THE OUTER LIM­ITS

Prog - - Contents - Words: Paul Rees Por­traits: Paul MacManus

Mike Scott and The Water­boys were al­ways known for their ‘big mu­sic’ and mori­bund fisher folk. But just how prog were they?

Whether he was lead­ing The Water­boys or go­ing solo, this Scot­tish mu­si­cian has al­ways been un­afraid to hold back in a mu­sic industry that “re­wards rep­e­ti­tion”, and he’s just dropped a new dou­ble al­bum. He grew up lis­ten­ing to the stuff, so now we have to ask: how prog is Mike Scott?

On this par­tic­u­lar mid­sum­mer’s af­ter­noon, Mike Scott, founder and sole per­ma­nent mem­ber of The Water­boys, is sat in a tucked-away café in his adopted home town of Dublin, re­call­ing the specifics of his ado­les­cent prog fix­a­tion.

“Around 1971, ’72, I was a big Pink Floyd fan,” he says, the lilt of his na­tive Ed­in­burgh still very much ap­par­ent in his voice. “My favourite Floyd al­bum was Med­dle. I was also a huge King Crim­son fan and, I have to say, a teenage devo­tee of Blue Öys­ter Cult, and es­pe­cially of their Spec­tres al­bum.”

Not that Scott has ever made mu­sic that sounded re­motely like the Floyd or King Crim­son, much less the ven­er­a­ble Amer­i­can hard rock­ers. How­ever, dur­ing 30-plus years both at the helm of The Water­boys and as a solo artist, he has fol­lowed his own path just as doggedly as, say, Roger Wa­ters or Robert Fripp.

Now 58, Scott grew up in Ed­in­burgh want­ing to be a “heroic” foot­baller, be­fore dis­cov­er­ing Dy­lan, The Bea­tles and the Stones, and be­ing moved to pick up a gui­tar. He passed through the typ­i­cal litany of short-lived school bands and af­ter an ill-starred year at the city’s univer­sity study­ing English Lit­er­a­ture and Phi­los­o­phy, he put to­gether one that stuck: An­other Pretty Face in 1978. They man­aged to get a record deal with Vir­gin, and Scott moved to Lon­don.

An­other Pretty Face got as far as be­ing on the cover of mu­sic weekly Sounds. Scott, though, rest­less even then, broke the band up and as­sem­bled The Water­boys to bet­ter re­alise his more vault­ing as­pi­ra­tions. They be­came part of a kind of move­ment for the first five years of their ex­is­tence, with Scott as one of its totemic fig­ure­heads. This was along­side fel­low 80s trail­blaz­ers U2, Sim­ple Minds and Big Coun­try, un­der the ban­ner of ‘The Big Mu­sic’, so called af­ter the sig­na­ture sin­gle from The Water­boys’ sec­ond al­bum, 1984’s A Pa­gan Place.

The next year’s This Is the Sea was their water­shed. Wide-eyed and rous­ing, it gave them a break­through hit, The Whole Of The Moon, which climbed into the UK Top 30 but stalled when Scott re­fused to lip-sync to get on Top Of The Pops. In any case, by then he was al­ready look­ing ahead to a new dawn for the band.

Soon enough, he had jet­ti­soned that line-up of The Water­boys and sur­rounded him­self with an­other, de­camp­ing with this new group of mu­si­cians to a coun­try house on the west coast of Ire­land. There, Scott aimed to con­jure mu­sic of a more pas­toral, soul­ful bent, re­alised on the Fish­er­man’s Blues al­bum of 1988. Now re­garded as his mas­ter­piece, at the time it baf­fled and shed a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of his band’s au­di­ence.

“I grew up in the 60s and every time The Bea­tles or Dy­lan made an al­bum, the fron­tier changed, be­cause they moved it,” Scott says to­day. “In the 70s, it was Bowie and Roxy Mu­sic that went on chang­ing their mu­si­cal cos­tume. I loved that. For me, that’s what one should do with mu­sic, and it’s a nat­u­ral state. At the same time, I know it’s cost me a lot of fans. The mu­sic busi­ness also isn’t geared up for rapid change, but to re­ward rep­e­ti­tion.”

