The Answer have just released their most diverse record to date to great acclaim from fans and critics. I caught up with front man Cormac Neeson, just ahead of their tour, to talk about the recording process, Irish roots, and how they plan to recreate their new sound on the road…
Hi Cormac, great to speak to you. Take me back to the end of your tour last year. What was the mood of the band like?
“Yeah, it was quite tense. It was a weird situation because everybody kinda felt that we weren’t really fulfilling our potential at that time. I mean, we were getting out there, and we were working really hard. To our minds were we putting out some quality rock ‘n’ roll, but it didn’t seem to be catching at that point in time. We were faced with the call that a lot of bands had to make, which was do something weird and wonderful, or quit. We’d kind of run ourselves into a bit of a dead end, so thankfully we decided to do something weird and wonderful, which was do the record that became “Solas”. I’m really glad we did, because it feels like a new dawn for the band. Our heads are clear, and we’re back in love with the music, and in love with being in The Answer again.”
I’d heard that the four of you had gone through somewhat of a creative dry spell?
“It wasn’t so much of a dry spell, it was more like, “What’s the point in doing this? We’re not expanding our fan base, we’re not playing bigger gigs, and we’re not taking that next step”. We’ve never had a problem creating good music, but we just felt the kind of music we had to go and make needed to be a bit left-of-centre, and a bit more experimental. We needed to take more of a risk, I suppose. We went into the studio knowing that this maybe isn’t going to be the perfect album for all of our fans, but we needed to get down to writing for ourselves. Once we’d thrown the shackles off and weren’t worried about making an album that people might expect, it was just very, very liberating.”
So without wanting to be selfish you had to make an album for yourselves..
“Well, it was selfish, but I think we’ve earned that right. This is our sixth album. We’ve worked hard to inject life into rock ‘n’ roll, and I think we have the right to make an album for ourselves.”
And you used your own studio this time?
“That’s right. This whole process all just felt very organic and natural. One of the reasons for that, was we didn’t use the album budget that the label gave us to go to a studio somewhere weird and wonderful. We’ve recorded in LA, Spain, and El Paso… all over the place. We had the makings of a studio already. We’ve done a lot of demos and a lot of B-sides in our own place, but it wasn’t quite up to the standard for a full professional record. We decided to get it up to that standard and to put something in place so that we wouldn’t need to be worrying about working to the clock. Paul and myself spent six months working fourteen-hour days, getting this album right. Not overdoing it, I mean, it wasn’t like a “Pet Sounds” situation. We knew that we had the time and the space to make this album the way we had first envisioned it.”
When you did get into the studio, how long was it before you felt like you had something resembling a new song?
“I think the whole process took pretty close to a year, from sitting down to write and record the demos to delivering the record. The actual recording process took six months, and that was partly to do with the producers. We had Andy Bradfield and Avril MacKintosh, the producer team that actually recorded our first record. We felt they were the right people for the job this time round. They would come over for fortnightly blocks of time, chip away at the songs, and leave myself and Paul with another month’s worth of work to do. They’d go back to London and start piecing together what we had done. It was such an enjoyable time. The creative juices were flowing again, and the music was starting to take shape in a really positive way.”
You’re certainly dipping into your Irish roots on this album. Did you have to learn anything in order to reinvent yourselves, Gaelic for example?
“I had to polish up my Irish, aye. I learned Irish the whole way through school, and have been attending classes in Belfast, on and off, since leaving school. I’ve got a couple of friends who teach Irish in schools, and they were able to put me through my paces. I kinda knew what I wanted to say, and I knew vaguely how to say it. If I was let loose in an Irish speaking community, I could probably order my breakfast and find my way home again, but I needed to obviously get it exactly right for the record. As well as that, I think Paul pretty much taught himself the mandolin and the bouzouki. A lot of that would come about because I would say to Paul “I’m hearing a mandolin part, and it goes like this”. I’d play it on one string and leave it to Paul to work out how to do it right. Paul, he wouldn’t tell you, but he’s a bit of a genius. He can pick up anything he lays his hands on.”
