The Mike Watt Interview!
Interview By Blake Iverson and M. Stobaugh
Article by M. Stobaugh Satchmo1978@hotmail.com
I bang on the door of Minneapolis' 7th Street Entry (the smaller room at First Avenue) and see Mike Watt's head with dark sunglasses appears in the murky glass square of the door. "I can't open this door, come around to First Ave," he says, muffled by the heavy door. We meet around the corner and he starts telling us about his route.
"In the fall I like to go clockwise, get out of the north before it's too cold. Wait for the south to cool down. In the spring I like to go counterclockwise. South thaws out first... Where's a good place to chow?" Places are discussed and unfortunately we decide on a corporate run mexican place where they run clapping to your table and sing happy birthday.
Mike Watt was in the Minutemen in the early 80's, fIREHOSE in the late 80's and early 90's, and then went solo in 95. He's worked with countless other people on countless other projects including Dos with Kira (from Black Flag), Porno For Pyros, Banyan with Stephen Perkins, and last year's J. Mascis and the Fog tour. He's been called the Johnny Cash of punk rock and he's a legend in the field.
First thing Watt does after we've been seated at the restaurant is grab the tape recorder on the table and hit record. He is eager to get things going. Sound check is waiting.
"Hello. It's September 28, 2001 and I'm Watt and we're in Minneapolis at some very mersh, jive place, but I'm happy to speak with some f-- What's your names?"
Introductions are made. Watt repeats our names after we tell them to him.
Watt: What's on your minds?
Blake: Is your health back to where you want it to be?
W: Getting there. Better than I was last year.
B: Last year you seemed kind of--
W: Look at that! (Pointing out a bicycle outside with no wheels that is chained to a sign) I love bikes. That was the greatest thing about getting well or better was getting to pedal again. In fact, I'm making a record in december. You're probably gonna ask this so I'll tell ya anyway. So, it's kind of based on my sickness and kinda loosely tied into this guy named Dante, around 1300, wrote a thing called Divine Comedy. Had a hell, purgatory and heaven. Well the sickness is the hell, the purgatory is the healin', and the paradise is gettin' to ride my bike and gettin to work my little bass. it's called the Second Man's Middle Stand. It's gonna be a different kind of thing for me. It's gonna be a trio, but it's gonna be bass, drums, and organ.
B: When can we expect an organ tour? Spring?
W: Yeah, Course, when it comes out. I'm gonna put it out the first week of April. D. Boon was born--
B: Will it be out on Columbia?
W: Yeah. On April first, so that's a good day for me. Without D. Boon I wouldn't be doing any of this. Very key in my life. Even sixteen years later. Without that... well, just everything about him. I wouldn't have hardly any meaning even, let alone work bass for people.
Matt: In the Minutemen you did some Credence (Clearwater Revival) covers--
W: Yeah. That was very crucial for me and D. Boon. When I met D. Boon, y'know, we were thirteen and he didn't really know rock. The only rock band he'd heard was Credence. That's why I wear flannels. I didn't wear one today, I wore a shirt I got with J. in Texas...for some reason. I'll wear a purple flannel tomorrow.
B: For Minneapolis.
W: Well, First Avenue, y'know.
M: So, why do you think that Credence fit so well with the punk and indie rock bands?
W: For us it was very important. I don't know about the other bands. For us it was a very real connection. Y'know, John Fogerty-- I didn't realize that Flannels were farmer shirts. I was raised in Navy housing, my dad was a sailor...So, I thought John Fogerty just had the best rock n roll shirts. I just thought "Woah! this guy looks different." And I think one way-- I mean, to theorize on their impression-- is that they didn't use a lot of notes and scales, smoke and mirrors so to say, to tell stories. In fact a song like "Keep on Chooglin'" has one chord. Very simple songs, so I could see it relatin' to it like that. In a way it's a reinventin of a music kinda already done. Scotty Moore and all this. Little Richard voice. I don't know. For us it was very real roots and we learned every song they played. And then when Minutemen come along. We did a lot of-- We would twist 'em around too. The only faithful one we ever did was "Have You Ever Seen The Rain." All the other ones we kinda tweaked up. Like on Double Nickels we do a Curtis Mayfield version of "Don't Look Now." James Brown version of "Fortunate Son."