Even so, and ever since, Scott has roved and roamed, his ca­reer in­creas­ingly com­ing to ap­pear as an ex­er­cise in first and fore­most sat­is­fy­ing his own in­quis­i­tive­ness. He made an­other ‘rag­gle-tag­gle’ record with that in­car­na­tion of The Water­boys, Room To Roam, and af­ter that a more con­ven­tional-sound­ing but near-con­cept set in­spired by

I WANT OTHER SONG­WRIT­ERS TO DO GREAT WORK BE­CAUSE IT’S A BIG­GER IN­SPI­RA­TION FOR ME TO BE BET­TER AND TRUMP THEM.

his noc­tur­nal ad­ven­tur­ing, Dream Harder, in 1993. For that one, he re­cruited a cast of top-class ses­sion mu­si­cians, but find­ing him­self un­able to gather a line-up to tour, ditched

The Water­boys name and went off un­der his own in­stead.

In this ven­ture, he set a course that was al­to­gether op­po­site to the slickly pro­duced Dream Harder, mak­ing a hushed, in­ti­mate record, Bring ’Em

All In, at the Find­horn Foun­da­tion, an out-of-the-way com­mu­nal re­treat in the Scot­tish north-east.

“The right way to go solo is to do what Ge­orge Michael did, which is go to Amer­ica and make a record pro­duced by the great Jerry Wexler,” says Scott. “Ge­orge’s Care­less Whis­per had an amaz­ing sax hook and all the best ses­sion mu­si­cians in the world, whereas I made a one-man acous­tic record at a spir­i­tual re­treat in Scot­land. It wasn’t so much about my want­ing to es­cape, but I had got bored mu­si­cally and al­ways have been a bit of a seeker.

“In to­tal it was a very tricky time for me, but to quote the song, I found what I was look­ing for at Find­horn and lived there for a cou­ple of years. The ex­pe­ri­ences I had were won­der­ful, ed­u­ca­tional, and still serve me now on a daily ba­sis. I learned to cut my­self a bit of slack and to trust to in­stinct.”

Nei­ther Bring ’Em All In or its more fleshed-out fol­low-up, Still Burn­ing, man­aged to find more than a de­voted cult fol­low­ing, and so, in 2000, Scott res­ur­rected The Water­boys. His first steps back into the fold were fal­ter­ing. He touted their come­back al­bum,

A Rock In The Weary Land, as a bold, new form, ‘Sonic Rock’, but re­ally it sounded as if he had been lis­ten­ing to too much Ra­dio­head. The record slipped by, unloved.

Sub­se­quently, Scott re­cov­ered his bear­ings, with­out di­lut­ing his quest­ing spirit. Over the last 14 years he has toured The Water­boys con­sis­tently and put out a clutch of ad­mirable records, each one dif­fer­ent to the other. Prin­ci­pal among these have been 2003’s mostly acous­tic Uni­ver­sal Hall and, in 2011, An Ap­point­ment With Mr Yeats, on which Scott set a col­lec­tion of po­ems by Ire­land’s lit­er­ary gi­ant WB Yeats to mu­sic.

Given the scope of Scott’s vi­sion, the lat­est Water­boys al­bum, this year’s Out Of All This Blue, is per­haps the most in­evitable, since it’s a sprawl­ing dou­ble.

It’s a record that sounds as if it might have been beamed in from an­other, grander era. It was recorded mostly solo by Scott in his home stu­dio, with long-time side­man Steve Wick­ham, Texan gui­tarist Zach Ernst and ace Mus­cle Shoals bassist David Hood among those to over­dub their parts af­ter­wards. Out Of All This Blue echoes most of all the bound­less mood of the great white soul records of the early

70s made by Van Mor­ri­son and Joe Cocker in ca­hoots with Leon Rus­sell – al­beit that Scott also colours his pal­ette with a bat­tery of loops and sam­ples, in­spired by a shop­ping list of hip-hop records rec­om­mended to him by Ernst. This is most no­table on one of the stand­out tracks, New York I Love You, which uses Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane riff as a jump­ing-off point into a heady col­lage of ap­pro­pri­ated and found sounds.

“I love that Joe Cocker and Leon Rus­sell Mad Dogs & English­men sound, and the movie is re­quired view­ing on The Water­boys tour bus,” Scott says. “In fact, we’re go­ing to be tour­ing this au­tumn with an ex­panded band of two drum­mers and girl singers. From 1967 to 1972, that’s a hal­cyon pe­riod of mu­sic for me, and one that I adore dip­ping into. You had all these great play­ers like Jim Kelt­ner and Nicky Hop­kins shap­ing records by so many dif­fer­ent artists.

