Interview: Mr. Narrator, This is Mike Watt to Me
It was a brisk Wednesday morning when, after a nearly two-hour conversation outside a San Pedro coffee house, Mike Watt, bassist of the legendary Minutemen, instructed me to get into my car and follow him to the apartment building where he and the late D. Boon wrote their first songs together. As we stood in an alleyway behind the apartment, with a current tenant standing at a distance wondering what the hell we were looking at, Watt explained to me how D. and himself would sit in the corner bedroom on the second floor and stomp their feet while playing guitar, because drummer George Hurley had yet to join them.
Something Watt said earlier in our conversation kept ringing through my head as we stood there—and continues to ring in my head as I think about it now: “Nobody picks where they’re born. It all depends on how they handle it.” This phrase, along with so many of the things Watt said on that ordinary Wednesday, felt drenched in this surreal notion of fate. Like fitting puzzle pieces together, fate could likely explain him encountering the “Hollywood” punk scene of the late ’70s along with Boon, getting contacted by Ron Asheton to join up with the Stooges in 2003, and as you would expect, his il sogno del marinaio project with Italian musicians Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi. However, fate or not, the way in which Watt has appropriated these instances into his personal philosophy, almost more so than how it manifests in the music itself, is a symbol of their momentous power.
“Stefano rode in the ‘boat’ with us, helped us get around,” he explained, with “boat” being Watt-speak for van here. This meeting took place on the Italian leg of a 2005 tour for the album, Second Man’s Middle Stand, whereupon, as Watt explained “Maybe four years later, I got an email from him, offering to do some gigs.” From there, Watt, figuring that he had, in his own words, “Been in that mode for the last few years of just going for it,” decided that if they “did some gigs, got the material up, why not record them?” This of course led to the recordings that became the fantastic La Busta Gialla. However, Watt explained that he was not just going far afield geographically in terms of this project, reasoning, “These guys are twenty years younger, and they were coming more from an avant-garde background.” Though Watt himself cops to taking more of a “Minutemen clone” approach to the project, this seems to have been more due in part to the specific musical situation (revolving around the trio format of bass, guitar and drums) than anything else. Thus, though the album does bear Watt’s unique presence on it, many of the songs have a flavor unto themselves that sound natural to the project.
In fact, Watt also spoke about how he approaches any specific project he participates in. “I never was one about cherry pickin’ bands,” Watt stated. “Maybe it’s because I got into music to be a musician, to be with friends. So I pick people to play in projects from their personality, their character.” When I asked him about the chemistry factor, he said:
That’s what makes the projects distinctive and not just generic. I really try—and even though I write the shit—to make it a kind of product of chemistry, the situation of the guys that I’m playing with. So il sogno del marinaio is a trio, Minutemen is a trio, but I still think they’re distinctive, because I really try to get into the guys I’m there with, make it organic that way. Then it’s not just this name game around me doing the same ol’ thing on bass.
This approach is likely at the heart of how Mike Watt makes music, not just these days, but since his first pluck. To this day, he maintains that he is still in style, substance, or elsewise, “D. Boon’s bassist.” To hear him tell it, it is plain to see The Minutemen made Watt the bassist he is—and likewise, the modes of musical invention he employed with The Minutemen are the very same he currently uses with his own projects, whether it be as part of his long-time dueling bass combo with former Black Flag basslady Kira Rosseler, called Dos, or as “the classic sideman” for J. Mascis and The Fog. For him it is about getting that dialogue—or due to his penchant for the trio format—“triologue” going.
This is perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Watt’s view on his projects, and despite his many successes he never wants to stop growing as an artist. He says, “I still see myself as a student in the little classroom—and that’s what each project is—for me to learn in, even though I’ve got ideas, and I’m asking those guys to take direction. This is about music—making an interesting conversation.”
These days, the foremost classroom in which Watt finds himself as a pupil is of course his now nearly ten-year run as bassist for Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Though I begun by pointing out to him that his tenure for the Stooges has eclipsed the tenures of all the previous Stooges bassmen combined, Watt was also quick to point out that this is also the longest he has been in a project of any kind, including The Minutemen and fIREHOSE.
Within the next few days, Watt, Iggy, and the rest of The Stooges were going to be rehearsing their set before heading out on a spring tour, as well as readying a new album for 2013, entitled Ready To Die. Watt reflected on not only the surreal aspects of playing the same songs off Fun House and Raw Power that he “used to enjoy as a boy,” but also the complementary effects of Stooge-dom:
It’s quite an honor. Talk about a classroom, incredibly interesting people: Ig about culture, Ronnie about history, Scotty about nature, Steve about politics, James Williamson—he’s been very nice to me, too—he seems to be more technology, because he’s spent a lot of time with electronics. And then all of them about music. They’re all very interesting and from a world I didn’t come from—the ’60s. I was only a boy in the ’60s. I don’t know the world they know.
Clearly for Watt, even as a “middle-aged punk rocker,” there is still a lot to learn. To his credit though, Watt is no slouch when it comes to culture, as it has been thoroughly documented that his solo work has incorporated echoes from such literary figures as James Joyce and Dante Alighieri, as well as painters such as Hieronymus Bosch, whose imagery provided much of the inspiration for 2011’s hyphenated-man. Still, in all likelihood, the ever humble Watt would likely credit the process of coming across these sources of extra-musical inspiration to his interactions as a younger man with friends like D. Boon, and artist Raymond Pettibon—the man responsible for much of artwork behind Black Flag and other SST label bands—who introduced him to things like the Dadaist art movement. In turn, Watt learned how to incorporate the spirit of these diverse influences into not only his spiels, but his bass playing, as well.
