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A Rock In The Weary Land(2000)

Buy at Townsends

A Rock In The Weary Land is not only a magnificent record, it marks the return of The Waterboys name and introduces the new Sonic Rock sound. Mike Scott recently found time to meet up and talk about it in a cafe in West London. Interview by David Billson.

Q: Why did you decide on using The Waterboys name for this album?

A: If I put the record out as Mike Scott only a certain amount of people will hear it. On the other hand if I put it out as a Waterboys record, then it'll be heard by many, many more people. And to me there's no difference between Mike Scott & The Waterboys; they both mean the same thing. They mean myself and whoever are my current travelling musical companions.

Q: Are you proud of the Waterboys name?

A: Very much so. I didn't take the decision lightly; I thought about it a lot, but now that I've done it I'm very glad.

Q: You said in an interview after Still Burning that you had the production of the next album already in your head. Now that it's actually finished has it turned out how you thought?

A: No, it evolved a lot. I did a series of demos in the middle of 98 and at that time my intention was to have a mix of my own song writing and singing with drum programming and effects. While there are a few elements remaining of that on the finished record, it didn't really turn out like that at all. My vision of the record evolved as I worked on it. Dave Ruffy who'd been in the Waterboys a long time ago played with me again for some shows in 98 and in the wake of that I asked him to do drum programmes for 4 songs; Let It Happen, My Love Is My Rock, We Are Jonah and Crown. They were very good but when I started to put my own instruments on top it just didn't turn me on. Something wasn't breathing in it so I rerecorded the songs with drummers and I enjoyed that more. The only drum program one I kept was His Word Is Not his Bond which was done later on for me by a young guy called Rowan Stigner.

Q: So it's a learning process all the time?

A: It was yes; the record had its own evolution. It comprised many stages and the programming was only one of them. Another was when I was going down Denmark Street in London buying effects pedals. I wanted to explore with the sound of every instrument. Still Burning was a very straight record; the guitars sound like guitars, the organs sound like organs, the drums sound like drums. So I made a conscious decision on this one that the sound of every instrument was gonna be different ; sculpted and created individually . And because I didn't have any other band members at the time to evolve this with I had to develop almost the whole culture of the sound myself. So for over a year I was trying out different effects and trying to manipulate them in my own unique ways. That's all over the record. As you can hear.

Q: When did you write the songs?

A: Mostly written the last 2 months of 97 and the first 4 months of 98.

Q: A long time ago. Has it taken since then to evolve them?

A: In terms of finished song writing, they were pretty much evolved straight away. The songs emerged in a cluster. The songs on Still Burning were all written at different times; Rare, Precious And Gone was written in 86 and there were a few from 92 and 93. But this one is all one period, and I think the record has that consistent character.

Q: Where were the songs written?

A: Most of them were written in a little bare room at the top of a rented house on Lansdowne Road, Notting Hill, where I lived back then. But Let It Happen and Crown were written in Findhorn in a house I used to have there. Is She Conscious? was written in my head while out and about in London.

Q: Does that happen often?

A: No. I may think of a line or a phrase, but to get the majority of a song "on the move" like I did with that one is very rare.

Q: How are they usually written?

A: Usually sitting down with my guitar and sometimes the piano. I have a room in my house where I do nothing but work on music.

Q: What was the biggest influence on the album?

A: I'd lost interest in rock in 1986, after I made This Is The Sea. All my youthful rock dreams were realised with that record. So I moved on. Then I got involved in Hank Williams, Country music, Folk music, Gospel music and all kinds of things, and I didn't come back to listening to rock until during the Still Burning tour in 97. The first record I bought that brought me back to it was When I Was Born For The Seventh Time by Cornershop. I just liked the title. And then when I listened to it I liked the record. Then I bought Ok Computer and I thought that was a great record and I started listening to tons and tons of things which all had an impact. I remember Ian McNabb gave me The Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole and I was blown away by "The Private Psychedelic Reel". Later I got into Deserter's Songs by Mercury Rev and Soft Bulletin by Flaming Lips. I can't say that any one record or artist had a more significant influence. Lots of different ones did in different ways. In fact what I got most from these records was a sense of what's possible with rock in the year 2000. From there it was down to me.

Q: The album sleeve features you and the gold Steel Deville guitar. Is that the only electric guitar you use on the album?

A: It's the number one guitar all over the album, but not the only one.

Q: It's your favourite one, is it?

A: Not live, but in the studio it is, yes.

Q: Tell me about the other musicians on the album. What did they add to the record?

