Q&A: Mike Watt on Napping, Beards, the Neutral Milk Guy, and D Boon
Mike Watt (center) and his Missingmen
To dig up some remotely negative bluster thrown at flannel-flyin,' bass-pluckin' Minutemen/fIREHOSE/Stooges punk-rock guru and super-nice dude Mike Watt is no small feat. Enter Watt's ol' SST Records pal Henry Rollins for lighthearted jabs at Watt, found in Rollins's legendary memoir of Black Flag life on the road, Get In The Van. Besides bassist Chuck Dukowski wanting to "pull over and punch [Watt] out" for not shutting up driving across Italy in 1983, while both Black Flag and Minutemen were piled together in a vehicle, the hyperbole about Watt's infamous congeniality is, in fact, right on.
On his current tour with his Missingmen (Slovenly/Red Krayola/SST Recs vet guitarist Tom Watson and San Pedro punk drummer Raul Morales), in support of the awesomely Minutemen-esque, hook-obsessed Hyphenated-Man, he's made it a point to do an interview a day, even as he's trekked across the States and Canada doing 51 gigs in 52 days. When Watt pulled a no-show on the night of our phone interview, he hunted me down a couple days later, leaving me messages (it was no "Providence" but darn cool, nonetheless) and politely offered that it was an honor to talk to me.
Anyway, Hyphenated-Man is the inaugural release on his fledgling Clenched Wrench label. Recorded in Brooklyn, no less, shows Watt in raw postpunk 80's form -- and thanks to the We Jam Econo documentary, he's gone Minutemen again, paying homage to the Amerindie godhead trio he shared with his hulking best friend, the late D Boon, and drummer George Hurley. Hyphenated-Man is 30 spurts in the one to two minute range--just like how Watt and D Boon operated for the bulk of Minutemen--that deliberately ignore the verse-chorus-verse ennui and stuff inordinate amounts of pop/punker/jazzy, catchy-as-hell bass/guitar riffage, hyper overload drums that ultimately morph into melodic, no-filler fits. Watt's crusty sing-speak and literally-minded lyrical jargon weighs heavily off the figures found in the works of Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch and yet manages to intertwine inspiration from an unlikely un-punk classic -- The Wizard of Oz. He even wrote all thirty parts on D Boon's old guitar. While Watt's called this another 'opera ' - each song is accentuated by "--man," (i.e. "Antlered-Man," "Confused Parts-Man" and so on) his fourth solo LP proper is devoid of the emotive heaviness shtick of 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room, his tribute to his late father and the Minutemen, and The Secondman's Middle Stand, his long-winded dissection of the illness that almost killed him in 2000.
Watt and I finally caught up while he was in Virginia, dangerously close to gig time, and he reflected on his best friend's D Boon, whose 53rd birthday would have been April 1.
Hope I'm not cutting into your traditional pre-gig nap time. Did you start the "konks in the boat" as far back as the Minutemen and fIREHOSE?
[Laughing] I was a little stronger back then with the Minutemen. The naps started after fIREHOSE, when I was doing The Crew of the Flying Saucer with Nels Cline for Ballhog or Tugboat? It really kicked in around the first opera [1997's Contemplating the Engine Room] with the Black Gang. Part of it is doing all the driving because I like the vibration on the knuckles - my hands get all swollen wrestlin' the bass and then it wears me out. It changes a little with time, ya know? It's better if I konk [Watt's lingo for nap]. When I'm home, I konk really early and pop really early. It's hard for me to sleep in late. I got into the habit of konking before I play for maybe 15 years now.
Do you always do the driving when on tour?
I did a lot of it. If it's too long of a ride, I'll always hand the wheel over when I start to get tired. When I leave on a tour, the first thing I promise is I'm going to get my guys home safe.
What's with the leg injury? I saw you walking around with a crutch.
I only got the brace now. It's fucked up but what am I going to to do? I am not using the crutch, but I'm hobblin' around. I gotta keep it in perspective: I could have'em both sawed off and the colostomy bag, like I had with that illness. I'm old hat with this. I've had surgeries in my early 20s. I did Minutemen gigs sittin' in a chair during What Makes A Man Start Fires? gigs. [That injury] happened during a Stooges gig last summer. I just turned wrong and stuff tore.
