Songwriter Interviews

Mike Scott of The Waterboys

by Dan MacIntosh

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The stories behind "Whole Of The Moon" and "Red Army Blues," and why rock music has "outlived its era of innovation."



Mike Scott is the singer and primary songwriter for The Waterboys, a band that has explored a wide range of musical styles since its formation in 1983. Their first music was termed "The Big Music," which linked the band's big ideas, sweeping sound and epic songs with other likeminded acts, most notably U2. The band outlasted this initial stylistic impression, however, going on to explore folk, traditional Irish music, country sounds and the blues. One song, oftentimes given as an example of the act's "Big Music" categorization, is "The Whole Of The Moon" that Scott notes was also influenced by Hendrix-ian funkster, Prince, evidence of his myriad inspirations.

We first spoke with Scott in 2013 for Bruce Pollock's column They're Playing My Song, where he discussed the song that had the biggest impact on his career: "Fisherman's Blues." In this interview, we explore "The Whole Of The Moon," "Red Army Blues," and several tracks from the 2017 Waterboys album, Out Of All this Blue. We also find out why Mike believes hip-hop is the new frontier, and why his punk sensibilities compelled him to gob on a building Led Zeppelin made famous.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): The new album, Out Of All this Blue, has 34 tracks on it, which is a lot of music. Why is this such a fertile, creative period for you right now?

David Hood is one of the Swampers (as mentioned in "Sweet Home Alabama") who started Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama, where Paul Simon, Rod Stewart and many other famous names recorded, typically using Hood and his co-owners as the backing band. His son is Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers.
Mike Scott: Three reasons. First, I've had some great musicians in the band over the last few years, particularly special American musicians. David Hood from Muscle Shoals on bass, Brother Paul from Memphis on keyboards and Zach [Ernst] from Austin on lead guitar. As a British musician, I find it very inspiring having these Americans in the band. And especially David Hood, who played on so many great records as part of the famous Muscle Shoals rhythm section. He played with Wilson Pickett, Aretha, James Brown, The Staple Singers, Percy Sledge. Many great soul artists. Etta James is another. And for me, having a guy who played on those golden age soul records, it was really inspiring. He was the real deal. Still is. He made my songs sound great on tour for the last Waterboys album, so I found it inspiring knowing he was going to play on the record.

Secondly, I became a first-time dad at the age of 54 in 2013. I'm constantly making up little songs for my daughter, and even though those songs could be like, [singing] "Put the right foot into the right shoe, and the left foot into the left," which might be a little bit trying for Waterboys fans, they do the business for my daughter and they mean that my creative juices are going to be flowing. It's only a short step from, "You put your right foot into your right shoe" to writing "If I Was Your Boyfriend" or "Love Walks In." It's all the same thing. It's songwriting inspiration, and if the wheels are turning, it's easy for me to get down to writing some grown-up rock and roll-soul songs.

The third inspiration is that I listened to a lot of great old soul and funk music, and that had an impact on me.

Songfacts: Let's talk about some of the songs on the new album. There's so much there, that I hear something different every time I listen to it, which I think is about the highest compliment anyone can pay to an album, because it continues to reveal new things to me.

Your music has always been deeply spiritual, and one of the singles, "Do We Choose Who We Love?" actually asks a question. And I'm just curious if, through writing that song, you've come to a conclusion: Do we choose love, or does love choose us?

Scott: You know, I don't know the answer to that question, and I should say that the chorus to that song, including its lyric, was written by my co-writer Freddie Stevenson. I probably would not have thought of writing a song with the title "Do We Choose Who We Love," but he did. And when I heard it, I loved it. And so, I wrote most of the verse lyrics, but the actual concept of the song is Freddie's.

Songfacts: Is that still an open question for you?

Scott: Do we choose who we love? I don't know the answer. I'm thinking of my wife and how I met her and fell in love with her. Was I a piece of a larger plan, or was I the author of my own destiny? And you know, ultimately, I don't care.

Songfacts: It's kind of funny because for people in the Christian tradition there's the age-old argument: Does God choose us, or do we choose God? Is it the Calvinist position that somehow we were pre-destined, or is it just of our own free will? In a sense, romance is the same way because I look back on my relationship and I know I fell in love with my wife. But how she fell into my life, maybe there as a greater power at work there that I'm not aware of.

