Though the Waterboys may not be a thoroughly household name, they are certainly a time-honored, time-tested musical brand. Founded in 1983 by Scotsman Mike Scott, the band’s revolving door has included more than 70 musicians from all over the United Kingdom and the United States. Scott looked to the latter region when it came time to make a new record, Modern Blues, recruiting Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, Memphis keyboardist “Brother” Paul Brown, and Austin guitarist Zach Ernst to join him and Waterboys regulars Steve Wickham on fiddle and Ralph Salmins on drums. And that’s the group now on the road supporting the album.
You’ve said there was no real distinction between your solo projects and the Waterboys. So did it come down to branding, really… just reassuring the fans and keeping with the familiar?
It’s 20 years now since I did any solo projects. It’s not anything I really think about these days. I did two albums as Mike Scott in the mid-’90s. When I toured with them and had a band behind me under the name “Mike Scott,” I didn’t like it. I didn’t like being Mike Scott with a band of back-up musicians. I thought, “This feels wrong to me. It should be the Waterboys. The musicians should have the status of being Waterboys.” There’s something extra, something magical, about the name “Waterboys” — something I can’t quite define. And I missed that and I thought, “I’m never going to do this again!”
[Laughs] That’s awesome. Well, there was a review of a pretty recent show that talked about how you focused the set on new material and some folks in the crowd weren’t too happy about that. How do you deal with fans who are so attached to the older tunes that they don’t give the new stuff a fair shake?
I don’t really pay any attention to them. I know there are all different kinds of fans. There are new fans who are only interested in the new stuff and there are older fans who are happy to move with whatever changes the band makes and will listen to wherever we’re going and come with us. And then there are some who are attached to past glories — probably their own past glories and their own memories. They come, pay their money, and just want to hear the old stuff. Actually, I think those kinds of fans are impractical because it’s not realistic to expect a band to keep playing only what they did 30 years ago or 20 years ago.
If I go see an act… if I go see Bob Dylan, I don’t want to hear him do “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Highway 61” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” I’ve heard him do them loads of times before. I want to hear his new stuff. I want to hear what’s moving him. And I try to treat the fans like I would like to be treated myself. So, I’m afraid, I’m well on the side of people who are interested in what our band’s doing now.
Like you said, the Waterboys’ have evolved and tried out quite a few different sounds — “The Big Music” sound, the folk phase, and the rock era. What do you call the now, the Modern Blues era?
I haven’t figured out a name for the sound we make. But it’s a mix of rock and roll and soul. I’ve got three American musicians in the band who are all specialized in soul music… David Hood from Muscle Shoals who actually played with James Brown and Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers and all these great people back in the late ’60s and the ’70s. He’s the real deal. And I’ve got “Brother” Paul who is from Memphis and was the musical director for Ann Peebles for many years. He’s a killer soul keyboard player. And I’ve got a soul guitarist from Austin called Zach Ernst. So they bring a huge influence to the band, a huge sound. And then you’ve got me — I’m a rock and roller. And Wickham, the fiddler, he’s a rock and roller. And Ralph, our drummer, is a jazz drummer who can play killer rock and roll. So it’s a mixture and I haven’t yet come up with a clever defining term for it.
Maybe some spunky rock critic out there will pin it down for you.
Yeah, maybe so. [Laughs]
[Laughs] The idea of “seeing God’s signature in the world” as a form of spirituality and inspiration… that’s been with you the whole time no matter what sounds you’re making. How does that manifest on Modern Blues?
It’s in there behind the scenes. It’s in the lyrics of the first song, “Destinies Entwined.” And it pops up in “Still a Freak,” as well. “Still a Freak” is a blues song with a sense of humor, but it’s serious, as well. I think if someone’s mentally healthy, they’re going to be displaying advanced signs of individualism — a guilt-free individualism. And that, for me, is a spiritual thing. … People being unique, like truly themselves.
So you mentioned the new guys in the band… you’ve had 70-something musicians over the past 32 years. Seems like it could be both energizing and frustrating, depending on the situation.
Yeah. It’s been both, over the years. There have been spells where we couldn’t find the right drummer, for example. We went several years there without finding the right drummer. We had guys who could only play certain kinds of music. That was very frustrating. But, for the last several years, it’s been nothing but good bands.
That, obviously, impacts the sound and the translation of what you’re trying to do. Before that, though, another place you seem to draw a lot of influence from is poetry and literature. What do those things bring to you that you don’t get from anywhere else?
Well, I’ve always been a big reader, ever since I was a kid. I was probably 5 or 6 when I started reading books. It all goes in and I’m sure it comes out, but I don’t know that I take a direct influence from literature. Obviously, sometimes I do. I made a record five years ago called An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, which was [W.B.] Yeats’ poems turned into songs. So that was a direct influence, but when I’m writing my own songs… I don’t know. I don’t know how much influence literature has on it. People always write about it, but I’m not sure about it.
Also, geography seems to play a big part for you, from Dublin to Nashville. You wanted an American sound on Modern Blues so you picked Nashville. How does place impact things?
Location has a magic. It’s always been important for the Waterboys. We made a record in the west of Ireland back in the ’80s and that area had a huge impact on the sound. Matter of fact, several of the band members moved there and never came back. We spent some time in New York — that affected the sound in the early ’90s. So, yeah, location is important. Location can be something really to play with.
What did Nashville give you, other than the musicians?
A number of things… great studios. Nashville has all these great, world-class studios with big rooms where I could set up the whole band to play all at the same time together. That was important because I wanted a sense of performance on the record. Nashville also has people being creative in the business of music 24/7, everywhere. I find that a very stimulating environment to draw on.
With record in hand, what’s your approach to this tour?
It’s a six-piece band. It’s a fantastic band. It’s the best Waterboys band I’ve ever had by some margin, I think. We’ve played about 30 shows now and we’re beginning to get up to cruising speed. We play most of the new album and quite a lot of old stuff, as well. So no one, really, should have anything to complain about.
So the guy in the audience singing “Fisherman’s Blues” is going to be okay?
I don’t like to give away exactly what we’re going to play, but there’s enough old stuff to keep anyone who’s sane happy.
This article originally appeared in the VC Reporter.