Wednesday, March 15, 2023

A Man, the Spirit, and the Sea: A Conversation with The Waterboys’ Mike Scott

Seeing some particular pictures posted by Carol Shapiro in the “I Miss Play It Again Records” Facebook group, these images sent me whirling and tumbling again into the mid-1980s rabbit hole of my musical obsessions. Yes, that’s me in that picture with that singer! We had stayed up so late, almost until dawn, doing an interview in his hotel room. Joe, not pictured, one of two close high school friends who mentored me most in all things rock n roll, must have snapped the shot. 

It’s hard to imagine being more addicted to live music and music fandom than I am now in late middle age, but then I remember my teenage abandon and passionate early days as a DIY music journalist and DJ, during the last two years of high school in the Detroit suburbs. There’s something about those days and those artists that keeps drawing me back to revisit, rediscover, and even crash into things I never heard or forgot about. Critiques of nostalgia and memory aside, I am going there. 
The perpetually prolific Scottish singer Mike Scott continues to record and perform under the banner of The Waterboys, and although he doesn’t often make it to the States, I did see him perform once at Nashville’s 3rd and Lindsley, in this century. Although I have dug by dabbling more than devouring the last few decades of his extensive output, it’s all still so stunning and topical, with Scott being as much a mystic and rebel as ever.

Back then, This Is The Sea undid us and remade us, at times heavy and earnest, yet soaring and ineffable, such a strong diet for a few denim-wearing, fist-waving teenagers searching for the truth on vinyl and cassette. I found The Waterboys because they were opening for U2 on the Unforgettable Fire tour. I found The Waterboys because theirs was the “big music,” like U2, like Simple Minds, like Big Country, like the Alarm. In retrospect, Waterboys were at least as rootsy and authentic as any of those peers and would find their own unparalleled trajectory.
Anticipating their opening set at the Fox Theatre for the first leg of Unforgettable Fire, I might have written Mike Scott some handwritten paper fan mail, and I might have tracked down his label reps in New York, as was my custom as an ambitious young rock writer who had recently figured out how to work the phones for all kinds of perks. Somewhere I have the photo set of my dear friend and fellow music-freak Scott Greenberg and me dancing in my second-floor loft-style suburban bedroom and reading that handwritten reply from Mike Scott. I still get the gloriously goofy chills when I recall how much we reached out to all our favorites back then and how many of them reached right back. 

The advent of streaming services and enough income for concert tickets have made my middle-aged music fandom as varied and immeasurable as ever. Although I remained an avid listener through the 1990s, I really only got my hands on a handful of new records during those days. In the early 00s, I depended on others to give me tips, but soon the bug would bite me fully, incurably again. 

A Man, the Spirit, and the Sea: A Conversation with The Waterboys’ Mike Scott
originally published in Disoriented Rain Dance # 3, Summer 1986

THE WATERBOYS played Traxx last November [1985] in support of the record This Is The Sea. It was raining early Sunday morning when JOE and ANDY had the following conversation in Mike’s hotel room. The dialogue lingered well into the morning, but through tired eyes came the following expressions. 

Joe: You seem to have a pretty good memory, to take in a lot of things.
Mike: Yeah, I got a good memory.
Andy: Last time we talked, you said, “I don’t really consider myself a spiritual person, but that doesn’t mean I’m not” and not it seems you’re talking about that a real lot now....
Mike: (after long pause) Well, when we last spoke, these kinds of ideas were in the songs, songs like “The Big Music” and so on, but I hadn’t been able to articulate them as well as I have now. Like the song “Spirit” especially. I think I was able to compress a lot of my thinking into one short song. And I get asked about that song a lot, and I can talk about it. And that I wrote that song -- was able to write it and receive it like that -- taught me a lot. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Joe: Even if it didn’t, the song speaks for itself, almost. Your writing shows a sort of fervor for improvement, for you and the people in your life. Is that a goal of yours, to constantly improve?
Mike: Yeah, well I always want to improve myself. I think every human has a duty to life to be worthy of the life that he’s been given. The best thing you can do with any gift is to make full use of it and to learn from it and to do good with it. We get given life, and it’s our job to improve ourselves and to grow and to learn. Everything that happens to us in a life is a lesson: every incident or situation we’re in has got it’s own opportunities or problems. I just wanna get better at what I do and improve as a human being. That’s important; that’s the best thing you can do.