When asked about the importance of these kinds of influences in creating tunes or, in the case of an album like hyphenated-man, “operas,” Watt candidly explained, “The thing about musical influences is that I’m kinda paranoid about ripping people off. When you’re doing something with a writer, Mr. Joyce, Mr. Bosch, a painter, you have to translate that because it’s not out-and-out music, and so I feel a little more secure in not being such a fucking rip-off appropriator.”
On this day, Watt’s current literary kick seemed to be Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he said he admired for its sense of a bigger idea. “He wrote and self-published the poem to try and stop the Civil War,” Watt explained. And again, this insight provides another facet to the cult of Watt. It seems as though his entire career has been built, in a sense, on the idea of a “minute,” as in diminutive man, having big ideas. This was in fact the perspective he took when the name “Minutemen” was first suggested for the band. Big ideas were the things missing from music at the time of arena rock for Watt, and punk rock served as the reactionary force. In this sense, Watt acknowledges that the legacy of The Minutemen, and the punk scene at that time, as continuing the tradition of D.I.Y. from a figure like Whitman.
Still, part of being in that tradition is passing along the lineage, so when I asked about the culture of “Econo” and DIY in today’s scene, Watt was adamant: “We do have more tools now, but the ethics are still the same. If you don’t want autonomy or a filter, the situation exists now that you don’t have to deal with that.” We talked about how “connected” we are in today’s world in terms of how media can be shared between bands and their fans, but I also pointed out that in the current climate of the recording industry, the other side of the “Econo” equation—that of extensive and expansive touring—is coming back into a more important light.
This is no surprise to Watt though, who philosophized that, “Putting on a performance is 99.9% of what music is. Putting it down on a piece of media just wasn’t done before. It was always done for people.” Clearly for Watt, punk rock anticipated this change, and for his and The Minutemen’s purposes:
It made us think about deciding everything again, to question everything that was a priori, everything that we took for granted. Me and D. Boon thought about the world. It’s divided into two categories, there’s fliers and gigs. And the gig is the main thing, because that’s what blew our minds. We saw that, it was very profound. Live is still where you have most control over the situation. And so everything—a record, a picture, a video—was to get people to that situation.
This is not to say Watt has lost appreciation for the recorded form, as he concluded that the idea of “leaving works” is an equally honored tradition in culture, and he even metaphorized the difference between the two by explaining, “Live music is like a fossil and records, since they are a medium, are like a sculpture—a pyramid.” For him, his punk hey-day was all about living in “the moment” and, as he terms it, “Getting things in as quickly and as much as possible.” Watt said he has come to re-appreciate The Minutemen records after staying away from them for an extended period after D. Boon’s untimely death in 1985. In fact, he only truly returned to the recordings a few years back while participating in 2005’s terrific documentary, We Jam Econo: The Story of The Minutemen.
Basically, many of the words that came out of Mike Watt’s mouth during our nearly two-hour conversation seemed to bear this transcendent sense of interconnectedness, that in some small way, it felt as though the very interview we were conducting was allied in the larger story of Watt. He humorously recalled the first song he ever wrote, entitled “Mr. Bass, King of Outer Space”, which as he explained, was about a bass player who played so loud, he blew all of his bandmates off the stage. Even here, at his most anecdotal, one can sense the experience of writing that song somehow affected how he related to his instrument, an understanding which inevitably shifted as part of The Minutemen, where he pondered “the politics of [his] machine,” as he termed it.
And even after talking to Watt for only a few minutes, it was clear he is still growing and discovering. He offered a perfect aphorism for this mode, stating, “The only thing that is new is you finding out about it.” One imagines that as Watt learns, he incorporates it into his art, which then gets cycled back into his personal philosophy. With that in mind, his history has such a staggeringly open-source feel to it, and this level of transparency signifies the true honesty and beauty of his art.
On “History Lesson Part II” from Double Nickels on the Dime, D. Boon sings, “My stories could be his songs.” Though the line is referring to Bob Dylan, to me, Watt has manifested this line—in the sense that his stories are his songs, and he has in some way lived every spiel. When I asked him about the nature of his persona, Watt answered pragmatically:
I feel more comfortable being Mike Watt the bass player than being Mike Watt in the bass player role. I got into this scene, played bass in this scene, I don’t really have another life. I kayak by myself, I spend a lot of time by myself, but I am still part of this scene. I think there are about ten billion ways to be part of the punk scene, and mine is not the definitive way. I owe the movement a lot.
And to me, this facet is the most inspiring thing about a figure like Watt, something that transcends his status as an independent musical icon. You are given something, be it a gift or an opportunity. You not only make the most of it, but you contribute and ensure that it is shared for the future. His ends have now become means for others. His songs have become our stories—look no further than the words you are reading—and one would guess the reverse is true, as well.
So, whether he’s on-stage thudding the bass next to a manic Iggy Pop, hosting his excellent Watt from Pedro radio show, kayaking somewhere on the California coast or rolling up to a San Pedro coffee house in his trusty Econoline van at nine o’clock on the dot, it is clear Mike is perpetually, and unapologetically, Watt. There really is an almost poetic quality to it all—the man and the myth existing as one and the same. For someone who has come and gone from Torrance to Torino, to hell and back (read “The Illness” on his hoot page for proof) all while being a “minute” man with big ideas, it is truly a unique gift to be granted a porthole-sized glimpse into the panoramic wilderness that is Mike Watt’s personal and professional history to date.
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