Your latest opera, Hyphenated-Man, is another LP with a heavy theme. Will you make another record that isn't an "opera" or conceptual piece like you used to with Minutemen and fIREHOSE?
With just a selection of songs? Yeah, I got some of those in the pipeline--like twelve or thirteen of'em! That's why I had to start my own label, Clenched Wrench. One of the reasons because of the heavy things was the big space between albums. I got out of balance with doing so many gigs and so little recorded works. I'm tryin' to address that in balance.
Speaking of fIREHOSE, it seems your post-Minutemen band doesn't get the respect it deserves. People seem to be so connected to D Boon and weigh the two bands against each other.
Edward [Crawford] called me last summer and he asked me that he wants to write some new songs and maybe try some more fIREHOSE. He helped me a lot. Edward came to me in a very hard part of my life. fIREHOSE did 20 tours, seven years, a lot of work. And George Hurley--for 14 years I played with him and little more than half of that was with fIREHOSE. So, I have a lotta respect for those two men.
I think people miss D Boon a lot, is what it is. I know what you're talking about. I agree with you. I don't try to compare 'em. Edwards was up there workin' his heart out. Two/thirds of fIREHOSE was the same [as Minutemen] but we were a way different band.
As far as the reunion, Edwards asked about it and he said Georgie's into it. Edward would have to come to Cali though. He's in Pittsburgh, takin' care of his folks. I have a lotta respect for edfromohio. I think fIREHOSE came at a period where Minutemen hadn't gotten to college people yet and with fIREHOSE it was more there. There was more of an open audience.
I spoke to Georgie before this tour and I'm going to record some songs with him. Georgie's one of the greatest drummers I've ever played with in my life. Also, me and Georgie got asked by this Neutral Milk guy--sorry, I don't know his name. Neutral Milk Hotel? He's curating All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in December and he asked me and Georgie, as a duo, to do some Minutemen songs.
Back in '98 on the Engine Room tours, you said you kept the beard you grew. Do you still have it?
I never shaved, those 14 months I did that tour. I still have it in the back of my freezer, yeah.
Do you still grow the long-ass, furry opera beards now?
Those hairs shrink. This beard I have now is plenty more white than the Engine Room tour beard [laughing]. I haven't shaved on this tour though.
Did you have any trepidation about soldiering on with the Stooges after Ron Asheton passed away?
We were talking about how Minutemen and fIREHOSE were different. The James Williamson and Ronny Asheton bands are much different, too - completely different Stooges even though the guys are the same. I get to play Ronny's bass lines and James is very nice to me. He didn't play for a long time but first practice I could tell he was the guy on Raw Power - it's like his signature. I didn't know that was going to happen - that was a complete surprise to me. I love Scotty, I love Ig, I love Stooges. And it is Ronnie's bass-lines so I try to play'em for him and try my hardest. I don't take shit for granted.
Ronny was the reason why I am playing with those guys. I remember I got the call (to join the Stooges). I was in Tallahassee with my Secondmen with Iggy on the phone and Ronny saying 'You're the man!' Trippiest fuckin' phone call I ever got!
You've said that you revisited listening to Minutemen as inspiration for Hyphenated-Man.
You know, there was this documentary We Jam Econo. Well, they asked me to help'em out so I had to listen to Minutemen again. It was sad for me. The hearing it again--I was like 'Woh, this is trippy!' Minutemen got the idea [for short songs] from Wire and Pink Flag. I like what D boon said: 'No filler.' I had to talk about each album in the documentary. I was like 'Woh, fuck!" Georgie said the same thing, man: 'How did we play that shit?'
Are there D Boon moments in Minutemen songs or LP's you are still floored by to this day?
To me, the high point is Double Nickels. Some of those guitar solos D Boon does on "Anxious Mofo" and "June 16th" are so econo, choosin' very few notes. It's really intense. Those are the ones that blow me away. You're bringin' me back to them [laughs]!
Was there a show with Minutemen that stands out after all these years?
