saying “This is a book I've put together, celebrating the ten year anniversary of my first album. I wanted to give you a copy". There was a little inscription wishing me luck on my journey. I nearly broke down – I just remembered why I want to do this. It’s the importance of songs, to the audience and the performer. They can keep us alive.’

The Answer’s fourth album Revival is out now. Tony Wright’s first EP as VerseChorusVerse is available to listen to here.