Scott: And, of course, we only have a limited perspective, as incarnate human beings. I like the teachings of Caroline Myss, the spiritual author. She reckons we have a number of agreements already in place with other souls, and we will meet them in a combination of relationships in the forthcoming life. I would be inclined to believe in that.

Caroline Myss is a bestselling author, and a speaker on a variety of subjects, including human consciousness, spirituality and mysticism.
So, my wife and I may have known each other in a previous life, or even if there's no such thing as reincarnation, which I don't know for sure, we've known each as souls, in the place that souls are before incarnation. We have the agreement that we're going to meet, and we're going to play the role of husband and wife together.

Songfacts: When you meet somebody and you have this immediate connection that you would assume would take time to create, and yet it's already there, this love at first sight, you must wonder if there's something else that happened beforehand that set that up.

Scott: Indeed. Or whether it's just a powerful chemistry that impacts immediately. Who knows?

Songfacts: I like what you say. You choose not to know for sure, but just to appreciate the mystery.

Scott: Something I do know for sure is the Law of Karma. It impacts on our lives every day. So, everything that I've done, have set in motion, connects and has repercussions and then acts out in my future life. If that's true, and I believe it is, then love relations can also be part of that outworking.

Who knows what I've done in the past, or has been done to me in the past, or what combined actions have happened in the past to ensure that my wife and I would meet at a certain point, and what happens then is going to happen. But you can disappear up your own bellybutton thinking about this for too long, and maybe the best thing is to just get on with life.

Songfacts: It's kind of funny because it leads me to ask about one of my favorite songs of yours, "Whole Of The Moon," which seems to contrast two types of people, one that stays in their room and tries to figure it all out, and the other who seems to naturally understand. Is that part of the inspiration for that song, that contrast between the two types of people?

Scott: I wrote the song when I was 26 years old, and I was discovering that there was so much more than I had ever known. There was so much more to learn than I'd even been hinted at in the culture I'd grown up in. I had a strong sense of wonderment about that, and I realized there were people who had vastly more information in their imaginations and experiences than I had. And so that's what inspired that song.

Songfacts: People have been speculating about who is the inspiration for that song. I've heard C.S. Lewis. I've heard Prince. Nikki Sudden.

Scott: I guess it's not a specific person. It's more a type. The point of the song was to illustrate how much more there could be to learn than we had ever guessed. And so, I used that format of songwriting, as if addressing a more knowledgeable or wise being.

Or it could actually have been someone who came into this life and burned out very quickly. Too far, too soon. Like Syd Barret or Jimi Hendrix, who comes in and seems to be possessed by this otherworldly knowledge or inspiration, but burns out quickly then leaves us. That kind of character. It certainly wasn't written about C.S. Lewis, although he was a big spiritual inspiration to me as a child, and through the rest of my life, indeed. And it certainly wasn't about Prince, although there were moments when Prince seemed to embody that sort of person. And it certainly wasn't about my old friend Nikki Sudden, who was a very interesting character, but certainly not the kind of character I was describing in the song.

Songfacts: Let's talk a little bit about Prince. Every time I hear somebody cover a Prince song, I get a little bit misty-eyed because he was just such a special musician. And I think he even covered "Whole of the Moon," if I'm not mistaken. And you've covered his music. What did you take from him, and where can we see some of his inspiration on your songs?

Scott: Well, I loved Prince's music in the mid-1980s. I was in a record shop in Scotland, where I lived as a teenager, and I was back visiting my mum in the summer of 1984. I was in this little, funky independent record shop and there was this incredible guitar solo playing. It was modern, but classic, like someone had teleported Jimi Hendrix onward into the future. And I said to the guy behind the counter, "What the heck is that?" And he showed me the sleeve of the Purple Rain album. And, in fact, it was the solo from the song "Purple Rain" that was playing. So, I bought the album.

Somehow, I had never heard Prince before that. I'd seen his face, of course, in the press, and I'd read about him. I might have heard "1999," which was the single the previous year, but suddenly, I was turned on to him.

So, I went back to London and I played this record for the rest of my band members, including Karl Wallinger, who subsequently became a lifelong Prince fan, and I found Prince's use of space and synthetic sounds to be particularly brilliant. I had never liked synth-pop. I just hated that sound and style. But Prince did something with that synthetic sound that was more musical, more exploratory, and I loved that. I used those sounds on the This Is The Sea album. You can hear it mostly on "The Whole of the Moon" with the little synth sounds. I described what I wanted to hear to Karl, and he played them. Sounds that you would hear on the Purple Rain and Around The World In A Day albums.

