MIKE SCOTT TALKS ABOUT BOOK OF LIGHTNING April 2007
~ questions by Jules Gray.
1. It’s great to see The Waterboys back with a new album. How did signing with Universal come about?
We were part of the way through making Book Of Lightning when we received an approach from John Williams, who I knew from the mid 1980s. He was at Chrysalis when we were there back in 1986-91, and also produced one of our old BBC radio sessions - the one with the great slow version of Don't Bang the Drum. John had just started a new record company called W14, part of Universal. We played him the work in progress to that point and kept him in the loop as recordings developed. In fact, he came down to the studio and was there for some of the recording - I remember him being there as we were doing several high energy takes of Love Will Shoot Him Down. One thing led to another and we signed to W14 just as the album was completed - I signed the contract in the green room at Eden Studios.
2. Did the musicians in Vancouver band Great Aunt Ida greatly influence the terrific new arrangement of Sustain?
Yes, they did. I'd heard their cover of Fisherman's Blues back in early
2006 and loved it. I got in touch with them and they sent me their first album, Our Fall - and I loved that too. I wanted to include Sustain on the Waterboys album but couldn't get the arrangement to work. I thought to myself, why not send it to Great Aunt Ida - or specifically their singer/composer Ida Nilsen - and see what they do with it. So I sent a live recording off to Ida, one of those solo acoustic versions I've played in concert many times. A week later she sent me back an MP3 of her version, which was beautiful. She'd changed it around musically a little, modified some chords, and composed a new instrumental middle section. Maybe we'll put her demo on a 'b' side one day - it really was exquisite.
Rather than interpret it, I asked if her band would simply back me on it, according to her vision of the song. She said yes, and so last June I went out to Vancouver with my manager and co-producer Phil Tennant, and we recorded it using Ida and the GAI rhythm section - Barry Mirochnick on drums and Annie Wilkinson on bass. It was great fun being in another environment, rehearsing and recording with totally new musicians. Then I brought the recording back to London and put Steve Wickham and Roddy Lorimer on it. I also recorded a version of Strange Arrangement with GAI in Vancouver, though we re-recorded that one with the Waterboys studio band a few months later.
3. Is there a reason for your unusual vocal style on Nobody's Baby
There's never a "reason" for any of these musical things. It's quite simply the way I found myself singing the song when I wrote it. That's how the song wanted to be sung, and as far as my choice or will goes, I had nothing to do with it! I just allowed it to happen. Though I do love it.
4. Strange Arrangement is a powerful and most intriguing song. What were the events that influenced it?
It's not specifically autobiographical. It's just a song. It's about a person who is becalmed – as in a ship being becalmed when no wind will blow - because of the decisions they've made. In fact, most of the songs on Book Of Lightning are about decisions, actions and their consequences. In this one, the person isn't so much regretting their decisions, more taking a wry look at them.
5. Any misgivings about releasing a second version of You In The Sky
so soon after releasing its original incarnation (on the Fisherman's Blues remaster)?
No. I felt the song was good enough to justify a new recording. And the original, for all its power, didn't capture the way I envisaged the song myself. On the original, the band played it very glorious and full-on, but I imagined the song more plaintive and understated, which is how we've
done it this time around. I think that approach is actually more powerful - a case of 'less is more'.
6. I put it to you that the verse excised from You In The Sky that runs "Thou art beautiful/And I am gifted...../When in thy precious presence I am lifted" is a subtle and inspired lyric. Why didn't that verse work for you as the song's writer?
Several reasons. I got tired of the "thou" language of the original version, though of course that can easily be changed to "you". Secondly, I don't like the way the phrase "I am gifted" hangs during the gap between it and the next phrase. People might think for those moments that I'm saying I'm personally a gifted person, as in 'talented', which is not the sense of the song of course. I consider it bad songwriting that a rogue idea like that can apperently stand for a few seconds of mis-comprehension in the listener's mind. Thirdly, this verse is full of a sense of separation between spirit/God and the singer, even more so than the two verses that I kept - and for that reason I felt it was unnecessary to keep it. The two surviving verses said everything I wanted to say. It's a similar situation to Spirit on the album This Is The Sea. Some people said "oh why didn't you use the extended version on the album?", which I think had been on a 'b' side at the time. But the 8 line version said everything I needed to say with the song. It's the same story here.
7. I love The Man With The Wind At His Heels - was it a last minute addition to the album, hence the solo recording? Or did you just know it had to be approached in a different way to the other songs?
Yes, it was the last song to be recorded. We had planned to use a version of Saints And Angels, but the version we did wasn't good enough. Steve and I did it with a fine young Irish fiddler called Caoimhin O'Rathallaigh who plays a Norwegian Hardangar fiddle – an instrument with droning overtones under the neck, which makes a very evocative sound. Caoimhin sounded great but it wasn't the best rendition from me and Steve. Saints And Angels is a special song, and needs to be great when we finally release it. This one wasn't, and there was no freshness to re-record it at that time.
So I trawled my unused songs for one that would fit with the feel and tone of this album, and chose The Man With The Wind At His Heels, which comes from the same writing spree (early 1986) that produced Everybody Takes A Tumble and You In The Sky. I could have recorded it with the band, but we were short of time and I felt the song lent itself to a solo recording anyway. I like that the album closes with a track that has a sounscape of a different, smaller scale - and I like that the three 1986 songs nestle together at the end there.
8. Steve Wickham only appears on half of the tracks on Book Of Lightning. Is this a criminal underuse of The Waterboys' secret weapon?
He he. Well, Steve is the greatest rock fiddler in the world, and he's my favourite musician, but even so, not every song wants to have fiddle on it. And even if it did, someone would complain about that! So though we tried fiddle on, for example, It's Gonna Rain and She Tried To Hold Me, as an instrument or sound it simply didn't work on them. It took She Tried too much into a country style, for one. We recorded fiddle for Love Will Shoot You Down, but it clashed with the lead guitar, which was more central to the song.
9. Were there any other tracks recorded at the sessions? If so, have you any plans for their release?
The aforementioned version of Saints And Angels. And a version of The
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, a live recording of my recitation of the
passage from Kenneth Grahame's book The Wind In The Willows with musical backing, from last Summer's Findhorn shows. It was good, but not quite good enough for a record. Look for a new recording of that on a future album.
There are also lots of great demos - home studio demos of Crash Of Angel Wings and many others, plus the GAI Strange Arrangement. Some of those might come out in the future. I also recorded an extra track at home called the Player which apparently is gonna be available with the iTunes download - it might even be available already by the time you read this. It's another action-and-consequence song, in a bluesy style.
10. The bonus DVD is a gem. Will there be more DVD releases to come from The Waterboys?
I sure hope so. We are already filming stuff on the new tour. We also
have lots of ideas for professionally filmed DVD projects. Watch this
space, but be patient!
11. Are the album of Yeats interpretations and a remaster of Room To Roam still on the cards at this point in time?
Yes, both are planned. I would guess the Room To Roam remaster will
happen next year, between new Waterboys releases. The Yeats album may
be our next new release, but nothing is decided yet, and it may be that
we will do another 'regular' album, like Book Of Lightning, before heading out into the celtic mists. Still to be decided. I have the songs and arrangements on the Yeats one ready to go. Very beautiful they are too, and very different, including some string arrangements which I’ve scored myself.
12. So have you decided yet where Mike Scott will likely write his next album of songs?
Venice shimmers on the horizon, but anything is possible.