The Early Waterboys Years.
An interview with Anthony Thistlethwaite by David Billson March 2002
Anto is currently busy preparing the release of his own 'Best Of' album, drawing on his three solo albums, "Aesop Wrote A Fable", "Cartwheels" and "Crawfish And Caviar". Between that and looking after his family, he found time to talk to us and to reflect on the early '80's Waterboys days.
DB : Prior to meeting Mike were you a session
musician based in London ?
Anto : No, I lived in Paris for a year in 1979-1980. I was a busker over there. I'd also played with groups before, playing bass guitar. It was good fun busking and great to be playing sax, but while the other buskers were happy just to exist in a busking state of mind, I knew I wanted to do something else. After a year of playing around with sax on the streets of Paris I thought "I'd better go to London and see if I can make something good out of this." It wasn't easy in the beginning cause I didn't know anybody in London and it's a huge place.
What did you do once you arrived ?
I bought the Melody Maker every week. They used to have 'musicians wanted' ads. At that time it was quite a big page in the paper and there were some good jobs. Sometimes well-known groups would advertise.
Did you have any luck ?
I diligently read all the adverts looking for a sax player every week for 6 months or so. I played a bit with some minor league groups just so I'd be playing. Eventually, I got hooked up with Robyn Hitchcock. He'd had a group called The Soft Boys who'd just split up. He asked me to be in his new group/solo outfit so I made a record with him.
Mike first heard you play on a Nikki Sudden album. When did you meet Nikki and how did you start working with him ?
I met Nikki around the same time. He was in The Swell Maps but they had split up as well. Nikki asked me to play sax on his solo album. It was called "Waiting On Egypt". He knew Mike - I think he'd interviewed Mike up in Scotland for some magazine. Mike had recently moved to London and when he heard the "Waiting On Egypt" record he liked the sax so much he rang me up and asked me to come and meet him.
Did you start working together straight away ?
I went and met him on Thursday 8th April 1982. We played eight days later at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead as The Red And the Black. That was the first gig I did with him.
Did you work strictly with Mike after that ?
No, I was playing with many other people. As far as I was concerned Mike was just another thing I was doing. I was out everyday playing all over the place.
You introduced Mike to Kevin Wilkinson. How did that come about ?
Mike had two guys playing with him, a bass player and a drummer. They played ok, but I thought Mike was really good, he was bursting with energy and conviction, and the other guys didn't quite do him justice. I must have said this to him. Kevin Wilkinson was a drummer I had been working with. I'd also been working with the bassist Matthew Seligman who'd been in The Soft Boys. I got Kevin and Matthew to come along and play with Mike, so then there were four of us. That worked much better because Kevin and Matthew were really good players.
One of the first things you contributed was playing sax on what would become one of the great Waterboys tracks, "A Girl Called Johnny". Can you tell us about that ?
On 20th May I went out to Farmyard Studios and put the sax on the recording of "A Girl Called Johnny" that Mike had recorded the day before. Rupert Hine was producing. It ended up being released a year later as the first Waterboys single.
What happened in the interim ?
I don't know what Mike did. I suppose he was at home writing songs most of the time. I was busy running around playing sax with everybody I could, trying to get on. I couldn't see the future. I thought Mike was good but he didn't have much work. We did those gigs in Summer '82 and that was it. I didn't do anything else with him again until November when we went into Redshop Studios and recorded again. Initially, Mike went in with Kevin and did the guitar and drum tracks. Then I did about four days playing sax all day. We did "All The Things She Gave Me", "Red Army Blues", "Ready For The Monkey House", "Going To Paris", a version of "Hound Dog" and "I Will Not Follow".
Did you have any idea at the time what would become of those tracks ?
No, we just recorded them and it was a great time. "A Girl Called Johnny" still hadn't been released so we weren't yet called The Waterboys.
What stands out in your mind about those early days ?
To me there is something particularly valuable about the music we made at those sessions in November '82, because of the very fact that there weren't any expectations. There was no pressure at all and no self-consciousness either. No one had anything to lose. We just went in and played and I think that comes over in the music. Those early recordings are completely innocent and I think that is a beautiful thing.
How long was it before you officially became known as The Waterboys ?
Between when I met Mike and the first gig as The Waterboys was nearly 2 years. The first time we performed as The Waterboys was in February 1984 at the Batschkapp Club in Germany. It was a long time !
What happened when "A Girl Called Johnny" was finally released ?