Joe: So do you think it would help other people; it’s rub off of you and onto them?
Mike: Well, anyone who changes themselves positively and works to improve themselves will rub off on other people. Yeah, if they’re doing it right. But it’s easy to kid yourself. Man’s capacity for self-illusion is huge -- not to be underestimated. You can spend years thinking you’re improving yourself and wake up one day and find that you’ve just been kidding yourself and that you’re bleaker than you’ve ever been.
Andy: Who rubbed off on you?
Mike: My mother.
Andy: You used to do a fanzine yourself. What rubbed off on you enough to put a magazine out.?
Mike: I went into a record shop one time in my hometown and saw -- this is in 1977 -- and saw a bunch of fanzines. That was punk rock, y’know? I think I saw “Sniffin’ Glue” and “The Next Big Thing,” which were two of the first fanzines, and I thought, “Oh, I could do that,” so I did.
Andy: Who was the person you were most glad to talk to?
Mike: (pauses) Richard Hell and the Clash on the same night, they were touring together. I met Patti Smith, sort of through the fanzines, but not for an interview or anything. She was the best.
Joe: She’s one of your heroes.
Mike: Heroines
Joe: Heroines, yeah.
Mike: Well, not really. I don’t think of her like that. I wouldn’t idolize her or put her on a pedestal. I think she was a great artist. I don’t know what she’s doing now, artistically. But she was great and she never got the recognition she deserved. She was really damn good. 
Joe: She’s a mother now, isn’t she? 
Mike: Yeah.
Joe: Maybe that’s her art now, rubbing off on her children.
Mike: I’m sure.
Joe: You could only hope.
Mike: I’m sure you’re right.

Joe: What about Van Morrison? You speak a lot of him. Is that the same type of thing? 
Mike: Well, I like him. He’s a musician. Like Patti Smith wasn’t really a musician, she was something else. Van is a great musician. When he was young, you know he used to sing in clubs and he grew up in musical families, so he’s got rhythm and blues and folk music in his blood. So when he performs and works, he’s drawing on all that. He’s really a great musician.
Joe: Maybe there’s more of a technical inspiration.
Mike: No, because not only is he a great musician, he’s a great singer, and he’s also a very inspired musician. He closes his eyes and lets something else speak through him.
Joe: Do you think you’re a good singer, a good musician?
Mike: I don’t think I’m a very good musician. I think I am a better singer than I am a musician.
Joe: The feeling is obviously there.
Mike: I’m getting better.
Joe: You can only get better?
Mike: No, you can get worse, too. You can slide.
Joe: If you’re not paying attention, but you seem to be paying attention.
Andy: You seem to have a lot of awareness. I mean, if you’re aware of the people around you, your surroundings, it’s a lot better than just doing your own personal thing.
Mike: Oh, you’re right.

Andy: What kind of role do you think the weather plays in your music?
Mike: Weather?
Joe: The elements, you seem to be consumed by the elements.
Mike: The weather’s really useful because if you want to set a scene in a song, you can describe what the weather’s like, and everybody knows about the weather. I can say that it’s raining or it’s a cloudy day or the sun is shining or the leaves are falling or whatever you want. Everybody knows day like that, so it usually gets into a song as a tool. It sets the scene. It draws people in.
Joe: You seem to have a fascination with [indigenous Americans]. How did you acquire that fascination?
Mike: I don’t really know, it just happened to me. It’s not like that. I’m not fascinated by them now, it’s something I went through. I was really mad keen on them for a while and just devoured books and everything that I could. Now it’s something that, something that I learned along the way. I’d still like to go to reservations and so on. I’m still interested, but it was a phase for me about four years ago. Maybe it’ll come alive again as a fascination. For about six months, I was living in the year 1860. You know, it was like that.
Joe: I saw Medicine Bow on a map [Also the name of a Waterboys song].
Mike: There really is a place named Medicine Bow?
Joe: Yes, there is!
Mike: I made that up, you see. Quite funny that it exists. In Canada?
Joe: It’s in the states. Do you have a map?
Mike: No.
Joe: It’s maybe in Montana or Nebraska.

Andy: How does the river become the sea? Does that have a parallel in your own life?
Mike: Lots of them. For example, I’m here in America touring, and my life as a musician is a lot more serious than it’s ever been before. I’ve got more responsibilities, I’ve got more problems. I’ve got more things to work out. There’s more money involved, be it record company money that’s put out to support the group or potential money that can be made.

There’s more people involved because there’s a bigger audience. There’s more people on the road with us. It’s a much more serious thing than say, it was last year when we were touring with U2. 

