From the GC Archives: In Search of Mike Watt

From the GC Archives: In Search of Mike Watt

Wednesday, 05 October 2016

In Search of Mike Watt.

By Ollie Ottoman

Photos by Steve Garcia.

Originally conducted on May 1st, 2009 @ The Chameleon Club in Lancaster, PA

It’s been said before, I’m sure, but Mike Watt needs no introduction. If the name doesn’t sound familiar to you, a quick search on Wikipedia will change your perspective on that name.

The important thing to me on May 1st was that I was going to meet Mike Watt and talk with him briefly about his previous and upcoming projects. Unexpectedly, the difficult part was finding him. When Steve and I entered the venue (well before doors opened), we were confronted with a situation: no one knew where Mike was.

“He might be across the street at the burrito place,” some of the staff tells me.

“He’s from San Pedro,” I think to myself. “Why would he be eating burritos in Pennsylvania?”

“Let’s go find him,” I tell Steve.

So, Steve and I go across the street to try and do just that. I had never met Mike Watt before, but I had a pretty good idea of what he looked like, and no one in that place fit the description. We looked around carefully.

“What does he look like?” Steve asks.

“He looks like everyone’s dad,” was the best answer I could give him. “No one here looks like that”

In fact, no one in that entire block looked like that, so Steve and I gave up and went back to the venue. When we got there, we ran into Tom Watson (Missingmen guitarist) who offered to check the van.

“He’s asleep…gone!” he says when he gets back. “Would you mind doing the interview after the show?”

I agree, and after talking to Tom for a bit and getting filled in on their recording situation in the next couple of days, he tells me he’s becoming restless and wants to go walk around. We say our goodbyes and wish him the best for the show.

After Steve sizes up the venue and picks his lens of choice, he tells me he’s going outside for a smoke. If I know anything about Steve, it’s that he likes company while he’s smoking, so I offer to accompany him.

Once we’re outside, I have a look around, and there, with his laptop on a trash can, is a very groggy-looking Mike Watt.

“I’m going to say hi,” I tell Steve.

The next couple of minutes are a bit of a blur. I told him who I am and asked him if he was, in fact, at the burrito place.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a hippie place,” says Watt. “It was good, though; not greasy.”

“I’m from Southern California too. It’s hard to find good Mexican food around here. Nothing compares to the food you get in San Diego,” I say to try and make conversation.

“Yeah, but how do I get to San Diego?” he says and smiles.

“Alright,” he says after a couple of minutes. “Let’s get in the boat! Ollie, sit in the passenger seat, Steve get on the other side. I’m going to be right here in the back.”

While we get in, Watt opens a beer, lies back, and gets comfortable…

Have you ever been to Lancaster before?

Watt: Five years ago I played with J. Mascis in the Fall. It’s an old town. There’s a lot of history here. This place used to be the old West.

This place?

Yeah, back in the thirteen-colony days.

How’s the tour been going?

Watt: Happenin’! It’s the eight gig with J. Mascis. We’ve done 13 gigs so far. No, six plus eight…fourteen! So, maybe a little less than that – because it’s 32 gigs – and in the middle, which is Sunday, I start recording my third opera with my Missingmen.

Yeah, you guys are doing 30 songs in 3 days?

Watt: Well it’s one big song, like in 30 little songs. It’s my third opera. The first one was Contemplating the Engine room, the second was the Secondman’s Middle Stand.

What about Ball Hog or Tug Boat?

Watt: Ball Hog or Tug boat was what I call the Wrestling album. It was fourteen different bands doing fourteen songs. I call this an opera because it’s all wrapped around one narrative: me at 51. My other two operas had beginning, middles, and ends. The first one was the story of the Minutemen; very sad with D. Boon getting killed. The second one was about the disease that almost killed me almost nine years ago. Happy ending; I lived. Third opera; no beginning, middle and ending, it’s all middle.

The Secondman’s Middle Stand was more organ-driven, while Contemplating the Engine Room had more rock and blues. What’s the new one sounding like to you?

