- 18 Dec 17
Recently married frontman Mike Scott talked about his love of Ireland, discovering hip hop beats, meeting Lou Reed and David Bowie, and the joys of fatherhood. Olaf Tyaransen listened intently...
Surprisingly for a musician renowned for his mecurial quality, Mike Scott is unfashionably early for this interview. The instantly recognisable Waterboy-in-chief is already sitting at a corner table, deeply engrossed in a paperback copy of Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist, when Hot Press arrives into the Dunne & Crescenzi restaurant on Dublin’s South Frederick St at the appointed hour. He immediately puts the book away into a black leather satchel and rises to shake my hand. I ask if he’s a fan of his fellow countryman’s work.
“I do like Irvine’s stuff, yeah,” he answers in an accent that’s now only barely identifiable as Scottish, after decades of living away from his native Edinburgh. “I’ve met him a couple of times. He’s a good guy.”
It’s a little noisy where he’s chosen to sit, at least for recording purposes, so I suggest that we move into the adjoining dining room. Scott looks mildly reluctant, but gathers up his things anyway. Perhaps it’s modesty. When we enter, I immediately spot a framed copy of Culture magazine, featuring a younger version of him on the cover, hanging on the wall. “Well, I’m a bit of a regular here,” he explains, half-apologetically. “They look after me very well.”
He glances down at my feet as we sit at our new table. “Hey, looks like we’ve got a bit of competition in the footwear department, Olaf,” he laughs. I’m wearing silver snakeskin shoes, while he’s sporting a pair of blue pixie-boots. Sartorially, though, the 58-year-old definitely wins from the ankles up. Looking every inch the psychedelic cowboy, he’s wearing a large bejewelled Stetson, a silk polka-dot scarf, and a shiny black Tom Baker jacket that must easily have cost the equivalent of several million Spotify plays.
We actually had a mild falling-out over something stupid a couple of years back, but it seems best not to mention it today (I suspect he may not even remember). We order a double espresso for him and a glass of Merlot for me, and settle down to talk.
There’s a bit of chitchat before we properly get going. He tells me that he recently sold his apartment in New York and is now permanently based in Dublin (though he also still owns a house in the spiritual community of Findhorn, Scotland, which is occupied by his first wife). What first attracted him to living in Ireland?
“Well, you know I came here 31 years ago because Steve Wickham invited me,” he says. “And I enjoyed it, I felt at home. It felt creative, music was everywhere, it was easygoing. I liked the Irish imagination. And it was like a parallel universe. The Irish spoke English but there was a different consciousness. And I found it thrilling in a funny way. The Irish had their own newspapers, their own cigarettes.
“It was a parallel universe. I felt like I’d gone through the looking glass, and I loved it. And I don’t still have the same romantic notions of Ireland that I had perhaps when I came here first. Because I’ve seen all kinds of Irish life now, but I feel very at home here. I write well here, I like the people, I enjoy it. I love Dublin.”
The Waterboys always had a special relationship with Ireland. It wasn’t just that Scott, originally from Edinburgh, was a Celtic soul brother, though that played a part. When the band came here during the ‘80s, Mike took to the place like a duck to water. They released the iconic, folk-influenced Fisherman’s Blues (1988) and started to turn up to do sessions like they were going out of fashion. The band developed a unique mythic status, in part at least, ironically, by making themselves widely available. They played school halls. Did impromptu gigs. And then played an extraordinary series of shows in the Olympia Theatre that featured loads of special guests and achieved legendary status.
During those halcyon days, The Waterboys became a new kind of Irish institution. Fisherman’s Blues and Room To Roam (1990) in particular are widely considered Irish albums and for good reason: Irish musicians add gorgeous flavours to every musical dish – including Steve Wickham, Trevor Hutchinson, Vinnie Kilduff, Máirtín O’Connor, Alec Finn, Noel Bridgeman, Sharon Shannon, Seamus Begley.
Elsewhere, U2 have been long-term fans. Indeed, at their recent Croke Park show, the band arrived onto the stage to the strains of Waterboys’ classic ‘The Whole Of The Moon’. Was Scott in the audience?
