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Too Close To Heaven: The Unreleased Fisherman's Blues Sessions(2001)

Buy at Townsends

INTERVIEW by Jim Carroll

Time to rewind 16 years. Mike Scott attributes the beginning of this adventure to summer 1985 when a brilliant musician called Steve Wickham brought his fiddle and hat onboard the good ship Waterboys.

Landing in Ireland later that year, there was no fortune-teller waiting at Dublin Airport to tell Mike that six dizzy years of music and mayhem were about to ensue. Those years may have produced two albums but, more important, was the experience of countless unfortgettable moments as Scott and friends roamed the land, making friends, playing music and creating magic. The results as captured on "Fisherman’s Blues" and now "Too Close To Heaven" are a snapshot of a band, as we say in Tipperary, sucking diesel.

What you hear on "Too Close To Heaven" are musicians in love with music. You might think that you have to love music to be in a band but you’d be surprised what some folk can get away with. No such accusations can be hurled at Mike Scott and his merry bunch of men. Yes, he had heard the big music but he’d also heard blues and country, gospel and folk, rock and roll and things really would never be the same again.

"Too Close To Heaven" completes a circle, bringing together seminal Waterboy recordings from 1986/87, much of it previously unreleased and even unheard outside the four walls of a studio. There’s songs like "Lonesome Wind" which were recorded with the legendary Bob Johnston out in sunny California, numbers like "Tenderfootin’" which were improvised on the spot in a room by the Liffey, tracks like "On My Way To Heaven" which the Waterpeople will remember from legendary live shows of old. It’s an album which will bring back memories of good times for the listener – and one which seemingly does likewise for its creator.

Q- This reissue appears to be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the secret life of The Waterboys. Do you view "Too Close To Heaven" as the first in a series or a one-off?

A - It's a one-off as far as special "Fisherman's Blues" sessions albums are concerned but some more tracks could come out on a "Secret Life" type album along with other stuff in the future.

Q - Talking about this album last year to The Irish Times, you said "I’m not going to release a museum piece, I’m gonna overdub it and mess with it and turn it in as a new album." Was it hard for you to overcome nostalgia in that regard? Did you ever feel like you should have released it as you found it and let history judge it that way?

A - No, I just put on the tapes and did what I felt was right. I had years to listen to the tapes and prepare so it all flowed pretty easily once I began the work. There was no question of releasing the tracks as they were. Some of them were was very unfinished you know - sometimes no vocal - and most of the original rough mixes had 80's type sounds – too much reverb, too loud snares. I couldn't wait to change those! Others needed editing to turn them into finsihed tracks - notably the Fantasy Studios ones from the Bob Johnston sessions. The only one that I didn't change at all is "The Ladder" - I kept the original rough mix from the day we recorded it.

Q - Do you ever wish now that you had stopped the "Fisherman's Blues" project at that stage and released what you had? Maybe left the Spiddal adventures for another album?

A - I never seriously wish anything would have been different in life. No regrets you know! But I can see what a great double album we could have made even pre-Spiddal with what we had and it would have blown our peers and competitors away - and had at least as potent an influence as the "Fisherman's Blues" album had. But there's no way; there was too much music and there were too many options within the music for me to finish it then. I didn't have the mastery of it so U2 and REM got off lightly!

Q - There seems to be many sonic links between "Too Close To Heaven" and "This Is The Sea" - something which can't be said about "Fisherman's Blues". Were you aware of this at the time of recording? Would you have been happy with those comparisons if "Too Close To Heaven" had been released then?

A - I'm aware of it now but I didn't think about it then. The connection seems to be the use of the piano and sax. But the whole method of recording on the "Fisherman's Blues" sessions was so totally different from the early Waterboys records - these tracks are all live performances with a lot of improvisation whereas the early records were planned in my head then structured in the studio.

Q - Do you miss the freewheeling nature of those days? What was the most important aspect of that period for you?

