STEVE WICKHAM ON "TOO CLOSE TO HEAVEN"
by David Billson
I managed to catch a few minutes before a Waterboys rehearsal in mid July to ask Steve some questions about the new album. The scene was Steve's overnight hotel, The Lodge, in Putney.
DB: The new album 'Too Close To Heaven' contains 10 songs recorded 15 years ago. What was it like to finally hear it and did it bring back a lot of memories?
SW: Yeah, it did. At the time I remember thinking, "God, these are great songs." When the 'Fisherman's Blues' album came out I remember wondering what would happen to the other songs.
DB: What in your opinion determined the content of the 'Fisherman's Blues' album? Why were these left off?
SW: With somebody like Mike who writes a lot of songs, the more important songs take over. Even though the others were great songs, they couldn't all be on the album so some disappeared because new songs were being written all the time. So that's how the songs that will come out on 'Too Close to Heaven' gradually faded into the background and it was a pity. I was absolutely thrilled to hear them again.
DB: So you're very pleased with the end result?
DB: Let's go back to 1985. You just finished touring 'This is the Sea' round the world and you returned to Ireland. How did you persuade Mike to come over and visit? How did that come about?
SW: Well, as you said, I think we just finished the tour. He came over very quickly after that. There wasn't much going on in London for him. I think he enjoyed it when he came over. I suppose it was very laid back compared to London at the time.
DB: The whole period of the sessions for 'Fisherman's Blues' has gone down in Waterboys folklore as a period of listening to different types of music, busking in the streets of Dublin, and playing live impromptu sessions in bars. Was it really as great as it sounds?
SW: Yeah, it was.
DB: How did that lifestyle come about?
SW: Myself and Anto both had busked in Paris at the same time, back in 81 or 82. I'd been working in a bank and I left it and went busking for about a year. Paris was a great musical buzz for me at that time and Anto actually had been in Paris at the same time, though I didn't know it then, so we shared some common ground. Mike fell in with that in a sense because we were always playing. All the time. In fact I remember Mike and I went busking on tour in Rotterdam. Don't ask me why. We just got into the vibe.
DB: So tell me specifically about busking in Dublin.
SW: In Dublin we were always walking around with mandos, just walking around with them, literally, walking around and playing them.
SW: Wherever, in the street, on the corner, in the pub.... Anywhere!
DB: So it was more for the enjoyment of doing it then getting paid to perform?
SW: It was a bit romantic, you know? Just carrying around a mando and being in a rock band playing everywhere ! We were troubadours. We felt true to that troubadour tradition and we wanted it.
DB: Did you play Waterboys stuff?
SW: No, we never usually played Waterboys stuff. Usually it was stuff like Hank Willams or the Rolling Stones. Anto had a lot of Stones songs. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan songs as well. When the Waterboys were together we were doing Waterboys songs.
DB: What other music were you listening to apart from Dylan and Hank?
SW: Rockin Dopsey. He's a Cajun accordion player. We got into him for a while. Then we were listening to The Stones of course, a lot. Peter Green. It was a very eclectic mix of people.
DB: Windmill Lane was booked in January of 86 for one day. I wrote down a list of what was recorded on that day and there were 16 songs in 1 day! Was it just a case of going into the studio for the day and seeing what would happen?
SW: Peter McKinney and Trevor Hutchinson had played in a really good little band in Belfast called Katmandu. I knew Peter and Trevor from that and they were a fantastic drummer and a bass player team. So anyway, Mike said, "Do you know a good bass player and drummer?" and I said, "Let's get Peter and Trev." They came along and we did a couple of days of rehearsal as far as I know. It was a long time ago so I can't remember the chronology of it. I'm not sure if we rehearsed with them first and then went into the studio but I think that's what happened.
DB: So you knew what you would do that day?
SW: We didn't know. In fact I didn't know we were going to do the studio. I got a call in the morning saying "Come on in and bring your fiddle down to Windmill Lane," but there was no plan.
DB: Sounds like a great day!
SW: It was a good day. Two of those songs are on 'Fisherman's Blues.'
DB: What about the other songs you put down that day?
SW: There are still a lot of great songs that haven't been put out. 'Stranger to Me' is a great country song. 'Drunken Head Blues,' that's a great one !
DB: After the first session you went to the Baggot Inn and did a gig there. The set list from that gig shows some of the new songs being played and 'Girl from the North Country,' and 'Wayward Wind' have been introduced to the live set along with traditional songs. Was the idea of it to introduce the new material?
SW: I don't really know. I think Mike was in love with writing songs and being a songwriter. I think if he came across a song he liked whether it was a Dylan song, a Hank song, or his own song (snaps) that was it straightaway ! It was this continuous discovery of songs and performing and recording them.
DB: There were a lot of covers recorded during the sessions as well. Tell me about those.
SW: A lot of Dylan, Hank, Elvis. We were into Elvis in a big way. Iggy Pop and Bowie.
DB: How did you decide which one to play at any given time?
SW: Mike would just pick up a guitar and play any song - that was it!
DB: So it was just free form all the time?
SW: When we got into the studio and started making records it was a different thing. We'd do a take, then another take and another take. Hone it down a bit, you know?
