Sit Down Series: Cormac Neeson [The Answer]

Cormac Neeson fronts The Answer, a brilliant Northern Irish hard rock band. Their recent performance at The Knitting Factory in Brooklyn was magical. It’s no secret that there is a classic rock influence for the band’s sound and performance, but I also observe shades of bands such as Soundgarden and Iron Maiden. And it’s quite accurate to say because Cormac has such a powerful voice and knows the ins and outs of what it takes to be a frontman. Prior to the band’s performance that night, we sat down and shed light on topics such as being the opening band versus headlining a show, Eddie Trunk, The Answer’s latest album, what it takes to play a live show the right way, punk rock and more.

How do you feel about being in Brooklyn? It’s a great area for live music to thrive.

Yeah, it’s always great to get back to New York. It’s one of the greatest cities in the world, it really is. We’ve been coming here for many years now. I hightailed it to New York City and then on down to New Jersey, worked at a pizza place for a few months. It goes right back to the early days of the band. I’ve got many happy memories of this city. It’s the go-to place for any band, you gotta be able to cut the mustard in New York or there’s no point doing it. Just like London, LA, Tokyo, all these major cities. You’ve gotta bring your A-game and put on a good show up there. That’s what we intend to do tonight.

With some bands in particular, New York City developed the early movement of punk rock. Though The Answer has a lot of classic rock influences, where do you stand on punk?

I’m very open-minded when it comes to my musical tastes. And punk’s right up there as one of many different forms of music that I listen to. There’s the punk attitude where any band will tell you it doesn’t matter what kind of music you play, but you gotta bring that attitude with you on the stage. Some nights more than others, but whenever you’re up against something like a shitty sound or if the crowd is taking their time to warm to you, you gotta bring that kind of attitude, that resilience. I would say that if you listen across our records, you can tune into a punk influence here in there.

What inspired you to develop such a classic rock influence in your sound? Were you looking to bring that sound back with your own spin on it?

It’s never been particularly thought out. There’s nothing contrived to what we do, it’s just four guys talking in a room about what bands they’re into and they start jamming. The music you make is the music you make. All four of us are very different individuals and we listen to a lot of different music, but the sound we have is where we meet in the middle. For sure it’s influenced by that seventies hard rock, bands like Led Zeppelin and Free and AC/DC. But I think we bring enough to the table to make it our own, I think that’s important. If you’re playing hard rock, you gotta consciously attempt to put yourself out there and make sure there is a relevance to your sound. Make sure you’re not just paying tribute to those fans. Appreciate their influences, but make the music your own.

How you take on the challenge of being the opening band for hard rock acts such as AC/DC?

It’s a very different challenge than playing at your own headline shows. If you’re playing for people who are there to see you, they know the songs and they’re there because they appreciate the band. If you’re a support band, you’ve just gotta take it as a given that no one knows who you are and no one cares who you are. You’ve gotta get in their face and bring that punk attitude to the performance that I was talking about earlier. If there was ever a situation where you had to bring it, it’s whenever you’re playing in front of someone else’s audience. We’re always confident when we get up in front of any audience because we know we’ve got good songs that we can play. Even on a bad night, I think our band manages to win over an audience. It’s all part of the challenge, you’ve gotta make them care.

So say something happens like there’s a low attendance or you get stiffed on pay from the venue, I do you stay levelheaded and focused for the rest of the tour?

You just have to take it one gig at a time on tour. My attitude is that I wake up in the morning on the tour bus and it’s like “Alright, where are we?” “We’re here.” “Right, okay.” And that’s when I focus, take a walk and get a feel for the city, then I’ll start thinking about the gig that night. There’s just no point thinking too far ahead. In order to give every audience their money’s worth, you gotta treat that one gig like it’s the only gig you’re ever gonna play.

A notable gig the band had recently was speaking with Eddie Trunk on his radio show, how did that go for you?

Yeah, great talking to Eddie. He’s a big supporter of the band and it was great that he had us on the show. He gave us a full thirty minutes of airtime, played a couple songs. We chatted about anything from the band’s intentions in America to Thin Lizzy. He’s a music fan. He’s like myself, I think we even talked about this in the interview. I approach what we do and take a step back from it. I take a step back and look at it from the perspective of music fan. We talked about the importance of vinyl records into the importance of physical product and artwork. There’s not as many people doing it these days, but there’s an appreciation for it. He’s a good guy.

Where did influence come from for the album artwork on Raise a Little Hell?

It was just a notion our bass player had. Whenever we figured we were gonna call the record Raise a Little Hell, he had this idea of these monsters creeping out of somebody’s eardrum. And that was basically the only notion we really had, which we took to the artist. His name is Sebastian Jerke and he put together this comic book alter ego version of the band. We thought the guy’s smoking way too much, but we’ll let him run with it and see what happens. The end result is the album artwork.

