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Friday, 9 September 2011

An appointment with Mr Scott

There's a new Waterboys' album out in a week or so, called An Appointment with Mr Yeats, of music woven around the fantastical, political, love poetry of WB Yeats. I went on an adventure to Dublin, where Mike Scott lives, to talk to him about it, which came about because someone sent him a link to my review of the Wychwood festival, where The Waterboys played back in June. He liked the piece, he tweeted about it, I said hello.

The idea for the interview was that we'd take a stroll around the town, see a few Yeats-related sights and cast an appraising eye over the buskers on Grafton Street, with whom Scott has developed a kind of love/hate relationship. On Monday, however, it was drizzling and only those with a waterproof mindset were about. As I scurried to our meeting I turned my face away from the pavement for long enough to notice that there was a "human statue" standing on the corner of Grafton and Nassau Street, caked in white paint and wearing a long sheet - long enough to cover himself and the milk crate on which he seemed to be standing - waving gaily at passers-by. While this easily made him the least competent human statue I'd ever encountered, I began to get an inkling of what madness it might be that grips Scott in relation to the Grafton Street buskers. Of which more later.

A great deal has been written about Mike Scott and The Waterboys over the last 25 or so years and some of it has involved An Appointment with Mr Yeats because there was a brief tour of the forthcoming album a few months ago. The project seems to have brought out the swot in some of the journalists who wrote about it, possibly a response to the involvement of poetry. But to say it was well-received would be an understatement.

I was sent a copy of the CD a couple of days before I set out and spent most of the train and ferry trip to Dublin plugged in to it. It's a big rock album that is in turns wild, chilling, foot-tapping, intelligent and hormonal, but always accessible. There's a lot there, containing everything that originally drew me to The Waterboys as a teenager and more: it's a multifaceted gem of a record.

In from the drizzle, perched on a banquette amid the art nouveau splendour of Cafe En Seine on Dawson Street, the conversation turned and I asked Scott whether on some level the album is a love letter to Ireland, his adopted homeland?

"I hadn't thought of that," he said after a longish pause. "Yeats is one aspect of Ireland but he's very un-Catholic. He was a privileged Protestant, part of the landed gentry with a big English connection. But he was also an Irish nationalist: he loved Ireland very much.

"No. I don't think the record is a love letter to Ireland. His poetry is a little grain of Ireland. I bought a book of it when I first toured here in 1984 and although I didn't understand a lot of it I had a strong response to it. There was a molten quality to his words and a tactility. If I spoke them in my mind they had an edge. He is aware of the sound and flavour of words and their juxtapositions, and I love his subject set: mystery, love, Ireland, politics, the individual's short time on earth.

"I grew up in Scotland with my mum talking about Yeats as a big figure. Although I don't remember much about it now she took me to the Yeats summer school here in Sligo one year, which involved a trip to his grave and his home. It was impressed upon me at an early age that he was a great man."

So is the adult Scott's collaboration with Yeats about measuring up to this great man in some way? "I'd say the album is more of a homage than an attempt to cut him down to size. To me he is a giant of a bard and I felt that there was some untrodden ground there for me.

"I've never felt intimidated by the man's reputation. When I go to work I'm in a different mode and there's no space in that mode for being woolly minded. With my own lyrics I'm ruthless and I'm the same with Yeats. He must have been ruthless himself to get to where he got to, so I feel entitled to work with his words in the way that I do: that's the degree of rigour that they require. If I wasn't going to go in with that level of intensity I would stop wasting Yeats's time."

Ranged around the cafe was a tumbling horde of art nouveau sylph and fairy sculptures, holding up clocks with shapely arms, tiptoeing around lighting fixtures and generally pixying the place up. By contrast, the first track on the album is The Hosting of the Shee - or "the gathering of the fairies". Yeats wasn't the only literary figure of his era with a strong interest in fairies (Arthur Conan Doyle springs to mind). But far from being the kind of creature you'd want magicking around in your cafe, the wild-haired elves of Yeats and Scott ride straight at you out of the dark, dark night, yowling in a minor key and commanding you, terrifyingly, to "empty your heart of its mortal dream".

"Yes. They're not the dinkily colourful characters that you'd think of as classical fairies. They wouldn't be like that. The characters Yeats wrote about were as much the old gods of Ireland as the fairies. He named Niamh and Caoilte (pronounced 'Quilty') - and these are characters from Irish myth.

"I read a short biography of Yeats that was mostly about his spiritual and mystical beliefs. And I've read passages by scholars who completely don't get his occult interests. But the secret to understanding them is that it's not an intellectual discipline and if you approached it from an intellectual viewpoint it would be completely incomprehensible.

"Yeats was not a spiritualist - although he was married to a woman who was a medium - he was an explorer in old Irish folklore. But, yes, I think he believed in fairies - that they were beings of an older order, who could only be seen under certain circumstances."

And what do you think?

"That there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in our philosophy. There are certainly more things than can be detected by our five senses. Our perception system works within certain wavebands. There are sounds that we can't hear that dogs can. And with sight there's infra red, which is invisible to our naked eye. It would be a foolish person who would say that there is nothing beyond what we can comprehend and I am not that foolish person.

