ENDLESS AMBITION: Mike Scott & the Waterboys

A striking new album from the songwriter pulls music out of the ether.

BY LEE ZIMMERMAN

“I’m one part psychedelic gypsy and three parts blue-eyed refugee,” Mike Scott sings on his new album, and indeed that description gives some small insight into his musical persona. Yet it doesn’t tell all. Not by a long shot.

The fact is, Scott has never lacked for ambition. As both the erstwhile leader of the Waterboys and a journeyman all on his own, he’s specialised in sweeping widescreen epochs that draw on his Scottish origins by recalling the grace and grandeur of his homeland’s rugged windswept environs. The band’s archetypical classics This Is the Sea and Fisherman’s Blues set the standard, but in the 30 years since, Scott has never stopped challenging himself or those who await every note with breathless anticipation.

Nevertheless, Scott remains something of an anomaly, a perennial troubadour ever in search of his musical roots. Evocative, inspired and imbued with spiritual essence, Scott strives to connect the music of his Scottish forebears with the appeal necessary to lure a contemporary audience.

Scott’s latest effort under the Waterboys moniker is entitled Out of All This Blue, a sprawling two record set (Three in the deluxe version) that finds him paying homage to certain cities visited on his last American tour — New York, Nashville and Santa Fe in particular — while also experimenting with new rhythms that drive his music into new and more experimental realms. It’s a remarkable ambitious effort, created mostly by Scott himself with studio assists from veteran bassist David Hood, ongoing compatriot, fiddler Steve Wickham, Brother Paul on keys and Zach Ernst on lead guitar. Stunning in its scope, it’s easily Scott’s most diverse set yet.

Blurt recently had the opportunity to speak to Scott from New York where we found him in the midst of a series of press interviews for the new album. He graciously gave of his time in sharing insights into the new album and his career overall.

BLURT: So how are you doing Mike?

SCOTT: I’m fine. I just arrived here in New York last night.

 

Apparently you love New York, at least according to that song on your new album, “New York, I Love You.”.

I’m a downtown dude, but I’m here in Midtown so I feel like I’m in a foreign country.

 

Your latest album is wonderful as always. So what went into the writing of these songs? How long have they been gestating, so to speak?

They were written in a period from April 2015 to the end of 2016. It was recorded quickly in between concert tours and festivals. I worked with some hip-hop and funk beats which I manipulated to get just the way I wanted them. I was working on my own mostly, but I did bring members of the band in for individual sessions. Much of the work was done solitary at my home studio. To me, it sounds like a departure, leading into a more funk or pop region, which is somewhere in the background of the Waterboys’ music. It’s kind of like “Heatwave” by Martha and the Vandelas. I never realized how big an influence on me that it was. And now it’s all come to the fore on this record.

 

So how did this all come about? What have you been listening to specifically that might have had an impact on you?

I never listen to rock music at all. What I listen to is jazz and soul music. A lot of music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s… Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Booker T and the MGs, Marvin Gaye, Motown singles, King Curtis. That’s my speed, man. So now I’m trying to make music like that for the first time. I’m actually channelling those influences.

 

At one point, you opted to go solo and you branded your albums with your name only. Yet, the band is still centered around you, and so at this point, how much of the Waterboys is about you, and how much is about the band?

It’s a blur. It is me and I’m the center of the operation. The last album, Modern Blues, was a band album, and so we do come together and record as a band. But this album, it’s mostly me. And yet, the other musicians are a big part of it. Steve Wickham was my great musical advisor on this record. He was one of the go to guys that would be give me feedback when I needed it, when I wanted to test an arrangement or direction. Steve only plays on half the album with his fiddle, but his musical ear was involved on the whole record. I also used several Americans on this record and they had a huge influence on my writing because I felt as if I was writing the songs for them to play. A lot of American people are Anglophiles who think life is greener on the other side of the Atlantic, but it’s the other way around for me and other people from Britain. We think American music is the “It.” We are so enamoured of places like New Orleans, Austin, San Francisco, Chicago, Nashville – the cradle of all these great kinds of American music. So having these American guys in the band was a great thrill, especially David Hood. David Hood was part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He played with James Brown. He played on “Loves Me like a Rock” with Paul Simon. He played with the Staple Singers and now he’s in my band! So that was a big inspiration for me, to think I’m writing songs for those guys to play. There was big influences from the band members even if they didn’t play on the whole thing.

