Thursday 15 November 2018

Magic Mike... the Waterboys' Mike Scott

Mike Scott tells how the women he fancies don't have to have read Yeats any more, and how he reclaimed his power from his father, who left him and his mother when Scott was a child

Mike Scott, and adventurer of the soul. Photo: David Conachy.
Mike Scott, and adventurer of the soul. Photo: David Conachy.
Steve Wickham and Mike Scott of the Waterboys performing at the Midlands Music Festival, in Mullingar, in 2007.
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

In an interview with New Musical Express in August 1984, headlined Yet Another God-Like Genius, young Mike Scott was asked what kind of girls he liked. "The only way I can answer that is to tell you a girl I like now and tell you what she's like. Her face is about eight parts female and two parts animal, which is a pretty good ratio. And she's read Yeats."

"I remember her, actually," says the great Scott 31 years later. "She was like the description. Dark hair." He pauses for a millisecond, lost in a reverie of love past. "Thick dark hair. It would stand up on end if you teased it."

Has Mike kept the same criteria for finding women attractive? "No. No. I'm more broad-minded," he says.

They don't have to have read Yeats any more? "No." he laughs, "I've read so much Yeats now, I'd almost want her not to have read Yeats. I'm Yeats-ed out!" says the author of the acclaimed 2011 album An Appointment with Mr Yeats by Scott's seminal band The Waterboys, which he formed in his native Scotland in 1983.

There are few in the music world like Mike Scott. He is unique in many ways. For starters, he is the only person wearing a cowboy hat today in the hotel, directly across the road from his Ballsbridge home. He has a TV that he has never watched TV on. (He watched a DVD of Lord Of The Rings seven months ago.) The 56-year-old, who Rolling Stone magazine in 1985 called "the new poet laureate of rock 'n' roll", has a spirit that is hard to define, perhaps other than to say he is a rock 'n' roll poet down to the very marrow of his bones.

Possibly every album he has ever released has been the embodiment of that Somerset Maugham line about every production of an artist should be the expression of an adventure of his soul. An adventurer of the soul, magic Mike doesn't do career paths or, for that matter, antiseptic chitchat.

In the space of an hour-long - sometimes stream-of-consciousness, often-poetic - conversation, he discussed everything from Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief ("He was killed resisting to the end, as an old man") to Prince (Prince did a cover of The Whole Of The Moon) to Joe Strummer, Van Morrison, art, religion - and Elvis Presley (there is a song on The Waterboys' new album Modern Blues called I Can See Elvis about meeting The King up in Heaven with John Lennon, Joan of Arc and Plato, and Elvis writing in his journal: 'I'm going to slit the throat of that skin-flint, the Colonel'). Magic Mike takes a breath before he is off on one on the epiphany of reading Jack Kerouac's On The Road as a young man . . .

"Even though I was opened up to rock 'n' roll when I was young and I'll always love music and follow musicians, I realised there was a lot more than I knew when I read On The Road. It opened up a possibility - just ways of being, ways of seeing the world," explains Mike, who became a dad last year for the first time and was born himself in Edinburgh on December 14, 1958.

"How the narrator and his friends are in the book and the way that they read the world and how everything is an adventure and an experience to be savoured. I grew up in Scotland where everyone was complaining about everything all the time. It's a different mind-set."

He brings me gifts of a rare vinyl edition of the new album. When I ask him to sign it, he rushes across the road to his house to get a special marker - and when he returns, he has another gift of a CD by Shuggie Otis, Inspiration Information.

He becomes slightly cagey when I enquire if the lines on the beautiful southern soul of November Tale are about his relationships: 'We walked along awhile like we were old and close companions/But I could feel the gulf between us yawning like a canyon/She with her church and code, her extravagant beliefs/Me a creature of the road, a child of dust and grief.'

Is the song effectively about you and all relationships? "No. It is a fictional story. I sometimes write songs that aren't about me. It is about two people, one of whom who doesn't belong to any particular religion and the other who does."

