This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on December 24, 2014 under the heading ‘JOURNEY SONGS’ CHART A CAREER SPENT CONQUERING NEW GROUND.
The tracks at the heart of The Waterboys’ new album are, says helmsman Mike Scott, “journey songs”. And this is apt, because our wayfaring bard has spent over three decades exploring and excavating punk, folk, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. His ongoing, enlightening quest touches down at Stirling Castle on Hogmanay, then time-travels back to 1960s Memphis, thanks to Modern Blues, the band’s soul-fired eleventh long-player, which is released in January.
The record’s “central tracks”, says Scott, are opener Destinies Entwined and swansong Long Strange Golden Road. “The album is bookended by these two journey songs with very different melodies, but similar rhythms,” he offers.
Between those songs, Modern Blues further Scott’s poetic odyssey through the mystical, cosmic and romantic. Its voyages and vantage points, as ever, look upward, outward, backward and inward. But whereas previous albums have taken their cues from epic rock (1985’s This Is The Sea), Celtic folk (1988’s Fisherman’s Blues) or Irish poetry (2011’s An Appointment With Mr Yeats), Modern Blues looks across the Atlantic, to vintage Memphis.
“I started putting together an American band because it’s very expensive taking a whole band over there every time,” says Edinburgh-born Scott, of the project’s roots. “And I like the way that Americans play – there’s a swagger to their playing, especially bass and lead guitar. There’s a real different feel. [Fiddler Steve] Wickham and I went over last year, and we did a big tour with our American Waterboys, and it was brilliant fun. That gave me a real taste for working over there, so I decided to record in America too.”
“I decided on Nashville because unlike so many cities, it hasn’t suffered a decrease in the number of recording studios,” Scott continues. “They’re still all there. And more to the point, they’re big recording studios that can accommodate a five or six piece band playing all at the same time. That’s how I like to record, with a live band. If I was to record in the UK or Ireland, I’d probably have to do overdubs because very few of the studios are big enough.”
The record’s R&B roots are underscored by Memphis keyboard wizard “Brother” Paul Brown, falsetto-soul heart-breaker Don Bryant and FAME Studios / Muscle Shoals legend David Hood. “David’s a fantastic bass player,” says Scott. “My manager recommended him. There’s something about these guys from the Sixties and Seventies – one doesn’t automatically think of hiring them. To me, having grown up listening to them, I think, ‘Oh no, I could never get him’. Which is crazy, because often they’re just waiting for the phone to ring – they’re happy to come and do a session. David and I hit it off really well – so well, in fact, that he’s joined the band.”
Did the record’s personnel and geographic heritage influence the direction, or writing, of the album? “Well, they impacted on the sound, but not on the actual writing – I had all the songs written before I started recording,” says Scott. “I wrote five of them in 2008 and from those I knew this was going to be a rock ‘n’ roll record with a soul influence. The rest were written around 2012, 2013. Once we were in the studio recording, the song that changed most was November Tale, which began as a kind of folk-rock ballad, and then got more and more Memphis as we worked on it,” Scott recalls. “A big catalyst for that was our guitar player, Zach [Ersnt] – he’s from Austin, Texas, and he’s really schooled in that Sixties and Seventies soul guitar sound. He just played out of his skin on that song.”
If Modern Blues lives up to its name thanks to its forward-looking R&B, then so too does it echo another of The Waterboys’ great albums, Fisherman’s Blues – although the kinship of their titles is, says Scott, “just a coincidence”. Fisherman’s Blues was reissued as a six-CD treasure trove of session tracks last year, entitled Fisherman’s Box: The Complete Fisherman’s Blues Recordings, 1986-1988.
The Fisherman’s Blues sessions were infamously epic and fruitful, as detailed in Scott’s terrific 2012 memoir, Adventures of a Waterboy. “The twelve songs [on the original Fisherman’s Blues release] told only a fraction of the story not just of the music we’d made but of all that had happened since I’d come to Ireland three years earlier,” he writes. “We’d recorded nearly a hundred tracks and twice as many out-takes, probably the largest body of work ever for one album; and the stylistic and personal changes the music documented were as deep and manifold as some bands go through in whole careers.”
