An Interview with Mike Scott
When I was ten or eleven, living in Helena, Montana, and beginning to develop an insatiable appetite for new music, I chanced on a two-page spread advertisement in Rolling Stone for a band called the Waterboys. The prominent image in the ad was a group photograph: ten guys arrayed on a craggy slab-stone veranda in front of what appeared to be an ivy-festooned mansion. They looked comfortable and happy in the photo. A bench seat, a chair, and a roadcase cover had been set out on this mossy patio and three of the men were sitting while the others stood behind, smiling. The men in front were holding an accordion and a couple mandolins. And while the tone of the photograph was egalitarian (a few of the guys in the back row did not look like rock types, by my estimation), the focus was undeniably centered on one man, seated, in the center. Holding one of the mandolins (was he absently strumming?), he was giving the camera a rakish smirk, his eyes peering out from beneath of shock of brown hair and the brim of a floppy leather hat. The photograph seemed to clearly define the rules of the band and the album: there was some folk music happening here, sure, but it was rock-ish (the stringy long brown hair of the gents in the front certainly denoted that) and it was music put together by a community, an album that required so much cooperation from its principals that the album cover should necessarily be a group photo of all involved, regardless of their looks or attitude. I guess that spoke to me, because I immediately convinced my mom to drive me to Henry J’s, one of the two record stores in town, to buy the tape. It was called Fisherman’s Blues and I would eventually wear the tape out from obsessively repeated listens. I would spend years and years scouring record stores and, eventually, eBay for bootleg recordings of unused session tracks from the record. I would also go so far as to make a sort of pilgrimage, while on vacation in Ireland, to that selfsame patio in front of that selfsame ivy-strewn mansion, where half of the record was recorded. And lo and behold, many years later, I found myself faced with the opportunity to interview the man in the floppy hat himself, Mike Scott, the lead singer and songwriter of the mighty Waterboys. He was in London doing press and auditioning drummers for a tour in support of their excellent new record, Book of Lightning. I was desperately nervous; he was incredibly kind and welcoming. What follows is part of our conversation.
I. THE FATHER AS MYTHOLOGICAL CHARACTER
COLIN MELOY: Let’s start at the beginning. You’re Edinburgh-born. What did your parents do?
MIKE SCOTT: My mother was, and still is, an English lecturer at a college. So the house was always full of books and a respect for the written word. My father worked in a—how can I explain it? It was a shop that sold radiograms and radios and pianos. I don’t know what the modern equivalent would be.
CM: So you had music and literature all around you.
MS: I grew up listening to good stuff very early. I remember when All You Need Is Love was a new record and Magical Mystery Tour was new and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was new and “Hey Jude” was coming out in two weeks’ time. Those were wonderful times, seeing the Beatles doing “Hey Jude” on The David Frost Show—in the States it was The Smothers Brothers Show—with that great clip when the audience gets up and sings the chorus in the end? [He sings] “Na na na na.” I remember that marvelous moment of unity. I saw it on TV when I was nine. And to me, that’s what music can do. That’s the power of music. I guess I grew up in a time when everything was possible and music had significance.
CM: Do you feel like that shifted when the New York Dolls and punk started happening?
MS: Oh yeah. I think the moment of music’s power to influence had passed by the time they came along. I think the abdication of the Beatles from the musical godhead crown marks the change. I didn’t realize this as a young boy. I didn’t see it at the time. But the counterculture turned on itself. The drugs had an awful lot to do with it. Here’s another way of looking at it: everything is energy and energy vibrates. I think the music and spirit of that sixty-seven, sixty-eight time had a high vibration. But the vibration went down. There was still great music to be made. Here comes David Power and Roxy Music. Here’s punk. There were great things still to happen, but I feel the high summer of music’s power is over and I don’t think it’s ever coming back. There are few people who still seem to have that spirit. Neil Young is someone who still carries that.
CM: How old were you when you first discovered punk?