Prince was an influence then, and I think he was an influence on the new album because I loved the Sign O' The Times double album that he did. That's one of the five or six double albums that I've loved in my lifetime, along with Exile On Main Street, Blonde On Blonde and The White Album. Prince showed on that album how to make a double album. No filler. It was substantial, and every track was good enough to be a top-class single Prince album. That was my template for Out Of All This Blue: that every track would be good enough to be a top-class Waterboys single album.

Songfacts: One of the songs that stood out is "Kinky's History Lesson." You reference Kinky Friedman. Is it a particular song of Kinky's that you're responding to? Or is it something that he said?

Scott: It was an essay. It was in a book of short writings, the name of which I can't remember, but it's got a cartoon of President Clinton on it, smoking a cigar. I've read most of Kinky Friedman's books. He's a detective novelist, and he also wrote this book of essays or short stories that I read. He had this piece about being in the UK in the second Gulf War and encountering a lot of criticism of President George W. Bush. And he took exception to that. He felt that the British were unfairly criticizing his president. I don't mind that. I think it's his right. But he described the British as Neville Chamberlain's surrender monkeys. And if you know anything about the Second World War, you know that Neville Chamberlain actually declared war on Hitler when Germany invaded Poland, and he sent the British expeditionary force to France to fight the Nazis. And so, I took exception to Kinky's, I felt, very stupid, ignorant and arrogant comment, and it found its way into the song.

I felt the dude needed a history lesson. I think some of these larger-than-life American characters, they get by on personality - they get by with chutzpah. Kinky's also a good songwriter. I'm not taking that away from him, but there was no historical backing for his insult to the British. So, I think this guy needs a history lesson, so here's this song, written in his own language: country and western. Eat that, motherfucker!

Songfacts: Speaking of history lessons, when I was a college student and I heard your song "Red Army Blues," it gave me an insight into history that I hadn't really considered. I've always loved that song, and I also really respect the way you can teach history through pop music.

Scott: That wasn't my intention. I was just inspired to write a song, a story song. I wasn't trying to teach history. But in "Kinky's History Lesson," I am trying to teach history.

Songfacts: There's such an emotional power to "Red Army Blues." Do you recall writing that song, and were you moved by the true story to create that song and put that character's story to life?

Scott: I read a book called The Forgotten Soldier by a guy called Guy Sajer. It was about a Frenchman who was conscripted into the SS to fight for the Nazis. And at the same time I read another book called The Diary Of Vikenty Angarov, about a Russian soldier who advanced with the Red Army, which took Berlin in 1945. When he went back to Russia, Stalin was afraid they'd become to Westernized and that they'd be a divisive force in the USSR. He feared these legions of soldiers coming back with different ideas, perhaps, about democracy. And so, he packed a lot of them off to Siberia, to the Gulag system, including Vikenty Angorov. I don't remember now if it was a true story or fiction. Certainly, based on truth, but I don't know if it was biography or fictionalized truth. I suspect the former, but I'm not certain.

These two books were very inspirational to me, and so I wrote the song. And I remember my girlfriend at the time was a huge Roxy Music fan, and one of her favorite songs was "A Song For Europe," in which Bryan Ferry sang, "jamais, jamais, jamais" at the end of the song. It had that A minor, F, G, E minor chord sequence. So, I nicked that chord sequence, devised this lyric based on these two books. Yes, I was highly inspired and every time I went to the end of a verse, I wanted a real killer line, like, "Seventeen years old, never kissed a girl." That wasn't from the books. That wasn't from "A Song for Europe." That was from my heart. So, I wanted a killer line at the end of each verse to really pique the listener there.

Songfacts: You like to mash up instrumentals for your pre-concert music. Have you ever toyed with the idea of doing an all-instrumental album?

Scott: No, I haven't. Because I'm a singer and a lyricist.

I like instrumentals, and on the next Waterboys album there are going to be a few of my hip-hop-y mash-ups that don't have vocals, or only scat vocals or maybe a spoken voice over, but I don't know that I would make a whole album like that. I'm too much of a songwriter to do that.

Songfacts: Out Of All This Blue is kind of a hip-hop inspired album. What is it about hip-hop that inspires you?

