When it comes to the number of band members, The Waterboys must surely have set some kind of record. When asked if it is correct that over 70 musicians have performed live as a ‘Waterboy’, the band’s frontman Mike Scott says the number is even higher.
“It’s over 80 now,” he says. “If you extend it to guests, it is probably about 200 people who have played on stage with us.”
The band’s fluid set-up has seen it thrive across five decades, with Scott the constant presence, shepherding his musical collaborators.
“When I formed the band back in ’84, it was my idea that it wouldn’t be a fixed line-up and that it would keep changing. I knew we would be playing different kinds of music and sometimes I would need this kind of drummer or this kind of guitar player,” says Scott.
One of The Waterboys’ most memorable line-ups is revisited in a new CD and DVD boxset and accompanying book. The Magnificent Seven is a deep dive on The Waterboys era from 1989-90, from the Fisherman’s Blues album tour through to the release of the band's fifth album, Room to Roam.
It is an impressively thorough endeavour, comprising a 145-track 5CD/1DVD box set, including the remastered Room to Roam album, unreleased tracks, demos, home movies and audience films of the band performing at Glastonbury, as well as an accompanying book.
The project initially came about from his contributions on the online platform, Patreon, which enables people to subscribe to creative content.
“Last year, we started a Waterboys Patreon page and I was posting streams of tracks from that period because it was the 30th anniversary of the release of Room to Roam. For a week, I posted something every day, like a story or a song and I enjoyed doing it so much. I found myself getting drawn into that period. I used some of the stuff I had written for the Patreon as the basis for the book.
"I spoke to the record label [Chrysalis] who administer the back catalogue and asked them if they would like a boxset, and then I just got on with it. I spent five months solid on it. I wanted to make a really great document that did justice to that band, the individuals and to the time.”
The 62-year-old native Scotsman, who now lives in Dublin, refers to the ‘alchemy’ that emerged when the four long-term Waterboys members — him, Steve Wickham, Anto Thistlethwaite and Trevor Hutchinson — were joined by fiddle-player Sharon Shannon, multi-instrumentalist Colin Blakey and drummer Noel Bridgeman. “When we played together all musical boundaries blurred, and all styles melted into one wild river of fun,” he writes.
The book features a comprehensive collection of Waterboys ephemera, from ticket stubs to setlists. The ‘Ballrooms of Ireland’ section captures the glory days of the live circuit, when The Waterboys and other homegrown acts would regularly pack large venues. The eclectic nature of these venues can be seen in the touring posters featured in the book, which cover the island, from Ballyhaise Agricultural Centre in Cavan to the Majestic Ballroom in Mallow, Co Cork.
“When we tour Ireland now, we play around 10 towns and cities. That seems to be a lot but in 1989, I think we played something like 33 shows in Ireland. We went deep — Clonakilty, Shinrone, Letterkenny, Croom,” says Scott.
The album Fisherman’s Blues, which was greatly influenced by traditional and folk music, had been a big hit for the band and they were hugely popular, attracting hordes of teenagers and the attendant energy to their gigs. With many of the band’s fans dating back to that era, gigs now are a different prospect, says Scott.
“The Waterboys were hot at the time and we played sell-out shows everywhere. That wouldn’t be the same today because our audience is older and they don’t go to shows so regularly. I don’t think we could sell out all those venues now. I remember at the time, the excitement of going into all those towns. There were so many young people there — there was a real sense of wonderment, so many people were having their first live experience at Waterboys gigs, it was really a privilege for us.”
Scott describes the process of collating the material for the boxset and book as ‘very absorbing’. It also led him to reconnect with old friends, including, poignantly, the late drummer Noel Bridgeman.
“One of the best and yet the saddest things to come out of it, was that for the first time in several years, I got in touch with all of the band members, including Noel. It was during lockdown and we couldn’t meet up but we arranged a phone chat where I asked him questions I felt would be useful for a chapter in the book. He told me all about how he grew up playing the accordion and drums, his early bands, going to Europe and playing in one of the first Irish rock bands, Skid Row. It was fascinating and wonderful to connect with him again.
"Then one day he phoned me and he told me he had a bit of bad news, that he had cancer and within two months he was gone. I am very grateful that I got to reconnect with him. Also, he got to read the chapter before he passed away so he knew how much we all thought of him.”
Scott and The Waterboys recently returned to live performance, with a short Irish and British tour, which he describes as “absolutely brilliant”. However, as much as he thrives on performing live, he says he was also glad of the enforced break due to lockdown, albeit that it sounds like he was more productive than ever.
“We had a very busy year in 2019, so we had a good fix of performance. I was very happy to spend a lot more time parenting [he has a young daughter and son]. Because there was no travel as well, my body got a rest — usually I would be in a hundred different cities in a year. I must confess while I missed the performing and the earnings as well, I was glad to get a little break. Also I had time to work on music — I didn’t just work on the boxset, I finished two new Waterboys albums and did other stuff as well.”
Scott also enjoys spending time on Twitter, where he is an entertaining presence, connecting with fans as well as holding forth on various topics, from US politics to the pandemic.
“I’ve always enjoyed interacting with fans — when people have been touched by the music I’ve written, well, they’ve been touched by the same thing that I’ve been touched by — there’s a connection there and I like to honour that. I fight with people on Twitter as well. I do enjoy a bit of sport when I get a rabid right-winger or alt-right nut job and I like sticking it to them.”
The reign of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ was a short one, with the line-up going their separate ways in 1990 amid disagreements over what direction the band was taking. But looking back over the events was not a bittersweet experience, says Scott.
“In fact, we all worked together again after that. Myself and Noel were working together within six months of him leaving the band and Steve Wickham rejoined the Waterboys 20 years ago. It is very much water under the bridge now, there are no unattended to emotions in the air any more. It has all been worked out. Like the Squeeze song, the past has been bottled and labelled with love.”
- The Waterboys, The Magnificent Seven: Fisherman’s Blues/Room to Roam Band, 1989-90 is available on Dec 3. http://thewaterboys.lnk.to/MS-RTR