an interview w/ Mike Watt (who is in town now)
interview by Chris Bilton, intro by Andrew Frisicano
Bassist Mike Watt has been in New York since Sunday, at work recording his fourth solo album, hyphenated-man, at a studio in Williamsburg. Watt is accompanied on that record, and on his current, nearly two-month tour, by the Missingmen — drummer Raul Morales and guitarist Tom Watson.
NYC-area audiences finally get a chance to hear what Watt and the band have been up to when they play tonight, May 7th at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. That’s the first of two NYC-area shows; the second comes Friday, when Mike Watt and the Missingmen play the Mercury Lounge (openers include Lite, Kahoots and John DeVries of Agitpop). Tickets are still on sale.
The Missingmen project is just one of Watt’s many efforts as a bandleader (to say nothing of his sideman gigs for the Stooges, J. Mascis and others). Another of those Watt fronted bands, the Black Gang (a project with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline), also recently cut a record. Release dates for both are TBA, but there’s no lack of activity on the horizon. Cline and Watt are slated to open an August 1st show at the Central Park Summerstage, with M. Ward headlining.
EYE WEEKLY writer Chris Bilton spoke with Watt in mid-2008, where they discussed the bass player’s storied history and busy future. That interview has remained on his hard drive until now…
by Chris Bilton
Mike Watt is basically the William S. Burroughs of the bass. With his childhood best friend Dennes “D” Boon and their seminal post-punk trio The Minutemen, he created an entirely original musical language: highly condensed jazz-punk jams spattered with incendiary lyrics of impressionistic politicizing. Influencing generations of young musicians with his econo aesthetic and an inspired approach to both his instrument and his music, Watt has remained true to his roots throughout major label tenures, high profile collaborations and well-deserved veneration.
That Watt is still making music after nearly 30 years is nothing short of a few minor miracles. He gave up on playing after the death of Boon in 1986, only to be coaxed back by his good friends in Sonic Youth and an eager fan named Ed Crawford–the latter convincing him to start a new band called fIREHOSE. After a couple critically acclaimed solo ventures employing the likes of Eddie Vedder and Nels Cline, and many other ongoing projects (including the Stooges-meets-Coltrane outfit Hellride that in a roundabout way led to the reunification of Iggy Pop and the Asheton brothers), Watt spent a year in the hospital recovering from a life-threatening abscess in his perineum.
Beginning with 2000’s “Enough with the Piss-Bag Tour” to commemorate his recovery, Watt’s been spending this millennium rightfully earning a “hardest working bass player in showbiz” badge by helming numerous bands (Secondmen, Black Gang, Pair of Pliers, Missingmen) while also proudly working the bass full-time for the reformed Stooges.
While Watt has a tendency towards long windedness, slang-filled Pedro-speak and the occasional temporally-unbounded ramble, we managed to cover a wealth of subjects ranging from his econo aesthetic-which still includes sleeping on people’s floors after gigs-to the veritable torrent of music flooding the industry right now. Appropriately, when Watt joins me on the street side patio of his local San Pedro coffee shop Sacred Grounds, he’s already engaged in some free-associative reflection (what Harmony Korine dubbed “front end Watt-spiel”) having just minutes before accepted an invitation to sit in on John Fogerty‘s band practice.
Just for a bit of perspective, what was it like to play at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame…
Mike Watt: Hall of Lame.
…Hall of Lame for Madonna?
When we finished, I saw her she’s sitting in front. ‘Cause I was watching Iggy the whole gig, I didn’t look at her. It was a trip. I think it was righteous for her to ask us.
I can imagine it was pretty surreal.
I think it would have been the last thing, a number of years ago, if you were to ask what I think would happen. Yeah. It’s very bizarre how life. I would never imagine in 10 million years that that would happen. I remember when Iggy called me laughing, “Yeah, we’ve got some work Mike. Come to New York City with us?” Sure. I know the songs. “We’ll do ’em Stooges way.” Okay. It was pretty surreal. I mean I’m in the bourgeois Waldorf Tower with all these bosses…
Iggy Pop & Mike Watt @ United Palace (more)
Aside from playing with your heroes, has playing on the Stooges tours been a financial thing for you as well?
Yeah, I live econo too so I don’t care much about the… I didn’t grow up with a lot of material stuff, so I’m not really into shit-hoarding. But the Stooges people are very nice to me and I feel I owe them my best notes. It’s a very trippy situation for me where I’m the young man. You know, they’re from the ’60s and I was only born in the ’60s–13 in 1970–so they show me a whole other thing. And then that music is so critical to our punk thing, and here I am with the guy. So much stuff is second-, third-, fourth-hand and I’m right at the source. It’s such a mind-blow that that ever happened. So it isn’t just to do it for the money.
Yeah, but I mean you’ve been touring with them for the past couple years.
