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Mike Watt

by Tim “Napalm” Stegall

February 15, 2013


Mike Watt is punk rock in action. Like Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, and many other peers from the early '80s American hardcore punk scene, Watt embodies punk ideals and ethics in action, in how he conducts his personal and professional lives. He's also a master musician, although he bristles at being called one. But one listen to anything he's done, from the uber-seminal punk/funk/jazzcore Minutemen to fIREHOSE to the reunited Iggy And The Stooges (who are on the brink of issuing their fifth LP), or even in “sidemouse” excursions for anyone from Porno For Pyros to Kelly Clarkson(!!!)...well, that listen'll tell you that Watt, as a bassist, is everything everyone thinks Flea is. But for real.

When I saw you in November, you were telling me you were about to enter the studio with The Stooges.

Mike Watt:

Actually, it was in October. Because I remember Halloween was in Oklahoma City. And I think you might have been October 30th the night before. A place called Red 7, I think. Never played there before. It was a good way to put the 3rd opera to bed in Texas. We had a little trouble from a lady up front, disturbing the peace. There was whispering and shit.


But yeah, as far as The Stooges, I just recorded an album with them. And I'm about to go practice with them.

Tell me about this new Stooges album.

Mike:

Oh! Well, I think we're getting it together pretty good. It's already done. Anything new, you gotta get it together. We're memorizing the forms, playing them. It's a process. And that's what we're gonna be doin', so I'm getting to it. I mean, It's The Stooges! James Williamson...you know.

The worst thing I think that anybody can do is try think their fucking way through The Stooges.

How is he to work with, after having worked with Ron Asheton, the original Stooges guitarist?

Mike:

Ronnie, James...both have different styles, y'know? Both are guitarists that didn't copy people. They didn't copy off records, they're not imitators. You can tell they have their own style, their own way of playing. So, in a way, they're both originals like that. But they're also different from each other.


I respect them and I respect their stuff. They're different, but they're both guitar slingers, and they're both songwriters. They both come from finding their own way of doing rock 'n' roll. They listened to Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, and that kinda thing. They're from the '60s, and not from the world of hackdom, where they learn things from some school of music. I think that's why The Stooges were so important to the punk scene. It's like, “This is how I play, this is how it comes out.” That's how Jimi Hendrix can be Jimi Hendrix, and Pete Townshend can be Pete Townshend. “This is the way we play.” Now, I know they respected those guys, because they talk about 'em all the time. That doesn't surprise me. That goes also for the way Iggy sings. The whole thing is rooted in honest expression.

Well, Ron tended to be more free form, more like a jazz player. James is pretty tight, pretty composed. He definitely writes power chord riffs and solid solos, and tends to write more traditional songwriting structures.

Mike:

Yeah. Sometimes, there's strange structures (in Williamson's songwriting), except he doesn't really think about it. It just come out. There're little twists and turns here. Like when I do this stuff, I write charts out. The worst thing I think that anybody can do is try think their fucking way through The Stooges. You've gotta learn this shit. So, I have to chart these things. And a couple of 'em, I'll definitely have to follow right now. Because things can get trippy inside the structure.


Both guitarists are masters of the Monster Riff in their own way. Think about “TV Eye,” and then think about “Shake Appeal.” Those are Monster Riffs. But they're different: There's a Ronnie way, and there's a James Williamson way (long pause). To me, they're just honest expression of their own individualism as persons, but both got blues in 'em. The way they express themselves...like I said: They're not from the school of hackdom.


When I caught you at the end of October, you were just finishing promoting the hypenated-man disc the second time through. That really fascinates me.

Mike:

I ended up doing four tours all together, because I did a Japanese one, too. Four tours in two years, time to put it to bed. Please! In 2014, I might do another tour in Europe. But I'm glad you were into it! I had to write it. I had to record it. That's why I put together the Missingmen. This was since I saw that We Jam Econo documentary. Mission: Accomplished!” Even though the enemy is hostile, we did it.

In all my years of doing music, the Missingmen was really something not accidental. A lot of what I've done was an accident, but once I got to planning it better, I went and did it and put it together. Of course, Tom and Raul had parts, and I wrote them for them. Then it was realized! After fIREHOSE, I decided I was just gonna put bands together around projects. This one was really specific, The Missingmen for “hyphenated-man.” Coming from the old punk tradition – this Stooges thing, too – you don't ask for permission. You don't do a market test. You just do it. (laughing) And you're hoping people will like it.

You don't ask for permission. You don't do a market test. You just do it.

This was the first time I know of that you used the Minutemen form since the Minutemen. It was impressive that you could slip so easily and so well back into that form.