I try again. But couldn't the song be about someone like you who is always going out the door, a creature of the road, a child of dust and grief? "I've had long relationships in my life as a musician. I was married to my second wife [Janet] for 17 years." Irene Keogh, sister of designer Lainey, was his first wife.

What was it like to be married to Mike Scott? When you are gazing out the window, did you tell your partner you were working? "You know the story about Yeats where he would be at the dinner table and his wife and kids would know to stop talking because his head would be bobbing, slowly, because he would be in the rhythm of a poem? That was the sign," he says. "I am not quite like that!" he laughs. "But I do have to withdraw if I get an idea and write something down. But I live in the modern world," says he who never switches on his telly, "so it is easy to send myself a text. I can leave the room for a minute and record a bit of song into my on the phone and then I can come back. But there is an intensity to living with me because I'm a songwriter and a creative person, and I never know when that is going to hit," he says, meaning the creativity charge of a song arriving in his head.

What is the longest gap that it hasn't hit for? A writer's block of some sort?

"I have had times when I've gone maybe a year without writing a song. It doesn't bother me, because I learned a long time ago if the writing isn't coming the worst thing I can do is try and force it. I've been very prolific in my life. I've always got a backlog of songs. So I'm never stuck for songs. I have always had the trust that the writing would come again. It always does."

He's just come back from Olso that day, and before that, America and further afield. Mike attributes his wandering spirit as much to his line of work as to the spirit being passed on from his mother and father. "My parents moved around a lot when I was a kid. I had lived in three different houses by the time I was nine years old. So I was used to upping sticks." Mike's parents upped and broke up when he was eight. "I never saw him after I was 11."

Did his mother - who he describes as "very smart, very sharp, literary; great mixture of feelings and intellect" - tell him that she and his father were breaking up or was he suddenly simply not there any more? "I don't remember what was said to me but my dad left home, and my mum explained to me. He would come around and visit quite regularly for the first couple of years but less and less. He withdrew himself from the picture."

Christmas 1970 was the last time Mike saw his father. He had just turned 12. He didn't see him again until 1998 when Mike turned up on his door.

I ask Mike did he have an image of what his father would be like after all those years."I thought he would be a bohemian wanderer living in lots of different places, maybe living quite an exotic life. And, actually, he wasn't. He had lived in the same, small normal house outside Birmingham for about 30 years."

So was Mike living the life that he thought his father was - that of bohemian wanderer? "Pretty much, yeah," he says. "But my inner drive [to be a musician and a songwriter] was too strong anyway."

Asked to put into its fullest context, the effect his father's absence had on him, Mike answers with considerable thought thus: "Any child who has lost a parent - I don't mean a parent who has died but a parent who has left - will be able to tell you that it is heavy stuff. And the child always thinks it is the child's fault. So I thought it was my fault. I thought there was something unlovable about me, something wrong with me, something not right about me. It was a terrible burden for an eight-year-old to carry around - and it develops and it becomes your daily reality. But when I met my dad, it turned something. I liked him and we became friends. I told him how him leaving had affected me, and we covered a lot of ground together personally. That solved a lot of things for me."

What did it solve?

"It made me feel more okay to be me. This shadow figure, my missing dad. The reason that there was something 'wrong' with me, my dad having left, was turned over. To go into sort of self-help speak, I had reclaimed my power. I said to this man who was a huge powerful image in my life: 'You can't walk out of my life. I have a say in this, too. And I'm back to tell you that you're going to be in my life whether you like it or not.'"

The Waterboys play Glencarn Hotel in Castleblayney tonight; the Ulster Hall in Belfast on October 27; Seapoint Ballroom on October 29; The Big Top in Limerick on October 30; The Hub At Cillin Hill in Kilkenny on November 2 - Vicar Street in Dublin on November 4, 5, 6 and 7.

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