B: With D. Boons guitar style, you're given a lot of room melodically.
W: D. Boons guitar style has about 99% to do with my bass style. If people ask me what kind of bass player I am I tell them I'm D. Boon's bass player. I couldn't really hear bass when I was a boy. His momma made me play it, in fact. She wanted us to have a band. Not really to do for a living or anything. 'Member, we're in the seventies. We graduated high school in '76. But, more like to keep us in the house after school. We lived in the projects, after Navy housing, my mom didn't want to move anymore. So, we moved out into the projects in Pedro. That's where I meet D. Boon. It wasn't like it is now days with the guns, but it was pretty rough. So, I think it was a way to keep us in the house. Like an econo child care or something. ... When I was a boy D. Boon's mom made me play bass. "Watt, I want you to play bass." I didn't even know what they were. Ya gotta understand it's seventies. Gigs in those days were like arenas, bass looked like a guitar. I couldn't even tell they had bigger strings. I couldn't really hear on records. Ya saw it on ever album in the credits. Cats like Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Geezer Butler, these are the cats that are gettin the-- James Jamerson, on the Motown records-- When I finally figured out it was a lower thing...I mean, I played a guitar with four strings for a couple years. I didn't even know they had bigger strings, I thought they had thinner necks. So, my sense of bass, how it fit music, was from no background. Music is a lot more accessible now to people. Y'know, you can go to guitar center and there's videos. In those days, ya gotta understand, you bought guitars in the thrift store or where they sold records and there wasn't so much gear. It was a much more closed kind of thing. So, we were idiots. As far as music goes we had to stumble to find out all this stuff. So my style-- lack of style, whatever-- comes about just trying to fit in with D. Boon. So you take D. Boon out of the equation and I am a very bizarre bass player. It doesn't kinda make sense. These cats somehow see-- I had a friend who told me-- She told me, well, you make the bass sing. Which is hard to imagine. Y'know, the bass singing. So, I leave it up to other people. In the case of the Porno cats and J. Mascis, what's in their mind, y'know. For me that experience was very important because I'm usually always the boss in my music situation since D. Boon days. After those days. And so, you can't learn everything always being boss. Being El Hefe, y'know. Sometimes it's good to take direction, too, and that's why I did those situations. Y'know, I didn't really want to burden the situation any with how I fit in. These guys saw me-- It's kinda hard to dream by committee anyway. So, I don't really know how to answer that stuff.
M: How have your touring conditions changed since the days with the Minutemen?
W: Oh, shit. I lost D. Boon! Touring changed completely. Like I was saying earlier, I have a lot of that momentum. I still feel that momentum from all those years ago. All through Pyros, all through these projects I do since I was-- So the biggest change is having him missing. Since Firehose I haven't had a band. I really liked Firehose and seven and a half years of that I haven't really felt the need to put together a band. What I do is I put groups of guys around projects. Kind of the Ballhog, y'know, the wrestling record, was like a test for me. For the bass player. Like my theory was if the bass player knew the songs, anybody could come play. Drums, guitar, whatever. So, I continue to do that. Luckily, about L.A., one of the good things, is there's a lot of cats playing. This guy here on drums is a long shore man. He lives in Pedro. Tom's Permosa (Hermosa?) beach. Y'know, L.A.'s actually 140, 150 towns. So, we're spread out and stuff. I'm kinda lucky that way. So that's the situation I never did. In the old days, you stuck with your own guys. The only other band I had, like "side band," was Dos and I've had that sixteen, seventeen years now. We're making a fourth album for kill rock stars. That situation completely changed. And there was processes, it wasn't just the Minutemen ended, it was Firehose ending. The big difference between nowadays and Minutemen days is no D. Boon. Also, it's not new for me. We were young punk rockers, there's always a difference if you've been around a little. What Perry called it was the child's eye and I try to keep that with me. But I can' ignore it. Like why I called it the Middle Stand, y' know. Hopefully it's not the end days, but I'm definitely not a beginner. So, I'm somewhere in the middle. That's always gonna be different than being first. Although, I try to keep those ethics I learned right away and the enthusiasm, I do try to keep that up and not try to become jaded or cynical. I gotta say, it is a little different. This is my forty-eighth tour... but y'know, forty-eight more.
