THE ANSWER – Raising A Little Hell
The Answer (l-r): Michael Waters, Paul Mahon, Cormac Neeson and James Heatley
Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland-based hard rock outfit The Answer began songwriting sessions for fifth full-length studio album Raise A Little Hell during the middle of 2014’s summer festival season, the resultant platter emerging during March 2015. Embarking exclusively upon the festival circuit for a given period, a band tends to solely perform on weekends.
“I thought it was a good time to start writing, because of that,” acknowledges Cormac Neeson, vocalist of The Answer. “You’re gigging from Friday through to Sunday, and then you’ve got the rest of the week to get back into the studio and start working on ideas. That’s always a good way of maintaining that live energy; if you’re regularly heading off to play some shows, then you’re taking all of that energy back into the studio and kind of filtering it into your songs. It was a really fun process. This time around, we just wanted to make a record and have a good time doing it. It felt kind of free and liberating, just being able to make music for the sake of making music again. I think you can hear that vibrancy on the record.”
Such comments suggest that The Answer wasn’t in a position to make music for the sake of making music in recent years. “It does sound like it’s a given,” the frontman observes. “It sounds like it goes without saying, but generally once you’ve put a record out… From the first album a band puts out, things change a little bit. It’s not quite the same as sitting around in Northern Ireland with no record deal, where you’re meeting up three or four times a week, and having a couple of beers, and just making music, because that’s what you love to do. After you’ve put the first record out, you’ve got record labels, and management, and hopefully you have a fanbase as well. All have particular expectations, and particular opinions of what kind of record the next one should be.
“When you do, you do obviously have to distance yourself from all of that background. It’s not always that easy. Sometimes it just indirectly filter into what you do and maybe knocks you a little bit off kilter from time to time, but with this record probably more than any other album since our first album, we were able to just trust each other and have a good time. We were able to not worry about anything other than just laying music down that we felt was expressing ourselves, and that we felt was a true reflection of the kind of band that The Answer are. That was all that there was, because we just wanted to let the music do the talking, and take it where it was gonna take us. That meant that there were no limitations on the writing process, that there were no kind of borders. If a song felt right, we’d work on it. If it felt like work, then we’d leave it behind, so there was just that kind of free flowing spirit to the whole process.”
Raise A Little Hell has been touted as a return to The Answer’s musical roots. “I think it’s a return to the roots, but that comes from the attitude that we’ve been talking about,” Cormac submits. “I don’t think we’ve ever left our roots behind, but sometimes they get dressed up a little bit. I think this record is very I suppose under-produced. It just lets the songs do the work; the riffs and the melodies, and the lyrics, and the direction, does the talking this time around. That’s always been what we’re about, but we’ve managed to capture it in the studio this time around. And as well, in contrast to our first record for example, I think we’ve gotten better at songwriting and we’ve gotten better as musicians. We’ve maintained that rootsy feel, though. I think we’ve stepped it up a gear, as well. The album’s a bit more diverse than a lot of the stuff that we’ve put out in the past. I think what we’ve become is a little bit better and a little bit more well-oiled, and I think you can hear that on the album.”
Songwriters arguably become greater with experience, The Answer having become greater songwriters “across the board,” the composer feels. “One thing I’ve noticed over the last couple of albums is that all four members are now arriving at the studio with songs that we’ve worked on on our own as individuals. I think we’ve all gotten better at writing songs in our own right. We’ll never get into the studio, and say ‘This is the way it’s gonna be.’ It’s very much a case of ‘Well, I have a song. What do you guys think? How can we make it better?’ Everybody’s contributing in that area now though, which means that we’ve got a lot more stuff to choose from for a start. We’re kind of spoilt for choice when it comes to picking what songs we’re gonna work on for the record, but it just makes for a more colourful experience overall.”
The Answer’s general approach towards songwriting in recent years shares traits with The Answer’s general approach towards songwriting in their earlier years. “In the past, we would’ve written songs one of two ways,” Cormac begins. “We would’ve jammed for six or seven hours at a time and just recorded everything, and then sifted through the jams together and picked the best riffs and the best melodies, and turned them into songs. We still do that, and have done so quite a bit for this record. Also, we kind of relied on Paul to arrive in from time to time with close to fully completed songs that I could write some lyrics for, and that we could all then put our own touches to and turn into a The Answer song.
