The pioneering bassist for Minutemen and fIREHOSE talks to The Onion about his new record, his old band, and the shabby condition of his knees.
Mike Watt is a punk-rock legend, having gotten his start playing bass with D. Boon in the amazing, influential late-'70s/early-'80s band Minutemen. When Boon died in a van accident in 1985, Watt formed fIREHOSE, and continued to make wildly unpredictable, indefinable, critically acclaimed records. In 1995, he released his first solo album, Ball-hog Or Tugboat?, which featured literally dozens of big-name alternative rockers, all of whom appeared because of a widespread love of Watt and the values for which he continues to stand. Last week, the San Pedro, California-based Watt released his second solo record, Contemplating The Engine Room, and it's a surprisingly powerful, blue-collar punk-rock opera that covers thematic material ranging from his father's Navy days to recollections of his years in Minutemen. Watt recently engaged The Onion in a decidedly non-linear conversation about all sorts of things, including why Perry Farrell is a good frontman, how skinheads beat up his guitarist, and what it's like when your knees pop out of their sockets.
The Onion: How's it going?
Mike Watt: It's going okay. I'm ready to tour. I haven't toured on my own in two years.
O: Well, you did tour with Porno For Pyros during that time.
MW: Yeah, I was the deckhand. It was a new experience for me, playing another man's songs in another man's outfit, but I learned a lot from that that I put into my opera. Perry [Farrell, vocals] had a very good way of communicating ideas that aren't so much about notes and scales. You know, there's a problem with playing too long: You play faster, hit more notes. You have to try everything. [Laughs.] So, the Porno thing—those 10 months of helping those cats out—was really beneficial to me.
O: How was it different, playing another man's songs, and being a deckhand instead of the captain of the ship?
MW: It's way different. You have to know how to take direction, and Perry's like a conductor. And I'm the bass guy, so I'm kind of like the rudder. He doesn't have a machine strapped on him, so it's a trip. He's like a bridge to the kids. I've never played in a band with a frontman before, either, so it was a whole different experience. What I liked about it is that his personality really comes out. With a genuine personality, you get a sort of humanity, a human feeling that is missing from a lot of music. So I was picking up on this; it was a lot different from just three guys working their machines. He really connected with the crowd. I watched him 100 percent of the time, like I was in the crowd, too, but I was getting to play along. It was a real trippy experience, and musically, it was very interesting and very challenging. I wanted to capture that with this record.
O: Your new album, Contemplating The Engine Room… Who's going to buy a concept album about three guys in an engine room?
MW: [Laughs.] I don't know. I think that when they hear it coming out of the speakers, they're going to hear three guys playing together. I don't know if they'll even pick up on the concept, in a way. That's why I'm doing these interviews and stuff, to tell people about it. Because I wonder if they'd even know. In a way, I'd like it to be something people just kind of stumble onto, and have them make their own sense out of it. To me, the boat is like the van, or like a car on your way to work. It's your world, your own little self-contained… The engine room really is a metaphor for my head, and all the things bangin' around, and I think I share that with a lot of people. A lot of memories, and a lot of hopes, and a lot of just dealing with the day-to-day. Sometimes it gets all abstract. I don't know who would really buy it… People like me. [Laughs.] Maybe jocks who love to tackle people, wrestlers, fly-fishermen, boat guys, dudes from [San] Pedro, since it's about Pedro. I don't know, my demographic is pretty strange. It is a trip, though, because I used to make records with D. Boon [guitar/vocals] and Georgie [Hurley, drums], and now I just make 'em. [Laughs.] I don't know who I make 'em for. This record is kind of a valentine to those days, in a strange, non-Happy Days kind of way. That's the one weird thing when you talk about the past; I hope it don't alienate the young people. I tried a lot of things on this record that I've never tried, things that are new for me. I just used some of my old days like fertilizer, for a new crop. I hope I'm out there also to kind of challenge people out there. I don't know if they should buy it, but maybe they should give it a listen. I didn't call it a concept record, because that sounds pretty '70s. [Laughs.] It's more of an opera, because it is kind of a tragedy. There's no real sugar-coated way to talk about how the Minutemen ended, so I kind of followed the opera form there. Maybe they should hear the whole thing; that's why I'm going to play the whole thing on the tour. Maybe people should come and see me play, and then check out the record. I've always seen records, especially this one, as works on their own, but in a way, they're like flyers, too. "Hey, come on down to the gig." Maybe the gig is a flyer for the record. You know, in the old days, we divided the world into two categories: There was gigs, and flyers. Video is a flyer, taking a picture for someone is a flyer, and then there was a gig, you know? You'd actually work out your little shtick. It was weird, too, in those days: We had little songs, but they weren't really songs. We wanted our sets to be like one big song. I kind of went full-circle. "The Punchline" didn't even have music; it was just a little statement, a little spiel, and then we'd kick into the next song, and that would be, like, an instrumental, but with an intense political title. With the Minutemen, it was wild.
