Mike Watt has changed the way folks play bass, which he calls thud staffs, and the way independent bands approach touring, pioneering a fiercely low budget, self-directed style of gigging with The Minutemen, the seminal punk-jazz-whatever band he co-founded in the early 80s in San Pedro, CA, where he still resides. Earthy and erudite, an artist and an iconoclast, Watt has helped keep music interesting for the past 30 years, playing in countless projects including beloved successor to the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, as a member of the reunited Stooges, low end anchor in funksters Banyan and more and more and more. Watt is a doer, a guy who gets muck under his nails because he’s unafraid to try things, to stretch, to taste and see what can be. His sideman work has taken him everywhere from Porno For Pyros to a few cuts for Kelly Clarkson, a range and open-mindedness that the Impound finds ‘punker’ than any haircut or hard-line stance taken simply for the sake of it.
Watt’s a survivor who’s found new ways to survive and thrive over the decades. His latest move is running his own label, clenchedwrench, which has released two albums this year – hyphenated-man (released March 1) – his third punk-opera inspired by his Minutemen experiences and painter Hieronymus Bosch and the first studio work with his current band The Missingmen – and dos y dos (released July 12), his fourth duo recording with longtime collaborator Kira Roessler (Twisted Roots, Sexsick, Black Flag). The pair of new releases offers a decent picture of the wide spaces and freedom loving ways of Mike Watt, raging and slinging expletives with the best of them one minute and swaying beatifically with only another empathetic thud stick for company the next. Predictions about what Watt will create long ago proved a fool’s errand except the near-certainty that whatever he comes up with will reward the un-lazy, non-homogenized listener. For all the variety he’s exhibited over the years, there’s never been a moment where one doubted his integrity, consummate skill or gusto to try new things. All that’s in place (and then some) on dos ys dos and hyphenated-man, which served as the launching pads for our conversation.
You just wrapped the hyphenated-man tour, where you were playing the entire album every night.
I just did it 51 times in 52 days. I know it a little better now [laughs]. I’ve done it 68 times.
That seems daunting given that this isn’t easy music.
No, but it’s not an easy point in my life and the music is supposed to be reflective of that. I wanted to do that Minuteman style again – which we got from Wire’s Pink Flag album – but I didn’t want to do some Happy Days nostalgia trip. I think the only way I keep learning is to make shit too hard to play [laughs].
That’s a great attitude! I was thinking the other day about the challenge of just keeping all this music straight in your head so you can access it and present it to an audience – 30 tracks just flying out in a rush.
Well, they all go together like one song in my head. People probably don’t see any connection between them, just see them as a collection of songs, but actually it’s one big tune. It’s just the nuts and bolts of remembering the different parts, the way they weave into each other. I was also trying to mess with the opera thing because it’s hard to get Tom [Watson – guitars] and Raul [Morales – drums] to play all 30 parts at once, so I did put one before the other. If I had my way we’d almost be playing all 30 at once. There are little cycles because of the linear nature of having to do one thing after another, little miniature cycles I put in musically and word-wise. Some of the words, something like “Mouse-Headed-Man,” make no sense on their own.
Context is everything with this record. The more I listen to it, the more that hits home.
I did do two changes from the way I originally wrote it. Right at the end, I was in the studio with Tony [Mamione – engineer, mixer] and I said, “I can’t end this with ‘Man-Shitting-Man.’ The last part is a statement for the whole thing, and I wanted it to be like a wheel and circular. It’s like a Hieronymous Bosch painting, where you read from left to right and right is the last judgment, and I didn’t feel comfortable about that. So, I told him, “Let’s take the middle song and put it at the end.” Then, I needed a new middle song, a new hub, I had one instrumental song to use. In my second opera [The Secondman’s Middle Stand (2004)] I end with “Pelicanman,” and pelicans have no song. But I thought, “Some truths have no words to them, and I should do something like that.” So, I thought of maybe doing something like that but [hyphenated-man] is too much about the real world so I decided they should all be befouled by words. So, I came up with a poem in St. Petersberg and I hooked that up with the instrumental in the middle and it became “Pinned-To-The-Table-Man.” Those were the two changes I made, but for most of it I tried to be in the moment because this part of my life was interesting and I wanted to write about it, even though I used a device from 30 years ago and I had this painter Hieronymous Bosch to give me titles for all the parts and keep me focused.
