The Long, Strange Road to Modern Blues: A Q&A with the Waterboys’ Mike Scott

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

For 35 years, the Waterboys’ Mike Scott has been trying to sew together a kind of musical patchwork quilt, stitched with the threads of his many cultural interests. The shorthand version of this idea is that the 56-year-old Scotsman has primarily worked within the part of the Venn diagram where folk music from the British isles meshes with rock ’n’ roll. But over the course of 11 studio albums with his band, and two without, Scott has found inspiration in several different arenas. There have been touches of traditional Middle Eastern sounds, ‘60s R&B, gospel, electronic music and psychedelia in the mix at varying times and to various degrees. Scott has used this platform to delight in his love for the written word. Many of his songs cite the poetry of W.B. Yeats, and his own lyrics capture breathtaking imagery and artful wit.

Recorded in Nashville, the nine songs that make up his latest album are some of the brashest of Scott’s career. Modern Blues draws from the electric blues and soul that came alive in the Midwest and southern U.S., with the help of Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood and some Crazy Horse-like guitar work from Zach Ernst. Amid this glorious racket, Scott takes listeners on a Kerouac-style journey (“Long Strange Golden Road”), conjures a vision of his favorite artists cavorting together (“I Can See Elvis”), and writes yet another classically striking love song (“Beautiful Now”).

Paste spent a little time with Scott to discuss the sound of Modern Blues, paying his jazz music dues, and hearing covers of his own music.

Paste: How much of an impact did Nashville have on the sound of the new album?
Mike Scott: It didn’t have any impact on the writing because that was all done before. As far as the impact on the sound, there were the obvious things like the quality of the studio, working with an American engineer, using several musicians based in Nashville. All those things, of course, affected the sound. With regards to being in the environment of the city, I don’t think that affected the sound in a big way. But it was nice to be in a place where so much music is getting made and of such quality all the time. There’s a subtle effect.

Paste: Why Nashville then?
Scott: I knew I wanted to make the record in America. We looked at studios in New York and L.A. as well, but the Nashville rooms looked really great. I really liked the quality and the character of the studios. Sound Emporium where we were recording looked moody and mysterious and atmospheric. I have two band members living in Nashville, so that swung it for me, really.

Paste: Since the songs were written ahead of time, how much do they evolve while you’re recording?
Scott: I had a good idea of how they would sound but I always leave room for the unexpected, for what happens when the musicians finally get together and play. That’s an unpredictable thing. I don’t know exactly how everyone’s gonna play and bounce off each other. I think it would be a dereliction of my job as a producer and bandleader if I didn’t allow things to develop while we play. So, of course, some of the songs did develop, most notably “November Tale,” which began as a folk rock ballad with me strumming on acoustic guitar. But we had a guitar player in from Austin, Zach Ernst, and he’s very influenced by soul players from the ‘60s like Cornell Dupree. He brought a wonderful late-’60s Memphis kind of feel to it. Once I heard his playing I shifted the rhythm of the song and brought it more into that vein.

Paste: There are a lot of American references on the album as well, with lyrical nods to Miles Davis, Elvis and Jack Kerouac.
Scott: I hadn’t noticed it until you mentioned it! I mention Joan of Arc and Plato as well, both of them known for their ‘60s soul singles. [Laughing] I think it’s just another coincidence. Of course, I love American music. I’ve been listening to it since I was a kid.

Paste: Do you remember the first time you heard something by Elvis?
Scott: I was born in 1958 and a kid in the ‘60s. I do remember Elvis as a voice on the radio. A very manly, noble, emotional voice. It was a while before I put the voice to a face and began to put two and two together and learn who Elvis really was. For me, it was late-’60s singles like “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” The last good time to run into him, I think.

Paste: When did jazz come into your life?
Scott: I’ve been listening to jazz for about 15 years. I don’t remember quite what triggered it. I think maybe I got fed up with having band members who knew about all these people I didn’t know anything about. They’d be dropping these heavy names like Thelonious Monk. I think I just got fed up and decided to check it out for myself. I always knew the household name artists like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, but I’d never done my homework or really paid my dues as a listener to Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis. I love that period, that 1950s heyday. That’s what I like most.

