Q&A: Mike Watt On Snapping Pics In San Pedro For on and off bass, The fIREHOSE Reunion, And Playing Stooges Covers


For the past three decades, the flannel-flyin’ and econo-jamming godhead Mike Watt has staunchly adhered to his and late, great best friend and fellow Minuteman D Boon’s credo “punk is whatever we made it to be while projecting an air of sincerity that is just plain righteous. And in all of Watt’s projects—the Stooges, the recently reformed fIREHOSE, his outfit with Richard Meltzer spielgusher, dOS, Missingmen—the San Pedro bass king is always first to defer credit to his bandmates and collaborators.

The cover ofThe Secondman’s Middle Stand, Watt’s gut-wrenching opera from 2004, provided a glimpse into Watt’s knack for snapping pics. But with the release of his photographic memoir on and off bass (Three Rooms Press), Watt may have to swallow his punk rock pride and accept the cred for being a damn good photographer. The dude who revolutionized bass playing in the Minutemen pops at the crack of dawn and heads out on his bike or kayak with econo digital camera in tow, taking shots of his beloved hometown as the sun rises over the glistening harbor, pelicans whoosh overhead and sea lions gather. on and off bass not only collects a stellar shitload of Watt’s pictures, it plugs in sage snippets from his tour diaries.

Sound of the City caught Watt at home in San Pedro to talk Pedro, his pics, fIREHOSE and how playing Stooges covers in Hellride made him well enough to play the bass again after an illness.

So, you have a photo book coming out.

This little publisher called Three Rooms Press [said] “Watt, in between these pictures [you took], we’ll put some selections from… ” I do these fuckin’ stupid tour diaries, kinda tour spiel. So they said, “We’ll take some stuff outa here [diaries] and we’ll take some of your poems and we’ll put this in between [your pictures].” There’s a lot more white, ya know, it’s not all jammed up with words—they put little selections. It was their choices; I thought it would be too ham-fisted for me to pick my own. Fuck, I don’t even read those [diaries], they’re so embarrassin.’ “You pick them and we’ll put’em in there and every three or four pictures there can be another spiel or somethin’ like that.” So, that’s what the book is about. I never thought I’d ever have one, ya know. [Laughing]

What it comes out of is last year there was an art show in Santa Monica where they had my pictures. I never thought about them hangin’; I never thought of them even printed cuz they’re on these digital cameras right so they’re only on the ‘puter or I’d flow’em to my friends or put’em on the Hootpage. I never thought of having like a fuckin’ book or an art show. Basically, all the pictures that are in the book were at the [art] show. It’s kind of the catalog form of the exhibition, which is kinda trippy, like an album is kind of a recording of a meeting in a studio. So, it’s kinda like that—an album version of an art show mixed in with a little bit of tour spiel.

It’s called on and off bass. Basically, it’s pictures that I take early in the morning here in my Pedro town when I’m on the kayak or bike. It’s sea lions, pelicans. I got some shots of a pelican this mornin.’

We don’t have pelicans here in New York.

[Laughing] Yeah, well, it’s [New York] a water town. There’s water around that island. In fact, I took my ma around that Circle Line cruise to show her what an island [Manhattan] was. She had only been to New York once when she was five to see her Sicilian grandma and that was in Brooklyn anyway, which is another island. They should have a Circle cruise around that island. But anyway, livin’ by the water [in Pedro], early mornin,’ I got less younger and was wakin’ up earlier [Laughing]. It’s a neat thing to be out because there’s hardly anyone around—like the fuckin’ town belongs to you. I’ve walked around in Manhattan early too sometimes after gigs if I’m on tour and it’s just a different thing. Just a few hours later, man, it turns into this big, ripe organism. But at first it’s like “Woah.” So there’s something about this time [early], I really dig. I know most music people are night people but I’m the opposite.

You’re an early riser. What time do you wake up?

4 or 5. I only stay up late for gigs. I’m 54 now. The middle years came on and it just seemed to happen.

How often do you kayak? It’s in the kayak where you take some killer shots.

