Saturday 5 May 2018
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Ever since Mike Scott first brought The Waterboys to public attention their career has been marked by storied departures. Staking out bold, new territory with fresh approaches and inspirational collaborators has been the defining factor of Scott’s creative flow. Now Out Of All This Blue, The Waterboys' 12th and first double album is maybe the most brilliantly daring and accomplished reinvention of The Waterboys to date.
Here are love songs as impassioned and unbridled as any in Scott’s canon: the sassy philosophical swing of Do We Choose Who We Love, the urgent Morning Came Too Soon, the unabashed fanfare of Love Walks In. On the incident-filled street symphony New York, I Love You and the anthemic keynote Nashville, Tennessee romantic attachment is to place rather than partner. Elsewhere self-made myths (the rambunctious, careering Connemara Fox), living legends (Mister Charisma), pumped up egomaniacs (Monument) and grotesque rock'n'roll lore (The Hammerhead Bar) illuminate an album that’s kaleidoscopic in scope, rich in character and location, teeming with musical and lyrical detail.
Mike and fellow travellers, fiddler Steve Wickham, Muscle Shoals bass legend David Hood and Deep South keyboard wizard Brother Paul, play like demons on a mission. But it’s Scott’s use of hip hop recording techniques - drum loops, samples and found sounds that ground the songs’ soulful awakenings - that gives the album a particularly thrilling momentum. Refusing to be cowed by past achievements Scott’s determination to forge new ground is preeminent. “I always wanted to be better than anyone else,” he admits. “Cohen and Dylan may be above me in the tower of song but from my own generation I’ll take any of them on. Let them beat this.”
Puck Towers, Scott’s former Dublin residence, now houses both his own studio and that of his wife, Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi, also known as Rokudenashiko (not at all coincidentally title of a heart-baring ballad on Out Of All This Blue). Its walls are festooned with pictures of Stones, Beatles, Marvin, Jacques Brel, Nina Simone, a masque of the god Pan (‘the real boss,’ he grins), shelves of books, instruments, vinyl albums and CDs. On the desk at one end, speakers on either side, is the desktop computer where Out Of All This Blue was assembled, additional work being undertaken at Megumi’s home in Tokyo.
The first songs for the album were written in 2015 but the idea for its sonic landscape was seeded three years earlier. On a hot rainy night in New York’s East Village Scott and Steve Wickham sought refuge in tiny record store Tropicalia in Furs. Playing on the turntable was Curtis Mayfield’s classic 1971 album Roots. “Those clear strong strings, that sophisticated yet emotionally authoritative sound of early 70s soul. That’s when this album started. I knew I wanted to forge my own sound based on those soulful pop values."
But first came 2014's Deep South accentuated Modern Blues, a Nashville-recorded band album which strengthened and solidified The Waterboys reach and standing. "All the time I was making that album I was listening to Curtis, Sly and Marvin Gaye records and thinking - I wanna go there next.”
When Waterboys guitarist Zach Ernst gave Scott a playlist of contemporary rap albums another foundation stone for the album came into place. “I can take or leave rappers and their worldviews but I love the creativity in the music; the recording ideas, putting in found sounds and field recordings, the DIY ethos. I’ve used loops before but never gone into it so thoroughly and I did so this time for practical reasons: after the last tour I expected to have a fund to take the band into a studio but there was no money left so I had to do something different.”
Introduced to Producerloops website by Waterboys drummer Ralph Salmins, Scott encountered "an Aladdin's Cave with thousands of killer drum loops. I was attracted to the hip hop ones because they're the dirtiest and funkiest. And I found I could manipulate the loops, make them my own and construct tracks with them that would be convincing to the listener’s ear, so that even when it’s not a drummer in the studio it feels like one.”
Full of the inspiration that comes from playing an American tour in such fabled music cities as New Orleans and Austin, Out Of All This Blue was planned as a double album from the outset. “I’d never made one before and from the start I thought of Out Of All This Blue as 4 sides of vinyl. The first side is love songs and the 4th side is love songs to my wife. Side 3 is songs are about others, many of them about musicians – Hammerhead Bar, Mister Charisma, Monument.
Keyboard player Brother Paul, who became a fulltime Waterboy after he joined Scott and Wickham on a radio session in Kentucky four years ago, was the inspiration for the first Out Of All This Blue song to get a public airing. Even before the album’s release Nashville, Tennessee has become a live favourite. Written on a mid-tour flight from Atlanta to Nashville, it was learned by the band at soundcheck that night and encored at the show. “You can hear the Nashville audience yelling and hollering on cue,” he says, still half-amazed by the instantaneous chain of reaction. That recording is on Out Of All This Blue’s bonus CD but the version on the album itself is another live recording, from a later festival performance. Scott is singing of Brother Paul when he invokes the compelling image “one part psychedelic gypsy, three parts blue-eyed refugee”, though the line could just as easily be a nod to his own musical journey.
