The Answer discuss their return, the new album Sundowners and their 2023 live shows - Winter 2023
Back in the saddle...
It’s been 6 years since The Answer’s last album Solas and a 5 year gap of live shows but the Northern Ireland rockers are back with a stunning new album Sundowners and a run of UK and mainland European shows. As he enjoys a short break with his family from their home in France, we join guitarist Paul Mahon to find out the full story of how the band came back to together and created this absolute masterpiece…
The first thing we have to say so incredibly proudly is that The Answer are back! This was announced back in May and shortly after there was an amazing feature in Classic Rock magazine following which the rock community just blew up! What does it mean to be back and to have seen so much love for the band?
I guess we were surprised but also very thankful to be back and together the chance at it. So far, this campaign has been going really well. The airplay and reactions to Blood Brothers has been really good and people seem very excited about the album. The first show back in 5 years a Planet Rockstock went great. It was just like old times! It’s all going well and we’re really excited about the tour in March with lots of shows already sold out. We couldn’t ask for anything more really!
It’s been 6 years since your last album Solas and 5 years between live shows. The band always knew there would be a break while Cormac did his White Feather solo record, but did you expect it to be this long before you back got back together?
When you say 6 years, no. We didn’t think it would be that long, but also at the time of the last show in 2017 I remember driving home from that I’m thinking ‘we’re not doing another show, that’s it’. I didn’t think we’d get back together again, just the way the music industry is and the way it moves, it felt like we were too old and we done everything. There’s no more surprises. You know ‘who’s going to want us to put out another record and come and see us again?’. I’d just had my first child and I was moving to France and it felt very final in a way. So I didn’t think we’d do it together again. I hadn’t heard much from anyone but I got a call in around June in 2019 from our manager. Usually I don’t want to hear from him in case I owe him money or something (laughs!) so there was some trepidation. So he got an engaged tone but called back a second time and he said we’d received an offer of a record deal from the Australian record company Golden Robot and he went through the terms and explained everything and it sounded pretty good. So I got everyone together and we decided we would give it a go again. So that was the summer of 2019. It was August when we first got back together for a rehearsal. It was myself, James (Heatley, Drums) and Micky (Waters, bass) and I thought ‘We’ve been out of this for a while, it’s getting headaches and we can’t do this anymore’. But it was great to see everyone, there was a lot of chemistry there and friendships certainly hadn’t dimmed. We did it again in October, this time all 4 of us, and we wrote some songs. I think there are actually 3 of them on the album from that first session, so that was more positive! And then we did another one in February 2020 at which time it felt like we were back again. I could hear songs that were good enough to be on any album and everyone was getting on great. It was like it never stopped and it was better than it was before. And then Covid came and that kind of put a spanner in the works for a while. We had the momentum, a release plan and we were going to make the record that summer, or maybe even before, and have it out by winter 2020. It was such a time of uncertainty and we wondered whether there would be gigs again and when things returned whether the record company would have the money to put the record out for a band like us. We kept on doing it but we couldn’t really meet up at all because of the restrictions. We met up at the end of that summer and did another session of writing, and it was great again. There was quite a lot of excitement after that especially because things were opening up again… And then they closed again! We didn’t then see each other for another year but in between in that time we would do write songs individually and meet up on Zoom and go back-and-forth with our ideas. We’d do it around once a week and it was surprisingly productive. I was amazed at how well that could work. It allows you personally to do your revision and explore it without everyone else getting in the way and then for us each to share our outputs. It had that magic that you can’t account for, that’s bigger than any one person. So we managed either through luck or just finding a silver lining in the cloud to find a better way of working in a way. We had another session in 2021, a rehearsal and then we did the album in April of this year so it’s kind of all very different to how we did things before.
Focusing more on the album as a whole, you’ve created an incredible sound that’s been described as ‘dirty blues rock’ something that the band said is where you are right now. Coming back together as a band to make new music, what conversations took place around the kind of band you wanted to be and the music you wanted to make?
