Waterboy Mike Scott: ‘I can still step into the songs and connect with them emotionally, even if my own feelings have changed in the meantime’
Mike Scott was browsing through a shop in London recently when he ran into Lenny Henry.
He saw me and he said: ‘You wrote ‘The Whole of the Moon’!’ And he was praising the song. And I said ‘ah yes but I loved your singing on that song by Kate Bush’ [‘Why Should I Love You’, on which Henry did the backing vocals]. He was blown away that anyone had even noticed that he’d sung on it.”
But of course Scott knew. The Waterboys had covered the slightly obscure Bush song for one thing, and, as much as Scott is a legend of rock, he’s also the consummate fan: steeped in the lore, intrigued by the characters and trivia and endlessly fascinated by great music.
His signature hit has survived the test of time like few others and lately there has been a renewed groundswell of appreciation for The Waterboys, a collection of musicians (numbering 85 now in all) who have played with Scott over the years, with himself as the only constant.
We meet at Dublin’s Dedalus Library at the Museum of Literature Ireland on St Stephen’s Green, which has a view of the Iveagh Gardens, where Scott and his band have just sold out one show and announced another for this coming July.
And it feels like a new generation of fans have discovered his music. In the last few years, Fiona Apple and Ellie Goulding have recorded successful versions of Waterboys songs (Goulding went to No. 3 in the UK with ‘How Long Will I Love You’?). And artists as disparate as The War on Drugs, Rod Stewart and even the late great Prince have covered Scott’s music in live shows.
Still he disputes the idea of himself as some kind of ‘rock icon’.
“I never think of myself like that. And because I experienced Patti Smith [whom he described in his autobiography as being “like a haughty queen toying with her subjects”] and met lots of other artists around the same time, I’ve gotten a real good look at how human beings behave when they become successful artists. I’ve met some assholes and some of them have been artists. And I always felt I don’t really want to be an asshole when I’m doing well. And I always want to remember what it’s like to be a fan. And I’ve tried to do that as best I can.”
He’s lived in Dublin for the last 15 years and has a daughter here with his former partner, the singer and actress Camille O’Sullivan. In the last few years he has also divided his time between here and Japan, where he has a son with his wife, the artist Megumi Igarashi.
Being an older father has been easy, he says, pointing out that he first became a father at the age of 54 (he’s 64 now) but the distance can be a challenge, he adds, particularly navigating the time zone differences. “When they’re going to bed, it’s about midday here. And when I’m going to bed, it’s their early morning. So it’s difficult to arrange, especially for my daughter, because I want them [his children] to speak to each other every day. But she’ll be at school when he’s up.”
“It’s a very different culture, and it’s a very different consciousness,” he says of Japan. “And it’s more of a group mindset. Here in the West, especially in Ireland, and Scotland’s much the same, everybody’s an individual. We’re all a bit bonkers. Japan is much more of a group culture. And my wife is one of the individuals within that, really. She’s very much herself.”
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Megumi is a sculptor whose work celebrates the vagina and aims to demystify genitalia in a patriarchal and conservative society. She was arrested in 2014 for alleged indecency and Scott, after hearing about it, wrote a song in support which he sent to her. They began exchanging messages on social media and eventually met in 2016. Their son was born a year to the day after that first meeting. Megumi and Scott travel back and forth between Dublin and Tokyo but mother and child got stuck in the latter city during lockdown.
“It was quite a long time before I was able to get out to see them. And Japan was very, very strict about who could come into the country. And when I went, I managed to get over on a spouse visa in September 2021, after 18 months. That was very tough.”
When he finally arrived in Tokyo, he had to quarantine for three days in a hotel, at the expense of the Japanese authorities. When he finally got to see Megumi and his son, it was an “amazing feeling”, but looking back he handled the isolation quite well. “I thought I was going to go mad, but I had a lot of work to do, and I had my computer and I was all right.
“I used to live on my own when I was in my twenties, and in those days, I was very used to being absorbed in my work and my music and lockdown was a bit like that, a bit like a repeat of that.”
Being a hands-on dad is perhaps especially important given his experience with his own father. Scott grew up in Edinburgh in the 1960s. His father, Allan, left the home when Mike was ten. “That was painful, there was a sense of rejection because my dad left us and he never had that conversation with me before he went. So I think in some way, deep down I probably thought, was it my fault? All kids internalise like that. But I grew up all right.”
His father’s parting gesture had a profound effect on his life.
“One of the last things he did before he left our lives, was give me a guitar for my 10th birthday. He gave me a guitar and a Rolling Stones album. Not bad as parting gifts go.” (He and his father would be reunited in 2007 when Mike tracked him down and they had an emotional reunion).
As a kid he heard music in his head and describes drumming his feet on the floor of the bus as it moved through town.
“It must’ve been hellish for him [the bus driver], with me going like this [Scott drums his feet on the floor]. And it was a nice metal floor with a reverberating sound, pleasing to my ear and hideous to his. I just hadn’t realised that it might impinge on other people’s awareness in an annoying way ‘cause I was only thinking about the music in my head.”
