‘The buzz of playing Madison Square Garden was incredible’

Singer/songwriter Cormac Neeson chats to JOANNE SAVAGE about touring with fellow rock gods, the joys of fatherhood, pursuing solo projects and surviving lockdown in a recording studio in his back garden

Saturday, 31st July 2021, 8:00 am
ROCK STAR: Cormac Neeson is a singer/songwriter to watch

Watching Co Down star Cormac Neeson perform as frontman of The Answer, Northern Ireland’s second most famous rock formation after the Giant’s Causeway, rollicking rock’n’rollers who have supported the Rolling Stones, Whitesnake, AC/DC, Deep Purple and The Who, are beloved by Led Zep’s Jimmy Page and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, with a colossal following in Japan, you think of a young Robert Plant - the wild hair, the devil-may-care abandon, the writhing to the dirty guitar riffs, the charismatic delivery of lyrics about love, abandon and raising hell.

Given The Answer’s meteoric success since the release of debut album Rise in 2006, and a slew of bluesy, soulful hard rock, a big stadium, air-punching, fist-bumping sound to rival Aerosmith (who, incidentally they have also toured with), it’s perplexing that the fame the band deserve has somewhat eluded them, given their outsize talent and the steady stream of creativity that has been documented through subsequent albums Everyday Demons, Revival, New Horizon, Raise A Little Hell and Solas, and singles with addictive hooks, lyrics that stick and melodies that make one spontaneously want to do air guitar while standing on the sofa and swooshing your hair over your face like a demented head banger on pharmaceuticals.

They have more edge and attitude than Snow Patrol, Ash and their ilk, but there’s been a certain disconnect between the band and the fame their talent merits, which one can only hope will be rectified in time, because these guys deserve to join the stratosphere of big time fame, and if Jimmy Page thinks so, well, that’s something.

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Cormac started online 'Cocoon' concerts during lockdown and will perform with other artists at the EastSide Festival

”I suppose one of my proudest moments with The Answer was performing two nights at Madison Square Garden with AC/DC and then in that same week being on the David Letterman Show,” says Neeson, who has ticked off many boxes on his teenage rock and roll dreamer wish list. (Not many people get to play such a prestigious NYC venue or enter the hallowed studio of one of America’s most popular talk show hosts).

”Another was when my favourite singer of all time, Paul Rodgers, came up on stage during one of our gigs at in London, and we sang a number of Free songs together. We were recording the show for a bootleg and it was amazing because at the end he said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, The Answer, the best band since Free.’ That was awesome. Just what a major Free fan wants to hear.”

Now frontman Cormac is pursuing solo projects to boot, with the 2019 release of his more mellow, bluesy, Americana-esque album White Feather, which he worked on with songwriters in Nashville, and which is a significant departure from The Answer’s anthemic rock sound, being more introspective, reflective and gentler in timbre.

Here he has laid down lyrics that are very much “close to the bone” and describe the difficult odyssey he went on following the premature birth of his son Dabhog. One of the lodestar tunes on the album is Broken Wing, written specifically for Dabhog, “an incredible human being who just blows me away every day,” says Cormac.

Now a healthy and happy six-year-old who enjoys fiddle music. Tom Brady, and playing with his younger brother Conal (3), his early weeks and months were shrouded in darkness and uncertainty. He was born 27 weeks early and spent four months in ICU at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, seriously ill, with Cormac and his wife Louise keeping a vigil beside his incubator. Dabhog recovered but was then diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome, and the experience led Cormac to think deeply about parental love, the ways in which people who are born different can be so extraordinary, and subsequently became an ambassador for Mencap, raising substantial funds for the amazing work the charity does for people with learning disabilities, from which Dabhog has benefitted.

”When Dabhog was ill I wasn’t thinking about music at all, just living hour to hour, but when we got him home and he got stronger and I realised the clouds were lifting and we had come through this dark tunnel into the light again, there was such exhilaration in that, and it was a journey I wanted to write about it because it changed me. So I went to Nashville and I ended up writing these songs that were very personal to me. This is more organic, stripped and in line with Americana and country soul.”

Cormac, who set up a recording studio in his garden during lockdown, like many artists frustrated by how live music was curtailed by Covid, formed a weekly ‘in the round’ session called Cocoons with fellow musician Matt McGinn, and each Saturday they would have four or five musicians play on Facebook Live to an international community of fans.”We got our little black books out, and we contacted so many artists we knew who then would recommend other artists and it just became this online community and it was brilliant because I’d do a song from Belfast, then we’d go to Nashville and then Canada for two more performances, then back to here. We rocked up 63 online gigs since the start of lockdown. And it was lovely to see the relationships that people built up. You would see the chat between say somebody in Oregon saying to someone in Downpatrick, ‘Ach, Marie, how are you? What’s the weather like over there now?’ We brought a lot of musicians and music lovers together and we raised a lot of money for different charities.”

Rock bibles have widely lauded The Answer

Cormac Neeson formed The Answer in 2000 with guitarist Paul Mahon, whose father was a member of showband The Freshmen and toured with the Beach Boys, bassist Micky Waters and former Ash drummer James Heatley. The foursome began writing, rehearsing and gigging in earnest, and quickly garnered mainstream attention, with Classic Rock Magazine voting them the Best Band of 2005.

