- 14 Dec 20
Happy 62nd Birthday, Mike Scott! To celebrate, we're revisiting one of Peter Murphy's classic interviews with The Waterboys – originally published in Hot Press in 2003.
Maverick genius or away with the fairies? Peter Murphy travels to North-East Scotland to meet Mike Scott at home in the spiritual Findhorn community where The Waterboys’ latest album was written and recorded. And Steve Wickham explains how he left and rejoined the band.
* * * * *
Call it what you want: the money shot, or the motherlode, or the moment of transubstantiation, but it occurs two thirds of the way through ‘Strange Boat’ during The Waterboys’ first set at Universal Hall on the grounds of the Findhorn Foundation in North-East Scotland. Having dispensed with the verses, Mike Scott swaps his acoustic guitar for an electric and makes that thing growl, striking sparks off all-star fiddler Steve Wickham, and the show is transformed from monochrome to full technicolour.
Not that the set had been short on hot moments before or after that point. Highlights included Van’s ‘Sweet Thing’, all lit up with magic-realist violin moves, and a possessed ‘The Pan Within’. Later on, in the looser and more informal second show, the honours went to the stoned sorrows of ‘When Ye Go Away’ with its sparkling fiddle-piano interpolation of a Charlie Lennon reel, and a poolroom boogie version of ‘In Search Of A Rose’.
Steve Wickham’s return to the Waterboys fold after a ten-year hiatus is a crucial development; with classically trained keyboardist Richard Naiff occupying the third point of a trinity once fulfilled by Anto Thistlethwaite, it means the band can again come within striking distance of those remarkable late 1980s tours.
On first impressions the most unpretentious virtuoso I’ve ever met, Wickham is a man who eats and breathes music in a way that reminds me of John Frusciante or Warren Ellis. Request a namecheck of some of his favourite improvisers backstage after the show and he’ll mention John McLaughlin’s Shakti and Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson. But as for verbalising on the intuitive thing between him and Scott, well, he finds that a little harder to articulate.
“I wouldn’t try to explain it,” he says. “It’s just a matter of resonating at the same frequency. I wish I could enlighten you more. I would say that it’s a scratchy oul’ fiddle, that’s all, and when Mike hears it, something stirs in him and he becomes more, I don’t know, rooted in something. I think he actually physically likes the sound of the violin. I hate the sound of the violin meself.”
“Well, I’m a frustrated electric guitar player!”
Okay, one question any long-term Waterboys fan must ask: how come Steve left the band back in 1990?
“The answer to that is not an easy one,” he admits, “but it’s not that complicated either. At that particular time I’d been with The Waterboys about five years, I’d just gone through a divorce and had got into my second marriage, quite a lot of turmoil in my life, and there were people being hired and fired around me in the band, and I just felt out of control of the situation. One day my friend beside me, who’s my best friend in the band, he’s not there, and the whole axis was changing. So that was enough. I just said bye-bye, I’m off.”
The friend Steve’s referring to is drummer Noel Bridgeman, who was given his notice when Scott and Thistlethwaite decided they wanted to take the band out of extended trad mode and back into rock ’n’ roll. But moreover, in the previous couple of years there had been a noticeable change in Wickham’s onstage demeanour. On joining the band in 1985 he was a flamboyant whirling dervish of a performer, Scott’s visual as well as musical foil. By 1989 he was rooted to the spot, an almost melancholic presence. Was he becoming more of a traditional musician than a rock ’n’ roller?
“I wouldn’t say so, Peter. I’d say to be honest with you it was more to do with the turmoil that was going on in my own personal life at home at the time.”
It took the wind out of his sails?
“Absolutely. Knocked it completely out of my sails.”
So when Wickham left The Waterboys, he virtually vanished off the radar, moving to the west of Ireland to play in a succession of traditional combos like The Texas Kellys, the Deirdre Cunningham Band, The Connacht Ramblers and Cadenza, making a life as a working musician. He also became a father and got involved in theatre productions, writing a couple of plays. There was even the occasional reunion with Mike and Anto, and after Scott decided to revive The Waterboys name for A Rock In The Weary Land in 2000 after a poorly received stint as a solo artist, he invited Steve to rejoin. Wickham accepted on the grounds that he not be on the road for longer than four weeks at a time. They spent the last couple of years touring the Too Close To Heaven album, gleaned from the vast reserves of legendary Windmill Lane recordings that never made it onto Fisherman’s Blues, and now comes Universal Hall, conceived in Findhorn and recorded in the basement of the venue from which it takes its title, a five sided theatre built by members of the Findhorn Community over a period between 1974 and 1984, its stained glass façade designed by American artist James Hubbell.