“I wasn’t there, no,” he replies, shaking his head. “Everybody keeps telling me. As the tour crossed the world I get emails from people in whatever city, going ‘Have you heard they’re using your song?’ I didn’t know they were going to use it.”
Will he make a few quid out of that?
“Actually, maybe I will,” he says, brightening suddenly. “Most venues have to pay PRS… so the equivalent. So maybe.”
We’re meeting to discuss The Waterboys’ twelfth studio album, Out Of All This Blue. Featuring 23 new songs, covering genres ranging from pop, funk and soul to rock, country and French chanson, it’s their first ever double album in a near 35-year career.
He explains that a double album was the plan from very early on. “I did an American tour two years ago for the last record [2015’s Modern Blues] and I wrote a couple of songs on the tour which is very unusual for me. I don’t usually write on the road. ‘Nashville, Tennessee’ and another one called ‘Mudslide From Texas’, about our guitar player’s father, and I had this feeling that there could be more, just a pre-sentiment that there is a lot more songwriting happening very quickly. And I thought, ‘Okay, let’s make a double album, I’ve got a great band, and I’ll send us into a studio.’
“Two weeks, we’ll play it live in the studio, lay down all our songs,” he continues. “That was the plan, and I started writing for the double album, and the songs kept coming. I had more than enough. But there was a change of plan because I didn’t have any money after the tour.”
So it goes. While the Modern Blues Tour did well in Ireland and the UK, it didn’t sell quite so many tickets in other territories.
Photo // The Waterboys at the 3 Arena
© Abby Steward / hotpress.com
“Well, the tour was a great tour in 2015, we finished it in December, at Hammersmith Apollo, and I think we did great business in the UK, but we lost money in the States, lost money in Australia and Germany,” he says, shrugging. “And those losses were offset by what we made in the other places. We broke even so it was okay. I didn’t have to bankroll the band but there was nothing left to finance a recording. See, we made Modern Blues off the album before. We’d done a Fisherman’s Blues Revisited Tour in the UK and we had quite a lot money after that.
“We didn’t try to take that to America or further afield so there was no drag on the profits. So, this time I had no money to make the record and I hadn’t yet done the record deal [with BMG] and I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to start.”
With the post-tour coffers near empty, technology came to his rescue. Introduced to the Producerloops website by Waterboys drummer Ralph Salmins, Scott discovered a new – and far cheaper – way of recording an album.
“That website was an Aladdin’s cave, a marvellous grotto of thousands of collections of hip hop funk loops,” he recalls, eyes shining. “And you’d be listening to bits of them and then buy them. I was the kid in the toyshop. I bought loads of them and started to work, upgrading my demos using loops on my recording, and everything that was recorded from then on was done with loops. I made the record, almost all of it, at home in Dublin. I also did some bits and pieces in Tokyo, but most of it was done here.”
Produced by Scott himself, the album features the musical talents of fiddler extraordinaire Steve Wickham, Muscle Shoals bass legend David Hood, guitarist Zach Ernst, and Deep South keyboardist Brother Paul (percussionist Salmins had put himself out of a job).
“Yes, it was mostly in my little place on Lansdowne Road,” he says. “I don’t live there now because I got married last year, so we moved into a different place, but I keep it as a studio. So I did most of the recording on my own at home. Wickham came in to do his fiddle overdubs which we also did at the house in the flat. But other stuff like bass, keyboards, backing vocals were done in Cauldron Studios in Dublin, just off Dorset Street.
“Apart from two tracks – ‘Hammerhead Bar’ and ‘Nashville’ – everything is drum loops. Even when it doesn’t sound like them. I got very good at using them. I did a lot of work and I love putting in fills and manipulating the loops.”
Undoubtedly thanks to Producerloops, there’s a very definite hip-hop influence on some of the meatier songs.
“I love hip hop music,” he says. “I don’t like rappers so much. I can take or leave the rappers, but the music underneath, I dig. And I like the ‘do it yourself’ anarchic nature of it. It’s still a frontier. I don’t think rock music is a frontier anymore. I’m bored of rock music, but in hip hop there’s still people trying new things. I can still find things to do that I think haven’t been done before – certainly things I haven’t done before.”
