Mike Watt Plays The Gig Of His Dreams.

Saturday, 05 June 2010

Anyone that has ever spoken with bassist Mike Watt knows he loves what he does. Since co-founding The Minutemen with guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley in 1980, Watt has seemed to eat, sleep and breathe his instrument and reveled in the fact that he gets to do for a living what some people only dream of and would love to do if only they could. Watt is the first to say that he is lucky to be able to make music for a living, and is genuinely honored every time he receives an award of achievement, or is afforded the opportunity to play as a guest on someone's record – he's a humble guy, and that people revere him for his work is the greatest honor he knows.

He is thankful for all of the opportunities he's had, but that doesn't mean Mike Watt doesn't dare to dream.

One of those dreams was answered the moment singer Iggy Pop told him that he was the man for the job to fill the bass seat in the reformed Stooges in 2003 – at guitarist Ron Asheton's request no less. According to sources that saw Watt at the time of the announcement, Watt looked like a kid that just got his dream shot and, since then, he has relished in every moment he's been able to share the stage with a band that he will happily admit are some of his heroes. In addition to holding his position with The Stooges, Watt has also continued to make his own records and play with bands including The Black Gang and Floored By Four [which also features Nels Cline of Wilco, Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto and Dougie Browne of The Lounge Lizards – watch for their self-titled debut album, coming out on September 28, 2010 -ed] as well as opening himself up to new possibilities and new learning experiences with guest appearances on those records made by other musicians. There is no easy way to count the number of albums that Watt has played on anymore, but he is only too happy to spiel the praises of those that have asked him to come along for their ride. At this point – between his own work, his work with The Stooges and all of his other appearances – Mike Watt might be one of the most exposed players in rock, but he doesn't have an ego about it. Even now, he still gets excited when he talks about everything he's been able to do and couldn't hide it even if wanted to. That excitement is contagious too; it's just fun to hear about everything that's happening with Mike Watt in conversation and nothing short of jaw-dropping when, seven years after the first time he did it, every show the bassist plays with The Stooges feels like a dream come true.

Bill Adams vs. Mike Watt for The Stooges

MW: Watt!

BA: Hey Watt, it's Bill Adams calling.

MW: Hey Bill.

BA: How're you you doin'?

MW: Okay.

BA: Cool – sorry about yesterday man. That was the first time in eight years that I screwed up my timezones. How are you? You're at home right now obviously, is this Stooges show part of a tour? Is it a one-off?

MW: We're touring all spring and summer, but there's kind of a gap and that's the only gig in June but, around that – because I have to be in your timezone to do that gig – I'm going to go to Brooklyn a little bit before that and then I'm going to go back there after the Toronto gig for a few days because I have to finish my third opera, Hyphenated-Man at Studio G. I recorded it without bass and spiel; when I was on tour last May, Tom Watson and Raul Morales – my Missingmen – recorded the drums and guitar for the album, so I want to get it done. It's made of thirty little parts and it was influenced a bit by The Minutemen; I started listening to them again when that We Jam Econo documentary was being made. I hadn't listened to any of that stuff in a long time because that music made me sad but listening back to it now, I realized that I still liked some of that stuff and liked some of those ideas. I didn't want to have it too close out of respect for Georgey and D. Boon, so I thought the best way to do that might be to just get rid of the only Minuteman involved; so I had Tom and Raul record without the bass which is strange, but you can do that on an album right [chuckling]?

BA: That's pretty true. So tell me about this Stooges thing….

MW: I have big respect for those guys! I've been with them now for seven years; the first gig was April 2003 at Coachella – although there was only one gig in 2008 because of Ronnie, he was killed in January 2008. It's still kind of neat though, this new edition is kind of like a new band even though the difference is just one guy. James Williamson is a very different kind of guitar player than Ronnie though. Ronnie did guitar for the first two albums and then he moved to bass and James Williamson played guitar for Raw Power and so that's what we're mainly doing now, and Kill City – which was the album that James Williamson did with Ig after The Stooges.

