The Answer: There's no question they're on the up
Ahead of their new album release, Co Down band The Answer tell our reporter about life on the road and why they're hoping to 'take their fans' heads off' with their hard rocking tunes.
Where do you go when you've toured the world with AC/DC and the Rolling Stones, sold hundreds of thousands of records and headlined the most prestigious venues in your home country, but you still haven't quite broken through to the elusive 'next level'?
In the case of Co Down quartet The Answer, you simply get your heads down and keep on rocking.
Armed with a new album on a new label -- the aptly titled New Horizon -- and a monster European tour that kicks off at Belfast's Limelight 2 on October 11, the road ahead is wide open for frontman Cormac Neeson, guitarist Paul Mahon, bassist Micky Waters and drummer James Heatley.
Since forming in 2000, The Answer have honed their core, blues-rock style with each release, adding new influences and -- on New Horizon -- even working with outside co-writers. From 2006's 100,000-selling debut, Rise, through 2009's UK top-40-charting Everyday Demons and its similarly successful 2011 follow-up, Revival, the band's discography shows a steady progression in both sound and success.
"Every record we do, we definitely try to challenge ourselves and each other to make it better than the one before," explains Neeson. "That keeps you on your toes. We don't like getting too comfortable in our own skin. We're still here after 12 or 13 years, and we've never compromised our sound or pandered to any outside forces."
Four albums in, the lads could be forgiven for adopting a more formulaic attitude to their craft -- after all, they've clearly been doing something right -- but Cormac insists he and his bandmates strive to push themselves.
"First and foremost, you're always improving as musicians and songwriters whenever you're doing it full-time, and I think we brought those more acute songwriting skills to the table this time round," he says.
"We've never been a band for making the same album twice, and this record is definitely our most intense and probably the heaviest we've ever made. We also adopted a very disciplined approached in the studio this time round. We tried to capture the band in the live setting, which unfortunately meant the guys had to do 25 to 30 takes every day, and we'd pick the best one.
"It was quite a gruelling process for the boys, but it got to a stage where they forgot they were making an album and could relax into it. It's literally a four-piece rock 'n' roll band in a small room in the south of England, just doing what they do."
Cormac rejects any notion that this more hardcore approach might have been influenced by the band's new label, Napalm Records -- an Austrian outfit known for specialising in black, Gothic, symphonic and doom metal. "They really did just step back," the singer insists. "They signed us because they had confidence in what we do and the way we do things, so they weren't going to come in and start bossing us around."
And the album really is an 'album' -- a 10-track body of work intended to be listened to in one sitting, rather than a collection of disparate songs to be downloaded randomly on iTunes. "We're traditional in that sense," says Cormac. "I still go down to HMV in Belfast and buy my records. On a personal level, I enjoy the statement that a full album makes. I think it's important to be able to sustain a message and a level of quality across more than just one or two songs.
"As an artist, you need to be able to make a decent album. We set out with a very set gameplan for New Horizon to make a 10-track album with 10 hard rock songs that hopefully will take the listener's head off. Our loose guideline was, 'If it's not going to take your head off, it's not going to make the record'."
The Answer had the honour of working with the legendary designer Storm Thorgerson on the cover artwork for New Horizon. Indeed, it was one of the late artist's final projects before his death in April this year, and the characteristically surreal illustration sits well alongside his iconic work for the likes of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
"Whenever he accepted the project, we were blown away," says Cormac. "Storm has made such a vital contribution to popular culture over the last 45 years, and we knew he didn't accept work unless he's 100% inspired and motivated by the music. To get launched into the middle of as thorough a creative process as I've ever experienced in my life was a sight to behold. It just adds to the special nature of this album."
The Answer have also gigged with some of the most legendary names in rock -- the list so far includes Aerosmith, The Who, Deep Purple, Whitesnake and Paul Rodgers, as well as 'DC and the Stones. But far from being a case of rocking all day and partying every night, Cormac is adamant that the band took every opportunity to learn from their idols.
"You definitely soak it all up," he says. "We were like sponges. First and foremost, the reason you're there is the hour on stage. You need to be able to get up there and give it everything you've got, and if you're not giving it everything you've got, you're not going to be there much longer.
"Of course, we had a great time, and we couldn't get enough of every aspect of the life we were leading -- travelling around the world, supporting the biggest rock 'n' roll band in the world. You go into it all with your eyes wide open and you come out with your eyes even wider."
Throughout it all, The Answer have maintained the same four-man line-up that first formed in the pubs and clubs of Newcastle, Downpatrick and Ardglass. So, what's the secret?
"I think it's just the luck of the draw whenever you first get a band together whether the band members are really going to get along," shrugs Cormac. "I don't mean for the first couple of months -- I mean living on a tour bus, staring at each other for three months. There's patience and there's tolerance, but there's also that genuine friendship."
The close-knit Co Down music scene has produced its fair share of major names, from country music star Ann Breen to pop-rock chart-toppers Ash. Today, The Answer's home turf still means the world to them.
"I live in Belfast now, but I'm down in Newcastle on a relatively regular basis," says Cormac. "My family still live there, and I still have a lot of friends there.
"There's just a good vibe with regard to the bands in that area. Ash had such success at such an early stage that every band and every guitar player in Co Down believes they've got a vague shot of success, and that's had a knock-on effect.
"We're very proud to come from that area. It's moulded us into the people we are, and that's kept us in good shape for the past number of years, as we tour around the world confronted by all these larger-than-life experiences.
"You never forget where you come from!"
* New Horizon is out next Friday, September 27, on Napalm Records. The Answer play the Limelight 2 in Belfast on October 11. For details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com
KEEPING GOOD COMPANY ...
Answer guitarist Paul Mahon's father, Sean, was a member of the Freshmen showband, who toured Ireland in 1967 with the Beach Boys. But Mahon Jnr has gone several better.
In an eventful 13-year career, The Answer have managed to hit the road alongside a who's who of hard rock, from Deep Purple to the Rolling Stones.
But the big one came in 2009, when The Answer were recruited as the warm-up act for AC/DC's Black Ice world tour.
Having had what would be many young musicians' dream come true, is there anyone left that The Answer would still like to play with?
Cormac doesn't hesitate: "The Black Crowes, mostly because I've never seen them before, and it would be a good opportunity to get a wee gig in!"
New Horizon is out next Friday, September 27, on Napalm Records. The Answer play The Limelight 2 in Belfast on October 11. For details, visirt www.limelightbelfast.com