Mike Watt: On and Off Bass
by Mike Watt
Three Rooms Press
Bass legend Mike Watt has been pushing artistic boundaries for over 30 years. Co-founder of the genre-confounding punk bands Minutemen and fIREHOSE, and member of dozens of other bands throughout the years, including a stint in The Stooges, Watt is constantly producing works of soul and spirit, always trying to push his music further.
Along with all that, he somehow has the time to update his webpage, appear as an interview subject in just about every music documentary ever filmed, and write a few books. His latest book, Mike Watt: On and Off Bass, showcases another of Watt’s means of artistic expression, photography.
Watt has been taking photographs since high school, “longer than some young folks have been alive,” when he took an elective class in photography. The expense and bother of developing film kept it from being anything more than an occasional hobby until he received a digital camera in the ’90s. The ease and economy of the new technology inspired Watt to take up photography again. This was also around the time he started biking around his hometown of San Pedro.
“When I was 38 a cat was moving to Atlanta so I bought a 10-speed bike off him for five bucks,” Watt said. “I started riding around Pedro early in the morning and I’d see a lot of stuff I never noticed, just driving around. I called ’em eye gifts, you know? You don’t set these up, you just capture them.”
Soon Watt was taking photographs from the road, and started carrying a waterproof camera on his kayak rides in the San Pedro Harbor when he was home, as well as taking photographs on his bike rides. Because the harbor faces east, he managed to take some rather spectacular sunrise shots.
These photos were compiled, along with selections from Watt’s hoot page, into a gallery exhibit, which led to the publication of Mike Watt: On and Off Bass. Pedro is a working harbor, so many of the shots reflect the contrast between modern, man-made industry and the natural world. These photos seem reflective, yet searching, while others displaying the harbor wildlife are more playful. While wildlife and machinery abound, there is only one shot displaying a person. The overall effect is a reflection of an early morning solitary walk, and the focus on one area makes the viewer appreciate the small “eye gifts” that abound everywhere, in every community or area, if we only take the time to observe.
“People asked me ‘can we do this,'” Watt said. “I had thousands of pictures… from going around on my bike and kayak. I thought it might be too precious, too self-important (to display them), but it really made me feel grateful. They took 65 and picked some spiels and poems to go with them. I think it worked really well, especially since the choice came from outside me. I think it really reflects my parts.”
Watt’s spiels, ranging from thoughts on tour, to his constant searching to connect through music, to his lying on John Coltrane’s grave seeking for a sort of communion to poetry, complement the photographs, again bringing out his willingness to push boundaries throughout his art.
“The next years for Watt are all about just trying to stay busy,” Watt said. While it is hard to see how he can cram anything else into his intense schedule, works like Mike Watt: On and Off Bass show how much we need artists like him: humble, down to earth, yet insanely gifted, and always trying to expand and learn and share the results of his findings with others.