‘Beautiful World’ was co-written by Neil Davidge, who has links to Massive Attack, and has composed film scores. How did that pairing come about?
“Neil has the same management as us. For years, I would pester our managers saying, “Send me some Neil Davidge stuff so I can do some singing over the top of it”. I was a huge Massive Attack fan, and was interested to hear what his solo stuff was like. Neil got in touch to say he was writing a piece of music for a movie, I can’t remember the name, but he said he needed a vocal melody to go over the top of it, and would I like to give it a shot. Of course I did… and it was so good, they decided to go with the instrumental! That was when our relationship struck up, and with this album, it seemed like the right time to get him on board. The end result was completely different to anything we’ve ever done.”
Are we going to be hearing you on a Massive Attack record anytime soon?
“Well, you know, I’m just putting myself in the shop window there.”[laughs]
‘Battlecry’ is one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. It sounds like you are singing to someone in particular. Who are you singing to?
“That would be my son, specifically. The Irish chant in the middle of that song “SEO AN LÁ A THAINIG MO GHRÁ” (This is the day my love will arrive) “SEO AN LÁ MO LAOCH MO GHRÁ” (This is the day my warrior my love). Laoch is the Irish for warrior, and my son’s middle name is laochra, “king of the warriors”. He spent the first four months of his life in hospital. He was born 1lb 12oz, 3 months premature. He came through a lot, but we knew from the day he was born that he was a wee fighter. So it’s kind of a tribute to my son.
Songs by The Answer are very much by the band. I don’t for one second kind of presume that this song is for me, or this song is for my son. The lyric itself is a tribute to my son, but I like to think that people can listen to any song on the record and take their own meanings from it as well, you know?”
I suppose that is one of the benefits of sing in a language that isn’t universal. It frees people to interpret the song themselves?
“Yeah absolutely. Sigur Ros are masters at that. Not a band that I would have talked about in interviews over that last few years, but that first record they put out is all about the mood. They’re singing in a language that I can’t understand, but I get it.”
So, the tour is about to start very soon. “Solas” is a deeply layered album, with lots of more traditional instruments on it… choirs and drummers. How will it translate to a live setting?[laughs hard] “We’re still working on that one! We head off on tour next week, and we still very much need another couple of rehearsals to get the live show right. There’s so much repositioning that has to go on, with regards to this tour. We’ve got backing tracks, I’m playing acoustic guitar on a song, I’m playing bouzouki on another song. Mickey puts the bass down, and plays electric guitar for a song. We have to get as creative as we got with the record. I mean, there’s no point in having this progressive record and just getting up and playing old songs from the last five records. We’re not turning our back on that music entirely. Part of the challenge is finding songs from our back catalogue that will slot into the new sound. We’re getting there. It’s an awful lot of fun. It’s exciting, and it feels like our first tour again. The first gig’s in Aberdeen, and I know we’re gonna be so nervous half an hour before that show.”
It must be a relief to finally have the album on the shelves, and to have it so greatly received by fans and critics alike?
“A little bit. When we were making it, it honestly didn’t bother me, because I knew in my heart that this is good music, and this is the album that we have to make right now. The fact people are enjoying it feels pretty good right now. You can’t really rest on your laurels, we need to get into the headspace where we can deliver on stage as well as the studio, but we’re working hard at that.”
What’s next for The Answer after this tour?
“We get home a couple of days before Christmas, and we’ll take a couple of weeks off then. We are back out on the road, or on the sea, as the case may be, on the Monsters Of Rock cruise. So we’re going round the Caiman Islands at the end of January.”
So it’s basically a holiday for you?
“Oh, it’s gonna be awful [laughs]. You wanna hear me trying to explain that one to my wife [laughs]. “So we’re going on a cruise”. “How often are you playing?” “Oh, twice in a week!”. I think the plan after that is to head into America later in the year. We’re currently trying to put together an Irish tour, because you can’t put out a Celtic influenced record and not actually play anywhere in Ireland. Then build towards the festivals and keep telling the world about this great new record we have in our hands.”
Interviewer: Colin Plumb
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