Mike Scott had a milestone birthday in December, but The Waterboys frontman is not letting it get to him. “I’m 60,” he says, “going on 17.”
He certainly looks trim. No alcohol in 30 years, no cigarettes and lots of running in Herbert Park near his south Dublin home all help. As, he adds, does the business of being a father to a pair of children aged six and two.
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“Fatherhood keeps you on your toes,” he says, with a grin, “and it’s helped with creativity, too. I’m always making stories up for them, making little songs up, so even when I’m not doing Waterboys stuff, I’m writing – it’s a constant flow.”
Today, the Scot, who has made Ireland his home for many years, cuts a striking, flamboyant figure in a busy Dublin hotel, with his long, greying hair peeping out from under the Stetson hat that has become something of a trademark of late. He’s proud of the new Waterboys album – a lucky 13th – that the accompanying PR bumf describes as “genre-defying”.
“I don’t care what kind of style of music it is. I hate being pigeon-holed, being put in a box. The whole concept of genres is something that has crept up on us over the last 30 or 40 years – if you think about Beatles records like Revolver, what would you do if you tried to impose genres on that?
“I’ve always made records the same way. I just go where the songs seem to direct me.”
Where the Action Is sounds unmistakably like a Waterboys album, but there are unexpected flourishes, too. It’s not the sound of a band happy to dash a new album that’s a mere rehash of what they have done before. Scott seems stunned by the idea that any musician would release music without taking the utmost care.
One of the songs, ‘Out of All this Blue’, was written for the previous album – and it shares a name with it, too – but despite labouring over it in 2017, Scott was unhappy with it. He worked on it constantly for this album until it met his expectations.
“I’ll go back to anything if I think I can make it good,” he says, “but I’d never want to release something if I knew in my heart that it wasn’t as good as it could be.”
He cites the example of one of his early songs, ‘Medicine Bow’, from breakthrough third album This is the Sea. “That was the first time that I wrote a middle-eight and I can still remember how good that feeling was. I’d known the song was missing something. I could have easily said, ‘Oh come on – it’s good enough’. But I had a strong intuition not to go there. And now I love middle-eights. You never stop learning.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Scott is as happy to talk about his old music as he is about the new material.
“I don’t feel removed from what I wrote in the past. I find it easy to bring myself back there to the way I was when I made those records. When I play old songs live, I can still sing almost all of them in the same keys. I can still find the same feeling.
“At the same time, I feel like my musical capacity has evolved a lot. I hear a lot of my earlier song-writing as two-dimensional. Perhaps not the lyrics, it’s more the music. But some of the [old] songs still feel three-dimensional to me, like ‘All the Things She Gave Me’ from the second album and ‘The Whole of the Moon’. But some of them feel two-dimensional and I find it not so satisfying playing them.”
Scott meets Review the evening before the latest Waterboys tour kicks off in Derry. He says he loves the business of touring, and quips that the experience now is a far cry from when he was a 22-year-old fronting his first band, Another Pretty Face.
“It was 1980 and we did 25 gigs in 26 days supporting Stiff Little Fingers. I was completely inexperienced and I burnt out my voice. I panicked a bit, but it came back quickly. I’m very careful with it now and it’s easy to forget how delicate the vocal cords can be and how physical it is [to sing professionally].”
Scott is sometimes thought of as a musician’s musician and he’s certainly a songwriter that others look up to. He says one of the things that gives him the most pleasure is when new generations are inspired by his work.
“Adam from The War on Drugs is a big fan and he did ‘A Pagan Place’ for several years as part of his stage show. And there’s a band called Dawes… I’m a fan of them and then they covered ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ out of nowhere. I’d just heard that Tame Impala are big Waterboys fans. Who knew? I love that kind of stuff.
“And I find huge inspiration in what other people are doing. I’ll borrow or adapt things – I don’t like to rip off. Sometimes I’ll take something that’s actually in someone’s songs, but I’ll always credit it. On this album, on the track ‘In My Time on Earth’, I credit this great bunch of musicians, the Illumination Band. I loved what they were about and got in touch with them.”
Scott won an Ivor Novello song-writing award for one of The Waterboys’ most emblematic songs, ‘The Whole of the Moon’, and he says he has always applied a rigorous concentration when he feels he has something special in his head.
“Sometimes a potential title will come to me or a bit of melody. I’ll use any scrap to get going. I write on piano and guitar. I work at home in my little studio now and I work fast because I know I have a few hours before I have to pick my daughter up in a few hours. It concentrates the mind.”
While some songs have taken years to satisfy him, other’s have been lightening quick. “‘A Pagan Place’… the lyric for that came to me as quickly as it took to write the words down. One line would suggest the next line and so on. They’re golden moments – they don’t happen that often, although I think most songwriters have had that experience.
“And they can happen at any stage. Thirty years ago, I came home drunk and I went to sit at the piano and this song, ‘Love and Death’, just came to me in one go.” It would eventually appear on the Dream Harder album in 1993.
If his last album featured love songs inspired by his wife, the controversial Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi – aka Rokudenashiko -Where the Action Is goes back in time to his formative years as a musician living in London in the 1970s.
“It’s now been so long since those times, it’s almost historic,” he says. “What happened in those days now seems of interest to me in a way that it didn’t when it was just 10 years ago. Now, when I look back, I think, ‘My God – what an amazing time. And it takes time passing to realise that.'”
Meanwhile, a follow-up album is almost in the can, although he says that as it’s so different to what he has done previously, he may release it under a different moniker.
“It’s got The Waterboys on it, but maybe it should be The Waterpeople. It’s a left-field, oddball, mash-up, part comedic record.”
The hotel is filling up. Scott has talked a lot – and he’s conscious of his voice. Derry – and a UK tour – await. He has to go.
“I’m fitted with software – and have been since I was a teenager – that makes me want to be the best,” he says, “that makes me want to write better songs than anyone else and have a better band than anyone else.
“I’ve never been fitted with software that makes me want to be more famous or more successful than anyone else. And that’s never changed.”
The Waterboys headline the Fever Pitch festival, Galway, on June 1. ‘Where the Action Is’ is out now
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