A: Thighpaulsandra plays on more of the record that anyone apart from me. I wanted someone who could give me all those mellotron and synth sounds that I can't do myself, and to play them with command. He brought all that. He also brought some of his own ideas - for example the marvellous strings line at the end of My Love Is My Rock is his melody, played on a mellotron. It was very important to me to have someone around who would give me an extra something that I might not be able to think up myself. Jeremy Stacey plays drums on Let It Happen, My love Is My Rock, Is She Conscious? and We are Jonah. I had recorded them all with other drummers beforehand, but I wasn't satisfied with the versions so I called Jeremy. I'd worked with him in 97 and figured he was the man who could give the songs the grooviness I wanted. No other drummer plays as well with me as he does. He's a great listening drummer. So I brought him in and over a period of a few months he played on those 4 tracks. There's Richard Naiff too - he's playing piano on We Are Jonah and The Wind in The Wires. He covers the areas on piano I can't, and he's not afraid of noise either. If I'd met him earlier he'd have played on more of the record.

Q: Do you welcome the suggestions that musicians come up with?

A: I do, yes. As long as they don't have any preciousness if it doesn't work, because I make decisions very quickly in the studio and I know immediately if I dig something or not.

Q: The album is produced by yourself. Does this give you more freedom to try more things, and not be as restricted as when someone else is telling you what to do?

A: Well it would never be case of people telling me what to do ! That never happens ! The last 4 records I did were co-productions. I did them with Barry Beckett (Room To Roam), Bill Price (Dream Harder) and then Niko Bolas (Bring 'Em All In and Still Burning) . This was because I wore myself out producing Fisherman's Blues which went on for so long that it distorted my relationship with the band members. I was determined never to let that happen again. And I didn't want the responsibility of production anymore. It's a lot of weight for one pair of shoulders, to write songs, lead the band, be musical director and produce too. I didnt have the energy or the capacity to do it again until now. On the other hand co-producing is easy for me in some ways, and all my various co-producers brought a lot to the party but co-production doesn't bring the best out of me. The way it works is this : I might listen to a track in the studio and think the band doesn't play so well together on the last chorus and I'd say so to my co-producer. Then he might say "It's fine, don't worry about it." Now I may be hearing something that he's not hearing and I might be right. But when I co-produce I often just swing with what the other guy says and let it be. When I'm producing myself that doesn't happen. I re-record a song over and over until I feel it's right. A Rock In The Weary Land is the product of that process. So certain songs were re-recorded until they were done to my own highest standards. Thats a commitment that I have to make to my own recording process because I recognise that it makes a better record. It's the same value that I employed on A Pagan Place, This Is The Sea and Fishermans Blues. So Im going to keep producing myself.

Q: Which song on the album was the hardest to record?

A: Let it happen was the one that was recorded the most number of times.

Q: Why was that?

A: Well I did the first version with drum programming, then a version with a second drum program, then a version with one human drummer, and then another version with another drummer.Then another drummer. Till I got it sounding right. And do you know, with that song I didn't know what "sounding right" meant till I got to it. I just knew what I had Wasn't It Yet and had to keep going till I got it.

Q: The album was recorded and mixed without a record deal in place. Did that ever concern you?

A: Yes absolutely. Sometimes in the studio I'd be thinking "who's gonna release this...maybe nobody's gonna release this !" I just had to keep digging deep into my self belief and believe in what I was hearing from the speakers and hang in there. Once I started my manager and I believed that it would be better to go with the finished record to the record companies so they could really hear what they were getting. If we had gone with half finished tracks I think they'd maybe not have got it. So we had to go with the finished thing. That meant that I had to hang on and have faith in myself and the record and it worked !

Q: You've gone with RCA ; was it the best deal?

A: RCA was the best company. I wouldnt go with a record deal because of the terms of the agreement but because it's the right company. That's the decision : what's the right company. Only after that's answered does the question become what's the right deal. It wasn't specifically that RCA was a major, but that was a part of it. It was also that my manager and I had a particular vision of which tracks would make singles and they got it. That was the crucial moment for me. I felt "OK, they get the album, they are going to work it in the right way."

Q: You did some live shows towards the end of the recording - Milton Keynes, Greenock and Edinburgh. You said that you were showcasing new songs. How important is that in the whole album making process? What do you get out of that sort of show?

A: There's the pleasure of playing the shows; the musical pleasure, which is a big spur. I say that's about 70% of why the shows happen. You know, I want to play ! And I want to see if people dig the new songs. And also there's a desire to let people hear what's coming, so when the record eventually comes out it's not going to be a completely sudden development for them. I had an instinct that doing the Milton Keynes gig in particular would ripple far beyond the venue and it did - it was all over the Internet with people talking about it.

Q: So you got what you wanted ?

