- 24 Jun 19
The Return Of Pan. Interview: Pat Carty. Portrait: Scarlett Page.
On a beautiful South Dublin Morning, Hot Press sat down with the great Mike Scott to discuss the return of The Waterboys with their sparkling thirteenth studio album, Where The Action Is. The record leaps straight out of the speakers with the upbeat opening title track, an updating of Robert Parker’s sixties stomper ‘Let’s Go Baby (Where The Action Is)’. Was this, I asked, a deliberate bid at attention grabbing, something artists perhaps have to be more conscious of these days?
“I don't think of it as grabbing attention, I like to start on a high and instead of spacing them out I thought we'd just go for the two. It was actually my booking agent who suggested it to me, I just liked the idea of it,” replies a fit and well looking Scott in a rather magnificent cowboy hat. “It was ever thus. It's just a good way to start, it was the same in 1963, the first Beatles album starts with 'I Saw Her Standing There' 1,2,3,4 and away we go!”
What was the attraction of the Robert Parker song? “A great chorus” is the simple reply “I was in a mod disco in a basement on Dame St in about 2012, and it came on - I'd never heard it before - and I thought Woah! I didn't love the verses so much, they're kind of standard ‘put on your red dress’ but the chorus!” Those opening chords echo Jonathan Richman. “It's very similar to 'Roadrunner', yes, it's just a proto-rock riff.” And Lord Buckley, the man who Bob Dylan described as the “the hipster bebop preacher who defied all labels” roars out over the intro, were you aware of Damon Albarn sampling him on his last solo record? “It's just a great intro, I love his voice. I only found out about that when we were trying to get permission, it was quite a convoluted process, it wasn't difficult, it was just hard to find who actually owned the rights, so the team that were working on it found out that Damon Albarn had done the same thing.”
The band’s sound has been expanded in recent years with the addition of two female backing singers, Zeenie Summers and the might Jess Kavanagh, familiar to Hot press readers as the voice of BARQ, who both feature on the title track.
“They came into the band about two years ago” Scott explains. “On our last record we had a lot of soul influenced tracks and I wanted backing vocals, so they recorded with us and I asked them to do the tour. At the end of that, this is about eighteen months ago, I had to make a choice whether to get a second guitar player or the backing singers and I'd had second guitar player many times, it was great but it was kind of boring as well, but having two backing singers gave me a whole lot of options that I'd never had before. It was an exciting frontier so I kept Jess and Zeenie. Jess was recommended to me by Leagues O'Toole, I said I need a soul singer, he said talk to Jess Kavanagh.”
As well as the prominent backing vocals, there’s a marvellous fuzz-fiddle solo from long time fellow-traveler Steve Wickham, but does Scott ever feel he has to find a place for Wickham’s fiddle, rather than use a perhaps more conventional guitar solo? “No, never” is his reply. “Steve outdoes guitar. We were on the Chris Evans radio show, we did 'Still A Freak' and Steve played this fuzz fiddle solo and at the end of it, Chris Evans said ‘I've had Jimmy Page and I've had Jeff Beck in this studio but the greatest guitar solo that was ever played on my show was played on the fiddle’ I love that.”
‘London Mick’ is a tribute to The Clash’s guitar slinging Mr Jones.
“It was 1977, I was eighteen, it was easy to blag your way into gigs, it was easy to get into the sound check, to find out what hotel the band were in. I think it was the Waverley or the North Britain, I can see it, it was on Princes Street, they're both very close together, can't remember which one it was. It was this strange posh little hotel, very un-Clash like, and there was a bar on the first floor. Me and my mate Zed, that was his punk name, went up to the bar and there was Mick Jones, we'd already met him earlier that day when he did a signing at one of the record shops, and we got talking to him, and he bought me a coca-cola!”
Is there any connection between Mick Jones or any of your musical heroes and ‘In My Time On Earth’ where heroes have been deceived and the world they built has disappeared?
“I'm not talking about musicians there, it's more about citizens, maybe the generation that fought World War II and they thought they were making a particular world that we were all going to live in and that world is now vanishing.”
