“I’d only been to Nashville once for a concert — it was years and years ago.”
Mike Scott, calling from his home in Dublin, is having trouble remembering the name of the venue he played in the Tennessean music capital. Enough time has passed that the details are hazy, but then the Waterboys founder and frontman has been on the road some 30 years now. So it wasn’t familiarity or a love for the city itself, or a love for country music, that drew him there to record the band’s eleventh studio album, Modern Blues. “I like that Nashville still has great studios. Big studios where you can set up the whole band and all play at the same time. That’s what I wanted.”
The insane work ethic Nashville encourages — not to mention its status as a gathering place for top players — was another huge plus. “I liked very much being in a city where I know there’s great music being made around every corner,” says Scott. “There’s also a tradition of working fast in Nashville. The musicians are used to working fast. It always used to be that country albums were made quickly. It’s a useful limitation creatively. Limitations are very helpful to the creative process, and sometimes being in a studio with unlimited time can result in very bad records.”
Only sometimes, though. Scott says he’s been in the unlimited-time situation for several records, and though it’s a laborious, exhausting approach to making music, it brought the Waterboys to their artistic touchstone, 1988’s Fisherman’s Blues.
“We had unlimited time and unlimited budget,” Scott remembers with some incredulity. It just doesn’t happen in today’s music business. “That was a very creative period, but the downside of having unlimited time was that I lost perspective. I recorded so much music that when it came time to edit, I couldn’t find my way through the thicket. That made me take longer and longer; it was very difficult. If I’d had a deadline, that wouldn’t have happened.” How did he find his way back into the record to finish it? “I took six months off,” he laughs.
The Waterboys lineup for the album, and for the foreseeable future, includes fiddle player Steve Wickham, drummer Ralph Salmins, who joined the band years ago, new guitarist Zach Ernst, keyboard player “Brother” Paul Brown, and veteran Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood.
“He was one of the Swampers, which was the famous Muscle Shoals rhythm section,” Scott says proudly of Hood’s notable tenure at the Alabaman soul hamlet. “He played on all those great records from the Sixties and Seventies. He goes back to ’67 and Percy Sledge. Then he played with James Brown and Aretha Franklin. He’s on ‘I’ll Take You There’ by the Staples Singers. Fantastic musician. He raises everyone in the band’s game.”
Scott says the pan-generational lineup works well and makes for some good story-swapping. “We have great musical conversations in this band. Zach, who’s from Austin, he’s like a custodian of rock history. Zach, who is 28, is the youngest member of the band and David’s the eldest. It’s usually me who’s the eldest, but not this time.”
Modern Blues holds up alongside Fisherman’s Blues as one of Scott’s finest works. By the time his booked studio sessions rolled around in Nashville, Scott had these nine songs written, and he produced the record himself. Topped by his grizzled, soulful voice, it’s a fiery, rootsy rock ‘n’ roll opus suffused with Chicago electric blues (“Still a Freak”) and Southern soul (“November Tale”).
“Rosalind (You Married the Wrong Guy),” a riveting song about domestic abuse, stands out as a particular triumph. “It’s not based on a specific person, though I’ve known people in that situation,” he explains. “It’s about more emotional abuse than physical. It’s about a type of person who tries to cage the other person and tries to deny them their freedom of will.
“Again, this hasn’t happened to me, so I’m only speculating, but it seems when someone hits you, you know you’ve been hit,” he continues. “But when someone fucks with your mind — and this has happened to me — you don’t know that it’s happened, and the victims can blame themselves. Certainly, I’ve been in situations where people have tried to take advantage of me emotionally, or mentally, and made me feel like it’s my fault. That’s absolutely pernicious, and that’s what I tried to nail in this song.”
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is the whimsical ballad “I Can See Elvis.”
“It was something someone said that gave me that phrase — knowing you’re in heaven because you can see Elvis,” Scott explains. “It gave me this idea where I was wondering what Elvis would be doing in heaven. He’d be smoking reefer and hanging out with Plato and Shakespeare. It’s not so much a tribute to Elvis as a piece of fantasy fun.”
Even if it conjures the King in a celestial way instead of an inspirational one, the Waterboys did right by the city Modern Blues was made in — and hopefully Tennessee’s adopted rock icon would agree.
The Waterboys will celebrate the release of Modern Blues on April 25 at Irving Plaza. For ticket information, click here.
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