Paste: What about your interest in Kerouac’s writing?
Scott: I first read Kerouac when I was about 20, and it was just phenomenal. Reading On The Road gave me a whole new way of looking at the world, of looking at friendship, travel, excitement. It was a wonderful initiation for a young man. Of course, I wasn’t the first nor will I be the last.

Paste: How did “Long Strange Golden Road” come together? Did you always envision it being this 10-minute saga?
Scott: When I started writing it, the verses were long. It was a long time before the first chorus hit. So I figured it was going to be a long one. It wasn’t going to be two verses and two choruses and then out. It always had that epic identity in my mind.

Paste: Because a lot of your work is so word-heavy, how does a song like “Long Strange Golden Road” come to you? Is it lyrics first, music first, or are you working in tandem?
Scott: That was a strange one. It was the lyrics first. I was doing some writing with a friend of mine, James Maddock, an English singer/songwriter based in New York. He’s got three co-writes on this album. I was writing a memoir a couple of years ago, and when I was beginning that, I went through all my old papers and journals and diary fragments. Anything I had that could have a bearing on the writing. In one of my old journals from the 1990s, I found a lyric and it began, “I was longing to be wooed, I was ready to be humble.” The first verse of “Long Strange Golden Road.” I hadn’t remembered writing it but there it was, intact on the page. I Googled some of the phrases to make sure it was mine, and it was fortunately. I wrote the rest of it, and must have spent a week working on the verse painstakingly. I sent the lyric to James because I wasn’t hearing any music in my head. He put it to a very pleasant major key folk tune, but I didn’t think it fit the words. I thought the tune wasn’t driving enough for this. I began to hear a tune in my own head. So I set it to my own tune as you hear it on the record and the tune James wrote, I used for “November Tale.” So I got two out of it!

Paste: Since you co-wrote with Maddock and Freddie Stevenson, I’m curious as to what you’re seeking out when you decide to work with someone on a song?
Scott: The only people I want to write with are people who have a melodic style that is different from mine. Sometimes I get tired of my own favorite chords and types of melodies. When that happens or when I have a lyric and no tune for it, then I’ll turn to someone like James or Freddie. I don’t sit in a room with them. I’m not one of those guys who makes eye contact and trades chords. What does work for me is sending an email with the lyric. They send me back an mp3 with them singing it to their tune. Then maybe I’ll change the tune a bit or write a bit myself. One thing leads to another and we end up with something that’s really first class. It’s a lone wolf process, but a shared one.

Paste: Since you’ve been writing songs for over 30 years now, do they come very easily for you or do you still struggle?
Scott: Every song’s different. Sometimes I have to really fight and wrestle to get blood from a stone. Sometimes it’s really easy. There doesn’t seem to be any rule to it. I still write songs where it comes almost automatically, and takes almost as much time as it takes to write it down. Those are rare but sweet. More often, it takes me a while and I might go back to it a week later and fine-tune it. I work with rhyming dictionaries now. I never used to, but over the last 10 years or so I’ve become a fan.

Paste: What was the process like for you writing your memoir, Adventures of a Waterboy?
Scott: I took a long time over it. It took me three years from beginning to end. And some of that was working constantly every day with a real rhythm. I would get up at five in the morning, and work for six hours before my lunch. I did that for about nine months. I found that’s what it took, that was the kind of dedication I had to put in to get a result. Fortunately, my instincts were active and I had a strong sense of what was needed to be told and what not to be told—where to draw the line with people’s privacy and put in my own. It was quite an intuitive process.

Paste: How does it feel to hear people covering a song that you wrote?
Scott: Well, it’s great. I just heard Ellie Goulding singing [“How Long Will I Love You?”] on the radio about a half hour ago. I love it. Especially when they make the songs their own. My favorite cover versions are the ones that are different.

Paste: Did you ever have the hope that someday your work would be appreciated enough to be adapted and covered by other people?
Scott: It never struck me as a likely thing. I didn’t think I wrote coverable songs. My very early songs only get covered very rarely. Only later, after I moved to Ireland and expanded my writing skills, did I think I was writing coverable songs. Having said that, I’ve heard 40 covers of “The Whole of The Moon,” and that was an early one.