This April’s been five years. Yeah. Isn’t that a trip? The Minutemen was only a month short of six years. I’ve been working for them almost as long as I was in the Minutemen. Time is weird. I feel like I’m on a train. They’re just going to keep shoving me on down the road. There’s just no compromise; you just deal with it. I found out after fIREHOSE though you can’t learn everything being the boss. You’re missing out on a lot of life. It’s good to be a deckhand. Life is about taking turns.
What are you working on now? I haven’t seen you play since you were in Toronto before your last record [The Secondman’s Middle Stand] came out.
Right. This album’s a lot different, where it’s no prac.
It’s all improvised?
No, I wrote all the songs. But then I just shove it on them and they react to ’em. I mean it’s very hard to do that with a lot of cats. I’m going to make another Secondmen album though. I’ve got three band albums planned. They’re kind of out of order. I had to do this Black Gang one now, because of Nels [Cline]’s tiny window of opportunity, because I would never want to lean on that brother … And then the third opera is for the Missingmen. The way I want to do that is go tour, and then halfway into the tour stop in New York and make the record, in Brooklyn in Tony Mimony’s studio. Little songs.
That’s the album inspired by Hieronymus Bosch paintings?
Yeah, Bosch… it’s a weird opera, it don’t have a beginning middle and end. The first one was sad [Contemplating the Engine Room]; the last one was happy [The Secondman’s Middle Stand]; this one is a trip. It plays in my head. Another thing weighing on me was [the Minutemen documentary] We Jam Econo and seeing them little tunes and hearing ’em. You know I hadn’t listened to them in a long time and I had to for the documentary, and I liked that idea of no filler.
I mean those Minutemen tunes, they stand up because there’s nothing but the song itself.
If I can get those three band albums out, I’ll be most grateful to god for not killing me yet. Sometimes I have a feeling that I don’t have much time left. And I got a little out of balance these 10 years with doing gigs versus recording.
Thank god D Boon made recordings. In those days we looked at recordings like flyers for the gigs, but I’m so glad because that’s all we’ve got from him. I mean I’ve got memories and people saw the gigs, but everybody else, the young people, that’s all they’ve got. And it was really weird too because the punk movement, one of the impressions it made was “the moment, the moment” so we even entertained ideas of making-there was a booth there at Port Secal, where you could make records like wax shit on cardboard that would get destroyed after a few plays–and we thought this is the way you should do it so it’s gone and you live in it.
Like punk was really, and still is, especially the first impact of the classic period that we take everything about music and turn our anarchistic impressions on it. It made us think about semantics, the power and politics onward. We never saw it as violent and hurting people and being coerced. We never thought of music as expression, so the punk people enlightened us to this shit, and we took Emma Goldman and anarchistic thinking and trying to apply it to learning Creedence and Blue Oyster Cult. It was a weird time; we were faced with a lot of realities, the cold war propaganda, and then seeing the reality and trying to make sense of it.
You know, a lot of things was a reaction to arena rock. Like the idea of meeting people who played in music-this idea of expression would be a personal side to them-was like wow. Before, music was like building models, you know. But it was a whole different trip to us. To us it made no problem about learning Pop Group and Wire and Germs, and it was no fucking stretch for us. I know looking at it from the outside world, it’s like this is insane. And then learning about John Coltrane–because we hadn’t heard any of it growing up. When [artist and resident poster-designer for the SST scene Raymond] Pettibon played me Coltrane, I thought he was doing punk too. I just thought he was a little bit older. I didn’t know he was dead.
I always thought of Miles [Davis] and Coltrane as punk. I mean Miles, every 10 years would just be like, ah fuck this I’m going to make music in this direction even if everybody else hates it.
Yeah. And he came from money; his daddy was a dentist. So the blues to him was not like moanin’ and shit, it was like an instrument to wield and express yourself. And dare. Yeah. I found a lot of interviews with Coltrane, and one thing that was always in my mind was that people in music are after some kind of truth.
You mentioned a couple minutes ago that punk was meeting people and seeing that they actually have stories and are real people that you’re talking to, not just rock bands.
You’ve been in the town [Los Angeles] now a little bit and you notice it’s 150-something towns. It’s not one thing. So we’re all Balkanized at the beginning. So you meet up in Hollywood and you find other weirdos, and the one common thing was Stooges. That was the lingua franca.
But the thing about it being about people was really intense on us. Different from the arena rock with the detachment and the pews and the altar. All of a sudden Pat Smear is standing next to me, or Darby [Crash], and you could talk with them. I could see the bass players, you know. I could see how big the strings were, what they were doing all from experience. And the songs; you could tell they were just starting out a lot of them, but they didn’t care. I remember the first thing I said to D Boon, was man we can do this. The active empowerment, the concept of it, like you over there and me here, we can be part of this. Not copyin’ em–too much respect. And this is kind of in the ’70s so the hardcore hadn’t come yet. So punk was basically anything you wanted to do. Some of these bands didn’t have guitars. Really whack shit. Really unpredictable for us. But that was what was more good bout it. More good? More intense.