The seeds of the Findhorn Foundation were sown in 1962 by Eileen and Peter Caddy and Dorothy MacLean (all thanked on the sleeve of the new album) who came to northeast Scotland in 1957 to manage the Cluny Hotel in the nearby town of Forres, well known for its whiskey distillation and flower cultivation. They ran the hotel according to guidance Eileen Caddy received in her meditations, what she termed the “small, still voice within”. The hotel business was a success, but nevertheless their positions were terminated and the Caddys and their three children subsequently moved to a caravan in Findhorn with MacLean.
To supplement his benefits, Peter Caddy began growing vegetables in the caravan park following intuitions received by Dorothy MacLean, who claimed to be able to contact the “overlighting spirits of plants” or “devas”. In time they established a plant, herb and flower garden in the park, despite the barren soil. The family grew into a small community “committed to God’s will and to expanding the garden in harmony with nature”, and Eileen Caddy published a slim volume entitled God Spoke To Me in 1967 through the newly founded Findhorn Press.
The community grew larger, becoming a magnet for new age mystics and esoterics, who took up residence in caravans and cedarwood bungalows in the area. By the end of the 1960s they had built the Park Sanctuary meditation area and a community centre, and in the early ’70s an American spiritual teacher named David Spangler arrived and put in place a curriculum of spiritual education processes called the University Of Light, many of his writings being published by Findhorn Press.
In 1972 the Findhorn Foundation was formally registered as a Scottish charity, acquired more land and bought the Cluny Hill Hotel (now Cluny Hill College). By the late ’80s its members numbered workshop leaders, authors, artists, economists, scientists, IT specialists and ecologists devoted to spiritual, holistic and eco-friendly pursuits. The Foundation’s Ecovillage project commenced in the late ’80s, some 40 sustainable community buildings replacing the caravans. In 1997 the Foundation was recognised as an official United Nations Non-Governmental Organisation, participating in UN events such as Earth Summit and Habitat 2.
Mike Scott came to Findhorn via a sequence of events triggered when he quit drinking in the early ’90s, learned to meditate and moved from Ireland to New York. Although he’d heard of the Foundation several times, he didn’t give it much thought until his mother came to stay with him in a rented summer house in Woodstock and told him about a weekend workshop on healing she’d attended. Scott bought a video about the community in one of the small new-agey holistic shops in Bearsville, and upon watching it vowed to check the place out, reading numerous books about it over the next few months.
He arrived at the Findhorn Foundation for the first time in October 1992, returning two months later to take part in an Experience Week introductory programme. Over the next year he came back several more times, eventually staying for three months as a long term guest working in the community kitchens, playing in the various house bands and trying out new songs on his Friday night one man concerts at Universal Hall. In September of ’94 he recorded his first solo album Bring ’Em All In in the Hall’s basement studio with engineer Niko Bolas, and maintained links with the area even after moving back to London in 1995. Recently, he returned to live in the Findhorn area with his wife Janette Campbell Scott, who also has ties with the Foundation. Scott reckons there are close to a thousand people associated with the community, three or four hundred on campus, others living in the outlying towns and villages of Findhorn, Forres and Elgin.
Back in the dressing room, I ask Steve Wickham if it’s important that he empathises with his bandleader’s life in Findhorn.
“I suppose on one level I do,” he says. “I don’t have to live like Mike or be part of the Findhorn Foundation, but I definitely think I have to understand my friend; I have to understand where he’s at. And I do. To a certain extent.”
Spool back 24 hours to midsummer’s night, the location being a pub in Findhorn Village, which looks for all the world like a miniature Howth relocated to the west of Ireland. Our dining party includes various members of the Waterboys’ crew, a couple of diehard fans who’ve travelled here from New York and Holland for the shows, Steve’s wife Heidi, and the entire band minus Mike.
At some point, the musicians receive a summons from Scott to join him for a late walk around the grounds. A few of us elect to follow them a couple of hours later, skirting the shore of Findhorn Bay, making our way across a moonscape of lunar dunes bathed in a wash of weird eleven o’clock night light. As we cut through the brush and scrub and into the woods, half-lost, there are nervous jokes about The Wicker Man, and I’m thinking of the apocalyptic tones of Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and A Song Of Stone, or the pagan commune in Whit.