B: What's up with the WildRatttz record? Is that gonna come out or...?
W: I did that like three and a half years ago. We're gonna try to get it out this spring or summer. Believe me, I really want it out. Ron Asheton, hero for me growing up... gettin to play with him. Amazing. Thurston. Mark Arm and-- so, I'm chompin at the bit. It's done, it's in the can. What happened? There was a merger with Polygram and London and all this. So now we're tying to get it out on Mr. Shelley's label, Thurston's Ecstatic Peace. I think Orson Welles said "no whining before it's time." A lot of people ask me about it and I'm just as impatient as they are. I'm sorry.
B: I have that Lil' Pit seven inch that you play upright on.
W: We just did four more songs.
B: Do you like playing the upright?
W: Yeah, but it's hard. Y'know, cause I played so long and also, like one of the reasons I use this little bass now, is my hands got sore-- I'm gonna be forty-four in December. I mean, that ain't old, but I'm just gettin' so hurt. I couldn't even hold the steering wheel. So, I went to the lil' bass, that's 30 and a half inch. It's called an EB-3. It looks like a SG guitar I guess. Fender P-bass is 34 inch. Standard-- even though it's three quarter, it's 41 inch, but instead of sideways it's up and down. I really like it. We'll have more Lil' Pit. I'm gonna put those two songs with these four songs and maybe we'll record more and do a whole album. I was thinking of an EP. Again, time.
B: Do you have anymore projects with people coming up?
W: Yeah, I got the DOS album, mixin' the Lil' Pit, my organ record. I'm gonna make an album after that with the Black Gang: Bob Lee and Nels Cline. Written a bunch of songs. I want to make an album with these guys too, down the road. I got a Stooges band in Pedro called We Go Speedro with two longshoremen. I'm gonna write them some songs, too. Especially since my sickness. I mean, I been doin' a lot of gigs, but I wanna really get back to makin' records again. I really feel that's where I've been lacking. It's hard to do when you're playin' and tourin'.
M: Is there gonna be a J. Mascis and the Fog live album?
W: He told me he's thinkin on it, workin on it. He's makin' a new record now, too.
B: So, he's recovering pretty well then?
W: Y'know what, he just wrote me an e-mail and he told me that this war shit is hurtin' him more than that accident did. He's really upset. Yeah, but luckily the back injury wasn't in his spine. So, he's healin' up OK. He's a sweetie. He's a big inspiration. He's much younger than I am though.
B: Did you ever get frustrated-- When we saw you guys, you had one stack and he had two or three--
W: He's really loud. It's hard to deal with.
B: It's weird. You bring in one of the greatest bass players and then turn up so loud that you can't hear him. We were standing right in front and we couldn't hear you at all.
W: Yeah. He's just used to that. We tried playin' lower and it just didn't work, he's used to that. He wears ear plugs. He likes the physicalness of it. I know. That was a trippy thing. But, y'know, I can't run everyone's life. And one of the ideas for working with Mr. J. Mascis was not to be the boss and to take some direction. I think it's good for me. Y'know, it's good for everybody to take turns as the floor boss and the deck hand. Switch roles. Inhale, exhale. I never played with anybody that fuckin' loud in my life. Never seen a gig that loud. When I was on the stage, y'know, it was blowin' past me and it was still loud. Man, I'd feel the shit press my eyeballs-- if I had my eyes closed, it'd press against the lids. If I had 'em open, it'd press against my brain. That was an experience. An even me; I was so loud it didn't sound like I had any tone. (make toneless impression noise) But you know, I wanted to put myself in a situation and I think he did that for me. ...It's not bad though, it's not negative.
