Frontman Cormac Neeson on the hard rock band’s purposeful seventh album, how Covid changed the group’s way of working, and why his recent solo endeavours give him a chance to ‘get weird’
There have been plenty of pinch-me moments in Cormac Neeson’s music career, but none come more supersized than the day he performed in front of 110,000 people at the Hockenheim Formula 1 circuit in Germany.
It was the summer of 2009 and his hard rock band, the Answer, were supporting AC/DC on their marathon world tour. By the time they rolled into the Hockenheimring, Neeson and his fellow Co Down bandmates were no longer intimidated by massive audiences. They had already played Munich’s Olympic stadium and the tour would take then on a whistle-stop journey around some of Europe’s biggest football grounds.
The hirsute frontman lights up when he thinks of the sort of venues the Answer played in their early days. “Madison Square Garden, the Forum, LA, Wembley Stadium.” He reels off names that would be the stuff of fantasy for most bands. “There were so many exhilarating moments on these tours, you know, like living on tour buses and meeting amazing, interesting people everywhere you go.”
Despite such coveted support slots — the Answer also opened for the Rolling Stones and Whitesnake — and the cover stories in the rock magazine Kerrang! as well as the hefty sales of their first album and the UK chart appearance of its follow-up, the band somehow remained in the margins back home, a measure, surely, of the lowly place that hard rock seems to have among the cognoscenti here.
Not that Neeson gives two hoots about such matters. Those who love his band truly love them. The news that their seventh album — and their first in seven years — was released this week was greeted with real excitement in many parts of the world.
Sundowners is a quintessential Answer album: purposeful, potent and powerful rock with a melodic heart. Comparisons with Led Zeppelin are inevitable — always a good thing — and although the size of the venue they will soon be playing is far smaller than in the AC/DC-support days, several of the songs seemed built for arenas.
“We had decided to take a break after our last album came out,” says Neeson, via video call, “partly to do our own stuff, and partly because of life stuff — parenthood and all that.” Two members of the quartet stayed in and around Belfast, two others moved to Britain and France. It looked as though the band had reached the end of the road.
Neeson is sitting in his car in Belfast, taking shelter from the sleet and rain. He notes that on a previous occasion, when he was was doing press interviews, he was in hospital to be by the side of his youngest son, who had been born premature at 27 weeks. “He was in hospital for four months. We basically lived there. And the stresses of that time came out in the music we were making. Solas [Irish for light] couldn’t be all happy and upbeat when that sort of thing is going on.”
His eight-year-old boy is completely healthy now and, along with his brother (4), can’t seem to get enough of his dad’s music. “There are some of our songs that I don’t want to play now,” Neeson says, with a chuckle, “because the boys want them played 15 times a day.”
Each member of the band found their own creativity in different ways and the hiatus, for Neeson, allowed him to make a solo album that could hardly be more different to what he normally does. White Feather is heavily indebted to folk and Americana — but more of that later.
“We never gave ourselves a deadline to get back together again and maybe that was for the best,” he says. “It was scary in a way because this life force had been central to our identity since we were 18 years of age — and, suddenly, it wouldn’t be central anymore. After about five years, making music together again felt like the right thing to do.”
Tentative steps towards recording new songs were taken at the end of 2019 — and then the pandemic arrived. “We had got back together in the room, thankfully, before all that happened and that meant we were able to establish a new remote rhythm.”
Covid ensured an entirely new way of working for the band. “Previously, we’d jam together for a week, go home and listen to anything we thought was good and then try to think about the song-craft. This time, we’d get the songs to a certain point and whenever they’d lift the travel restrictions for a week, and we could get our guitarist [Paul Mahon] home from Paris and our bassist [Micky Waters] home from England, and we’d get into a room and bring all these ideas in and see which of them feel like they work as a band.”
Neeson says after being deprived of the opportunity to play live together — especially having been apart for so long — the moments where they could kick up a racket in a studio were particularly special. “The break really benefited us because we were coming in fresh and in love with what the Answer does — and we were coming in with a pretty clear understanding of where the soul of the band truly lies. Our mission was to try to crack into that as best we could on all the songs on this record. And coming back to it having had all these different creative and life experiences brought something special to the table.
“When we got into studio with Dan [Weller, producer],” he adds, “he sensed that we were buzzing to be back together again and I think he did a great job in capturing that energy on tape. You can actually hear us, on the album, whooping and hollering in the background and generally having a really good time. Very often, the studio process can weirdly dilute that, or lose it entirely.”
Neeson is looking forward to going back on the road with the Answer. Their UK tour started on Thursday and a week out from going back on the road again, he admits to being a little apprehensive that their live chops will be intact. “We did one show last year, but we haven’t really played proper live dates for about four years — and having done so many shows as a band over the years, that feels like a very long time.”
A Belfast date has been set and the band are planning to hit Dublin, Cork and Limerick too. “Those shows will hopefully happen on the other side of the summer,” he says. “There’s still a weird post-Covid availability thing when it comes to venues.”
Although the new Answer album is foremost in his mind right now, he is also keen to continue with his own solo work. Making White Feather was a labour of love. “I knew in my head that I wanted to go to Nashville for a while and make a solo record. I had a bunch of songs that I wanted to record. They were songs drawn from my own personal life and were maybe a bit more introspective than a lot of the Answer’s stuff might have been.
“I view my solo work, going forward, as an opportunity to get as weird as I can and to entertain these creative urges that all songwriters get. There’s always going to be a song that you think is absolutely amazing, but it’s not going to fit into a particular project.
“I mean, if I wrote an electro Americana alt-folk ballad — it may be an amazing song — but it wouldn’t fit on to Sundowners. And all of us in the band feel the same way — when we get home in the evening, if we want to get crazy and experiment with numerous other genres, we can do that — it just doesn’t necessarily have to appear on the next Answer record.”
‘Sundowners’ is out now