Their 2006 debut album Rise sold in excess of 30,000 copies in the UK and Europe, 10,000 on day one in Japan alone and 100,000 copies worldwide. They were voted Best British Newcomer at the Kerrang! awards that same year.

Def Leppard’s lead singer Joe Elliott is a fan of the band and during an interview with AOL cited them as a possible influence to the way their forthcoming album would sound. Former Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is also a fan and has attended several of the band’s gigs - going on record about this at the Classic Rock Magazine Roll of Honour Awards. Though currently on hiatus the band are still together.

Cocoon Live to perform at Eastside Arts Festival in aid of Mencap

Neeson grew up listening to Rory Gallagher, falling asleep in physics classes at school, loathing mathematics and mastering the piano and the trumpet from an early age (an instrument he admits is pretty uncool and was a pain in the proverbials to carry to class each day).

Though he claims he was never part of the ‘cool kids’ gang, he had his own tribe, and was aware of his single-minded need to follow his own path as a musical artist early.

“I remember the exhilaration of walking out the school gates on my last day and there was no looking back,” he laughs.

Today he is now only focused on his solo music but also does recording work for other artists from the studio he built in his back garden during lockdown.

“Young people come to me for advice about performance and vocals and what I always tell them is that when you get up there on stage to perform you are the bravest person in the room at that moment, with the most courage. I still get nerves, despite having played huge gigs, even if I am just sitting on my own singing into a phone and I think as an artist you need that tension between anxiety and being in control and relaxed. It’s a tightrope performers have to walk.”

But for all the success he has enjoyed in his professional life, being a father to his two songs is what makes him happiest. “They make me laugh, they make me cry, they make me scream and everything in between. But you know when you are together as a family and you strip away all the nonsense of day-to-day life, and everyone is laughing, that is the best thing and I think over lockdown a lot of people have had that realisation about the joy of spending time with those closest to them. Which is not to say that being a parent is easy, but the benefits are incredible.”

Having played scores of Cocoons ‘in the round’ gigs online during lockdown, Cormac is immensely excited about the outfit’s first real time live gig after such a lengthy absence from the stage.

“We’re playing at the Stormont Hotel, Belfast, as part of the EastSide Arts Festival. For Cocoons Live we will have Odhran Murphy from south Armagh, east-side born and bred Suzy Coyle, Brigid O’Neill from Strangford and Irish country music star Johnny Brady, as well as Matt McGinn and myself. Proceeds will go to Mencap which is obviously a charity very close to my heart.”

Cormac will be playing at festivals every weekend until the end of the summer and his new single Precious Cargo is set to be released in September.

Q&A: Joy is sitting on the edge of Slieve Donard drinking a double Lagavulin’

Tell us your earliest childhood memories?

I grew up in Newcastle. I remember my Da taking me and my three brothers to go up the mountain, because we lived at the foot of the Mournes. He would only ever take us as far as the TV mast at the foot of a very small mountain. We never made it to the peak of Slieve Donard, but we did eventually go further up, and man, the Mournes are so mind-blowingly beautiful. 

Then every summer I remember plunging into the cold rock pool and going for these 10am swimming lessons in the freezing water. I kind of hated it and loved it at the same time.
Who in your life makes you laugh the most?

My two boys, they make me laugh, scream and cry and a whole lot of things at the same time. Dabhog is six and Conal is three.
Your ideal way to spend a day?

Sitting in the fresh air drinking cold beers with good friends. Being out in open spaces and enjoying people’s company and a live band in the background. I’m basically just describing a music festival, aren’t I?

If you could have an ideal dinner party at which you could invite anyone, alive or dead, who would you bring?

Rory Gallagher because I’d love a whiskey with him and Nina Simone, an absolute genius, and I would have loved to have been lucky enough to see her play at Carnegie Hall. Then I’ll have to divide the readership by saying Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool FC manager.

What would you serve them to eat and drink?

I couldn’t get away with scrambled eggs, could I? I’m terrible in the kitchen. But if I was really trying then we’d have steaks, with home-cut chips, fried mushrooms, cold beer and smoky Scotch whisky.

Your favourite book?

Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens. It’s about a girl in the swamps of America deserted by her family from the age of six who raises herself. She forms a really close relationship with nature - it’s a joy.

Favourite film?

The Big Lebowski.

What music do you like to listen to?

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, an amazing American band, lovely, vibey, soulful, organic Americana. I love The Black Crows, Free, AC/DC, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters - I love a whole range of stuff.
Who is your best friend?

I’m lucky to have a lot of friends. Some from back home who I went to school with. I love going back to Newcastle to hang out with them and it always amazes me how with true friends, no matter what happens or how long elapses, you can just pick up right where you left off.

Love is...Sitting on the edge of Slieve Donard sipping a double shot of Lagavulin 16 Year Old Whisky.

The meaning of life is...Making sure you don’t run out of Lagavulin.

Cormac Neeson will perform as part of Cocoons Live at The Stormont Hotel, Belfast on August 12 as part of the EastSide Arts Festival. Tickets available from Ticketsource.