M: You're gonna do a Pliers record, too?
W: Yeah, I would like to. Vince, right now, is playing with blues people, but when he gets time free. Like that was my plan last year. Life comes along and gives you blows and you have to roll with it.
Mike Watt has a lot of sayings. When you see him live, he says "much respect" a lot. Not that it's a cop out. He really respects his audience. He says stuff like "If you ain't playin' you're payin'" and "start your own band." Watt's sayings seem to be part of the energy that keeps him going. Then again, there are times when a simple saying is the best way to get through something heavy.
Blake: I know your tour was supposed to start September 11 in San Francisco. Driving around the country are you seeing something tangibly different about America?
Watt: I know the United States was attacked, but there was a lot of people who weren't United States in that building, too, and I really don't believe that this is just a United States problem. Especially if we want to try to help make it better. It's gotta be a world thing. And this god bless America really bothers me. I wish it was more god bless the world. I don't think it's a football game. You can't win this in the fourth quarter. It was very sad for me to go out on the road after all that. That's why I've been wearin' these dark glasses. I don't really talk from the stage about it. Very heavy for me. I talked about it in my diary some. But I gotta tell you from my heart, I want, somehow, love to prevail and not hate to win out, whatever side it's coming from. They think they can pile up enough hate to combat that other hate. All the hate. United States people, seems to me, are pretty confused in some ways. They want something easy, something very simple to make sure things seem correct. If you're thinking the right way or you're behaving the right way-- this is why I've never been to a funeral-- my father's or D. Boon's. You gotta behave a certain way. What's the best way to be sad? Like it's a gig. Some things are just too heavy to be just gigs. Now, gigs can be a trippy thing. It can get some vibe out, I guess, but they can also turn into Nuremburg rallies. I get people who get emotional, not think, and might do things they wouldn't do otherwise. I'm very sad for the world, country, but I'm very optimistic that somehow we can heal something that was hurt and tore. I-- Maybe there's been tearing for a long time. Y'know? Obviously. These guys to take their own lives is a...crazy thing. They believed there was a lot of hurt. It's all this perception stuff. Thinkin' you've got the right thing to do. I wish that I could give you the right answers and stuff, but...can't. My belief inside me is that I just don't want to succumb to the hate. Y'know or racist shit or whatever. I just can't handle it. Especially for someone who's really insecure about themselves, like me, it'd be so easy just to jump on some kind of bandwagon. And then say to myself, "See, I'm a better person than someone else because I picked the right team. I just don't want the worms of bitterness to crawl in. I don't know if that makes sense to you. I don't know.
B: Do you get a lot of people asking you about it? Because you've got sort of a reputation as a populist political thinker?
W: For me, politics has always been about power. How to like deal with that. And I don't really know about the politics of this so much. Seems like there's a lot of things going on at the same time that make me scared. Y'know, I'm really scared of losing civil liberties. I know that sounds rediculous maybe, 'cause people say that war and under attack you should just surrender all that. In some ways I'm thinkin' "If they do that then they--they quote-- maybe win." So, I'm affraid of more attacks. I'm afraid of a lot of different things going on. People judged by some kind of standard-- the name of their songs, or even their band. It's such a big thing for me. So, some people have asked me to wear shirts that say fuck this guy or write death to Afghanistan on my card here. Which in a way is asking me for my opinion, but I tell them, no disrespect, but I don't want to be a part of that. I can't be a part of the hate. Y'know, I'm a tiny man, I don't know if I can help with the love. Y'know, I'm tryin'. That's up to a lot of folks to open up. In this superior here, my big inspiration is John Coltrane. Some guy once was doing an interview with him and this cat asked him "What are you trying to do with your music?" He said "I'm tryin' to uplift people." So, that seems like a good goal for me.
