“…somehow, it’s like Popeye said – ‘I am what I am’.”
From the legendary Minutemen to the raging fIREHOSE, or perhaps as sidemouse to J. Mascis and the Fog or Porno For Pyros, Mike Watt is one of music’s more well-traveled (his current “Time to Cat Not Mouse” tour, with guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Jerry Trebotic, is his 48th such outing), as well as one of its more literate and intelligent voices. His two solo albums, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and the opera Contemplating the Engine Room, are varied, intense pieces of work that reflect the life of a man who grew up a Navy brat and just happened to form one of the most influential rock bands ever, The Minutemen. Listening to their landmark Double Nickels on the Dime album today, with its short songs and twisted musical stylings, makes you realize how incredibly ahead of their time D. Boon, drummer George Hurley and Watt were.
Then Boon died in a van accident in 1985, and thus ended The Minutemen. The next year, an inquisitive man from Ohio, Ed Crawford, finds Watt’s number in the Pedro phone book, and fIREHOSE is born. From that point on, Mike Watt has never been far away from his “little bass” or a stage. Although he almost died last year (a misdiagnosed internal abscess ), he has wasted no time manning the thud stick for his friend J. Mascis (the former Dinosaur Jr. leader). Then after almost dying in a van wreck in Sweden, he hit the road again, performing 52 shows in 54 days with his trio. I sat down pre-soundcheck with Watt and got the skinny on music, war, and the punk rock supergroup The Wylde Ratttz, featuring Watt on bass, Ron Asheton from the Stooges on guitar, Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley (also from Sonic Youth) on drums, Mark Arm on vocals, Don Fleming on guitar, and Jim Dunbar on percussion. For a self-professed “corndog from Pedro,” Mike Watt is a busy man.
Do you have anything coming out soon?
I’m recording in December. Like you know, I was real sick last year, and since then I’ve been touring constantly. I was helping J., and I did a tour right before that. I’m doing this, cause J. had me playing with a pick, and I had to learn how to play with my fingers again. I hadn’t played with a pick in 17 years. Playing with J. was good — he’s a very inspiring musician, never plays the same thing twice.
I saw the show at the Cotton Club – loud as hell, wasn’t it?
Yeah, J. is loud. Very generous musician, too. The tour ended in Sweden with the van flipping over – I was almost killed. But seatbelts!
I’m going to make an album in December — organ, bass, and drums. It’s based on my sickness – kinda built it around Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Hell is the sickness, Purgatory was the healing, and playing my little bass and riding my bike is Paradise! That will be out in April, D. Boon was born April First, so I’m trying to have it out then.
You always seem to gravitate to forming trios. Why is that?
Yeah, less competition.
Has that influenced the way you play bass?
Well, most of my bass style comes from playing with D. Boon, him making room for me with his guitar style and chordings. I picked up on that dynamic — I really lean on the drummers hard. For me, the kick drum is my note. Because most of the music, I guess you call it rock, is rhythm-based music, and so I think the trio plays that up the strongest. You don’t have all those counterpoint melodies to hide the basic drive and syncopations. I did an interview once in Germany where somebody told me that even in 80 piece classical bands, the brain can only focus on three at a time anyway, so maybe I’m at the fundamental!
You seem to be influenced heavily by “the two Johns” – Coltrane and Fogerty.
Oh yeah, very heavily.
Sort of an eclectic mix.
Well, my dad was a sailor, and I grew up in a sailor’s house, and I lived all over, so I’m used to eclectic. The government on the one side, raising me, and on the other side, all these different people always coming into my life. So to me, it’s only natural. I’m a very curious person.
When I met D. Boon, he had never heard rock! The only rock band he’d ever heard was Creedence [Clearwater Revival] — he was 13, never heard any Cream, or The Who, T Rex. So we learned every Creedence song. His momma made me learn the bass, and that’s how I got started in music. I wasn’t really a musician — it was more a personal thing, I wanted to be with him.
