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Universal Hall(2003)

Buy at Townsends

Mike Scott on Universal Hall
Thanks to David Billson

Q. Why 'Universal Hall' ? And why Findhorn ?

"Universal Hall" because of the song, and because the album was recorded in the studio under the Hall itself. Findhorn because I'm at home there, and because I wanted to make another record in the charged atmosphere of the Community. And to bring Steve and Richard back to work in Findhorn after the atmosphere of our concerts there last year.

Q. This album again is produced by yourself, why is that ?

I liked the job I did on "Weary Land" and re-hired myself !

Q. What influenced you in the writing of the songs and the recording of the album ?

The same things as always - what I feel, see and experience. This time I consciously focussed on light-filled songs. "A Rock In The Weary Land" was a record that came out of a period when I explored a lot of darkness - in myself, in modern life, in history - and when I got to the other side of that there was only light.

Q. What do you mean "light" ?

I mean I found myself in an uncomplicated bright place of the heart and soul, with my road clear and the wind at my back ! I also mean "light" as in spiritual energy or power.

Q. Can you tell us about the album cover and all these striking coloured glass images ?

Yes, they're all from the front of Universal Hall - a huge stained glass design by James Hubbell, a Californian architect and designer. It really is unlike any other building anywhere. Pretty good venue too !

Q. Why do so many of the songs on the album have such short lyrics ?

Because I got a sense that was all that was needed to be said in each song. I like when a cluster of songs comes with its own style or keynote - and the short minimal lyric seems to be the style of this collection. I like the power of simplicity too. These short lyrics work like mantras or affirmations; phrases designed to be said over and over in order to inspire or transform a state of mind. Or if that doesn't work for you, you can just groove out on the music.

Q. What is the "Silent Fellowship" ?

It's a group of people meditating in silence together.

Q. You mean in Findhorn ?

For me, yes, the song is inspired by early morning meditations in the sanctuary at the Findhorn Community, but it could be anywhere that people meditate, pray or work together in an unspoken sense of fellowship.

Q. Can you explain "E.B.O.L." ?

It's a phrase my wife uses : an "eternal being of love" - who each of us really is, behind our everyday human identities. I find sometimes when I look at someone consciously with a lot of love I can see the "ebol" part of them shining through their face.

Q. What about "Seek The Light" ? It's so different to the rest of the album.

It's a lyric I had for ages - I got the idea from a little book I once read, an "Acorn Book" - published out of Glastonbury in the 80's. Well, I had the lyric but I had to begin to learn to live it before I got to put it to music ! Then last year I was listening to an old instrumental piece done during "This Is The Sea" and found it fit the words. At the same time I was listening to a CD I'd bought in Findhorn by May East and Craig Gibsone - really strange instrumental music made on Didgeridoo and an instrument called the Sandawa, which plays deep droning chords. I thought this would make a great backdrop to "Seek The Light", so I constructed the track from these various elements using pro-tools in a studio in London. The engineer was Mark Smith who played on "Weary Land". It came out really wild and is a continuation of the "Weary Land" sound - the last burst of that beautiful noise ! I included it on "Universal Hall" because it fits lyrically, even if it's completely different musically. It was hard placing it in the running order !

Q. Can you tell us about "Peace Of Iona" ?

I wrote this on the isle of Iona in Scotland, in the mid '90's. My grandmother came from Mull, which is the neighbouring island, and from my childhood I remember people talking of Iona as Scotland's sacred island. So I grew up with this idea of Iona as a special place, a place set apart. When I went there many years later I wasn't disappointed - it is a very special place indeed. It's been a "sacred" island for a long time - an ancient Druid centre, then a centre of celtic Christianity which was brought from Ireland by St Columba who had his base on Iona, and it's still a magnet for seekers.

Q. What's so special about it ?

There's a presence of spirit there - at least that's been my impression - a presence overlighting the place; you could say a healing presence of peace and soul. Hard to express in human words ! I would say it's a combination of the innate power of the place - Iona is believed to be one of the Earth's centres of spiritual power - and the atmosphere created by the dedication of all the seekers who've gone there over the millenia. I suspect it touches every individual in a different way.

Q. And "This Light Is For The World" ?

Well, this is based on a meditation of consciously bringing down light - spiritual energy - from the highest place we can inwardly reach, and sending it into the dark places of the world, to heal and transform. If you believe, as I do, that thought is an energy, a power, then it's not hard to believe that concentrated thought, consciously and lovingly directed, can have an effect in the world.