Tuesday, Thursday. Saturday. I do the kayak because it hurts my knees to pedal every day.

When you are on tour, how much do you miss Pedro?

Big time. I want to check out the other towns too but the bungee chord is waitin’ to snap me back [to Pedro].

Are there other places you’ve visited that conjure the affinity you have for San Pedro?

Well, Pedro because of D Boon and the history. I came here when I was ten so some of it ain’t even the physical stuff although it invokes memory. I can go to the apartment where me and D Boon started the Minutemen. I can go there. Richard Meltzer said I’m his “favorite sentimentalist” [Laughing]. In a ways, I am a little bit. I think like some of the pictures show ya, we’re [Pedro] a weird mix with this harbor, industrial thing but we got nature, too. It is kinda trippy. But yeah there’s places like it all over the world and in the US, too. Pedro ain’t the best but just for me it has real significance. In some ways, New York is like Pedro, the way the water is there. Sometimes, I’m reminded [of Pedro] early in the mornin’ when I’m on the Brooklyn side walkin’ around and even in the old days that lower west side lookin’ over at New Jersey. It’s much different in some ways, but still, the water in the town, that idea, is kinda a parallel universe.

Do you always carry around a camera wherever you go?

Well, this is one of the reasons why I got into this—these digital cameras, they’re tiny. You don’t have to spend money on film; you don’t have to spend money on developing’em. It’s way econo and way practical to bring these things with you. I have a waterproof one I use in the kayak. They’re pretty econo. The thing what I found out about pictures is you can’t set this shit up; you just find it. With the bass, you gotta work out these things.

Are there a lot of pics you get rid of?

About 90%!

I’ve read the tour diaries over the year but taking out little pieces of your words like they did for the book really has an affect. They did a really good job.

In a way, it’s kind of a collaboration: first with the show in Santa Monica at the Track 16 Gallery when they picked those pictures. I’m more of a bass player [than a photographer], and I’m kinda insecure. So I asked these guys and let the Three Rooms Press people chat and take the diary things and [add] some kind of objectivity, ya know? It wasn’t a total manhandled Watt thing. I mean, I made the stuff—those are my spiels, those are my pictures but they were picked by them.

So they rummaged through the pics and the diaries and they picked and chose?

Yeah, from whatever you want to call it… my shit-horse. I do those things on tour, not really to be re-printed. I do the diaries to keep focused. I can’t even re-read the shit, it’s so embarrassing and with the pictures, I never even saw’em printed. I just would share them with friends over the ‘puter. I think Jim O’Rourke used one for an album cover and I used one for my second opera album cover but I never really seen’em printed. They were just shared over the ‘puter: “Here’s my Pedro town at the crack of dawn.”

Right. The Secondman’s Middle Stand cover is one of your pics.

There’s something about mornin,’ the sun comin’ up. It’s like “Wow. Anything can happen. It’s like the potential time. What’s gonna happen in the day?” It’s also that light—that orange yellow light. It’s righteous. It’s good at sunset too but Pedro faces east because of the peninsula. We’re trippy for a west coast town.

You just finished up doing the fIREHOSE reunion gigs. How’d it go?

Now, we hadn’t played together as a band in 18 years so it was kinda fuckin’ scary. Edward came here and we spent two weeks here tryin’ to, ya know, play what we once played [Laughing]. Edward’s always had good confidence so he rallied me and Georgie.

Me and Georgie been prac’n for this Minutemen thing. Even before that, we did the drum and bass for the fourth Unknown Instructors album, which ain’t improvised; the first three [albums] were improvised. There’s a poet guy in Toledo, Dan McGuire, and he wanted songs, compositions. So I wrote ten songs and I composed drums parts and me and Georgie recorded it here in Pedro. The couple months I’ve been playin’ a lot with George Hurley and with fIREHOSE—it’s excitin.’ It’s excitin’ to play with George Hurley, man. It’s a mind blow whenever I play with him. That guy trips me up [Laughing]. He puts a lot of personality into it.

How did the fIREHOSE reunion materialize?

