By Charles Russo
“There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we’ve discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”
– John Coltrane
Sitting in Iggy Pop’s dressing room in the basement of the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, Mike Watt is on the 61st tour of his career. It’s a number that is significant not just for its size, but for how engaged Watt is in spite of it. Some 27 years now since he and his best friend D. Boon ignited the explosion of ideas and sounds known as The Minutemen, Watt is still anxious to open up new doors and marvel at what’s inside.
His resume is a testament to this, leaving you to search for a word that is somehow stronger and perhaps more dedicated in meaning than ‘prolific’. In the time since Boon’s tragic end in a fatal car crash in 1985, Watt has contributed his unique and wholly masterful bass playing to an extensive list of bands, projects, collaborations, experiments and excursions; including post-Minutemen trio fIREHOSE, the Middlemen, Banyan, Hellride, the double bass duo Dos, Porno for Pyros, the Black Gang, Ciccone Youth, Unknown Instructors, Pelicanman, and the most recent Kelly Clarkson album (to name a few). He also keeps extensive on-line tour journals on his website – hootpage.com – and broadcasts his 3 hour radio program The Watt from Pedro Show (now via podcast) whenever he is not on tour.
It is a work ethic that springs from a deep and readily detectable desire to honor the memory of his friend and collaborator D. Boon, as well as a sort of spiritual hunger to chase down something real via his music. “I heard this interview with John Coltrane, where he said, ‘I think every musician is looking for some kind of truth,'” explains Watt, “and that’s pretty noble, because it’s not just some schtick to work on people in order to service some kind of lifestyle. Coltrane was on a journey.”
For Watt’s own present voyage, he has been enlisted by Iggy Pop and the Asheton brothers (Ron and Scott) to replace original bassist Dave Alexander (who died in 1975) for the reunited Stooges tour.
Watching them play “1970” on the Warfield stage before a rabid audience, the band taps into something that is both profound and entirely ferocious. Perhaps it is what Iggy meant by ‘Raw Power’, or Coltrane’s notion of things in their pure state. By the time Steve Mackay comes in with the wail of his saxophone, the Stooges have got us back to their naked essence…back to 1970.
Today, Mike Watt – or rather, as his fans and admirers know him: WATT (four large letters for the large sound coming from the four string) – continues to point us towards a genuine perception of music unobscured by industry, publicity and marketing campaigns. Although the Minutemen’s closing chapter was a tragic one, the prevailing character and spirit of their story has always been (and will continue to be) utterly triumphant. In this sense, Watt is still very much the Minuteman, arriving at different places and times in various forms to push the bounds to a better place.
Hobo was honored to chat with him.
“So how’s it going with the Stooges?”
Well finally, I’m the youngest guy in the band. (laughs)
It’s quite an experience for me because they’re a primary source, so much stuff is second or third hand. I don’t even know if there would be a punk scene without the Stooges. I was 16 years old when I first heard them. I couldn’t imagine playing with them 33 years later.
What was the punk scene like when you were 16? Was there one?
There was no punk scene. It came in ’76 and ’77…and that was when we graduated high school. I never went to a club until punk. What we knew as teenagers was arena rock: Zeppelin, the Who, Alice Cooper.
The punk shows were played up in Hollywood. We lived in the harbor – San Pedro – which is about 30 miles south. So we went up there and it was a whole different thing. You didn’t sit far away in the dark, you could go right up to the stage.
And the nature of the scene was very different too, because it was very small a lot of the dudes playing would be standing out there after they were done. It was like they were taking turns playing for each other. And the first thing I told D. Boon was “Man, we can do this.” I never had those thoughts with arena rock…which was a sort of unreality.
So we came to figure that punk wasn’t even really a style….it was just a state of mind. Because all the bands were just so different. And you can tell a lot of the bands were just starting out playing. But what was really different – was that they were writing their own songs. Nobody wrote their own songs in those days. There were big rock bands, and that’s it. If you played, you copied records. So punk was different, these guys didn’t care about learning other people’s songs…they wrote their own. So that was a trip to us.
So did you connect the Stooges to what was going on then, did you see them as a sort of forerunner to that scene?
Well, you didn’t have fanzines yet. But there was Creem Magazine, which had some interesting stuff in those days and that’s when we first heard about punk. You’d see these pictures of these trippy guys from England, but there were no records, so we didn’t know what they sounded like. But when we finally heard the records – like the Damned and their single “New Rose” – we thought, “Wow, this is just like the Stooges and Captain Beefheart.”
