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Karma To Burn(2005)

Buy at Townsends


This time we created an interview with a difference: we asked members of the Waterboys Online Forum and Waterpeople email list to submit questions about the new album for Mike's attention, and this is the result. Thanks to everyone who contributed.

Q Over the years we’ve witnessed many great shows. Why release a live album now?
A I've always felt a live album has to be great; not just a souvenir, but a classic statement in itself. While the tours we've done have seen good shows, and fine bands, only a few times have I felt the live sound was great enough to justify a live album. The criteria for me are the interplay or 'radar' between the musicians; the excitement or power created onstage; and whether the sound we're making is what I would call classic. The 1986 tour, represented on the unofficial Live Adventures album, was one such time.

A few other tours came close, but it wasn't until Carlos Hercules and Steve Walters started playing with us in 2003 that I felt the band sounded right enough again to justify a live album. Carlos and Steve give us a funkiness I was looking for, and which grounds our sound in a beautiful way. After about ten shows I asked our sound engineer Chris Madden to start recording on multi-track. After the tour I listened back. The recordings were strong, but I didn't hear a complete album. In 2004 we concentrated on our acoustic shows and when I listened back to the tapes of those I knew we had it.
Q How did you decide on the name of the new album and what does it mean exactly ?
A Karma is an sanskrit word meaning the law of cause and effect. This is a great universal law, known in all cultures, and what it means basically is that whatever we do rebounds upon us, or comes back to us. If we act out of love, we get love back. If we act with meanness we get that back, and so on. Perhaps not in the exact same form or expression, but, over our life (or many lives if you believe in reincarnation), in the exact same degree. 'As you sow, so shall you reap'. Or: 'In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make'. Karma to burn means experiences yet to be undergone in order to balance past actions.
Q There is a band in USA with the name 'Karma To Burn'. Is this just a coincidence?
A Yes. We found that out a few weeks ago! It's a well-known phrase, so I'm not surprised it's been used elsewhere.
Q When did you discover Toshifumi Tanabu, who did the artwork? Is he familiar with the band or even a fan himself?
A I spotted Toshifumi's work in a book of contemporary graphic art called Romantik. His stuff stood out, and I loved its detail and clarity. The book helpfully gave his email address, and with the help of a Japanese lady in Findhorn called Mie, who translated my emails into Japanese, I got in touch with Toshifumi and we discussed the design. He'd heard of The Waterboys but didn't know our music. There is a lot of beautiful artwork on his website:
Q I'd like to know your criteria when choosing amongst so many live versions of songs: technical quality of the performance or audio recordings, intensity of your vocal or Steve and Richard's solos, interaction of the band members....?
A All of those, but most of all whether I (and the punters) will enjoy listening to it over and over.
Q Who had the idea to play The Return Of Jimi Hendrix with the acoustic trio? Was it difficult to rehearse or did it just happen?
A My idea. I knew Steve Wickham could rise to the challenge of playing lead fiddle on it and we did it for the first time at the Findhorn shows last Summer. We rehearsed it with both acoustic fiddle and with distorted fuzz fiddle. I asked Chris Madden which was best and he said 'fuzz'. Steve was set free to let rip and play it however he feels it. Richard on the other hand plays two strictly structured 'systems' parts which I wrote and played on the original recording - the two note 'upside down' shifting bass-line, and the three note repeating top-line piano motif. Comprising phrases of different numbers of notes, they are therefore in different rhythms. Fortunately he can play both at once - no mean feat.
Q So many classic live versions of The Pan Within over the years. Why did you choose the one you chose?
A It has a guitar solo I like!
Q Tell us the story behind the two cover-versions on the album: A Song For The Life and Come Live With Me. Where did you discover the songs and who did you learn them from? When did they become "real" Waterboys-songs?
A Come Live With Me was written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote the Everly Brothers' classic Bye Bye Love and other hits of the '50s and '60s. We first heard it on a Ray Charles album which Anto (Thistlethwaite) bought in a record shop in Mill Valley, California, when we were in the US recording during the Fisherman's Blues era. December 1986 it was. I fell in love with the song, and we recorded a version a few days later back in Dublin at Windmill Lane, which is when it became a 'real Waterboys song'. That version didn't go on Fisherman's Blues but it was on a single 'b' side. I think I first sang it in concert in the show Steve and I played as a duo in Sligo in 1999. Getting to a definitive live version has been a long time coming. I look forward to playing it with Carlos and Steve on the next tour.