Q. A sceptic might say this is just in the imagination.

And in a sense they'd be right. Imagination is the beginning of all creativity, all inventions, all civilizations, all human activity. Imagination is an incredible vast power - its evidence is all around us. As to the question of whether imagination harnessed in meditation has any effect, for me this is a matter of faith. Faith is part of the equation. If I don't have it, my meditation won't work. Belief or faith is the "fuel" that makes it go. At the same time it's not enough to send love and light around the planet in meditation if I don't give it to the people around me in daily life - and to myself. It's got to be on all levels.

Q. I notice "I've Lived Here Before" was co-written with Liam O'Maonlai of the Hot House Flowers. How so ?

Liam asked me to help him with some writing back in 1991 when we were both in New York, and we spent 5 afternoons together. Mostly we worked on Liam's ideas but while he was there I asked him to set a new lyric of mine to music. It was "I've Lived Here Before" and he wrote the music in the style of the great Irish composer Sean O'Riada and Cor Coolea - which is a famous choir based at Muskerry in West Cork, Ireland. This music has a very distinctive style of melody and musical structure and you can hear echoes of it in the song, though my piano playing displays it less than Liam's would have. He did a beautiful job, don't you think ?

Q. Yes. So do "Lived Here" and "The Dance At The Crossroads" mark a return to the Waterboys' celtic music ?

I think the celtic music is always with the Waterboys - just more behind the scenes now than in the "Fisherman's Blues" era. It's a root of our music. It ain't going away.

Q. What was it like for you working with Steve Wickham again ?

As you can guess it was wonderful, a real musical homecoming. He and I are so sympatico, and he adds wings to the music, a sense of uniqueness - nobody else can do what Steve does.

Q. How much do he and Richard influence the music in the recording studio?

Well, I'm the director, but Steve and Richard take the music in unforeseen directions by what they play. I may have an idea, but I can't truly imagine in advance what they will do. I can encourage them, egg them on like a kind of idiot producer-cheerleader, but only they know what's inside their souls and wants to come out. And whatever that is can change the vision of a song. Like on "Peace Of Iona" - I asked Steve to play whatever the lyric suggested to him, but I couldn't have envisaged the wonders that came out of his fiddle !

Q. I like his string arrangement on "This Light"...

Yes, me too. This is an area of Steve's creativity we're only beginning to explore. We touched on it a few times in the late 80's, but never a whole arrangement like this one. He has such a skill for it, and his sense of melody is so rich. I'm looking forward to more. And some from Richard too in the fullness of time.

Q. What are all these strange instruments named on the album sleeve - the tambron, the earth resonator, the micro-synth, the Indian Harmonium etc ?

The Tambron is a drum I got in an eastern musical shop in Camden Town - a shallow drum with a skin on one side and lots of little cymbals in the rim, like a tambourine. I play it bodhran-style, so I re-christened it a "Tamb-ron". Earth Resonator is a mischievous name for a bass guitar. Micro-Synth is an effects unit by Electro-Harmonix that enables the user to manipulate sound in lots of different directions. I used it all over "A Rock In The Weary Land". A wonderful tool. It's how the voice manipulations are done on "Seek The Light" and the droning, shifting sound beneath "I've Lived Here Before". The Indian Harmonium is a small keyboard with bellows and reeds, and it sounds like a bright accordion. One hand plays the keyboard, the other pulls the bellows in and out. That's it in the left speaker on "Silent Fellowship".

Q. Who are Scott Gamble and Finlay Grant ?

They're both musicians who live near Findhorn. Scott's an American, and a master on several African percussion instruments. We played "Every Breath Is Yours" together, holding the focus of the song through take after take till I sang the definitive performance, with Scott providing the tension and the anchor. Finlay is a drummer from Elgin who came in at the last moment to add fills and cymbals to "Peace Of Iona". I would have got Geoff Dugmore to do it but he's in London and there was only a few hours' notice. Finlay did a tidy job !

Q. Were there any songs you left off this album ?

Yes, there were several which didn't fit the mood, like "Vampire Man" which has a darker lyrical edge to it. Also "On My Way To The Big Light" which would have fit, but which I'd recorded too recently (with Ainars Mielavs) to be fresh with .

Q. Can we expect to hear these songs on record in the future ?

Yes, you can. Every time we make a record, more songs go into the "for another time" drawer. That drawer is quite deep now, and could make a strong album or two. We'll see what wants to happen !

Q. Any last word on "Universal Hall" ?

I've said enough. Let the music do the talking now. Play on !