The way the media wrote about punk in America was about Sid Vicious spitting on people. We didn’t have any idea until we experienced it. Hardcore came in the early 80’s and it kind of got more predictable. But in the 70’s days of punk it was pretty bizarre, we didn’t know what any of those bands were gonna sound like. We thought it was a great thing to get into.
It was also a lot about people. SOCAL is like 150 towns all spread out…it was like all these weirdos met up in one place. So you got to meet people really easy. We ran into Black Flag and they said “Yeah, come on…make a record with us.” It was about doing things for yourself and your buddies and not waiting on some kind of industry. Which seemed like the old way.
So you saw punk as a state of mind more than any sound or style? There were no real parameters yet…?
There were so many angles to it. It wasn’t really codified in some kind of orthodoxy yet. Nobody knew what punk was exactly because it was new. Everybody was trying everything.
But in the 80’s hardcore came along with the young people from the suburbs. Their wasn’t a lot of young people in early punk. There were a lot of people from the glam and glitter scene, a lot of artists – it was a strange mix of people – and they got burned out on it after a few years. So all you had left was this new batch of young people from the suburbs who were still going to high school, and that was who the Minutemen ended up playing for. And that’s why I think when people said, “Wow, the Minutemen sounded different,”; it was because we actually learned from this earlier scene.
It had really given us confidence to try and find our own sound and that’s what I liked about it…and that’s why I consider us part of the movement.
I give a lot of credit to younger people for being much more open-minded than in my day. They’ll check out music from whatever year and whatever genre. Even though the marketing is stronger now than ever, the reaction against it is “No, we’re gonna check out music on our own,”…which I think is really healthy.
I want ask you about the “econo” mindset, but more so than just in the sense of saving money, what effect does it have on music and a sense of creativity?”
You build up an ethic of self-reliance. You had to in those days because the punk scene was so small and there were a lot of people that were so negative to it. …especially rock n’ rollers, who just hated it. So if you didn’t like it, no one else was going to. So it gave you a sense of self-reliance. Not arrogance, but in saying, “We’re gonna try to do this no matter what. And if it takes a lot of money, we’re gonna try to do it econo, because we have to.”
It wasn’t a slogan to pitch…it actually was a means to do things. We’d rather take risks with the art form and expression than with the lifestyle. Minutemen worked the entire time we were a band…you know, other jobs. We never made enough money from the music to live by.
I never imagined myself as a musician. Econo was profound on us coming from arena rock, because we saw how there was this whole way of managers and roadies, but we found out you don’t have to do that, so it was very pragmatic.
But it seems like something that is still very much with you. I was reading your tour journal and you were saying how you like to crash on your friends’ couches so you don’t cost Iggy and the guys too much money……
Absolutely, it keeps you grounded. I never thought of the scene as a stepping stone to some kind of royalty. To me, there was enough opportunity and reward to try freaky shit and not just get stuck in some robot mode servicing a lifestyle. We were weirdos in high school, but we weren’t gonna try to overcompensate for that, so we just thought we’d ride it out.
What was it about growing up in San Pedro that was such a huge aspect of your band? Because to me, I almost think of San Pedro as the fourth member of the Minutemen…
Inside our town we were hardly known by anybody. It’s what we knew. It’s where I met D. Boon…so it’s a big part of my music history. Being a water town, a harbor town…it’s got interesting geography. It’s not rows of track homes. There’s something interesting about it. When man works a town around earth and water, it’s got an attraction, an identity.
It was also a trip going up to Hollywood. You fly over SOCAL and it looks like one town…but its not. A lot of dudes have never even been there. I had spray painted Pedro [pee-dro] on my bass and they thought my name was Pedro [pay-dro].
As far as the Minutemen go, I was thinking about how your solo albums – The Secondman’s Middle Stand and Contemplating the Engine Room – and how they are thought of concept albums…Operas…
But weren’t the Minutemen albums like that in a certain sense as well? They’re not really 25 different unrelated songs…
Oh yeah. The idea was to make one big song. When we first started the band…it was first to be like we were minute [my-nute] men…like we were tiny guys, but not really tiny songs. It was supposed to be one big song. We got the idea to organize it in tiny parts from this English band called Wire. A lot of those bands from England we never got to see – we just knew them from their records – but a lot of them had very interesting music ideas…and Wire had this really interesting way of organizing their music into tiny things.
Now hardcore came and they made little songs too. But Pink Flag [Wire’s debut album] came along in ’77 and we had never heard anything like it…and it just showed us that it is what you make it. No paradigm. Make up your own. Because it’s your band! I know that sounds so naïve and simple now but it seems like the mindset in those days was that there are certain ways you do things. It took these guys who didn’t really know how to play maybe to knock all that down, so it could be reinvented again for itself by people doing it. In some ways too it brought back some old.