“‘Whiplash’ on the album though, for example. James came in with that, played it on an electric guitar, and then once he taught us the riff, he got behind the kit and we all started chipping in and contributing to that song. Micky arrived in with the title track ‘Raise A Little Hell’ one day, and we thought ‘This has got real potential here.’ We worked on it for a couple of days, and turned it into the song that it now is. I chipped in with ‘I Am Cured’ and Paul chipped in with ‘The Other Side’, so everybody was playing their part on this album. That’s always been a big element of the band’s identity, is the fact that all four members have equal stakes in the creative process as well as everything else – onstage, and what not.”
Although a democratic affair, with each track, a member arguably takes the reins and shepherds it towards completion. “Yeah,” the singer agrees. “There’s different individuals in the band pushing and pulling at different times, but I think that one thing we’ve gotten better at over the years is allowing each individual member in the band a little bit of time and space to put their ideas across, and having a little bit of patience.
“It’s very easy to listen to a riff and think ‘No, it doesn’t sound right. That’s not for me… Let’s move on,’ but being part of this whole writing process is about getting those ideas out, and taking a bit of time and space to work the ideas up to a certain level, and not being as dismissive of particular songs or song ideas as we might’ve been in the past. Whenever you keep that open mind in the process, it can lead to some exciting results, but it’s all about recognising if a member of the band is passionate about a particular song idea, and following that through to its natural conclusion.”
Raise A Little Hell was borne under happier circumstances than September 2013 predecessor New Horizon. “I think it’s a little bit more diverse, a little looser, and a little more free,” Cormac critiques. “I think it sounds like we’re having a better time on this album. I think the last record was borne out of anxiety and instability, which I think that we dealt with in the best possible way, and channelled into the New Horizon record. You can hear that intensity and that directness, and that’s the kind of record we wanted to make. We did that, and that’s great. This album, it’s a good time rock ’n’ roll record. It’s a return to just playing hard assed electric blues in the spirit that it’s meant to be played, I suppose. Not taking ourselves too seriously, having a great time in there, and trying to capture that spirit on tape. I think we did that.”
New Horizon’s anxiety and instability stemmed from the severing of business ties. “There were a bunch of changes in the lead up to New Horizon,” the lyricist recalls. “We changed record labels, because we had an awful time with the label that we were on previous to Napalm (Spinefarm). Also, we changed management – there was a big fall-out there. We’d also gotten to that stage where we had just come off of a massive world tour with AC/DC, and there was kind of a void left there that needed to be filled. Just in a lot of different ways, it wasn’t as smooth as it had been up to that point.
“Thankfully though, we’ve overcome that. We used New Horizon as a means of therapy. We were able to get that pent up frustration out there in our music, and even now we’re still with Napalm. We’ve just signed a record deal for another two albums, which’ll bring it up to four. I think we’re really benefiting from a new-found stability. It means we can just ease off on the business end of things, which quite frankly, musicians just aren’t very good at. We can concentrate on doing what we are good at, and that’s making music.”
The Answer’s inking of an album contract with Napalm Records was publicly disclosed on August 24th, 2012. Although the label has since built up a rock portfolio by signing the likes of Monster Magnet, Vista Chino and others, at that time Napalm was almost wholly recorded as solely metal in nature. “Very much so,” Cormac concurs. “We signed with Napalm just as we were about to start making New Horizon and when they approached us, that was our first reaction.
“They sent their top A&R man over to Belfast, and he took us out for lunch. He explained that it was the label’s intention to branch out and build up the amount of rock bands on their roster, and that we would very much be at the forefront of that, and thus get the required commitment and the required financial backing as well. That’s important too, to really follow through on that vision that we had for our band, and the vision that the record label clearly shared. It was the beginning of a very strong relationship, a relationship that’s going really well at the moment.”
How an assortment’s vision can be broader in scope than supporting Australian hard rock giants AC/DC as part of a worldwide tour – which The Answer did as part of AC/DC’s Black Ice (October 2008) world tour for the latter part of 2008 as well as all of 2009 – is uncertain. Where to venture from there is open to debate. “That’s part of the problem that we faced off the back of that tour,” the performer acknowledges. “We’d just spent a year and a half supporting AC/DC in stadiums and arenas all across the world, and it was this amazingly exhilarating time in our lives. AC/DC had actually asked us to go on down to South America with them though, and we had to say ‘No.’
