International Clash Day: Interview with Mike Scott of The Waterboys

International Clash Day, Interviews
02/07/2018
Owen Murphy
Mike Scott with KEXP DJs Cheryl Waters and Kevin Cole, 2013 // all photos by Charina Pitzel

With a sound that merges Celtic folk and '60s rock, you may be surprised to learn that Mike Scott of The Waterboys cites The Clash as an early influence. In this exclusive International Clash Day interview, Scott tells KEXP about discovering The Clash, his song about Mick Jones, and the times he ran into Joe Strummer.

The Waterboys' most recent release, Out of All This Blue, came out last year via BMG. The Waterboys will be on tour through Sweden, Norway, and more of Europe throughout 2018.


INTERVIEW BY OWEN MURPHY
TRANSCRIPTION BY EMILY HARROP

KEXP: Tell me about Jungleland and what it was what you did.

Mike Scott: Well, Jungleland was a fanzine that I made in 1977. I lived at the time in a small town in the West of Scotland called Ayr, and I went into our local hip record shop which was called Speed Records. They had these things, these photocopied, stapled, homespun things. Sniffing Glue Fanzine, a couple of issues of that. And I read it and thought, "Gosh, I could do that!" And of course, that was the spirit of punk. So I started doing my own fanzine. I photocopied it on the photocopier at my work. And I did, I think, nine issues. The first four were in Ayr and then I moved to Edinburgh, marked my hometown. I moved back to my hometown. And at the time that punk rock was exploding and the last five issues were done there. And I interviewed Richard Hell, The Clash, The Only Ones, Tom Robinson, Bob Geldof. Lots of people. Every band who passed through Edinburgh I would try and blag in and meet.

So, what was that experience like being a young man and meeting these people who ostensibly may have been your heroes?

It was fantastic! Of course! I'd been a fan of music for a long time even by then, and suddenly with punk rock, music was dangerous again and it was also accessible. Because the punk bands would play small enough venues that you could meet them backstage or you could go to the sound check and the spirit of the times was that fans were actually encouraged to gain access. It was a very democratic, egalitarian movement in the UK, punk music. And so it was very easy to meet bands, and also bands would come and do personal appearances in record shops. I met The Clash in, I think, October 1977 at Hot Licks record shop on Cockburn's Street in Edinburgh. When they came to do a P.A. where they would sign records and get the photos taken and talk to fans. I remember Joe Strummer walking up the hill to the record shop hunched up like, like a hunchback. That's the end of that recollection.

What did The Clash mean to you then?

Well, when I first heard The Clash I thought they sounded like The Glitter Band. And The Glitter Band was a British pop band who used to back Gary Glitter and they specialized in this kind of buzzy guitar sound, dull drums and "OH YEAH! OH YEAH!" kind-of vocals. And when I first heard The Clash doing "White Riot", that's what I thought they sounded like. But then I went deeper and I listened to the first Clash album. And slowly it had an electrifying effect on me. And unlike most Clash listeners I had never listened to The Ramones. I was never interested in the Ramones. And I realize now that The Clash really lifted about 50 percent of their sound from the first Ramones album, but I was blissfully unaware of that. And so to me that first Clash album is like a bolt from the blue. All those fantastic short, super fast songs. And then I went to see them live at Clouds in Edinburgh, which is a big disco, and they were the most incredible band I'd ever seen. Now, I'd seen The Rolling Stones, The Who. Lots of the great bands of rock as a teenager, but The Clash blew them all away. The energy of The Clash was so exciting and so dangerous and so unrestrained. And they were like an army on stage. Beautiful in their power.

What do you think made them feel dangerous?

