The Answer are big in Japan but can they become just as popular closer to home?
“Things are easy when you’re big in Japan,” sang the synth-pop act Alphaville in 1984. Some 23 years on it’s a sentiment not lost on the young hard-rock outfit The Answer, whose stirring Free and Led-Zeppelin-influenced album Rise shifted 14,000 copies there in its first week of release.
In Britain, Kerrang! had already dubbed them “the new kings of rock” but, in February 2007, when Rise reached No27 in the Japanese chart, a trip to the Orient beckoned. If The Answer’s debut album could chart in Japan without them playing there, what would happen when they actually showed up?
Two months later, I’ve joined the band in the futuristic, neon-lit surrounds of Shibuya, Tokyo to find out. Their first promotional engagement is a sold-out show at the AX Club that also happens to be the County Down quartet’s first performance in Asia. With an 11-strong camera-crew in attendance to film the concert for Japanese television, the group is understandably nervous. “I’ll be fine when I start hitting things,” laughs the drummer James Heatley as he paces a backstage dressing room.
Like Cormac Neeson (vocals), Paul Mahon (guitar), and Micky Waters (bass), Heatley is still nursing a saki-and-Sapporo-beer-induced hangover. Still, the astronaut-style vitamin-drink packs and hand-rolled sushi that the Japanese have provided are helping, as are the gifts of custom-built electric guitars and “welcome to Tokyo” bouquets. “They’ve thought of everything,” attests the red-haired, spectacularly side-burned singer Neeson, holding up a glow-in-the-dark set list. The Japanese show comes hot on the tail of a tour of Australia supporting Queens of the Stone Age, and Neeson and his cohorts are in buoyant mood.
Impressively, The AX club also boasts a state-of-the-art sound-desk and a stage-set that has been especially designed for the Irish visitors. “We asked for a backdrop and we got Star Trek!” beams James Cassidy, the UK head of Albert Productions, the independent label to which The Answer are signed.
Cassidy is clearly delighted to see such attention being lavished upon his band. “You have to remember that hard rock not being cool is a very British problem,” he says. “It’s just not like that over here.”
Events while exploring the chic Shibuya district with The Answer the previous evening had certainly borne this out. Various fashionable young fans had approached the no-frills, Seventies-style rockers; the boys wanted things signed, and the girls wanted photos with the band that they took it in turns to snap on dazzlingly hi-tech phones. “Three months ago we were unheard of here,” Cormac Neeson had remarked, obviously flattered by all the attention. “Funny old world, eh?”
“We did a licensing deal with the Japanese independent label WHD Entertainment late last November,” explains James Cassidy when quizzed further about The Answer’s success in Asia. “They were very passionate, but I don’t think either side anticipated things would move as fast as they did. As a label ourselves, we expected they’d need a few months to build the band’s profile and that the album would come out in March or April. They said, ‘No, 24 January – it’s all going to be fine.’
“I knew they’d serviced to print and radio but I was still pretty surprised when I got this e-mail saying Rise had exploded onto the Japanese market. I was like: ‘Exploded, you say? What does that mean exactly?’ They told me they hadn’t seen a new band impact like this since Bon Jovi, and that they were going to ship another 15,000 units immediately. At one point only Norah Jones and Bloc Party were higher in the international chart. You think it can’t be right and there’s something fishy going on, but no.”
In Britain, The Answer can count Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and the former Deep Purple singer David Coverdale among their fans. Joe Elliott, the frontman with the hugely successful pop-metal act Def Leppard, also rates them highly. When AOL interviewed Elliott recently about his own band’s forthcoming new album he cited “…this young Irish band called The Answer” as a possible influence. “They’re amazing – they could be the new Free,” he added.
Such “peer accolades”, as Cassidy calls them, have helped push the total sales of Rise close to 100,000 units – remarkable given that airplay for the band in Europe has been virtually non-existent. “It’s very frustrating,” says Cassidy. “With some Radio 1 support I firmly believe we’d be doing at least 300,000 albums worldwide.”
