I wanted to be a train driver when I was four years old. When I was seven, I wanted to be a footballer. And when I was ten, I wanted to be a musician.
There are so many great themes in Waterboys music – from religion to interpersonal relationships to nature. I understand you’ve been influenced by literature, too – Yeats, Joyce, C.S. Lewis. Was there a moment in your life where literature began to take a hold on your psychology as something larger or more magnificent than this existence?
Well, of course, as a seven-or-eight-year-old reading the Narnia books, I didn’t think about that at all because C.S. Lewis wrapped up his Christian ideas in a fabric of mythological characters. Also, I think C.S. Lewis’ spiritual wisdom, or the spiritual content of those books, transcended Christianity. I don’t think they’re Christian books. They’re more about spiritual realities that transcend any particular religion. That’s a big part of the power of those books.
Lewis made a great point in his last Narnia book, The Last Battle (1956) where there’s an enemy soldier who worships the black god of the fallen people. When he goes through the door into the land beyond, the afterlife, he finds that even though he thought he was worshipping this black god, he was always worshipping the beautiful god. Lewis is saying it’s not the god you worship, it’s the intention behind your spiritual life. So I think there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians, who aren’t Christians at all.
Can you tell me about your very first childhood memory in Scotland? What was your childhood vision of what you wanted to do with your life?
My first memory is of standing in my front garden, with my dog Dodger running around me. I wanted to be a train driver when I was four years old. When I was seven, I wanted to be a footballer. And when I was ten, I wanted to be a musician.
I love how the Waterboys has always been mostly you, with whatever players were devoted to the cause at the time. And your newest album Out of All This Blue is a double-LP, but not with four guys like the Beatles doing the White Album, it’s just you calling the shots. Which reminds me of the classic fumble many bands go through, where they have a strong leader but decide to go “democratic” for an album, with the side musicians contributing…
I tried that! It didn’t work out. It was called Room to Roam (1990) and it didn’t work out. It’s not so much that it doesn’t hold up for me, it’s that the process didn’t work. The producer was Barry Beckett from Muscle Shoals, a famous producer. I let him call the shots on that record, but the sax player and bass player came to me privately and said “Please take over.”
Being that the vast majority of the band’s work is dictated by you, have you ever longed to have a Paul to bounce off your John, in a way?
No, no, no. I’m not that kind of beast. No, I’m a loner. When I write, I’m a loner. Even when I co-write, I don’t sit in a room with someone, like you and me now, “Oh, what do you think of this chord?” It just doesn’t work for me. But what does work is when one of my co-writers sends me a lyric via email, and then I work on it on my own and send something back, and so on. That works.
There’s something un-okay about a conscious manipulation of someone else’s will. Some people would call it “evil.” It’s a no-no.
Since this is the first double album you’ve ever done, what were you going for by doing such a wide range of tunes, with so many different styles and types of songs flying around, going for the sprawl? What was going on in your life while writing and recording all these songs?
That’s just the songs that came out during this period, and I wrote a lot of them. For one little period of time, I was writing a song a day, like when the song about Kinky Friedman (“Kinky’s History Lesson”) came. Which is very fast for me, but I always had the conviction this would be a double album. I spent that time busy with music, touring the last record, doing summer festivals, being a dad to my two-, then three-, now four-year-old daughter.
I sense a core to the Waterboys’ music that’s deeply subjective. Your new song “Do We Choose Who We Love?” doesn’t answer that question definitively, “Rosalind” from Modern Blues addresses gaslighting and marital strife. How do you feel about the concept of manipulation and conditioning? Can it be used in a positive way?
In esoteric circles, that’s called the left-hand path, the manipulation of people for your own benefit. Other people would call that “evil.” It’s a no-no.
But as far as a positive use of manipulation, then it’s a different thing. You could say that as a bandleader, I direct musicians to do things according to my will as a bandleader. But that’s my job and my relationship with the musicians, so it’s structured on that basis and understood. I might say “No, I want you to play this groove, please!” although ninety percent of the time I let the musicians do their own parts, and I always give them room for that to happen first. But if it’s not working, or if I’ve got a very specific musical vision, I may direct.
But I’m asking someone to do something, I’m not manipulating. There’s something un-okay about a conscious manipulation of someone else’s will.
Have you dealt with people like that in the industry or in your own social circles? What do you think is the best tactic to notice that behavior and steer away from it?