“We thought that if we had left it much longer, we’d have just disappeared in the bubble that was the Black Ice tour – disappeared entirely. We needed to get back and make a record. We needed to get back and start organising headlining tours in our own right, where we would play for longer than 45 minutes. We had to make that tough decision to leave the touring, and start getting back in touch with our grass roots, and support it. I think we have, to this day.
“That was really where we knew we needed to go, was to re-establish ourselves as a headlining band. Granted, we’re not playing Madison Square Garden every night, but it was important to go back and just kind of continue the development of the band. We weren’t gonna bring our music forward if we had have stayed on that tour for much longer. I suppose it was a responsibility to our own brand of rock ’n’ roll music and our own identity that we had to leave that tour, and get back to just making our own music and organising headlining tours again.”
The Answer was trying to establish itself at the time, whereas AC/DC had been established for quite some time by that point and could afford to tour for several years without releasing new material. “Absolutely,” Cormac replies. “We’ve been building this band from the moment we put out our first record. We wanna keep continuing to build, and so you need to be making fresh sounding new records and you need to be out there doing your own tours in order to achieve those goals.”
Returning to the topic of Raise A Little Hell, its lyrical content is “predominantly optimistic,” the musician reckons. “It looks to the future. It’s in keeping with the good time vibes that the music brings to the album, but it’s not naive. There are a couple of songs on there which deal with slightly more serious content, but at the same time, it sounds like we’re having a good time laying down the music. I think there’s plenty of colour on there, and as always, the lyrics are from the heart. They’re based in real life experiences, and sometimes you’ve gotta twist those experiences for the sake of the song. It all stems from the truth though, and this makes my job easier when we get out on the road – that I can sing lyrics that are heartfelt and that I’m passionate about.”
Theoretically speaking, The Answer’s aforementioned past anxiety and instability could provide an ample source of lyrical inspiration. “There are a couple of songs on there that deal with a supposed personal instability, aside from the band’s past,” Cormac clarifies. “I use our music as a way of getting stuff off of my chest and both good and bad – the whole spectrum of emotion – so there are a lot of songs on there about feeling good and looking to the future, but there are a couple of songs on there about personal insecurity and instability and doubt that everybody has to deal with. I try to filter that into our songs.”
Raise A Little Hell was recorded near Madrid, Spain. “We chose Will Maya to produce the record, and he’s a Spanish guy,” the frontman divulges. “He’s from a town just north of Madrid, up in the mountains. He recently opened a residential studio up there. The house used to belong to his great-grandmother, but he held onto the original architecture – the big wooden beams running through the ceiling, and the pictures of his family tree all over the place – so it was steeped in history and had a very unique kind of vibe to it all. The fact that it was residential, that we were living, sleeping, eating, drinking and making music all under the one roof, suits the way we work. You can kind of get in there and start working whenever you feel inspired, and just go with it – any time of the day or night.
“As well as that though, the local annual fiesta had just kicked off when we arrived, which basically involves bulls running through the street every morning, all day drinking, bull fights in the evening, and then further drinking into the middle hours of the morning to the point that it was like a very Spanish St. Patrick’s Day celebration every day for 14 days. We obviously had a lot of work to do, so we couldn’t quite give it the full St. Patrick’s Day treatment, but it was the perfect anecdote to a hard day in the studio. You headed out at 12 o’clock that night to clear your head, and the whole time you’d just be in the throes of one of the most unique parties you’ve ever been at in your life. Again, that fiesta atmosphere and that celebratory spirit I think fed into the music that we recorded in there.”
Spanish weather greatly constrasts with Irish weather, causing some to perhaps assume The Answer wished to bask in several weeks of pleasant Spanish weather. Irrespective of whether this was the case, where one cuts a given full-length is important. “You definitely have to go somewhere where you’re gonna be inspired,” Cormac muses. “You don’t wanna be getting bored. It can’t ever feel like work when you’re putting down an album, because that would make a record very kind of… The record would sound as bored as the musician playing it. The flipside of that is if a band is really excited by what’s going on around them, and having a good time, and having all of these new experiences, you’re gonna be able to pick up on that spirit whenever you hear the finished piece of work. First and foremost, we went to Madrid because Will had this fantastic studio, but you’ve got to weigh up all of those other factors before you make that decision.”
