Mike Scott of The Waterboys wants to be where the action is — and for him, that's anywhere his 35-year-old band's performing.
There aren’t many acts that can claim such longevity and get there by defying genres instead of churning out the same style of music over and over. The Waterboys broke in the early ’80s as part of the Big Music movement that included bands such as U2, Simple Minds, the Alarm and Big Country. And after three successful albums filled with soaring soundscapes, they took to musical wanderings that have included stripped-down folk songs, traditional Irish music, heartfelt blues, and rollicking, soul-filled rock and roll.
“I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, and the artists I admired, like Neil Young, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, changed so deeply with every record. So to me, that was normal,” says Scott, who grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, but based his band out of Dublin for much of his career.
The group's newest album, Where the Action Is, came out earlier this year and spans several genres, from the touching simplicity of the ballad “Out of All This Blue” to a rockin’ tribute to the Clash’s Mick Jones in “London Mick.”
Then there's the title track, a rewrite of Robert Parker’s 1960s soulful hip-shaker “Let's Go Baby (Where the Action Is).”
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“I love that song,” says Scott, who first heard it in a soul-music dance club. “But the lyrics didn’t interest me as much as the chorus. So I rewrote it with my own take on where the action is — being on the front line of the battleground of ideas in the world today.”
One song that may even surprise longtime Waterboys fans is Scott’s first toe-dip into hip-hop, with the rock-rap song “Take Me There I Will Follow You.”
“I wanted to rap for a long time. I really admire rappers and the play on words they use. I wanted to see if I could do it,” Scott says. However, he was quick to learn that it’s harder than it sounds. “The trick is to make it sound effortless. The first few takes, I was trying too hard, and I sounded out of breath. That’s okay in a rock or punk song, when you’re trying to get the song out before the end of the world. But in rap, that doesn’t work. You have to sound cool and relaxed.”
Though Rolling Stone once called him the “poet laureate of rock ’n' roll,” a handle Scott says he felt was over the top and impossible to live up to, there is no doubt he is a striking wordsmith influenced by literature, which occasionally crosses over into his music — for instance, when he set an entire collection of poems by W. B. Yeats to music.
Most recently, he recited “Piper at the Gates of Dawn,” from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, on the new album.
“It’s a favorite passage of mine," Scott says. "It’s a marvelous piece of writing, very powerful. I’ve loved it since I was a child.”
At age sixty, Scott's creative juices are flowing overtime. He’s married to an artist wife, has two children, and says fatherhood helps him keep the artistic tap switched on.
“I’m making up songs and stories for my children all the time. Every time I step out of my house with my daughter, she asks, ‘So what happened?’ That’s her cue for me to tell her these ongoing stories," he says. "By the time I’ve walked her to school in the morning, I get back to the studio and I’m ready to go. It’s only a small shift from making up a story for my daughter and making up a lyric for a song. It’s a wonderful thing.”
And Scott hasn't limited himself to songs. In 2012, he added author to his extensive résumé by releasing a memoir, Adventures of a Waterboy. The book recounts his early days and the band’s successes and challenges. Among the pages, he recalls meetings with rock luminaries such as Bob Dylan and Patti Smith and reveals stories that may not be well known publicly.
“I tried not to compromise anybody’s privacy, but I felt I also had a duty to the reader to be authentic," says Scott. "There was no point in writing a memoir if I wasn’t going to tell the truth. If someone is upset about what I said, then tough luck.”
For now, Scott is focused on a North American tour with the Waterboys’ current lineup, which consists of longtime member Steve Wickham (electric fiddle), along with Ralph Salmins (drums), “Brother Paul” Brown (keyboards), David Hood (bass) and Zach Ernst (lead guitar).
While seeing some bands in their later years can be a bit like seeing your un-hip parents on stage dressed like they just came from lounging around the house, Scott has never lost his sense of style. Often spotted in a commanding cowboy hat, slim-fitting suit on his trim frame topped with a colorful scarf, he’s ever the rock star.
He says his sense of fashion draws inspiration from musicians of the ’60s. “I like the mod suits from 1964-65 and hippie dandy clothes that people like Brian Jones wore.”
The excitement in his voice goes up a notch when asked if he has a favorite suit.
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“I have this blue suit with a faint, pale blue stripe running through it. It was designed by the famous John Pearse, who had a shop in London called Granny Takes a Trip. He used to make all the clothes for the Beatles and the Stones. He’s a Savile Row-trained tailor, so the cut of his clothes is fabulous.”
There’s little doubt that whatever Mike Scott touches, it will represent his own creative vision and he’ll continue to follow the action, wherever that takes him.
“I’m just going to do what I want musically, and if it goes with what’s in fashion, that’s cool," he says. "If it doesn’t, that’s cool, too.”