BA: I was gonna ask about that – how the set lists have changed. It must have been hard to know what was going to happen after Asheton died….

MW: Well, I didn't know there was going to be more Stooges, really. Like, when D. Boon was killed, we stopped The Minutemen.

BA: Yeah – I assumed that everybody must have looked at each other and wondered whether they should keep going or not.

MW: I'm not exactly sure how that worked out. I know that Ig and James Williamson hadn't talked in a while but I guess they did after Ronnie passed away. To me it's pretty legitimate because James Williamson was the Raw Power guitarist; it's not like some guy coming on to replace Ronnie. We do a couple of the older songs – “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “1970” and “Funhouse” – but they're still his style; Williamson was telling me that he never used effects back in the old days although he uses a wah pedal now to give tribute to Ronnie, and a lot of the stuff we're doing now is from that later incarnation of The Stooges. The funny thing is, they were both on guitar for a short period in 1971; at that time, a guy named Jimmy Recca played the bass for six months in the first part of 1971. Raw Power came after that though; that started coming together when Ig and Williamson went to England with the Bowie management thing. They had him try out some guys from there but, they way James tells it, he told Ig they should bring Ronnie and Scottie over and so that ended up becoming the new version of the band. He told me that he knew about The Stooges of course, he lived near Detroit in Birmingham – which was a suburb or something – and he would go to Ann Arbour and he'd see them playing there and then of course the rest is history. Now in 2010 – well, the first show was in Sao Paolo in 2009, actually – it really is a further evolution of the band; Steve MacKay is back – he did about six months with the band before in 1970 for the Funhouse album – and he's out on stage the whole time now. He used to come out for a short part of the set back in 1970, but he starts with us now and he plays through the whole thing on harmonica and keyboard. Ig has said this before and I agree with him that this is not a tribute band; even though they're from the old days and they regrouped with a large separation of years in between where they didn't even speak, they're not trying to relive that, it's just guys from the old days putting together a band that does have material from those days. It's not like we're just walking through the motions of it either – we're playing the songs a bit differently from how they were recorded and we are playing it like a working band.

BA: Well, I'd assume so, and is the group doing any of the newer material as well? Like songs off The Weirdness?

MW: No, no. There's no Weirdness but James has been writing. He gave Ig two musics to write lyrics to so the material may become more contemporary in the future too. The versions we're doing right now have been re-worked – for sure they're played faster – but that happened with Ronnie too; even starting with that Coachella gig. If you heard our live versions and then went back and listened to the records, these new versions are much faster because Iggy is not slowing down; he's sixty-three but he has an urgent need to express himself. The other thing we've noticed is that we're not playing for old people! The first four gigs of this year were in France and there were some very young people in those crowds. London had some older people, but I wouldn't say there were a lot around The Stooges' age; maybe some from my age – the first wave of punk – but France was really really young people as a majority. It's kind of funny because people that age when I was that age hated The Stooges. I mean, Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer would write nice things, but the guys at school that I remember didn't like them. The first group of people that really seemed to like them that I remember are the ones from the first wave of punk – in fact, that was the common ground. We were all pretty spread out, but we all loved The Stooges; I don't know if there would be a punk scene without that band. It's funny too because the albums still sound fresh; like, if you put on Funhouse now, it sounds like it could have been released last week – it doesn't sound dated at all – and I think that fact and the sound as well have sort of informed most of the punk rock that has come along ever since. Scottie set a lot of the drum templates and tones for punk rock, that's for sure.

BA: Well that's true, but a lot of that was specifically Raw Power; I mean, the first couple of Stooges records didn't have that kind of speed.

MW: Yeah, and a lot of that has to do with Williamson. He's a very different player from Ronnie; he brought in some faster chord changes and has a sound all his own. Ronnie had a sound all his own too, and it was very characteristic of a persona; to his day, I still remember J Mascis telling me that he learned to play guitar by listening to Funhouse and so when we came through with J Mascis and The Fog and he got to play with them, it was incredible.

BA: That's cool.