MS: Seventeen or eighteen. Sex Pistols! There was that famous moment when they swore on TV. You’ve probably seen the clip. I remember that happening. It was on the cover of all the newspapers. The country was outraged. It was a real good piece of fun.
CM: How did it fit in to your love of the Beatles? Did it make sense?
MS: I liked the music. I remember being in a record shop, hearing “Anarchy in the U.K.” for the first time. It sounded great. I wasn’t really thinking of the Beatles. It was great in and of itself. I liked that music was rebellious again.
CM: When did you start playing an instrument?
MS: I got my first guitar for my birthday when I was ten or eleven. I picked it up slowly, had my first band when I was fifteen, sixteen. I used to play in my first room every Saturday afternoon.
CM: Your parents didn’t mind?
MS: My parents had split up by then and I lived with my mom. She was very supportive. She used to roadie for us. We’d put the amps in the hatchback.
CM: When your parents split up, did they both still live in Edinburgh?
MS: Briefly. They split up in a funny way. It was my dad who left. I guess he did this as a mercy to me. He left bit by bit. It was a strange thing. He was around all the time until I was seven and eight. He’d be away for times, then come back, and then leave a little longer. One time he didn’t come back at all. I didn’t see him for twenty-eight years.
CM: Where’d he go?
MS: He married another woman. He went down to London, started another family, but we lost touch with him completely. So I had no idea what he was doing. In my mind he was this mythological character. I imagined him vagabonding in Africa or Asia, but, no, he was just outside of Birmingham, living a very quiet life. I eventually got fed up with my dad being this blank face in my imagination. I decided to find him. With the help of my wife, we went to the National Registry of Marriages. This was in ninetyeight. We got these big books off the shelves and could see all the marriages in the country. The two of us just went painfully through all the names. We found him on the voter’s roll. We tracked him down. It had an address. So one Saturday we went and knocked on his door.
CM: You just showed up? Did he have any idea about your music?
MS: No idea. I thought he’d seen me on TV, but no. This young boy answered the door, my half-brother, who didn’t know I existed—nice young chap, very formidable. He wasn’t letting us in, so we waited outside until my dad drove up. I saw his face and kinda knew it was him. When he turned around I could see the back of his head, and the way his hair curled was exactly the way I remembered it. It was a very strange experience.
II. UNICORNS, CANNIBALS, AND PALACES
CM: I read that you went onto your Wikipedia page and tried to correct that your music is influenced by Christianity. I think it’s an easy mistake to make. There are a lot of spiritual concepts that can be construed as being Christian.
MS: I don’t think the Christians have a monopoly on spiritual ideas. Christianity is one path, one way, and there are as many ways as there are feet to walk on. I believe that all the major world religions and methods of different cultures try to address the same truths.
CM: Do you feel your music was your way of getting to that?
MS:When I went to the Findhorn community in the ’90s I learned how to use my intuition. I learned that intuition was truth speaking through you, a way to get guidance to make decisions. It was a great tool, and I’ve been using it in my music and songwriting for years. So making music was a spiritual experience for me, not in an “Oh Hosanna” kind of way, but in an ordinary way. There’s no reason why ordinary things shouldn’t be spiritual.
CM: Do you think that sense developed over time?
MS: It was something I came upon after several years of making music. My early stuff was just me shooting in the dark and not being connected to anything. Sometime around the early ’80s—when I started making Waterboys music—I started becoming connected with a sort of inspiration source. There are certain degrees of that I’ve kept in touch with ever since, sometimes intensely and sometimes in a watered-down way.
CM: You’ve been described as a literary songwriter.
MS: You get the same thing.
CM: I get the same thing. Sometimes it feels good and sometimes it feels like a preposterous thing to wear. It seems elite or something. How do you respond to someone claiming that you’re a literary songwriter?
MS: I think about it for about two seconds and then I forget about it.
CM: So you trying to shake that term off?
