‘Soul-destroying’ is the term Paul Mahon opts for when recalling how the band to which he’d dedicated all his adult life faded meekly, almost apologetically, into the shadows in the winter of 2017.
The guitarist is revisiting The Answer’s final run of shows promoting 2016’s Solas, the four-piece’s acclaimed sixth album. It’s a bold, experimental record, with its hard-rock foundations augmented by Irish traditional music and subtle electronic flourishes. Hopes back then that it might broaden the Downpatrick group’s increasingly selective appeal dissipated when it failed to make it into the Top 40. Closing out the tour as special guests on Mr. Big’s UK theatre tour, a booking he regarded as “a dead rubber”, Mahon was acutely aware that The Answer were nearing the end of the road in more ways than one.
“When you’ve been around for a while, you start to recognise when things have run their course,” he reflects quietly. “I was definitely of the mind that that was it.”
Fourteen months earlier, when they were talking to this writer on the eve of the release of Solas, their mood was upbeat and decidedly bullish. While acknowledging that the group’s career trajectory had dipped below industry projections – “You need the stars to align,” frontman Cormac Neeson observed sagely, and without bitterness, “and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t” – they still exhibited the confidence and swagger of a band secure in the belief that their day would come.
“We’re not yet at the stage where we’re sitting in our armchairs drinking Guinness and reminiscing about the good old days,” Neeson insisted. With hindsight, though – and we take no joy in pointing this out – Classic Rock’s perceptive review of Solas foreshadowed the sense of disillusionment to come. Ian Fortnam wrote: “The Answer are established as a band whose albums reliably stall in the UK chart’s mid-40s. When Classic Rock’s Best New Band of 2005 picked up their award they expected more than this. We all did.”
On the Mr. Big tour, The Answer’s uninspired 40-minute sets indulged with polite applause served as nightly requiems for the four men’s shared dreams. And, as Mahon now admits, the hollowness of the experience only added to a deepening and inescapable sense of bathos.
“We scaled some great heights, but after twenty years we were kinda left with nothing at the end of it,” is his brutally honest assessment. “It felt like everyone was already looking to what the next thing might be. It was a bit of a wake-up call: welcome to the real world.”
"Mate, these fuckers are going to come back with an absolute bang!” It’s May 27, 2020, and Mark Alexander-Erber, president and founder of Golden Robot Records, home to Frank Carter And The Rattlesnakes, former Whitesnake/Thin Lizzy guitarist John Sykes, Rose Tattoo and more, is talking to Canadian music writer and podcast host Mitch Lafon about the label’s newest signing.
By their own admission, no one was more surprised by the Australian label reaching out to The Answer with the promise of a new worldwide deal than the band themselves. But Alexander-Erber is a long-time fan – the label boss talked of listening to their debut album Rise during his gym workouts a decade ago – and the offer prompted frank and open-hearted discussions among the band, completed by bassist Micky Waters and drummer James Heatley, who all now have children and independent businesses.
“One of the reasons we needed to take a break was because The Answer has always needed to be ‘all in’. It doesn’t work unless all four members are fully committed,” says Neeson. “Personally, to go from The Answer being such a massive part of my everyday life to it being put on the back burner was a really weird sensation. And it was kinda scary, because it was very much uncharted territory, insomuch as we had never really taken a break from when we were eighteen years of age, so it took a lot of readjustment, from a head-space point of view as much as anything.
“But it wasn’t like we took a break because we were throwing beers at each other’s heads, it wasn’t a case of ‘I can’t stand the sight of you any more’. The very deep friendships we’ve built up over the years weren’t ever going to go away. I’m pretty sure that there was never a point where Ithought there wouldn’t be a seventh record from The Answer. But life changes, and obviously I would have understood had one of the others decided that, for whatever reason, they couldn’t commit as before.”
Their decision, however, was unanimous: let’s do this.
The Answer’s first studio jam in three years took place in August 2019, the same month as their new record deal with Golden Robot Records was formally announced. Perhaps understandably, the session was initially “pretty slow going”, as Mahon recalls – “We were at this for twenty years non-stop, and you quickly realise that after you take a long time out, momentum doesn’t build again overnight” – but there was excitement and energy in the room from day one.
Another session was held in October 2019, and a third in February 2020. Which meant that when the world shut down one month later, The Answer were in good shape, and Alexander-Erber had already been sent a clutch of work-in-progress demos he regarded as “bangers”.
“It felt like the chemistry was really back,” says Mahon. “Maybe better than ever.” Work resumed, sporadically, over Zoom calls. And looking back, Neeson, Mahon and Waters all recall the process being more “efficient” than the band’s traditional rehearsal-room jams.
