There’s a well-worn adage which states that great art can be born from pain. That’s certainly the case with Solas, the latest from the Answer. Coming off a 2015 tour, the band returned to Northern Ireland to face dire circumstances. The members faced dire emotional and financial circumstances that drove the collective to the precipice, wondering if there would ever be new Answer music again. Eventually, the collective returned to what it had done for the previous 15 years, making music. Determined to come back with a stronger effort than ever before the quartet set about making Solas. Taking its name from the Gaelic word for light, the LP shows a markedly improved and mature band examining both the light and the darkness that light has to offer.
Solas is released this Friday, October 28 and we’re happy to present the album in its entirety for streaming. We also caught up with guitarist Paul Mahon who discussed the album’s origins, the band’s tenacity and his own love of the late Irish blues-rock titan Rory Gallagher.
Solas was born from some difficult times: There were factors that challenged the band from an internal perspective and outside forces as well. What was the turning point, the moment when you thought it was possible to get back to making music?
I don’t think we ever gave up on making music completely though certainly for a brief period it perhaps looked like the Answer wouldn’t get back to making music for quite a while. It’s hard to pinpoint the precise moment it all came together. Cormac [Neeson, vocals] had gone through a very tough time; his son Dabhog was born three months premature and would endure four months in hospital fighting for his life before he was in a stable condition.
When things were settling a little Cormac was ready to make some music and we would meet a few times during the week and work on ideas. I don’t recall us putting a flag in the ground and saying this is The Answer album number six, though I’m sure at some point we did!
The early flow of ideas was created in a very free and easy atmosphere with little pressure or pretense of what we should be doing or what the music should sound like. It led to us pursuing new avenues and trying things we maybe wouldn’t have before. We would also use the studio environment as a creative tool; ProTools would allow us to break and bend an arrangement to our whim and as a consequence some arrangements became more complex than before. I remember listening back to the early versions of “Battle Cry” and “Thief of Light” late on a Friday night in November last year and thinking, “You know what? We might just have something exciting happening here!” And in that moment there seemed to be a collective conviction to move forward and make Solas.
The music that you’ve created for Solas is some of the best the bands done to date. “Thief of Light” is a personal favorite on the record. The emotions behind it are strong but I’m also intrigued by the way it takes its time in building.
Yes, it’s a real slow burner of a track. I think both the lyric and melody tap into the nostalgia we all feel about the past, almost lamenting and thinking about what we could have done better or differently and then realizing there was nothing we could or should change as things all happened exactly as they were meant to be! Musically there are a lot of contrasts in the arrangement, the atmospheric multi-tracked vocals to single voice, acoustic guitar with many different electric guitar parts weaving together until it all builds to a climax with the drums kicking in on the final chorus. We built the musical arrangement to mirror the emotional journey in the track.
From there, we move to “Being Begotten,” with that dirty, bluesy feel at the start. There’s still that sense of searching for something and the lyrics have this heavy quality to them and yet the music feels uplifting.
“Being Begotten” began its journey as a spacey jam improvised on the spot and most of what you hear on the record came to fruition during that first performance. We have played together for 16 years now so we have an uncanny knack of knowing where each musician will go in a moment of inspiration, when to lead and when to follow. Also, sometimes an instrument can inspire a musical phrase or a way of playing that is unique. I had just picked up a Fender Stratocaster and “Being Begotten” was the first thing that came out. It also allowed me to revisit my early blues influences of BB King, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Rory Gallagher, which I hope you can hear at the start.
Then “Left Me Standing” kicks in and it’s this anthem. By the time I got there, I couldn’t help but grab the volume knob and just crank the song.
The album needed something uplifting and up tempo at that point. There are a lot of emotionally heavy tracks up until then, the likes of “Beautiful World”, “Thief of Light: and “Being Begotten”, so it needed the type of release provided by “Left Me Standing”. It maybe has a more of a classic The Answer sound than the other tracks during the first half of the album. The sequence of the album was intended as a journey; it is eerie and edgy at the beginning, then takes you up and down like a roller coaster before a peaceful resolution with the end track, “Tunnel”.
At the front end of the record is the title tune, which is heavy and gives us a little bit of a sense of what’s coming. Was that always slated to be the first tune on the record?
I think as soon as we heard the completed version of Solas we knew it had to be the title of the album and the first track. It’s a great musical manifesto to prepare the listener for what is about to follow and I think you can still hear it’s The Answer but is fresh enough to hook the listener in and make them very intrigued for what’s to follow!
“In This Land” pays homage to Northern Ireland and even gives a nod to Rory Gallagher. It’s been said that he was a special performer for a number of reasons and someone that many Irish musicians looked up to. What was appealing to you about him?
Rory Gallagher represents integrity, stunning musicianship and the courage to push the boundaries of tradition. Rory came from the time of show bands in Ireland and so to play the blues he had to forge his own path. He managed to make it out of Ireland and become revered all around the world. This certainly showed us as young musicians that you could follow your own path and be successful. I started playing guitar around the time Rory sadly passed away in 1995 and I immediately became a disciple of sorts, consuming all his music and learning what I could from it.
“Beautiful World” has that line about not being able to remember how things used to be. When we’re traveling through dark times that can certainly be the case. Do you hope that this record can provide listeners with some comfort with these songs?
It would be fantastic if people could receive some comfort from the songs, the creation of it certainly gave us all some solace from the dark times. Our intention was to create something beautiful from the pain we were going through and I think music can have a healing quality and we certainly experienced that with Solas.
Have there been records or songs that you’ve found especially comforting not just as a fan of music but also as a human trying to get through life?
There have been many! As an awkward adolescent Nirvana’s Nevermind and Gish by the Smashing Pumpkins gave me a sense of belonging to something, a movement, a purpose worth fighting for. Before my father passed away during one of our last journeys together he had Want One by Rufus Wainwright playing in the car and I particularly remember the track “Go or Go Ahead”. It’s a track that juxtaposes peaceful moments and turbulence and I often listen to it in remembrance and to help through hard times. I find the whole album quite a cathartic listen for the same reasons and if I have had a particularly difficult Monday I enjoy Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde!
The new songs seem perfect for the live setting. Do you see this becoming a significant part of the live shows from here on out?
I think it will become a significant part of the live shows starting now and into the future. I think as the record is quite different in some ways it will mean the dynamic of the live show will change. It will still have the same energy and excitement from before but to pull off some of the tracks on Solas in a live venue will require us all to take on different roles than before. In the same way we embraced technology to make the record we will have to do this also on stage. Some tracks will be re-imagined slightly different to the album versions. For example, “In This Land” could be performed in a stripped down acoustic fashion, with Micky [Waters, bass] playing acoustic guitar and myself on mandolin as these are the main features of the track that make it a little different from what we have done before. On “Tunnel”, Cormac may play acoustic guitar as the interplay of two guitars is essential to the character of the song. This is a new approach for us that will make the live set unique to previous shows.
Is there anything in particular that you’d like listeners to take away from the record?
We would like them to listen from start to finish and come away with the feeling that you can go through a lot of darkness and negativity and come out the other side stronger and ready for anything life throws at you. I think it shows how a band can evolve and explore new territory without losing their identity. It also illustrates that rock n roll doesn’t have to be the same three chords and rehashed themes from 1955! I t can still be vital and fresh even in 2016.