Mad As the Mist and Snow: An Interview with the Waterboys’ Mike Scott

Incorporating the prose of William Butler Yeats in a song is hardly an unusual feat. However, the idea of an entire rock album revolving around the works of Ireland’s most celebrated poet might raise eyebrows — until one considers that it’s a Waterboys record. In hindsight, such a project seems almost inevitable for a band, and bandleader, who began marrying Celtic themes to rock ‘n’ roll 30 years ago.

Indeed, An Appointment With Mr. Yeats, (launching in the USA via Proper Records on March 26), accomplishes the feat of bringing W.B. Yeats’ words to the ear without being so reverential that the Waterboys’ bold sonic signatures play second fiddle. Rich, rocking, sometimes ethereal and often majestic — yes, there’s some “Big Music” to be found — chief Waterboy Mike Scott serves up sumptuous treats for fans of each or all of the group’s distinct eras, including the current one; a fitting, natural amalgamation.

The material for Mr. Yeats was first perfected, and presented to the public, via a series of UK concerts beginning in 2010. Since then, Scott has enjoyed a whirlwind of activity. Besides touring in England and abroad in support of the album, the band’s frontman/founder has co-promoted a well-received autobiography, Adventures of a Waterboy. More recently, Scott put together an “American version” of the Waterboys for the purpose of a future American tour. This group — handpicked NYC-based musicians — backed Scott and veteran fiddler Steve Wickham for the Waterboys’ only U.S. performance of An Appointment With Mr. Yeats in New York City on March 20.

PopMatters recently caught up with the Edinburgh native at his Dublin home via phone. Gracious and earnest in conversation, Scott revealed a bit about himself while discussing one of the biggest endeavors of his career.

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It would seem that recording an entire album of Yeats’ poetry set to music would bring with it a lot of responsibility. Not only to his legacy, but to all previous usage of his poetry in music, as well. Quite a task, all around.

Well … I put Yeats to music back in the 80s (“The Stolen Child”), on the Fisherman’s Blues record. And then I recorded another one a few years later, for another Waterboys album. In the early 90s, I was invited to be part of a show in Dublin … it was part of the Yeats International Festival. There was an evening musical program, with lots of different well-known Irish artists — the Irish tend to consider me to be one of their own by now, so I was invited, too.

But I had misunderstood the brief. I thought it we were all getting together to set Yeats to music, and have an evening of singing his poems … but all the other artists were singing their own songs, instead. So, I was the only one who had come prepared with Yeats poems set to music — I had four with me. I performed them that night. I remember thinking that Yeats’ lyrics were so great, and they suit music so well, that there should be a whole evening — a whole stage show dedicated to his lyrics.

At first, I thought I might organize it with different artists, give different poems to different musicians to set to music. But I had other things to do. In fact, I moved to New York shortly afterward, and I never had the time to organize something like this. It would’ve been a bit like trying to organize Cats, if you know what I mean!

Over the years, I kept coming back to Yeats’ poetry; there came a time when I realized that I had almost enough Yeats adaptations of my own, to put on my own show. And after I realized this, (more songs) started coming along faster. In 2006 or 2007, I had enough for a whole show.

So, I had a lot of time to get used to the idea of not only the responsibility to the quality of Yeats’ work — which I take very seriously — but also to know almost all the adaptations of Yeats’ work in popular music. I felt, with very few exceptions, that I didn’t like what had been done with his poems before; either it had been too reverential, or too… folky. Or classical; there have been a lot of classical adaptations. I don’t have anything against those, but it’s just not my taste. I wanted to do something that had a rock ‘n’ roll, counter-culture edge to it.

As Yeats was a bit edgy and counter-culture, himself.

In his time, definitely. Definitely a Modernist.

Have you learned anything new about Yeats during the last couple of years?

We had a great experience working at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when we first did the “Yeats show.” Yeats founded the Abbey Theatre in 1904. Being in his own theatre, with a portrait of him on the wall, along with portraits of other members of the Irish literary Renaissance period — and meeting the director of the Abbey Theater … that was all very educational. To be able to really go into the slipstream of Yeats’ work — I enjoyed that very much.