 

American music has always seemed to be a big lure for musicians from other parts of the world. But English music is a fascination for us over here, and one of the things that has always been so fascinating about the Waterboys are those Celtic sounds that were so integral to the early music.

They’re still there, but they are very much in the background at the moment. They’re like a band member who is back in the shadows and comes forward to do a solo. The next record which I’ve already started on goes much further into the world of beats and hip hop production values. But I’ve also used some Celtic material on the next record and matched it with the hip hop sounds.

 

This new album shows your obvious infatuation with the States based on the titles alone. For example, “New York, I Love You,” “Santa Fe,” Nashville, Tennessee”… Was this album intended to be a love letter to America?

Not consciously, no. Those three songs were the first songs written for the record. They all came after a big American tour when my head was filled with the sights and sounds of the U.S.A. Nashville was written on a flight from Atlanta to Nashville, when we played at Third and Lindsey last year. We did the song as our encore. I taught it to the band during our soundcheck. I whipped it up on the plane coming over, wrote it down on a piece of paper and when we did it as an encore, the audience cheered in all the right places. And of course, when I mentioned Nashville Tennessee, they all went crazy. That version is on the bonus disc of the album. You can hear the audience participation.

 

It sounds like some of the songs came rather quickly and some had been around since the last album.

They began in the summer of 2015 and they all came rather quickly. I do have several years of backed up songs, but that wasn’t the case here. These are all new recordings.

 

Were there songs that weren’t used this time around? Songs that didn’t make the cut?

Yes, there were three or four that were good enough for the record, but I didn’t get it down to the right version. Those will be on the next record, including the title track, “Out of All This Blue.”

 

Was the fact that you had a wealth of quality material that inspired you to make this a double album? Was there any initial thought as to making it a single album?

I had the conviction to make it a double album. I wanted to take the band into the studio for two weeks and do a double. It was time. So I kept writing, and fortunately for me, the songs kept coming, and they came fast. And then something happened in my mind to change the plan. When we finished our tour at the end of 2015, I realized that we hadn’t made any money. We had only broken even. So I didn’t have a budget to go into the studio, which had been my plan. I didn’t want to wait, although I could have waited through another summer festival season and made money that way. But it would have been too hard to wait and I wanted to go into the studio straight away. So I started working at home with beats and loops. Fortunately, our drummer, who is one of the top drummers in the U.K. — we’re very lucky to have him — made one of these drum collections like drummers do. I asked for a copy, and he said fine. But unfortunately, due to technology, you can only get it through the drum loop website. So he sent me to this place called producerloops.com and it had thousands of super cool hip-hop beats. I spent a lot of time going through them, and the ones I got were the dirtiest, funkiest things that I could find. So it gave me many, many grooves for this album. I loved the loops so much I just kept using them. As I said, I didn’t have a budget for this album so it worked out really well.

It appears that throughout your career, you’ve never lost your inspiration. You’ve gone from peak to peak. After some 35 years, you still seem to be as inspired as always. How are you able to sustain that enthusiasm?

I’ve been asked this question a lot and I don’t mind it at all. It’s a good question. The real answer is that I don’t know. I’m still hungry and I’m still turned on by music. I’m not sure why and I don’t know any other way to be. I don’t know why it is the way it is for me. If I could speculate, I would say that there have been a few times throughout my musical life where I could have compromised and done what people wanted me to do. But it would have gone contrary to my musical instincts and cost me big time in terms of my inspiration. It’s that inspiration that helps me to keep going. That’s not to say that I occasionally lose it. I’ve had a few years where I didn’t have any new songs. But when that happens, I don’t get hung up on it. I just wait for the muse to reappear again and it always does.