I first used to hear A Song For The Life when I'd go and see The Fleadh Cowboys play at late night shows in the Dublin Olympia during 1987/8. One of their singers, Frankie Lane, did a version of it. Another Irish singer called Niamh Parsons gave me the words in the West of Ireland a year or so after that, and for a while, when Sharon Shannon was in the band, we played it live in The Waterboys. When Richard got sick during our Irish tour last year, and Sharon stepped in to replace him, we had to change the set round to suit the new guitar/fiddle/accordion line-up, and A Song For The Life was a natural addition. The version on the album is from one of those shows, Athlone actually. It's a song I've always come back to - and always will.
Q What tracks are you sorry about having to leave off this album?
A A few jump to mind - a version of Wild Mountain Thyme, from Watford of all places, a cajun-flavoured When Ye Go Away from the shows with Sharon, and just about any version of Every Breath Is Yours, which grew tremendously from the album version once we got it on stage.
Q You liked the full band version of Always Dancing, Never Getting Tired (from the Universal Hall album) enough to re-record it for a single. As the single never appeared I thought it might turn up on a live album and was surprised it wasn't on Karma To Burn. Was it considered?
A Yes it was considered, but there wasn't a strong enough version. We tended to play it a little too fast, and the few versions at a good tempo weren't particularly well played.
Q Which do you prefer and why: a full band line up who have gelled together over a period or an acoustic line up?
A Both. Nothing beats a band, either full electric or small acoustic, which has matured and gelled, as you say, and achieves the level of rapport that creates magic. That's what I'm always aiming for.
Q How do you choose whether to play song acoustic or electric? Do you have any song that sounds better to you than the original version?
A Before each tour I play lots of songs from all Waterboys eras on my guitar or piano, imagine what the other instruments will contribute, feel into the possibilities, choose which mode they work in. Then I make the decisions that result in the tour repertoire. That's then subjected to the process of rehearsal, where some songs will drop out and others will come in, sparked by jamming, or by suggestions from a band member (usually Steve). Then when we get on stage the selection is refined further, as we discover which songs work best for real when we play them to an audience. And I reserve the right to change the set and repertoire at any time, acording to the inspiration that is upon me !

I tend to think most songs sound better live than on record, because live performance allows a song to develop. There are exceptions of course, a few never-surpassed recordings - at least in my view. Then there are songs that work both acoustic and full-band, and others that only work acoustic, or only with the full band.
Q Is it true you record all shows you do, and if so will we ever get to hear some great recordings from the 1980s?
A All the shows are recorded, but most only in stereo, direct from the sound desk, or as a blend of desk and microphones. Of the hundreds of shows of the last 6 years, only the 50 or so from which Karma To Burn was selected, and a few odd ones like Glasgow Barrowlands 2001 which the BBC recorded, were done in multi-track, and are therefore re-mixable.

In the '80s and '90s we recorded shows from the desk (or again, with a mix of microphone sound added) to DAT or cassette, and only very occasionally were there multi-track recordings made. So there are only a few high quality recordings of vintage Waterboys shows. Most were made by radio stations, and from a selection of those came the Live Adventures album, which an archive label released some years ago.

We made our own multi-track recordings only on a few occasions. First was two shows in Toronto and Hollywood in 1984, from which some tracks have appeared on 'b' sides or compilations. Ensign/Island wanted to do a U2-style Under The Blood Red Sky live mini-album but I didn't feel the sound of the band was sufficiently developed to justify this. I also don't like doing something another band has done first.