It was a great feeling to have Waterboys fans coming from all over Ireland, and from all over the world, for those shows. It was a lovely experience.

Having said all that … I love Yeats’ poetry, and I like the flavor of the man, as far as I can perceive it — but I’m not an obsessive. I don’t need to know how many women he had, or what he said to a rival writer, or anything like that. I’m not that interested in the minutiae of his life.

Is there any film that exists of W.B. Yeats?

I’ve only seen one clip … where he receives his Nobel Prize in Stockholm, and he’s walking down these steps, towards the camera. In fact, we paid to have permission to use that film in our show. The last thing that happened during our concert at the Abbey Theatre was when we played “The Whole Of The Moon”, dedicated to Yeats, and he comes on the screen, walking down those stairs. Everyone cheered, it was a lovely moment.

Your passion for his prose is infectious on this album. It makes me actually want to go read some poetry, for once in my life. Having to read poetry in school when I was a kid was a very dry affair. I read that you appeared at a Dublin school, and played some of this new material for some students there.

I got a letter from a secondary school teacher saying that she had been using some of the tracks on the album to interest her kids in poetry; apparently, it had been a great success, because she had enclosed with her letter notes from every kid in her class! All the letters said much the same thing — they all wrote that they had studied poetry the year before, and found it really boring … but now they were interested with Yeats given to them in musical form. And they’d say which was their favorite poem.

I got back in touch with this teacher. I thought, “Gosh, there’s a good story here. We’ve got Ireland’s national poet, a pop group, a bunch of plucky kids and a creative schoolteacher… this should be on the national news!” So I got in touch with a publicist friend of mine, who arranged for RTE to come down and film us in this classroom. We had a wonderful couple of hours with the kids … playing songs for them, answering their questions about Yeats, and about being a musician and such. It was great fun.

I’m sorry, I haven’t read your book yet… but I did read a snippet of something, somewhere, that prompted me to guess that your mother might have had a profound influence on your career.

Well, I grew up in a house full of books. I was always encouraged to read as a kid.

Is your mother still alive?

She is, yes. She’s an English lecturer; still teaches one day a week at Glasgow University. My mum taught me to read when I was pretty young; I think I could read before I even went to school. I loved reading — not particularly poetry, mostly novels. Probably like you, when I was at school, poetry wasn’t that interesting. I didn’t enjoy being made to learn poems — they say by heart, but it’s really by mind; “heart” is more of a passionate thing.

Who could you rely on for honest critiques during this Yeats project?

I think I worked on it for so long, but for such a such short periods of time, if you know what I mean … I’d do a little work on Yeats, and then go off to record a new album and tour for that, and then come back to Yeats a couple of years later. I kept a fairly fresh perspective; my own best counselor was myself, throughout the project.

Now, I got quite a bit of help from Steve Wickham. He was good at giving me feedback on which songs he felt worked best. I wrote the arrangements, but Steve helped me manuscript them; he’s classically trained.

There are so many songs on the record I’d like to ask about, but I’ll choose just one. What is the background of “White Birds”? It’s so pretty; quite a beautiful rhythm.

I have a songwriter friend who lives in Canada, Chris Evans. He set “White Birds” to music, among some other Yeats poems, about 15 years ago. He sent me a copy; I loved what he had done with it. That’s what first brought the poem to my attention… it’s not one that would have grabbed me otherwise, perhaps. When I came to do the album, it was a poem that spoke to me from the page. I thought, “Well, my mate Chris set this to music, and I don’t want to do his version … but because he’s done it, I can’t hear [new] music in my head; all I hear is his [take].”

I really loved the lyric, and I thought there was something more that I could do with it. So I sent it to another friend of mine, in New York, Freddie Stevenson. He’s a British singer-songwriter. I emailed him and said, “Fred, can you have a look at this; I love this Yeats lyric, I’d love to use it in my project but I’m having trouble with the music — can you put a tune to it?”