I'd really been afraid to deal with all that stuff, all those songs I wrote that I don't play. I just wanted to go for it, throw my hat in the ring, and that's what this little opera is: a challenge to myself. The last record [Ball-hog Or Tugboat?] was really schizophrenic, and I just wanted to get this one tied together; I use these little things, these little binders, these stories, and put it all to a 24-hour clock. I gave them colors. That was another way to record: I had to get it out to Nels [Cline, guitars] and [drummer Steve] Hodges, so I had a little easel there, and I would give them their spiels. It was an adventure for me. We did it in 15 days; each day we did one song. Maybe listeners can do the same thing. Who knows? Maybe they'll listen and think, "Fuck, this guy makes a record," and they'll make one too. I always liked that about the scene. I don't really know why people should. [Laughs.] I guess I should have more confidence than that.
O: Live, you're playing this record start to finish? You just run through the songs on the record?
MW: Yeah, but I taught [the band] encores. If people want to hear more, I've got "The Red And The Black," "Big Train," "One Reporter's Opinion," and I think I'll do "Powerful Hankerin'" by myself. The set is like an hour. I extended it from, like, 53 minutes on the CD. A lot of people are going to hear 15 songs, but I run them all together. And Hodges has got some sampler thing where he grabbed all the sounds—a little farm scene, a little waves crashin', people climbin' up the stairs… He's got all those. So we'll have those live, comin' out through the P.A., like Watt in high-tech. It was Hodges' idea. I mean, he played with Tom Waits, you know? Tom Waits goes for anything; who would buy a Tom Waits record? Some of these interesting little stories… His songs are like little stories. He's something. That's why I picked Hodges, too. He brought colors to the story, more than just chops or licks. Right now, man, I'm out of that shit. Really. In that way, I feel like I'm back in my first punk days, too, like, "There's got to be something beyond chops and licks." It was these guys who didn't even know how to play, that got me and D. Boon really excited. Sometimes I feel like that still. The only thing new is you finding out about it. That's what I got taught. I want to be a student for life, and work that into the stuff. People can give it a listen; at least I ain't givin' 'em a clone of something. The closest thing I am is kind of a Minutemen, Pyros kind of thing. I'm not too much like Journey or Loverboy, or even Smog, or… The band that I felt was closest to us was NoMeansNo. They had their own sound all the way, but they're the band I was closest to. There are still cats going, and new cats coming up, like Kill Rock Stars [Records], and Mac [McCaughan, from Superchunk and Portastatic] with his Merge [Records]. Some things never die, and they often get way better. I don't want people to think it's like "the good old days," or something. That's another reason I kept the lyrics on the new album kind of abstract. I put in little things for the people who knew—little parts of Minutemen songs, stuff like that. But to me, it's not that important in a way; it's still about three guys playing. That's kind of what the Minutemen basically did. And anybody can: You've got two buddies, get in the van, and start playing. It's not that exclusive a club. Everybody's experiences are unique. Basically, this time it's the three guys playing, and I'm the youngest guy in the band. [Laughs.] That hasn't happened in a long time, so that's wild. But these guys really want to play; they're so enthusiastic. Steve Hodges, [touring guitarist] Joe Baiza… Joe Baiza's hand is better from surgery, from Nazis beating him in Germany. He had to have surgery and pins put in his hand. He's Latin, and the skinhead fuckers have a thing with Turks, and these guys attacked him. The Turks took their jobs in the '70s and
'80s. Like in Southern California sometimes, with the immigrants. People bitch at 'em, but they would never do the jobs that these cats do. So it's fucked. When Germany took the East back, a lot of these people were really stupid, and Berlin is not that happenin' a town anymore. But Joe's all healed, and he's playin' good.
O: Your last record, Ball-hog Or Tugboat?, had, what, 48 different rock stars on it?