MW: Yeah, it has been pretty wild and I think this thing up in Toronto will be too. North By Northeast is kind of like a street festival isn't it? Or like the Austin thing?

BA: Yeah – it's sort of like the Canadian counterpart to South By Southwest. I think you guys are playing right in the centre of it all too; there aren't a whole lot of outdoor shows for this, but I know you guys are playing Nathan Phillips Square.

MW: Oh is it? That's cool, we're pretty appreciative of what we're getting in that, because that spot is right in front of City Hall I think. That's pretty nice, but Toronto has been pretty kind to us every time we've come. We got to play Massey Hall the last time we were there and that was really cool for me; Massey Hall is where they recorded that famous record with Max Roach and Mingus and Charlie Parker and we got to stand on that same stage. It was the day after the Montreal gig – I think those were our first two Canadian gigs.

BA: Yeah – that's right. And your stuff got swiped in Montreal.

MW: Yeah [chuckling]. Nothing against Montreal, it could have happened anywhere.

BA: That's true, it's still pretty wild though. It's even cooler that you're doing it with X.

MW: Yeah – they're a great band too. I remember seeing them come up in the late Seventies.

BA: I heard that somewhere. I suspect that might be a hard show though, Exene got diagnosed with the same disease I have.

MW: Aw, man.

BA: Yeah – Exene Cervenka got diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, same as me.

MW: I heard about that.

BA: Yeah, it should be a good time. The heat doesn't do much good for MS patients but I know I'll be at your show and she will be too, so they'll have a bunch of the cripples all in one place [both laughing a little awkwardly]. Aw, I wouldn't say that if I myself wasn't a government certified cripple.

MW: [still chuckling] What a way to put it. She's a tough lady, Exene is.

BA: Is she? I've never met her.

MW: Yeah – she's never been a quitter with her art and so on, but these challenges are even more intense.

BA: I believe that. Speaking as a patient myself though, she might has a little rougher go. One consistent thing about MS patients is that we all seem to have difficulty with heat.

MW: Yeah, but it's June in Canada right? It's not that hot.

BA: Oh, it might get up into the low Nineties and that's enough to make me walk funny. You'll probably see me walking with a cane while I'm there. I'm very much a winter creature.

MW: Oh yeah – and they have a winter there; although I think Montreal's is worse.

BA: Than Toronto? Yeah – most of the time. I'm originally from Niagara Falls and their winter is worse than Toronto, but not quite so regularly bad as Montreal's. Oh – before I forget, I wanted to ask you exactly how many projects you have on the go now. I know you've been recording a lot with all different people.

MW: Oh yeah, I'm doing little things here and there. The internet has been a really interesting thing for that; I've been recording with people I've never even met.

BA: Oh that's right! With folks in Japan right? I know your were telling me that the last time we spoke.

MW: Yeah, but also in Canada. There's a guy by the name of Steve Howe – no relation to the Yes guy – and he's a young man from Montreal. He sent me a whole album of songs – ten of them – and I ended up doing a whole album with him, but I've never even met the man.

BA: Oh really?

MW: Yeah – it's a project called The Island and he sent me the songs so I did them. I'm trying to put my bass in different places; my middle-aged punk philosophy is that everybody has something to teach me so I feel compelled to put my bass in different places to see what I can do. That way I don't turn into a dinosaur and I try to stay a little relevant.I'm pretty proud to have been able t do that thing with Steve and it's really interesting because it's something you couldn't have done in the older days; you actually had to be in the room with the guy…

BA: … And you had to sit there and hammer out the finer points of the whole thing with him.