You had great success early on — with albums such as This Is the Sea and Dream Harder in particular. You sold a lot of records, had great success on the charts, and it was at a relatively early stage in your career. Did that set that a high bar that you felt compelled to exceed every time out after that?

No, I didn’t at all. I don’t think much about chart positions. Of course, I’m very happy when my songs are successful. When they’re hits, it’s a wonderful feeling. I want the maximum number of people to hear them. So I’m not just making records for myself in my cave. I’m making them with the audience in mind. But I still do what I do regardless of whether it falls into fashion and whether the critics and the public go out and buy the record. I’m still going to do it anyway. In ’85 to ’93 when the records went into the charts, it was great, but I think this record is better than any of those records, and maybe the last one was too. And maybe the one before that as well. But I think part of it was because I was a young artist, and I had an awareness of myself. Everybody likes writing about new artists who they can claim to have discovered or can take kudos for having discovered. It’s very difficult to get that attention when there’s not that newness any more. But I love making records regardless. And even the success that I had during that period was mainly in the U.K. and Europe. I didn’t really have a big American record. I still want that. That keeps me motivated because I feel that I still have something to prove. I think I’m as good a singer, writer, and artist as anyone of my generation. Some have done better than me, but I think I’m as good as them in a competitive way. So I think I still have something to prove.

What sort of feedback do you get back from fans? Do you have an opportunity to interact?

Yes, of course. I’m active on the internet, on social media. I’m on twitter, so people are always tweeting me about my music and Donald Trump.

 

Your Dear Mr. Yates album, based on the work of the poet of the same name, was very interesting. Out of curiosity, is there some other literary influence that might inspire a similar album in the future?

I don’t think so. I think it’s possible I might do a themed album along those lines, a specific topic album, but not a poet’s work again, no. Only Yates had that effect on me.

 

You just mentioned Trump and the tweets. Do you have an interest in politics or the state of the world to such an extent it might influence your direction?

Anything that I feel strongly about is up for songwriting, but so far, even though I have strong feelings about Trump and his fake government, I haven’t written anything about that. I did write two songs with some topical interest however. One is called “Eye Candy for the Ladies,” which is written from Donald’s point of view. (sings) “Oh man, I’m eye candy for the ladies, oh man I’m a beautiful thing.” It went on like that, but it wasn’t good enough. So I gave up on singing about Donald Trump. It just wasn’t any fun. Then I had another one called “Pink in America, White,” which was inspired by those idiots who gathered in the south with burning torches and all their ideas about white supremacy. It was good, but it didn’t quite meet my standards. So until  one does, I ain’t going to be writing about it.

As someone from the U.K. who has spent a lot of time in the States, how do you see what’s going on over here? Has your view of the U.S. changed at all?

I think there’s an identity crisis going on for America. America is a young country. It’s 241 years old and it’s relatively young. So I see America as a relatively young and gifted teenager, but one that’s going through an identity crisis. Isn’t America supposed to be a multicultural, give me your people yearning to be free kind of place, or is it actually a paranoid, right wing, white supremacist nation with those fanatics, the evangelical Christians? Which is it? America hasn’t decided yet?

 

It seemed like the country had decided until certain elements came into play.

Yes, but the bonkers, religious right wing has been growing since the ‘70s. I remember the moral majority and all that. It got stronger and stronger and became the Tea Party, and now there’s Trump. It’s been there a long time. It’s part of America’s DNA and they’re up for a revolution. That’s what I think. A transformation.

 

It’s a little scary.

Yes, very scary.

 

Getting back to the subject of music, let’s go back a bit. What were your early influences? Were you raised in a musical family? What were you listening to growing up?

My mum and dad had a record player. I can still see it now. It was one of those polished wood gramophones with a radio. It was actually called a radiogram. You’d open a little door and there was actually a sweet smelling little record deck inside and there was a panel where you could store your LPs. I remember we had Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles and Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. And they had 78s as well and I used to play those. Then I got turned on to the pop charts when I was about nine years old, and mum and dad would buy me a single every week.