That’s a good question. I think at the beginning we didn’t overthink it. We didn’t sit down and write a manifesto of what we thought we were going to be, even though that can be very helpful at the start. The guy at the record label who signed us had ieas of what he thought The Answer was and what he knew about us being a fan himself, so that was maybe ringing in our ears a little bit. From listening to him I felt he had a really good outlook on everything we did well. It wasn’t just Rise but he’d heard the acoustic version of Can’t Remember Can’t Forget, so I thought ‘Okay, this guy gets the full spectrum’. But the whole band just got together and brought their ideas and everybody was getting the time to explore the rather than getting shut down too early if it wasn’t what other people wanted to do. Every time you write, the strong songs stand up, no matter what your taste is and you can’t argue with that. There was a little bit of that: some songs weren’t standing up, but we still continued writing and the door wasn’t close to any type of song. Micky has spent a lot of time writing music for TV and ads, stuff like that, so he had a really wide, diverse range of styles and snippets of ideas, and he would say “Do you think this is right for The Answer?” He had so many ideas it was incredible! Some ideas were right for The Answer but some we tried and they would take on another life. Things like Get On Back had kind of a funk thing that we wouldn’t have done before but somehow it worked. I think if we had a very narrow vision of what we wanted to do that’s a song that wouldn’t have been on there. It just came together naturally the 4 of us working together, and when we got into the studio I guess we had 16 or 17 songs. There were definitely 8 that we were going to record and the rest we made decisions about as time went along. At the end of every day we would sit in the kitchen and play them see how we felt about them and see if anyone had any strong opinions. I was bitten with what we’d done already, and I think once we had 3 or 4 tracks on the board recorded, the album started to have a style that made it easier to pick from the 5 or 6 other tracks that we had. But again, 2 or 3 of them you could’ve said were stronger songs but stylistically didn’t fit with the other tracks, but before that we wouldn’t have known until they were recorded.
You recorded the album with Dan Weller at Middle farm studios. Now Dan is a massively gifted producer and I particularly love his work with Elles Bailey and Shining In The Half-Light. How did you come to partner with Dan and how did he shape the sound of Sundowners?
Dan is a producer I’ve always been aware of. We met a lot of producers to see who would have a good feel for what we wanted to do and Dan was probably a bit of a wildcard at the start. We know him through his work with Stone Broken because we’ve got the same management and that was the introduction. We just talked to him and I think probably, when management bring someone in you’re always a bit suspicious because it’s always kind of ‘jobs for the boys’, but you want to go with your choice rather than theirs. But we had a call with him and we thought we really like this guy and we were 100% comfortable with him straight away. I thought he had some really good ideas. Everyone kind of agreed that he seemed to ‘get it’ so we decided to work with him. The work he’s done before is kind of not what you would associate with us. It’s kind of more metal. The Elles Bailey record (Shining In The Half Light) is kind of the closest thing to what we would do, certainly the production is closer to us than the metal stuff. We never met him until the first day in the studio. Usually we would meet a producer in person, we’d send him some music beforehand, maybe they would come and see a gig and then if you go and decide to work with them you would go and do preproduction for a couple of weeks and that sets you up for the album. Everyone knows each other beforehand and you know how you’re going to work. But with Dan we just talked over Zoom 4 or 5 times, sent music back-and-forth, he sent some ideas, but we were never in the same room until that first day at Middle Farm Studios. He was great to work with! Production is different to what people think: it’s not just about getting the sounds and getting the performance out with people, it’s managing the whole project. And that’s difficult, everything from budgets to keeping everyone in the band happy and actually making the record. He really kept his head throughout the whole process in what could be a highly pressured atmosphere. At the end of a record, the biggest compliment you can pay someone is saying that would like to do the next record with them. And I can say that about Dan.
I think one particular characteristic of the album is the significant use of keys throughout. That’s quite a significant decision for the band and a massively effective one. How did this come about and how important was it for you to experiment with new sounds?
It was very important. I think it’s something we’d dabbled with before but never quite nailed as much as we wanted. Dan got Johnny into play who he’d used on other sessions and he just seemed to know what to play. He just came in one day, sat down, I explained the songs to him, we did 3 or 4 takes – every kind of way it could be done: on Hammond, on Wurlitzer - and we just went back and edited the best parts. I guess Dan just had a really good plan for it and how to execute it. Whereas before I think it was a bit of an afterthought where you just send the tracks remotely to someone, give them some notes and then you’d get it back and that was it whether you liked it or not. On Solas we had Keith (Weir) from The Quireboys come in and play. He did a great job too and I think that maybe that experience with Keith helped as well in understanding what could be achieved if we had a keyboard player in our music. On this record, the keyboards definitely elevated the songs.
Well the debut single from Sundowners, Blood Brother, dropped in October and the response was absolutely phenomenal! Some of the comments from fans included ‘I am blown away by this song’, ‘Great song, great band’, ‘Absolutely fantastic!’, ‘Awesome track’, ‘Banging tune’, ‘Bloody brilliant’, ‘Bloody awesome’, and my favourite: ‘rock ‘n’ roll is back!’, which really suggests that this is something that people have been waiting for and needing. I could go on but how does it make you feel to hear these amazing comments?
It’s great! We’re happy just to have the opportunity to come back and that people are excited that we’re coming back. When they finally get to hear what we’re doing and they like it, it takes it full circle and shows that it’s worthwhile what we are doing. Blood Brothers has had a really good life as a single. I think throughout Europe, the UK and even America it’s receiving the most airplay on radio that we have ever had and that’s saying something! Back in the days when we were touring with AC/DC all across America, Blood Brothers is getting more air play than Everyday Demons! I hope it keeps going that way!