Watt: The first one…yeah, that was the first time I made an opera, and I did it…Nels Kline has a huge tradition of improvisation, so I’ll be showing him a song, and we could create. It was like being young with D. Boon. The second opera was with my Secondmen, which was bass, drums, and organ. I always wanted to make an organ trio. And, I paralleled it to the Devine Comedy to tell the story. This one’s different.

These two guys Kieth and Tim made a documentary called We Jam Econo. It’s a good film. I had to see a lot of them, and I had to drive through town. I had to listen to a lot of Minutemen, which is very hard for me. So, I was listening to it, and I thought it was very interesting; this idea of making very short songs, so I was kind of tripping on this painter called Hieronymus Bosch, and he has a lot of little creatures. He was a Dutch painter. I find out those are visualizations of Dutch proverbs, and aphorisms, and all kinds of shit.  But, I don’t know 500 year old Dutch shit, so I made up my own. I put it with this idea of the Wizard of Oz, and about Dorothy. Mr. Baum might have been writing a coming-of-age story for a woman. She’s seeking out men to do all kinds of trips to try to be men, or what society says are men. So, the Tinman needs a clock to have a heart, Scarecrow needs a diploma to be smart, the lion need a medal to have courage. Well, there’s this shit, a midlife crisis that I see in cats my age that didn’t end up being punk rock bass players. They’re tripping. They’ve been playing the game and everything, and they start thinking, what’s life all about, right? I think it’s kind of natural to size up your situation, and so that’s what I’m looking at in a way. For women, that’s a weird story; you gotta be a witch, right? You’re a good witch or a bad witch. Remember, she fell on one. But if you also notice, those three guys are companions, and in the beginning of the story they’re farm hands. Just working guys. So, I was thinking about this, and that’s what’s gone into the third opera. I’m making it with a man called Tony Maimone, who’s a bass player for Pere Ubu, which was a very profound band on the Minutemen. We saw them tour in 1978.

[At this point a stranger comes up and gives Mike Watt a John Coltrane Legacy album]

That’s for him to keep?

Stranger: Yeah!

Watt: Wow!

Stranger: See you up on stage, Watt!

Watt:  OK, brother!  Yeah, this is a good one. I know a lot of the songs. I always play my shows with John Coltrane playing. It’s beautiful. When I got turned on to him, I thought he was doing punk too.

You thought Coltrane was doing punk?

Watt: Yeah when I grew up, I didn’t know anything about jazz, and I heard it, I heard it from punk people, when we first started doing gigs. I thought he was old, but I didn’t know he was dead.

You’re known for having a lot of contributions on your albums. Are there going to be any on this album?

Watt: I mean, the Ball Hog or Tug Boat was meant to be like that.

You didn’t have contributions on Engine Room?

Watt: No, just Hodges and Nels. I had Petra help us with the second opera; she sang.

Now, you’re not on Columbia anymore…

Watt: Thirteen years on Columbia, eleven years on SST.

What prompted the move from Columbia?

Watt: That’s the way things are now. I felt more free and more independent. It’s actually very hard for those companies. I was always treated real nice by those guys; I had a lot of friends there. Basically, like when I did things for SST, I delivered finished masters, I did all the artwork, I never took tour support, and they gave me a lot of autonomy and freedom and respect.

Who do you think you’re going to be moving to?

Watt: I think I’d do a project for anyone. I don’t think you have to be committed to one. Autonomy is kind of good. We were never part of the old model anyway, but we loved having people respecting our art, but a lot of times the main deal was the gigs. Recordings were very important, but in a way they were like flyers to get people to the gigs. But, now I look at them like a child, like babies. They have a life of their own, and they’re here too after you’re gone, so I have a new respect for recordings. It got a little imbalanced in the last ten years doing way too many gigs. Gigs are very important, but you gotta do records, so last year I made two albums in Japan, one in the US, got two almost done, Los Pumpkinheads and Dos. This year I got this third opera, and I have plans to do another Secondmen album, and another album in Tokyo this Summer called Mother’s Sister’s Daughter. This September I’m recording an album with Jim O’Rourke. A duo duet. I wanna make a lot of records. I’m making this project with a man in England named Sam Duke called Cuz. Now we have this technology where we can send files back and forth, so I’m into this. The more recordings I make right now, the better.