It’s a powerful and evocative landscape, the eerie stillness occasionally disturbed by the intermittent whoosh of RAF jets and the sound of tribal drums coming from an open air Solstice party about half a mile away. In the distance, one can make out the spinning wings of the solar power windmill that generates some 20% of the Findhorn campus powerage.
Our troupe finally locates the source of the drumming, but there’s none of the much anticipated naked revelling in hot tubs or body painted cavorting, just a knot of stragglers beating on percussion instruments around a failing bonfire, so we detour into the Foundation’s eco-village, configurations of houses built from wood, hay bales, even recycled whiskey barrels.
Creeping through various wooded pathways, we pass a small garden that looks like it was designed by Buddhist priests, then climb around a tepee and into a miniature Hobbit-like cottage designed for reflection and meditation, featuring a circular room furnished with seating mats set around an unlit candle.
Back we go then, past residences that look like Idaho wood cabins or Bavarian lodges, many of them curtainless and softly lit, making the casual passer-by feel like a peeping tom. There are cars in the driveways; residents hold down jobs, drink and smoke in the open air – in many ways the settlement resembles small liberal New England or Californian towns that advocate recycling, local trading and so on.
Next day, a snoop through the Foundation’s bookshop yields studies of astroshamanism, Chinese power animals, chakras, biblical apocrypha, Zennist literature and Native American culture. Sample titles from Findhorn’s own imprint include Gay Spirit Warrior – An Empowerment Workbook for Men Who Love Men, Christ Power & The Earth Goddess – A Fifth Gospel, and The Celestial Voice Of Diana (“channelled” by one Rita Eide). There are also various ethno-spiritual knick-knacks and bumper stickers bearing legends such as Never Drive Faster Than Your Angel Can Fly.
Universal Hall may be an impressive looking theatre, but it’s not always an easy album to love. Yes, it contains some damn fine tunes, including an elemental epic called ‘Peace Of Iona’, in which Wickham’s banshee violin wraps itself around the wraith vocal like an electric eel. There’s a string of affecting, bare ballads like ‘The Christ In You’, ‘Every Breath Is Yours’ and ‘Ain’t No Words For The Things I’m Feeling’. There’s also a zen-nos air called ‘I’ve Lived Here Before’ co-written with Liam O’Maonlai, who evidently had one eye on O’Riada’s mastery of arrangement.
But there are also poorly judged moments such as ‘Silent Fellowship’ and ‘EBOL’ (whose entire lyric consists of the couplet, “You are an eternal being of love/You are the light of the world”), which hinge around stock new age-y symbolism and muted musical settings. Mike Scott’s spiritual beliefs are his own business, but this listener has reservations about their impact on his work as an imagist and wordsmith, especially on songs like ‘This Light Is For The World’, a fine melody beset by the creeping odour of the folk-mass, or ‘Seek The Light’ which samples ‘Electric Currents’ by Craig Gibsone and May East. According to the sleeve notes, “May plays the Sandawa, an ancient monochord stringed instrument, designed by mathematical and astrological calculations to reproduce the vibrational frequencies of the planets and stars in their motion through space. On this track it reproduces the frequency of the speed of light.” In theory this sounds pretty far out; in practice it evokes the theme from Miami Vice by way of James Redfield.
I think one of the problems was a matter of expectation. With the return of Wickham, one might’ve expected a tour de force utilising the touring band’s considerable musical firepower. Scott admits that he had an original vision of a full-blown live-in-the-studio recording including unreleased classics such as ‘Saints And Angels’ and ‘Born To Be Together’, but this was aborted when notebooks containing his blueprints went missing, once on a flight from New York, again a year later on the way to Norway. As a result, he
put the big sounding album – plus fans’ new live favourites such as ‘The Wedding’ and Vampire Man’ – on hold and started from scratch in Findhorn, hence the hushed, holistic feel of much of the new songs, embodied by the title tune.
“Mike mentioned this idea about doing a spiritual record,” Steve Wickham explains, “and I said to myself, ‘You know, Janey, every record he does is a kind of spiritual record’. I’m sure Mike says it in interviews, but I believe it as well, living out in Sligo, the geographic location of where a record is made definitely informs the end product.
“So I suppose the sound of this record, we’re up in North Scotland, miles away from anywhere, you said yourself it’s one of the quietest places you’ve been in, and there is a kind of a little undertow sound wise and geographical wise, cos we’ve got the RAF base next door and you’ll hear these engines going, like Moog synthesizers. Whatever about the artistic or spiritual side of it, you better ask yer man.”