The Answer have enjoyed a long working relationship with producer Will Maya. “Will’s a good friend,” the songwriter shares. “He’s worked with us right since the first album. The label that we were signed to for the first two records – Albert Productions – he was the in-house engineer for, so I think he’s worked on bits and pieces of all five records as well as a couple of EPs. He knows the band better than anyone; he knows how to get the best performances, he knows what makes us tick, and he knows what kinds of sounds we wanna achieve in the studio. It definitely meant that we were able to get from A to B in the studio a lot quicker than we have done in the past.
“He worked his ass off is what he did. He got totally hands-on involved in the production before we even took the record to Spain. He came over to our own little studio and worked through the songs, and made sure that we had the right tempos, and that the songs were in the right key to suit my voice. He just got everything set up nicely, so that whenever we got into the studio we could concentrate on getting good sounds, leaving a bit of space for the magic to happen – the moment that makes a good record great. He worked I would say 14 to 16 hours a day, long after we had finished laying down the track in the live room. He would be chopping it up and editing it, and making sure that Paul’s guitars were in tune and sound good. He did everything. He essentially produced and engineered the record, but at the same time, managed to maintain a sense of humour throughout.”
As can be expected, Cormac is pleased with his resultant vocal contributions towards Raise A Little Hell. “I think I’ve done a pretty good job,” he laughs. “I’m happy with this record. I mean, I never listen back to an album and think ‘That’s perfect.’ There’s always a sense of ‘Oh… I wish I had tried this melody’ a lot of the time. After you’ve toured a new record, that’s probably the best time to get into the studio and record it, because you’ve been able to really air out the songs and discover little subtle tweaks to the melody. I think this time around though, because Will knows the kind of singer I am, he knows the difference between a great performance and just a run of the mill day. He was able to really get the best out of me and the songs themselves are so strong that it makes my job easy to pick out strong melodies and lyrics, and just go for it.
“Will definitely made a point. There’s a couple of songs where he wasn’t sure about the key, so he just basically got Paul to get a capo and just move it up a semi-tone at a time. I’d sing a verse and a chorus each time until we got the key that he thought was perfectly suited to my voice, so he definitely had a good kind of notion about how to really make me tick.”
Even though Will had a good notion, the singer likely has a decent grasp of the process in light of the amount of albums and EPs The Answer has recorded through the years. “Yeah, sure,” he responds. “Obviously, a lot of our bonus material and different bits and pieces that we need to record over the course of a year, we would essentially engineer and produce ourselves. I know if I’ve done a good job or not, but whenever the red light’s on, I generally give it everything I’ve got anyway. It’s just a matter of sifting through the subtle differences in the takes, and finding the best ones. It always helps to have someone like Will who’s got an extra perspective though, who maybe hears things a little bit differently to the way the band hears them since he’s not right in there. It’s all part of making a record, having those different perspectives.”
The vibrant atmosphere surrounding recording sessions influenced the eventual results. “Yeah,” Cormac seconds. “I think first and foremost though, the songs are just my kind of music. It’s the kind of record that I would go out and buy. If I heard the record, I’d go and buy a ticket to see the band the next time they were in my town. I’m still very much a music fan. If I had nothing to do with The Answer, I would love this record. Me, personally – I’m not even talking about the band here. It’s the kind of music that really gets me going, so it’s not hard to get excited as a vocalist whenever you’re singing over the top of music that you’re truly passionate about.”
Mixing for Raise A Little Hell fell to Chris Sheldon. “If the album’s recorded properly, the mixer shouldn’t have to work that hard,” the wordsmith notes. “We did record a little bit drier than what we have done in the past. I think that has to do with the notion that we wanted something in the same way that Led Zeppelin didn’t over-produce a lot of their music; they just had a great riff and a great lyric, and great melodies, and a fantastic guitar player ripping it up in the solo sections. We didn’t really need to over-complicate things, and Chris knew that. He’s worked with us in the past, and he knows what the essence of The Answer is. Even though I think Will did a great job recording it at the music source, an album can rise or fall at the mixing process. Whenever Chris is mixing a record though, you know that your album’s in good hands there.”
