When you consider any instrument there are certain players so unique and singular that they almost redefine how the instrument is approached. In the realm of the bass guitar and Punk, Mike Watt arguably was the player who most pushed himself and his instrument into new levels while smacking folks silly with his energetic and melodic fretboard gymnastics. Watt first made his name as one third of the Minutemen and in his hands the bass wasn’t merely something that played behind the guitar, it was a lead instrument that would be in a virtual wrestling match with Guitarist D. Boon’s virtuosity and drummer George Hurley’s manic drums. That was many many years ago, back before many of you readers were even born, but in the years since, Watt has refused to slow down or rest on his Punk elder-statesman’s laurels. Instead he has kept the four strings flyin’ with an exhaustive schedule that reflect his passion for the instrument, his love of music, and his commitment to punk as being more than just a musical genre.
Your recent solo albums you called Operas, in that they have a narrative element. How did you come to approach them in that manner?
Mike -I have three: “contemplating the engine room” (1997, about the minutemen using my pop’s life in the navy as a parallel, “the secondman’s middle stand” (2004, about a sickness that ‘pert-near killed me using Dante’s “commedia” as a parallel and “hyphenated-man” (2011, about being middle-age punkrocker using imagery from Hieronymus Bosch).
I got into this format ‘cuz I just couldn’t say what I wanted to say with a simple couple of minute song – I need a big song (album length) made of many parts. “A Quick One” from Pete Townshend was an inspiration as opposed to something like his “Tommy.”
I don’t have a fourth one planned. My next album will be a collection of songs about work with my Secondmen.
Unlike your two previous albums, hyphenated-man, while it works quite well as a whole, had no narrative structure per-se and the songs were quite short. Why the change from the previous albums and how was the process different?
Mike -It has narrative but not the same beginning/middle/end journey of a narrative like my first two operas. I made this one all middle so actually in a perfect world you would hear all the parts at the same time to get at what I’m trying to say as a whole. it’s like thirty pieces of mirror were shoved in my head at the same time and the piece is those reflections, same w/the music. Since I was using some minutemen elements, I wanted to respect my two colleagues (D. Boon and Georgie) and not rip them off so I decided to make the libretto in the very most NOW and not in the past – minutemen in their day would never sing about middle age punk rockers. I am not “recounting a tale” w/this piece, I’m trying to be as thinking out loud in the moment about what is going on with me.
You’ve been touring but hyphenated-man was released quite a while back. Why such a long delay in new material?
Mike - It’s been out only two years and this is the fourth tour of it. I wanted as many folks to see it as possible before I put it to bed. Think about trying to do that and you’ll understand why there is no delay; I’m working very hard for this piece.
This tour is about me playing the piece. It’s only the second time I’ve brought it to Houston. We know it much better now than the first time so I’m eager to bring it to the gig-goers. I don’t think people will be disappointed. We’ve had very happening response[s]. It took all these gigs to add up to what it is now. It was a very difficult piece to get a handle on.
What else are you working on now?
Mike - I’ve already told you about The Secondmen Project… In December I’ll record the second album by the Hand to Man Band who has John Dieterich (Deerhoof) and Thollem McDonas (Tsigoti) again but with a new drummer. I have an album coming out in January that was recorded a couple years ago Italy with two Italian musicians (Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia) and will tour in Europe in February [and] March. The band is called Il Sogno del Marinaio. I have Stooges touring coming up soon after that and have recorded bass for new stuff James Williamson has [been] writing with him then sending it on to Ig to make into songs with words. I have a Black Gang (band that last toured my first opera) album w/Nels Cline and Bob Lee I have to mix. I will also record again with Nels Cline in a new project with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) and Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos) soon as we all get the chance. After all this, I’m gonna make an album with my Secondmen (the bass/organ/drums trio I used for my second opera) with a collection of songs about work. Oh, I still have to finish a duet album I did with Jim O’Rourke in Tokyo…
Man, I’m exhausted just listening to that list. The Stooges… How has that experience for you been and how does it fit with the whole Mike Watt narrative?
Mike - I’ve played with The Stooges now for nine and a half years, mainly summer time at outdoor festivals in Europe. It’s the third time I’ve worked for someone – first time was three tours with Porno For Pyros in 1996, then with J Mascis in The Fog in 2000-2001. All three situations have helped me become a better bass player. They all are righteous classrooms and I have so much respect for these cats, truly. This tour I’m on is like Minutemen days – I will always have love for power trios and doing what I did with D. Boon. Life I’ve learned is about taking turns so it’s OK [when] the two situations contrast. For example, if I ask Tom and Raul to take direction, shouldn’t there be a time when I should do the same?
You do the Mike from Pedro show (it’s fun stuff by the way). How did that start up and how has that been going?
Mike - I try to do it once a week but it’s tough on tour. I was a guest DJ and then had a regular slot on a pirate station in Silver Lake, California (hence the name of my show cuz I don’t live in Silver Lake but San Pedro, about twenty-seven miles south, in the harbor) called KBLT and after it was shut down by the government I was offered to have my own show streamed on the internet by a company that hosts web sites when I konked at their pad during a gig stop in their town (Portland). I don’t play much mersh stuff but rather stuff folks give me at gigs and stuff.
It seems that you are in a particularly unique position as an artist. On the one hand you are very active, are a widely respected musician, and you have this ramshackle, good natured energy that hasn’t seemed to wane in all these years. But at the same time there is the legacy of The Minutemen which, because of the tragic nature of its demise, always seems to lurk in the background. Does that legacy, which will always seem like an unfinished book, weigh down on your work or perhaps in how people choose to approach it?
Mike - Life deals you a hand and I believe you have to try and play it the best you can. I wanna try and stay a student for life. I have feelings and try not deny them but I am at the same time very curious about so very much.
One last question, you’ve been at this for quite a while and you still hold this punk rock banner aloft. Some would argue that punk has been bought and sold over the last couple of decades. So, why does that flag still matter in this day and age?
Mike - Johnny Rotten said something like that at the last sex pistols gig, I think so it’s not such a new or interesting question. Yes, Pat Boone sold more “Tutti Fruity” than Little Richard and yes that was ‘pert-near sixty years ago. Punk is not a style for me but a state of mind. If only the Berlin Walls were just physical and not actually stuck in our heads.
Thank you, Mike.
Mike - Thank you much for having me aboard.
Monday October 29, 2012
Mike Watt + The Missingmen – 2nd Heapin’ Helpin’ U.s. Tour 2012 with Rivers
8pm, all ages
$12 Pre-sale, $14 Day-of, $16 Box Office
Correction: Originally, the subtitle of the photo erroneously identified this as Mike Watt and the Secondmen.