You’ve also been pretty vocal about preferring an analog style to recording instead of digital, but you went all digital with the Secondman’s Middle Stand. What did you think of that process?

Watt: Well it’s very expensive to do analog in the upkeep, and then there’s things like being able to transfer files on the internet, playing with people you’ve never even met, so I think those outweigh the other things as far as sound quality. It is getting better, but yeah, analog is still where it’s at, but then you have to pay for it. I’m not that uptight about it.

Speaking of this, how do you prefer your music? Do you prefer vinyl, or digital?

Watt: Uhhh… The vinyl’s very tough. You can’t bring it around with you. With digital, you can get the stuff to your friends via e-mail, versus having to give them the record.

And having to tell them which track to look for.

Watt: Of course, of course. But, there’s a good quality thing. I don’t think it’s a severe debate. Everyone knows that you trade some kind of quality. But, sometimes that’s just the medium. What you’re trying to communicate is ideas and esthetics, and some people with the compromise in media I don’t think you can totally deliver your vision.

You also played with the Stooges starting in 2004…

Watt: …2003. I played with them for five and a half years.

Did the fact that you played in Hellride influence any decision making at all? Do you think your experience playing Stooges song affected their approaching you?

Watt: Well, I was asked to join. I got a call from Iggy, he said, “Ronnie says you’re the man.”  There were a bunch of circumstances that led up to that. I started doing Stooges bands when I was almost killed by that sickness, and I had to stop playing bass. But, it helped me get strong again, and I made some bands, one of them was with J. Mascis, and Murph on the East Coast. On the West Coast it was with Peter and Perkins from Porno for Pyros, and I started playing with Ronnie and Scotty, and Iggy heard about it and he wanted to get the Stooges back together. He called me and I was on tour in Tallahassee. “Ronnie says you’re the man!” That was a trippy call! So, it wasn’t like I had to decide anything, man, of course! I was in their classroom for five years and I consider them a primary source. I can’t imagine the punk scene without them.

You also played on The Weirdness, which isn’t the most well received album. What are your feelings on it looking back?

Watt: I loved playing with them and learning from those guys. I wasn’t a Stooge. I was a helper. I’m Mike Watt from the Minutemen! And, whatever they saw fit, I was ready to give them my best notes and best playing, and be receptive to learning. They taught me a lot of stuff, Iggy, Ronnie, Scotty, and Steve.

Talk about the recording process for The Weirdness, you talked about how you had to take a step back and not interrupt at all.

Watt: Well, yeah it’s not my band.

How much freedom did you feel you had? Did you feel constrained at all?

Watt: I asked them for direction. It wasn’t my album, so I wanted to help them. I told them I’ll be clay and you mold me. You take turns. I ask Tom and Raul to take direction, like this Sunday, don’t I expect the same from myself?

The Stooges also had their gear stolen…

Watt: That was terrible.

Yeah, you lost some stuff too, right? There’s a video of Iggy on the internet where he’s saying it’s not the instrument that matters, but who’s playing it.

Watt: Of course.

But, do you feel some sort of attachment to your equipment, regardless?

Watt: You have to learn to let go, I think. There’s this Buddhist idea about materialism being too precious. Right after, a boy named Andy, or young man, I should say, two days later gave me a 1969 Gibson, and Adam Young gave me a Gibson bass, and then even in January, a man in San Diego, your town, named Dan gave me a bass you’re going to see me play tonight. Do you know what I’m saying? Maybe I had some loss from some human bad behavior, then I gained from human good behavior, so I don’t think you should be too precious. Philosophically, I let go of that bass even thought a lot of my spirit was in it, and my soul was in it. I thought, if someone’s creating with it, it’s OK!

[Laughs all around]

You actually started posting bass lessons online…

Watt: This man in San Diego…

It always comes back to San Diego…

Watt: Well, it’s true! This man asked me, and I said OK. I’ll just play for you, and talk to you on the camera about bass. Somehow, I was nervous, because I really hadn’t done much of that kind of stuff.

Is that something you’ve been meaning to do? Do you like doing it?

