' THIS IS SACRED GROUND WITH A POWER FLOWIN' THROUGH. ' / The Waterboys at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, March 20, 2010. (photography by © M. Moravek)
Mike Scott interviewed by Michael Moravek. Dublin, March 22, 2010
***M.M.: Is your song The Whole of The Moon related to Yeats?
M.S.: Specifically no. Yeats wasn’t in my mind when I wrote it. And it’s not about one single person. It’s about a kind of person. But I liked to put it in the show and dedicate it to Yeats as a way of honoring him. We did that every night and we show a little film of him to go with the song.
When you put the band together, how important was a personal connection of each musician to Yeats’ work?
Well actually, not important. There’s sufficient knowledge in Yeats’ work in my own presence in the band and also Steve Wickham who is a long-term reader of Yeats. So between the two of us, we brought enough Yeats-awareness into the show. Our guitar player Joe is a Yeats-reader as well. Perhaps Ruby, the oboe-player, I think she knew Yeats’ work. But most of the others would’ve known only a few poems and that didn’t matter. Though I gave them all copies of Yeats’ selected poems in rehearsals. It really was more important that they could just play the music right. The qualification was that they would perform the music in the spirit in which it was written and bring some of their own spirit to it. That was much more important than whether they had a big knowledge of Yeats. If I’d gone for people who had a big knowledge of Yeats I would probably got the music all wrong. And I would have people who maybe knew all Yeats’ poems but couldn’t play right.
So how long did it take you to put the band together for this project?
I’ve thought about it for a long time. I’ve been consciously preparing the project for the last 15 or 18 months. The first musician I identified was backing vocalist Katie Kim. I heard her play a concert in Dublin in December 2008 and I immediately recognized that I’d found the second voice I wanted for the show. And so I got in touch with her through MySpace. She did some recordings for me on my Yeats demos. And then shortly before the shows began I started rehearsing with her at my house - she lives in Waterford near the South coast - and she would come up a couple of days and rehearse with me and work on the parts. So she was the first one, apart from Steve of course. And then the next, I think, was Joe the guitar player. I knew that I didn’t want to play guitar in most of the show. I like just singing. I sing better when I don’t play. And I can get bored with my guitar playing. So I wanted someone to come in and do that job for me. Joe lives in Dublin and I was very impressed with his records. I respect him a lot. So he was the next. And then one by one I put them all together.
I never saw you sing that long in a set without playing guitar. I think it was one third of the set maybe?
It’s more than that. It’s about half; I think ten or eleven out of the 22.
It was interesting, because the way you acted onstage without an instrument was kind of reciting and singing in one thing.
Well, I love singing without playing an instrument. I just love delivering. I like using my hands as well, when my hands are free. I can really inhabit the song and lyric more than if I’m playing guitar.
You did 5 concerts at the Abbey Theatre which was established by Yeats himself and which has got a very intimate character. Are you planning to do further Yeats-concerts in different places and do you think it will work in a similar way as it did at the Abbey?
Well, it will never be like it was in the Abbey anywhere else, because the Abbey is a special place with its Yeats history and its Irish Theatre history. So that’s a unique event. It’ll never be replicated – unless we do more concerts in the Abbey at some stage. But we have every intention of taking the show out on the road and through other countries and to play in larger theatres. I’m confident that it will translate powerfully into different classic theatres especially in capital cities.
Will it be with the same band?
I hope so, yes. And they all want to do it. They all have other careers, so it’ll be bit of a balancing act, a juggling act, to bring them all together. But our next events will probably be in autumn, six or eight months away. So I think we’ve got enough time to ensure that we get everybody or as many as possible.
How did you experience the interconnection with the audience especially at the Abbey Theatre?
The mystery for me was the first night. During the show we got good respectful applause. But I couldn’t read the audience. I couldn’t quite understand what their response was. And when we finished the last song they all stood up and I knew that we’d won, that the show was a success.
And it happened every night?
It happened every night, but the surprise was the first night - delicious victory.
Have you been nervous about the first reaction?
No, not really. I knew the show was good. And if I believe it’s good, then - whether it is a success or not - I can stand proud in it and I won’t get nervous. I would get nervous if I didn’t believe in it, if I wasn’t confident. But I’m confident, so I don’t get nervous. But I didn’t know what the response would be and I didn’t realize that it would persuade the audience so quickly.
Will there be an album to the concerts?