"There may be beings that inhabit a different realm to us and, if there were such an order of creatures, fairies might be one of them. I could believe it, though I haven't seen them myself.

"Irish history frequently blends with myth. There were waves of invaders and Yeats believed that some of them were beings from the time before humanity. I'm not saying this is my view. It was his."

In fact far from being a whimsical person, you feel with Scott that there is a hard intelligence working away, calculating the likely impact of his remarks as he goes along. But his creative imagination can also get the better of him. Later on, after a walk through the Georgian architecture of Dublin under an umbrella that made me feel a bit like Lucy walking with Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, we sat in middle of a row of seats at the Abbey Theatre, where The Waterboys showcased An Appointment with Mr Yeats five nights in a row in February. The theatre, which was founded by Yeats, also contains the portrait of Yeats that is behind Scott on the album cover.

There was a deep rumbling from beyond the walls of the auditorium. "That's the Metro," Scott explained. I thought about it, prepared to be surprised. "I didn't realise there was a Metro in Dublin." He also thought about it, then conceded. "Ah. No. Perhaps there isn't. Isn't that peculiar? We did five nights here earlier in the year and the whole time I thought the rumbling was coming from underground." A passing stagehand confirmed that the sound shaking the theatre's walls was almost certainly one of Dublin's rather futuristic looking trams.

"You know, I had my own dressing room when we did the shows here. It was the first time I'd ever had my own dressing room."

And what kind of outlandish demands did you make on your rider?

"Sparkling water. Honey and lemon for the voice..."

Rock and roll.

"That's a noun not an adjective," he reproved. "I don't drink and I don't take drugs. All that hedonistic stuff is fun in your 20s when you're still trying to find out who you are. But it doesn't help the music."

But doesn't that get dull? I know he's fought a winning battle with alcohol, but everyone needs a holiday some time, surely? "Maybe normal people have holidays. But I work at doing what I enjoy most in the world." See what he did there? A change of tack almost imperceptible to the human ear. "I do so much travelling that when I stop work the last thing I want to see is an airport." There then followed a short diatribe about Air France and Charles de Gaulle airport that further confirmed my theory that that Charles de Gaulle is the other Bermuda triangle of the aviation world.

"Last time we were travelling from there we were turned back from Brest and had to spend the night in the cheapest hotel I've ever been in. There was a condom machine in the foyer," he grumbled. Nuff said.

Other things that I learnt about Mike Scott included that he doesn't much care for the only book currently on the shelves about him, which is called Strange Boat, by someone called Ian Abrahams. "The little bit of it that I read was full of assumptions read as fact. My wife read more of it and said it was full of banal assertions about why I did stuff. But I've written my own memoir. It's out early next year. Lilliput, my publisher in Ireland, is talking to UK publishers at the moment."

And it seems likely that whatever comes next for him, it's likely to include The Waterboys. "I made two solo albums in the seven years before we reformed the band in 2000. But I missed the size of the audiences, I didn't enjoy working under my own name and it got boring. The Waterboys are somehow more than the sum of its parts: there's something very mysterious and enjoyable about it. And I got fed up with journalists asking me what the difference was between between my personal output and the band's."

What they were probably asking was how collaborative the process of songwriting was with the other members of the band? "I always led the band and set the direction," came the uncompromising answer.

Back out in the drizzling rain the Mike Scott minimalist tour of the Grafton Street buskers took place as scheduled: minimalist because there were only two buskers braving the elements. First was a young man who, with great pathos, was singing Why does it always rain on me? audible from some considerable distance, accompanying himself with a guitar and one-man-bandish pedal drum. When he caught sight of Scott he started giving it some real welly and went into a terrific version of Folsom Prison Blues, for which he received the seal of approval.

There he is. And then I was lucky to catch the man known by Scott as The Worst Busker in the World. As you might have guessed this isn't his real name. He sits on an amplifier putting out traditional Irish music, holding a bodhran as if it were a bag of spuds and tapping it occasionally with one end of the bone.

That's him with the umbrella, talking to some American tourists. "He's better when he's not busking at all," confirmed Scott, who has been known to fantasise elaborate scenarios about the Grafton Street buskers lasting several hours on Twitter. One of them ended up with a big cartoon fight in the middle of Dublin's main pedestrianised precinct with everyone getting their just desserts: the artist's revenge on his tormentors.

And with that he led me in the direction of the Irish Museum of Art, where there's a large exhibition of paintings by Jack Yeats, WB's younger brother.

* On reading this interview Mike Scott sent me the following by email: "Re. the eternal 'what do you do for fun' thing, actually the reason you don't get a reply is it's the wrong question! It contains within it a scepticism, an unspoken 'but' and implied attachment to a set of values - the hedonistic thing - which I don't find fun - and this switches me off and makes the question impossible to answer in that form. But the fact is, I have fun, in the sense of enjoying myself, pretty much everything I do; I've made it that way. If you asked me 'what gives you pleasure' that would be a much easier question to answer. Friendship, good clothes, travel, new experiences, great writing and music, learning, furthering my understanding, good food and fabulous tastes, a sense of momentum and adventure about what I'm doing... all those things, plus the business of making music and working on it, of course."


* If you enjoyed this post, you may also enjoy this about The Waterboys.

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1 comment:

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