Did the Fisherman’s Box offer a sense of catharsis? Did it finally lay the ghosts of Fisherman’s Blues to rest? “Do you know, I think it did,” he says. “I think it did. Of course, you won’t be surprised to hear there’s still even more unreleased stuff from the Fisherman’s Blues sessions,” he adds, laughing. “But all the best stuff is on the Box, it’s out there now, and I’m really relieved about that. The original Fisherman’s Blues release was only the thumbnail, if you like. The Fisherman’s Box is the real album.”
“We went on tour with the old Fisherman’s Blues band last year to celebrate the Box Set,” Scott continues. “It was like going into a completely different strain of Waterboys music, and the tour was so good that I was tempted to stay in that mode. But no. The songs on Modern Blues required something different, so I pulled fully back to rock ‘n’ roll. I’m really glad I did.”
Modern Blues’ rock ‘n’ roll odysseys are populated by typically colourful characters: adding to a role-call that kicked off with 1983’s A Girl Called Johnny and The Three Day Man comes the new album’s Rosalind, who married the wrong guy, and The Girl Who Slept for Scotland, whose narcoleptic feat is celebrated with the sample of a cheering crowd. Is it lifted from a particular event or football match? “Do you know, it must be, but I can’t remember where it’s from,” Scott offers. “I have oodles of sound effects in my data bank, it must be from one of those.” The songwriter has form with meticulous samples. “At the start of the track Be My Enemy, from This is The Sea, there’s a little synth instrumental, and every chord I play triggers the applause from a Prince bootleg,” he says with a laugh.
Prince makes his presence felt throughout This Is The Sea, from the aforesaid bootleg cheers to the ongoing conjecture that he is the subject of The Waterboys’ defining track, The Whole Of The Moon. “It wasn’t about Prince, no,” Scott clarifies. But that hasn’t stopped the Purple one perpetuating this pop rumour: he performed the song live last year. “Yeah, Prince has certainly played it live at least once,” Scott offers. “Apparently it was a solo piano vocal version. I haven’t heard it, but I would dearly love to.”
Reports of Prince’s version were glowing, but The Waterboys’ live rendition is peerless. Stirling Castle, at the turn of the year, will make for a suitably mythical, cosmic backdrop for Mike Scott’s new songs and heavenly favourites, that look to the future and summon the past: his every precious dream and vision, underneath the stars.
The Waterboys play Hogmanay at Stirling Castle; Modern Blues is released on January 19.
Side panel: The Waterboys: Four Of The Best
A Pagan Place (1984)
The Waterboys’ second album saw Mike Scott map out his epic and melodic vision for The Big Music (the title of one of the record’s many stand-out tracks) on a spirited, swaggering LP that fused Celtic folk-rock (A Pagan Place) with loved-up rock ‘n’ roll mysticism (Church Not Made With Hands), and the characteristically restless post-punk groove of Some Of My Best Friends Are Trains: a rare foray into Byrnian art-pop, or Berlin-era Bowie, and all the more striking for it.
This Is The Sea (1985)
Mike Scott’s most ambitious attempt at harnessing The Big Music’s cosmic, multi-layered rock could have been eclipsed by the album’s biggest hit, The Whole Of The Moon, were it not for the strength of bombastic tracks like Don’t Bang The Drum, epic, jazz-inflected wig-outs like Old England, the spellbinding mysticism of The Pan Within, and the record’s revelatory title track.
Fisherman’s Blues (1988)
Having turned his back on rock music, Mike Scott decamped to Ireland and began an epic recording session that would result in the raggle-taggle folk-punk masterpiece that is Fisherman’s Blues. Along with its glorious title track, the album’s highlights include the frenzied bass-enraptured wrath of We Will Not Be Lovers, the folk-rock rapture of World Party, the greatest Van Morrison cover of all-time (Sweet Thing), and a WB Yeats poem set to hymnal Celtic folk (The Stolen Child).
An Appointment With Mr Yeats (2011)
After Fisherman’s Blues, Mike Scott continued to explore Yeats’ poetry through his music, and this eventually resulted in a series of excellent live shows and this LP, which sees The Waterboys’ music and Yeats’ words enkindle and embrace each other. This is no bookish exercise, though: Scott liberates and reanimates Yeats’ poetry through blustering folk-rock, chamber ballads, free-wheeling blues, and rock ‘n’ roll.