He didn’t play the guitar his father gave him for a few years but a friend who lived locally taught him some chords and he quickly realised that he could play “all the old rock and roll classics – ‘Long Tall Sally’, ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, ‘Lucille’, ‘Tutti Frutti’. I could put them in medleys and amuse myself.”
He’d left school by the time he was 17 but went back to perform a lunchtime concert with his old classmates. They did The Who’s version of Sonny Bill Williamson’s ‘Eyesight to the Blind’ and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ by The Rolling Stones. His mother was hugely supportive of his music. “She used to drive the band. She had one of these hatchback cars that could take amplifiers and she used to come with us when we delivered the stuff to the gate, and then she’d come and collect us later. She was absolutely brilliant.”
It was a house full of books and he also devoured music magazines.
“In my head, I was already, ‘this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be a musician’. So there was never a sort of bridge between me dreaming about it and doing it.”
In 1977 he began attending the University of Edinburgh where he studied English literature and philosophy and began writing music fanzines. The following year he and a friend, Allan McConnell, founded a band which had a few name changes before becoming Another Pretty Face and releasing a single called ‘All the Boys Love Carrie’ which NME named single of the week. The band eventually came to the notice of Nigel Grainge, the head of Ensign Records, and they moved to London.
Scott, feeling creatively dissatisfied, began to work on solo projects and eventually formed The Waterboys, which took their name from a Lou Reed song. Their musical style changed frequently over the years – Scott points out that even within the 1980s – there were “distinctive periods”, spanning the beautifully bombastic so-called Big Music of ‘This is the Sea’ to the more folk-tinged ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, which Scott says focused more on “capturing a live performance”.
It took a certain level of faith in the band’s fans to trust they would stay the course but Scott saw this artistic reinvention as being in the vein of the bands he grew up loving, like The Beatles.
“Evolution was fast in the 1960s and I wanted to move like that.”
Grainge had also ‘discovered’ another incredible Irish talent, Sinéad O’Connor, who had moved from Dublin to London and made her stage debut in the city, performing with The Waterboys.
“I had heard her demo on which Steve [Wickham – who was soon to become a Waterboy] played and his playing really impressed me. We did a gig at the at The Town and Country Club, which was this Irish ballroom in north London. Grainge’s business partner Chris Hill brought Sinéad to the gig and he turned up backstage before the show. He said, “She’s learned the vocals to ‘The Big Music’, and she’s got her best frock on. You’ve got to let her sing.”
And so we did. When I heard her I didn’t think ‘she’s going to be really big’, I just thought ‘she’s going to be really great.’”
As the sound changed, so too did the lineup. By the time of their This is the Sea tour, two members of the group, including keyboard player Karl Wallinger, left, presenting Scott with the headache of trying to find replacements. That same week, by coincidence, he ended up in a studio with Bob Dylan.
“I got an invitation through a mutual friend who said, ‘Bob would like you to come down to the studios and play’. And we turned up and I thought, if I was Bob Dylan, what would I like? I wouldn’t want someone to go, ‘Oh my God, Bob. I made love to your record and I’ve got all your albums’. I would hate if someone said that to me. I’d just want them to say, ‘How are you doing?’ So when I met him, I was like that. ‘Are you all right, Bob? How are you doing?’ And we had a little chat and it was cool.”
On another occasion, he smoked a joint with Dylan – they rolled one for each other. “I was a pot smoker man. I liked smoking reefer. But I never enjoyed the other stuff very much. And I never took hard drugs. I never took heroin, for example. Just never, just warned off by it, my head’s screwed on. I knew what it did to people, and I wasn’t interested.”
And he eventually gave up smoking both tobacco and weed. “It [weed] opened up the mind a bit, but it was affecting my voice. I was losing the growl. I was losing the power in my voice. I was losing the ability to rasp.”
He hasn’t smoked in decades but there is little prospect of him becoming a fuddy duddy.
“No danger of that. I’m the same as I was but without chemical inducements. I never went straight. Being straight isn’t about not doing drugs or something. Being straight is how you think. I still fly my freak flag at home. I’m still a freak.”
Part of that, perhaps, is his wonderful collection of hats. He has ten, including a pink one which he says doesn’t suit him, and a furry Russian number he wears to take his daughter to school on cold mornings. He thinks about the world she is growing up in.
“When I was a young man in the 1980s, we were all worried about nuclear Armageddon and whether Britain and America maintained the political right to launch a first strike. In 30 years, there’ll be something else. But I trust that the younger generation will be up to the task of dealing with it in their own way. They’ll handle it.”
At 64, he says he will “probably” die with his boots on, so to speak, and continue working up into his later years. He says there’s no danger of him needing an autocue, for lyrics, as Frank Sinatra once did. And even all these years later he remains a superlative live performer.
“I can still step into the songs and connect with the emotion in them, even if my own feelings have changed in the meantime. There is no ‘essential’ Waterboys period, except the period I’m in right now.”
The Waterboys play at the Iveagh Gardens on July 13; ticketmaster.ie