It got loads and loads of airplay on Radio One, which was really phenomenal. At that time Radio One was more important than it is now. I thought from the amount of play it was getting that it would go into the top 40 at least. I guess they didn't have the record in the shops because it was a new act and probably no one thought it would do that well. It did very well in France. It got a lot of airplay there as well. Then we did some radio sessions and TV shows - including the Old Grey Whistle Test appearance on the 26th May. Mike had placed an ad in the Melody Maker for a piano player and Karl Wallinger answered it. We had two days or something to get ready with him for the Whistle Test appearance. Some guy Mike used to know in Scotland came down and played bass and a session player called Preston Heyman played drums. It was really a cobbled together outfit to play the two songs on TV.
It must have been exciting to get the Whistle Test gig !
Oh, it was exciting to be on the Whistle Test because I'd stayed up late many a night in the early 70's watching all my heroes on it. I was over the moon to go on it and very nervous as well.
It was a good performance too !
Yes, it wasn't bad. It's a shame the sound wasn't very well mixed, but that's always the case on TV.
So now you had Karl on board. What came next ?
We did a strange little video for "A Girl Called Johnny" which probably has never been shown anywhere. Then Kevin, Karl, Mike and myself went up to Rockfield Studios at the end of August '83 and recorded some more. I used to play bass before I played sax so whenever there wasn't a bass player I'd play bass as well. I played bass on quite a few of the tracks, such as "Church Not Made with Hands", "The Big Music" and "Love That Kills". We also did "A Pagan Place", "Rags" and "The Madness Is Here Again" which is an early version of "Be My Enemy". I played bass on most of them and we overdubbed the sax and the horns.
You're also responsible for introducing Mike to Roddy Lorimer.
Roddy and I had been doing a lot of work together for other people. I told Mike : "I know this guy who's brilliant!" The idea was that the two of us would do the horns and I'd do the sax solos. By the time it got to the beginning of 1984 Kevin, Karl and Roddy were all in the picture.
So the whole essence, direction and sound of the band evolved ?
Yes, it wasn't as though Mike said to me, "Do you wanna be in The Waterboys?" It was a gradual thing. It was nearly 2 years between when I met him and when he needed a full time band to do gigs. By then I thought "Well I'm gonna chance it with this guy because I think he's good and I don't have the same conviction about the other people I'm playing with."
Was it a tough decision ?
Well, I suppose it was quite a big decision to make but, judging from the music we'd already recorded, I seemed to have found what I came to London looking for.
So was there room for you to have input and be creative ?
When I came to London I wanted to find someone to play with, where there would be a space in the music for me to do my thing and complement what was going on. When I met Mike he had all these songs and needed someone to fill in the gaps. Perfect for me.
Why do you think you were such a good fit from Mike's perspective ?
Because of Mike's punk ethic he liked the fact that I played sax in a very aggressive or noisy way rather than being a school of music player or a jazzy player. He liked that I just belted it out like a rock and roll instrument.
So you committed yourself to The Waterboys and started out on the first European tour dates in Germany...
Yes, we did the Batschkapp Club the first night and the next night we played the Alabamehalle in Munich. We had Kevin on drums, Karl on keyboards and Roddy on trumpet. I knew the singer Eddi Reader as well, and had suggested her because Mike wanted some backing vocals on the recording of "The Big Music". She was great, so she came along on tour as well. Martyn Swain played bass and John Caldwell, an old friend of Mike's from Scotland, played second guitar. Eight is a large band ! In a way it was like later on in 1989 when there were a lot of us in The Waterboys - a nice big bunch of people. By the time we went out again in the spring of '84, doing a long tour supporting The Pretenders around Europe, the band was smaller - just Mike, Kevin, Karl, Martyn and myself. Between The Red And The Black gigs and the first Waterboys tour was some 18 months.
Were you nervous to be going back out playing live ?
I wasn't nervous about anything. I just played sax all the time. I lived and breathed it. I was excited the project was getting interesting and pleased because I felt that of all the things I had been doing it was the thing I was meant to do. I was in the place I was meant to be in, making music.
So you were enjoying the whole experience ?
Yes I was. As I said, those early recordings are very dear to me. I think "All The Things She Gave Me" and "Red Army Blues" are truly great.
What is your best memory of the first two albums ?
Recording "The Big Music" backing track. I thought that was pretty enormous. Somehow the finished record isn't quite as big as I thought it was gonna be ! In my head while we were recording the backing track it seemed enormous.
Finally is there a chance you'll be playing live with The Waterboys again in the future?
Oh, I'm sure there's a chance of that. I'm just tied up with my kids and family at the moment. It's a time in my life where I need to be at home. I know it's great fun travelling around the world playing music but right now I know I need to be at home. It won't be forever. It's not because I don't want to. There's a point in life when you have to get your priorities right and looking after my family comes first at the moment.