Yes! But I don’t know what form it will take. The whole future of the show and music is evolving as we go. The only thing I knew for sure was 5 shows at the Abbey Theatre. My team and I have to answer the question of what’s next. Do we tour the show with one-night-concerts like a regular Waterboys-tour? Do we play multiple shows just in capital cities? Do we do that in support of an album or do we do it before there’s an album? Do we record the album live? And we recorded a couple of shows at the Abbey. Or do we do the album in the studio? Do we do a DVD of a concert to go with the album as a big multimedia package? All these questions are in the air at the moment and they haven’t been answered yet. Part of the process of answering them is a financial one. It cost us a lot to stage the show, as the Abbey is a small theatre. We didn’t get paid as much as we would have if we’d played a two thousand seat theatre. So we had to subsidize these concerts. So there isn’t a lot of money left over to record an album and we need financial backing. And The Waterboys aren’t with a record company. The last album was with Universal, but that was just the one-off. So it may be that a record company will come in and want to do this and maybe not. So we have to figure out a way of recording the album even if we don’t have record company finance. But there will be an album. I just don’t know whether it’s a live or studio. And I’d like to do a bonus CD of all my demos, ‘cause I have all the songs recorded at home, and while it wouldn’t be appropriate to release them as “the” album, still I like them a lot, they have a character, they’re like blueprints.
I think that’s great. I’ve heard only your demo of The Four Ages of Man, but it’s wonderful!
How important in your opinion is Yeats for today’s Irish literature?
I don’t really know. I don’t know what’s important for Irish literature. I don’t think about Irish literature very much, to be quite honest. But I’ve got opinions on what’s important for Yeats and I personally feel that it’s important that Yeats gets liberated from the museum. Now the exhibition at the National Library is terrific; it’s important that that exhibition exists and that Yeats is honoured by the nation, because he’s the greatest Irish poet. But I also think it’s important that Yeats’ words are presented in a new way and that people are able to consider them without the crust of years on them. And I feel also that – because Yeats is taught at school in Ireland … See, I’m Scottish. I didn’t get Yeats in school, neither did you. So we approach Yeats freshly. But for the Irish, they all get Yeats stuff rammed down their neck as school kids. And so a lot of them don’t like Yeats or associate him with boring classes at school and maybe were given his most boring poems, or some of his good poems but they were made boring by the way they were taught. And I think it’s important to free Yeats from that. I think our show can do that and be an influence in that direction. But I don’t do it for that reason. I do it because I like it; anything else is a bonus.
Words For Music Perhaps is the title of one of Yeats’ works. Is music a catalyst that feeds spiritual experience?
I think music is like oil. It gets under peoples’ skins very easily in a way that words don’t. It gets to people’s emotions immediately and so music can carry words direct to people’s emotions in a way words on their own perhaps can’t do. You see, a lot of people don’t have patience for poetry, but music can bring the poetry to them swiftly with less effort than they would have to exercise it when they were reading a poem. As for music and spirituality, well – I don’t know. I’m weary of terms like that, because music has lots of applications. It can be used like background in the restaurant where we’re sitting to create an atmosphere, and it can be used as wallpaper, and it can be used to influence people badly, it can be used as torture, as we know. And it can also be used to inspire people in a very high way. They’re all different applications of music and they are all possible.
But for you personally, what does music mean in the way of transporting spiritual experiences?
It’s kind a thing I like to do and not talk about. I like to use music to have an effect on people, but I don’t really want to let them know that I’m aware that I’m working at that. You know what I mean? I’m always weary of artists that say ‘I’m trying to do this, I’m trying to do that’. Don’t telegraph your punches. And also it is very easy for artists to become portentous talking about spiritual applications of music. And most artists who do so don’t know what they are talking about. I think the ones who do understand spiritual applications in music don’t tend to talk about it. To say nothing and say it well. Just do it. – But it’s interesting you picked that title ‘words for music perhaps’. ‘Cause I think that Yeats often wrote his poetry with the intention of it being set to music. So many of them have musical titles - The Ballad of Moll Magee, The Ballad of The Foxhunter, The Song of Wandering Aengus, The Song of The Happy Shepherd, Words For Music Perhaps, Three Songs To The One Tune … again and again he uses these musical titles. He must have accepted that music would be set to these poems.
Down there at the exhibition is that room with recordings of people reading his poems …
… very badly!
I was surprised hearing Yeats read his own poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree, …
… very badly!
… he nearly sang it. He did it in a rhythm.