They all did. D did the banzai charges and he footworked the gig like it was always the last gig. D Boon was so intense. I was scared shitless to get up there. But I'd look over at him and you couldn't be scared being up there with a guy like that. D Boon played the gig like the whole world depended on it. I loved it. If a garbage disposal opened up on stage and he jumped in, I'd probably jump in right after. I'd get caught up in it, man. Edward, too, had a really gung ho spirit.
dos, your two-bass duo project with ex-Black Flag bassist (and ex-wife) Kira Roessler, is still active.
dos has got a new record coming out on my label, Clenched Wrench. We've been together 25 years. Kira does film/sound editing. She got an Emmy for the John Adams miniseries. She's an amazing lady...self-taught herself that stuff. When she was in Black Flag, Kira went to UCLA and got an engineering degree. She'd fly home from tour to do the midterms! Big time inspiration for me and still is.
Recently, I read her place was robbed and her bass was stolen but it was recovered?
The guy was trying to sell it [Kira's custom-made bass] at The Guitar Center. But I was already having another one made for her. She's a big part of my life. Kira's one of the most fuckin' straight people you've ever met in your life. And she's funny, too! We were married six years, from '87-'93 - it was all the fIREHOSE years, exactly. Ain't that weird? We're tighter not married than we are married, if you can believe it. It's part of middle age. You learn to reconcile things now that you can't when you're younger. Of course, there's things that you can't reconcile. Towards the end of Hyphenated-Man is "Man-Shitting-Man." I can't understand why us humans are cruel to each other and cant find a good enough reason except to act like an asshole to other people. So we do do that. We torture, we murder and we do fucked up things. But, I didn't want that to be the bottom line of the piece. When I was in the studio with Tony [Maimone] finishing it, I said 'Tony, this ["Man-Shitting-Man"] can't be the last piece. I gotta acknowledge that this shit exists and maybe some people can cure it. But I'll take the middle song ['Wheel-Bound-Man"] and put that at the end. "Man-Shitting-Man" was too know-it-all, too cynical and too down. Except for a couple changes, the order Hyphenated-Man is in is how I wrote it.
Were your Missingmen [guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales] immediately on board for Hyphenated-Man?
I put the Missingmen together specifically for this opera. Tom is from the old days. He was in Slovenly, who actually toured with Minutemen and fIREHOSE, and Minutemen's label New Alliance put out their records. He was really influenced by D Boon. Raul came up in the 90's punk scene - in Pedro! We [Minutemen] were the only punks in our town. What happened was I didn't know because I was touring so much that a punk scene came to Pedro in the 90's and that was Raul. He's a son of mine. I had them learn the opera without them ever hearing the bass.
You're famous for being a huge John Coltrane fan. Do you have a favorite recording?
Well, my iPod has 385 Coltrane pieces and I love'em all. I didn't know John until [Raymond] Pettibon played it for me. I thought they [jazz] were older punk rockers...I didn't even know Coltrane was dead! I love A Love Supreme of course, and Ascension. On this tour I've been playing Village Vanguard - his duets with Eric Dolphy. I love when he did sideman shit too with Monk and Miles - the Prestige label stuff. Coltrane is a big, big inspiration. He was a believer in music in its true sense with no bullshit around it. He really saw it like, ya know, Vincent van Gogh used to paintbrush. He's a man that inspired me to try to learn more about the bass.
What have you and the Missingmen been listening to in the van?
Oh, well! One project is called Spiel Gushin' and that's Richard Meltzer. He gave me 48 spoken work poems and there's music I did with Ms. Yuka [Honda] and we listen to that. It's all coming out on my label. I love Richard. He's a huge hero of mine and D Boon, too. Minutemen were actually going to collaborate with him. I gave those poems to D Boon on that last van ride. We were gonna get to record with him...D Boon had a bad feelin.' What a terrible night. People tell me about that day and I don't think about that day. I always think of the birthday. If it weren't for him, I'd not be doin' this. D Boon was very genuine and dear to me, ya know? He'd look ya right in the eye and say 'Let's do this, man...let's do it.' Coltrane, D Boon--these guys they strike a chord in me. They raise you up to be with'em.
Do you ever think about if what you guys would be doing today had D Boon lived?
I think he'd be fuckin' kickin' the gnash out and writin' some bitchin' songs! I am very curious about his opinions on politics and all that. I can't imagine. I ask him questions all the time [laughs]. Thanks for asking me beautiful things that people don't ask me usually.
Mike Watt & The Missingmen play Mercury Lounge tonight, Monday April 4th.
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