Yes, I have, in both personal and business relationships. More when I was younger, because I steer clear of that now. I can smell it. It just don’t feel right. A wrong feeling. My manager is very good at that. When he sees a hazard in the road coming, he stays positive, doesn’t engage with it and moves out of the way. I see a lot of people like that, who do that. I’m afraid I’m more of a street fighter. And if I see it coming, I’ll think “Alright, this fucker needs a lesson!” and I will go in and fight, sometimes. Yes, I will.
But I had a couple of experiences recently where I actually took the “P.C.” route, my manager’s route. It’s not pacifism, it’s more not letting this person affect your journey at all. It’s a very wise route and I can practice it, but sometimes I will see the danger coming and face it head-on.
When my future wife was put in jail by the Japanese authorities, she was always smiling. I thought “If she could meet this kind of persecution with a smile, then this is an advanced person.”
THE ELEGANT COMPANION
We asked Mike to reveal the background and process of writing each song on Out of All This Blue.
That’s a co-write with a British songwriter called Freddie Stevenson, who lives here in New York. He and I have written half a dozen songs together over the last few years –he’s got a co-write on each of the last two Waterboys albums. He’s got a lovely melodic sense. He thinks of melodies that I don’t. He’s got something I don’t have. And that makes it work.
This was a song Freddie had previously written but not finished. I changed a lot of the words but kept the chorus exactly as it was – he’d got that nailed. So, most of the words are mine, but the tune, chorus and overall direction of the song are his.
It was subtitled “Four Women” for a while because each verse was about a different woman. I shared it with a couple of band members, but they thought it was all about one woman, just with a very complex relationship. But no, it was about four different women who I’d had relationships with or would have liked to. The songs explores what happened or what might have happened. There’s a strong element of fiction and a bit of comedy, too.
It’s written in an early ‘70s soul style and the strings are by a guy called Trey Pollard. He’s from the Spacebomb Collective, have you heard of them? They’re from Richmond, Virginia. Have you heard of Matthew E. White? Long-haired bloke, wears white suits, looks like John Lennon did in 1969. He sings in a wonderful, raspy, almost whispery voice and makes funk rock music that sounds like it was made in 1969.
Trey is one of Matthew’s house band musicians. He can do strings and horns that sound like they’re off a Curtis Mayfield record from ’71, and not many people can still do that. So I went to him and he did all the string parts himself beautifully. And I love how the strings beat against my little bits of fuzz guitar. Reminds me of T. Rex.
It’s written about an old girlfriend of mine, and our relationship that never quite made it.
It’s a come-on song.
This one is about a composite woman. Not a single woman. It’s about a number of relationships I’ve had. I was helped and righted by Steve Wickham, the Waterboys’ fiddler. He simplified the verse for me. I had a descending sequence in the verse that was too familiar – too Waterboys-ish! Too much like something I would have done before. And he said “This is not right, how about this?” and came up with something that was simpler but more sophisticated, and I really loved it.
Trey did the strings and horns on that one as well. Absolutely exquisite job.
It came out of another song I had written called “In The Shadow of Your Love,” which was a funk song, and the first line was “She waited at the door ‘til all his saddest words were spoken / And she threw them with some seasoning in his face.” And I love that line – that was like a novel in one line. But I didn’t like the song, the song didn’t make it. So I took the line and tried to come up with a new riff. Then, it began to tell a different story – a fiction story.
One of the characters, Juke, the guy in the couple in the song, is based on a tailor I knew in the Lower East Side in New York called Michele Savoia who had this very wonderful shop with a motorcycle in the window and zoot suits on the wall – forties cultural values. He used to do suits for gangster movies – a top tailor, a fascinating guy with this pencil mustache. I went there a couple of times and he made me a pair of trousers, I bought a scarf and a couple of shirts off him, and I really dug him as a character. But there was an element of danger about him. And I’m not one of those people who’d be attracted by that.
A few months after I got to know him, I read that he’d drowned in the East River on a February night. I don’t think he was murdered, probably just misadventure. He may have been out carousing and drinking and then had an accident… and the water must have been cold in the East River in February.
So I put him into my song as a fictional character. In my song he dies in the Hudson River, on the other side of the island, on a hot night.
Connemara is a region of Ireland, a mountainous coastal region. I know it very well and I’ve spent a lot of time there. The Connemara Fox is this fictional character, he’s kind of a Scarlet Pimpernel, an outlaw who fights for freedom of thought and his enemies are the crooked police, the crooked priests. The song is his adventures.
About a relationship that I had, although I’ve turned the facts around a bit to make a fictional story about it. It’s written and sung in the style of the French and Belgian chansonniers. The great practitioner of that was Jacques Brel, the Belgian singer who wrote “My Death” and “Amsterdam” and many other great songs.