“In some ways,” says Neeson, “even though the process was weird because of lockdown, the lack of time-pressure meant we could let things develop organically. It sorta felt like we were writing our first record all over again, back when we didn’t have a record label and we didn’t have management in our ears or have any of the pressures that come with being a working band.”
“We’ve been playing together since we were teenagers,” says a smiling Micky Waters, “so we know what we’re doing.”
That much is evident from a first listen to the band’s new album. Put simply, Sundowners, produced by Dan Weller (Enter Shikari, Those Damn Crows) at Middle Farm studio in Devon and released (in the UK) by 7Hz Productions on Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, is the definitive Answer album; the most cohesive, impactful and best collection of songs they have ever put their name to. Neeson says the 11-track record is “the album we’ve been waiting to make our whole lives”, and that sense of excitement runs right through the record from top to tail.
You may already be familiar with some of the singles – like the dirty-groove blues rock of Blood Brother or the hard-funk stomper Want You To Love Me – but they only partially hint at the majesty of the record as a whole.
The atmospheric Zeppelin/Stones hybrid title track rolls out with a filthy bass line, greasy slide guitar and Neeson in full-blooded voice; California Rust, a sublime retro groove accented by female gospel vocals; Living On The Line is a kissing cousin of The Black Crowes’ Sting Me (“a chance for me to live out my wildest Paul Rodgers dreams,” Neeson says with a laugh) and another single; Get On Back channels Curtis Mayfield; and unity anthem All Together takes it cues from Stevie Wonder and Stax Records soul.
The album closes with the fabulous Always Alright, which opens with a rootsy Americana feel (not unlike the highlights of Neeson’s criminally underrated solo album White Feather), then shifts gears entirely (“moving from Chris Stapleton to The Who”, reckons Neeson) with stacked gospel vocals, a killer keyboard vamp and stunning guitar playing from Mahon. Sundowners might well be the best new hard rock record you’ll hear in 2023.
“A good friend of ours listened to it with Cormac, and he texted me and said: ‘Congratulations, you’ve finally made your Sticky Fingers,” Mahon says, with understandable pride.
“Thinking about it, that makes sense, because Sticky Fingers is the album where the Stones really distilled everything they’d learned, and everything that defined them. It’s also my favourite Stones record. So I’ll take that all day long.”
“I think this album has greatly benefitted from us having made Solas,” Neeson adds. “Because with this record we sorta set out to re-establish our core values, but at the same time not play it safe.
“Going left-field with Solas has given us a really clear idea of where those core values lie, but also gave us a really good taste for the experimental and given us even more trust in our gut instincts. When we said that we were coming back, we could really tell that people had no idea what kind of record was coming, because of Solas. And we love that, because one of the things we wanted to achieve with that was to shake ourselves out of any pigeonhole. It’s good to keep people guessing, because what we have here [with Sundowners] is going to surprise a lot of people in the best possible way.”
On December 3 last year, The Answer took to the stage together for the first time since November 2017, playing as special guests to Black Star Riders at the Planet Rockstock weekender in Wales, where they previewed four new songs from their forthcoming album.
“That was… pretty weird, to be honest,” Micky Waters says, laughing. “It was like: ‘Oh, yeah, this is what we do!’”
“We went through every emotion,” Mahon admits. “It was nerve-racking, it was emotional, and it probably took us about five or six songs before we could look at one another and think: ‘Right, okay, we’re back in business.’”
“There was such an outpouring of positive energy for the band that night,” says Neeson. “It felt special. And the album feels special. With where we’re at in the world right now, hopefully it can provide a release, and energise and empower people the way it has energised us.
“I think we need this album more than anybody else does,” he says plainly. “But it feels like there’s a lot of love out there for the band, and hopefully we’ve done people proud with this record. Right from the outset, from the first writing sessions, you could feel that all four members of the band were deeply passionate about what we were doing, and you can feel the collective soul of the band in every song. It’s an explosion of positive energy created by four brothers who just really missed each other.”
Ask Neeson, Mahon and Waters what success will look like with Sundowners, and all three are united in the answer: “To us it’s already a success,” says Mahon.
“We just want to get out and play it now,” he adds, admitting to feeling just a little frustration that the world has yet to hear why The Answer are so buoyant once more. “Hopefully when we get back out in front of people properly again we can conjure up some of that excitement and energy that we all felt on Rise. Right now we’re all fired up and excited again, and if we still have the same hunger and desire and optimism at the end of this cycle, who knows where we can go from here.”