A fixture of the County Down live circuit as early as 2000, The Answer are not the overnight success that they might at first appear. Mahon and Waters worked with several other frontmen before recruiting the mighty-lunged Neeson, and it wasn’t until he returned from a working holiday in New York and Heatley finished studying at Belfast’s Queens University that the definitive line-up of The Answer arrived. “From there, we spent four years just plugging away,” says Neeson. “We sent demos to umpteen different record labels, journalists and DJs.” “Once a month we’d drive over to London from Belfast to play showcases at places like The Dublin Castle in Camden,” adds Waters, “then we’d pack up our gear and drive straight to Holyhead to get the ferry home. We did that trip 14 times.” Not for nothing did The Answer call their debut EP Keep Believin’, the group having secured a deal with Australian independent label Albert Productions in 2005.
Established in the 1960s and home to such hard-rock royalty as AC/DC, Albert Productions clearly has the financial clout and knowledge of the hard rock market to steer The Answer effectively. “We’re a top priority there and we know they’re going to bust their balls as much as we are,” says Neeson. “We’re going to build things up over three or four albums.”
The band were thrilled to be able to record parts of Rise at Olympic studios in Barnes, a complex that has played host to Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. Having lunch alongside Eric Clapton was certainly fun, they tell me, but sessions for Rise at Monnow Valley studios in Wales were to prove memorable for less pleasant reasons.
“Basically, we got a serious haunting!” says Waters. “James and I were sharing this room that had three female ghosts. You’d feel this pressure on your chest, or they’d slap your face and you’d hear them laughing.” Heatley adds: “It was terrifying! I couldn’t sleep except on the couch downstairs.” The Answer eventually emerged with an album that Classic Rock magazine called “The best British rock debut of the decade.”
On its release in Britain in June 2006, gloriously unreconstructed riff-fests such as “Under The Sky” and “Come Follow Me” won the band legions of new fans – and a Royal Albert Hall support slot with Paul Rodgers, formerly of Free. The ultimate stamp of approval, though, came when Philomena Lynott, mother of late Thin Lizzy legend Phil Lynott, allowed The Answer’s Micky Waters a go on the black, mirror-scratch-plated Fender bass that her son is pictured with on the cover of Lizzy’s seminal 1978 album, Live and Dangerous.
“It was incredible – too much, almost,” says The Answer’s bass guitarist. “Philomena had it locked in her basement and, because Phil wrote on it, you could feel all that history, all those songs. We played a gig to help raise funds for the bronze statue of Phil that went up in Dublin, and that was Philomena’s way of saying thanks. She’s a lovely woman. We call her the queen of Ireland.”
The Answer and Albert Productions also seem mindful of the fate of The Darkness, the last British hard-rock act to make it big. A poppier, much more flamboyantly packaged act than The Answer, Justin Hawkins’s band topped the UK album charts with Permission to Land, then nose-dived with the appalling follow-up. Hawkins subsequently went solo and had a failed stab at Eurovision Song Contest success earlier this year. Ouch.
Neeson says: “It was a shame to see it, because The Darkness guys were good to us whenever we played together. Our music is very different, though – we avoid the novelty aspect.” This, coupled with the fact that The Answer were smart enough to record far more material than they needed for Rise, means that they already have plenty of ammunition for that difficult second album. “There’s a monster ballad with strings already in the can,” says James Cassidy. “It’s going to blow people away.”
Back at Shibuya AX, The Answer are wrapping up a taut and muscular set. Two things have distinguished the concert from its British equivalent: the superior quality of the live sound, and the quiet, almost devotional reverence of the audience. “Arigatou!” roars the sweat soaked Neeson, thanking locals, but the slogan on the T-shirt of the Japanese fan nearest me suggests he needn’t have worried about things being lost in translation. “Everything louder than everything else!” it reads.
Courtesy of Belfast Telegraph