He describes Out Of All This Blue as being comprised of “mostly love songs and a few stories.” A grotesque imagining – inspired by what onetime Waterboys saxman, Anto Thistlehwaite, told Scott about a visit to the basement drinking den in the mansion of The Who’s legendary bassist John Entwistle – ‘Hammerhead Bar’ falls into the latter category. It’s a thoroughly decadent song, but what’s the most hedonistic thing that Scott has done himself in his lengthy rock ‘n’ roll career?
He strokes his chin and takes a while to answer. “I have to go back 30 years to find anything,” he muses. “I suppose stuff like taking cocaine after gigs, which I never did very much, maybe seven or eight times. I never liked cocaine as a drug, it’s an angry drug, makes people turn into monsters. I never liked it. It uses up the user very fast. And I didn’t like the feeling it gave me. As a pot smoker, that was very much more my speed.”
Some of the love songs are obviously addressed to his new wife, controversial Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi, most notably ‘Girl In A Kayak’ (Igarashi famously designed a kayak modelled on her vulva). They got married in October of last year. How did they first meet?
“I read about her online,” recalls Scott. “I was in New York, I have no idea what website – maybe the the New York Times – but somewhere where there was coverage of her court case [for offending public decency in Japan]. Her sailing in the kayak, I saw pictures of her and I liked what she was doing. I thought she was courageous. I also thought she was beautiful and funny.
“I found her on Twitter and I sent her a message saying how much I liked what she did and she sent me a nice message back, and we started following each other, chatting. Then I asked would she have dinner with me next when I was in Tokyo and she said ‘Yes, okay.’ We had dinner and the chemistry was great. It’s all in [the song] ‘Didn’t We Walk On Water’.”
So it began as an online romance?
“No, no! We weren’t romantic online. She was very sensible. She said, ‘Yes, I’ll come to dinner with you but it’s too early to talk about romance, let’s just meet as friends’. And that spared us from this trap of having the online romance that isn’t grounded in physical meeting. I’ve had that one as well and it’s a very difficult thing to deal with when you meet the person, or even if you’ve met them and then you have the online romance and then you meet them again. Because the online part of it is very different from face to face.
Photo // Waterboys promo, November 1990
“And it can lead to a distortion, to misconceptions and mis-expectations and we didn’t have any of that and it was fantastic,” he continues. “We were in touch on Twitter, just as pals, and that helped the relationship develop in its own, very constructive way, but we didn’t have the extra overtone of a romance.
“And then we went and we met for dinner as pals and there was this great chemistry. And I was able to say at the end of the night, ‘Well, how about a romantic date next?’ And she said okay. And that was a really good, clear way of proceeding. I’m very grateful for her being smart enough, wiser than me! I would have got caught.”
Their infant son was born in February. Scott also has a daughter with his former partner, Irish singer and actress Camille O’Sullivan (he maintains that relations are still very good there). Has fatherhood changed him? “Yes!” he enthuses. “It’s fantastic. I love it. I became a first time father at 54. My daughter is 4, my son is 7 months old.”
Has it influenced his songwriting in any way?
“I think it has, Olaf,” he nods. “I love forever making up little songs for my daughter and now for my son. My creative engine is going, my songwriting engine is going all the time. Even if it’s only [starts singing] ‘You put your right foot in the right shoe, the left foot in the left…’, even if it’s a song like that, it’s the same principle, it’s the same machinery. And so, when I want to write a Waterboys song, a grown-up song, it feels like the engine is already on.”
Staying with fatherhood, as revealed in his 2012 autobiography Adventures Of A Waterboy, Scott only reconnected with his long-estranged father, Allan Scott, in the late ’90s. How’s that going?
He grimaces slightly. “I’m very sorry to tell you that he died six months ago.”
Oh, I’m sorry…
“He had been ill for a long time. But we had a lovely relationship. I stayed with him several times. He would always come to my gigs in Birmingham, which is the nearest place to where he lived. I am very friendly with his second family.”
When I interviewed Scott a decade ago in 2007, he told me that the psychological impact of his father leaving the family home when he was just 10 had really screwed him up…
He doesn’t like this suggestion. “Well, I’m not sure if I would use the phrase ‘screwed me up’, but it had a huge impact on me. Yes.”
