The Waterboys: Going With The Flow

The Waterboys' Mike Scott has always pursued his own musical course without commercial concessions

The Waterboys Credit: Peter Still/Redferns

Waterboy Mike Scott has always pursued his own musical course without commercial concessions. Despite that, the major labels are making a big deal over him. Everyone in Dublin, it seems, has a story about Mike Scott. Like the one about how the enigmatic leader of the Waterboys spent hundreds of thousands of dollars — some even say a million dollars — recording the group's 1988 album Fisherman's Blues. Or the one about how he left a guitar in Windmill Lane Studios for several weeks just so it could "soak up the atmosphere." Or the one about how he couldn't be bothered to appear on the influential British TV show Top of the Pops, because he was holed up in a studio with Bob Dylan.

As it turns out, these stories are more often fantasy than fact. But they have helped to underscore Scott's reputation as a moody, unpredictable artist who refuses to play by pop-establishment rules and who is capable of mercurial shifts in musical direction.

Despite that reputation, Scott and the Waterboys — the group really amounts to a one-man show — are coveted by just about every major label. With the recent release of The Best of the Waterboys, '81-'90, Scott has fulfilled his contract with the British-based Ensign Records (also home to Sinéad O'Connor and former Waterboy Karl Wallinger's World Party) and is now a free agent. Label presidents have been flying in and out of Dublin to court him, and the offers are rumored to have reached more than $1 million per album — a staggering sum for an artist who thus far has failed to score a significant commercial triumph. But the record companies seem to realize what critics and Waterboys fans have known for years — that Scott is a rare talent, an extraordinarily gifted songwriter, and that with the right album he could break through in a big way.

None of this seems to faze Scott. And indeed, he has been in a similar situation before. Back in the mid-Eighties, after the release of his first three albums (The Waterboys, A Pagan Place and This Is the Sea), Scott seemed poised to follow U2 into the pop stratosphere. It looked as if he had it all: the songs, the sound, the looks. But Scott retreated, moving from London to Dublin and taking three years to make his next record, Fisherman's Blues, a lovely though seemingly uncommercial album steeped in traditional Irish music. He also ceased doing interviews for a time. The word around the record industry was that Scott simply didn't want, or couldn't cope with, commercial success.

It's a charge that galls him. "I think it's complete nonsense," Scott says. It's an unusually warm, sunny Saturday afternoon in Dublin, but Scott is sequestered in a dark, dingy pub, sipping a glass of mineral water and making the best of one of a handful of interviews he has agreed to do to support the new Waterboys compilation. He's extremely cautious, speaking slowly and punctuating his answers with periods of uncomfortable silence. "The only people who say that I'm afraid of success," Scott continues, "are people who don't understand why I haven't done certain things that would have given me a shortcut to success. I'm not interested in shortcuts to success. Success, to me, is being happy in your life."

And is Scott happy? "You betcha," he says.

Scott attributes his current state of mental well-being to his move to Ireland. "You've got to understand where I was coming out of," he says, referring to the situation he found himself in after This Is the Sea was issued in 1985. "I was young. I had a band that wasn't stable. I had no home at the time. I had no kind of life other than my work. And there were loads of battles and all kinds of absolute nonsense going down. Then suddenly, I come to Dublin, and everybody's really friendly. Nobody's making demands on me. The music business is across the sea [in London]. I'm in love with fiddle music. I met Irene, who's now my wife. I made loads of friends really fast. And I got enchanted by Ireland. All at once, it was really, really great."

In Ireland, Scott — who spent his youth in Ayr, on the west coast of Scotland — took the time to rediscover his own roots. "The Scots originally were the Irish," he explains. "A Scot was an Irishman who went and colonized the southwest part of Scotland. And the cultures of the two countries — they're like brother and sister. And the music is very obviously related. The same tunes are common to both cultures. The same way of playing is common, the same instruments are common. When I came to Ireland, there was so much Scotland in Ireland, so much that seemed completely normal to me or friendly and homey to me."

Scott, who's now thirty-two, was originally exposed to traditional Scottish culture through his Gaelic-speaking grandmother, but his real love when he was growing up was rock & roll — the Beatles, Dylan, Van Morrison. An only child whose parents split up when he was young, Scott was raised by his mother, who taught English literature at a university in Ayr. Though books lined the shelves in their house, Scott was more interested in records like Dylan's Blonde an Blonde that his mother's students would occasionally bring over. In his early teens he started playing in bands, and then, after enrolling in the University of Edinburgh, where he planned to study philosophy and English, he began publishing a fanzine that he named Jungleland, after the Bruce Springsteen song.

Punk had just taken hold in Britain, and Scott was captivated by the music's irreverent attitude and passionate power. He began interviewing everyone who passed through Edinburgh, from Richard Hell and Patti Smith to Bob Geldof and John Cale. He recalls one photo session with the Clash during which Mick Jones refused to be photographed in front of a record store. "He said it would be like advertising," Scott says. "And you know, I still think he was right."

And what does he think about the current Clash revival in England, where the group earned a posthumous Number One single after "Should I Stay or Should I Go" was used as the soundtrack for a Levi's ad? "Well, it's Mick Jones's song, and if he wants to put it in a Levi's ad, it's up to him," Scott says. "But I would rather the Clash had a Number One with something like 'Complete Control' or 'White Man in Hammersmith Palais.' 'Should I Stay' is a good song, but it's not the heart and soul of the Clash. It confuses the way we remember the Clash and what the Clash means. And I still believe in what the Clash meant."

