INTERVIEW: With Mike Scott of The Waterboys, “What I love most is making the music, and being inside the music”

Mike Scott - The Waterboys

Continuing the blazing trail set by 2015’s acclaimed Modern Blues and 2017’s top ten-reaching double album Out Of All This Blue, on May 24th The Waterboys will release their new album Where The Action Is, via Cooking Vinyl. Its title inspired by the chorus of Robert Parker’s 1960s mod / northern soul classic “Let’s Go Baby”, Where The Action Is is a 10-song, genre-defying album, testament to the enduring talents of the band’s founder and frontman Mike Scott. One of the finest British songwriters of the past four decades. Mark Millar caught up with Mike Scott to talk about the new album and upcoming shows.

mike scott

Your latest album ‘Where the Action Is’ will be released this week. It was only in 2017 when you released the top ten double record, ‘Out Of All This Blue’ – was the new album a continuation of those sessions, or did you start fresh?

MS: It was more or less a continuation. Some of the songs were already begun like ‘London Mick,’ Ladbroke Grove Symphony,’ ‘Then She Made the Lasses-O’ and a version of ‘Where The Action Is.’ I had all those songs in progress at the time the last album came out.

One of the songs on this record, ‘Out Of All This Blue’ was also the title of your last album. Has there been a version of the song around for a while that maybe wasn’t quite finished to a standard you were happy with?

MS: There have been four or five versions of ‘Out Of All This Blue.’ There is a version on the bonus disc of the new album that was recorded during the sessions for the last album with a choir on it – that’s one of the variations that I tried. I was never happy with any of the recordings I made for it for the last record, and there was a problem with the lyrics as well. I had one line of lyric that I wasn’t happy with so I got that fixed at last just in time to do it for this album.

Did it take a while to come up with the lyric?

MS: It sure did – I battled with it for about three years. I did other things of course during those three years, but every now and again I would return to the song and fight with that lyric.

Did you go into the recording of ‘Where the Action Is’ with any preconceived ideas how it should sound, and what kind of songs you wanted to write about?

MS: No – I just continued my almost daily recording process, letting it go where it wanted to take me.

Is there a particular song on the new album that you thought “this is why I’m doing this”?

MS: I think when I did ‘In My Time On Earth,’ that crystallized everything. I had three or four songs before that may or may not have fit together as an album, but once I had ‘In My Time On Earth’ suddenly it began to look like an album. And then shortly after that, we did ‘Right Side of Heartbreak,’ and the game was afoot.

The Waterboys have always defied genres. The band participated in the Big Music movement, redefined yourselves as a folk band and produced mainstream rock, all the while never letting the group get pigeonholed, or make the same record twice. Was that always what you wanted to achieve?

MS: It always was yeah – I never wanted to be restricted to one type of sound or one kind of music. I’m a child of the 60s, and I grew up admiring artists who would change. And in those very magical years, artists used to change quite dramatically from album to album. All the music whether you were The Beatles or Bob Dylan or Cilla Black – everybody was evolving fast, and I took that as normal. 

Is that the reason why you constantly change The Waterboys line up – to get a fresh new sound each time?

MS: It’s partly that, but it’s also the search for versatile musicians, who can do any kind of music that I might want to play. And gradually, over the years I’ve been finding them, and I have a reasonably settled line up now. Steve Wickham has been with me for a very long time, of course, you know, but Ralph, our drummer, has been with me for eight years now, and the reason that I’ve worked with him for so long, is he can play all of the different kinds of music. If I want to play Country music, he switches into that, if I want to make his first love, which is Jazz, he can do that, if we’re going to play funk and soul, he can do that. The balls-out rock’n’roll you hear on ‘Where the Action Is’ itself – he is just storming through that one. So to have a fantastic drummer who can play every kind of music – if I get a guy like that, I will try to hold on to him.

You have quite rightly been described as one of the finest British songwriters of the past four decades – has your songwriting process changed much over the years?

MS: I use a computer now, instead of sheets of paper – that’s the main change I think. As always, I’ll start with a line of lyric, or title, and then explore from there. And then once I get the first bit of music, whether it’s on the guitar or piano, I’ll use that bit of music to sing new exploratory lyrics on top them, and that gives me the next verse, and so on – I have always worked like that.

So you don’t use the witches spell book anymore?

MS: I’ve still got the original old books of shadows – in fact, I’ve got four of them. I’ve got two from 1985 and two from 1991, but I don’t use paper anymore. All my lyrics get written on my computer. I find it easier like that – the only bit that might get written on paper is the rhyming schemes. So if I’m writing a song like ‘London Mick,’ for example, I’ll have a sheet of paper, and at the top of the sheet of paper I’ll have ‘Mick’ in big block capitals, and then underneath I’ll have all that rhymes with ‘Mick’ like sick, stick, conflict, predict. And I’ll go through those rhymes and try and make verses out of them. I did the same thing thirty-five years ago – I used to write out all possible rhymes, and I also use rhyming dictionaries.

mike scott

You are a very prolific songwriter – how often do you write?