A: Yes and I got some feedback on the songs. I read what people said and spoke to fans after the show. I got a sense of which songs they liked, which songs they didn't like. There was one song, Anatomy Of A Love Affair which got some bad feedback. That was very interesting for me ! I'd never dreamed that anybody would dislike that song. It was recorded for the album and I might well have included it if I hadn't got the bad feedback. But when I reflected on it I kind of agreed with it. On the other hand The Wind In The Wires had only just been written. When I saw how much people liked it, I recorded it in a hurry to get it on the album. I should say that if I believed in a song strongly it wouldn't matter what feedback it got - it would go on the record regardless. But sometimes bad feedback can reveal to me that I have a doubt about a song myself. Very helpful !

Q: So are we likely to see Anatomy Of A Love Affair on a B-side?

A: You will, yes.

Q: Overall the first impression one has upon hearing the new album is the Sonic Rock sound as you've called it. How did this sound come about?

A: It really comes from somewhere deep within me. As I say, listening to all these recent records gave me a sense of what's possible with rock today. Also I'm very competitive when it comes to rock'n' roll and when I plugged back into rock not only did I get a buzz out of it, I also got a sense of "I'm gonna show them; I'm gonna beat him; Im gonna do something better than that". I can't help it. I'm fitted with that software internally ! So I was hungry to make something I was really proud of; and that meant something that was original, that was really me. I like to use instruments my own way. Similarly I like to use effects my own way too. I'll combine effects to make something I hope no one has never heard before. For example there's a sound on His Word Is Not His Bond which I call a "Trem-wah" that no one to my knowledge has ever made before. It's done with a distorted organ through a tremelo pedal and then sent back through a customised wah wah pedal with a dial on it that I can turn very very slowly, giving a slow, deep tonal sweep. The wah effect "writhes" through the tremelo and the distortion makes the whole sound froth and buzz. When I'm manipulating the effect I'm drawing on the emotion I've put into the song - His Word Is Not His Bond is about a specific situation that I was very angry about - and the emotion goes right from my guts into the manipulation of the effect and then comes out of the speakers. The sound you hear is directly risen from the emotion inside.

Q: How would you sum up the album in one sentence?

A: No I couldn't ! Its easier to do 20 years later.

Q: The first song on the album is Let It Happen. You've said in interviews around the Bring 'Em All In period that you were trying to be the best Mike Scott that you can. Does Let It Happen carry on from there ? I mean when you say "Whatever needs to happen, let it happen, let it be" are you saying whatever life throws at me, I'm just going to do my thing and keep on going?

A: No! I've been asked this before in interviews and people do seem to take that meaning from it. But that idea's more in Questions on Still Burning ; "And though the whole world may crumble, we know who we are". The Let It Happen line is different; it's an affirmation based on the belief or knowledge that there's an intelligence behind the whole universe that is working at all times through us even though we might not often - or in some cases ever - perceive it. Nevertheless there is something for our highest good that wants or needs to happen in all situations at all times and to say "Whatever needs to happen, let it happen" is saying : I allow the highest good to happen through me. And keeping that belief and focus in the midst of madness and chaos is what the song's about.

Q: Do you enjoy living in London?

A: I do and I don't. I like the edge it gives me and I like being where all the music is. I dig being near the competition and there are some thrilling things about London but a lot of it bores me as well.

Q: The title track of the album is My Love Is A Rock In The Weary Land. Where did this title come from?

A: It comes from an old gospel song The Lord Is My Rock In The Weary Land.

Q: Why did you choose that?

A: I appreciate the idea of the Weary Land; a kind of Waste land. And I know what they meant, those gospel singers; this earthly life being the weary land, which they have to go through, yet when they die they will be reunited with their true Home. And perhaps they also meant the life of slavery as the Weary land as well. I was going through a personal weary land at the time I wrote the song and also I felt modern western culture had much about it that was a like a grotesque wasteland so I was very sympathic to this idea of the weary land. It was love that got me through my own weary land. Hence the title.

Q: What sort of love got you through - was it actual love or spiritual love?

A: Oh, my missus. And divine Love. I believe love is the real power behind the world. The song is saying no matter how weary the weary land is, love will get me through it.

Q: It features the London Community Gospel Choir. What was it like working with them ? Because the title came from a gospel song was it obvious to use some sort of choir on it ?

A: At first I thought it was too obvious; I wasn't gonna do it. I was just gonna have backing vocals but then I changed my mind. Partly it was seeing other groups using gospel choirs without really making use of them - just using them as backing vocal sections. I wanted to do something with a gospel choir that had a real gospel spirit, that really used them. In fact I'd wanted to work with a gospel choir for a long time. I first went to gospel concerts in the mid 80s - The Clark Sisters in Brixton I remember, with a huge choir of over a hundred singers - and later when I lived in New York I went to gospel concerts and churches. I love gospel music. It touches my soul directly. Especially emotional downhome gospel music. Gospel singers talk about "magnifying the lord" and that's exactly what they do. They enable spirit to land. I always thought that if I ever write a gospel song I will definitely use a choir, so I'm glad that I've done it. I'll do it again.