Then there were two shows at Glasgow Barrowlands in 1989 (more 'b' side/compilation tracks); my one-man show in San Francisco in 1996 (ditto again), and that's it. Any other live tracks that have snuck out over the years have been sound-desk recordings. Perhaps one day, when we do a massive box-set, we'll include some of these.

As an aside, I'd like to clarify about the Live Adventures Of The Waterboys album. This came out on New Millenium Records, who approached me about doing an album collecting together old Waterboys radio sessions. I suggested the concert recordings and selected the tracks, then New Millenium did the legwork getting permission from radio stations, the BBC etc. The resulting album came out in 1998 and very splendid it is too. All well and good, but when NM stopped paying royalties to the band several years ago, but kept selling copies of the album, it became effectively a bootleg, which is why you won't see it advertised in our concert programmes, or listed in the discography that appears on our new albums.
Q As a musician, are you interested to know what equipment is new in the shops these days? What kind of equipment (brand/type) would you give a try when you bump into a music store?
A I'm not exactly hanging on the edge of my chair sweating and wondering what's out there, but I do like a good root in a music shop, especially around Denmark Street and Charing Cross Road in London. My favourite stuff is Electro Harmonix effects pedals - phasers, fuzz, micro-synthesisers etc. Their "Wiggler" tremelo/vibrato pedal is my current favourite.
Q My favourite Waterboys' song is A Man is in Love. What is yours ?
A I'm glad you like that one. My favourites include Bring 'Em All In, Fisherman's Blues, The Stolen Child and Universal Hall.
Q Will there be any 'hardcopy' singles from this album released or maybe as a download, and what can we expect of those (if any)?
A I suspect there won't be any 'hard-copy' singles this time around, though there is a promo of 4 songs going to radio (Long Way To The Light, Glastonbury Song, Come Live With Me, Song For The Life). All the tracks from the album will be available by download through whatever are the usual channels of our distributor, Universal.
Q Will the upcoming tour be based purely on the live album, or will we get to hear new songs, new versions of older songs?
A It will centre around the live album, but time and the music have moved on, so expect new songs, new versions of other old songs, and different versions of Karma To Burn songs too. In fact, expect the unexpected. It's easier that way for all of us :-)
Q What we may expect from The Waterboys in the near future? Acoustic, full electric or half-half shows? What makes you decide? Do you just listen to your heart or do the rest of the band or the demand of fans have an important word on this?
A The January tour is a full-band show with a support act. Only a single long set from us then, not the two shorter sets of recent years. I like that the shape of the show keeps changing. It keeps band and music (and audience?) fresh. As for how I decide what it will be next....I try to keep clearly aware of all the currents in the life of the music, and that includes the songs I'm writing, the playing and spirit of the band, any new fascinations coming onstream, as well as the receptivity of the audience. With all that integrated, then the music tells me what to do from inside, and I follow that.
Q What's your musical mood for the recording future?
A Currently it could go in a few different directions which haven't come into clarity yet. I have lots of songs ready for recording, and I imagine I want to record them as live performances in the studio, in the same way (though not necessarily with the same sound) as we recorded during the Fisherman's Blues era: always with a full ensemble, including vocals and solo instruments. I like that method because it captures the power of a group of players creating in the moment together - which makes magic.

Then there's the case of the Fisherman's Blues re-mastering project, planned for next Spring, for which I'm compiling a full bonus CD of unreleased music - over 75 minutes of it. Even after the Too Close To Heaven album which came out in 2001, there is still a motherlode of great stuff waiting to be heard from those sessions.

Lastly, I've been putting a number of Yeats' poems to music, and that could be an album too. If so, it will be recorded quite differently: possibly with a string quartet or even a small orchestra, and utilising a layering process (like This Is The Sea or A Rock In The Weary Land). Time - and the inner impulses of the music - will tell.