One thing a lot of people miss – probably because it’s not that obvious – is the connection to the Wizard of Oz movie. It struck me while I was at my mom’s [house] and my sister was over for some Christmas thing, and I noticed when [Dorothy] comes back she’s looking at the farmhands and says, “You were there and you were there,” and they were the Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man and The Scarecrow. My take on it is it’s a coming of age story where she’s tripping on what guys do to be guys [laughs], which had a big strong resonance with this big ol’ middle-aged man – what’s it all about and these things on a chromosome level. I was kinda hitting on this in the second opera, where there are three men songs. I was starting to feel weird, middle-age type things, even though that was about almost dying. I almost got killed my pneumonia 20 years before that but I never even wrote one song about it.
That’s weird especially given it happened at an age when you’re writing a lot for the first time
As a younger man you’re more resilient and stuff’s not as heavy.
You feel you can get past anything. Things don’t linger as much. I’m 43 now and it’s different.
You know when you get hurt now it’s a lot different. You’re not as resilient.
Was it great for you to finally process this time in your life and set it down in some structured way?
That was the whole mission. That’s the whole reason I put The Missingmen together in 2006. I’d just got done touring the second opera and I was touching on these things I needed to deal with…whatever…issues as part of the journey.
Here’s another example: In my forties I started rereading all the books I read in my twenties. Not all of them but Ulysses, On The Road, The Divine Comedy, and they seemed to be way different. The words never changed – it was the same words those guys wrote – but there’s a parallel to that sickness and that pneumonia when I was 22. You’re in that same place but you feel different. It’s okay. You have experiences you don’t have as a younger man. Yeah, you have a less resilient body but all this stuff adds up to different perspectives. It’s interesting and not a total bummer, even if we’re taught it’s supposed to be the total freakout time.
I’m enjoying a greater perspective on my life in my forties even if I’m more physically vulnerable and more acutely aware of my mortality.
At the same time, one of the bottom lines in this new opera is you’re still a student. We think the student phase is only the young part of our lives and then you become, I don’t know, too good for learnin’ [laughs]. Actually, if you’re sensitive to things, you’re always a student. Everybody’s got something to teach.
Your evolution as an artist reflects this notion. You’ve never really stopped putting yourself into different settings, from the Minutemen and fIREHOSE to Banyan and The Missingmen. You seem to have an innate curiosity about what you can do with music.
Especially with the bass! It’s like that pamphlet says, “What is to be done?” That’s an interesting place to be in your life. It fights off hubris and cynicism and these dark things we are prone to being jaded, and it’s not healthy.
Not at all, and that darkness comes through in music whether the artists express it lyrically or not. It’s there when musicians become comfortable and offer only what they already know works – regurgitation, variations on a theme. I’m always interested in artists willing to fall and get their face bloodied. They make the effort and for the times they don’t succeed there are many where they do. You can feel their excitement in their work.
Oh yeah? Well, I’m into that. I like that idea. You don’t want to work for the shtick and become an I Love Lucy rerun. This week’s it’s mayonnaise, next week it’s pizzas. Even though that was a great show, you can imagine it wore on them after a while. Life is a journey, and it’s kind of an abstraction to keep it in a holding pattern like that.
The idea of innovation is kind of trippy because I don’t think it’s always coming up with something new for the sake of something new. It’s complicated. For example, writing a novel. You can write a very original novel without ever inventing one new word. Mr. Faulkner did it, very surreal stuff, without spacey words. It’s actually down home stuff and still very imaginative.
His folksiness is impressive. He taps into deep, deep stuff while maintaining a workaday sensibility. You don’t have to be a scholar to understand he’s tapping into God, The Devil, Mortality.
Yeah, yeah, all the big dealio of being alive, just realizing it and trippin’ on it. That’s part of the reason I don’t even go to the 5-string bass. There’s so much to learn with the 4-string. People ask me why I don’t learn other instruments. They want me to make a record where I play everything, which is probably the logical extension of the artiste, right?
I guess, though there’s a strong tendency towards self-indulgence in that setting.