Edward asked me last year about doing some fIREHOSE gigs. My third opera was comin’ out and I told him, “Edward, hold on. When I get some time, we’ll try to do this.” That’s one of the other things, too—he don’t really live here. He had moved here to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, then a couple of years ago he moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to take care of his folks. He took the train out here and Georgie’s got a room he stayed at and we went at it for two weeks straight and then we did the two weeks of gigs. Edward made a list of like 26 of’em; it was about an hour’s worth. It’s trippy. A lot of it was from the first three [fIREHOSE records]. Five or six are from fROMOHIO, two from the last one [1993’s Mr. Machinery Operator], “Blaze” and “Powerful Hankerin'” and maybe [three songs] from [’91’s] flyin’ the Flannel. I asked Edward to pick the songs. He didn’t pick the ones with millions of notes. He was kinda merciful on us [Laughing].

How was the reaction from the gig-goers that saw you, George Hurley and Ed Crawford doing fIREHOSE again?

That was a trip. God, I’m the youngest guy; I play with an old-timer band [the Stooges], right? This month will be nine years [playing with the Stooges], which is so hard to believe. But at the gigs—Ig turned 65 a couple days ago—there’s not a lot of 65 year-old people at the gigs.

With this fIREHOSE thing, the two weeks of gigs that I just did, I played with Edward and Georgie for 18 years in fIREHOSE but it was dudes from those days [comin’ to the gigs]! They’re wearing the [old] tour shirts. It was kinda a Happy Days thing, ya know, where I was Potsie or somethin.’ They came up to me [and say] “Man, Thanks so much for comin’ back around!” Ya know, I never stopped. I kept comin’ back. I kept playin.’ I kept comin’ back to their town! [Laughing] [fIREHOSE] was literally a slice of their life, ya know? They were like celebratin’ a part of their life—you could tell! It was really trippy, because at Coachella that’s young people and stuff and you could tell there wasn’t as much interest there than when we played the clubs and they were all sold out. It was all these guys from the late ’80s and early ’90s. fIREHOSE was a soundtrack for part of their lives, whereas [people who go see] the Stooges are young people wonderin’ about this band that probably if they didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be a punk scene. It’s a different thing. That was my take on it. These cats hitting the [fIREHOSE] thing weren’t younger people checking out this band—it was dudes from that day! All these guys—not as old as me—but not young teenagers or early twenties, either. They’re tellin’ ya about the songs they like, when they saw ya and they gave ya a cigar. It was trippy; I’ve really never been part of that. The Stooges is different. For one thing, that’s not my music, those aren’t my songs. But for another thing, there’s just a whole other dynamic workin.’ It [the fIREHOSE gigs] was literally like a Happy Days thing. We there playin’ our heart [out]; it wasn’t like we were just sleepwalkin.’ It was kinda like a high school reunion, sort of, not on purpose but that’s how it turned out. [Laughing]

How was it playing the old fIREHOSE songs again after almost two decades?

Shit, it was trippy because I don’t really play that way anymore. But I think it was healthy to re-learn that stuff and music’s music and why should I lose that ability, although I kinda have. [Laughing]

I just love Edward and Georgie and I would do anything for’em. They’re good cats and especially remember when that happened that was a hard time for me, losin’ D Boon. That was a difficult period in my life—difficult like after the fuckin’ sickness. These things come up and music comes and helps you out and that’s the way I look at that. I don’t get too cynical or weirded out about it. I was playin’ with Georgie and Edward, and god, I kept my eyes on Georgie almost the whole gig and try to be a good rhythm section for Edward up there. It was trippy. It was challengin.’ I was lookin’ at Georgie and tryin’ to keep it together. I had to reach down to play like that [again] for like “Down with the Bass” and stuff like “Wow. How I used to play.”

It happened to me too in February, when Mr. Jeff Mangum asked me and Georgie to do a duet of Minutemen songs in England [at All Tomorrow’s Parties]. So I had to go back even further, right?! Thirty, thirty-five years ago to Minutemen songs. It’s even more difficult because you don’t have that third guy. But you know what? Difficult is sometimes okay. It’s like running at the beach in the sand. [Laughing]. Then there’s the personal connect, too—three, four months I got to spend with George Hurley. This is a man I spent 14 years tourin’ and playin’ with.