Playing all these years, my mind has gotten to where I systematize things — verse chorus verse. John Coltrane freed me of all that. I cannot memorize that mans songs. When people think of music as freedom, John Coltrane is that to me. He just takes it, and one possibility leads to another, and another. I’m too grounded in pop music to systematize it — the Hank Williams, Little Richard forms — so he liberates me from that, the Little Richard forms. I mean, Fogerty sings like Little Richard. Of course he also had the best shirts — growing up in Navy housing, I didn’t know flannel was a rock shirt, I just [thought] they were cool! So I guess in a lot of ways, John Fogerty is my roots, particularly with D. Boon. It’s trippy — it’s not authentic — and I don’t think music is particularly meant to be authentic, it’s meant to transcend. I mean, he wasn’t “Born on the Bayou,” he was born in north Berkeley, and he’s singing “Burnin'” like Howlin’ Wolf, and he’s taking all these Scotty Moore licks, all these forms together. You go to his Web site, and he tells ya what all the songs were about. “Fortunate Son” is about Julie and David Eisenhower, “Effigy” is about burning down the White House — great things, ya know? And then John Coltrane, he’s putting together things, you read interviews with him, he’s listening to Sun Ra, John Gilmore — all of it’s foreign to me, I didn’t grow up listening to any jazz. So he’s beyond the other stuff I hear. I try and capture that in my music — not copying it, I try to bring that into my music, somehow telling a story while getting free of clichÃˆd stories. I know it’s a tall order, but its what I’m aiming at.
Recently, the book Our Band Could Be Your Life came out. What do you see as the legacy of The Minutemen?
[Pauses] Well, the idea of “Godammit, they’re doing it, so can we!” I mean, they took the title of the book from “History Lesson,” and that’s what I was trying to say. I mean, people thought we were from Mars, that whole Hollywood scene, the people from Orange County, the hardcore people, they didn’t know what the fuck we were coming from. So I wrote this song, it was just D. Boon and I playing guitar — it was just that simple. I think that’s part of the legacy of The Minutemen. Somehow, it’s like Popeye said, “I am what I am”. I mean, if you have a scene, a scene that’s open enough to let any bozo get up there…
Right, you were a punk band that never really played punk…
But we thought that was punk! Just being a mindblow! That’s what the gigs were for me at the beginning. You know, the Hollywood punk scene was very different, you know, from the whole Blink-182 thing. It was people from the glitter scene in LA, artist people. The only kids you saw were runaways, you didn’t see many kids. The first band I saw at the Whiskey didn’t even have a guitar — The Screamers. They never even recorded; they thought records were all bourgeois. It was all really full on, like The Nervous Genders singing about Jesus being a homosexual nymphomaniac — so you see, this was a crazy-assed scene. That’s the impact it had on me, so The Minutemen thought we were right in there. But looking back, you get the hardcore records, and you see The Minutemen didn’t sound like those guys — but we thought that was the fucking point! In fact, we thought we were tainted knowing all the Blue Oyster Cult — we thought we were the damaged goods!
Did you ever catch any heat for playing that stuff?
[Laughing] No! That’s why we had those little songs — small parts, no barre chords — it was to hide the fact we knew T. Rex, Alice Cooper, and all that. Because those guys just started playing without learning off of records, so we were afraid of being polluted. I know, the joke’s on us…
One of the things that strikes you going back and listening to say, Double Nickels on the Dime, is the amount of protest songs.
You don’t hear that anymore, in your Blink-182s. Do you think there’s a place for that now, after September 11th?
Especially after the 11th. Especially. I don’t think things have really changed after that day — I mean, they killed a lot of fucking people, and those people are into violence as a solution, but we’re talking about writing songs, right? So I don’t think violence is ever OK. No matter what your cause is. And I think now, more than ever, we have to protect freedoms, because I think the arena they were counting on, by doing such a movie sort of thing — and by what we’re doing back — I don’t think one Afghani was on the plane, but we’re bombing minefields and caves. I think it’s all gonna come down to police work anyway. There are little cells of people all around, so we’re gonna have to get with other police all around the world, and you know what it is about police. There is always the line between the rights and what needs to get done. I should know, I was almost railroaded on SST — they thought it wasn’t a record company, thought it was a drug ring, end of 1980, 1981. I was assigned a public defender, they came in to the offices in Torrance, all that. So I know that rights are important.
I was just at Monticello yesterday. Mr. Jefferson, so I can speak as a conservative, saw some very old ideas, along with Mr. Madison — Federalism, separation of powers, checks and balances. Like Mr. Franklin said, “He who trades security for freedom deserves to lose both.” Those would make good protest lyrics. We can’t let the attack make us leave a lame thing for the kids — I mean, maybe to make things safe we have to do some things in the meantime, but let’s think about what the fuck we’re doing. We gotta leave them a country that isn’t a gulag.