Mike:

That was part of putting that thing together. I helped put together that documentary, and I found myself hearing the Minutemen again for the first time. I stopped listening to the band's music when D. Boon died, because (emotionally) it made me sad. But when I heard it again, I was like, “Yeah, I wanna try this again!” I owe it to Georgie (Hurley, Minutemen drummer) and D. Boon to rip off my own band! But ya gotta do something to make it, it's own dealio. That's when I thought, “I'll make the libretto about what's going on with me right now, as a 53-year-old punk rocker.” And that's something I would've never done in the Minutemen days. I didn't really think about putting my head 30 years later. I was writing about those moments. Fundamentally, I wasn't trying to do a total “Happy Days” thing. I was going back to the format of going back to the little motifs. But that wasn't a Minutemen idea. We actually got that from a band from England called Wire, with an album called Pink Flagthat was very influential. So it wasn't our idea anyway, but we went for it, and I did want to use it again. But I did think I should make it its own device and not just warmed-over Minutemen by bringing in the story about being a middle-aged punk rocker, using the imagery from Hieronymus Bosch. I mean, these are things I don't think I would have done in the Minutemen. Also the idea of the opera: Putting it all into one big song. I didn't do that, in those days. That's a newer thing that started with Contemplating The Engine Room, maybe '97.

Does this mean more music of this kind out of you? More stuff with The Missingmen?

Mike:

Yeah, I wanna write them another opera, but it ain't gonna be an opera. I don't really feel a fourth one in me. I feel more like doing a collection of songs. I'm actually gonna do those for the Secondmen's next album.  That was the band I put together for the second opera, Secondman's Middle Stand, and that's organ, bass, drums. And I gotta collection of work songs. Both these guys are longshoremen here in San Pedro. I thought D. Boon would love the idea of me doing an album (of songs about working) with Pedro working guys. So, that's the next project. Then, as far as recording, it's the Mike Watt Trio. Then I have another project where I'm just a player, and I actually wrote the songs on bass. It's a thing with Nels Cline, Greg Saunier, the Deerhoof drummer, and this guy Nick Reinhart, who's the guitar man for Tera Melos, a Sactown band. I think he's 28 or 29, a younger guy. He loves Nels Cline! He heard that first opera, Engine Room, and I said, “You wanna know him? Why don't you play with him?” (laughs) So, I got the name for the band from a Richard Meltzer poem, “Big Walnuts Yonder,” and I wrote these eight songs on bass, and it played it to them. I said, “When we get some time this coming-up year, we're gonna do that.” So those are my next two recording things.


When I write songs for people like this on the bass, I don't have a finished vision, and it's not like The Missingmen where I write basically the whole album, or like the third opera. Which was kinda strange the way I wrote that, because 99% of the time I used D. Boon's guitar for that. I wanted the bass parts to come second. But when I write stuff for other people, like with this situation, the songs are just launchpads, they're springboards. Nels is used to this from playing with me and recording with me a lot. Iinitially, he got nervous about it, because there wasn't enough information. Not like writing on a piano or an acoustic guitar where you get more harmonic information. I actually see that as freeing things up.

So basically, you are inviting your musicians into the process of songwriting with you that way, aren't you?

Mike:

In a way, but not entirely. Because I tend to stamp an imprint in there; a framework. Then I kinda guide it. I don't dance around the bass, of course. But I set up the racecourse, okay? What's gonna go here, what's gonna go here, what's gonna go here. Now the way you do that? That's up to you. It's a partial input. A full-on jam, full-on improvising is more like everybody is more equal in the songwriting, I think. This way, I'm just kinda the starting point. For sure, my intention is not to give anything away.  But I just want to see what'll happen. If I lay down a bass line, what will somebody like Nels Cline play

Life is about different goals, taking turns, doing different things. So, in one case, I can be asking people like Tom Morello or Pete Jarrett to take direction. But at the same time, with the Ig and James Williamson, they ask me to take direction. It happens in different turns.

In the old days, when punk wasn't so popular, they used that “musician” thing against you.

I'm fascinated with your working methods, your work ethic, and how they're integrated with your life.  You have basically become like a lot of the old country, blues or jazz musicians. You are out there literally playing every night somewhere with somebody, whether it's your own thing or with The Stooges or you joining in with other people.  You are a Working Musician.

Mike:

Oh, yeah. Which I never ever aspired to. I got into music to be with my friend (D. Boon). But he was killed in that accident, that wreck. At first, I was going to stop playing. I didn't want to play music without him. But I just kept goin', and the past is the past, to be honest about it. And to use some of the ethics, D. Boon was kinda like that. He worked really hard, y'know? So, I'm comin' outta that tradition. This is what the Minuteman would do when he lost The Minutemen! (laughs)

Your entire life, musically and personally, has been entirely defined by your “jamming econo” ethic. You've got minimal equipment, minimal crew. You get out there, you play this kick ass show, whether it's to ten people or 400. Then right out the end, you dig out the two Tupperware tubs, one's got t-shirts, the other's got CDs, everything's $10. And you're selling them yourself from the stage.

Mike:

There was a lot of that in the old days. Definitely, that's the tradition that I come from. So, I'm kind of a product of the movement!

In the old days, when punk wasn't so popular, they used that “musician” thing against you:  “Ah, you don't know how to play!” I think that's why I'm personally...against that.

It also demonstrates an aspect of your personality that I love: You have a humility that you work at, you practice it.