He sent me a demo about a week later, with this beautiful, Scottish-sounding folk tune. I thought, ‘My God, he’s nailed it.’ I thought the rhythm was too fast, so I slowed it down. I also wrote a bridge for it, but Freddie did the lion’s share of the work.

The Waterboys have had so many members, some 50-odd …

Over 60, now.

… what are some of the more important lessons you’ve learned as a bandleader?

I never let any band member think that I’m flapping in any way; I always try to maintain a very calm demeanor. I find that helpful in maintaining the right kind of creative atmosphere. But I also have an iron will …

I love for people to play their own parts, and know what to play intuitively — and I try to create an atmosphere where that’s possible, so the musicians can express themselves in a way that’s coherent with my intentions. However, if they don’t, or if they’re lost or confused — I’ll step in and direct them. But very much from a ‘less is more’ point of view.

So, not a “Steely Dan”, perform-it this-exactly-this-way method?

Not really … very occasionally. For the “Mr. Yeats” show we’re doing in New York next month, I’ve been sending notes to all the players. Sometimes I’ll tell them that this song has to be played just like it is on the record, I need it exact and here’s a manuscript. Mostly, though, I’ll say, “Play it their own way … make sure you get the hook, but apart from that, just express yourself.” And I like for players to have that sort of freedom.

You recently performed in Australia for the very first time. How is that possible?

Well … all the Australian interviewers asked the same thing — “What took you so long?” Mostly, I joked, “I was waiting until we became good enough.” The real answer was down to money. We’d get offers, but we couldn’t afford to do it. We would’ve lost money. And I don’t think we’re quite popular enough in Australia to make it a “no brainer.” Our audience is loyal, but not huge. It would’ve had to have been the right financial circumstances, and fortunately we were asked to play the Sydney Festival. That created the right kind of context to arrange the other shows around.

What did you make of Australia?

I liked it a lot. I didn’t have too many expectations; it was a new country, and I’d never been anywhere near there. I just took it as I found it, and I liked it a lot. Some great cities; I love Melbourne.

You’re played at the Prince Tribute at Carnegie Hall on March 7. Will you tell me which numbers you considered?

There was only one that I wanted to do, and I claimed it. Quickly.

So you’re a genuine Prince fan.

Yes, of course. I’m particularly a fan of about ’83 to ’87, that “peak” period. From 1999 to Sign O’ The Times.

Ah, the “Wendy & Lisa” years.

Yep. Wendy is in the band for this show, by the way.

What’s on the horizon for the Waterboys?

Later this year, about October, there’s going to be a boxed set of the Fisherman’s Blues album. It should be a seven-CD set containing all the significant recordings that we made for that record. I’m editing it at the moment; it’s great fun.

The other project will be a new Waterboys album. I don’t know when it will get made, maybe next year. I’ve got the songs mostly written for it.

I appreciate the fact that you don’t turn your back on the Waterboys’ “rise to fame” days. “The Hosting Of The Shee”, for example, almost comes full circle.

That song is based on my teenage piano style, just like the 1980s Waterboys music was… so there’s a connection there.

How did you develop that style?

Oh, I was self-taught, though I do remember a piano teacher trying to tell me how to play properly. I’d play with one finger on my left hand, and three fingers on my right hand. Most of the time, it would sound kind of … goofy. But over the years, I developed these sort of idiosyncratic styles that I thought were more interesting. One of them was the “running river” piano styles on songs like “Old England” or “The Stolen Child”. There would be a 3/4 version of that, and a 6/8 version — which is on “The Whole Of The Moon”. “The Hosting Of The Shee” is one of those.

I always thought of that sound as someone at a pub’s piano, banging away to be heard over the din of loud revelers. Coherently banging away, I should add.

The funny thing about my piano playing is … whenever I get a keyboard player in the Waterboys, I ask, “Can you play “The Whole of the Moon’ like I played it?” — and they can never do it! [laughs] There’s too much to unlearn.

(Editor’s note: Backed by the Roots, Scott and Wickham performed “Purple Rain” at the Carnegie Hall Prince Tribute March 7)