But speaking against this stuff almost sounds like treason.
But it isn’t, though.
It’s being presented as “either you’re with us, or against us.”
Yeah, that’s what that asshole said. I mean, he’s gonna face an election, unless he suspends them — his daddy had the war too early, and it didn’t help his election. I get upset about this stuff, because you know the military — my father told me 20 years ago, you know, the navy man — that the military is there to defend the Constitution. Not be worldwide asskickers. You gotta defend the Constitution. I mean, I travel around the world a lot, and there’s a lot of things people don’t like about us, but there are also things they like, but it’s being painted that everyone hates us. I mean, you don’t get in their face and go “I’m the best” — that sorta blows it. For one thing, you’re a guest in their land, but then they wanna know about you. Because all they have are images from TV and movies, and then they get curious, and then they wanna visit. So it’s not us against the world. It’s not “God Bless America,” it’s god bless the world. Somehow we gotta come together.
I was in Baltimore Monday, and a few cars down, a guy was shot to death. Yellow tape, the sirens, right next to us. I mean, 25,000 murders a year in this country ñ we’re at war. With ourselves! We’re always at war, we gotta do something about this shit always. The attack was a horrible, horrible thing, but it’s always been with us. I mean, box cutters. Maybe some doors between the pilot and the plane? Or at least a beaded curtain… I mean, I don’t really have any answers to this stuff, but I do have some serious questions. Maybe some people will think I’m weak and unmasculine, but this is the way I feel. I mean, all this being patriotic… try being nicer to each other. It took us two hours to get into town — six hours of driving from Chapel Hill to Atlanta, but then two hours in the city! People are so angry. I think there are a lot of ways to be patriotic other than lining up behind wars. I mean, the flags on the cars, that whole thing is kinda superficial, isn’t it? And the people telling me this is a good thing, because it’s getting the country together. I had a young man tell me that, and I said, “I think there’s better ways to get the country together than that.” These are the mentalities we’re running into, and they’ve always been there, I mean, Pat Boone sold more “Tutti Frutti”s than Little Richard, ya know — what the hell is more treasonous than that! [Laughing] And that’s because people were free to buy.
OK, back to the music. How do you think your personal style of playing has changed over the years?
Well, I had to move to a smaller bass because my hands were getting sore, for one thing. I was listening to Double Nickels the other day — in fact, we’re gonna play some tonight, first time I’ve played those songs in 16 or 17 years — and I was thinking, “hell, I haven’t changed much at all!” I haven’t changed. It’s sorta like riding a bike: after awhile, you don’t fall down as much. Maybe it’s not riding with no hands, but rather where you take that bike. I think in the last few years I’ve gotten more conservative, played in the back more.
Is some of that from the tours you did with J. or Porno For Pyros and not being the front man?
Yeah, maybe, ’cause even on the opera, I didn’t play up front much. I think things come in cycles. On this next record I’m gonna be up front more — I don’t have a guitar to compete with, for one thing! And the organ has lower notes than me, so he can have that responsibility. I’m not gonna use the organ like most people do, I’m using it like a bass. It’s almost like DOS, the two bass band I did with Kira, where we ping-ponged off each other. It’s gonna be like that, with a drummer. More grooves, less melodic.
Are you going to work with Nels Cline again?
Oh yeah, we’re gonna record the trio, the Black Gang stuff. He’s a wonderful, sweet man. An amazing guy. I mean, my style is still influenced by the people I play with, so you’re right, I’m influenced by J. and the Pornos thing.
What about the Wylde Ratttz record?
Yeah, it’s coming out soon. That was a blast, ’cause I grew up listening to Ron Asheton and The Stooges, so getting to record with them was wild. It started with doing the stuff for Velvet Goldmine, we did a song for that movie, then we did a couple more songs, and we had an album. Then the Polygram merger happened, and the record got lost in the shuffle, but its gonna come out on Thurston’s label.
No matter what song or band you pick, listening to Mike Watt’s music impresses you with its honest, simple humanity. To sustain a career for as long as he has — a career that is marked by a lack of pretension and posturing — is an amazing thing. Speaking to him affects you the same way. You walk away having made a friend.
For more skinny on Watt, and to learn what the hell a thudstick is, visit”>hootpage.com”>visit his hoot page.