It wasn’t just about destroying the old…but in getting the spirit back and using it for expression instead of just connecting dots and becoming Xerox machines.
Well, not to dwell in a negative realm, but it seems like a lot of punk identity today is more about a fashion than a mind frame…
Yeah, humans are like this. Think about Little Richard and his song Tutti Frutti…Pat Boone sold more copies with his cover version and it was terrible. Humans have tendencies to be individualistic and at the other times they’re using it just to fit in. And the same individual can go through these trips in one life. I don’t think anyone is doomed to it. I’m not that fatalistic. I think things are dynamic in this way…but movements can be co-opted into trends and just be shallow silly shit. I don’t think this is a new thing. I think it goes way back.
What is kind of new these days is that equipment costs much less; you can make albums in your bedroom….which you couldn’t really do in the old days. So there is more opportunity. The big burden though is to be creative and maybe that burden should never be solved.
So there are certain dilemmas that have to be there.
I’ve been excited to talk to you about John Coltrane…
When I first heard John Coltrane I thought he was playing punk too….I didn’t know that he was dead. I thought he was a little older, but I thought he was doing punk.
For me, there is just so much spirit to Coltrane’s music….even though he could play like a motherfucker, he’s just trying to get beyond all that and get feeling in it. I can listen to him non-stop.
When we did a Minutemen tour, we’d play Ascension before every gig. We thought, “Anybody into this scene should know about what these cats were doing.”
How would you characterize the influence he’s had on your own work?
It’s had a profound effect on my music. Because….music is not just technique. Even though Coltrane was a master, he was trying to learn more by playing with different people and putting himself in different situations. He also was not elitist, he was a gentleman. So it doesn’t have to be this sense of royalty. John Coltrane is a very idealistic thing for me…an ethic. He just loved playing.
I wanted to get a from-the-horses-mouth run down of all your current projects…
Well, fIREHOSE was my last real band. But the whole thing…the basic idea was that if I keep putting myself in interesting, challenging situations, then I’ll keep learning. And I think that’s one of the fucking big deals.
There’s a Coltrane documentary, they’re talking to Rasheed Ali (his last drummer), and he says, “I don’t know why Coltrane practiced so much…he was already so good.” But Coltrane would probably chase something down, work it out, and it opened up new opportunities. It was never ending. Things lead to others. You have to search it out, because you’re driven and curious.
Well… isn’t it almost scientific in a way, that as you learn more it’s not really final answers you get but greater possibilities?
That’s right. That’s what I learned in middle age. I knew everything in my 20s. But you get to this point in your life and it opens up all these questions….but that’s actually a good thing because it keeps you in the realm of possibilities; which is always the most fertile cradle for creativity…not where everything is figured out.
I was wondering if you could tell me about your radio show?
Punk was about everything…not just a band: start your own label, put on your own gig, publish a fanzine. Radio just seems like another extension of this. 8 or 9 years ago there was a pirate station in Silverlake and they asked me to sub and then to do my own show.
The government shut it down after 2 years. They were all from Silverlake (just east of Hollywood) and I was the only guy from out of town, so I was ‘Watt from Pedro.
So after the government shut that down for being a pirate station, the internet started developing and these guys running a web service told me that they’d stream my show. So I kept it going and I could reach more people now…go all over the world. I think I’ve done 135 shows now. I try to do it once a week when I’m home for 3 hours. I always start with a John Coltrane song…most of the music I play is what people give me.
To finish, just getting back to D. Boon and his legacy, how would you articulate it?
People ask me, “What kind of bass player are you?” And I say, “I’m D. Boon’s bass player.” (laughs)
D. Boon was a cat…he played hard and he was into this shit about reading a lot and trying to learn stuff. Life was a big school. It didn’t end when you graduated some classroom, because life itself was the big classroom. He was a student of the school of possibilities. When something trips me out – when I’m pondering on it – I always ask myself, “What would D. Boon think?” Because he wouldn’t always have the answer, but he’d have an interesting perspective from different angles. He was a very interesting guy and he got my own mind working, helping me. He helped me so much.
He was the guy that ain’t supposed to be in the band. He ain’t supposed to be doing that. “Why you jumping like that, why you playing with your heart out like that?”
“Cause I gotta. It’s in me. And it’s not just for me, it’s for everybody.”
I think D. Boon was never like, ‘I’m the lucky motherfucker who made it.” He would just say, “Come on along.”