He’s still got it big time. I saw the fIREHOSE reunion clips.

Oh, yeah, and he’s a beautiful man. He’s George Hurley, man—one of the true originals in drums style. There’s a lotta cats with their own style and Georgie’s one of’em.

Did you have anything do with fIREHOSE’s lowFLOWs: The Columbia Anthology [’91-’93] or was that a record company thing?

Yeah, that’s the record company. It’s just the albums we put out with a couple of other tracks. I think there’s a no word version of “Down with the Bass,” a live version of “Powerful Hankerin’ and some song from a movie. There’s nothin’ really that new about it. I wouldn’t even say those five or six songs are new ones. One of’em is [“Max and Wells”] and it was used in a movie but actually I re-did it for Ball-Hog or Tugboat? with Mark Lanegan. I think they [Legacy] heard about the [fIREHOSE] gigs and wanted to re-release it all. They had all the shit; they didn’t really have to come up with anything. It wasn’t like I told them “Hey, we’re gonna do some gigs. Would you put this out?” No, this was of their own minds. It’s all on their own. They own those recordings and shit. It’s a repackaging. It’s probably a better deal than tryin’ to buy all three of’em. Actually, they probably weren’t in print. This way, it probably brings it back in print.

You couldn’t get the masters back and release the fIREHOSE major-label records via your Clenched Wrench imprint?

In those days those days those record contracts were, like, in perpetuity. They own the stuff. It wasn’t like nowadays, where you can license so easy—they have to [now] because they don’t have the power.

What’s on the release horizon for your label Clenched Wrench?

I made a record with two Italian musicians [il sogno di marinaio—”the sailor’s dream”]; that’s the next release. I wanted to put it out before the spring tour there but there’s just not enough time because Edward wanted to do the two weeks of fIREHOSE gigs and the Stooges like to do festivals in the summer in Europe. I also wanted to do another tour because we could play it really good now—the first release which was my third opera, Hyphenated-Man. I want to do a US tour in September and October because like I said we could really play it now.

To me, that’s what it would be like to do a spielgusher gig—it’s like that fuckin’ opera where there’s like a hundredfuckinfifty parts to learn and remember. We’ve done it almost 100 times now and we probably beat it into—especially me—into my fuckin’ brain and more into my muscle memory. Then in November I’ll go do a tour with those Italian guys. After that, for December the fifth release will be a Black Gang album. I made a Black Gang album with [drummer] Bob Lee and Nels Cline. I have to mix it.

You did that Black Gang album a while ago, right?

A couple years ago. It was not too long after doing the spielgusher record.

Is the Black Gang record another opera?

It’s around this idea of autumn. At that time, I was just a couple years into the fifties. So I thought ‘Ah, middle age—kinda autumn.’ Hyphenated-Man is kinda about middle age too, but it’s writing about then. I’ve seen so many reviews of spielgusher and they talk about “Oh, it sounds like an old guy.” Well, fuckin’ Richard—sometimes I don’t feel it’s totally wrong to reflect on what’s on your mind and that’s whatcha end up writin’ about. It’s crazy sometimes, ya know? People have such expectations. People should do with their expression. A lot of time it’s a mixture of stuff, like John Fogerty writin’ about the Bayou and never being there. Music can be for pretendin’, but then music can be for writin’ or poems or whatever or it can be an expression of things that kind of happened, too.

For my Black Gang album, even though I wrote all the songs about autumn and stuff, it’s really in a big way a Nels Cline tour de force. He used like 32 of them pedals, he overdubbed electric twelve-string and electric sitar in every song. I asked him when we started if he can make the most psychedelic record you have. I also thought psychedelic cuz of the colors. We ain’t got that so much in California but Midwest, east coast and especially the northeast, get the colors, ya know, when the fall comes. It’s kinda psychedelic—the red, the yellahs, the oranges. We got evergreens here, so… [Laughing]. It’s a little different. That was one of the ideas in askin’ Nels to play all psychedelic, like it was autumn leaves. Nels is one of these cats where you just give him a concept and he fuckin’ runs with it. Lotta cats you give’em just bass lines and they’re like “What? There ain’t enough direction here.” It’s like writin’ a song on a kick drum or cymbal [Laughing]. It leaves too much to the imagination. A lot of people, they can talk about it but when it comes to it, they want a lot of hand holdin,’ trainin’ wheels. And Nels Cline ain’t like that.