MW: Yeah – and now they can send you files and you're still hammering it out, but it's just man alone with the bass and the song, and then you sent it back to see what they think. I've done a bunch of different stuff like that; I did a little bit with a guy from Japan, I did a whole album with a guy from England named Sam Dook. I do know him actually, and in the band he works for, his boss uses samples that they build songs around. We came up with the idea of just jamming together and then we can cut it up and be our own samples and then we added some more stuff after like the spiel or the bass parts or guitar parts or whatever. We made a whole album like that called Cuz. Some people get down on the new technology but, like most things human, there are opportunities both good and bad about all of it to be creative without being a robot or a machine. I still do it the old way with The Missingmen and Secondmen and that was the case too with The Minutemen where you'd have three guys in the van and you practiced in the practice pad and you played little clubs, and I love that, but there are these other ways too. The technology just got more econo and more accessible. The thing that hasn't been solved – and I think this is a good thing – is the creative part; I think that should always be a challenge, but not having enough money or enough gear or even people around shouldn't be. I don't think anything about it is fake or phony, it's just different.

BA: Now, with that said, how did you get involved with The Stooges? Was that just a telephone call kind of thing?

MW: No, that was just a weird collection of coincidences. I was almost killed by a sickness in 2000 and I had tubes in me so I couldn't play bass and it was the first time I really stopped since I started. I couldn't play and I was all atrophied so I panicked and started doing Stooges songs just for practice and stuff to build up strength again and build my chops again. There aren't a whole lot of changes in the songs, most of it is about feel so I thought it would be a good way to get that back. After that, I put together a couple of cover bands to do gigs right away, because I thought it was supposed to be like a bike; you're not supposed to be able to forget [laughing]. Anyway, I made one band with J and Murph – the two guys from Dinosaur – to do some East Coast gigs, and two of the guys from Porno For Pyros – Peter DiStefano and Steven Perkins – for shows on the West coast. At the same time, J had just finished his solo album and so he asked me to tour with him. At the time, he said it was hard to sing every night so he asked if I'd like to do like we had for those other gigs and I do some Stooges songs and sing them. That sounded alright so we went on tourand, when we passed through Ann Arbour, he re-introduced me to to Ronnie Asheton. I had done a soundtrack album with Ron Asheton for this movie Velvet Goldmine in 1996 and I had the opportunity to actually record with him and Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore, so we already sort of knew each other, but then J suggested that we keep touring and do about two thirds of each set with J's material, then bring out Ronnie and do Stooges songs for the last third of the set. At that time, Thurston was curating All Tomorrow's Parties at UCLA in 2002 and he suggested we play with Scotty too; he didn't even have a drum set and was living in his truck at that time. We got him a drum set though, so here were me and J playing with two of them! We started playing a few gigs in Europe like that and that's where Ig heard about it and asked us to play on his Skull Ring album. From there, they decided to do some gigs and that's when I got the call. I was on tour in Tallahassee with The Secondmen – I remember it very vividly. Iggy called and said, 'Ronnie says you're the man.' Which was the most unbelievable phone call I ever got – and so I flew from Memphis to California to do Coachella with The Stooges. After that, more and more gigs just kept on coming; and now it has been seven years. I don't think any of how it went down was all that calculated or anything, I think it was just a perfect combination of coincidences. I think Iggy knew that it wasn't going to be a memory show even then, when we started. He looks forward; even though, yeah, the stuff is from the old days, he puts them in the now. He never once said it was a “nostalgia” show or a “tribute” band or anything like that, and I remember some writers asking him at some spiels; you couldn't blame the writers for asking that, because it does happen that some dudes package up an old deal like a shtick. That's not the case here; the way they play these new songs, they don't do 'em like the old days, they don't dress up like the old days, nothing's like the old days – except the songs were written in the old days when they were younger men. That's the difference; it's not a Disneyland time warp ride, not at at all. Mind you, it must look pretty trippy that these older cats [laughing] – especially Ig – are pulling this off. Ig's stage diving and shit! Sixty-three years old and he's launching himself off the stage!

BA: I was gonna say – Iggy's a hair older than my old man is now….

MW: Yeah! Could you see your Pop leaping off a stage and singing his heart out? I mean, he's drained after every gig; he puts so much into these shows; it's not like a cabaret or old-timey revue [laughing]. I mean, yeah, the band is from the older days and the music was written then, but they perform it with an urgency that's really “now.”

BA: Yeah.