Yer man is sitting in the foyer of Universal Hall an hour or two after the second show, clad in a striped shirt, dress shoes and pinstripe pants, hair tousled, in pretty good nick for a rock ’n’ roller in his mid-40s. Its past one in the morning, Scott has played two 100 minute shows in the last six hours, and for five minutes now he’s been listening to your reporter unloading his critical baggage all over the new record. He sits back, head slightly tilted, a quizzical smile playing around the corners of his mouth that occasionally becomes a dry heh-heh-heh followed by a long, “Yeeesss”. There’s no air of condescension, merely a sort of bemusement and a shrewd refusal to be drawn into any defence of his music, much less his belief system.
Peter Murphy: Findhorn is obviously a formidable place, and its influence is evident on Universal Hall. But looking through the community’s bookshop earlier, I realised that some of the problems I have with the new album are mirrored by the literature on the shelves. It’s not the ideology I object to particularly, it’s the language used to express it.
Mike Scott: “Why?”
PM: I think its because I associate jargon like “healing” and “empowerment” and “the promotion of psychic wellness” with New Age industry hucksters.
MS: “And there are those. You know, anyone exploring the New Age needs to practise a lot of discernment. There are a lot of charlatans out there, and there are more books than we need.”
PM: Many of the new songs are based on lyrical fragments, repeated like mantras. How come?
MS: “I work with affirmations. An affirmation is a short statement that you say inwardly or aloud in order to transform an unwanted state of mind or attitude. They work on the same level as neuro-linguistic programming, where one re-languages one’s life. Someone who perhaps finds it very stressful being in cities for example could use the affirmation, ‘I am safe, I know I am safe’. Someone who’s got very low self-esteem could use: ‘I love and accept myself exactly as I am’. Now, it’s the easiest thing in the world to feel sceptical about a statement like that, but like all things, one can take a scientific approach to it and actually try it.
“Y’know, I used to have self esteem things where I would be beating myself up emotionally: ‘You said the wrong thing, you did the wrong thing there, that wasn’t good enough.’ Baggage from my childhood I’m sure, perhaps from school or growing up, whatever. But if I were to work, as I have done, with the affirmation, ‘I love and accept myself exactly as I am’, immediately all the baggage starts to come up to the surface and is quite painful, but then a way appears through it and I get to work with the baggage, transforming it and letting it go. So affirmations are very useful tools when used consciously. And I started writing these songs and they started coming out like affirmations: ‘Ain’t no words for the things I’m feeling/Ain’t no tongue can tell’: short, to the point, not very many words, and it did the trick for me. So why follow a conventional path, a belief system that says you have to have so many verses and choruses?”
PM: Some of the fans seem to have a problem with it.
MS: “It’s been fascinating to watch some of the fans on the internet, only a few of them, absolutely outraged that I should do this, that I should only put two lines in a song. Very, very funny. It reminds me of Room To Roam when we worked with the miniatures, songs that were 1.20. I think ‘The Star And The Sea’ was 0.26. But to me I think part of the job of the artist is always to break boundaries and do things differently and I get a hit from doing things differently, it turned me on.”
PM: I remember once on the tour bus after a show in the Olympia in Dublin a couple of years ago, you became quite irate at a fan who made the sign of the cross at you through the window. I was surprised you’d take exception to such an apparently innocuous gesture.
MS: “Did I? God I don’t remember that at all.”
PM: Any idea why that would’ve annoyed you?
MS: “Yeah, well, I’ve never been a Roman Catholic and I’ve never had to personally deal with the complexities that arise from being a Roman Catholic, say, in Ireland. But living in its sway in Ireland for six years, I could feel the Catholic thing begin to weigh me down, the whole guilt thing. And I really think the whole guilt thing is insane, I think it’s an impostor, I don’t think it serves us as human beings at all to feel guilty. But I could feel this Catholic presence weighing on me, and it had such a grip in Ireland. And so yeah, sure, if I saw a guy making a sign of the cross at me I wouldn’t take so kindly to it. I really believe that every individual has a right to follow their own spiritual path whatever way feels right to them, and the problem I would have with Christianity is that a lot of people who are mission-type Christians say that Christianity is the only way. This whole thing about it’s ‘the’ way – it’s not the way, it’s a way. And I respect all the different ways to God, or our inner experience of God, and if someone tries to impose their religious or spiritual system on me I don’t take kindly to it at all.”
PM: One thing that intrigues me about communities like Findhorn, which are ostensibly founded on utopian ideals, is what happens when the germ of evil is introduced. Put a bunch of humans together and someone’s going to start acting up. This community obviously isn’t some hippy crash pad or a kibbutz. What happens when some chancer shows up looking to exploit the place?