DB: Let's talk about some of the tracks. Chronologically, the first one was 'The Ladder' from the third session back in July of 86. What can you remember about that song?
SW: It's hard to remember. As I say, there was just all these songs coming out all the time. I remember the lines from 'The Ladder' stuck in my head for a long time. That image of the ladder sustained me a lot of times. I do remember the take and I remember thinking at the end of it, "Wow! That was great!" Then in the vast repertoire of songs that came along it just became another song. It never showed up live, I don't think.
DB: The title track, 'Too Close to Heaven' is monumental ! What a powerful track ! What do you remember about that one?
SW: When some of those songs didn't come out on the record I remember thinking, "Oh God, it's such a great song! Why didn't it come out?" But when a song doesn't come out on a record or get performed it gets dumped in my memory. It's like you have a kind of selective amount of stuff in your brain, like a computer, and you're always learning and playing new songs. Now all the stuff about it is gone from my brain.
DB: One of the tracks from that same session is 'Tenderfootin.'' Mike says in the sleeve notes that it actually went from non-existence to mastered in 5 minutes! I gather from what he said you were just jamming along. He had some of the lyrics and you and Anto just started improvising. How does that work? Do you just know from one persons' playing what to play yourself?
SW: Well, as I said earlier on, the thing is that we had all been playing so many songs all the time. On the street corners, in pubs, on buses, in taxis, in homes, everywhere. We had just been continuously playing song after song. Then when we got into the studio it was second nature.
DB: What makes this record different from the others you've done as a Waterboy?
SW: When we got to do 'Fisherman's Blues' or 'Room to Roam' or any of the other records, we got the chance to improve, hone down, and pick out good bits and lose bits, but you don't get a chance with a live performance record like this one. It's either there or its not.
DB: Which is great! I think it's important for a fan to realize that it's one take with some of these and not takes and re-takes.
SW: Well I don't know if that's the case. I think we may have done a couple of takes if something went catastrophically wrong.
DB: All the songs were actually recorded in Dublin, apart from a trip to California. Does the actual location make any difference?
SW: TOTALLY different!
SW: I think it's totally different. I think the music that a musician makes is very much influenced by his environment.
DB: How so?
SW: I heard Iggy Pop saying that when they were living in Detroit he was very much influenced by the sounds of a big car manufacturing plant in that town. They tended to make that DO! CHHH! DO! CHHH! DO! CHHH! sound. In London you'd make a different kind of music then you would in the west of Ireland.
DB: How would they differ?
SW: You know the sounds you hear in London - taxis, buses, planes, masses of people...crowds ! You make this very big sounding music. Most music that comes out of the west of Ireland is much gentler. The big sounds you've got are the sea, the birds and nature. There are different things going on in your brain. As musicians I believe we're channels for the kind of environment around us. You only have to hear it in the folk music from around the world. Irish folk music is one, Indian folk music is another, Polish folk music yet another. They're all different. They're very much influenced by the cold weather, the waves or whatever.
DB: The record is recorded in Dublin except two tracks, 'Blues for Your Baby', and 'Lonesome Old Wind,' which were recorded on that trip to California. Are they different?
SW: You can hear the difference in the San Francisco tracks. You know, when you're out in America you think, "Well, this is it! It can't get any better than this! I'm working with Bob Johnson. I'm working with Jim Keltner. I'm playing with Anto and Mike and we're singing our own songs! We're playing our own stuff! It doesn't get much better than this!"
DB: You play fiddle on all the songs except 'Custer's Blues' where you're on mandolin. Do you have any preference to fiddle or mando?
SW: I love playing the mando, yeah! I suppose that I'm a frustrated electric guitar player. The mando is the same tuning as the fiddle and it looks like an electric guitar and makes guitar type sounds. So it was good fun but the fiddle is my main instrument.
DB: Are there any tracks you're looking forward to playing live? I assume 'Custer's Blues' is going to remain in the set list. It's such an amazing song. 'On My Way to Heaven' has been played live before.
SW: Well, 'Too Close To Heaven.' I can't wait to play that. 'Tenderfootin',' 'Blues For Your Baby,' they're all great.
DB: 'Blues for Your Baby' is excellent. Anto's sax playing on that is 15 years old but it sounds so fresh and new.
SW: Well it doesn't sound like anything I hear on the radio at home.
DB: From looking at Mike's sleeve notes and cross-referencing that to the live dates the whole period seems very busy. Whenever you weren't in the studio you seemed to be touring. There was also the performance on the Greenpeace ship in Dublin that took place during that period. The whole era seems to be, as you say, non-stop music. Is that truly what it was like?
SW: Yeah. That's what it was like and that's more or less what it's like now.
DB: Is it great to be back into it?
DB: There's been plenty of opportunity to see the band live recently and more to come! How would you sum up the period 'Too Close to Heaven' encompasses?
SW: The obvious thing for me that I remember about that time is just this vast amount of songs. Particularly the songs that show up on 'Too Close to Heaven.' They were songs in amongst hundreds and perhaps thousands of songs and they were the best!
DB: So I assume there are still others that haven't been released that you think are great.
SW: I think there are great ones out there. 'Higher Bound' and 'Saints and Angels.' There are songs like 'You In The Sky' that I think are great. I'm sure they'll show up sometime in some form or another.