As his band release a new album, Mike Scott reveals a passion for CS Lewis books that helped him bond with Bono, writes Richard Purden.
Just a few doors down from where James Joyce rented a room on Shelbourne Road in Dublin, it feels appropriate to meet the man once described by Rolling Stone as a “poet laureate of rock n’ roll”, The Waterboys front-man, founder and chief Mike Scott.
The band are set to release their 13th long-player, Where The Action Is before embarking on a tour for the rest of the year. At the end of 2017, Scott released a “remastered” version of his acclaimed Adventures of a Waterboymemoir.
Undoubtedly his gift for creating a scene in the listener’s head through popular standards such as ‘The Whole Of The Moon’ and ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ translates on the page as much as in song.
Formative experiences described in the book of a teenager in Scotland and a young man in London have inspired new cuts such as ‘London Mick’ about The Clash’s Mick Jones.
“During punk, there was a democracy about music that had been lost in the era of the dinosaur bands” explains Scott.
“It was easy to find out where the band were staying, we’d go and hang out at the hotel.
It was at The Old Waverley Hotel in Edinburgh where Scott first met Jones who bought him a bottle of coca-cola at the bar.
“The song is about my encounters with Mick over the years, I love Mick Jones, he’s such a great f**king guy! He’s always been kind to me, he’s elusive and inscrutable and yet he’s kind.”
‘Where The Action Is’ delivers a kaleidoscopic, genre-hopping adventure that includes Scott’s attempt at rap; ‘Take Me There I Will Follow You’ which he describes as an “educational” experience. The title track is reminiscent of David Bowie’s 1973 foot stomper ‘Watch That Man’.
“It was a song I heard on the Northern Soul circuit by Robert Parker,” explains Scott. “I thought it was a great song but I didn’t like the verses which were about putting on a red dress etc, a bit boring for now so I put new verses on it with my own preoccupations.”
Elsewhere ‘Ladbroke Grove Symphony’ summons a seminal summer in London. It was around this time Scott visited Foyle’s bookshop in Charing Cross where he picked up a clutch of occult and esoteric texts.
As the son of a teacher in Edinburgh, Scott grew up in a “house full of books” reading CS Lewis, firstly The Chronicles of Narnia when he was 8, and progressing to his Cosmic Trilogy, Out Of A Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength by the age of 12.
“I had CS Lewis in my head keeping me straight, says Scott of the writer said to be one of many inspirations on ‘The Whole of the Moon’, which secured him an Ivor Novello Award.
CS Lewis was a focal point in conversations with Bono during the mid-1980s, the two front men “sizing each other up” while creating what become known as The Big Music informed by Scott’s arcane reading list and penchant for epic, cinematic soundscapes.
“I always got the feeling he was wary of me, I think he thought I was some kind of occultist,” smiles Scott. “I see them (U2) rarely these days, the last time saw Bono was in the Groucho Club [legendary Soho hangout] a few years ago and we were still sizing each other up, I’m thinking ‘You didn’t write any songs as good as mine on your last album’ and he’s thinking ‘I’ve not seen you play any stadiums recently’.
“It’s still the same. It’s good- natured… absolutely, there is a history there and a lot of help between the two bands.”
While it’s probably fair to say that Scott helped set the tone for the likes of U2 and Simple Minds when gravitating towards stadium rock, he would take the road less travelled retreating to the west of Ireland to begin the long process of absorbing Celtic and roots music.
“The music was taking me somewhere else. I’d finished making the big sound of the first three records, I didn’t stop liking them but the thought of continuing that music had become very stale.”
Part of the problem was a struggle to replicate the sonic advancements Scott had pushed towards on ‘This Is The Sea’.
“It was never as good live,” he concedes. “The frustration began to make it attractive to make simpler music so that there wouldn’t be a separation between what we did in the studio and on the record.”
Scott’s now long-term sideman and fiddle player from the northside of Dublin, Steve Wickham, joined the band full-time bringing fresh, essential energy to the sound. Saxophone player Anthony Thistlewaite also played a vital part in the direction when trading his sax for mandolin.
“We would jam in hotel rooms and suddenly there was this new organic acoustic music we could make, it began to have a life of its own long before we recorded any of it.
"This was casual music we played for fun but it became real the day of our first recording session for ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ in January 1986 at Windmill Lane.”
The album’s title track featuring Wickham’s distinctive riff proved to be a catalyst for an album that would take two years to finish, it remains their biggest seller to date. Surprisingly the single was never a hit and Scott wondered if he’d made a mistake refusing to make a promotional video.
“It never got pinned down to a single set of ideas,” he adds reflectively on it’s classic song stature today. There was also a desire to unburden himself of impending pressures.
Wickham invited Scott to sleep on his floor in Ireland during the dramatic upheaval.
“It was like going into the Narnian Wardrobe”, he suggests that the Irish mind was “demonstrably different from the British mind, it was more like the Scottish mind but still very different; it was this hazy, imaginal world with less strict boundaries. I loved that and I found I could roam in it. Wickham was my guide and he would take me around Dublin. When he greeted this pal of his with the line ‘I hear you’re playing chess for money now’ I thought ‘I’ve come to the right place’.”
Where The Action Is by The Waterboys is out next Friday, May 24