Cover artwork duties for Raise A Little Hell fell to Sebastian Jerke, who designed one of The Answer’s most colourful artworks to date. “We wanted to try something a bit different around, because we feel that the record is a bit different to what we’ve done in the past,” Cormac discloses. “Again, it had to reflect the kind of good time vibes and the fun nature of the music. The artist Sebastian Jerke approached us with this notion of comic book character alter egos. We thought that sometimes you’re thinking a lot more than you should, but should give it a go and run. He developed the idea, and came back to us with the album artwork. We thought ‘That’s just about right’.”
New Horizon’s cover artwork had been designed by progressive rock artist Storm Thorgersen, who sadly passed away on April 18th, 2013 at the age of 69 following a battle with cancer. “We couldn’t have foreseen going down that same proggy, Pink Floyd, Biffy Clyro style without Storm at the helm, so we looked for something completely different this time around,” the performer offers. “It’s colourful, and it’s a celebration.”
Raise A Little Hell has been issued in a variety of formats. “You’ve got the jewelcase, and you’ve got the digipack CD,” Cormac lists. “You can get three different coloured vinyl versions of the record. The vinyl and the digipack have a load of bonus material on there, like three or four songs that were recorded around the same time as the rest of the record, which are in the same vein as the record and sound great. There’s a couple of acoustic versions of the album tracks, which are something we generally try to do. It was kind of put together when we got back from Spain, just in our own studio. Will actually travelled over and produced one of the songs on there, and then Paul engineered the rest of the stuff. We just kind of produced it ourselves. I feel that our bonus material gives you an even clearer, bigger picture of the kind of statement we wanna make with a particular record.”
A live disc accompanies the mediabook edition of the effort. “The live disc was recorded over the course of The Road Less Travelled Tour, this time last year,” the musician informs. “We recorded the whole tour; we recorded every gig on that tour, and sifted through it and just got the best recordings. There’s like 14 or 15 songs, so it’s like a full live gig put together over the different cities across the UK and Europe.”
Three full-lengths have been issued since The Answer recorded their first live DVD offering, so the argument for a second is becoming more and more plausible. “Maybe,” Cormac ponders. “Never say never. I think at the moment, we’re really happy with the live CD that we’ve got going out at the moment. That’ll hopefully satisfy our fans’ appetites well.”
Inaugural live DVD 412 Days Of Rock ’N’ Roll surfaced in June 2011. “That was immediately after the AC/DC tour,” the frontman remembers. “We obviously filmed a lot while we were there to try and document it all, so it seemed like it would be an awful waste of time and an awful lot of film if we didn’t piece it together and make a DVD out of it all. I think you can get a real sense of the good times that were had by all on that particular tour.”
Various visual media is in place to promote Raise A Little Hell. “There’s currently a lyric video for ‘Long Live The Renegades’ – the first track on there – but that’s just really like a promo piece. We’ve just filmed a full-on video for the first single on the record, which is ‘Red’, in a cold, deserted linen mill in the northern Irish countryside. The director’s just putting that together now, so there’s gonna be a video released for that song.
“We worked with the guys from The Cadillac Three for that song. The guys in that band are fully fledged Nashville songwriters with a real kind of rootsy feel and style to their music. I got into the band about six or seven months ago, went down to see them play in London, had a chat with Jaren (Johnston) the singer, and said ‘If you’ve got any songs lying around, get some over to us.’ On Monday morning, there was like 30 songs. Jaren was like ‘Take your pick, man,’ and ‘Red’ was one of those songs. It’s about a girl with very red lips (laughs). I think if you hear the song, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
“I think that particular song benefits from, again, a different perspective and a different way of looking at blues rock, but it just slots into our repertoire nicely. That one and ‘Cigarettes & Regret’ are the two songs that we worked with the guys from The Cadillac Three on. They’re Jaren’s lyrics on those two songs, actually, with a little bit of tweaking by me. Largely, those lyrics are born and bred in Nashville, Tennessee.”
Raise A Little Hell was released in the United Kingdom, Norway, France, Denmark and Italy on March 9th, 2015 via Napalm Records, the label handling distribution in all of Europe as well as North America. Swedish and Spanish release occurred on the 11th, with European release taking place in other territories five days earlier on the 6th. Raise A Little Hell underwent North American issue on the 17th.
Interview published in March 2015.
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