Richard Purden

AT Maia’s cafe on Dublin’s Shelbourne Road, Mike Scott suddenly appears like a spectre out of time in a black wide-brimmed hat. At first glance, it’s not unlike the one favoured by James Joyce in his most recognisable photo. A few doors down, on June 16, 1904, the Irish novelist left his room at Number 60 for a first rendezvous with his future wife Nora Barnacle, creating the date in which to set Ulysses and the now celebrated Bloomsday.

As frontman and chief of The Waterboys, Scott was described as “the new poet laureate of rock ’n’ roll” by Rolling Stone magazine. His gift for creating a scene in the listener’s mind in popular standards such as The Whole Of The Moon and Fisherman’s Blues was sparked by a boyhood appreciation of literature and music.

The son of a teacher, he grew up in a “house full of books”, reading CS Lewis, firstly The Chronicles of Narnia “when I was eight” and progressing to his Cosmic Trilogy: Out Of A Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, by the age of 12. “I always had the freedom to roam my mum’s bookshelves but I never was made to read any of them, which is a great combination," he says.

In 1958 Scotland celebrated its first Christmas Day public holiday since the Reformation. As if to bring tidings of that shift Michael Scott was born just 11 days before that to parents Anne and Allan.

He would travel by bus from the likes of Corstorphine, Saughton Hall and Barnton to George Heriot’s School in Lauriston. “The culture has changed,” says the man who was once referred to as Scotland’s Bob Dylan. “Everybody walks or drives their kids to school now but back then I was age four and getting the bus to and from Heriot’s on my own. This was around 1963 when The Beatles were doing She Loves You.”

On this first morning in May bright sunlight highlights the thin white lines of a dapper pinstripe suit, his hair, now salt and pepper, still flowing in front of his eyes. “I used to listen to the radio and my mum and dad’s records, the gramophone was in one of these old wooden cabinets that stored your records. It was a magical box that played Sgt Pepper and Revolver, Elizabethan Serenade or Swan Lake by Tchaikovsky. I started buying records when I was eight and until I moved to Ireland [in 1986] I knew everything in the charts. There was more of a unified appreciation of music, everybody watched the same two programmes, it would be Monty Python and Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test. Everybody was in the same cultural world, there was no-one listening to headphones or tuning into a podcast in their own little world, the great schism hadn’t happened yet.”

Scott’s father departed the family home when his son was 10 but they were reunited in 2007 before his death in 2017. After a spell living in Ayr, Scott returned to Edinburgh as a teenager during “the punk wars”. While the Sex Pistols never did play the city they made some promotional appearances in Edinburgh at their zenith. A teenage Mike Scott watched Johnny Rotten cross the road, describing him as being like an “apparition” when “he was the man at the centre of the arrow.” Scott would soon become a notable figure in Edinburgh’s post-punk scene but suggests he has been edited out a recent documentary about it. “Big Gold Dream [directed by Grant McPhee], I was f******’ there, mate, but I’m not in it! I don’t think they liked me but I’m still here!”

It’s reasonable to say that Scott has never allowed himself to be comfortably slotted into any scene. By the time of 1985’s This Is The Sea, he had already helped set the tone for the likes of U2 and Simple Minds' move to stadium rock, but 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, he explains. “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 in the studio on stage. “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.” Scott’s now long-term sideman and fiddle player Steve Wickham joined the band full-time, bringing fresh energy to the sound. Saxophone player Anthony Thistlewaite also played a vital part in the direction after 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. It became real the day of our first recording session for Fisherman’s Blues in January 1986," says Scott.

The album’s title track, featuring Wickham’s distinctive riff, was a fitting start for an album that would take two years to record and become their biggest seller. Surprisingly, the single wasn’t 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 today.

There was also a desire to unburden himself of various pressures. “I was in a tough romantic relationship, I also felt trapped by the music business and people’s expectations. I wanted out of both of these situations. I wanted to follow my destiny,” he says.

Wickham invited him to sleep on his floor in Ireland during the dramatic upheaval. “It was like going into the Narnian Wardrobe”, he suggests, 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.”

Summoning the spirit of Fisherman’s Blues, which closed with an adaptation of WB Yates' The Stolen Child, the current album, Where The Action Is, delivers a poignant recital of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows. Scott first played a version of the song, inspired by Grahame – another son of Edinburgh – in Findhorn, among the community the singer formed links with during the early 1990s. “I always loved these midsummer concerts, we called it a Midsummer's Eve Stramash. I’ve considered putting it on every album since but it never fitted the character of the record but on this album, it really worked.”

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Scott first became aware of Findhorn while living near Woodstock in America when his mother, an occasional writer for The Herald and a BBC broadcaster at the time, came to visit. Once again it was their shared love of literature when spending time at a new-age bookshop that led to this magical discovery of his native land. “My mum had gone to Findhorn for a weekend spiritual workshop. We bought a video from this bookshop and watched it. She kind of enjoyed it but I was transfixed by the lady in the video: Eileen Caddy, who later became my next-door neighbour. I’d done all my reading in Foyle’s philosophy room [in London] but I’d never found my teacher. When I watched that video I thought ‘that is my teacher and this is my school.’”