One of the first times I saw you play in Toronto, you stayed a friend’s place. And then a few years later you stayed with me. But you’ve been doing that for years.
We conked at people’s pads. We learned touring from [Black] Flag. That’s how they did it. And the whole idea of “jam econo,” it’s not just a slogan. It’s a credo. Because, coming from working people, and there ‘aint a lot of materialism, you could make things happen. That’s the idea of that.
Doing this, crashing at people’s pads all these years…
I did it for the Japanese tour in February 2008. Great chows. It’s all about the experience you know. I remember as boys reading how rock n’ rollers hated touring, like it was this big burden. And then us doing our first one with Flag, it was an incredible journey for us. It was a powerful journey because we thought the tour was, yeah you could play your songs for people, but it was also this great thing to teach you more about the world. When you go into their pads, and you’re staying with them and it’s even more of that kind of experience. You’re even more engaged in the journey. You know, you’re out there before getting back to Pedro; you’re out there for so much time that I try to be like sponging and absorbing as much as I can. And being at their pads is not just econo, but learning things too.
I think a lot of times you’re conking with people, and a lot of these cats play too, and then maybe it empowers them a little bit. We always had a huge sense of debt to the punk movement that you had to give back. What they did for us, those guys we first saw, to get us out of the bedroom and playing for people, I feel like I have to give that back. And so that’s one of the reasons I let the We Jam Econo thing out. One of it was to let D Boon play for people, but the other one was I thought it wasn’t about we were the best band or anything. I thought if people saw it and thought these motherfuckers can do it, they too would paint or do poems or novels too.
You must have had every kind of experience staying at people’s pads?
I try to make people curious about things in the world and other people. I think people get a little cynical by the way they experience other people, you know through TV and shit. Because again that Japanese tour–the first time experience thing–I want to pass that on somehow. They don’t have to do it just like me, just get out there and experience things for themselves. That’s part of it. Even the spiel at the pad we’re conkin’ at–get them kind of excited about this.
I think the first thing, this is before I met D Boon, I’m a boy and my pop’s on tour in the navy, and he comes back after a nine-month thing. He takes me driving seven, eight, nine hours just spielin’ on his tour. My mom called them sea stories, fish stories, whatever. But these themes about finding out on this adventure about his first-time experiences in these other parts of the world really got on me and made me not bum on tour like it was some kind of big-ass burden, but rather an opportunity.
There seemed to be a lot of younger people at the show last night.
Young people are very positive for me at a gig. I’m most grateful for that. Yeah, because it’s them being very generous. It’s them not judging me. Saying this old fuck, let’s give him a shot–something like this. And then it allows me some kind of opportunity to redeem the days when I’m going to be dead. When I’m not here. I’m most grateful about that.
Especially when I was a boy and everybody over 30 was no good. In the early days of rock n’ roll in the ’50s, everything about this music was so marketed or exploited on this thing just about age and disposable income. You’re living at home and you don’t pay rent, so buy these rock n roll records. And then hey it’s “the voice of our generation and youth,” and our generation, your generation, all this kind of fucking thing. And now it’s come around, especially for me, this is something to get around generations, to bridge them.
The thing of the arts is it’s the fabric between the materialism-between all these fucking physical things that narrow things down to herds and tribes and armies and bullshit. I hear people say, oh you know everything’s been done, they have nothing to create; it’s all been done. And that’s such a fuckin’ downer. It’s just a bitter boomer trip on them, not wantin’ to let go. And you know the next shit that’s going on.
Especially in music, people have been saying for years that it’s all been done.
I’ve done a lot more with younger people. With the technology-this ProTools thing where I can play in my house and send them music–I have this project called Funanori [with Go! Team guitarist Katori Tsuchida]. This lady is 20 years younger than me and from another land. This whole thing about being different is okay. I mean look at me and D Boon, that was the whole thing about us not fitting in at high school and coming in with the punk, and not fitting in with the rock n’ roll–it was all about being different. And why should that have to change? It’s ok. I think nature really bums on inbreeding.
It shows after a while.
You get those Great Dane hips, overbite bulldog. I don’t think the bulldog can breathe naturally anymore. This acorn never falls far from the tree–that’s such horseshit. I think the tree’s counting on the fucking squirrel to eat that acorn and shit it out far, far away.
What was it like playing with those folks in Japan?
Their scene, it reminded me a lot of the old days. They’re trying a lot of different music. Their club scene–it’s exploitive a little bit, almost pay to play, high prices. They don’t care. Their hankerin’ to play and explore and express is really strong. I was so impressed.
And then seeing the younger cats–these people were half my age I was touring with-and seeing them doing their band trip made me think of D Boon and Georgie and the old days, made me think of this a lot. Not in a nostalgic sentimental way, but like wow, it did not die. It’s not like fuck all this new shit. You know, the only real was then. Bullshit. The thing for us was like learning about Woody Guthrie without even knowing about it. And he was 40 years before. Someone once told me the only thing new is you finding out about it. And it’s true.
Tour dates HERE.