What approach do you take to top the previous album?

You just gotta set yourself new challenges and make sure it’s always fresh. We very rarely work with the same producer twice. We’ll never record in the same studio. To a certain extent, we’ll make an agreement between the band that we’re gonna try and do something a little bit different this time around. You just feel your way for it as you go. You picture yourself six months down the line on the road playing an eight week tour. You wanna make sure you’re gonna be excited by the music that you’re playing. I think that’s the key, being excited and passionate about what you’re doing. That’s done us well.

How do you feel about playing new songs on these tour dates?

Fantastic. We’re about six months into the Raise a Little Hell tour, so we’ve been playing the new songs for a while now. This set is very new album heavy, but it doesn’t feel like it’s out of place within the gambit of the rest of the set. It all moves nicely and feels good. The audience is into it. I’ve found that the new songs stand up even more than the old ones. They’re all very strong, strong songs. We’re at a good place right now.

As it goes for your older songs, how much did you feel having Never Too Late in Guitar Hero Tour helped with getting the band exposure?

Yeah, it definitely helped. We had kids coming down to our gigs and telling us how hard that particular song was in Guitar Hero. I suppose it’s helped to carve out a hardcore fan base, which is the foundation of any band’s success.

With the return of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, what’s your stance on those kind of games? How do you feel about it being an outlet to introduce people to various songs and bands?

The music industry is so tough right now that if there are any outlets for a band’s music, it’s appreciated. If people are getting into bands through the gaming world, so be it. It’s all good. The more those games are out there, the better. It means more people will be discovering new bands.

What is it mean to you to receive praise from musicians that discovered you such as Joe Elliott and Jimmy Page?

It’s always nice whenever your heroes come out and say some nice stuff about you. Jimmy Page talking up the band is something I wouldn’t have believed in a million years. But we realized that the opinions of the rock ‘n roll elite maybe aren’t as important as the fans who buy our albums and come down to watch us play. But it definitely has done us no harm.

Which track off of Raise a Little Hell do you find your fans saying their favorite is?

Changes every night, man. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me on this tour and say Long Live The Renegades, our first song on there. But you’ll get a different song off the record every night, it really varies and it’s a matter of taste.

What’s the biggest thing you took out of your recent dates with Whitesnake?

It was just a very positive experience. We were playing three thousand, four thousand capacity theaters. It was a nice amount of people for us, not too big that you couldn’t make a connection with the audience. Got a lot of love. Right after the show, I’d jump straight off the stage and go and hang out and drink some beers with everyone. Got a lot of positive feedback. I think we made quite a lot of new fans, actually. It just has made me hungry for more in the states. I want to get back here soon as possible.

How did you adjust to a larger stage when you were opening for AC/DC?

You just treat it slightly differently. You’ve got a bit more space to use up. But the attitude is generally the same. We just get up and do yourself justice as a performer and as a musician and as a songwriter, hopefully turn a few heads.

What are your thoughts on tonight’s stage at the Knitting Factory?

Looks amazing, I like it. I like the look of it. Nice curve stage at the front, lot of space up there. Venue’s a nice size. Gonna be a good gig.

What are your favorite venues outside of here?

There’s a venue back home in Belfast called the Ulster Hall. It was one of the first big gigs we ever played. It was a dream venue as a Northern Irish kid, so that’s right up there. We’ve done so many. We did the Stade de France with AC/DC and that was amazing. A big, brand new football stadium. That was a good one.

When you get done with shows, what’s your order at the bar?

In America, probably an IPA and a scotch whiskey. Back home, it’d be a Guinness and a scotch whiskey. (laughs)

So before we wrap up, what you have to say to the modern rock bands out there who may be too focused on charting with record sales and having a radio sound? What do you have to say about them being true to themselves?

You just gotta be careful with that. There’s no harm in trying to get a song on the radio because it’ll sell more tickets and it’ll help your career, but you can’t let it get in the way of the artistic side of it and doing yourself justice. The most important thing in the music world right now is that you’re real and people are gonna go to your gig and believe you. People will believe you if you’re coming at it from the heart and with a genuine passion for what you do. You gotta let your own musical tastes take you where they’re gonna take you and not be dictated by record labels or management or radio pluggers.

In closing, how do you describe your live show in three words?

In your face.

And how would you describe Raise a Little Hell in three words?

Hard electric blues.

Sounds very good. I wish you the very best for future dates and getting the album out there. I’d love to thank you for your time.

Thanks, man.

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