Scott: Rock and roll is boring, man. It's a retro form. It's outlived its era of innovation. I like rock music, and I've made it for most of my life, along with other kinds of music, but the best rock music now is retro. I like The Black Keys. I like the Arctic Monkeys, but when I listen to their records I hear past glories repackaged. I hear elements of glam rock, blues, classic '60s rock, but I don't hear a frontier. Hip-hop, on the other hand, is a frontier. It's ever-changing. It's moving forward into ways of structuring music, ways of assembling music that haven't been done before, and I find that exciting.

I'm a questing musician, always looking for new ways of making music, new things I haven't done before, and I find fruit in hip-hop music. If I listen to a Black Keys record, there's nothing for me to steal, but if I listen to a Kendrick Lamar record, I can listen for five minutes and hear a dozen ideas that I think, "Ooh, I can do something with that," or "Ooh, that gives me another idea."

The records are so original, so fearless, so groundbreaking that it exposes suggestions of where other people can take it, and I'm afraid rock has stopped doing that. That's why white people who are still listening to rock music should go to a record store and check out people like Kendrick Lamar or Anderson Paak, who are making fantastic and inventive pure music. And it doesn't matter what genre it is - it's just great music.

Songfacts: There's a song on the album called "Nashville, Tennessee." Do you find some of the newer country, what they call alt-country, inspiring? Have you explored some of that music?

Scott: Not much, no. The lyrical inspiration behind "Nashville, Tennessee" is our keyboard player, Brother Paul, who is from Memphis. He lives in Nashville because that's where the work is. He's fond of saying, "My soul is in Memphis, but my ass is in Nashville." He said that so many times that it stuck in my head. I thought, "That's a great line. How 'bout I make song around that?"

Musically, the inspiration behind "Nashville, Tennessee" is old-style country-funk, which is one of these moments of music. It happened from 1967 to 1971. Country-funk. It wasn't fully developed. It's sitting there, like an old past world that still has an open window on somewhere new to go. I love that. That sort of interface between country music and soul music. In that period, in the late '60s, you would get a lot of soul artists, like Otis Redding, that would do country numbers, and you would also get country singers who would use elements of funk music. Well, as the '70s progressed, that interface evaporated. Soul singers moved onto different territories, so did country singers. It was a little, strange interlude, and I think it wasn't fully explored. It's an area I might explore further in the future.

Songfacts: You've written about Hank Williams in the past. What other country artists have been an inspiration for you?

Scott: Kris Kristofferson. A great songwriter, of course, but I also like his singing and the way he interprets his own songs.

Willie Nelson. Willie's albums are hit-or-miss-affairs. I don't think he takes his records very seriously. I wish he would get in the studio with a really great, world-class producer who could squeeze out of him the great American record he's not yet made. I think the same of Van Morrison. I wish some great producer would squeeze out of Van the great late-life magnificent album that he could still make. Other country singers I like. Johnny Cash, of course.

Songfacts: Do you listen to any contemporary country singers?

Scott: None of them are coming into my head, so I think the answer must be no.

Songfacts: I want to talk about a few more of the songs on the album. There's one called "Monument." Is that about somebody in particular?

Scott: It is, yes.

Songfacts: Do you care to say who?

Scott: No, I will never say who. It's a famous musician.

Songfacts: Your paths may cross one day, and you don't want to deal with that.

Scott: Oh, I don't care about that. It would turn the story in the song into a story about this famous musician. I just don't want to go there. There's another song on the album, "Mister Charisma," that's about Keith Richards.

Songfacts: I'm going to have to listen to that differently now. I love Keith.

Scott: Me, too.

Songfacts: There's the song "Hammerhead Bar." Is that a real place?

Scott: It was a real place. It doesn't exist anymore. It was John Entwistle's bar, and the first verse of the song is almost a word-for-word description. The rest of the song is my invention, between rock-Babylonian-gods-of-excess type lines.

Songfacts: I want to talk about another favorite song of yours, which is from your earlier period, called "This Is The Sea." The thing I love about that song, and what I think makes it timeless, it always means something to me during different periods in my life. It's this idea of maybe leaving past failures behind, and realizing that the future is unwritten. When you sing that song, does it still feel fresh to you, even in this period in your life?