MW: I mean, I've worked a lot of gigs over many years, but these Stooges gigs are some of the toughest I've ever done in my life! I mean, they just beat you up! It's intense! I don't want to sound all self-important and shit, but it is a mind-blow for me on a lot of levels. It's incredible to be a part of it because of that scene I grew up in, those songs in my head, but also just to be there; even if I came from Mars and shit, I'd still be saying, 'What the fuck man? This is a fuckin' bus ride!' [laughing excitedly] You'll see it – I'm not trying to oversell it – but you'll see that I'm right. One time we had a gig in England at a racetrack or something and Iggy said to me, 'I feel like a short-order cook where I have to go out there and take everybody's order.' Like, he's working for every dude in the crowd; it's not a self-absorbed trip – you know? He really tries to get rid of that thing between the audience and the people doing the gig….

BA: Sure – 'the fourth barrier' or whatever they call it.

MW: Yeah – and like he says in “L.A, Blues,” 'I am you.' One time I asked him about that and he said, 'Yeah Mike, that was a very Sixties thing.' [laughing] In a way though, I see a parallel to it in these days; he's trying to say that it's about people, it's about heart and the spirit and all the other stuff is just crap built up to kind of bury that. We have to keep getting back, and that's what we use the arts for; writing, painting, music is to keep that real connection 'real.' There are some things that you might not be able to understand about it because the knowledge you've got is second, third or fourth-hand, but I'm right there at the primary source! They don't come on to me like professors or anything like that but, in a way, they are; it's a trip for me to be in that situation. All the guys in the band have helped me be a better bass player. Some folks scoff at that and wonder how, because The Stooges' song are so simple, how it would make me a better bass player. I tell them to look at it this way: with bass, on the low end, the more notes you play, the smaller the wavelength gets which no one really wants so it becomes a search for the right notes, not the most. Iggy has a different perspective too, because he's not operating a machine; working a machine, sometimes you're in danger of losing perspective but Iggy is really good at getting the big picture. He just wants to wake people up and get them excited by standing as an example – like, 'Look at me! I'm alive!' It's kind of a celebration; I think there was a time when some people looked at it as a kind of nihilism, but it's so much emotion that it's almost like an overload. I mean, every night, he thanks people for coming and that he's grateful they did so it's obviously not so nihilistic, but when you burst open, all kinds of different things come out. When you emotions explode, you get a whole bunch of stuff – but that doesn't mean that's where all the chips lie. Sometimes you feel those things but that doesn't mean to build a whole fuckin' country dedicated to it or something. “Shake Appeal” is a good example of that too; I asked Iggy what that was about, and he said he was thinking of Little Richard when he wrote it.

BA: [pauses to digest] I could see that, you know? I never thought of it that way….

MW: Yeah – there's the old-timey rock in it, it's the heart of rock n' roll! The spirit of the rock n' roll; like “Tutti Fruiti.”

BA: I totally understand and agree with what you're saying. Now, you've got North By Northeast coming up with The Stooges of course, and then you're off the continent?

MW: Yeah – July and August is all overseas; it's only at the end of August that we come back and do four US so we'll be at the mercy of the Iceland volcano.

BA: Nice. So what else am I forgetting to ask about? What's happening with The Hyphenated Man? It's coming out on Sean Lennon's Chimera label, right?

MW: Yeah – I'm going to debut it with the Japanese tour I'm doing from October 17 to November 7 so it's probably going to come out there in September but I'm going to try and get it out here as soon as possible; I'm definitely going to have it finished by this summer so it's coming. I'm running independently now, so what I've been doing is making the records first, then I try to figure out how I'm going to release them.


Further Reading:

The Stooges' Raw Power Deluxe Edition Reissue review on Ground Control.

The Stooges' Raw Power Legacy Edition Reissue review on Ground Control.

Ground Control article, "In Search Of Mike Watt"

Ground Control's Mike Watt discography review.

Glossary Of Pedro Speak

The Stooges albums are all available on Amazon. Buy them here .

Comments are closed.