“At the same time, I’ve used hip-hop pro­duc­tion val­ues all over this record. I ad­mire how some­one like Ken­drick La­mar will throw any­thing into his records and break up the rhythm to make a state­ment. They’re like au­dio movies in that sense, and I wanted to do some­thing like that. For­tu­itously, our drum­mer, Ralph Salmins, put me on to a web­site called pro­duc­er­loops.com that houses all these in­cred­i­ble col­lec­tions of loops. I was like a kid in a toy shop.”

The ma­jor­ity of the al­bum’s 34 songs are also re­flec­tive of Scott’s new-found do­mes­tic bliss. Last year, he mar­ried Ja­panese manga artist Megumi Igarashi, and he gives over the fi­nal quar­ter of Out Of All This Blue to rhap­sodic love songs to his wife.

“Two thirds of the record is love songs,” he qual­i­fies. “I’ve never writ­ten so many be­fore, but then I’ve had such a ro­man­tic five or six years. Sev­eral were writ­ten dur­ing the courtship of my wife and some are drawn from other re­la­tion­ships that I’ve had.

“I did split it up con­cep­tu­ally and con­ceive of the whole as four sides of old vinyl. There’s some­thing so evoca­tive about the way vinyl breaks up an al­bum and that you have these nat­u­ral rest­ing places.

THE RIGHT WAY TO GO SOLO IS TO DO WHAT GE­ORGE MICHAEL DID, TO GO TO AMER­ICA AND MAKE A RECORD PRO­DUCED BY JERRY WEXLER, WHEREAS I MADE A ONE-MAN

ACOUS­TIC AL­BUM AT A SPIR­I­TUAL

RE­TREAT IN SCOT­LAND.

“In the last few years I’ve also be­come a par­ent [he has a daugh­ter with singer-ac­tress Camille O’Sul­li­van and an eight-month-old son with Igarashi], and that’s di­vert­ing in the most won­der­ful way. It’s ac­tu­ally helped my mu­sic. My lit­tle girl is four and I’m con­stantly mak­ing up songs for her, which means my creative en­gine is run­ning all the time. All of the songs on this new record were writ­ten in the last cou­ple of years and in an at­mos­phere of con­stant song-mak­ing.”

Yet for all of this ap­par­ent con­tent­ment, Scott, one of our most un­der­val­ued crafts­men, still burns to be heard, and for his due recog­ni­tion. While he doesn’t claim to have scaled the heights of a Dy­lan or a Leonard Co­hen, he would back him­self against any song­writer from his gen­er­a­tion and the next. To his mind, with Out Of All This Blue, he’s lay­ing down a gaunt­let to his con­tem­po­raries. Or, as he ex­presses it, “Let them beat this.”

“I’ve al­ways wanted to be the best,” he says. “It’s a healthy com­pet­i­tive­ness, not toxic. I ac­tu­ally want other song­writ­ers to do great work be­cause it’s a big­ger in­spi­ra­tion for me to be bet­ter and trump them.

“One of my favourite sto­ries is about the great coun­try singer Hank Wil­liams. When he used to per­form at the Grand Ole Opry in Nash­ville, be­tween sets he would sit on the stairs to the stage door. As the other artists came up, Hank would peer at them from un­der­neath his Stet­son and say, ‘You can’t write ’em like old Hank, can ya?’ I like that. I’ll be sat there when

U2, or Noel Gal­lagher, or Muse walk by, say­ing, ‘You can’t write ’em like old Mike, can ya?’”

PRETTY THINGS: MIKE SCOTT (FAR RIGHT) WITH AN­OTHER PRETTY FACE.

THE WATER­BOYS’ NEW DOU­BLE AL­BUM, OUT OF ALL THIS BLUE.

FISH­ER­MAN’S BLUES.

ABOVE: AN OUTTAKE OF THE FISH­ER­MAN’S BLUES AL­BUM COVER SHOOT, TAKEN OUT­SIDE SPIDDAL HOUSE IN GAL­WAY, 1987. BE­LOW: THE WATER­BOYS’ CLAS­SIC 1988 AL­BUM

1985’S THIS IS THE SEA, WHICH IN­CLUDED THE SMASH HIT THE WHOLE OF THE MOON.

THE BIG MU­SIC: THE WATER­BOYS LIVE ON THE TUBE IN 1986.

MIKE SCOTT: AL­WAYS AIM­ING FOR THAT ‘WOW’ FAC­TOR IN HIS SONGS.

SCOTT BE­SIDE A POR­TRAIT OF WB YEATS IN 2009. BE­LOW: 2011’S AN AP­POINT­MENT WITH MR YEATS AL­BUM.

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