Mike Scott's return to Jack Kerouac's classic novel started the writing that ended with The Waterboys' new album.
The Waterboys’ music has moved as Mike Scott has moved. Since he effectively is The Waterboys, that’s not a surprise, but their music reflects changes in his life. Or, more accurately, it invites listeners to think of it in that way. Part of the gift Scott shares with the great rock stars is his ability to imprint his persona on his music so that it all sounds autobiographical, whether it is or not.
Scott is also someone I find more interesting as he moves into middle age. These days, I enjoy the songcraft and admire the young pagan poet folk believer of early Waterboys records, but I’m impressed by his game negotiation with time in later albums. 2000’s A Rock in the Weary Land is literally truth in advertising, if “land” could be understood as “Mike Scott.” The sonic crunch he summoned made him sound like an Old Testament prophet with an itchy smiting hand and no patience for the twinkly synths that once evoked fairy folk in his songs. An Appointment with Mr. Yeats was a bookish turn, as if the way forward lay in his enduring passions, and Modern Blues finds him in love with ‘70s, soul-influenced hip-shaking rock ’n’ roll while his eye tends to look behind him because there’s more and more there.
He’s also feeling earthy on Modern Blues, leaving or wanting the women in bed. When that passion isn’t moving him, others step in, and his gift for barking out lines like they’re revelatory moments remains undiminished. Because of that, his vocal performances ripple and surge with a plainly evident humanity that you can connect to, even when the details of the story he’s telling aren’t for you.
I understand that part of your inspiration for Modern Blues came from reading On the Road on the scroll that Kerouac first typed it on. Tell me about that experience. How did reading it in that form affect the experience and your appreciation for On the Road?
I read the 'original scroll' version of On the Road during the Waterboys 2007 American tour. It had just been published in hardback. When I came off the tour, the musical energy was still running and the power of On The Road was still swirling around my mind. I began writing songs and “Long Strange Golden Road” came out of that.
What was your feeling about On the Road after reading it recently? I re-read it in my late 30s and felt like it was a young man’s book. Time made much of the book’s romanticism for roaming and the road hard for me to buy. How did it strike you?
I've read it four or five times. When I was 21 it affected me deeply. Changed my life, you could say, just like it changed so many others. And I too have had the experience of reading it in later years and finding it somehow to be a young man's book—perhaps because so little of its passion is for the things that appeal to us when we're older and grow spiritually. But my last read in 2007, was as exciting as the first. Either I'm regressing, or the book has hidden qualities that only become apparent to the older, more mature mind.
What is your relationship to The Beats? Are you primarily a Kerouac guy, or is your interest in them broader than that?
I find them interesting, and I respect and value their moment, when consciousness changed and they trail blazed a new way of considering oneself as a human on planet Earth, as if in preparation for what was coming in the ‘60s. But I'm not a huge Beats fan, and I think On the Road is the only book Kerouac wrote that has that great galvanizing power.
One thing I appreciate about your writing is that I always feel like you know what a song is about. Many songwriters today write lyrics so impressionistic that it feels like a dodge, and that they’re avoiding the hard work of nailing down a thought by leaving the lyrics so open that anyone could read almost anything into them. Why are your songs meaning-driven?
I like to have an effect on the listener, and I like to be understood. And I grew up listening to songs that meant something by writers like Dylan and The Beatles, and all the great soul music of the 1960s.
Do you ever get tired of writing songs?
Not really. I only write when I get the inspiration. It's not something I labor at when the inspiration isn't there.
How do the people you’re playing with affect the songs you write?
I think I write without considering who is in the band. The musicians only come into the frame—if they haven't been involved as co-writers—when the song gets arranged and either played live or recorded, whichever comes first. When I'm writing, I'm too involved in the composition to think much about arrangement and what a specific player might add.
How did Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood become part of your band?
We were booked into Sound Emporium in Nashville to make the record but I still hadn't decided on a bass player. Our manager Lisa Best, who knows that Muscle Shoals scene well, suggested David. I knew immediately he'd be the right guy, with all his experience of anchoring great records. I also knew I wanted an American feel with a southern swagger, so he was the perfect choice. He plays on every moment of the record and did a wonderful, wonderful job.
When you played New Orleans in 2013, you talked about your band being from New York. What happened to that band? I know some musicians who’ve found bands in a number of cities to make touring more economically feasible, and I wonder if you might have a band at home as well as a band in America so that you could tour in each market more manageably.
At that time yes, we had a line-up in Britain and Ireland as well as the American line-up that played the 2013 tour. But since making Modern Blues, I've united the bands so that there is just one for everywhere. Though having said that, the group of three American players in the band now—all of whom played on the album—is different from the 2013 intake.
When you played “Glastonbury Song,” it was as guitar-heavy as the original, but it felt even heavier without the bright synths that were a big part of the recorded song’s sound. Why leave them out? Is the bright, uplifting sound of some of the earlier songs one that is harder to emotionally connect to as you grow older?
There was no thematic decision there. I like that song on electric piano, and whether the synth sounds are there or not isn't important to me and never has been. But some of them are in the song on this tour. In regards to older songs and whether a bright and uplifting sound is difficult to connect with, no that’s not the case. Of course some of the older songs had darker themes and sounds too. In every song there are certain sounds or keynotes that I connect with and those will be explored, whether bright or dark.