Watt has worked with many, many bands and people. Minutemen, fIREHOSE, J. Mascis, Banyan, Lil' Pit, Dos, and all the projects he puts together. But his stories flow. Watt works one story into a related one into another related one. He throws in a story about playing on the Porno For Pyros album, Good God's Urge that flows quickly into a story about his bass style that goes into the advice his father gave him.
Watt: Perry teaches a song it's very interesting. Y'know he doesn't play. So, he can't tell you the cords or notes. He tells you the story of the song. He says, this ones about Pete's dad having cancer and how Pete would die, give up his life, for his father to live. I thought that was interesting the way he approached it. That's what I always loved about punk. I always thought there was a weird kind of folk element to it. What really inspired me to do my opera, 'cause I thought after that I should tell my story. Me and the Minutemen. So, I don't know if music's always about notes and rhythms. In some ways it is, in other ways, it might have a lot more to it. So, maybe people see something in me, other than notes and...I don't know. Perry used to tell me, he goes, "Watt, you're like the salt of the earth." So, I kind of thought that was a good thing. I try to learn every thing from these kinds of situations. A lot of ways to keep young. I don't want to out think myself, so I just try to do as -- That's something my pop used to say sometimes. "Boy, don't think, do." He was a chief. A chief is like a sargent if it was the army. Like if you enlist, you can't be an officer. You gotta go to college. And officers deal with each other, they go off and get promotions. Chiefs actually tell the guys what to do. Sometimes I-- Understand, he never told me to join. In fact he told me not to join. But I think some of those ethics got on to me.
B: The first time I saw you was in 92 at First Ave opening for the Beastie Boys. What's it like being an opening band in a different genre--
W: I don't believe in genres. It's a tool to make marketing easier. In fact, that's why I think that young people are doing a positive thing, 'cause they're trying to destroy that shit 'cause its jive.
B: I was just thinking that in 92 things weren't quite so open.
W: In 1989, I did a gig with Schooly D in Philidelphia. It was hard to get the gig 'cause everybody was tellin' me "you can't play with him." So, I called him up myself. He came up to me and introduce himself. "My names Jesse." And I played in his town, Philidelphia. I like anarchy. I'm not into genres. Anything I can do to fuck with that concept-- Great. The Beasties are from punk. Y'know, a lot of frat boys wanted to hear License To Ill and they fuck with them by playing their own shit. I think the Beasties are about tryin' to open things up. I'd just want to be part of that. I had problems with Primus. Y'know, Les, big bass player, he wanted to have a bass-heavy band, Watt. Y'know, there's idiots in the crowd can't see any connection. Wrong genre. They come out and play with us. All of a sudden they're like "Wow! What's this about?" But I think that's good to confuse these things. I'm tellin' ya they're-- It's not the kids fault in a lot of ways. It's coming from upstairs and training. Marketing. Corral the ideas. Things are used supposedly to make you free. You don't want to use them as fuckin'...fascist training camps. I don't know.
M: What's your favorite thing about playing music right now?
W: It's what I do, y'know. It's what I do. God, and as a boy I never would a figured on doin' this. I got a degree in electronics...I did this to be with D. Boon. So, I don't feel like it's my god given mission or anything, but this is what I've been doing, it's what I do, and so I just feel kinda driven in a strange way. It ain't really black and white. I wanna--John Coltrane-- uplift people.
One of the questions I've been thinking about for a while had to do with something I once heard on a Minutemen bootleg from a radio broadcast in Atlanta. Either D. Boon or Mike Watt just starts saying "bofus" and they all laugh. What was this hilarious inside joke? What did bofus mean?
"You never heard that joke? There's these two guys traveling around. They got a camera and they see these two girls and they say 'hey, why don't you take our picture. First, you gotta focus.' It's terrible. That goes back to Minutemen days. (laughter). You wanted to know, OK. It could have been forever a mystery." Mike Watt tells a good joke.Updated 10-27-01
Page by M. Stobaugh
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