MS: “Well, I think it’s a question of context. If someone comes here and is abusive to other people, they don’t get away with it for very long. They would be called on their behaviour– and this may be different from what happens in other societies – in a way that makes it very clear to the abuser that he’s the one with the problems. (Pauses) You’re looking at me as if (to say), ‘What sense does that make?’!!”
PM: Well, human nature being what it is, it doesn’t sound very practical. Would they be allowed to continue to take advantage?
MS: “No, absolutely not.”
PM: So how would it be dealt with?
MS: “I’m sure over 40 years of the community some people must have been asked to leave. I know of a few. Not since I’ve been around but, yeah, in the ’60s there were some people who were disruptive.”
PM: Is there any sort of security in operation?
MS: “There is, yes, if someone had a crisis or something like that, there are people who are trained to deal with people who are in ‘process’. Do you know what that means? Someone who has psychological problems. And there are trained psychotherapists here who can be called on. Sometimes for example a guest may visit and they may be on medication, they may not be very well, it happens occasionally. This is a powerful place and it tends to have a big effect on people, and if someone comes here and they’re not very well balanced, it may affect them in directions that aren’t good for them and they shouldn’t be here.”
PM: Is it important to you that the other members of the band “get” Findhorn?
MS: “No. It’s important to me how I work with them and how they work with me. The spirit of the band is important; these are things that would be important whether I had a connection with Findhorn or not. And I know I’ve got a great feeling in the band and I feel a lot of support and empathy from the musicians.”
PM: So could you work with an agnostic, chain-smoking, whiskey drinkin’, dirty joke telling musician who was nevertheless a great player?
MS: “Well, he wouldn’t stay in the rehearsal room very long if he was chain smoking I can tell ya!”
PM: Well then, assuming he could take his habits outside.
MS: “Well, there are three smokers in the band… I might have a problem if someone used crude, debased or sexist language, yeah, I might have a problem with that. And just to use your example, if their whiskey drinkin’ rendered them unable to discharge their inspirational work as a musician, they wouldn’t be in the band very long. I’m not often in situations where I’m in a kind of old-style male macho environment. I do find it incredibly boring. I never seem to find myself in them.”
PM: So if they could hold their drink and their dirty jokes were actually funny rather than offensive…
MS: “Yeah, no problem!”
PM: Okay, one more question. Why is Oprah name-checked on the sleeve of Universal Hall?
MS: “She’s in the thank you, is she, for inspiration? I’d forgotten I put her in. I like the Oprah Show on TV; my wife’s always watching it. My favourite is when Doctor Phil is on. Do you know Doctor Phil? No nonsense, tells it like it is. I think Oprah is an absolutely wonderful person, I think she walks her talk; I think she’s working constantly to raise consciousness. It’s amazing what she does with her book club; getting America to read.”
PM: Sure, but I can’t help thinking of Jonathan Franzen, who got the hump with her people’s strong-arm tactics as regards keeping the selection of his book under wraps and their insistence on putting an Oprah Book Club sticker on the cover of The Corrections. He got so uncomfortable with it he asked to be un-selected.
MS: “But we don’t know that she’s responsible for it.”
PM: She is ultimately. They’re acting in her name.
MS: “Well, you’ve heard one side of the story. Some of the things that people say about me are absolute rubbish.”
PM: What’s the worst story you’ve ever heard about yourself?
MS: “Leaving a guitar in a particular place in Windmill Lane to soak up the atmosphere or something so it would play better. Absolutely ridiculous!”
That seems an apt place to leave it. To some, Mike Scott is a maverick genius up there with Neil Young, others reckon he wandered away with the fairies in the late ’80s and never came back. However, Universal Hall has garnered some of Mike Scott’s most positive critical notices in years, with raves in Uncut and The Guardian. And whatever way you tell it, the Findhorn phase is no character aberration. Mike Scott has always sought satori in terrestrial (some might say extra-terrestrial) power points as far flung as New York, London, Dublin, Spiddal, Glastonbury Tor and the islands of Aran and Iona and Lewis. And anyone inclined to ridicule such odysseys must also apply the same rule to Van’s Rosicrucianism, Dylan’s born again period and Leonard Cohen’s retreats on Mount Baldy. Findhorn is the latest class in a psychogeography course whose guest lecturers have thus far included William Blake, WB Yeats, Dion Fortune, Ayn Rand, George MacDonald, CS Lewis, Dr Seuss, Eileen Caddy and many others. Where to next, nobody knows.