MS: I’m in my studio almost every day, and I’ll be mixing or writing something, and I’ve always got some songs in progress. I’m working on one at the moment called, ‘Kiss a Frog,’ and the chorus is, “You’ve got to kiss a frog or two before you find your prince.” And I’ve just recorded an organ instrumental – it’s called ‘Sticky Fingers,’ and that’s probably for the next album, which will be a mash-up album. It won’t be a regular Waterboys album. I won’t put it out as The Waterboys – it might be The Water People or something like that – and that will be all kinds of weird and wonderful things.

Your songs have been covered and recorded by artists including Prince, Rod StewartTom JonesSteve Earle, and Ellie Goulding. How does it feel when artists of that calibre perform your songs?

MS: Of course, I love it. I love to hear what they do with the songs, and it’s brilliant getting the royalties too. Prince didn’t release his, but the other people did, and it’s great to earn some money off the songs besides from Waterboys versions.

Do you have a favourite version that someone else has covered?

MS: I’ve got several favourites – there is a really excellent gay disco version of ‘The Whole of the Moon.’ A producer did it under the name of Boys of the New Age. It’s very, very good and hilarious as well. And there are lots of good versions of ‘Fisherman’s Blues.’

When writing your autobiography, ‘Adventures Of A Waterboy,’ did you discipline yourself for the writing of the book, as you would for recording an album?

MS: No, I didn’t. It was quite different – I would get up at five in the morning, and work for many hours, right up until midday every day. It was really disciplined work, which I wouldn’t do when writing songs – that’s more when the mood takes me.

Did you get the same enjoyment from writing the book as you would when writing songs?

MS: Yes, I did – it’s a different kind of pleasure, but I enjoyed it very much.

You are playing the Ulster Hall in Belfast soon – you have played Belfast many times over the years. Do you have any stories about playing in Belfast?

MS: Well, I’ve always loved playing around the island of Ireland, and Belfast is a particular favourite. The Belfast audience, of course, is famously passionate, and I always enjoy playing there. We did a great gig in Bangor last summer, and I had the idea of making a joke of walking on stage as if I was too old to play the gig. And I walked on, and I pretended I had a terrible limp and Steve Wickham helped me to the microphone. And then a roadie came on and put the guitar on me as if I couldn’t put it on myself. I wanted everybody to be really worried about me and feel sorry for me. Then, the first song kicks in, which was ‘Medicine Bow,’ and suddenly I’m dancing on one foot with my leg in the air. It was an excellent joke. I might do it in Belfast next week.

If you could change anything about the music industry, what would it be?

MS: I would change radio – I would make radio free of advertisers, and I’d make it free of playlists, and I’d make it more dedicated to playing music because of the quality, and not for background music, but for people’s excitement. That’s what I would change.

What do you enjoy most about being a musician? What do you hate most?

MS: What I love most is making the music, and being inside the music. And what I like least are the early mornings sometimes on tour. I once interviewed the American punk rocker Richard Hell for my fanzine, over forty years ago, and he said to me, (Mike puts on an American accent) “I got into rock’n’roll, so I’d never have to hear an alarm clock again and look at me now.” And he had to get up at something like seven in the morning to catch his plane.

Has there been one particular moment in your musical career that you’re most proud of?

MS: Not really, no – I’ve had lots of great moments, good memories, and lots of excitement, with more to come I think.

Of all the records in your collection, who do you have the most albums by?

MS: Oh, it’s got to be The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan – one of those three.

Do you have a particular record that you always return to?

MS: Yeah, I’ve got the old favourite records I’ve been listening to since the early seventies, like the ‘Imagine’ album by John Lennon – I love that one. Over the years I’ve got to appreciate the musicians more. Lennon’s songwriting I could take or leave actually. When I was a kid, of course, I loved his voice and still do, but I would have a few arguments with the lyrics of ‘Imagine’ itself, because he was a millionaire living in a mansion when he sang, “Imagine no possessions.” And I thought his lyrics about Paul McCartney on ‘How do You Sleep’ were very puerile and childish – he should go and suck his cock after writing something like that, the silly boy. But the music, oh my God, he’s got Jim Keltner on drums, he’s got Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, and Klaus Voorman on bass – the playing on that album is absolutely gorgeous.

 

the waterboys

Where The Action Is tracklist:

1. Where The Action Is
2. London Mick
3. Out Of All This Blue
4. Right Side Of Heartbreak (Wrong Side Of Love)
5. In My Time On Earth
6. Ladbroke Grove Symphony
7. Take Me There I Will Follow You
8. And There’s Love
9. Then She Made The Lasses-O
10. Piper At The Gates Of Dawn

The Waterboys tour the UK in May and throughout the summer:

Aug 8 – Cropredy Festival, Oxford, UK
Sept 5 – Skye Live Festival, Isle of Skye, UK
Sept 6 – Aberdeen Music Hall, Aberdeen, UK
Sept 7 – Glasgow Barrowland, Glasgow, UK

 

 

 

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