“The more radical a project, the happier I am,” says Mike Scott, long-time leader of The Waterboys. That is just as well. The band’s most recent project, An Appointment with Mr Yeats, was, even by rock standards, an almost wilfully radical exercise: a series of two-hour live shows consisting almost entirely of music set to the words of the Irish poet. In comparison with that, this summer’s string of festival dates – in which the band will perform their more familiar, non-Yeats material – looks a far less daunting prospect.
They will not be headlining, although in their early days they were tipped for stardom and stadiums, along with fellow wide-eyed Celts U2. At Glastonbury in 1986, they gave a searing display of literate Celtic rock, mixing Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Van Morrison and Iggy Pop with Blake and Yeats to delirious effect. Their metaphorical style and expansive sound was described as “Big Music”, the title of an early single. But the next year U2 went global with The Joshua Tree – and The Waterboys went to the west of Ireland, where they immersed themselves in traditional music. After a long silence they issued Fisherman’s Blues, a set of folk songs that were about as far from the rock mainstream as it was possible to be.
Today, with folk-inspired bands like Fleet Foxes, Mumford & Sons and the Decemberists celebrated, it’s hard to imagine the incredulity with which Fisherman’s Blues was greeted in some quarters. “I don’t think we were ahead of the time,” the 52-year-old Scott recalls. “That rustic folky impulse is one that keeps coming and going – for example, the heyday of Fairport Convention, and the ‘getting it together in the country’ era of the late ’60s was a time when it was fashionable; we just did it at a time when it wasn’t fashionable.”
Critics accused the band of blowing it, though The Waterboys’ subsequent records indicated that such reactions had missed the point. Edinburgh-born Scott – the only fixed point in the band’s highly fluid line-up – seemed to be as restless musically as he was geographically. Throughout the 1990s and noughties he went wherever his inspiration took him, from New York for the out-and-out rocker Dream Harder (1993), to a spiritual retreat in Findhorn in Scotland for the lovely acoustic solo effort Bring ’Em All In (1995). “Each of these places seemed to me to be the crucible of the next bit of music,” he recalls.
His wings were clipped by the unsuccessful 1997 album Still Burning. Having lost “a lot of money” touring it, he settled in the London suburb of Kew – a place not without its charms, he says, but one he “didn’t resonate with at all”. “Yet the music kept coming. And I learnt something which was it didn’t matter where I was living, I had a sort of Mike Scottness inside me and the music would come from that.”
So why does he keep reinventing his approach? He pauses. “It’s very difficult to answer. It’s normal to me for the music to keep changing and to keep seeking out new experiences for myself. I grew up listening to Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Bowie and Beatles, who changed with every album and were always crashing a new horizon and to me that’s just a way of life – the aberration is when people don’t do that.”
In addition to the Yeats shows, The Waterboys have just finished recording a studio version of An Appointment with Mr Yeats, using the same 10-piece band, for release in September. Scott has also returned to his archive for In A Special Place, released in April, which features him alone on a piano, primally thumping early versions of the songs that would become the band’s acclaimed 1985 album This is The Sea.
He lives in Dublin now but the immersion in Yeats is coincidental; the project is, Scott says, one he has nurtured for a long time. I ask how he approached Yeats’s much-loved, minutely analysed poems. “With great relish!” he says immediately, with the conviction of a man used to following his heart even if that invites scepticism.
“I think Yeats has very rarely been done well musically,” Scott says. “But I felt he had so many lyrics that lent themselves well to music that this was up for grabs.” He makes the process sound alarmingly simple. He would prop a copy of the Collected Poems on a piano and go through it “page by page and if a first line of a poem suggested a melody I’d continue with it and if it didn’t I’d move on – and I never had a thought about what kind of music would suit this poem or that poem.”
The result is a wide-ranging selection in a wide range of musical styles – including an ambient organ-led take on “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” and a blues reading of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.
“To me that used to be the chocolate box poem – ‘I will arise and go now!’ – and it never suggested any music. Then one day I thought, ‘Let’s just twist this and make it a blues song’ – and lo and behold it was really good blues. And I’ve learnt to appreciate the lyricism of it now, the wonderful succession of words with the fruity tones and sounds.”
Scott appears unfazed by the responsibility of handling Yeats’ words, or changing the rhyme scheme, as he did on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (he was assisted by the copyright on the poet’s words expiring in January 2010). “I’m in awe of his genius but not of his reputation. When I’m performing the poems I don’t think about Yeats,” he explains. “Perhaps because I’m a lyric writer, I don’t think my lyrics are me; they’re things I write or things that come through me but, once they’re written and they go out there, they’re not me any more and I feel that about Yeats.”
Scott has wryly described the album on Twitter as “pure big music” – “In deference to the journalistic use of it as a shorthand for a certain kind of Waterboys sound,” he says, “but there’s quite a lot of that cinematic music on this album.”
It seems logical to ask him what’s next. “People have been saying, ‘So are you going to do another poet?’ And that’s the last thing I’m going to do! I’m going to do something so different because I need to. I’ll inhabit this absolutely fully when I’m doing it – and then I’ll do something different.”
The Waterboys perform at Latitude Festival on July 17.
‘An Appointment with Mr Yeats’ is released on September 19 (Proper Records)