The County Down rockers tackle Everyday Demons and the Ulster Hall in December
I have a fantasy where I see Cormac Neeson, The Answer’s long-haired, flare-wearing vocalist, waking up in a variety of indistinct north American hotel rooms. As he stirs, the opening notes of the song ‘No Questions Asked’ can be heard. As the riff builds in volume he’s up and out of bed in a single kangaroo motion, his heels hitting the floor in time with the first drumbeats. The foundations shake but there’s a pause before his line. A glance in the mirror.
And the day proceeds from there.
There are people who go a whole lifetime without making a noise like Neeson’s joyous roar. Both The Answer’s debut album Rise and current follow-up Everyday Demons are full of moments like this. And the band, formed in County Down in 2000, are discovering that their swagger, stomp and pomp are taking them straight to the top of the charts.
While Rise sold in excess of 40,000 copies, Everyday Demons has landed in the UK top twenty, bringing them into competition (on paper, at least) with the likes of Beyonce Knowles and fellow Irish rockers U2. The Answer began 2009 as continued support on AC/DC’s mammoth world tour, playing to tens of thousands of rock ‘n’ roll lovers. But even when playing Belfast venues like the Limelight, Katy Daly’s or the Spring & Airbrake, the quartet had bigger things in mind.
‘If we didn’t imagine and dream about these kind of situations in those days, we wouldn’t have got here,’ Neeson explains, speaking from the bunk of the tourbus which is rolling through Canada.
‘You can still find a record label that will have the patience and give you the backing to tour every dive and dancehall in any country that will have you. You can keep chipping away and work your way up to the point where you can get a break. That’s the next step, the link between playing for five or six hundred people a night to playing for ten or eleven thousand people a night.’
The quartet - Neeson, drummer James Heatly, bassist Micky Waters and guitarist Paul Mahon - began playing publicly in Quinn’s bar, Newcastle. After three self-financed EPs, the band signed with Albert Productions in the UK, releasing their major-label debut in 2006. Rise went on to sell more than 30,000 copies across Europe and 10,000 on its release in Japan.
The Answer’s rise is a vintage rock ‘n’ roll tale. Like the band Stillwater in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, the group has risen to fame using nothing more than a clutch of songs and a half-gallon of confidence. This kind of story seemed relegated to a time before the internet, tricky marketing, product endorsements and bands playing shows for the promise of later favours. David Letterman likes The Answer; shaking hands with Neeson after a triumphant performance of ‘Never Too Late’ on the Late Show in November 2008 he praised them as ‘single-handedly keeping rock ’n’ roll alive’.
But this kind of optimism doesn’t sit well with everybody. These are hard days for positive people. For every fan who praises Neeson as the new Robert Plant, there are people who dismiss The Answer as Led Zeppelin copycats. In the UK, too, there are people who write the band off as derivative, as doing little more than what Aerosmith, The Black Crowes, or Deep Purple have done before. That was before The Answer wrote their first bona-fide classic.
‘High Water Or Hell’, an exclusive free download-only single which isn’t found on the album, shows the quality of the material that The Answer can afford to leave off their LPs. A racing, first-past-the-post rock song that matches Free’s ‘All Right Now’ for spirit, and Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bulls on Parade’ for ferocity in its opening notes, Mahon’s guitar meets Tom Morello’s in its modernity – but its simplicity is serene.
Within the first seventeen seconds, The Answer arrive as a unit. Guitar, bass and drums pumping like rock ‘n’ roll pistons. And then, Neeson’s voice. ‘Don’t step on me/I’ll stamp on you.’ A threatening edge in the affirmation, something barbed and dangerous that, according to the singer, runs throughout Everyday Demons.
‘There’s definitely optimism on Everyday Demons,’ he says, ‘but it’s coupled with darker things. If you put Rise into context – we were a young band, we just got our record deal, we were just beginning a two-year period of touring all over the world – it’s hard not to be optimistic when you’re handed that on a plate.
‘Everyday Demons suggests there’s something a bit darker going on. We’re still doing what we’re doing but we’ve been able to address bigger themes. Stuff like two-faced people who laugh at your jokes, then turn the corner and insult you. I’m talking about people who go to bars, drop drugs in people’s drinks and wait to see happens. I’m talking about ongoing doubts in your head that you have to face everyday, about what you’re doing and where you’re going in life.’
Neeson says that the band are much better songwriters than when they recorded Rise, that in six months they’ve been able to produce a collection that surpasses the quality of material they wrote in their first five years as a group. Where Rise was ambitious - the swells and energy of a gospel choir on the song ‘Preachin’ - Everyday Demons is straightforward. ‘Pretty much the four boys blasting in the room,’ the singer says.
‘We strive to capture the live performance in the studio,’ he explains. ‘I think we actually succeeded for a change. We were almost doing a song a day. We would put down drums, bass and a rhythm guitar track all in the one take. The tape was always rolling. By ten o’clock at night we would have the bare bones of a song completed and I would put down my vocal.’
Everyday Demons' first single is ‘On and On’, with Mahon writing on the band’s MySpace blog that they filmed the video for the track in Brooklyn, after a sightseeing trip to the White House in Washington. The song joins ‘Pride’, the slide-guitar of ‘Cry Out’, and ‘Why’d You Change Your Mind’, an offering that Neeson describes as the darkest song they’ve written, by a long shot.
‘The music industry is a dirty business,’ says Neeson. ‘You always have to be on your guard. You have to be able to decipher between people who are genuinely nice because that’s who they are, and people who try and kiss your ass and have ulterior motives. You have to keep your feet on the ground and be aware that things are not always as they appear to be.’
Despite the murk of the business, though, the band - four musicians, four friends – are as close as ever. ‘As a band we’re a strong unit, if not stronger than we’ve ever been. On the road there are times when you miss home and miss sitting in a bar in Belfast drinking with your mates. But those moments are few and far between. The four of us have been together long enough to know when one might be feeling the pinch. We’ll either back off or we’ll sit down and sort our heads out, keep each other right.’