The Waterboys' Mike Scott: Anyone who slags the Ulster Hall doesn't know their a*** from their elbow
Ahead of The Waterboys' upcoming Irish shows in Derry and Belfast, David Roy chats to bandleader Mike Scott about their new album Where The Action Is, trying his hand at rapping and why The Ulster Hall is one of his favourite venues
THIS is a bumper month for Waterboys fans in the north: not only are Mike Scott and co releasing their 13th studio album, Where The Action Is, audiences in Derry and Belfast will be among the first people to hear the new songs performed live alongside favourites plucked from across the band's back catalogue.
A pair of excellent new singles have paved the way for the eclectic new LP, out on May 24 on vinyl, CD and download (deluxe bonus content packed versions of the physical releases will also be available for the hardcore) via new record label Cooking Vinyl, in the form of the enjoyably swaggering title track – a Robert Parker-inspired number that sounds not unlike Primal Scream operating in 'Glaswegian Rolling Stones' mode – and the slinky, soul-pop balladry of Right Side of Heartbreak (Wrong Side of Love).
You'll find a pair of official music videos for these on You Tube, with the Tokyo-shot 'video-selfie' stylings of Where The Action Is making for a particularly pleasing watch.
"I had to do an extra take to make sure I got the 'sneer' just right," chuckles Edinburgh-born, Dublin-based frontman Scott (60) of his nocturnal strut-to-camera around the Shibuya Crossing area that's the basis of the clip.
Indeed, it seems the singer, songwriter and head Waterboy – who formed the group in 1983 in his native Edinburgh – likes to keep a fairly handy grip on how the band presents itself to the world.
For example, The Waterboys no longer road-test their new material for fear of the songs being debuted online as low quality video clips shot by inebriated punters.
"It matters to me, yeah," comments Scott of this modern day phenomenon, which many other bands have simply resigned themselves to.
"It takes away the surprise and it means that when people are hearing a song for the first time they're seeing a shaky, hand-held video version with crap sound.
"Nah, I don't want that: I want them to hear it the way I mixed it on the record – blasting out of the speakers or their headphones, blowing them away. That's what I want."
To be fair to him, the group's latest 10-track record does make a strong impression right from first listen: with Scott and his co-conspirators Steve Wickham (fuzzbox fiddling), Brother Paul (keys), Aongus Ralston (bass), Ralph Salmins (drums) and backing singers Jess and Zeenie running a sonic gamut from Memphis-flavoured high-energy rock 'n' roll through sensitive late-night soul to spoken word piano balladry, electropop folk reworks and rapping (no, really), Where The Action Is really does deserve to be listened to as a complete work and 'as intended'.
Now, about that rapping: as a long-time admirer of hip-hop production (if not much of its lyrical subject matter), the song Take Me There I Will Follow You marks the first time that Scott has actually attempted to engage with the genre as a singer.
"It was very educational for me," enthuses Scott of trying his hand at a new vocal style.
"First, I learned that I could actually rap: second, I learned how difficult it actually is to rap, to make it sound effortless. The first few takes I did, I was working very hard and trying to get my breath – and it sounded so bad!
"I realised that all those rappers, even if I think that they are glorifying things that I think don't deserve to be glorified – like 'bling' and sexism and so on – if they are doing it a relaxed way, at least they're doing it with a craft."
On the subject of craft, it seems that the art of making music can be a steep learning curve even for great songwriters like Mike Scott. Having dusted off The Waterboys' classic 1988 LP Fisherman's Blues for the triple disc Fisherman's Box deluxe reissue and attendant live 25th anniversary tour back in 2013, he was transported back to a moment time when he found himself struggling to make the kind of album he was really striving for.
"It's very easy to look back on that set of music and think what I could have done with it," explains Scott.
"It could have been a double album, much earlier released, because we started recording that in January 1986 and we had enough for a really beautiful double record by maybe autumn of that year.
"It should have come out then and whatever we recorded subsequently would have been the follow-up record. But where I was caught was, I had a band that could play live in the studio and I had the songs pouring out of me, so I was able to get it all down – but I didn't have the experience of working that way that would have enabled me to finish the record.
"I didn't realise that, if you are going to work with improvisation in the studio and capturing performance, you have to allow flaws – you're capturing a feeling, you're not capturing perfection.
"But I had grown up in the late 1970s and early 80s with layered processed studio recordings where everything was done to as close to perfection as possible.
"When I changed to recording in a live environment, I could get the recordings done – but I didn't know what to do them. I'd be rejecting perfectly good takes because my guitar went slightly out of tune and so on, and also I didn't have the editing skills – all that came later."
Of the anniversary tour, he adds: "It was very satisfying to take it out on the road again – I really enjoyed it."
No doubt there will be a few favourites from Fisherman's Blues included in the sets during the band's imminent appearances at Derry's Millennium Forum and The Ulster Hall.
Scott and his band have history with the latter venue, having played an ecstatically received show there back in 1986 just as The Waterboys' star was on the rise.
While Baz from The Stranglers recently complained that the 'Grand Dame' of Bedford Street was "not really made for rock and roll" ("It sounds like an aircraft hangar from up here," he noted during their recent show), Scott is quick to defend a venue he's happy to mention in the same breath as other favourites including Glasgow's Barrowland Ballroom, 1st Avenue in Minneapolis, The Roundhouse in London and The Filmore in San Francisco.
"Any band that says that doesn't know their a*** from their elbow," he exclaims.
"The Ulster Hall is a fantastic venue. It's like Barrowlands in Glasgow – it's all about the connection between the band and the audience, and the history in the bones of the building.
"All the gigs that have been there, their ghosts linger on and fuel the present."
So, if the upcoming Belfast show feels uncannily spiritual, now you know why.