Back to the album. The seven-minute-plus ‘New York, I Love You’, with its unfolding tale of tragedy, chance and weirdness, is an obvious ode to the late Lou Reed. Did Scott ever meet him?
“I met him only once, in 1992,” he recalls. “I was at a gig by Victoria Williams at Tramps in New York. She had been diagnosed with MS and a number of artists got together a charity album to raise funds for her hospital costs, and Lou’s wife, Sylvia, was very involved in making that record, she was a friend of Victoria’s. And she pulled me in to do a song and then, at Victoria’s gig, Lou turned up and Sylvia introduced us. It was as simple and as boring as that. It was very nice to meet Lou and I’m glad to say I thanked him for all the musical influence.”
How did he feel when Reed passed away?
“Well, I’m not one of these people that gets a whole load of feelings when people die, everyone has to go sometime. And I didn’t know Lou personally, I only met him once. But I made sure that we paid tribute to him on stage that night. We didn’t have a minute’s silence – we had a minute’s noise. It was in Atlanta. A stand-up gig in a big old theatre. And we had a minute’s noise and then played ‘Waiting For The Man.’”
Did he ever meet Bowie?
“Yes, yes, I did,” he says. “He was alright. I met him at an odd time, an odd time for me – and perhaps an odd time for him, too. When he was doing the Sound+Vision tour [in 1990]. He was at a party given in his honour by Bono, and I chatted with him for a few minutes. He was trying to tell me I should listen to The Pixies, and I wasn’t having any of that. After that I was telling him he should listen to De Dannan!”
And how about Prince?
“Never met Prince. Yes, I was a big fan, of course! From Purple Rain for many years. Big, huge fan of Prince. And he did my song ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ a couple of times in two different arrangements, one of which I’ve heard. But no, I never met the man.”
Speaking of covers, how did he feel about Ellie Goulding’s version of ‘How Long Will I Love You?’?’
“I’m glad she did it because it made me a lot of money,” he smiles. “I like that she changed it and made it her own. A good arrangement with the piano and the strings. The song was crying out for that kind of arrangement, but she either got the words wrong or changed the lyrics in three places and the places where a change don’t quite make sense. So, either she’s got a surreal sense of art or she got the lyrics wrong.”
Did that offend his sensibilities?
“No, I am not precious about it, really,” he shrugs. “When I do other people’s songs, I don’t pay so much attention to how exactly they wrote the lyrics. I change it. Sometimes I sing a song for many years and then I go back and listen to the original and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I changed that bit and that bit, etc.’”
The conversation meanders for a while: Scottish independence (“I would have voted for it if I had a vote”); Donald Trump (“He’s a conman, America has made a terrible mistake”); conspiracy theories (“I had a drummer once who believed the moon landings were fake – he got short shrift from me, I can tell you!”); love and romance (“I’ve always been courageous in love”).
He’ll be going out on the road soon enough. Now that he’s a father twice over, Waterboys tours aren’t as long and arduous as they used to be.
“Well, this year the tours are shorter. In 2015 the tours were longer and I was on tour on and off most of that year. I always made sure I got home for my daughter, but I didn’t want to repeat it because what would happen is – I would try never to be away more than ten days and it meant sometimes to achieve that, to come home on my day off.
“So we’d be in Germany and the band would all be having a nice, relaxing, non-travel day in Frankfurt or something and I’d be flying to Dublin and flying back. So towards the end of the tour I’d get very tired with the extra travel. Always worth it, though. But this time I said to our manager, ‘Can we have shorter tours, and longer breaks between them, so I can be home more?’ Not only for my daughter but because I’ve got two kids now.”
Speaking of which, he has to return home now and attend to some paternal duties. But just before he does, a question in homage to the album title: what makes Mike Scott blue?
“What makes me blue?” he repeats, scrunching his face. “I was going to say Trump, but that makes me red. Red, hot angry. Blue? Not managing to get my FaceTime with my daughter. If I miss my FaceTime because she’s out or I’m in a different town, and I miss the FaceTime because we can’t get wi-fi signals, that makes me blue. I don’t feel complete until I get my FaceTime.”
Out Of All This Blue is out now on BMG.