The Waterboys’ singer-songwriter-guitarist Mike Scott isn’t saying his creative well was running dry. But he was looking for a collaborator and he found one he’d worked with a bit in the past: William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet who died in 1939.. Appropriately enough, the album he made, with lyrics from Yeats, was called “An Appointment with Mr. Yeats” and the occasion of its release put Scott in the mood – and position – to tour the US for the first time in six years. It is the “American” Waterboys, as longtime fiddler Steve Wickham is the only carry-over from the European version, as Scott explains in an interview with JSInk.
I began interviewing Scott and reviewing the Waterboys when I was at the Globe, back in the ‘80s, when they were possibly seen as U2 successors. They were spiritual, literate, capable of bringing the listener to great emotional heights. Scott, now 54, and the band went through numerous ups and downs over time, but we welcome them back and they play the Wilbur Theatre Tuesday April 28.
JSInk: So how was Yeats as a collaborative partner?
Scott: Well, my mum was a college professor in English literature. And I grew up in a houseful of books. I was used to hearing the name “Yeats” in hushed tones of awe when I was a kid so I’ve always known who Yeats is. As a teenager, I started reading for myself. My mother, to her great credit, never force-fed me Yeats. I wasn’t made to read it which was a good thing because when I was ready to read it I discovered it in my own way.
I imagine it could be pretty daunting.
Well, I grew up in a houseful of books so I was used to literature all the time.
When did you go read him did you say, “I really like this, I can relate”?
I found a copy of “News from the Delphic Oracle” on my mother’s bookshelf when I was 15 or 16. I really loved that poem. I understand it but I loved its language and the tableaux that it described and the indication of Pan in the third verse – I loved all that . And when I first toured Ireland in the mid–‘80s I bought myself a volume of his poetry, the first book of his that I had myself and I realized the lines sat on the page like song lyrics. Somewhere along the line, I started to put them to music and the first I did was “Stolen Child” on the “Fisherman’s Blues” album and that worked out well and a couple of years later I did more and a few years later I did more and slowly I built up a sufficient number to make a stage show which was presented in Dublin in 2010.
Before you conceived of doing this album, then?
Yeah, it was a stage show first. Obviously I knew that it would become an album, but I envisioned it like a Broadway show and then you’d have an album of the show.
I have to say, if hadn’t read the liner notes and the bio accompanying the record and was just listening I would very likely say “Well, this is Mike Scott writing very Mike Scott-ish music.”
(Laughs.) That’s a very big compliment.
Well, it meshes seamlessly with your catalog. Do you see the lineage there?
Not really, no. I’ve liked him for so long he must be an influence on me and I like the same subjects as Yeats – the mystic, politics, Ireland.
Have other artists done this with poetry?
Well, William Blake – Jah Wobble, he used to be the bass player in Public image Ltd., did an album of Blake’s songs and then there’s Robert Burns, Scotland’s great poet, who has been set to music many many times and in fact he set his poems to music himself with tunes popular in his day. Recently there was an album of his poems by Edie Reader. In fact, there have been three four Yeats albums – probably more – a dozen done by not very well-known artists, mostly folky and very reverent. But I don’t know of any single rock and roll album of Yeats.
You took the Waterboys name from a song on Lou Reed’s “Berlin” correct?
Yes, from the song “The Kids.” I liked the word and I didn’t know what it meant. I’m from the UK so the word “waterboy,” it was just a mysterious word and I liked it.
Then, you found out what it meant.
Yeah, It seemed all right. Waterboys bring water to thirsty people.
Right, but also kind of a subservient, helpful role too. It’s kind of a cool rock band name in that way, though. A modest term.
Yeah, humble, yeah.
The band now: From what I gather it’s you and Steve, the only Brits and the rest is New York or US?
Yes, it’s the American Waterboys. The first [reason] is financial. That’s why I formed an American Waterboys because bringing a British/Irish band over is very expensive. You have to get work visas for everyone, fly everyone over, and there are other costs involved as well. I was frustrated because every time we toured North America we’d do nine or ten shows and then go back to Europe and we don’t return for four or five years and the reason for that is if we play any more shows than that we start losing money. And I really love playing North America and I figured I’m going to have to do something different. If I want to get different results, I’m going to have to make some different choices. How about if I put together an American Waterboys where I don’t have all those extra costs? I’ll keep my European band and I’ll have a band just for America. I know Marianne Faithfull did it. I checked out musicians in New York – I have an apartment in New York, so I’m there a lot, enough to be on the scene and see who’s playing around town – and I found some musicians and I’ve got a great band and a 28-date tour.
A lot of musicians at your age gather younger musicians who grew up as kids loving the music, and now are excited to have a chance to join the band, play the music they love. Was that the case here?
No. Two of them – Jay and Chris – they knew Waterboys songs from old, they’ve definitely got old favorite Waterboys songs. And Jay is saying can we do this song! A little bit of that.
What is your connection to the older material and what is the mix in concert?
We toured Europe last year and the first was vintage and the second half was “Mr. Yeats,” with an intermission. We’re not doing an intermission show in the States; we’re doing a single performance. It’ll be a mix, about half and half. We’ve done the stage show, which was 28 songs with a ten-piece band and then we did it with an eight-piece band in New York in March, a one-off. But I can’t afford to take that band around the country; it’s just too expensive. And I also think it would be the wrong show to tour. I think people want to hear a mixture. After six years, the last time we toured.
