Mike Scott

[FOUNDER OF THE WATERBOYS]

“THE HIGH SUMMER OF MUSIC’S POWER IS OVER AND I DON’T THINK IT’S EVER COMING BACK.”
How to make a Raggle Taggle band:
Get a bunch of friends together
Forget about commercialism or playing the game
Follow magic
Move to the west of Ireland
Stay in tents when you tour

When I was ten or eleven, living in Helena, Montana, and beginning to develop an insatiable appetite for new music, I chanced on a two-page spread advertisement in Rolling Stone for a band called the Waterboys. The prominent image in the ad was a group photograph: ten guys arrayed on a craggy slab-stone veranda in front of what appeared to be an ivy-festooned mansion. They looked comfortable and happy in the photo. A bench seat, a chair, and a roadcase cover had been set out on this mossy patio and three of the men were sitting while the others stood behind, smiling. The men in front were holding an accordion and a couple mandolins. And while the tone of the photograph was egalitarian (a few of the guys in the back row did not look like rock types, by my estimation), the focus was undeniably centered on one man, seated, in the center. Holding one of the mandolins (was he absently strumming?), he was giving the camera a rakish smirk, his eyes peering out from beneath of shock of brown hair and the brim of a floppy leather hat. The photograph seemed to clearly define the rules of the band and the album: there was some folk music happening here, sure, but it was rock-ish (the stringy long brown hair of the gents in the front certainly denoted that) and it was music put together by a community, an album that required so much cooperation from its principals that the album cover should necessarily be a group photo of all involved, regardless of their looks or attitude. I guess that spoke to me, because I immediately convinced my mom to drive me to Henry J’s, one of the two record stores in town, to buy the tape. It was called Fisherman’s Blues and I would eventually wear the tape out from obsessively repeated listens. I would spend years and years scouring record stores and, eventually, eBay for bootleg recordings of unused session tracks from the record. I would also go so far as to make a sort of pilgrimage, while on vacation in Ireland, to that selfsame patio in front of that selfsame ivy-strewn mansion, where half of the record was recorded. And lo and behold, many years later, I found myself faced with the opportunity to interview the man in the floppy hat himself, Mike Scott, the lead singer and songwriter of the mighty Waterboys. He was in London doing press and auditioning drummers for a tour in support of their excellent new record, Book of Lightning. I was desperately nervous; he was incredibly kind and welcoming. What follows is part of our conversation.

—Colin Meloy

*

COLIN MELOY: How did you feel about, at that point [while working on Fisherman’s Blues], your place in the British folk revival? Did you see yourself in line with the Fairport Convention?

MIKE SCOTT: No. Never thought about it at all. If there was anything we did think about it was the Pogues; they were just breaking through at that time. We really liked their combination of instruments with the tin whistle and accordion. At that time we didn’t have those instruments, but we really liked the mix of a punky beat and these very authentic, old-sound instruments. The voice of those instruments was memory. I could hear the past of great cities into those instruments. Our version was fiddle and mandolin. I could hear it there as well. There was the sound of America too in those instruments.

CM: You were listening to a lot of gospel then.

MS: Gospel, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Cajun music. We’d go to the record stores and come out with arms full of vinyl and old EPs. Then we met this guy named Bob Johnston. He produced Blonde on Blonde, loads of Simon and Garfunkel’s classic albums, Johnny Cash. He was a big music producer in the sixties and seventies. He phoned me up after This Is the Sea. I remember he said, “You guys are the whiz!” We were very flattered that a guy who worked with Bob Dylan wanted to work with us. He came over to Dublin and did some recording with us. He was a real wild guy! He must have been fifty-five then. He was like a woodsman and he shouted at us all the time very enthusiastically. He would shout us up: “I’m gonna get that sound wiiiide open. You can do anything.” And he would. We would go into the studio and he would get the sound wide open and we would think we could do anything and then start doing it.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Colin Meloy plays guitar and sings in the Decemberists. He lives in Portland, Oregon.


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