The Waterboys’ founder Mike Scott first found himself falling in love with the words of Irish poet William Butler Yeats as a teenager growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland.
It took him nearly 30 years, but Scott found a way to properly honor his boyhood idol by recording “An Appointment With Mr. Yeats,” an album of the bard’s poems set to The Waterboys’ unique blend of rock and Celtic folk music. The Waterboys play the Neptune Friday, the first time they’ve visited Seattle in six years.
“My mother is an English literature college professor, so I grew up in a house full of books even before I went to school,” Scott said. “My mother always mentioned this guy Yeats. Eventually I checked him out and by that time he was almost like a friend of the family, he’d been spoken about so much.”
As a teenager, Scott didn’t understand all of the themes Yeats explored, but what he did pick up on was Yeats’ exquisite use of language. When it came time to create an album on Yeats poems, Scott drew on his experience setting a couple of the poet’s songs to music, as well as adapting the poems of Robert Burns and George MacDonald into songs.
The key, Scott said, is letting the poem dictate things. The album’s first track, for example, “The Hosting Of The Shee,” has a cadence that shaped the song’s driving horns and drums.
“The biggest challenge was not to get in the way,” he said. “In every case, the poems themselves suggested the rhythms and the melody. I went with where those suggestions went. I didn’t obstruct that flow.”
Since the formation of the band in 1983, dozens and dozens of musicians have been members of the Waterboys. It’s a revolving door of international talent — just like Scott imagined it would be at the very start.
“In my mind that was the natural way for an artist or band to be, to keep evolving or changing with the music,” Scott said. “I didn’t want to be tied down with a fixed lineup, I wanted to be able to change musicians like (Bob) Dylan had. I would have made some really bad (expletive) records if I’d kept the same lineup the whole time.”
However, one musician has been a Waterboys fixture since 1985: fiddler Steve Wickham. He’s had a profound influence on the band’s sound.
“He was the key to us becoming a band that could improvise on stage and in the studio,” Scott said, adding that Wickham led the band into their “Fisherman’s Blues” period. “He brought an instrumental eloquence that was crucial and that I’m still grateful for to this day.”
Since it’s been so long since the band has toured America, Scott said that they’ll play a few cuts off the new album but will sprinkle in plenty of fan favorites.
“I really do like playing for American audiences,” Scott said. “They really know their music so well, and for me and the boys from Europe it’s so great to play in American cities because of the great musical heritage, like in Seattle and Austin. It’s a real thrill for us.”
9 p.m. Friday at the Neptune Theatre, 1303 N.E. 45th St., Seattle; $35
(877-784-4849 or www.stgpresents.org).