I really, really don’t like him reading his own poems! People send me links to, you know, YouTube, with recordings of him. They say “I thought you would like this”. But no, I don’t like it. I really don’t like the sound of Yeats reading his own poems. Sometimes the author isn’t the best person to present something audibly. The way he recites is the way he heard it in his head. And the way he heard it in his head was necessary to achieve the words. But I don’t think it translates into speech. It’s like a monument, it’s not alive, it’s too grave and weighty… almost frightening. I don’t like it. The best reciter of Yeats I’ve heard is an actor called Bosco Hogan. Janette (Mike Scott’s wife) and I went to see him doing a one-man-show called” I Am Of Ireland”. He plays the part of Yeats himself and recites Yeats’ poems and it was absolutely superb. His recitations had force and he understood the poems. The recitations I heard at the National Library were the one part of the exhibition I didn’t like. I thought the recitations were really bad, some of them sentimental, missed the point of the poems.
As I understand Yeats, the Irish country and culture were very important to him. Do you yourself think in such terms as “home” or “belonging to a place or country”?
Not in the same way as Yeats, no. I’m of another age when we all move around a lot more. We have freedom of movement, I mean financial and technological freedom of movement now in a way that was unimaginable to people in Yeats’ days. When I was a child my family moved every three years, so I was used to new starts all the time and my life has been like that. The longest I’ve ever lived in one place was seven years. I’ve lived in different countries, so I’ve never built up a single relationship with a place. When I go back to Scotland I feel Scottish and I like Scotland, but I don’t feel a deep resonance to Scottish culture. I probably feel more resonance with Irish culture. Why that is, I don’t know.
You lent your voice for another man’s words. Are these songs any different to your owns?
It is different writing music with another man’s words. I find the words the hardest thing to write in a song. Music comes semi-instantly but I will work over the words for a long time. But working with Yeats I don’t have to do that; I’m straight on to the music. Though there’s still some work with the lyrics. Sometimes I had to change a poem slightly to make it work with the music. Sometimes, as I said on stage, I’d merge two poems in one song. So there’s still some lyrical work, I’m still using my lyrical skills but I’m not having to write the lyric, to invent the whole being of a song from the start. I’ve got a leg up.
You make them your own?
Well, I treat the lyric as if it’s my own. But still it’s not my own. And I’ll never change the intention of Yeats. I might change the form, I might choose to leave out a line, or even a verse, but I’ll never change his intention or his meaning. That’s the rule I work with when I work with other people’s lyrics. I have to preserve that integrity, otherwise it cheapens the original work, doesn’t honour it sufficiently. I’ve seen some people take Yeats’ poems and they use just three or four lines and then write a whole lot new stuff themselves and I think how can you do that? How can you think that your own sixteen lines are worthy of being with Yeats’ four lines? You can’t do that. So when I work with Yeats I won’t write my own lines. I only change subtly. But it is a very different experience from writing my own lyrics. I don’t have to take the usual responsibility for what I’m saying. And it frees me in some ways. Doing a theatrical show is something that I might find quite difficult to do with my own lyrics because I might not take myself as seriously as I take Yeats.
When you’re writing your own songs, what’s first?
Any plans for an album with Mike Scott songs?
Yes, I’ve got most of an album written. But I’m going to stick with Mr. Yeats for a while and get this project playing on the world’s stages before getting involved in anything else.
In an interview with Decemberists singer Colin Meloy that was published in the magazine The Believer in 2007 you said “the high summer of music’s power is over”. Are there any current bands that find your interest?
There are few that find my interest, but they don’t really keep it. I’ve an odd taste in music now. I listen to a lot of old stuff. The great period of popular music, at least for rock and soul music would be from 1965 to 1971. That’s for me the golden time when more great records were made than in any other time. It’s not just that I was young then, it’s that the music of that time is better than the music of today. Much better. We’ve forgotten a lot of tricks that used to allow us to make great music. It’s harder now. We know too much. We’re too smart now. But I do listen to new bands and new music and now and then I hear something I think is really great. Most recent would be Laura Marling’s new album I Speak Because I Can. But not often anything that engages me in a way that I would listen to the same artist for three or four particular albums and keep finding the magic.
Has that got something to do with age as well?
No, I don’t think so. It has got something to do with times. I liked OK Computer. That was a great, great record. But nothing they’ve done since has held me. I liked Deserter’s Songs from Mercury Rev but none of their successive albums held me. I liked Odelay by Beck and I liked Mutations, the next one, but nothing since then… it’s the same story. It’s like the Andy Warhol “Everybody is famous for 15 minutes” thing. Everybody makes something great for 15 minutes and then it’s someone else’s turn.