Scott has a reputation for sticking to his guns, whether it was refusing to appear on Top of the Pops to perform The Whole of the Moon or including a certain song on This Is The Sea, much to the chagrin of his financial backer at the time, A&R king-maker Nigel Grainge. The song, Old England - with its lyrics: "Old England is dying/His clothes are a dirty shade of blue/And his ancient shoes worn through/He steals from me and he lies to you" - had unsettled Grainge.

“He was a great champion of me, he put money in and backed me for five years. He gave me time to develop but he didn’t like that song. He was also incredibly opinionated; everything was either genius or shit and nothing in-between. It was very hard for me to understand that every time I presented a new song because it was pronounced as one or the other. Old England he didn’t like at all, he was a Tory so he didn’t like what it was saying.”

Scott is considering adding the track to his set for a forthcoming tour and he remains a vocal supporter of independence. “I think Scotland should be independent for basic, democratic reasons. Scotland is a left-of-centre country with a humane attitude and tradition. It’s a generous country which regularly votes left of centre but it gets what England votes for, it voted to stay in the EU but gets Brexit because England voted for it, it’s simply undemocratic!”

The Whole Of The Moon, another song cut for This Is The Sea, began when Scott was “showing off” to his then-girlfriend who wondered how easy it was to write a song. The singer, keen to demonstrate his craft, pulled a pen and envelope from his pocket to scribble down the song’s title and some lines. From that moment the song took another “four or five months to finish”.

Surprisingly, it was not a hit when first released as a single in 1985 but it would secure him an Ivor Novello award after being reissued in 1991 and reaching No 3 in the charts. The run-out groove of the 12-inch was famously etched ‘For Prince, who saw the whole of the moon.’

“It was just a bit of fun, I was a big fan. I didn’t think he was an all-wise being or anything like that.”

Scott adds that Mark Helprin’s 1983 fantasy novel, Winter’s Tale, had a notable effect on the lyrical approach. “It’s a beautiful book about 700 pages long, it’s so expressive, the abundance in his writing is breathtaking. The list of things at the end of the song; unicorns, cannonballs, etc. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t read his book.”

Before his death in 2016 Prince himself covered the song on at least two occasions and Scott suggests there is a piano solo version which he'd love to hear and which has yet to surface. The David Bowie backing vocal during the end coda is also often overlooked: “That’s Karl Wallinger (ex-Waterboy) doing Fame, he was adept at reproducing things from other records."

While Scott never met Prince, he enjoyed a cheerful exchange with Bowie despite an inauspicious start. “He was very nice but I made the mistake of addressing him cheekily as Dave. No rebuke was uttered but I could tell it was the wrong thing to say. We had a roaring old conversation, he was telling me I should listen to the Pixies but my head was full of things like The Bothy Band, this was about 1990. There was no chance of me listening to the Pixies at all. He came to see The Waterboys in New York a few times.”

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Scott returns to his homeland regularly with his Japanese artist wife, Megumi Igarashi, and their toddler son. He also has a daughter from a previous relationship with the singer and performer Camille O’ Sullivan. “I get over to Scotland about three or four times a year. I’m the same as everyone; it’s the place I was born. I love going back to Edinburgh very much, the quality of life is very high, I love running on The Meadows. My mum is now in Largs and I’ve got to know the North East well from when I lived in Findhorn – places like Nairn, Elgin, Inverness, Keith, Fochabers. I’m very at home there too.”

After the interview Scott walks with me a few yards along the road where we say goodbye. He sets off for his studio and I turn my head to wave but, like those apparitions, he’s gone.

Special thanks to The Merrion Hotel

Where The Action Is is out now. The Waterboys will play Aberdeen Music Hall on Friday September 6 and Glasgow’s Barrowlands the following night

Where The Action Is

In many ways The Waterboys' 13th long-player Where The Action Is summons the values of his formative years with 10 lean tracks and no filler.

The foot-stomping title cut with backing vocals reminiscent of, as Scott suggests, Thunderthighs who sang backing vocals on Mott The Hoople’s 1973 hit Roll Away The Stone, draws on the same swagger and energy as when the Mott were hitting their glam rock peak.

“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.”

Mott super-fan Mick Jones is honoured by Scott on London Mick. Scott first met the Clash man when he was a teenager in Edinburgh. “It was easy to find out where the band were staying. We’d go and hang out at the hotel. You could get into soundcheck as a fanzine writer. There was that spirit of everybody in it together.”

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 guy! He’s always been kind to me, he’s elusive and inscrutable and yet he’s kind.” While the Bard might not appreciate the fact that Scott answered a call of nature against Rabbie’s door as a teenager in Ayr, when making his way home from the local cricket club after a few pints, his version of Green Grow The Rashes here as Then She Made The Lasses O is a fine rendition. This version was inspired by a performance of the song by Deacon Blue arranged by the late Michael Marra in 1991.

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