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story by Patrick Corcoran

Mike Scott may look like just an ordinary performer while on stage, but the veteran Scottish rocker is not merely singing. He is, in fact, filling a void.

Scott will be filling that void here in Chicago on December 9th at the Park West as the lead singer, guitarist, and occasional Earth resonator of the Waterboys. But it doesn't stop there. Scott also tackles the rotosphere, harmonium, waterkeys, organtone, thoom, micro-synth, tambron, fireworm, and something called the loop archaeology. (He must be a very busy man).

The Waterboys bring this expansive musical repertoire to Chicago in the wake of their latest release, Universal Hall, a 12-song compilation of pensive reflection and inner exploration. At the head of the Waterboys for the last two decades, Scott is that (semi) rare rocker intent on expressing his spirituality rather than downplaying it, and he relishes the role.

"I've always been interested in spirituality, and I've never joined any religion. And it really turns me off when people from one religion say theirs is the only way. And I believe all religions are just different ways to spirituality."

"I definitely think there's a place for spiritually-charged music today," Scott tells Chicago Innerview. "I don't hear much, and I'd like to." Scott says that his band has always kept a sense of greater meaning than that which is found within much of contemporary music. "I think it has [always been spiritual], yes," Scott says. "Not necessarily as up front as it is on the [latest record], but it's always been there...This is a particularly intimate record."
Even if that sounds dangerously close to an attribute of Christian rock, you should not lump the Waterboys with such a specific genre. In addition to Scott, the Universal Hall lineup is comprised of first-rate musicians whose appeal transcends the lyrics' message. Furthermore, there is much more separating Mike Scott from Jerry Falwell than just the Atlantic Ocean (Chicago Innerview spoke with Scott as he prepared for a show on the Canary Islands).

"I've always been interested in spirituality, and I've never joined any religion," Scott says. "And it really turns me off when people from one religion say theirs is the only way. And I believe all religions are just different ways to spirituality. And if you call that universality, well, then I'm all for it."

The Waterboys have seen roughly 30 musicians pass through its ranks over the course of the last 20 years. The latest incarnation is highlighted by the return of Steve Wickham, a fantastic fiddler who recently rejoined the group after several years away. Rounding out the trio is pianist Richard Naiff, and each musician is given the chance to go nuts at different points in the record. One might think it would be tough to maintain any sense of identity for a band that has seen 30 members, but Scott says that the regular state of flux is more of an opportunity than a drawback. "I always loved artists whose music has changed, so I've been glad that it's been an ever-changing lineup in the band."

It has, at the very least, allowed Scott to travel in several different directions with his band, from sonic rock to acoustic folk. While Universal Hall is decidedly mellow and mostly acoustic, Scott describes others as full-on rock records. "All have been different," Scott says of his past albums. "I like [acoustic and non-acoustic] both. I swing to both extremes."

The varied mood also surfaces within individual records, from one song to the next. With Universal Hall, Scott, Wickham, and Naiff trot along at a comfortable pace for almost the entire record. Almost the entire record, I say, because of the inclusion of the electrified oddball "Seek the Light." The lyrics and message are similar to the remainder of the album, but track number seven sounds more suited to a record from the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, another band that doesn't hesitate to demonstrate its spirituality. It is not entirely surprising that such an introspective artist as Scott points to an intimate connection with music as the driving force behind his music, as the following snippet from our conversation illustrates:

Chicago Innerview: "Why did you get into music?"

Mike Scott: "I started falling in love with records, and I knew that music was touching something powerful. And from that moment on, I knew I wanted to be a musician and songwriter and a singer."

CI: "Why do you still play?"

MS: "Same reason. I love doing it and I can't not do it."

Whether you find it inspiring or overly sentimental to hear a musician wax poetic about his craft, Scott practices what he preaches. The recorded tours of duty through such an extended list of musical forms reveal Scott's passion about playing the music that strikes his interest, consequences be damned. "I play what I want, and happily that often coincides with what the fans want to hear," he says. "But if it doesn't, that's tough luck."

At one point in the 1980s, the Waterboys were said to be the next big thing in British rock, but Scott maintained his own course. "I wanted to do music that turned me on...I think I can compete with anyone in my generation, but I don't feel the need to commercially." Such feelings don't necessarily go hand in hand with mainstream musical success, but Scott expresses no regrets. "I never thought in terms of celebrity. At the time a lot of people were predicting 'we're going to do this' and 'we're going to do this.' But predictions are hypotheses. I never listen to anyone who is trying to foretell the future."

Scott's career has taken him from Edinburgh to London to Dublin to New York City (of course, that list is far from being comprehensive, or maybe even chronologically correct, for that matter) and presented more than one opportunity to tour the United States. The Waterboys' last tour on the left side of the Atlantic was in 2001, and Scott says he enjoys playing in American music houses. "Every country has very different audiences," he explains. "American audiences are very musically literate and enthusiastic, I find. I particularly like going to all these great musical cities.... It's a very inspiring country to tour."

Scott claims among his influences for Universal Hall many musicians who came to prominence here in the States, as well as a smattering of individuals whose contributions are primarily non-musical. Included in the motley bunch are Neil Young, Elvis Presley, CS Lewis, Oprah, and Winston Churchill. There is no obvious common thread here, and even less of one when you consider the 20 or so other people to whom Scott extends his gratitude. But ask him to assess the group as a whole, and it all becomes a little clearer. "These are people who I would follow in doing what I knew is right regardless of what anyone else is saying to me."

Doubtless, Mike Scott is a man in step with his own rhythm, a rhythm that will be on display in Chicago this month. Let's just hope he brings the Earth resonator.

The Waterboys will play at the Park West Dec. 9.

© 2006 Chicago Innerview