“It's a double vision song, it's two ways of looking at the world,” Scott continues. “The world seems crazy, there seems to be an awful lot to be worried and concerned about everywhere you look, but there's also a bigger picture. All the world's religions have this tradition that there's only one consciousness and we're all part of this one united consciousness, but in our everyday lives we're not aware of it. In that song in the verse I'm looking at the world through everyday eyes and in the chorus I'm looking at the bigger picture, we're actually all one. Those lines ‘I will speak the secret I will tell what is true, I will say what the heart knows’, they're from an arrangement of a poem by Rumi, the great Sufi mystic poet.”
Scott recalls a great time in a great place in ‘The Ladbroke Grove Symphony' but he can’t go back to it.
“I did try, ten years later,” he remembers. “I lived there in the eighties 82-85, I made the early Waterboys records there, bumped into Mick Jones! It was a wonderful place for me to be, first time living on my own as well so it was very exciting, I was in my early twenties. and then I moved to Ireland, then I moved to New York, then I moved to Scotland, and I went back to Ladbroke Grove in 1995 but the world had moved on. The scene had changed and I had changed, London had changed and there was a new race of Godlings like Liam Gallagher and Damon Albarn and I couldn't find a way back in, so I went and did something else. I was in Dublin then New York, then I was in Scotland at Findhorn in the community there, that was brilliant spiritually, brilliant for my personal learning, but not great for music, there were very few musicians, and I needed musicians, studios, managers, record shops, the whole apparatus of a life lived in music, so I moved back to London, but it was a non-starter for me, I tried for three years.”
And at that point you came back here, to Dublin?
“No, I moved out to West London, to Kew, which was a new world for me, a not particularly exciting area, and for a long time I'd lived only in places I'd found exciting - New York, Findhorn, Spiddel, Dublin. When I went to West London it was because I couldn't afford to live in Ladbroke Grove anymore, I'd had a tour that lost a lot of money, I wasn't exactly broke, but I couldn't afford the rent in the centre of London. Suburbia was not exciting to me culturally or creatively at all and yet I found I was still me, I could still be creative, it didn't matter. I didn't need to be somewhere that was creatively edgy and glamorous, I could be anywhere, and that was a wonderful discovery, and I started making records again.”
Mike Scott finally returned to Dublin in 2008, it just took a while to get here.
“I had a couple of years in Kew, then I moved back into central London, and then my wife and I moved back to Findhorn, for six years. She wanted to work there and I didn't mind where I was by that time, but after six years I was hungry to be back in the city, I'd always wanted to move back to Dublin. I feel at home here, I like the people, it's fun, easy going, but creative.”
Did that feeling hit you straight away when you first came here?
"Yeah, it really did."
It's a very different city now though
"To an outsider, it's not that different. There's more cars, and there's less priests."
The Whole Of The Moon
In your last Hot Press interview, you said you were kind of bored with Rock, you liked hip hop but you weren't crazy about the rappers.
“It's not just rappers, it's young rock bands, I find their subject set kind of bores me, young men's subject sets,” is Scott’s perfectly reasonable response.
Would that be because neither of us are younger men anymore?
“Exactly, yeah, I still do listen to young bands, I just discovered a band called DeMob Happy, have you heard of them?”
“They're from the North of England, bloody brilliant! I'm not so interested in what they're singing about because they're in their twenties and I'm a long way from thinking about things that they're probably preoccupied with but the music is brilliant. And it's the same with rappers, I'm not so much into what they're talking about, but the music around them, hip-hop, the DIY, the construction of it, the mash-up quality, and the rhythm of the speech as well, I've always admired the way rappers use rhythm and rhyme. And I thought I'd like to have a go at that. And I finally did it.”
An artist shouldn’t care what other people think, but are you opening yourself up to being shot at, here's this, ahh...
“60 year old Scottish man.”
I was trying to think of a nicer way to say it, a more mature rocker.