Let’s just touch on the title track to the album which has an extended intro with the most infectious baseline and Dobro that builds a huge amount of anticipation. It’s the most amazing track to introduce the album and it really feels like a statement that The Answer is back. Is that something you were specifically trying to achieve with this track?
Yes, I think so! The length of that track, it was kind of very experimental in how it came about as well. It was one of those where we worked on it across Zoom and it originally started off quite different. We worked on it in the August 2020 session and at the time Micky and James weren’t quite feeling it and it wasn’t exciting them as much as the other tracks. So we decided to do something different and James played a kind of more hypnotic drumbeat and Micky just started playing that bass line. Cormac (Neeson, vocals) suggested I change to a dobro. After that it took on a life of its own. It wasn’t like we sat down and worked out how to reinvent this track. They just started doing it and we all followed suit and I think it’s almost exactly the same arrangement on the record as it was the first time. Because it was so out there, was so long and it wasn’t as focused as the other tracks, it felt quite different. There were discussions on what should be the album title and when Sundowners was decided upon, where the track itself should come on the album. For me, I was feeling it kind of more in the middle of the record, to be like a track that would ease you back in, but the other guys were like “No, let’s just go full on out and put it on the first!”. It’s a ballsey move but why not!
The second track Want You To Love Me has again has had an incredible response, not just from fans but across the industry itself recently winning Louder’s Track Of The Week. You must agree that this feels like a snowball gathering pace?
I think so, yeah! I’m pleasantly surprised about the reaction and how the campaign is really gaining momentum. I think this song is probably a track I can see crossing over and that people who maybe didn’t like The Answer before could get into. I think the sound of it is very raw and I think it could change people’s opinions of The Answer and show them that we’re not just the same old rock ‘n’ roll band that we once were, if that’s what they thought. I couldn’t have hoped for more on that one. That track came from the very first session we did back in 2020, the first time all 4 of us met up. It was just another jam that started with that riff. From the demos when we were picking tracks, that one was marginal, it wasn’t on everyone’s A list. It was once we started listening to the songs we done, we thought ‘Okay, this is going to work with those first 4 tracks’. And the way Dan approached it from a production perspective changed it also. When you’re recording tracks, there’s 2 or 3 you know are going to be good and then there’s ones that are marginal. But as you record them they start to take on a life of their own, and they progress: you start to hear the drums and guitar, and each day when you play the track back you start to get excited, sometimes to the extent where you’re thinking ‘this is a monster of a track!’. Want You To Love Me it’s a perfect song to keep up the momentum after Blood Brothers.
Let’s talk about The Answer in a live setting. First of all you played a set at Planet Rockstock on 3rd December 2022 that will probably go down as an all-time classic show. Cormac was quoted as saying “It was one of the most memorable rock ‘n’ roll experiences of my life”. How did it feel to be back on stage after such a long time away?
It was like ‘everything has changed and nothing is changed’! (Laughs!) It was the same old waiting around all day waiting for that one hour show! It was exciting and it was great to see all the people that we hadn’t seen in years: all the Planet Rock guys like Paul Anthony, Darren Reddick and Jon Norman, and all the stagehands that we’ve known throughout all the years. It was great to see Ricky Warwick again. It was just good to see old friends and that’s as big a part of your life as the music is in a way. So it was a bit overwhelming and emotional. Doing the gig, we were very nervous. I always say that as long as my equipment works that’s all I need! Everything else is done beforehand – your preparation, your rehearsal with the band, rehearsing personally – that’s your responsibility beforehand. I was quietly confident with that aspect of it but you always want more. We always want more time especially because we’re in different parts of the world these days. The Answer is just getting started up again, it’s not like it was during the first 3 records where we rehearsed 5 days a week, whereas now if we get a week beforehand you’re lucky!
March next year sees you playing some quite intimate album shows in the UK and Europe throughout March and April. How much are you looking forward to the tour and what can fans expect from these album shows?
I’m really looking forward to getting back on tour – it’s something you really miss - just getting to go to all the different places. To have a new album to do it with and an album you’re proud of is really special. I always liken it to Formula 1. The album is like your car. If you haven’t got a good car, no matter how good a driver you are it’s no fun racing it for the whole season! (Laughs!) You want to make sure you’ve got the best album possible because you’re gonna be playing that for at least a year or 2 years. I think we’ve got that! We’re not sure exactly what the set is going to be but as a band I think we might want to play the full 11 tracks from the new album which might be possible. We’ve been away for a long time so there are certain tracks that people are going to want to hear and expect to hear which we will accommodate as well! The shows will be as energetic as ever!
Some closing thoughts...
As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect on how wonderful it is to have The Answer back, and with such an incredible album in Sundowners, the future in looking very bright indeed.
To find out more, head over to www.theanswerrock.com and in the meantime enjoy the video to Blood Brothers below.