Well, it was partly the time, because punk was a response to rock having become too staid and safe. Now you know an interesting thing about rock music is that around 1975 you get all these songs about rock'n'roll that don't rock. You've probably heard lots of them like, "Rock n roll, I gave you all the best years of my life." and Jethro Tull had one "You're never too old to rock n roll." David Bowie had "Rock'n'roll With Me." This little subgenre round '74 '75 maybe 20, 25 songs about rock that don't rock. And I take that as a manifestation of how safe and clawless rock n roll had become. Now, punk was a reaction to that and in its reaction it was furious. And it was the sound of young kids reclaiming back the music for themselves, and The Clash was part of that wave. And so there was this aggression, this Year Zero reclaiming aggression to them, and very, very exciting. And they were young too, so they had that dangerous quality that youth has.

What was the UK like politically, socially, racially in this period, and how do you think that influenced The Clash in punk, in general, and maybe yourself?

Well, it was a very boring country at the time. We'd had the great advances of the '60s: gay liberation, homosexuality being decriminalized, the sexual revolution, the pill becoming available, freedom of thought, really, freedom of culture. But in the early '70s, the advances stopped coming and there was a financial crash. I remember it was down to, I think it was the Six Days War or something like that, and all the oil prices went up and suddenly this greyness came over society again. And right-wing politics began to get strong and right-wing parties like the National Front in the UK, which would be like our '70s equivalent of the alt-right in the USA today. they started to get strong and it was fairly grey and very repressive atmosphere. And punk was part of a reaction to that as well as being a reaction to the safeness of rock'n'roll.

What do you think the legacy of The Clash is?

It's hard for me to unpack that, separate from my own experiences of them. To me, they were a big influence. And I can still cast my mind back to the times I saw them perform and still get a hit of that energy that will inspire me today. But as to their legacy in a wider way, I don't know. And for me, I'm a hard liner with The Clash. I love the first Clash album. I don't actually like a lot of the records they made later. I think there were always two or three killer songs in every Clash record. But I don't have the same sympathy, they don't have the same resonance for me as that first album. The first album is it for me.

I have friends who are, as you mentioned, there are kind of these Ramones camps and Clash camps or Sex Pistols camps of punk rock in the early days. I have friends who are on the more Ramones side of things and they poopoo bands who were political in their message and they, like The Clash, created songs that were both socially aware and political, but also made you shake your head and move your ass. And I'm curious what was your reaction to them. Maybe the political side of The Clash, or the socially aware side of The Clash, amidst these kind-of anthemic songs.

Well, I liked that they were singing about more than just teenage stuff. I liked that they sang about battles with their record label or what they thought but right-wing politicians and so on. But I don't think there was any great sophistication in their thinking and I think they themselves got very tangled up in sort of restrictions of their philosophy. I think they found it difficult to function as a band. They had so many do's and don'ts. If you read the biographies of The Clash you can see how difficult they made it for themselves to make decisions and to function as a band. They weren't easy going at all. And I think that reflects the naivety of some of their political positions. And for me, I like them when they were cheeky. I like songs like "Janie Jones," "What's My Name," "White Riot," "Garageland," all those, "London's Burning." When they were underdogs, crying in the wilderness. That's The Clash that I love. I'm not so hot on "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe" or whatever. That doesn't really do it for me.

Fair enough. Were The Waterboys -- I mean, you've already said that you were influenced by The Clash, but I'm curious. I feel like your sound is steps away from, you know, kind of "Three Card Trick" as it was, and you kind of seemed to have, this is my impression of your music and forgive me if I'm wrong, but you embraced the acoustic guitar, the 12 string, and a different sound, almost a Phil Spector type sound. Were you a reaction to, was the Waterboys a reaction to, or an influence of punk rock and The Clash?

I was hugely influenced by The Clash, but they weren't a very active influence on me when I made those early Waterboys records, and there were so many other bands and artists that influenced me, that had an effect on my music as well. Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Bowie, old soul music, Tom Morton. All those things, The Beatles, the Stones they were all in the mix for me, and The Clash was only one small strand.

You released a record last year called Out of All This Blue.

Yes.

I don't have a deep dive into it, I listened to today and songs like, I hope I have this right, "Kinky's History Lesson" and a song about your new wife who has a moniker that I can't pronounce, but you sang very well. Roko...