Watt: Ah… I shouldn’t be selfish with what I’ve picked up on with bass. Being a shit-hoarder with that kind of info would be kind of stupid.

There’s a certain trend in music now to rerelease and remaster classic albums. Are there plans to do that with the Minutemen back catalog?

Watt: No, they should be like they were.

Sometimes though, there’s a lot of bonus stuff, like demos and live recordings…

Watt: There’s a lot in We Jam Econo. I think there’s five and a half hours. Shit we didn’t even know existed, so I’m into it. Places like with live gigs. I’ve always been into it.

So, you don’t think there’s anything studio-wise…

Watt: We released everything.

You don’t think, listening back to the albums, that there’s anything you’d want to change?

Watt: No

Do you think they’re perfect?

Watt: No, I don’t it’s perfect. It is what it is. There was something about that between Georgie, myself, and D. Boon.

There’s a new album by Brutal Truth, and they do a cover of Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs. Are you surprised by the vast amount of bands that your music has inspired?

Watt: Yeah! I’m surprised because, like I said, it was between us. We were part of a movement, though, with Black Flag, and Husker Du, and Meat Puppets, and Sonic Youth, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. So, it surprises me…I’m grateful for people being open to what we did, you know? It’s beautiful, and they’re generous.

And all the genres that you guys have inspired…

Watt: Genres don’t make sense to me, unless you’re talking about a marketing man trying to make his job easier. And, everyone has a different style. So, we don’t need more Berlin walls.

You mentioned listening to the old Minutemen albums a while back. What’s your impression of them after all these years?

Watt: They’re trippy! Not a lot of filler!

I’ve been listening a lot to the Minumen, too. It’s direct and to the point.

Watt: I like that!

Do you think it holds up to the music that’s around now?

Watt: I think of D. Boon a lot when I hear it. I miss him a lot.

You said that Rock N Roll has become very fascist. What did you mean by that?

Watt: I first said that at the beginning of punk for us, because the arena rock scene they didn’t let you come in. It was the elite running it, and punk seemed more like letting everybody else play. Any kind of art form can become fascist. Any kind of human behavior can become fascist, because fascism is a human behavior, and a state of mind.  So, we always have to fight those tendencies no matter who we are, no matter what we do. I don’t think it’s the wrong kind of people, like being greedy or being selfish, it’s just something you can stoop to if you don’t aim high and try to think of everybody else when you’re doing something.

You wrote the back flap to Sue Carpenter’s book 40 Watts from Nowhere. What was it like being a DJ on KBLT back then?

Watt: I’d never had a radio show. I have a radio show on the internet now for eight years called the Watt from Pedro show on I try to do that once a week when I’m off tour. I do that with brother Matt in San Pedro, and I like it because it’s a way of turning people on to music I find interesting that cats are doing. It’s trippy for me.

How much work goes into preparing one of your shows?

Watt: Well, a lot of cats give me a lot of music, and that’s what I play.

Were you surprised that Sue asked you to write the backflap?

Watt: Well, she’s a nice lady.

You were just happy to comply?

Watt: Why not? She gave me two years of being on the show. Like I told you before, it’s a lot about taking your turns. I think to be fair, I think if something good happens to you, you should try to do something in return. It aint too complicated.

What was it like being a DJ on KBLT?

Watt: It was a trip, because I had never been. I’ve been on the other side, like right now being interviewed, but I had never been on the side that did the creating, you know? Picking songs and asking questions.

Like I mentioned, your old albums are known for having contributions from other artists. What are some artist that you’d love to contribute with that you still haven’t?

Watt: Oh fuck, I believe everybody out there has something to teach me. So, it could be someone very unknown. I might not know him yet. Or, it could be someone like Bob Mould, that I’ve known forever, but have never recorded with. Or Richard Hell, or Thurston Moore…well I have recorded with him.

The first couple of lines on the Secondman’s Middle Stand are: “It started right after a gig/A benefit show full of puppets.” Who were these puppets, exactly?

Watt: They built these puppets to make fun of people at the Democrat convention.

There were literally puppets there?

Watt: Giant street puppets to make fun, in effigy of Milosevic, and when the police found out where the puppets were, they destroyed them.