A - Yes, of course I miss it, who wouldn't? It was a great time. I was in love with Ireland. Every day was a new adventure, it was mythical. We have echoes of it with Steve back in the Waterboys now - music on the tour bus, in hotels - and it's wonderful to feel that spirit again. Being part of a brotherhood of musicians was a great thing in those days, with all the many musicians of all stripes we befriended in Ireland. I still have that connection to the Irish musicians and tap into it whenever I come back to Ireland or encounter her musicians on the road.

Q - Do you really think you had as gone as far as you could go then with the sound on "This Is The Sea"?

A - Oh, the "This Is The Sea" sound was realised and finished, that's for sure. I was well aware of that when I finished the album – and I'd already started listening to country music. Where might the music have gone if I hadn't met Steve? Nobody knows, but at a guess I'd say the movement into gospel, blues and country would have happened and the shift into live studio recordings would have happened too - just without the added Wickham magic.

Q - "Too Close..." does sound like a band working with, as you describe, "improvisation, performance, personality, the capturing of moments". Did you find this way of working a huge freedom?

A - Yes, it was a great freedom. To have a band that can improvise in the studio AND get results - well, that was just fantastic. Few bands can do it, I haven't had one since and we'll see what the current Waterboys can do soon enough. The level of "radar" and understanding in the '86/7 band allowed me to write songs very fast and easily. It was like opening a channel to the land of song. "Fisherman's Blues", "Strange Boat" and countless others were made possible by this. "Tenderfootin" was one of several songs that were written/recorded simultaneously out of nothing. Others like that included "Saints And Angels", but unfortunately that one wasn't captured on 24 track, only in stereo, and so I was unable to go back and re-sing the mumbled first verse lyrics - which is why it isn't on this new album.

Q - How important was producer Bob Johnston to both the sound and your way of working?

A - We already had established the new sound and direction before Johnston came along, but he helped us to consolidate it. It was an inspiration for us to work with a man who had produced so many great names in music. He gave us a dose of direct country music heritage too. I played Hank Williams' old piano and learned songs like "Lost Highway" and "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" at Bob's house. Bob didn't really "take" the songs anywhere – he wasn't that kind of producer. He left the songs and music to us. He got the sound on the mixing desk though and created the atmosphere in the studio where we could be creative.

Q - It was certainly a frenzied period - seven recording sessions during 1986 alone. Did you relish the opportunity to get so much recorded so quickly? Very Prince, if you dont mind me saying.

A - We loved it. I've always liked recordings songs quickly after they've been written because it speeds up the evolution of the music. If you could listen to the ‘86 sessions in chronological order, you'd hear us building on each previous session, taking the sound further, getting more maturity into it.

Q - There's always been a massive ambition to what The Waterboys have been about and you remain one of the few artists to marry that ambition with an ability to actually do it. How important were Steve and the lads to you in achieving that ambition during 1986-88?

A - As I said before, it was fantastic to have a band that could play and create live together with a high degree of understanding and empathy. Nothing can beat that. It's pure and alive and I love it. It was the musical combination with Steve, Anto and Trevor that made it possible. Not to forget the many drummers. Peter McKinney who played "Fisherman's Blues" and "Custer's Blues" is a great improvising drummer, very musical. Kevin Wilkinson too - his Waterboys "radar" was highly developed because of all the work he'd done with myself and Anthony in previous years. Another was Noel Bridgeman, who was highly schooled in session playing. Noel could adapt to a song immediately and develop an arrangement of it even in the first take.

Q - A hell of a lot of covers, almost enough for a Basement Tapes album! Was there any particular method to the selection of these tracks?

A - No, we just played what we liked. I would learn a song off a record or from someone's gig and a few days or weeks later it would turn up in the studio. We had a floating repertoire of our own songs and covers that we played anywhere and everywhere.

Q - Do you ever think you will revisit the gospel and country influences which played such a major part in your work during the late Eighties?

A - I already did! Gospel was a big part of the grounding for "A Rock In The Weary Land". As for country - who knows? Maybe that pendulum will swing back sometime too. I still listen to Hank Williams and introduce new Waterboys to his charms.