MS: Without knowing it, probably. But I was very influenced by [Mark] Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. I don’t know if you’ve read that book, have you?
CM: Part of it.
MS: He’d take two pages to describe what went on in the workings of a newspaper, just two pages of this abundant, incredible description. I was very impressed with that, and when I wrote The Whole of the Moon I put that list of things in there: unicorns, cannibals, and palaces and all that. I was absolutely sure I’d read about Helprin putting this teeming abundance into his writing and I thought I could put that into song. That’s a great way to be influenced by books.
CM: Not pulling story ideas, but just taking an attitude or an approach and applying it to songwriting.
MS: I think taking stories from books is cool, as long as one does something original with them. I took “Red Army Blues” on A Pagan Place from two books. One was called The Forgotten Soldier. It’s an autobiographical novel about a soldier in the German Army, and the other was a diary of a Russian soldier. I put the stories together and made the song. I love that song.
III. RAGGLE TAGGLE
CM: So what kind of music did you feel you were playing? Did you still feel tied to the punk thing? Did you sense there was going to be a push toward folk?
MS: The music I made during punk was all rah, rah, rah.The other guys in the band, none of them had been in the punk wars. So we had an ideological gulf there. To me, punk had a marvelous, almost fascist mentality. Anything else was old-wave and the four other guys in the band were old-wavers.There was this tension.
CM: But over the next couple of years you started digging in to folk and country motifs. Did you anticipate that?
MS: No. I remember watching Glen Campbell on TV. He did this song,“I’m So Lonely I Could Cry.” I never liked country music, I always thought it was soft and sort of middle-of-the-road music, but there was something about this song, I don’t know if it was Glen’s version or the way he sang the song, but I was certainly sympathetic to Glen, and the song just hooked me.That alone turned me around regarding country music.
CM: A Pagan Place has “The Big Music” on it. The song title was picked by the media to apply to a genre. When I was a kid, hearing the term “the big music” in reference to a kind of music really struck a chord with me in its simplicity. Where did that song form?
MS: I’m not singing about music. I’d seen a bigger picture. I’d perceived a bigger way of looking at the world than I was able to before. It’s a song of awakening. I’m using music as a metaphor. Of course the song is full of metaphors, but it got pounced on as a useful term to describe a kind of music. I never thought about it like that. It’s a personal or spiritual song.
CM: But I think it says that too. It’s abstract enough that it can describe the soul of the music. It’s a music that’s ecstatic—it needs to be played loudly. Hearing that song, it made a lot of sense to me. So you don’t feel like you were making “the big music”? You feel it was something that the media applied to you?
MS: No. I’d go into the studio and make my records in a primary, untrained way. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I followed my nose and the songs came out with this wide-screen, cinematic sound. There’s guitar here and there’s a guitar here and they’re playing off each other and they make this big landscape. There’s a lot of reverb—it’s as simple as that. I think on This Is the Sea— the third album—this approach to recording reached its climax. After that, I was satisfied and I wanted to do something completely different. I didn’t want to do studio creations. I wanted to find what happened when people played off each other, when people performed with each other. This is how I got into country music and folk and gospel and old-time styles of music.
CM: The band splintered off at the end of This Is the Sea. Did you know at the end of the tour that you would spend the next four years working on a record [1988’s Fisherman’s Blues]?
MS: No idea. Perhaps you’ll find this out: when an artist gets his first taste of success, everyone wants them to do things. I was under an immense amount of pressure. I also had a very powerful girlfriend for a while who was also putting a lot of influence on me. Going to Ireland was a wonderful way of cutting off all these voices. So I went to stay with Steve [Wickham] in Dublin for a couple of weeks. I had such a good time that I just stayed there. I looked around and realized: I’m safe here. I’m free. I can follow where the music wants to go with this funny country music that I’m playing on my guitar. I can see what wants to be created, in a pure way that honors the music.
CM: How old were you then?