Scott: I very, very rarely sing it now. I like the record, I like the song, but it's not very satisfying to perform live, for two reasons. One, it's very difficult to recreate that oceanic sound from the record. You would need a battery of guitar players. You would need a horn section and a small string section. Very difficult. I've never had the combination of players that would allow me to do it. So, any live version we've done has been stripped down. Even with a full band, with bass and drums, it still feels stripped down.

And the second reason we don't like doing it so much is, melodically, I think it's a very limiting song. My abilities with melodies have improved a lot, have developed a lot since those days, and that song doesn't really make it for me.

Songfacts: You've talked in the past how you're not really a big fan of music videos. One of the things I heard you say was, videos affect our imagination because we see the video when we hear those songs, rather than imagining something unique to us. However, there are a couple of videos for the new album that feature the same couple. I'm 55 or so, and to see people that are close to my age looking cool, sexy and having fun, is really heartening to me. Was this your idea, or was this your director's idea?

Scott: It was a combination of both, actually. I had the idea of a particular British actor, who I admired, who would be about the same age. He wasn't available, but the director came up with plenty of suggestions of other actors, and Clive Russell, who features in the video, was one of them. We all thought he was the right guy, and it wasn't because he was a particular age [71]. It was just because he had the right humor and self-awareness that would work.

But it turned out that they are obviously in their 40s or 50s, and it does make this point: Why should older people not be sexy and court and have a love life. It's a ridiculous notion that anyone that's sexy has to be young.

Songfacts: I always tell people I don't feel my age. I still love rock and roll, and I still feel alive. When you started out, you probably didn't imagine you would feel like you do now. Do you feel like you're just as alive and creative and excited about life as you were as a young man in your first rock and roll band?

Scott: At least as much. But, you see, young people have no conception of what it's like to be 40 or 50 or 60 or 70, so they can't imagine it. They're completely ignorant of what it's like. As a 58-year-old man, I know exactly what it's like to be a teenager, and a 25-year-old and a 35-year-old. I've experienced them all. In fact, my inner teenager is still alive and well inside of me. It comes out and gives the middle finger to everybody now and then.

Now, I know age is not what you think it is when you're 20, making all these prognostications about what it must be like to be old. A 20-year-old has no idea. I'm sure this is not a new phenomenon.

Songfacts: I rarely talk about album covers, but I'm looking at the cover to Out Of All The Blue, and it's very Bob Dylan-y to me. Was that at all in the thinking? Were you trying to give off that Dylan-y look, or is it just me?

Scott: No, not at all. I just happen to be a guy with fuzzy hair and dark glasses.

Songfacts: ...that looks incredibly like Bob Dylan.

Scott: I don't look anything like Bob Dylan.

Songfacts: In this picture you do, Mike.

Scott: All right. Well, fine. I'm Bob Dylan at 78. Yeah, I can see it. Street Legal. That photo was taken on St. Marks place a few years ago, and I'm sitting, leaning against a trashcan, outside the same building that was pictured on the front cover of Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin.

And I want to tell you that, as a former punk rocker, I considered it my solemn duty to spit on that building. And I did. My inner teenager came out.

The Physical Graffiti cover
Songfacts: I grew up on as much punk rock as you did, but I can't dis Led Zeppelin with you. I'm not gonna agree with you on that one. They were too good of a band.

[long pause]

Songfacts: Are you there?

Scott: Yes, I am. I can't think of anything to respond to that.

Songfacts: You call the album Out Of All This Blue. Is there a story behind the title?

Scott: It's a song title. There's a song called "Out Of All This Blue" that I recorded for the album, but I didn't have it right. It's a lovely song, I love it very much, but I couldn't get it quite right. So, I called the album Out Of All This Blue because it was a good title. However, the song will be on the next album.

And just a very funny tie-in with Led Zeppelin, there is one precursor for naming an album after a song that appears on the follow-up album, and that is, of course, "Houses Of The Holy." The album came out in in 1973, but the song didn't appear on an album until Physical Graffiti in 1975. So, I may have gobbed at the building, but I know my Led Zeppelin history.

Songfacts: So, for a guy that's willing to spit on Led Zeppelin, you sure know a lot about the band's recorded history.

Scott: I spit on the building in the spirit of 1977. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate Jimmy Page and some of Led Zeppelin's music.

November 1, 2017
Get Out Of All This Blue at the Waterboys official site

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Comments: 1

  • Thomas Fioriglio from Long Island, NyFantastic interview. Very insightful and a great conversation. Thanks!
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