And I could say that, that tour, THAT was the river, but THIS is the sea, because that was just something that led to here. In two years time, when it’s a different situation again, I’ll look back on now and say THAT was the river, but THIS is the sea. It’s like, life always changes. It keeps getting different and the things that are solutions this year won’t necessarily be solutions next year, because one has to adjust to new situations. And that’s what the song is about, a person who is adjusting to new situations. And you try to make sense, but you know that you once had the key, and, of course, you can get the key again, you just have to assimilate to a new situation. The song can be applied to any situation where change happens.

Joe: I was happy about the album title because the sea seems to be pretty much the only perfect place left on Earth, because [humanity] can’t be there. [Humanity] seems sometimes to be God’s mistake.
Mike: [adamantly] [Humans are] not God’s mistake. [Humans are] God’s greatest creation.
Joe: It’s just an opinion.
Mike: No, no it’s not an opinion. One can have an opinion on what kind of creature [we are], but [humans are] the only creature we know of in the Universe that has a reasoning brain, that is conscious of [themselves], and is able to consider [themselves]. And as such, the Universe sees itself through our eyes. We’re the only creature that can look at the Universe and ask questions about it.
Andy: This creation, that we’ve kind of, [humans] have made a mistake of a lot of it.
Mike: Yeah, of course [we have], but [we’re] learning.

Joe: Is there a goal you want to reach in music?
Mike: I just want to get better. I just want to get closer to home.
Joe: So you can say what you’re saying.
Mike: So people will understand it. And I think that the best thing a musician could hope for is to be a good tool, a good instrument, not the guitar. The musician is the instrument through which music speaks, like I choose the notes I play.
Joe: The guitar doesn’t play itself.
Mike: No. The best music is either written or played when the musician has the least thoughts getting in the way, when it’s coming down pure. Van Morrison was really good at that.

Joe: Is there a time or situation when you write best?
Mike: When my mind is not busy; when my mind is calm.
Andy: What do you do to clear your mind?
Mike: I haven’t cleared it for so long. My mind hasn’t been cleared for over a year; there’s a lot of debris floating around.
Joe: Do you ever agonize over songs?
Mike: Sure, I spend months on ‘em. Some of the one I like best are the ones that come out easy. The songs “Spirit,” “Savage Earth Heart,” or “A Pagan Place” are three of my favorites.
Joe: “Spirit” seemed like something that came out in a moment.
Mike: I can’t remember writing it, but I have it on a piece of paper, so I must have done it.

Andy: What is the connection between “Savage Earth Heart” and “The Pan Within”?
Mike: (after long pause) Well, maybe you believe that inside every human, there is a soul, and the soul is a drop out of the ocean that is the body of what we call God. Those two songs are both about getting to the soul. “Savage Earth Heart” is what I named the soul in my ignorance when I wrote the song. And “The Pan Within” is an aspect of the soul that in the song is reached by a selfless and positive love between two people.
Joe: Would it seem . . . like it would all tie in?
Mike: What do you mean?
Andy: Everything kind of ties together in your life?
Mike: Mmmmm....Everything everywhere ties in together. I can think of a lot of worthy concepts and put them in songs like “Spirit.” But translating it into your everyday life is quite different than that. It’s hard. If I could do that, I’d be Mahatma Gandhi. I wouldn’t be a rock n roll musician, you know? I wouldn’t be smoking a cigarette.

Joe: Do you have set ideas for your lyrics, or is it pretty much ambiguous?
Mike: You mean does a song mean one specific thing?
Joe: Yeah.
Mike: I think the best songs are the ones that either, well . . . I like songs that can be open to different interpretations, that can relate to a number of different situations. But then I think of Bob Dylan who wrote songs like “It Ain’t Me Babe” which is about a very definite situation. There’s no mistaking what that song’s about, and that’s a great song-- better than any other he’s written.

Joe: You seem to admire Bob Dylan a lot.
Mike: Sure.
Carol: You seem to be “religious.” I was thinking of what you think of Dylan and the way he considers religion?
Mike: He’s pretty smart.
Andy: What do you think of his whole trip, though?
Mike: I think he was trying to find himself.
Joe: He seems to be exposed more than most people.
Mike: It must be pretty difficult living with the legend of Bob Dylan for 20 years.
Joe: Maybe he wishes he was still Robert Zimmerman working at his father’s store.
Mike: He must have such moments, yeah. His father was a carpenter [actually, he ran a furniture and appliance store, with his brothers].

[Pictured - fanzine spread of Waterboys interview; Carol & I with Mike after our wee hours interview. Mike live at Traxx.]

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