Jungleland folded after about eight issues, as Scott dropped out of school and immersed himself in his own band, Another Pretty Face. The group enjoyed a modicum of success in the U.K., where it released four singles, including one on the Virgin label. Then, in 1981, Scott came to the attention of Nigel Grainge, a veteran British A&R man who had previously signed the Boomtown Rats and Graham Parker and who was now running Ensign Records. Scott signed with Ensign, moved to London and formed another band, Funhouse. After releasing a single called "Out of Control," the group broke up, and Scott organized yet another outfit, the Red and the Black, which eventually metamorphosed into the Waterboys. The initial lineup also included multi-instrumentalist Anthony Thistle-thwaite, who, along with Scott, is the only remaining original Waterboy.

The group's first two albums, released in 1983 and 1984, were dominated by fairly majestic, guitar-driven songs whose lyrics were dotted with literary references and a deep, often poetic sense of spiritual yearning. Not surprisingly, critics began lumping the Waterboys alongside such other practitioners of "big music" as U2, Simple Minds and Big Country. Though Scott says he didn't feel as if he were a part of a movement, he admits there was a sense of kinship. "In the mid-Eighties," he says, "bands like U2 were really rare."

Even more than those other groups, Scott was wary of the music industry. He has managed himself through most of his career, and he has balked at such now-commonplace marketing techniques as videos. To this day he has only relented once, making a live-performance clip for "The Whole of the Moon," a track from This Is the Sea, which has been reissued as a single from The Best of the Waterboys. "When you hear a song, you get a picture in your head, or at least I do," Scott says. "And videos take that away. When you see a video, that's what you see in your head ever after. The song is a soundtrack to the video. I don't write soundtracks, I write songs. And I'm not sure where to draw the line; I don't know if it's okay to do a performance video rather than an interpretive video. Overall, I just think videos are really bad for music They're just ads."

By the time he released This Is the Sea, Scott had become disillusioned with Ensign. Though Scott won't discuss the specifics, it's widely known that he became particularly upset when Grainge sold the previously independent Ensign to Chrysalis Records, using the Waterboys as his main bait Scott will only say that the sale created a situation in which "there were too many generals." Around the same time, keyboardist Karl Wallinger, who had been a crucial member of the band since joining in 1983, decided to leave to form his own group, World Parry. Those events, along with the addition to the Waterboys of the Dublin-based fiddler Steve Wickham, precipitated Scott's move to Ireland.

Before he left London, however, Scott and the band did have a brief encounter with Dylan, the meeting that no doubt inspired the aforementioned rumor. "We were in the studio for about two hours one day when he was recording what eventually became Knocked Out Loaded" Scott says. "Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics was producing, and we were invited down. The stuff we did was all instrumental. It was backing tracks. I think it was more ideas than songs. I had to use somebody else's guitar, and I couldn't get the bloody thing in tune. Playing with Bob Dylan and can't get the guitar in tune — very embarrassing."

Nonetheless, Scott came away impressed with his hero. "He had something nice to say to each of us," Scott says. "He told me he liked 'The Whole of the Moon.' Bob Dylan telling me that he likes a song of mine means an awful lot. And he was asking Steve how his old band was doing, because Steve had played with Bob at a big open-air concert."

It was the addition of Wickham that caused the Waterboys to abandon rock & roll in favor of traditional music. "When Steve arrived, the axis in the band shifted to myself, Steve and Anto [Thistlethwaite]," Scott says. "And Anto was getting into the mandolin very heavily, and I was playing acoustic guitar. And with Steve on fiddle, we just went on this big adventure."

Scott admits that the group spent an inordinate quantity of time and money making Fisherman's Blues, recording "a phenomenal amount" of material. The sessions — which included a week with former Dylan producer Bob Johnston — dragged on partly because Scott and Wickham were trying to define the band's new style. Also, since he had no manager at the time, there was no one telling Scott that it was time to stop. Scott makes no apologies for the change in direction or the impact it may have had on the group's commercial standing. "I never set out to have one thing and stick to it," Scott says. "I like all kinds of different music, and within my limitations I can play all kinds."

Wickham has since departed, and it appears that the Waterboys are set to return to a harder sound. (For the record, Scott says that he is still on good terms with the fiddler and Wallinger.) Meanwhile, Scott sees the best-of album as marking the end of an era, and he's not afraid that a big-money deal will put any excessive commercial demands on him. "I've always been interested in success," he says. "But success has always been a secondary or third thing for me. Being a happy person and enjoying the music comes first with me. I think if I had had a lot of success in '85 or '86, I wouldn't have been a very happy person. But the situation I'm going to be getting into now is going to be completely different. I have a stable life. My friends and my wife are behind me. I have a manager now. And I'm older and able to deal with things."

As for those people who want to portray him as an "awkward bugger," as one recent British magazine article put it, or some kind of stubborn eccentric, Scott doesn't have the time of day. "It's daft," he says, draining his glass. "I think the people who have a problem with that kind of thing are eccentric. I think I'm the mainstream guy. I'm going with the flow."