“In the old days, I’d write a song, book a studio and assemble musicians to play,” notes the prolific Scottish singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, band leader and producer. “It could be a very dry way of working. These days, I walk into my studio, open up the computer, and I’ve always got something cooking. It’s like stepping into absorption, and it produces magic.” Scott sends tracks back and forth between band members, who add parts in their own home studios for Scott to manipulate further. “I’m like a kid in a toy shop, I’m having fun all the time. This album was almost accidental. I was just making music, and suddenly realised I’d made an album.”
From the exuberant opening blast of ‘The Soul Singer’ to the elegiac closing dream of ‘The Land Of Sunset’, it is an album that draws together many glistening strands of The Waterboys’ weird and wondrous journey. The 14 songs of Good Luck, Seeker are populated by unrepentant freaks, soul legends, outlaw Hollywood film stars and 20th Century mystics.
Drawing inspiration from The Rolling Stones, Kate Bush, Sly and Kendrick, Scott has raided his own back catalogue of lost tapes and lyrics. Amidst the flaming violins of Steve Wickham, the flamboyant organ of Brother Paul, groovy drums of Ralph Salmins and burning guitar solos of Scott himself, alert Waterboys fans will delight in unravelling threads from the big music of A Pagan Place, the raggle taggle thrum of Fisherman’s Blues, the epic visions of Dream Harder and dark dramas of A Rock In A Weary Land.
Put it all together with the cut and paste soul and hip-hop animation of recent Waterboys’ offerings Out of All This Blue and Where the Action Is, and you have a very fine addition to one of the great canons of contemporary British music. Part song diary, part epic spoken word adventure, Good Luck, Seeker is at once the final record in a triptych and a new departure for the restless sonic magician and his merry band of fellow travellers.
It comes roaring out of the blocks with the beefy horns and sassy vocals of ‘The Soul Singer’, a sharp yet affectionate portrait of a legendary frontman, “Poet Prince of the high trapeze / The Jazzmatazz, the King Swinger!” Listeners can make up their own minds about the identity of the “old gunslinger” who’s “done crazy, he’s suffered loss / For the life he’s lived he’s paid a cost.”
“I can never say who it’s about but there are clues in the lyrics,” notes Scott.
It is one of Scott’s many ongoing songs about the cultural figures who have shaped his world, which have included ‘Has Anybody Here Seen Hank’ (from Fisherman’s Blues), ‘The Return of Jimi Hendrix’ (from Dream Harder) and ‘London Mick’ (his tribute to Clash guitarist Mick Jones on Where The Action Is). “I spend a lot of hours thinking about musicians, songwriters, singers, so it’s natural to sing about them,” Scott explains. “I don’t think there’s any limits to what you can write songs about, or how you go about it. I’ve never felt bound by convention. I like exploring song shapes and making up my own. I learned from Bob Dylan as a teenager there are no rules.”
He gives a nod to the Rolling Stones on the instrumental ‘Sticky Fingers’ (“The Stones often have great album titles but no title track. So I thought I’d write one”), and pays homage to a late, great filmmaker on the rollicking ‘Dennis Hopper’. “He is a hero of mine. The trajectory of his life speaks to me. I respect him for what he went through, and how he came back with a twinkle in his eye. So it was a short hop (no pun intended) to writing a song about him.”
The Waterboys cover Kate Bush with a powerful, heartfelt rendition of ‘Why Should I Love You’ (from 1993’s The Red Shoes). “It’s a sad, bittersweet song. The original was a collaboration with Prince, no less. It is a favourite of mine.” Eagle-eyed Waterboys followers will know that Scott has recorded it before, for a 1997 EMI compilation. “I didn’t feel I’d sung it right, so I got the multitrack back and worked on it at home, redid the vocal, added lead guitars, kept some parts and added others. It’s a collaboration between myself in 1997 and 2020.”
This, according to Scott, is the joy of home recording that links his most recent three albums. “They share an identity, like a triptych. They are built on drum loops, and I can take music from all over, play around with them, put on sound effects, do segues and mash-ups.” On ‘Low Down In The Broom’, he takes a traditional Scottish folk song (that he first heard from James Yorkston) and soups it up into something more dramatically visceral. “I felt it connects with the early Waterboys sound, keeping faith with long term fans, but is driven forward by a spirit of experimentation that is vital in record making.”
