As founder and only consistent member – over the course of 30 years – of the iconic Celtic rock band the Waterboys, Mike Scott is a true musical legend. He graciously took time for a phone interview from a hotel in St. Paul on a Saturday afternoon during his just-completed North American tour. (The tour came to Washington, DC on October 22, reviewed here.)
Scott and band, featuring long-time cohort, Steve Wickham, played throughout October, mixing songs from the full Waterboys catalog with tracks from the 2013 American release, “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats.” (It came out two years earlier in the U.K.) The album takes the poetry of classic Irish poet William Butler Years and sets it to Scott’s original music.
Along with highlighting the “…Mr. Yeats” material, the American tour revisited a number of tracks from the acclaimed 1988 album, “Fisherman’s Blues,” in which Scott and his band of the time (including Wickham) explored traditional Celtic rhythms, instruments and classic folk tunes in a stylistic from the band’s “Big Music” sound, which created hits like “The Whole of the Moon.” (See the DC show’s full set list.)
An album that still influences folk-rock musicians of today, highlights of the full “Fisherman’s Blues” sessions – which ranged from January 1986 to June 1988 – will be released in mid-November in an exhaustive (in a great way) 6-CD set that offers much more than alternative takes, though some are included. There are cover tunes, traditional jigs, extended jams and more treats that show a band at full power, relishing the chance to stretch out in exciting new ways.
Here’s what Scott had to say about the new albums, tour plans, and his long, influential musical career…
What would you like listeners to know about William Butler Yeats to get the most out of the album?
To be honest, they don’t have to know anything. When I made the “Appointment with Mr. Yeats” record and the stage show before, I wanted every song to be good enough that if the listener knew nothing about Yeats, they could still enjoy it.
I think I would have failed in my job if people had needed to know about Yeats to enjoy the records. They should be able to enjoy at face value, just the music and the lyrics as they encounter them. Of course, if they do know about Yeats, well, that’s great, too, They’ll have an insight into who this guy was, and what he was writing about.
Have you talked to Yeats scholars and gotten reactions from them?
A little bit, yeah. A lot of people who know all about Yeats have had an interest in this record. And I was asked to give a talk about the work that I’d done at the Yeats summer school which is held annually in Sligo.
Is that more fun, dealing with people who know more about him?
It is, but it’s not a big deal to me really. I’m not fascinated by Yeats the man. I love his poetry and it’s a privilege to work with it because it’s peerless But I’m not one of these people who has to know every detail of Yeats’ personal life and I think a lot of nonsense is talked about Yeats the man as well. I like to keep a healthy distance from all that.
There’s a “Fisherman’s Blues” box set coming and you’re planning a European tour dedicated to it. What made you decide to revisit the album in such a big way?
I put a lot of work into the box set and I really enjoyed it. And I thought I love this music so much, and a lot of it was never played live at the time. A lot of these songs never got their shot. So I’d like to go back on the road and do them.
So I talked to Steve Wickham [electric fiddle and mandolin] first and he wanted to do it, too. And then I contacted Antony [Thistlethwaite] our old saxophone and mandolin player, and he was up for it. And then I contacted Trevor [Hutchinson], our bass player. Once everyone was in, then I spoke to our agent and he liked the idea, too. It’s a complete musical turnaround after this tour, but I like that. The moment that this tour ends, my musical attention will shift.
On the “…Mr. Yeats” tour, you mix many songs from the Waterboys’ catalog with the new album. Will the “Fisherman’s Blues” tour follow that structure?
It will be exclusively songs from the “Fisherman’s Blues” era. There were only 12 songs on the album, but there are 121 songs on the box set, a lot to choose from.
Will that tour be coming back to the U.S.?
No. It’s a one-off for the 25th anniversary.
So American fans will need to get on a plane to Europe to see it.
(a soft chuckle) If they’re that crazy, yes.
“Fisherman’s Blues” was quite a change of style in its time and obviously a lot of today’s artists, like Mumford and Sons, were influenced by it. Do you feel like a pioneer?
When we were blending rock with folk influences, we weren’t the first ones to be doing it, either. You could date it back to folk rock, when the folk boom music, the protest music, met the beat boom and you had people like The Byrds and the Turtles coming out. In Britain, we had Fairport Convention and bands like that in the late 60s and early 70s. And so it wasn’t even new when the Waterboys were doing it. I always think that the Pogues and the Waterboys were the two bands at that time, in the late 80s, that took the trad Celtic music and merged it with rock. And in America, there were bands like Lone Justice. Nobody’s doing it new, really.
And rediscovering isn’t enough. There has to be something original brought to it. Certainly Fairport Convention did that and the Pogues did that and I believe the Waterboys did that with “Fisherman’s Blues.” We did certain blendings of folk and rock music that hadn’t been done. We did more of that on our follow-up album, “Room to Roam.”
And I’m sure Mumford and Sons have their own particular innovations, and that’s important that there’s something new every time.
You’ve seen a lot of changes in the music world, from the days of real vinyl – not hipster reissues! – to the explosion of free, sometimes stolen, music on the Internet. What do you see as the best and the worst of the changes?
I like the ease of recording at home. Of course, I still work in recording studios, but I love to add things at home. In fact, with the “…Mr. Yeats” album, because I had a bad bout of flu while we were recording the tracks, I did all my vocals later at home. And
I like being able to exchange mp3s with other musicians so I can songwrite with collaborators by email. I like that I can manipulate songs in my computer, I can turn things backward, I can edit, I can make mash-ups and all that.
I like that the predominance of radio has broken. Rock and roll radio has deteriorated so much. There are good shows out there, as we know, but the most powerful radio stations are almost all very poor. They’re compromised and one-dimensional. It’s great that the power of radio has been broken by the democratization of the Internet.
The whole debate about people getting music for free? That’s a difficult area. I listen to lot of music on the Internet myself – YouTube and so on, or soundcloud – but I also buy music. And I find it hard to get into the mindset of a kid who’s never known anything but free stuff. And I don’t know what the solutions are and I don’t have string feelings about it.
What music are you listening to now that you would recommend?
I listen to so much old music as well as new. My favorite band at the moment is probably Midlake, from Texas. Their singer left them recently but they made a new album which is coming out very soon. I’ve heard a few snippets of it online and it sounds fantastic.
I also like a band called Shovels and Rope. They’re a husband and wife duo, like White Stripes, but on the back porch. And I would recommend Freddie Stevenson, who’s the opening act on [the “…Mr. Yeats”] tour. He’s a terrific singer/songwriter. He’s British but he’s based in New York. People should come out and catch him. He’s good.
For more info on Mike Scott and The Waterboys: The Waterboys official web site.
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