Most young bands struggle for years with crap gigs in front of nearly nonexistent audiences. Not so Northern Ireland’s the Answer. Their first-ever show in New York City? “A two-night stand at Madison Square Garden — and an appearance on Late Night With David Letterman,” singer Cormac Neeson laughs shamefacedly, aware of how improbable yet auspicious the truth sounds.
That said, the gig was opening for AC/DC on their 2008–9 tour…but STILL. New York — and America in general — is not the band’s best “market,” in biz-speak. “America is a tough cookie to crack, and everybody knows that,” Neeson acknowledges. “It’s a challenge, but we started from the ground up in Europe and we’re doing pretty well there, so there’s no reason we can’t do that in the States.”
It’s the group’s first time in New York since the November 2008 MSG gigs, as Neeson explains. “For a number of personal and business reasons, the stars did not align until now. It was frustrating not to come back as soon as we would have liked. It kinda feels like we’re starting from scratch, in many respects, which is why these five weeks of gigs in America are so good. We were getting a buzz again, and we’re playing a bunch of theaters with Whitesnake, and we can get out after the show and shake some hands and drink some beers with people who have heard us for the first time and want to hear us again. We’re excited to reconnect with the grassroots rock fans in America. That’s why we’re here.”
Indeed, 2015 is off to a good start for the band, which is rounded out by guitarist Paul Mahon, Micky Waters on bass, and James Heatley on drums. The Answer’s latest record, Raise a Little Hell, is pure, old-fashioned blues-based hard rock along the lines of early Aerosmith. The infectious “Long Live the Renegades” makes for a rousing rock rallying cry “dedicated to anybody who has a rebellious streak in their nature, who stands out from the crowd,” Neeson says. “It’s a call to arms for people like that.”
The Answer are young but embrace an authentic classic-rock sound — more so than the other newer-era stadium-rock bands like Muse, for instance. “I suppose that’s part of the challenge, to take our influences — the root of our sound stems from Seventies rock ‘n’ roll, Zeppelin and AC/DC, bands like that — but our challenge is to keep what we do fresh and as contemporary-sounding as possible without losing track of where the music comes from. We’ve been trying hard to do that over the last five records.”
Raise a Little Hell, which is also on vinyl, is the perfect summertime cruising album, and its songs wouldn’t be out of place on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack, with moments reminiscent of everything from Deep Purple to lighter but intense top-down fare along the lines of Y&T to the soulfulness of Humble Pie. While Raise a Little Hell is perfect FM-radio classic-rock fodder, Neeson says they don’t think of commercial considerations when writing and recording.
“We didn’t really think that logically,” he laughs. “We’re five records in; it’s easy to lose perspective. And that perspective is that we’re four of the luckiest people in the world here to do this for a living, and we’re thankful for that. You have to bring that good vibe into the studio and hope that it rubs off on the record. I think there’s a celebratory tone to Raise a Little Hell, which maybe wasn’t there on the last record or one before that.”
The reason for the attitude becomes clear when Neeson explains just where the record was done. To be precise: Moralzarzal, Spain, in the Sierra de Guadarrama. “We moved into this beautiful villa and studio in the mountains north of Madrid, and it just so happened there was the annual village fiesta,” recalls the frontman. “It was like bulls running through the streets in the morning and drunk guys in the streets from one o’clock in the afternoon. It was always a party, and that kind of environment rubs off on the songs.”
While they’ve had an amazing bout of great tours and success and fun, it’s still ten years since the U.K.’s Classic Rock magazine voted the Answer as “Best New Band 2005,” and they’re still not household names… yet. Neeson credits the band’s origins for a lot of their strength and resiliency.
The political situation, i.e., “Troubles” in Northern Ireland — the often violent history of religious discrimination and hostility for most of the twentieth century — colors the outlook of every citizen, and the guys in the band are no exception. “That said, I love Northern Ireland, I’ve never moved away,” Neeson says. “I’m very proud of our people. We’re very grounded individuals, and our Northern Irish character has held the band in good stead as we farm ourselves out around the world.”
That’s not to say he hasn’t addressed the political situation in song. “Northern Ireland is being held up as a beacon for peace and reconciliation around the world,” he says, remembering a recent-ish incident where he was “stuck in a traffic jam surrounded by armored cars and two hundred idiots waving Union Jacks and throwing bricks.” “I’m very proud of our wee country, but sometimes you just have to go home and write a song about it!” Out of that incident came 2013’s “Scream a Louder Love,” “which deals directly with the idiocy of some people in this country, a small minority making life hard for the majority from time to time.”
Together now for fifteen years, the Answer are clearly sticking to their guns. As Neeson notes, “I appreciate the life I’ve got, but it can be tough as well. You have to continually ask yourself, ‘Do I still want to do this?’ Obviously the answer to that is, ‘Yes, I fucking do.’ ”
So, finally, the Answer: What’s in a name? Neeson laughs before concluding, “Well, if I told you I have to kill you.”
The Answer play the Knitting Factory on July 22.