Rokudenaskiko.

Yeah. Forgive me. Thank you. I thought those were lovely songs. Tell me about this new album and your new approach to music and what you're doing.

Oh, well this was a record I made over a period of about two years. I made most of it at home, working, layering the music technologically, rather than putting a band in a studio and playing altogether. And it's mostly love songs. I think there are about 12 or 13 love songs in this album, which is many more than I've ever put on a single record before. And some of them are about my new wife and some of them about other relationships I've been in and some of them are just stories. Fictional stories.

What was that like, to write about something so personal as love is?

It was exciting for me! I'm a romantic person and it pleases me to write romantically and to find that I had all this lovesong material inside me was a delight. Next Waterboys album will be very different. In fact, there's actually a song about Mick Jones on the next Waterboys album called "London Mick".

And so why did you write about Mick Jones?

Well, he's a favorite character of mine. I loved Strummer, but I was really a big Mick Jones fan and I've met Mick many times in my life. We know each other. We don't e-mail or talk to each other on the phone and I haven't seen him for a couple of years. But whenever we meet we have a very nice, sweet friendship, and a few years ago I decided to write a song about him. And I had this title "London Mick" and I thought of all the great words that rhyme with Mick, and I did the song in the style of The Clash and recorded it as a Clash-type tribute, and I even did a one-note guitar solo in Mick's own style. And I'm really looking forward to when it comes out and he hears it! And it's about our various encounters over the years. You know, I'm proud to say I went to see Spinal Tap with Mick Jones when it first came out and neither of us laughed. Isn't that funny.

It felt a little too close to home at times I would imagine.

No, actually, it was the opposite! I couldn't believe that any rock bands are actually that stupid. But I realize now that a lot of them apparently are.

I imagine they are. Yeah. So when Joe Strummer passed away how did that hit you?

I was in Findhorn in the northeast of Scotland at the time. It was in December and Findhorn's very far north, very cold, clear, icy part of Scotland and I remember going for a long walk on the day that I heard the news about Strummer and just letting the news settle. I was very sad and very surprised, of course, because he died young. He died at 50. And I just had to take a long walk and let it settle. You know what I mean? And I had a chance to see him play live a couple of years before. I played at the Cambridge Folk Festival and he'd been playing with The Mescaleros there, and I elected to go and see a Shakespeare play in the town of Cambridge rather than go and see Strummer. But I suppose if you're going to miss Strummer for Shakespeare, that's probably the better thing to miss him for.

And I would like to add, I met Joe Strummer several times. Yeah, I think I met him four times. The first time I met him was, as I said, in Edinburgh when he did a P.A. it was in '77. Time of the first Clash album, and he hardly said anything to anyone because he was suffering from meningitis. The story was that someone had gobbed at the stage and that the spit had gone down his throat and he got ill. So he wasn't very communicative. A couple of years later I met him after a gig in Edinburgh and had a long conversation with him. And he was really terrific and it was the London Calling tour. And then I met him a few months after that in London at a Joe Ely gig in a small club. He was very easy to talk to, Joe. He was guesting for a couple numbers and my band, the same band that did the Peel Session, Another Pretty Face, was recording the first album and I asked Joe if he would come and sing. And he gave me the most gracious refusal. He said, "I don't wanna sing in anybody's album!" Which was very acceptable! It wasn't insulting, he didn't say, "I don't want to sing on YOUR album!" He said, "I don't want to sing in anybody's album." It was cool. And then the last time I met him was in about 2000 when life had changed for both him and me and we were in the studio. I was recording a late Waterboys album and it was one of these studios where there are two or three different recording rooms and there are different artists in at the same time. And I went to the toilet, and I was having a pee and in came Joe Strummer. And our entire conversation was, "Hello, mate!" "Hello, Joe."

That's a great story!

I thought Joe Strummer was just a terrific guy. He walked his talk man, and I miss him.


KEXP is celebrating International Clash Day all day long, both online and on the air; click here to see more KEXP interviews and articles.

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