MW: [Laughs.] Some were more rock stars than others. They weren't rock stars; they were just dudes who answered the call. I said, "Hey, I'm going to be in the studio; do you want to come over?" And I made all these little bands. I should have used wrestlers' names for sure; I should never have used real names. It was schizophrenic; it was chaos, on purpose. It was a hoot, you know? I wouldn't want to make a career out of it, but for me, I was coming out of fIREHOSE, and I thought I'd try something wild. A lot of it was first- and second-take, and this was maybe kind of a reaction to that. I'm always having fun with my own image, or maybe reacting to it. It seemed like I was kind of a side-mouse to my own thing. [Laughs.] You know, perception is nine-tenths of the law: People are going to see it the way they do. I can't fault them for that. Bass dudes are weird, anyway. In a way, that gives you a lot of power, them not really knowing what you are. You can be a mystery, you know? You can be politically the best guy in the band, so you're kind of more free. You don't have to deliver so much of a cliché, really. You've got to be real judicious; you've got to act like a politician. It's just a test, and that's what the title's about: Are you gonna be the ball-hog, or the tugboat? Are you gonna aid and abet, or are you gonna fuckin'… I've got doubts there, you know? It was kind of a test for me, but this one was a test for me, too, in a different direction. I'm gonna be 40 in a couple months, and the rerun thing kind of rubs raw on me. I'm not into reruns, and that's why I've got all these side things. I just want to try different things, without… Somehow, they're still bass. The machine is an alien thing, when you strap this thing to you, and have to make it talk and sing and cry, and… Jesus Christ! I'm a thug, and I really didn't have musical ability. You know, I just did this to be with D. Boon and stuff, and just punchin'. To try to wrestle this fuckin' thing, I want to try all these ideas, and just make it more human and less… some form of Nazi fuckin' salute, man. Really, the machines overwhelm us, whether it's sequencers or… You've got to make 'em human, somehow. Kraftwerk was real good at it, by using irony. I try to… I don't know, it's a trip. People don't address the issue so much. It's almost like the legend of King Arthur pullin' the sword out of the rock; just have the magic machine, and you can slay people. It's so bizarre, because it really fucks over the other forms of art, like writing and filmmaking, and painting. It's a trip about music, about rock and roll, cult of the teenager. It's kind of a marketing thing, too, where the kids aren't totally in control. They are in their little scenes, though, and that's what I love. Like Jerry Lee Lewis: I was doing a gig with him, and he said, "It's way better now than it was in the old days. Kids now are smart. In those days they were stupid." Brian
Setzer was doing this gig with him, and Setzer was down the hall, and he said, "Yeah, some people think it was better in the '50s." He goes, "Nope. Now." He went out there and played with his heel and his elbow. This guy was wild! And I share that with rock 'n' roll, with Little Richard. But fuck rock 'n' roll, whatever it is: the boilerplate, the background music to the Gap ad. If it takes punk-rock opera for me to dent that, then I guess… [Trails off.]
O: What's the story with your knees?
O: I read some of the essay you wrote about your knees, in Grand Royal magazine. I couldn't finish reading it.
MW: [Laughs.] Well, at least I can walk. That's how I end it.
O: How do you play music like that?
MW: Well, they wanted to know about my knees. I said, "All right, I'll tell you about it, then." I wrote that thing out, and they put that in their magazine. It's like your sciatic nerve… It's really intense. You go into extreme shock, where you can't do anything. You can't even put your arms out to stop your fall. [Laughs.] You know, maybe that's why I like punk rock. [Laughs.] There's different things that make you who you are, and I have some acquaintances with Mr. Pain. I heard that Nietzsche had epilepsy, and he would go into… That's the same thing. Your nerves tweak. Oh, man. That puts you in another world. See, and what it is after that is you have this thing called involuntary apprehension, where you're in fear. The pain puts imprints on your brain so hard. There's places on my leg that you grab, and my arms just shoot out, my legs just shoot out. I don't even think it's my brain; I think the muscles and shit learned the pain, too. That's how most dudes learn music—the muscles learn it, not the brain. Most people say, "Let me go through it," and then they move their fingers. The memory is in the muscle. It's not really in the brain. It's weird though, this animal. But somehow, those experiences go into the way I treat my bass and try to play my music. I thought it was valid, and they thought it was funny for me to write about it, so I did, and I didn't pull any punches. It's in there with all these ads for clothes, which is pretty funny. There's this picture of me showin' em… It's why I don't own shorts. I had one pair of shorts, and they had me put that on to do the picture.
O: Yeah, all the scars and bulges.
MW: Yeah, I had surgeries in my early 20s. They've only come out twice since the surgeries. It's fuckin' horrible. They come out once, and shit will always be sore.