The line-up of The Waterboys seems to be ever changing. What is The Waterboys? What has been the basis over the time?
Me and my songs make The Waterboys. It has always been a vehicle for my songs. In the first couple of albums I played most of the instruments myself, sometimes all of the instruments myself. And I had a vision of the music which I achieved on record on the early albums though I wasn’t able to achieve it in concert. I never thought The Waterboys’ live sound was right until Steve (Wickham) joined. Steve and Anthony (Thistlethwaite) became the wings of the sound. But the centre of the music has always been me and the songs. And over the time Steve has become inextricably connected.
As Steve Wickham is the most-constant member. What is the connection?
We understand each other and from the moment we met that understanding was there. It was a harmony musically. I’ve only found that once in my life, that degree of connection that I have with Steve. We hit the high spots together. I’ve had great musical connections with several musicians, but he is the deepest one.
Is it important for you to have somebody with you who knows you for a time and is familiar with your music?
No, it doesn’t matter that much. I’ll be alright. I’m very experienced now; I’m experienced in working with different bands, with new people. I can turn five strangers into a band in a day. That’s ok. And I can make them play the way I need them to play while still expressing themselves. It’s just tricks I picked up over the years. So, the band doesn’t have to have people who know me well. But if you have someone like Steve who not only knows me, but I know him, that kind of connection adds a deeper dimension.
I watched the show on Saturday and I thought it must be great to have fellow musicians who can share this happiness about the success.
I can tell you, the eight other musicians all cared about the show and were all thrilled with its success. Maybe not in the same profound ways as me and Steve, having worked on The Waterboys for twenty years each, but each of them had an emotional investment in the show. I’m not quite sure how that happens, but it’s a wonderful thing. And at the same time, yes, it’s great to have the old colleague there. Also the presence of Steve and the two that we add up to affects all the other musicians. They see our relationship and our connection and they plug into that. They’re included in it somehow. And if Steve wasn’t there that wouldn’t happen.
Art in terms of The Abbey Theatre in Yeats’ time fulfilled a political role being provocative. You created a song and video to the words of Let The Earth Bear Witness. The film refers to the uprising in Iran. When or how did the incident and the two Yeats’ poems in the song relating to the video interconnect?
It was a coincidence. I was constantly looking for more poems to set to music so I could extend the show and I was working through the poetry book looking for verses that I’ve missed that would spark a melody. And just at that time the Iranian election protests were happening. Janette pulled me into it just when I was working on the verses about Let The Earth Bear Witness and They Shall Be Remembered Forever. The two – the scenes in Iran and the words in Yeats’ verses became intertwined in my imagination and I found that when I worked on the music I was singing about the Iranian people. And in fact it was the same struggle for self-determination for the Iranian people as it had been for the Irish that Yeats had originally been writing about. And I was so deeply affected by what was happening in Iran that I wrote emotive music which was appropriate for the lyric. Then it was a short step from there to think “Let’s put some film to it and get it up on YouTube”.
You played the film during your show at The Abbey. What was your reaction when after playing the song the audience applauded? Did you find it appropriate? You think they understood?
I’ve noticed on the last two nights that there was a silence at the end, a weight, a gravity in the room before the applause began. I took it as an indication that the audience was affected and that there was a natural desire to leave a silence before applauding. Applause is a means of saying not just “Yes, I like” but “Yes, I agree” or “Yes, I’m moved, yes, I feel it too”.
This morning I read What Then. What do you think was Yeats' view on his life when he wrote this poem at the end of his life and just a few years before he died?
I think it may indeed be about Yeats himself – at least in part, but that its writing doesn’t necessarily signify a personal sense of hopelessness, which I don’t believe Yeats had. I think the question “What Then” is Yeats’ way of pointing at the mysteries of life and death, and his own imminent death – he died a few years later; of even recommending that the reader consider these mysteries, without at the same time intending to say or mean that all human life is “meaningless” or “hopeless”. How can anyone who has read Yeats think that could have been his worldview, unless for a fleeting moment? And if even for a fleeting moment, such a moment wouldn’t have sustained through the writing, editing and publishing process of a poem. No, I don’t believe Yeats means all is hopeless. He’s recommending the reader’s consideration of the mysteries.
© M. Moravek
Michael Moravek has written reviews on An Appointment With Mr Yeats for German paper/magazine Schwarzwälder Bote and FOLKER. The interview was published in French Magazine CROSSROADS.