It’s a factual song based on a relationship I had, about a love affair that feels very important and special while it’s in its early unfolding stages.
One of ten Hiphopstrumentals that I’ve done, little pieces that were recorded while doing all the other work. And I thought that one was strong enough to put on the record, because the melody is very strong and it stays in my head. And I figured, if it stays in my head, it’s going to stay in other people’s heads. So I stuck it on.
The Hammerhead Bar was a real bar in John Entwistle’s country mansion. A few of the characters coming in and out are real, like Vivian Stanchell, who was the singer of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. I don’t think Keith Moon’s in there, but he was a mate of Viv and a few other factual characters. The first verse is, almost word-for-word, the description that my friend Antony gave me after visiting the Hammerhead Bar. The rest I made up, in the same vein of that sort of rock & roll, Babylon, rich British rock star in their mansion doing all kinds of things that they shouldn’t, not necessarily with a lot of taste, sort of gonzo rock-excess world.
And it was a real place! It was called the Hammerhead Bar because Entwistle had stuffed all these hammerhead sharks and hung them from the ceiling. He was famous for this sort of gothic horror sensibility. He’d write songs about horror themes.
A caustic tribute to Lord Keef of the Rolling Stones. The music on this song and “The Elegant Companion” is sampled from an Irish band called Seti the First. They’re an experimental duo who do all these wonderful backgrounds that I had fallen in love with, sampled, manipulated and played backwards. I actually used them on the pre-gig tape for Waterboys concerts, but I thought “Maybe I could put words over these.” So “Mr. Charisma” is one of those, and “The Elegant Companion” is the other.
This is a song about our keyboard player, Brother Paul, who’s from Memphis but lives in Nashville. He’s fond of saying “My soul is in Memphis, but my ass is in Nashville” because he has to be in Nashville for the work. It’s a genre exercise, but not consciously so. It was written on an airplane on the way to a gig in Nashville, and played that night at the gig.
It’s about a woman I knew and would have liked to have… had a love affair with, but she was already taken.
A little instrumental with the same backing track as “Yamaben,” which pops up later in the album. It features fiddle by Steve Wickham in a Japanese style. Yamaben is my wife’s lawyer in Japan, and she’s Japanese – Megumi Igarashi is her name, and she was the girl in the kayak. It’s a little instrumental about her.
This is about a famous musician who has a very, very big ego and is fond of putting himself up there. No names named. And it’s done in the style of the Four Tops and the Temptations, with me being all of them.
This is about Kinky Friedman, the country singer and detective novelist from Texas. He writes comedic songs and calls himself “The Texas Jewboy.” I mean, good songwriter, I enjoy his stuff! But he did an essay during where he criticized the British. It was during the second Gulf War and he was in the UK, and everywhere he went people were angry about that war. In Britain, there was incredible resistance to that war, and we felt like our Prime Minister Tony Blair and your boy George W. Bush were war criminals. Many, many people in the UK felt that.
And Kinky met this criticism and didn’t like it and felt very defensive on the behalf of his President. I don’t mind that, that’s his right, but he went too far. He called the British “Neville Chamberlain surrender monkeys.” I don’t know if you know the history of the Second World War, but Neville Chamberlain did indeed appease Hitler, trying to avoid a repeat of the First World War and all that death. But having learned his mistake, he did a treaty with Poland that France and Britain signed. It said that if Hitler attacked Poland, then the two countries would declare war on him. Hitler attacked Poland on September 3, 1939 and Chamberlain declared war. No fucking “surrender monkey” involved.
It’s his history lesson, written in his style of music, sung to him in his own language.
It’s a little gospel-type instrumental recorded just for fun, just extemporizing on the piano with a gospel organ overdubbed by Brother Paul. “Skyclad Lady” was a song title I had lying around for a long time – “skyclad” means “naked.” And I loved the title and never did write the song, so when I had this instrumental and needed a title, I put the two together.
Rokudenashiko is the pen name of my wife, Megumi Igarashi! She’s a manga artist in Japan – I mean, she lives in Dublin with me now – but that’s her day job, a manga artist for comics. Many manga artists have pen names, and Rokudenashiko means “good-for-nothing derelict” because she’s a bit of a rebel and a free thinker. I got to know her online before we met, from afar, so this is my love song to her.