"I don't give a flying fuck about that, I'm 60 going on 17 anyway. If I didn't think I could rap, I wouldn’t have put it on the record, but I found I could actually do it. On the first few takes, I sounded like I was trying too hard, all the best rappers make it sound effortless. Even if it's rapid, if you listen to a great sean-nós singer, they know how to do the breathing, I've seen Seamus Beagley sing, the breath goes in and it fuels him for 20 seconds as the words come out. It's the same with rappers. I had to get to that for it to be attractive on record. Of course it's in rock n' roll as well, you get very rhythmic sings like Bob Dylan, and Dylan as has been noted many times is a kind of a proto-rapper on 'Subterranean Homesick Blues', and Chuck Berry before him.”
In the album credits, you use the term archaeology when talking about sampling.
“It's my word for it, it's more fun, it is a kind of archaeology, there's this huge collection of loops and sound effects and samples, fields recordings, many of which I made myself over the years, and when I want a sound or a groove I go deep into this, so it's like archaeology, the samples may be very old and the loops may be from records made in the sixties and the seventies.”
You reinterpret Robert Burns on ‘Then She Made The Lasses O’, was that an idea that was floating around your head for a long time?
"Yeah, well that's a famous song in Scotland, 'Green Grow The Rashes -o' About thirty years ago, Deacon Blue did a version of it for a TV show with contemporary rearrangements of Burns' songs, and I did one myself, and I remember watching the show and thinking how good their version was, it was very romantic, sung beautifully by Ricky Ross, and it had been arranged for them by Michael Marra who was this very gifted singer/songwriter from Dundee. I carried their version around in my head for a long time, I used to sing it informally, at sessions and parties, and I'd often sing it in my music room and think I must record that some time. I put a hip-hop beat to it which worked very well and I got Wickham to turn the melody into a reel which he did beautifully. Then I went back to Deacon Blue's version to see was it too similar and actually in my head and in the singing of it over the years I had changed the melody and the phrasing, their version was still terrific, but I'd happily made something new of it.”
Scott closes the album out 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn', a beautiful adaptation of the famous chapter in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind In The Willows where a familiar horned and hoofed pipe player appears. What is it about Pan that Scott keeps returning to? This is the third time that I can think of that he’s celebrated him in song.
“It's a lot more than that actually, many, many records. Pan to me represents natural, wild, pre-civilised energy. It's still available, it's still in the world. I found that energy in the West of Ireland.”
You're aware of the Van Morrison song with the same title?
“The Van Morrison rip off? Yeah. he just sort of repeats the two lines 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, The wind in the willows' and hopes for the best. I'm a very great fan of Van Morrison's great songs but not of that piece. I don't think much work went into it and he didn't credit Kenneth Grahame.”
Any connection then to the Pink Floyd album of the same name?
“I think they just ripped off the title, I can't find anything on their album that actually relates to it, they just kind of wasted a very, very beautiful title. Kenneth Grahame made that up, Pink Fucking Floyd didn't and Van didn't and I don't think either of them really did anything with it. I've edited the text to make it work against music, I might have taken out a few archaic words as well.”
You said there will be several songs from the new record in the set, would you approach something as delicate as ‘Piper At The Gates of Dawn’ live?
“It's possible, yes. I would play the piano and read it at the same time. I've tried it and the boys can all play their parts. It was done before in 2004 and 2006 when we did concerts at Findhorn and I developed it because we wanted to do something special for Midsummer and it's set in Midsummer,” Scott enthuses at the memory. “We had a friend who was guesting with us, a didgeridoo player, and his wife played a middle eastern drone instrument, and the didgeridoo and the drone instrument were both playing a constant D, so I wanted a piece of music that would work with that. At first we thought we might do 'This Land Is Your Land', I was trying to play around with the chords to make it work, but I thought maybe we should do something completely new, maybe I'll put music to Piper At The Gates Of Dawn because it's midsummer. I came up with the 4 chord sequence - D, Cmaj7, which has a D in it, then A suspended which also includes a D and then the Cmaj7 again - and those four chords cycling around the drone worked beautifully. And I think he was channelling Pan as he played the didgeridoo, it was magnificent. We did this really cool version and we got a great recording of it, it's not quite polished enough to put on the record, although every record I've made since that - this was 2006 - I've considered putting it on, but it never was quite right.”
Plutarch reckoned that Pan was the only Greek god to die, making way for Jesus – and for his imagery, his sexuality to be co-opted to represent the devil.