Q: Explain the track It's All Gone. What's gone and why send the rain?

A: Well, you know it could be, money, hopes. Everybody knows the feeling of loss and I'm one of these people who if I've got a feeling, I don't deny it. I want to experience it totally, then move on and that's what "send the rain" means.

Q: Is She Conscious? Who is this song about?

A: Its not about anyone in specific. It began as a song about an iconic, untouchable woman and I just had the single phrase "Is She Conscious ?". I started to write lines that could follow that, like "Of her beautiful mistake", "Is she really wide awake" and so on and the song grew from there.

Q: Is We Are Jonah just a story?

A: Its a kind of barbed nonsense song.

Q: Theres nothing hidden in there? You're not using it as a metaphor for London or life?

A: Well, I had the line "We are Jonah rolling along in the teeth of a whale" for a very long time, must have been for 10 years. There is stuff in there but I don't want to analyse it.

Q: "This little boy comes to destroy, cold-eyed, grim faced in swathes of vengeance clad." Very powerful stuff. Who or what is Malediction about?

A: I'm putting myself in the mind of someone who is seeking revenge. Its not an autobiographical song like Long Way To The Light. I put myself into the third person almost like telling a story. For a while Malediction was called The Love Song of Slobodan Milosevic until I asked myself : what do I really know about Slobodan Milosevic ?

Q: There is a haunting swirling guitar / wind type sound in the track..

A: Yes, it's a keyboard holding a single very low note, through an extremely distorted Guitar amp and processed through the customised wah-wah pedal. I'm turning it very slowly, teasing out the tones, making it sound like wind.

Q: Who do you feel is Dumbing Down The World?

A: Well, it's not aimed at a single person or persons; it's aimed more at a cultural energy that seems to be working through a lot of people. The song is intended to sound like it was recorded in hell, with a Devil singing it.

Q: The distortion on the vocals...?

A: I'm singing through one of those Bluesblaster electric harmonica miscrophones and then it's sent through a unit called a Micro-synthesizer.

Q: At the end of the song theres some sort of buzzing / fly sound. Why ?

A: Oh that yeah, that's flies buzzing around a corpse. I wanted to get in the song the grotesqueness of the Dumbing Down process, the hellishness of it.

Q: Why did you use the intro sample on His Word Is Not His Bond ("The Liar" a nineteen twenties recording of a gospel preacher, Rev E.D. Campbell) ?

A: I felt that he was singing about the same thing that I was singing about in my song. Just that really.

Q: Night Falls On London is 50 seconds of instrumental. What's that all about?

A: Its from an early version of Let It Happen. It was the outro.

Q: Can you explain what The Charlatan's Lament is about?

A: Its just a song. There are loads of things behind it but it's not one of those like Let It Happen or Its All Gone where I can say it's specifically about something. I think that if I was to dissect it it would take away the mystery of the song. Its just a song. Well..:".just" is the wrong word, but it's a big favourite of mine. I like it a lot.

Q: When you played The Wind In The Wires live earlier in the year it was just acoustic guitar and piano. You said it was a last minute addition to the album. Did you have to work it into a rock song, or was the intention for it to always have the rock edge?

A: I always intended to record it with bass and drums. It was recorded in (bass player) Livingston Brown's little studio. There were 4 of us in this tiny space and we had the window open as well. His studio is on a main road. If you listen with headphones you can hear a few cars buzzing past.

Q: The final track is Crown. Is it an autobiographical song?

A: Yes, but it's not just about me; it could be anyone. I think we all as human beings have similar experiences - having and losing, trying and only sometimes making it, living, fighting, struggling, using and losing power, being human. And then I'm saying - this comes from Gospel music, but I believe it to be a universal truth - that when I'm touched by the highest, or God, or spirit, or Higher Self or whatever name you want to put on the Power that is behind the universe, I become one with creation, the Real me; that's what the Crown is.

Q: What can we expect from The Waterboys on record in the future?

A: The next album, as you probably know, is the Fishermans Blues unreleased album. That will be an unusual record. It won't sound so much like Fishermans Blues; it's actually more like This Is The Sea, oddly enough, with songs centred around my piano like many on that album. The difference is that Steve and Anto are letting fly on every track and the music has a live, organic feel in common with the "Fisherman's Blues" album. It's the "missing link" really between the two records; the moment when The Waterboys were the greatest band in the world, and when our music metamorphosed, but was never heard.

Q: So people are in for something special?

A: Yes they are. And I'm going to overdub on the songs and mix them with modern values .

Q: So theres always a surprise in store?

A: Yes absolutely.