I met her because she was famous – she had a widely reported court case for obscenity in Japan because she’d done cartoons and sculptures based on the shape of her private parts. In the West, we would consider that maybe a wee bit risqué and we would accept it. But in Japan, it’s a deeply patriarchal, conservative culture that’s very dysfunctional sexually because they allow a lot of porn. If you walk around Japan, you’ll see it everywhere. Some of the female images on newsstands even border on child abuse. She felt that women were taught in Japanese culture to be ashamed of their private parts, so she wanted to reclaim the vagina for women.
She was arrested and put on trial for her cartoons, and for a kayak she built. She wanted to do something big-size. So she designed a kayak with a 3D model of her private parts and rode across a river in Tokyo and it was filmed, and it made the news all around the world! It was on Jon Stewart! And that’s how I heard about her. I read about her. I liked what she was doing, but I really liked her, too. She was funny and brilliant and beautiful, and even though she was put in jail and persecuted by the Japanese authorities, she was always smiling. I thought “There’s something very advanced going on with her. If she could meet this kind of persecution with a smile, then this is an advanced person.”
So, I wanted to get to know her. And it’s very easy to meet people in this age. I followed her on Twitter. She must have thought “Who’s this British rock musician?” But she followed me back and we started sending each other tweets, and then private messages. Then I told her “I really think you’re a lovely woman. Would you have dinner with me next time I’m in Tokyo?” She said “Well, let’s not get romantic because we’ve never met, but I’ll happily have dinner with you as a friend.” That was very smart, because it saved us one of those Internet romances, where it’s very ungrounded. And I’ve been through that, where you’re with someone and it seems so serious online, and then you meet in person and the chemistry isn’t the same. So she spared us that.
Some months later, I went to Tokyo and we had dinner as friends – and we got on so well! At the end of the evening, I asked her if we could have a romantic date next time and she agreed. Our son was born on the first anniversary of us meeting, by coincidence.
This whole run of songs is about the same relationship. So “Didn’t We Walk on Water” was about us meeting for the first time in Japan, going out for dinner as friends, and having our first romantic dates and then falling in love. It sort of felt like walking on water. The courtship was so beautiful.
It’s set to a funk style of music. Everywhere in Tokyo, we heard slick funk-pop music from the West, from the ‘70s/’80s. Megumi’s iTunes is full of bands like Chicago.
This is about a subsequent trip to Japan when we decided to get married. It’s traditional in Japan to ask the bride’s parents’ permission. So we went to her family home in Shizuoka under Mt. Fuji, and in carefully prepared Japanese I asked her parents for permission to marry her. This song is just about our travels through Japan to do that. We stayed in this hotel where they saw I had a guitar and pleaded with me not to play it because it might disturb the other residents. So, that’s the “No-Guitar Hotel” in the song.
Megumi’s solicitor in her obscenity trial. He’s a particular fighter. Megumi really appreciates Yamaben, so she asked me if I’d write a song for him, to thank him. She thought she was going to get a 40-second acoustic-guitar-into-a-microphone silly thing, but I took it seriously. I said “Send me an email listing all his quirks, characteristics, things he likes to say and do, his interests…” So she sent me all this factual stuff about Yamaben and I put it all into the song. It ended up as a pop record.
“Payo payo chin” is a funny, joking Japanese way of saying “Good morning, darling.” “Ohayo” is the proper way of saying good morning. To say “payo” is a cute way of saying it, and “chin” is a corruption of “chan”, which means “deer,” or “darling,” an affectionate, familiar word. So “Payo payo chin” is what you roll over in bed and say to your partner, and then she says it back.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: In-person conversation
Published: September 13, 2017
Total questions: 8 + 23
Word count: 3885
Reading time: Fifteen minutes
Musical democracy: Nah
Meeting story: 1
Read: The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis
Listen: Seti the First
Advanced, Babylon, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, C.S. Lewis, chemistry, Chicago, Christianity, Connemara, court case, Curtis Mayfield, deer, East River, footballer, funk, hammerhead, Hudson River, Ireland, Jacques Brel, James Joyce, Japan, John Entwistle, John Lennon, Jon Stewart, kayak, Keith Moon, Keith Richards, Kinky Friedman, left-hand path, Lower East Side, manipulation, marriage, Matthew E. White, Memphis, Mike Scott, Mt. Fuji, Nashville, Neville Chamberlain, New York City, obscenity trial, P.C., Polish Invasion, relationship, Scarlet Pimpernel, Scotland, shark, Shizuoka, solicitor, street fighter, T. Rex, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Rolling Stones, The Waterboys, Tokyo, train driver, Twitter, W.B. Yeats, World War II
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