“I don't suffer from a Christian bias in any way,” Scott chuckles. “Sexuality is only seen as something fearful by people who have a problem. If Pan is truly the symbol of the untamed natural energy of the earth then there's going to be a sexual aspect to that, and what the fuck is wrong with that?"
Nothing at all. Pan’s most famous conquests was Selene, the Goddess of the moon, so, Mike Scott, was he the first of us to see the Whole of the Moon?
“Very creative!" Scott guffaws. "Magnificent!”
Sound Of A Lonely Breeze
The Waterboys' dance card is pretty full for the rest of year with shows in both Europe and America. I asked Scott, as an artist who has made albums in the past that are so precious to people and have taken such a central place in people’s lives, how does he reconcile the idea that he's going out with a new record, but at the same time he has to - or does he? - satisfy the people in the audience who want to hear those records?
“This is the perennial question that long standing artists have to deal with, from Petula Clark to The Rolling Stones. I'm working on a set list for the new tour at the moment and it's running around my head all the time, and I've got a selection of songs that I want to play, of course there are songs from the new record, there's a whole bunch from the last three or four records, and there's all my favourites from the earlier records, and a few from the earlier records that haven't been played in a long time that I fell like playing. 'The Whole Of The Moon' and 'Fisherman's Blues' are a funny pair, they always work, but we don't always play them. And I love the experience of singing those songs and everyone's singing along and celebrating, there's nothing to not like about that experience.”
I didn't mean to say that you don't like the songs but you must be aware of the fact that a lot of people who go to see you, if it was one of those nights where you decided to rest 'Whole Of The Moon' or 'Fisherman's Blues', they might be disappointed. If you go to see Bob Dylan, surely there are certain songs you want to hear?
“Actually, no. If I go to see Bob Dylan, I'd rather he didn't play 'Like A Rolling Stone' or 'Blowing In The Wind' because they're hackneyed by now.”
He's not to precious with them either.
“No, he isn't. I rather hear him do what's really on his mind, I want to see Bob Dylan communing with his muse, and expressing himself. it's also what I fucking want to do when I step out on stage myself and I will never pack a set with so many old songs that I can't get there. While I like doing them, the old songs are not the edge for me, you know? And I will always keep that edge, for myself and my band. So it will always be a mix and sometimes it'll be more and sometimes a little less new, just depending on which way it's falling. It's my responsibility to myself and to Waterboys music to always keep that edge. I'm not going to dull it by doing too much that's not fresh and that I'm not into. And that's what I want when I go to see other artists, I want to see them alive and engaged with their music.”
But you did tour that a couple of years ago?
“The Fisherman's Blues Revisited tour, but that was a concept that I was hungry to do and a lot of that music hadn't been played. There were some songs on that tour that had never been played live.”
It must be very gratifying when people come up to you, as I'm sure they do, and tell you how much those records mean to them?
“It's always nice but I also love it when people come up and say I loved your last record, I love your new record, and that happens too, I'm pleased about that. The other funny one I get is where a young woman comes up and says 'oh, you're Mike Scott from the Waterboys' and I'm thinking 'oh, great, we've got a new fan' and she goes 'my mum loves you!'”
Our interview concluded, we repair around the corner to The Waterboys’ rehearsal space for a Paul McLoone radio session. It’s a beautiful room, decorated with family photos as well as pictures of various Beatles, Bob Dylan and Peter Cook, amongst many others. Scott’s piano sits beneath a large framed photo of Keith Richards. They capture beautiful takes of ‘Out Of All This Blue’ and ‘In My Time On Earth’ from the new record and then, after timing issues are negotiated by bringing the drums and bass closer to the piano, ‘Old England’. The lyric – originally released on This Is The Sea back in 1985 – could have been written last week, and the sound still takes you over. Brother Paul is grinning, the band are swinging, Wickham coaxes the sound of a lonely breeze from his instrument. I close my eyes, I’m back in Shinrone in 1988, back in Stradbally in 2010, back in New York, in Spiddal, in Scotland.
“Some say the gods are just a myth, but guess who I’ve been dancing with? The great god Pan is alive.”