CM: Were you writing a lot at this time?
MS: Writing everything, in the studio, yeah.
CM: Did you write with Anthony [Thistlethwaite, guitar and mandolin]?
MS: I was writing on my own. By this time I had a little flat in Dublin. I had a piano there. I could come up with a song and play it for the first time ever and write it as I went. Some of the songs on the record are done like that—no rehearsal. “Tenderfootin’”—it’s only played once, never played again. I love that.
CM: Was the folk influence starting pretty heavily?
MS: That came partly from Anthony’s mandolin. He suddenly came forth as this fully accomplished mandolin player. I knew he played a little bit but I didn’t know how good he was. When I heard what he and Steve could do with a mandolin and fiddle on either side of me it was fantastic! Suddenly, we had a complete sound.We had a new sound! Fisherman’s Blues itself was the first one like that. It was amazing.
CM: So “Fisherman’s Blues”—the song that ends up on the record—is the first take, is that right? One of the most interesting facets of that record is the fact that the first song from a recording process that spans four years is recorded within the first couple hours.
MS: We were just having fun. That was the point.I played a trick on Steve and Anthony that day. The lady at the recording studio was a good sport and I arranged with her to get all our gear into the studio, but I didn’t tell Steve and Anthony. I played this trick where we were supposedly going to play somewhere else and I told them I wanted to drop in at the studio to pick something up. While we were there I said, should we go on and have a look and see the actual studio? I’d never seen the place. When we went into the studio, all our gear was there.
CM: And then you just put the tapes away and just kept going? After that day, did you feel like you had the beginning of a record?
MS: Yes. We did. We had about twelve songs. We had to get used to the new sound. We had to do a lot of listening. This is how we sound? We sound like Johnny Cash. What’s going on?
CM: How did you feel about, at that point, your place in the British folk revival? Did you see yourself in line with the Fairport Convention?
MS: No. Never thought about it at all. If there was anything we did think about it was the Pogues; they were just breaking through at that time. We really liked their combination of instruments with the tin whistle and accordion. At that time we didn’t have those instruments, but we really liked the mix of a punky beat and these very authentic, old-sound instruments. The voice of those instruments was memory. I could hear the past of great cities into those instruments. Our version was fiddle and mandolin. I could hear it there as well. There was the sound of America too in those instruments.
CM: You were listening to a lot of gospel then.
MS: Gospel, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Cajun music. We’d go to the record stores and come out with arms full of vinyl and old EPs. Then we met this guy named Bob Johnston. He produced Blonde on Blonde, loads of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic albums, Johnny Cash. He was a big music producer in the sixties and seventies. He phoned me up after This Is the Sea. I remember he said, “You guys are the whiz!” We were very flattered that a guy who worked with Bob Dylan wanted to work with us. He came over to Dublin and did some recording with us. He was a real wild guy! He must have been fifty-five then.He was like a woodsman and he shouted at us all the time very enthusiastically. He would shout us up: “I’m gonna get that sound wiiiide open. You can do anything.” And he would. We would go into the studio and he would get the sound wide open and we would think we could do anything and then start doing it.
CM: And with the Room to Roam album you birthed another new term, with “Raggle Taggle.” How do you feel about that?
MS: I think it’s a really wonderful term. To me it means bands of friends who are not bothered about commercialism or playing the game. They just want to follow their hearts, follow their dreams, and follow magic. There was a band we loved at the time called We Free Kings. They were friends of mine from Scotland. They had what I considered the first Raggle Taggle band. Seven piece: guitar, fiddle, cello, accordion, tin whistle, drums, and a singer. They used to do Woody Guthrie songs and “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy.”To me, they were like a gang—they’d stay in tents when they toured. They were the ultimate Raggle Taggle band. We looked up to them. We went on tour with them and we thought, This is the way to do it. That was the story of the Waterboys in those years. We turned our backs on stardom. We went to the west of Ireland and went wild.