I meet Cormac Neeson, lead singer for The Answer, outside Chinnery’s, the venue in Southend where the band are due to play that night. It’s 5pm and Cormac, slightly hunched and lugubrious and with his thick silver-flecked beard, gives the impression of a woodland creature who has recently been awoken from hibernation. Later on stage he will miraculously transform into a highly animated rock’n’roll warrior. For now, clutching a cup of tea, he leads me into a quiet spot in the front bar to begin our chat. We talk about their tour plans, the new album, their early years and ignoring fatherly advice.
So is this your first visit to Southend?
It is not, no, I think this is actually our third. We played here way back when in front of about twelve people when we first starting out. Then we came back to this venue on our ‘Road Less Travelled’ tour almost exactly a year ago, which was us visiting some places we hadn’t played in some time or hadn’t played at all. We had such a good night last year that we thought if we can do it this year then we’ll do it again. We promised a lot of people we’d be back and here we are.
That’s good to hear. This venue is often seen by bands as just somewhere to play when they want to do something different, rather than part of their regular schedule.
Well, this tour of the UK is combining both – we’re playing some of the major cities, but also kind of getting out to places like Southend. We did Grimsby the other night as well, you know, so it’s kind of a nice balance between the two.
So you were in Liverpool last night, a bit of a schlep down to here, but it was Belfast first wasn’t it?
Yeah, we kicked off in Belfast. We’re kind of zigzagging all over the country. And then we head over to Europe for about four weeks, and then a bunch of festivals and then we head off to the States for the rest of the summer.
Are you going out on your own?
We’re doing a bit of both, actually, we’re doing shows with Whitesnake.
You’ve played with them before haven’t you?
Yeah we have, a bunch of times. They’re releasing their Deep Purple record, all the Purple stuff that David Coverdale sings on, so that should be a fun tour, and over the course of that we’ll be doing our own shows and then some more festivals as well, so it should be good.
Any highlight so far?
Well, Belfast is always great, especially on the beginning of a tour, a nerve racking moment, playing all the new songs for the first time. You don’t know how it’s going to go down. The Belfast crowd are great, they gave us a lot of love, they gave us the initial advantage to get the tour up and running. And we played Glasgow last Friday night and Glasgow on Friday night is a good place to be! They’re a really enthusiastic audience in Scotland in general. That was brilliant.
I have to ask the question you always ask of a band when they’ve got a new record out and they’re on tour – how is the new music going down?
Yeah, I hope so because we’re playing a lot of it! Yeah, it’s been going down great, man. We’ve dropped a lot of songs that people expect us to play. We made the call before we started this tour that we were really gonna mix things up a bit, keep the set lovely and fresh and play a bunch of new material. There’s no point running around the place claiming to be a contemporary band if you’re not playing your own contemporary material, that’s the way we look at it.
It’s too early to start playing the greatest hits set!
Way too early! Another 20 years yet! Yeah, it’s been great (playing the new songs) and the crowd reaction’s been fantastic. We’re taking a few chances this time round; Paul gets his acoustic guitar out, James comes out from behind his kit, I’m playing a lot more harmonica and the whole approach feels fresh, and just fun to play.
Now, as I told you earlier I haven’t heard the new album yet (at time of interview), but I’ve been told it’s bluesier. Is that fair?
Yeah, but I don’t think the blues has ever been absent on our records. I think it’s an important part of the puzzle for us. Some records it tends to simmer through in a bit more of a profound way, and this record’s one of those. The vibe and spirit is most akin to our first album. I think we wrote it with the same kind of freedom. We managed to free ourselves from label, management and fan pressure this time and not write to an agenda of any sort, and just get in there and have fun, just like we did on our first. I think our songcraft has developed over the years so we’ve got a few more tools to play around with and we’ve brought that extra knowledge to this record as well.
So Toby Jepson produced the last album, who’s produced this one?
A Spanish guy called Will Maya who’s a good friend of ours. He was an engineer on Albert Productions, our first label, If you read our credits over the past five albums his names pops up a lot. He’s a good knowledge of the band, the kind of boys we are and the kind of music that makes us tick.
Did you always have him in mind?
Not from the very off, but he’s always the first guy on the phone when he hears we’re making a new record. This time round, in keeping with the not over-thinking things and keeping it natural, Will felt like the right choice and he did a great job. We really just wanted to get into the studio and make music how we used to do it, not caring what music might get on the radio or how to make that next step in our career, just focusing on writing good songs. We’ve a lot of trust in our own abilities as a band to produce the goods, but sometimes you question those abilities. This time round it was “Let’s have a bit of faith here, we’ve been doing this for long enough now!” We know how to make a good record.
Paul‘s dad who was in a showband wasn’t he? Do any other members of the band come from a musical family or background?
Not really, apart from having extensive record collections to poke through when we were kids. A lot of weird and wonderful artwork to look at. I think music was always there for us all when we were growing up. We were lucky enough to come from homes that valued good quality music.
I just wondered because of Paul’s background, and all your families having a big love of music, did it feel like a rebellion when you formed a band, or did it seem like a viable way to make a living for you guys?
I know for a fact that Paul‘s dad advised him not to join a band! Whereas our families were like “Go for it“.
There was still the romance there for them?
Yeah, but Paul‘s dad did as much as he could to send him down a different path, so I think Paul‘s decision to join a band was the most rebellious of all of us.
It’s bizarre, isn’t it?
I kind of get Paul‘s dad’s point now! (Laughs)
When you started out in Ireland did you ever feel like rebels or outlaws because of the type of music you play? I mean, obviously there’s a rich history of rock music coming from Ireland, but did you ever feel you were in the wrong place at the wrong time?
I think we were definitely out on our own for a long time in Belfast. The music scene was very indie orientated, very cliquey. We formed a band in university in 2000 and there were definitely no rock bands having any success. We kind of got looked down on for playing our kind of music, but at the end of the day we were just loving it. We got up every night and blew the other bands off the stage, gladly, and that’s how we started to make a reputation for ourselves. Just being a good rock n’roll band who didn’t give a shit what people thought. In many ways it’s still like that!
Do you think it’s easier for new classic sounding rock bands now than it was when you started? There’s so much on the internet and digital radio stations showing where your market is?
You’re not so reliant on what Radio 1 is playing any more. I think more than anything there’s just a few more bands doing our kind of thing at the moment. You’ve got Rival Sons, The Temperance Movement and The Black Keys. Even bands like Biffy Clyro, who aren’t afraid to play guitar music. We’re a fickle society and if other people are listening to it then we think we should be listening to it as well. That’s doing us no harm and people are realising rock music can be a powerful thing to get into.