Mike:

Well, yeah. Because I'm not a natural musician. I got in this by wanting to be with my friend. It's trippy how things work out like that. (chuckles) But that's just the way it started. Once I got involved, I went for it. But I don't have this thing like, (intoned with disgust) “Yeah, I part of some kind of royalty!” Or some privileged class! I work bass! Everybody's just as valid as the next guy. We just do different things.

The experience with D. Boon dying, I couldn't hear the recordings, I couldn't hear him play. I only had memories.

Now with the “hyphenated-man” disc, you're putting out your own product again. This (Clenchedwrench Records) is your first indie label since New Alliance.

Mike:

Yeah, it's all Watt stuff. As I get so many projects, I just...there's no choke point. I just go! (chuckles) I don't have to wait. It can come out and happen when it happens.30 years after me and D. Boon and Martin (Tamburovich, singer with The Reactionaries, the band that became the Minutemen after Boon, Watt and Hurley split off from him) started New Alliance. We were very inspired by SST. This is more narrow, it's just Watt shit. But all the projects are different. What I try to do with the people I collaborate with is bring out what's special about 'em. So even though they're all trios – and they may all be guitar, bass, and drum trios – they're all gonna sound different, because of who I'm playin' with.


Next week, I'm doing a tour in Europe with Divine Eye. That's Graham Belfy, Raphael Pulido. And one that's gonna come out next, after all the Stooges touring, is Black Gang with Nels Cline and Bob Lee in Autumn. So, that's what's up.sound different, because of who I'm playin' with.

I wanted to ask you how different it is distributing things nowadays and working with the different technology?

Mike:

I'm physically distributed by Org Music. Then the digital thing? We're going through a company called Fine Tunes. They do the things like iTunes and those kinda things. It's different. Also, people aren't buying as much as in the old days. But I still think it's very important for me to put out these things. Because they're kinda like documents. I didn't think about that much when I was in the Minutemen. Back then, records were like fliers for the gigs. I think when I was younger, I didn't think about these things being around when we were gone. Obviously, the experience with D. Boon dying, I couldn't hear the recordings, I couldn't hear him play. I only had memories. But I do have those records. And now I see it was more than just making fliers!


But that was how we thought of it, D. Boon and me. Everything was about the gigs. We split the world into two categories: Fliers and gigs. So everything that wasn't a gig, was a flier. The records were just there to get people to the gig.


But really, we come from arena rock. I was 13 years old in 1970. So, I'm really a product of the '70s and arena rock. I didn't know about clubs until punk. And in a way, our punk experience was a parallel reaction against that arena rock upbringing/education/experience.

Because the music business as we knew it has been decimated over the last ten years, and people aren't buying records like they used to, do you think it's returned to where your record releases or CD releases or MP3 releases are once again fliers for the shows?

Mike:

I have a different perspective. They'll always be like that. But I didn't have the conviction in those days that I have now that these things are here after you're gone. They're the noun version of the word “work”: “The Works!” It's now like the new version of the novel or a Vincent Van Gogh painting: You just did it! They're there after you've gone. They have a physical being.


In regards to the history of music, or making a living off of it? Yeah, (we had) maybe about a hundred years out of the whole history where you could put music onto some sort of medium and sell it. Music has been, over 99.9% of its existence, performed!  Putting it on a piece of medium – a cylinder, a vinyl record, a disc, an MP3 – is a novelty. Now it's returned to its original form. This thing about selling a recording of it is a novelty that happened for about 100 years. So, I don't think that it's too outrageous that it's off the plate to make a living at this racket! (laughs) It's not just about making this one recording and mining that for the rest of your life. You have to actually go out and do gigs.

And that changed, too, since the '70s when I was a teenager. I think 4 or 5 years ago, the live thing grew bigger than the recorded thing. But that was the trend since the '70s, the later '70s. Before that, (tours) were like promotions for the albums. (The tours) were the fliers! The tours were the fliers for the albums, and that became an industry unto itself, selling t-shirts and those kinda things. I think that replaced selling music in 2008.

In a way, it's an old system that goes back to vaudeville: You fuckin' work the towns! What did they say in vaudeville? You work the rooms!

You're not only a punk rocker, you're a vaudevillian!

Mike:

Well, punk and that circuit that (Chuck) Dukowski (Black Flag bassist and SST Records' in-house booking agent under the Global Booking banner) built in hardcore, there's a lot of similarities. It seems the only thing new is youth finding out about it. It's about your personal experience. Because other cats had to go through the same kinda things.

Well, it's good to know that as long you've got gas in the van and a bass in your hand, you're gonna be makin' it.

Mike:

Yeah, I like doin' it. I've been fortunate. People still come out and check out what I'm doin'. I'm real fortunate.

Tim “Napalm” Stegall

Tim “Napalm” Stegall is a Texas native who has written for too many rock magazines (including FlipsideAlternative Press, and  Guitar World) and led a number of raunchy punk bands, including The Hormones and Napalm Stars. He currently lives in  Austin, TX, writing about music for The Austin Chronicle and working on reviving both his band The Hormones and his long-running internet radio show, Radio Napalm.”