The Waterboys go back to Irish roots: 'We were high on music'

A box set at last releases some of the huge tranche of songs the Waterboys recorded while holed up in Ireland making the Fisherman's Blues album. Singer Mike Scott recalls the spontaneous magic of those epic sessions

At the end of 1985, Mike Scott had the world at his feet. His band of three years, the Waterboys, had just entered the charts with The Whole of the Moon, a song that would become his signature anthem. Bob Dylan was singing his praises and Rolling Stone magazine called him "the new poet laureate of rock'n'roll". The Waterboys had just supported U2 and Simple Minds and, had Scott been a different, more compromising character, he would perhaps have followed those bands into stadium-filling rock. However, the impassioned singer-songwriter wasn't having any of it.

"I had got bored with rock and I particularly hated the process of making rock music in the 80s," he remembers. "The clicky drums, the snare drum drenched in echo. You could even hear it on a couple of Waterboys songs where I was battling not to be blighted. Even the promo photos that bands would do against mottled backdrops, looking goody-goody. I just fucking hated all of that."

So he walked away from rock music, reconvening his band around the fiddle and mandolin and "going outlaw" in Ireland, out of the reaches of the music industry. Going first to Dublin and then to some of Ireland's most remote, wind-battered regions, he went in search of "something older, more real and more rooted".

At the time, it was unheard of for a major rock band to suddenly go after a new, acoustic sound born of Irish jigs, folk, blues, gospel and country music. Scott remembers a perplexed tour manager asking him: "Where is the electric guitar?" The Edinburgh-born singer was vindicated when the resulting Fisherman's Blues album, which documents his love affair with Ireland, first charted at No 13 in 1988, eventually becoming the most successful of his career.

A quarter of a century on, a new six-CD set called Fisherman's Box shines more light on Scott's odyssey, which took in everything from 20-minute jams to Hank Williams covers to barmy romps through Donald Where's Your Troosers?. Along the way, the band played in pubs, hotels and airport lounges, a process of constant change involving tearing through hundreds of songs, 21 musicians and a male voice choir.

"We were constantly playing music," remembers Steve Wickham, the flamboyant Dublin violinist whose arrival meant saxophonist Anto Thistlethwaite could switch to mandolin as Scott took inspiration from the portability of smaller instruments that didn't need amplification.

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"I remember we once played all the way to Glastonbury, did the gig and couldn't wait to get on the bus and start playing again," remembers Wickham. "It was a vibe amongst Irish musicians: 'I am a musician, I play.' But for Mike – who'd never experienced this in the London rock scene - it was revelatory."

Scott arrived in Ireland intending to crash on Wickham's floor in Dublin for just a fortnight, but with the beginnings of one of the most famous songs already in his mind. Fisherman's Blues was to be about being "far away from dry land and its bitter memories".

"I'd read John Lennon's book, Lennon Remembers, when I was 12," he says. "He's asked if he would change anything and he says: 'I'd be a fisherman.' Maybe that line stuck with me. When I wrote that song, I was fed up with the rock machinery I was stuck in. I just wanted to get away from these clamouring voices."

The sense of freedom – coupled with being turned on to traditional Irish music by Wickham, and the "telepathic" chemistry between the musicians – meant Scott's songwriting went into overdrive. Sixteen songs – the box set's entire first CD – were recorded on their very first day playing together, with Scott yelling out chord changes as the band worked up two versions of Fisherman's Blues. "We were giddy," says the softly spoken Thistlethwaite. "High on music."

If the "big music" of earlier Waterboys albums had been "a spiritual quest", Scott calls the Irish sojourn a "bohemian adventure" of spontaneous inspiration, impromptu jams in pubs and a revolving door of drummers, pipers and eccentric characters. One such was Bob Johnston, the legendary producer of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Simon & Garfunkel, who had called Scott at his mother's house at Christmas to offer his services.

"He was this wild Texan cat who'd turn the studio speakers up to maximum volume and wear headphones, while whooping: 'I had Dylan! I had Cash! Now I've got Scott!'" Scott says. But eventually, the noise from the sessions disturbed a neighbour – Bono, whose management offices were upstairs. "He gamely withstood the volume," Scott says. "He went off and bought a bottle of champagne and toasted the mix."

However, Johnston became another casualty of the revolving door, as recordings went on and on, the music piling up. "If only I'd known we had enough for a really great album by then," sighs Scott. "But I was still searching."

Wickham describes the 99 takes of a song called In Search of a Rose as "an exercise in bewildered patience. We knew we hadn't hit the sweet spot. Once you hit it, you want to hit it again and again. Mike was searching for that all the time."

In fact, he spent so much time searching that the sessions continued through 1986, into 1987, and then 1988. By then, Scott was exhausted by the effort of assembling what he thinks must be the biggest body of work ever recorded for a single album, but he found the final piece of the Fisherman's Blues jigsaw when, during a break from recording, he explored the "magical, primeval landscape" of isolated County Galway. The band were duly brought to Galway and ensconced in Spiddal House, a crumbing old pile in a forest, with a dining room big enough to record a band.

If relocating from London to Dublin was an adventure, County Galway in the 80s was "frontier land", where locals walked cattle in the street, and representatives from Chrysalis Records – the Waterboys' label – were forced to leave messages for Scott in Galway pubs in the hope someone would pass them on to him. By now, any remaining rock had entirely left the Waterboys' DNA, as Scott journeyed deep into the magic and mystery of Ireland and its music.

Wickham remembers a miraculous few months, but denies what he calls the "popular myth" that they were trashed on Guinness. "We might have gone out and had two pints – or three pints – and played with local musicians," he says. "But we weren't crawling home on all fours." However, he does admit "weird things happened" with the band holed up for months. One night, the band's roadie went wild in the house. Then the cook came for them with a shotgun.

"He was a gay man – we were in his domain," says Wickham, who, like Thistlethwaite, still lives in the region. "We were all in touch with our feminine side, as most musicians are. I certainly flounced around with my long hair. I think we drove him into paroxysms of desire … You always hurt the one you love."

Scott remembers a shot ringing out. "When the gun was wrestled off him, it contained live ammunition."

By now, though, Scott knew the band's work was done. The final completed song was one of the best of the lot – The Stolen Child, a WB Yeats poem set to music and narrated by local singer Tomas Mac Eoin, whose "character-rich" singing Scott had heard on a tape in the grocer's shop.

On the last night in Spiddal, Wickham remembers a "sort of collective sigh. We'd survived it. Nobody had been shot."

Scott describes assembling the hundreds of songs (of which the box set's 121 are only "the good stuff") into a single album as the most difficult thing he has ever done in music, and remains frustrated that the original LP told just a fraction of the story. Over the years, he has compiled unreleased alternative versions and found this therapeutic, but now, the core band (including "unsung hero" bassist Trevor Hutchinson) will reunite for the first time for more than two decades to tour the epic Fisherman's Box songbook in its indefinable, timeless glory.

"We'd tapped into – as Beck sings – an 'old world that looks brand new'," Scott enthuses. "And was full of fresh inspiration that rock'n'roll had bypassed. I can't wait to visit that place again."

Fisherman's Box is out now on PLG in six-CD and an eight-CD deluxe version. The Waterboys' Fisherman's Blues revisited tour begins at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 8 December. Details:


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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