 

Your parents nurtured your musical interest. That was nice.

Yes.

 

So at what point did you decide that this was what you wanted to do?

When I was 12 years old.

 

That’s early on!

Yes. My dad gave me a guitar for my tenth birthday and it leaned against the wall for about 18 months until a friend of mine showed me three chords – E, A and B7. So at first I could play “At the Hop,” “Ride a White Swan,” “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Long Tall Sally,” any of those old tracks. So that’s what I did in my bedroom.

 

You seem to have a very spiritual sensibility about you, and it’s always been present in your music, whether it’s at the surface or not. How does that spirituality inform you, musically, personally or otherwise?

(Pauses) Hmmm.

There’s just seems to be a sense of enlightenment about what you do.

Well, thank you.

It seems like you look to a higher plain. And that seems to have been an element in the Waterboys’ music since the beginning. There’s that upward glance. Is that something you can talk about? Where does it come from? Is it inspired by the music, or the other way around? Is it a desire to share some part of the universe?

It’s hard for me to get perspective on it because I don’t know anything else. I think you put it correctly when you said maybe it comes naturally and I don’t think about it. I don’t belong to any specific religion. I was never interested in Christianity when I was growing up. The form of Christianity that I knew in Scotland was very gray and very boring. Singing hymns and going to church never interested me at all. I think I learned more about life and living by reading the Narnia books than anything that I’ve read since. I wouldn’t say the Narnia books are a Christian allegory or anything, because I don’t think the author, C.S. Lewis, was bound by his Christianity. He transcended it. He managed to manage to articulate wisdom and spiritual truth that are common to all the world’s great religions. If I was to meet C.S. Lewis, I would disagree with him about Christianity, but I would agree with him about love. What I learned about his books was the power of love. There’s a line in one of my new songs called “If the Answer is Yeah,” and the guy in the song has to answer the question, “Do you own your own shadow?” I’ve learned that if I want to progress as a human being you’ve got to own your own shadow.  I have to look into my own darkest corners, see what’s there and own my own problems. Yes, that was me and when I do that, I can recognize my own light. So that’s a constant daily thing to work on, and now that I’m a dad for the first time at the age of 54 — my sons are age four and seven months — these are things that I will teach them as they grow up.

 

There’s a lot of spiritual profundity in what you just said. It’s very profound and that’s what I was referring to. You share a lot of insight through your music. There’s an awareness that’s always been a hallmark of your music since the beginning.

In my career, there have been times when that’s come right to the forefront of my music, and it’s very costly to do that. When I began my solo career in the mid ‘90s, I did so in a way that was very counterproductive. When George Michael went solo, after he had a lot of success with Wham, he had his greatest commercial success with “Careless Whisper,” which was recorded in an American studio with the great Jerry Wexler and the cream of America’s session musicians. It had a super cool saxophone riff. And it was so well produced and well promoted and that’s how he started his solo career. It was like a home run. I started my solo career making a one man, acoustic, spiritual album in a spiritual community and playing all the instruments myself. I couldn’t have done it in a more different way than George. And it cost me commercially. I don’t mind because it’s what I had to do at the time. So what I’m saying is, sometimes these things come right to the front of the music. These days. I don’t feel the need to write about those topics.  Still, they always sink into the lyrics a little bit. They’re always informing the lyrics. So I can see how you pick up on that.

 

There’s a certain mystique that accompanies your music, and that’s what creates great anticipation for every new album. It will always have that uplifting element to it.

Yeah.

 

So what’s the plan going forward from here?

I’m going to tour in the U.K. and Europe in six weeks’ time with a nine piece band! We have a couple of backup singers as well as the lead guitarist from the band Royal Southern Brotherhood. A really cool player. Then we’ll have a little bit of a break and then in the spring and after that we’re going to tour again in Britain. Then I hope to come back to the U.S.A. and Japan as well. And then I hope to finish the next record as well.

 

Above: Scott with his fiddler Steve Wickham. Below, a video clip of the duo performing in Austin during SXSW 2013 at BLURT’s annual day party.

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