Watt: I know! Why be mad at puppets?! But yeah, I do a lot of benefits. Songs are weird, because it’s hard to know where exactly they come from. But, I was talking about when the sickness came to me. The sickness didn’t come from that, but that was the situation…

…where you first became aware of it.

Watt: Right, because it probably got infected before that.

You got misdiagnosed too, right?

Watt: That’s what led to real big problems. That’s why they call it practicing medicine.

[Laughs all around]

In the Sonic Youth song Providence, there’s a recording on there…

Watt: Where I call him up on his answering machine. I didn’t know that was going to be on the record.

You’re talking about something that was lost. What were you talking about?

Watt: He lost some chords and stuff and I thought I knew what happened to them. He just used that for the source of a song.

I think it’s one of my favorite “meta” songs, because you can hear this tragic piano, and the rain…

Watt: That’s Thurston just associating elements.

What do you think are some of the most underrated albums of all time?

Watt: …very difficult question, because…it’s hard to know what everybody thinks. Underrated means that people have formed an opinion. It’s hard for me to know what they all think. I think in the old days, a lot of people didn’t like the Stooges, so Funhouse. I liked it a lot but in its day a lot of people hated it. Now it has huge respect.

I think the Ramones talked about that too, saying that people who liked the Stooges had to band together.

Watt: Yeah, those people were not popular, man. Most people thought, “This is not happenin’ and you’re an asshole for liking it.” I thought, “Fuck you!” you know? If I like this, please let me like this. There’s a lot of stuff in the world I don’t have a choice about. Let me pick music I like.

Did you feel that way about the stuff you did  on the Kelly Clarkson album, with that not being up to snuff with what you do?

Watt: Yeah! Well, I tried playing some interesting bass. They let me try some wild stuff. I wasn’t familiar with that music.

It just seems like that kind of music gets drowned in layers.

Watt: Yeah. It was a situation for me where I came in and I really didn’t know a lot about it. They told me she won a game show. I got to meet her. She’s a real good singer. Didn’t seem like a phony; she’s talking to me just by herself and no posse, or no bullshit. She told me she learned how to sing in church, and that she wasn’t really in any bands. I don’t do a lot of session work. I do some…

Do you like doing that?

Watt: It’s kind of hard.

Is it because you don’t feel as creative?

Watt: No, it’s because you don’t know the song or anything.  You just have to hear it, learn it, and come up with the parts. It’s pretty scary, but it can be interesting because it’s unpredictable, and there’s different ways to learn things in life. It shouldn’t be always figured out. Sometimes it should be random like that. Just to see where you are. They didn’t ask me to play Mersch, they had a lot of respect for me just trying whatever I thought I heard.

So, what are some albums you’ve been listening to a lot lately that you really like?

Watt: Oh, I’m on this new album called Mi-gu. It’s pretty wild. It’s the third album and they put me on some of the songs. I was a big fan of the other two albums and I just stumbled on them by accident. And then I got to end up playing with them. Life is very trippy. I’ve been playing a lot of Pere Ubu, because I’m going to be recording with Tony Maimone. Dirtbombs! That’s a great cat. He’s got a great bass player. I know Ben the drummer. I like Melt Banana; what a wild band! Fuck! I got to do some gigs with them. I get to record this summer with Yuka Honda. She’s a great musician. Of course, Petra Hayden. Man, there are a lot of people out there. Oh, Boris! I like Widow Babies. There’s this band called Widow Babies who made an opera, and it’s called the Mike Watt EP. They made this whole EP about me getting into a battle with a vampire that looks like Abraham Lincoln, and he cuts my hands off, but my hands come back. Yeah, it’s a trip. You’re talking about Minutemen influence, and I met the drummer’s daddy, and he’s younger than me! I was tripping on how music is this fabric that doesn’t care about time. It’s very wonderful.

Anything that has yet to come out that you’re looking forward to?

Watt: The new Dinosaur Jr. album. There’s a lot more, but I can’t think of any right now.

Well, that’s it, Mike. Anything else you’d like to add?

Watt: I think you asked me some great things; very kind. You’re an interesting man, Ollie. Thank you much!



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