The means by which the album's compositions were realised varied considerably. Rokudenashiko and Didn’t We Walk On Water were part-written during soundchecks on tour. Album tracks by Irish duo Seti The First provided the glowering minimalist backings for The Elegant Companion and Keith Richards tribute Mr Charisma. As a father constantly making up songs for his four-year-old daughter, Scott’s creative juices were always flowing; the riff for If I Was Your Boyfriend came out of such play. And Yamaben was written in answer to a request. “My wife Megumi had a court case in Japan around her artistic freedom of expression. She created works reproducing and caricaturing the shape of her vagina and that was a n-no to the Japanese authorities. Yamaben is her lawyer. "Yama" is short for his surname, Yamaguchi, and "Ben" is short for Bengoshi, Japanese for lawyer. So he’s Yama-Ben. She asked me to write a song about him as a way of saying thank you to him. I think she thought I'd write a jokey thing, but I wrote a pop record"
The album’s instrumentals (Hiphopstrumental #4 and Skyclad Lady) are products of Scott making music at his desktop for fun. The album opener, Do We Chose Who We Love, is a co-write, an unfinished Freddie Stevenson song which Scott completed. “Freddie’s version was melancholy but for mine I went brighter, poppy. Then I wanted a soul choir on it like Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs And Englishmen band."
Some stories demand a broader canvas, the seven-minute-plus New York, I Love You being a case in point. From its Sweet-Jane-accented riff, through its unfolding tale of tragedy, chance and weirdness it's an obvious ode to longterm Scott influence the late, great Lou Reed. "I met him once" says Scott, "and I’m glad to say I thanked him for the influence and impact he had on my life and music". The homage takes on a life of Scott’s own narrative invention, particularly on its climactic cross-country, back-in-time dream of being in a cadillac with Hank Williams on his last ride. “It's a big mix of things. It began as a rewrite of a song I’d written about the breakup of a relationship. I had the line “She waited at the door ‘til all his saddest words were spoken then threw them with some seasoning in his face” and wrote from there. But it went into fiction very quickly and became about a New York couple and what happens after they break up. I put a riff on that echoes Lou Reed's Sweet Jane. All the samples are New York sounds I recorded myself: a fragment of conversation, traffic, a fire engine horn. And the tragic character of Duke is based on a Lower East Side tailor I knew called Savoia who drowned in the Hudson river one cold night.”
As a means of acknowledging a past era of Waterboys adventuring, the rampaging Connemara Fox is unbeatable. “I was with my mother on holiday in the West of Ireland five or six years ago, and came up with the character The Connemara Fox. He's Ireland's version of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Robin Hood, fighting crooked priests and the thought police. I kept the idea warm for four years before the song itself landed. At first was in cow-punk double-time but was too much like late 1980s Waterboys so I tried halving the rhythm. Suddenly – bang! - it crystallised into something magic. David Hood put a swampy Bo Diddley bass on and it was all over.”
The presence of Hood and Brother Paul in The Waterboys has been a major inspiration for Scott’s current creative high. "They're both from the American south, play music in a particular way and knowing the songs I write will be graced by their playing is a real encouragement, a big turn on.”
Hood’s fabled history became key in the making of The Hammerhead Bar, a grotesque imagining inspired by what onetime Waterboys saxman Anto Thistlethwaite told Mike about a visit to the shark-festooned drinking den in the mansion of The Who’s late legendary bassist, John Entwistle. “I was sampling a killer old Etta James record called Watchdog, found four bars in the middle without vocals, and looped it. It fitted with my new Hammerhead Bar lyric so I used it as a rough template to write the song. When I recorded the song I didn’t keep the sample, but I used almost the same groove. When it came to adding bass I thought, hang on, David Hood used to play with Etta. I looked at his credits and found he’d actually played on Watchdog back in 1967! I asked him could he play like that again on Hammerhead Bar – and he did.”
Likewise fiddler supreme Steve Wickham, by Mike's side on the New York night when the idea for Out Of All This Blue was first seeded, was a crucial element in shaping the album. “Steve encouraged me to make it a double, gave me guidance on the songs, and played out of his skin when it came time for his parts. He’s unfazed by different genres, directions, styles and totally gets it if I want to make something with a hip hop rhythm. On Didn’t We Walk On Water he did the strings, that Al Green sound. No direction from me."
The album's other sensuous string arrangements and rapturous horn charts were created by Spacebomb Collective’s Trey Pollard. On the chanson-like Girl In The Window Chair, Pollard’s stringed swirl has the headiness of a Brel lament. “Brel was a peerless master. I’m only in the foothills of his mountains, but I wanted The Girl In The Window Chair to have his kind of intensity” Mike admits.
Kinky’s History Lesson is a direct one-on-one protest song. The dusty barroom delivery suggests that Hank Williams has come alive again in Luke The Drifter guise. “Kinky Friedman - country singer and novelist - wrote about being in the UK during the second Iraq war and how everyone was criticizing the war and then-President Bush. Kinky couldn’t take it and wrote that the British were a bunch of “Neville Chamberlain surrender monkeys” I took exception to that. It was a dirty lie. And my strong feelings became the song."
Out Of All This Blue contains multitudes - as befits the man who first heard the Big Music growing up in Edinburgh in the 60s and has followed his dream down all the days since. Protest, eulogy, soulful horns, heady strings, blisteringly hot guitars - Scott’s own playing makes significant impact throughout, particularly on Morning Came Too Soon. There are swaggering funk-fried memories of love that never was (Santa Fe) and free-flowing celebrations of new love's ecstacy (Didn’t We Walk On Water). The beats are so voluminous, so frenetic, pulverising and energising, that the next time The Waterboys tour it will be as a two-drummer nine-piece band.
And finally Out Of All This Blue is a reminder that Scott's own sense of pop, which generated How Long Will I Love You (a smash by Ellie Goulding) and the perennial favourite The Whole Of The Moon, is still strong. “Sometimes my music comes round to a place where it touches pop," says Mike. "I love when that happens and this is one of those times.”