Nels was all over your Contemplating the Engine Room record, too.

That’s right, and in the same way, too, it was kinda like Engine Room where no prac. Nels is one of these cats—if ya got the song written and shit you just play it for him and he just improvises on the spot. You don’t have to do pracs with him.

Nels doesn’t do enough of that in Wilco.

That’s different. With me, that opera was weird cuz I wrote it on D Boon’s guitar but 99 percent of the time I write on the bass but I do that on purpose because u think I leaves a lot of room for the dudes who you’re playing with—it’s like a springboard or launchpad, they can use their own ideas. I think that situation there [in Wilco] is more traditional where they’re probably coming more out of a guitar or piano and so he [Nels] is there to add texture and stuff. Mine’s like springboard, man. You’ll hear it when this album comes out.

The sickest thing Nels does is when him and [drummer] Gregg Bendian do their interpretation of Coltrane’s Interstellar Overdrive. I saw them do that at Tonic many years ago.

I saw it too. I saw it at the shittin’ Factory in New York City. I think one of them tracks got recorded. Lee Ranaldo was there too watchin.’ It got recorded and it’s on the album. There’s a live song and I think it’s from the gig I went and saw. It was wild. I have so much respect for [Nels]. I also brought him over to Japan. He [had] never played over there and he’s on the Brother Sister’s Daughter album—his first two recordings over there, ever.

And, I’m gonna make another album with him next year. There’s a band from Sacramento called Tera Melos, and I got to play with them and meet’em. They got a guitar man named Nick Reinhart and he’s like 27, 28—young man and it’s the same thing with Mr. Shimmy [the guitarist on the spielgusher record]. Reinhart was like “I love this. Who’s that guy on the first opera?” I said “You want to know him Play with him! I’ll bring him.” Nick Reinhart asked me about the guitar man on the first opera. Of course, it’s Nels Cline. So I asked Nels “There’s a young man. Ya wanna record with him? He really wants to trip on your shit. He knows. He fuckin’ brings it.” I told Nick Reinhart “OK… We could make it happen. But I think you should pick the drummer man. Who would you want on a proj like this?” And Nels said “Greg [Saunier] from Deerhoof!” Greg’s an old friend of Nels. I met him through Nels. Incredible musician and shit. So it’s gonna be those four—Nick Reinhart, Greg, Nels and myself. And we took the name of the proj is from actually one of the lines in the spielgusher album. There’s this speil called “BEGINS WITH S” and Richard goes “Big walnuts yonder will begin with S.” So we’re gonna call [the band] Big Walnuts Yonder. [Laughing]

So you’re coming to NYC to play the Hellride East [Stooges cover band] gig to celebrate the release of on and off bass.

Hellride is something J [Mascis] and Murph did with me twelve years ago when I survived that sickness. I had tubes in me and had to stop playing bass for like eight months. It was the first time since I started when D Boon’s mom made me play. I couldn’t play. I got atrophy. My muscles went to hell.

So, I couldn’t play worth shit and I was scared! I started practicing Stooges, you know, because there’s not a lot of chord changes and I could get my rhythm and all that stuff back. So, I asked J and Murph over there “Can we do some gigs just to do’em?” and I asked [Stephen] Perkins and Peter [Distefano] from Porno for Pyros[] over here to do’em on the west side. It was kind of a freak-out just to do it—jump back on the horse. And here we are doin’ it twelve years later to celebrate a book comin’ out. I think it’s trippy. [Laughing]

Hellride East—featuring Mike Watt, J Mascis and Murph—play the release party for Mike Watt: on and off bass, A Photographic Memory at [Le] Poisson Rouge tonight.