The Waterboys’ Yeats Affection
I read that you read the first line or two of his poetry and if a melody jumped out at you, you’d continue with it. If not, then you’d move on.
Exactly. I did hone in on my favorite poems or ones that I thought that people should hear. There was no contrived process to it. It was simply that I went through the book of poetry and I was available as a music writer and made myself available to the poems, and if this line of a poem suggested a melody, yes, I’d continue with that poem. If it didn’t, I’d move on to the next poem. I didn’t have favoritism around the poems. I didn’t pre-judge them.
Sometimes, you’d grab a line here or a line there to create the lyrical content for a song.
Sometimes, I would use two poems to make one song or in the case of say “White Birds,” on the album the main verses are from the poem “White Birds,” ever so slightly edited, and the bridge is from one of his plays. It’s a passage from one of his plays that I thought was compatible with “White Birds” and served to add a bridge that would turn it into a more powerful song.
Another thing that changed was in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The rhyming system that Yeats deploys in that is A-B, A-B. So, one and three rhyme and lines two and four rhyme but that doesn’t work when you set it to music. The ear is confounded by that. The ear wants to hear A-A, B-B. So I flipped lines around, which gave it a slightly otherworldly sense to it and rhymed beautifully and that’s the way you hear it on the album.
I couldn’t have done that if I had to have the approval of the estate because, understandably, they have been very protective of Yeats’ work. In the past, they’ve only allowed people to do musical arrangements if you don’t change the lyric at all. For a lot of reasons they’re protective. So, I had to wait ‘til the poems came out of copyright and then I worked on it creatively without having to compromise a bit.
As an experienced songwriter, I’m not prepared to write songs if I have to compromise a song to another agency. That defeats the whole artistic process. I won’t do it, and Yeats damn well wouldn’t have done it either.
One other song I want to focus on is “September 1913.” So much of Yeats’ work has elements of spirituality and mysticism but that one was very interesting due to the politics it addressed then and its significance now. Is that the reason why you picked that?
Oh, I’m really sorry to disappoint you…Well, I don’t know if it’ll disappoint you, but I picked it because of the melody and it worked musically. Now, I was very pleased to get one of Yeats’ big political poems in there because it was an area that wasn’t covered, that was already set to music. So, I was really glad to get it, but I didn’t go gunning for that poem.
As an artist dealing with someone like Yeats, does it matter if it’s Waterboys fans or music fans in America who may not know him as well or revere him as well as they do in Great Britain or is it like here’s the album, listen to it?
To me an album is a success if people can enjoy it whether or not they’ve heard of Yeats. It should work as a collection of rock songs. You shouldn’t have to be interested in Yeats or to know about Yeats or be a poetry aficionado to enjoy the record. I think it can work just…I could have called it “Songs of Wandering Aengus” or some title from one of the songs and I think it would still have worked.
It does work as a set of songs with melodies and everything else that goes into it. A couple more and we’re all set. Your book, Adventures of a Waterboy, what gave you the impetus to write your memoir?
It’s funny. It’s the same thing as Yeats. It’s an idea that I had about 20 years ago that took me a long time to get to. And when I lived in Ireland in the second half of the 1980s, I had so many wonderful adventures in the west of Ireland that I realized that one day I’m going to have to write a book about this. At the end of 2007 I came off tour. I had a busy touring year and I knew I wasn’t going to be back on the road for about 18 months, and that was my opportunity to finally write the book.
Was there any sense of setting the record straight?
The book is an opportunity to set the record straight apparently but I didn’t approach it in that way. That was a byproduct. Really, I wrote it for the fun of it because it was inside me wanting to come out.
It’s interesting that you mentioned about living in Ireland because I was watching a DVD about Bob Dylan and the Band. It covers the early years of the Band when they were the Hawks, playing with Dylan and then moving to Woodstock. It discussed how during the Woodstock period Dylan just went over and played music with them for fun, what became the Basement Tapes, and how those sessions transformed him. He was already transitioning in a way but those sessions helped send him that direction, musically and with his subject matter. So, would you say that living in Ireland was your Woodstock, Basement Tapes moment?
Oh, yes, yes! That was my salvation and that’s absolutely true.
To fully grasp that is that why it took three years to make Fisherman’s Blues ?
Well, on and off, yeah.
Was it that grueling or was it just experimenting all the time?
A lot of that time we were on tour. The first year officially was 1986. I’ll calculate because I did some sleeve notes for one of the re-issues. We did 21 days of studio time in that first year. So, that was very light work. We spent most of the year on tour. In 1987 yeah, that was, I shouldn’t call it grueling but we kind of labored at it for six months, mostly non-stop studio work. And then I had to come out of the studio for six months because I was so confounded by having so many tracks to choose from. I needed to get a serious break from it. And it wasn’t until…in fact it was about nine months later that we went to Spiddal and finished the record in a two-month batch of sessions.
So, it’s not really…I’ve got to be very articulate with it. I can’t say it took us three years to make the album because we hadn’t spent three years in the studio. We probably spent about nine months in the studio in that whole period.
That sounds much less stressful than three years.
Plenty of time outs out of the studio for learning, for absorbing new music and all that wonderful Celtic, Irish music that was an influence on us then.
Going back and forth from Great Britain to New York, is there a New York influence going into things now?
Oh yeah. It’s definitely having an influence. It’s having a big impact because I see music almost every night and I meet musicians all the time. Joe Strummer’s Law — To have output, you must have input.