Sometimes artists get too caught up in the new stuff and push that at the expense of catalog. The audience does come there with memories and thoughts and expectations about hearing those songs.
Do you still have the same passion for those songs of the mid-late ‘80s?
Oh, absolutely, yeah.
Do any not sound right to play?
For sure. I have a relationship with every song and some of them always work like “Fisherman’s Blues,” “The Whole of the Moon,” “Don’t Bang the Drum,” “The Pan Within.” Doesn’t matter what the lineup is, they always work. Then there are some I overlooked for a long time and then they suddenly come back into the frame. Maybe it’s the new lineup inspires me to try a song. And then there are songs that seem great for a while and then I get bored with them. In fact, even some of my favorites I get bored with them. “The Pan Within” has been played on every Waterboys tour for ten years now, and I just really …. I need a break from it. (laughs)
You are so close to the music, obviously and you’ve been doing it for years. Yet, you need to be inspired by what you’re singing too. There’s got to be a feeling of freshness. And there’s this kind of unspoken contract between audience and artist.
You’re known as a pretty serious guy – certainly in music. Is that a reflection of who you are? In other words, are you a pretty serious guy, offstage?
No, I’m not. There’s a box set coming out in October called “Fisherman’s Box” – the complete “Fisherman’s Blues” sessions – and includes about a dozen joke songs – made up on the spot. There’s the “Headphone Mix” song about the terrible sound mix we’ve gotten in the headphones, for example. You can have a listen to those see if you still think I’m serious.
You’ve revamped songs depending on the lineup of the band. Tempos change. Emphasis changes. This time are you more faithful to recorded versions or are there more songs that are reworked ?
Some songs I like to play them really close to the record, certain elements. Other songs I don’t care. Other songs need the freedom. It will be a mixture. I was sending notes to the keyboard player Daniel Mintseris – he plays with St. Vincent, a wonderful musician, I’m lucky to have him- last night. For example, I don’t like to give away too much but a song like “Strange Boat,” we need the piano nowadays from the record. As the listener’s ear will really want to hear those. There are other songs where, even if there is something definitive about the record, I don’t want to hear it or I don’t need to hear it.
You put a lot of thought into this. What’s your audience like these days? Our age and younger.
I’ll have to tell you after the tour.
Well, how about in Europe?
Quite a lot of young people, but mostly people in their 30s and 40s. I trust the audience is always there and always changing.
You came up in a great era and I think when people who grew up with the music back then see some of the key bands are around, they’ll come out. Hey, I’d forgotten about the Waterboys: I love these guys!
Yes, but I thought it was a terrible era for music. The 80s were so terrible I had to invent my own … the ‘60s, man, the music of the ‘60s, from 1964-to 1972, god that’s the golden age for me. We didn’t know how not to make great music then. When I say we, I don’t mean me … Rock and roll, soul musicians, it was all fantastic! Now, since the mid-‘70s, it’s been bad and the mid-‘80s I think was the most extreme contraction of all the gains that were made in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I felt like alien. Even good stuff – I listened to “Purple Rain” on the radio recently and I loved that at the time, and it’s a great song in fact I sang it during the Prince tribute show six months ago, but listen to the record and it’s so dated by its sound, all this “then cutting edge” sound which sounds incredibly dated now. Yet, you listen to music from 1966 and 1967 and it’s timeless. Even a great Springsteen record from then had a horribly loud snare drum.
When you listen back to your stuff, does that sound dated to you?
I didn’t go too far down the road of those trendy sounds and when you hear “Fisherman’s Blues” there’s no trace of 1987. Even on the first three records, there’s a little bit I would change if I could remix it now, but mostly I think I went for fairly classic sounds that have stayed fresh. I wasn’t thinking about that really; I just wasn’t enamored of the fashionable sound of the day.
We talked around 1996 after you did that retreat, went to remote part of Scotland and entered into the world of this holistic, New Age retreat and workshop center of 400-500 people called Findhorn Community .
I had four years off from touring. I made a couple of records, but I took four years off from touring. It was in Findhorn. I was burned out after making “Room to Roam” and “Fisherman’s Blues.” I’d had no management for about five years and I was carrying the whole thing on my shoulders with a constantly touring band and crew and had a lot of responsibility. I was just really exhausted. I moved to New York to try and recharge, but I couldn’t find a band that was right as the Waterboys. There wasn’t that combination. So I didn’t tour the album I made on Geffen, “Dream Harder,” and then I went solo and did “Still Burning” (1997) and I did tour that, but by the time I did it had been four years since my last concert.
How do you feel now about this re-emergence? This is your first US tour in six years?
I’ve been playing constantly in Europe, but I do see it as the beginning of a new period because I do want to tour more constantly in North America and now that I’ve got a band and an organization I can do that. It’s not going to be six years til the next tour.
Do you have the stamina?
Yes. It’s different, but – you probably know yourself ‘cause you’re a similar age. I’m working tricks now to maintain my energy. I never fritter it away. I always maximize so really I’ve got more focus and power than I had in my 20s, but of course I don’t have a 25-year-old’s energy to just call on it at any moment.
Your music has a lot of emotional sweep, power and drama. It has effect on us, certainly, exhausted in a good way. Does it have that effect on you?
No, not really. It’s my job.
Tix: $60-$35. Starts at 8.
248 Tremont St., 617-248-9700 www.thewilburtheatre.com