Which might explain why the second half of Good Luck, Seeker embarks on a new sonic trajectory for The Waterboys, blending instrumentals with spoken word on a journey into the mystic. “I still think in terms of side one and two, so the first side is all songs, a musical diary of what’s grabbing my attention.” But if the listener metaphorically flips the record, they will hear the voice of Mike Scott leading them into “a more esoteric, philosophical world.”
He gave us a taste of what to expect on the first track to be released from the album, ‘My Wanderings In The Weary Land’, in which, once again, dedicated fans may recognise certain elements. The backing track was developed from The Waterboys’ earlier song, ‘The Return Of Jimi Hendrix’, which Scott rearranged and re-recorded as a demo for the band before their 2015 tour with an uptown Motown rhythm.
“I dug it so much, I was always looking for a way to use it.” Then one day, he stumbled across the sleeve notes he wrote for ‘A Rock In A Weary Land’ and started reciting them over the instrumental track. “It fit absolutely beautifully and took on a life of its own.” It became a manifesto for his spoken word experiment. “They say that for every step you take spiritually, you have to live several years of tough stuff to earn it. So this is an account in figurative, metaphorical language of some of my darker steps. But I hope I’ve written it in a sufficiently universal sense that people can interpret it through their own experiences. That’s always the aim of a song.”
It was “no less a personage than Bob Dylan himself” who provided the seeds for Scott’s foray into the spoken word. “On one of the few occasions when I hung out with Bob, in 1986, he gave me a cassette and said ‘You’ll enjoy this.’” It was a recording of John Trudell, a Native American poet and political activist, who made many spoken word albums before his death in 2015. “He had a style I liked. I don’t sound like him but he has been an influence on how I think about combining spoken word and music. I like the challenge of making it work rhythmically, and the dramatic delivery that becomes possible when it’s not sung.”
Scott found other pieces of music and text that worked together. The title track is based around an instrumental by contemporary Northumbrian folk group, The Unthanks. “I turned it backwards and added a hip-hop drum beat and suddenly it became this magnificent pastoral psychedelic piece.” Over it, Scott recited a passage from a book by Dion Fortune, British occultist and author of the early 20th century, co-founder of the Fraternity of the Inner Light. “I love her writing very much.” And there is humour in Scott’s delivery. “The spiritual journey doesn’t have to be a po-faced one. I’m reciting as a character based on Sir George Trevelyan, an old school fruity-voiced English mystical teacher.”
‘Beauty In Repetition’ is drawn from the writings of American psychologist and philosopher William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience. “It’s a helpful passage, about how repeating the more mundane things in life frees our minds for higher purpose. I’m a great adherent of that idea, subjugating the ordinary to free myself to think about the things I really care about, like songwriting and magic.” ‘The Golden Work’ is adapted from the writings of another English mystic, Charles Williams, a friend of CS Lewis and Tolkein. “His books are very beautiful but quite an acquired taste. I took some phrases and with a bit of William Burroughs cut up, I created a song of awakening that I felt worked in this series.”
Some pieces feature original Mike Scott lyrics. ‘The Land Of Sunset’ is a narrative built around an organ instrumental by Irish musician Peader O Riada, whilst ‘Everchanging’ is set to a further twist on the Hendrix/Weary Land instrumental, showcasing “Brother Paul’s monster keyboard riff.” The atmospheric ‘Postcard From The Celtic Dreamtime’ dates all the way back to 1988 when Scott was composing the songs that would become Fisherman’s Blues. “It’s a poem I discovered in a box of old writings. The first line is the storm that has howled for four days has blown itself out. At the time, I felt a constant heavy pressure on me to deliver the next record. So I escaped to Spiddal in the West of Ireland to dream afresh.” Ask him if it feels very different being in the Waterboys now, and Scott laughs. “It’s very different being in me now!”
There was a time when leading a band as strange, fluid and creative as The Waterboys almost made Scott buckle under the pressure. But the spiritual journey described on Good Luck, Seeker has left him in a place of artistic freedom and playful creativity. “I just do what I like and enjoy myself doing it, which is the ideal I think.” It is an attitude that is helpful in uncertain times. “I think the next time we will we get on the road, virus willing, will be the summer of 2021. This record will be almost a year old by then, but that’s OK. People will want to see The Waterboys, we will want to tour, and there’s a bunch of songs on this record that are going to be great live.”
Nevertheless, he suspects it is the beginning of the end of this phase. “I do feel this was a particular threesome of albums. The next one will be something quite different. It’s written already.” In the meantime, here is a sprinkling of magic from a musical wizard to lift our spirits, rock our worlds, and perhaps offer listeners some spiritual succour on wanderings through the weary land.
Good luck, seeker!