Someone gave me The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, and this guy did everything! But a lot of it is hot air. You can tell the guy bullshitted his way through things. But there’s something about learning things you can’t learn being the boss. You can’t learn everything always being the boss. There’s a lot of interesting politics to my machine. Even though I write the songs, I’m still backing my guys up. I like it. I look good making them look good [laughs].
I’ve been seeing you play since I was a teenager and right through to today you’ve always struck me as someone who thrives in contact with other people, when your molecules are bouncing off the other guys onstage. Not every musician seems to enjoy that aspect and you seem fully engaged in that environment.
There was something righteous about playing with D. Boon and I can kinda get back to that when I’m with guys who are open enough to give everything they’ve got and fucking throw the tiara off, or we’re in the boat with Ahab going after the whale. You just get caught up in it, and there’s something about that I just dig. Whenever you’ve got more than one guy playing it’s an interesting conversation, but you’re losing or surrendering a little bit of the me, me, me. But it’s okay because you’re creating this thing that can’t exist otherwise. You’re not surrendering to a person; you’re surrendering to this being.
There’s actually a poem by Robert Bly I like that’s about marriage and he talks about this “third person” that sits between a couple that’s built by what they share. A band…
…is just like that! Well, and then there’s dos. 25 years we’ve been doing it, and the band was built on the premise that it not be regularly done and we can shirk some responsibilities about hierarchy and just go at it on even footing. Because we’re conscious of physics and our machines align in a narrow space, we have to really think about composition.
Bass Player Magazine asked me about the future of the bass – more and more strings, more and more notes – and actually I think it is composition. Because of our narrowness…think of punk, where the limitations open other doors. Because of the physical things on the bass, when I write things for other people on bass I leave them lots of room. I think there’s a lot of content with guitar and piano, and with the bass there’s rhythm, lots of stops and starts, but I think of it as a springboard. Now, back to the dos thing, the thing we were trying to do is springboard off each other, but there are limitations. There’s no drummer or other stuff, but at the same time, there’s none of that to get in the way. It’s an honest look at what we can play at each other.
That conversation thing really comes to fore on the new dos album, which I find really wonderfully meditative. I only want to listen to it when I can focus on it and nothing else.
This is the record where K made a big change in her life for her career. She went from computer programming to sound editing for movies and television. She taught herself the shit and won herself an Emmy last year for the John Adams mini-series. That’s the kind of woman she is. But she had to make sacrifices like not as much music, and dos became her whole music. So, K is very serious about it. It’s not just something on the side for her…though it’s not just something on the side for me either. I just use a lot of my dos experience when I go to other projects and this goes way back. I remember the first fIREHOSE songs were all dos songs. I didn’t know Edward [Crawford, guitar & vocals]. I didn’t grow up with him or anything, so I just threw him these dos songs to see what he’d do with them.
I use dos, in a way, because of the way we have to become involved in the compositions to build these things on not-such-traditional stuff. Music’s music but for us this is out of tradition. We’re supposed to be with a drummer laying down a foundation, and all that’s gone. We have to try and express our voices in different ways.
You’re extremely exposed in dos. Your music is put under a scrutiny unlike any other project.
On the other side of it, when people bring up the bass it’s often a virtuoso thing and we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to surrender to the idea of a band and not just prop up showoffs. On purpose, K, and I agreed with her, said we should keep it to the type of things kids could hum and not just show off some things with the fingers.
There are passages on the new record that are really beautiful. Instrumental music is great in its rawness like that. Nothing is scripted for you, so the images and feelings it conjures for you are unique to each listener.
Words bring in all these signifiers. Without them, sounds and rhythms are given freedom, unless you do the Big Ben bells or something [laughs]. The last one on Kill Rock Stars [Justamente Tres (1996)] had more words, so I asked her with this one, “Why don’t we try less words this time?” and she said okay.
Is it fun to be that exposed on some level, to operate outside your comfort zone for an entire record?
It’s a parrot-shitter but in the long run it’s worth it. It’s like a young man really going for it on a skateboard. You don’t get it if you stand there all calm. It makes you listen and makes you sensitive to the person you’re playing with and not just running down a set of instructions. You really have to be in the moment. It’s an interesting way to connect with her, and we’re probably tighter now than we’ve ever been in our lives. Music is a unique fabric that connects human, and one of the few non-tyrannical connections.