Mike Scott of the Waterboys strides politely but purposefully into the interview room. The Waterboys have just played a joyful concert as part of the Italian leg of their Fisherman’s Blues anniversary tour. Strangely, given that I’ve spent about 25 years listening to his music, and have just finished his superb autobiography, I’ve no idea of what to expect of him as he sits down.
Well, perhaps not so strange, given that this is Mike Scott, a songwriter who has differentiated himself from his peers consistently by shedding his skin (and at times his band) at every other turn, just when you thought you knew him. He’s been called difficult, and – less charitably, and unfairly – even mad (in part, no doubt, because of his outspoken opinions on spirituality, and because of his retreat at one point to the Findhorn community). More recently he’s become a literary figure, again putting the poems of W.B. Yeats to music (something he did first with the stolen child on The Fisherman’s Blues album), and publishing that critically acclaimed autobiography.
There’s almost too much to take in, as we sit down to chat – though chat is not really the word for it; it’s an interview, and Scott, who has done his fair share of them (despite doing practically no press at all in the Waterboys’ heyday) has all the poise of a prize fighter as he knocks down the first banal question fired his way:
‘Was it difficult getting back together for this tour?’
‘No’ [a pause that feels like an age] ‘in what way?’
‘Because of all the time that had passed.’
‘Music exists in a place outside of time ‘
After a shaky start, though, things settle and Scott is more than generous as an interviewee, eager to talk, and at the centre of our discussion is the Fisherman’s Blues – the album that it was, and the albums that it could possibly have been, represented now by the release of the massive Fisherman’s Box – the complete Fisherman’s Blues box-set, a 6-cd collection that contains most of the songs/versions recorded over a two year period, from 1986-88 in Dublin, Spiddal and San Francisco. Despite being titled the ‘complete sessions’ Scott admits that “Oh yes, there are still other songs. It’s infinite really. We recorded so much that it’s almost infinite, I don’t know how much music there is from those sessions.”
Of course I’ve got more songwriting tricks and skills now than I had thirty years ago, but I’m more self-conscious of the song-writing process whereas thirty years ago I was less self-conscious of it and I could do it almost more easily. There wasn’t an inner critic watching it.
“It was very difficult for me”, he explains as I ask how he originally went about choosing the songs that went on the Fisherman’s Blues,”because I was so familiar with the songs, and I lost my perspective. I’d been working on it for so long that I’d lost my vision of the album, and as you can tell from the amount of material it would be very hard for anyone to have a vision of what that album should be. Really it’s three or four albums. There should have been an album in 1996 from the early sessions – from cd 1 and 2 of the box set. There could have been an album from cd3 in San Francisco on its own. There could have been an album from cd 4 & 5, and then another one from the recordings in Spiddal. I’d set myself an impossible task compiling it into a single record, but I did the best I could. I needed a format, so I decided to make one side Dublin and one side Spiddal. That gave it a shape. I chose five tracks from Dublin that I felt certain about, even though there were loads of other tracks that I could have / should have included, those were five that I was certain of. Then it was easier with the Spiddal side as they were more recent at the time.”
Looking back now, how happy is he with the choices he made? Did he pick the right songs at the time – given that there are alternative versions and songs that we can now hear on the box-set. “I think I made quite good choices. Some of them – Fisherman’s Blues, We Will Not Be Lovers,, Sweet Thing, Stolen Child, Bang on the Ear, When Will We Be Married – those are definitive. They could have been on anyone’s Fisherman’s Blues album.”
“My real regret though is that I didn’t make it a double or triple album. It would have been a great double album”. This of course begs the question, why didn’t he? Was he under record company pressure? “No! Not at all! I had just lost my perspective on it. You see, tracks like Custer’s Blues on the box set, is a great track and was already mixed. It should have been on the album. Lost Highway, our cover of the Hank Williams’ track, was beautiful and already mixed. Close to heaven – twelve minutes! That needed a mix but most of them were ready mixed from the desk on the night and could have been on the album. If i’d just had a clear perspective. If I could just have gone in with the perspective that I have now I would have made a killer double album”.
And a killer double album, back in 1988 would have been interesting indeed – as Scott points out: “It would have been great fun as well, because it would have come out the same week as Rattle and Hum, and everyone would have been comparing them, and we would have whipped U2’s ass!”
It was one of the most stupid things that I’ve ever heard, that the Waterboys could have been the next u2 – absolute rubbish!
There was, of course, a moment – I suggest – back in the mid-to-late ’80s when the Waterboys were being bracketed for the same global/stadium-filling success by music industry pundits. He’s quick to jump in here: “Well we supported them on about 20 shows in ’84. The expectation that the Waterboys would ‘become the next U2’ was a stupid expectation, and anybody who really thinks that isn’t thinking clearly.”
We were always a very different kind of beast. We were a single guy with a hired band that moved in and out of various degrees of being a real band, but U2, Simple Minds, REM – those stadium sized bands, that went that route – they had fixed line-ups that kept making records, and I’m not saying they kept making the same records, but they made records with incremental differences that brought the audience with them. We were the child of a singer-songwriter who’d go any direction he wanted. I was always much more in a Bob Dylan or Neil Young mould. You’d never have been able to squeeze them into the sort of route that those ’80s bands went, and you couldn’t squeeze me into it either, and anybody who thought that they could isn’t really taking a clear look at it. It was one of the most stupid things that I’ve ever heard, that the Waterboys could have been the next u2 – absolute rubbish! [almost spitting].”
It’s interesting, though, this dynamic between the songwriter with the hired band and the notion of a ‘real band’, because while obviousl,y at a very basic level, the Waterboys is Mike Scott,it was impossible not to notice the genuine warmth felt earlier in the evening, from the crowd,when the re-united Fisherman’s Blues line up of Scott, Steve Wickham, Anto Thistlethwaite, and Trevor Hutchinson, accompanied by drummer Ralph Salmins took to the stage.
In particular the trio of Scott, Thistlethwaite, and Wickham split up in difficult circumstances after the Room to Roam album, and while Wickham rejoined Scott back in 2007, this European tour is the first real outing with Thistlethwaite back in the fold. “Anto played two shows with us in Spiddal last year, and those shows were the basis of this show”, Scott explains. “We knew that there was a good musical relationship still there with Anto, and we could put together a new show, and the anniversary of Fisherman’s Blues was a good reason to do that.”
At the show just before this interview, the re-united line-up had them dancing, literally, in the aisles, of the theatre and was magnificent, but how easy/hard is it to revist these songs with the re-formed line-up? “Steve, Ralph and myself are used to playing Fisherman’s Blues, Whole of the Moon and a bunch of other songs every night on stage, but we have to do them differently now with Trevor and Anto because they bring something different to it. I’m still working out exactly how to play those songs – they haven’t got quite finished arrangements yet. For example, on Whole of the Moon I’m wondering whether we should have Steve on the electric mandolin as well so we could have two mandolins for a fuller sound. I haven’t figured it out.”
And how likely is it that this line-up will last beyond a tour, for example to record new material? There’s a microsecond pause – enough to count as hesitation, given that Scott confidently answers each question posed immediately. “We might record with this line-up, but not immediately. We’re just going to do this tour and let it settle.” He pauses again. “It’s a big thing, playing with these guys again.”