Mike Watt – Still Jamming Econo

MacDara Conroy talks history, dreams and courage with punk rock legend Mike Watt who plays Upstairs at Whelan’s on 4 March with new trio Il Sogno Del Marinaio

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The godfather of the punk rock scene? No, more like its favourite uncle, Mike Watt continues to fly the flannel flag for the DIY ‘punk is whatever we made it to be’ ethos espoused by the legendary Minutemen with fellow travellers D Boon and George Hurley, all three proud working-class punks from San Pedro. The Minutemen were the heart of the So Cal hardcore scene, and their playful genre-blending and good-natured spirit inspired countless other musicians – and artists, and writers, and who knows what else.

After D Boon’s tragic death in 1985, Watt and Hurley went on to join Ed ‘fROMOHIO’ Crawford in fIREHOSE, a trio on a more blatantly Credence-style tip that wound up to the majors in the post-Nirvana rush and dissolved amicably in 1994. Watt then began a solo career with 1995’s Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, featuring a who’s-who of the 1990s’ alt-rock elite queueing up to pay their dues to the man in the van with the bass in his hand. It was followed two years later by Watt’s first punk rock ‘opera’, Contemplating the Engine Room, an introspective concept album inspired by his father’s naval life.

At the turn of the century Watt survived a life-threatening infection and came back from the experience stronger than ever, hitting the road again as a sideman for J Mascis – and winding up as a member of the revived Stooges, a dream come true for the kid who learned his basslines from Fun House. All the while he kept his own thing going, documenting his health scare ‘hellride’ in his second opera The Secondman’s Middle Stand in 2004 and touring as often – and as econo – as possible. Despite some knee problems since a bad bump at a Stooges gig in 2010, the last few years have been especially busy, with a Bosch-inspired third opera ‘Hyphenated-Man’ recorded with his Missingmen – Tom Watson (ex Slovenly, The Red Krayola) and Raul Morales – the first of a slew of recordings either led by or featuring the man himself, on his own label clenchedwrench.

The latest of these to see release is La Busta Gialla, recorded in 2009 with Italian musicians Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi under the name Il Sogno Del Marinaio. The trio – and Watt is emphatic on that point – are now finally hitting the road across Europe to tour the album, with a show Upstairs at Whelan’s on 4 March.

A couple of weeks before the tour MacDara Conroy caught Watt at his home in San Pedro while he made himself a hearty breakfast of tilapia, lima beans, jalapenos and collard greens. Dude knows how to eat.

How is San Pedro this morning? 
I think today’s supposed to get to 74 degrees Fahrenheit so you know… January’s very calm in Pedro. This is where I live, it’s the harbour of Los Angeles. I’ve been here for 45 years. We came from Virginia when I was 10; my father was a sailor [and] it was closer to Vietnam here, you know… So I’m happy to tell you it’s sunny and pretty mild here.

I know you like to bike around the town, were you out in the bike this morning?
Yeah [I do] but I can’t pedal as good because of the hurt knee still, so I can’t really go up hills and shit. That’s why I do Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday. I alternate between kayak and bicycle. Bicycling, you know, [with] my knees, and especially this hurt one now, I have to be careful, but yeah, I like it. I started riding a bike again when I was 38; [before that] I didn’t ride a bike for 22 years.

I wanted to ask about the tour with your new band Il Sogno del Marinaio. What are you planning for the gigs? 
Well, we just released the album so we’ll be playing a lot of that, and we’ve got some other ideas too so that’s why I’m going there early for four or five days of prac with them in Bologna – that’s where the guitar man Stefano lives. Actually the drummer man Andrea is from Verona but he lives in Berlin. A lot of artist people are living there, I’ve learned, because for a big European town it’s more econo to live. Probably because of the former East, you know half the city was in the East and those [places have] probably cheaper rents and stuff like that. So that’s where Andrea’s from, and anyway we’re all gonna meet in Bologna and prac, and that’s where the first gig is. The [rest of the] tour is actually half England – only one Scottish gig and a couple of Irish gigs, one in the North and one in the South, Dublin and Belfast, but man I think there’s like eight or nine England ones! It’s a lot, but part of the reason is the weather, you know, at the time we’re going it’s kinda rough, but it’s the only place I could find time, because The Stooges have got a lot of touring coming up. We just got done with the album, I recorded a new album with them, and right after this Il Sogno del Marinaio tour I go play in Australia with them. I think it’ll be the fourth time I’ve been to Australia with The Stooges, [in fact] it will be the fourth time. 

So that’s what I’ve got going on now. This tour, yeah, it’s about Il Sogno del Marinaio so of course the album La Busta Gialla is the main thing but we’ve got some other stuff too. In fact when I get time I’m going over there to make a second one, I really like [playing with them]. You know it’s a trio, I’m partial to trios, but just ’cause you’ve got guitar and drums along with your bass don’t mean it has to be always like my first one the Minutemen. You know, it can be whatever the group, the three, come together to be, and these cats Andrea and Stefano are different that D Boon and Georgie or Edward and Georgie or Tom and Raul or Pete and Jer, you know all these other trios I’ve had. It’s still distinctive because, well, they’re not generic musicians. I don’t really like doing proj’s with generic kinda people, so even though it’s a trio. And also being a bass player [in a band with] the politics, you know you’re looking at making the other guys look good, it’s not like… you’re already a back-up instrument, it’s not like they’re backing you up. [Even when it’s] my own shit! Even on something like ‘Hyphenated-Man’ where I wrote everything – well I think there was one solo in the second part that Tom did – but I wrote all that, and I’m still kinda backing my guys up. It’s OK though, I’m comfortable.

Can you explain how the new record come about in the first place?
Actually, it goes back to the second opera, and when we were in Italy [on the 2005 Euro tour] the promoter put us with a young man named Stefano and it turned out to be Stefano Pilia. Four, five years later he invited me to come do some gigs with him and his buddy Andrea, and I thought, well, if we’re gonna do some gigs [and] gotta get material up, why not make a record? You know I’ve been in this mode, not as afraid to record in the last 10 years… I think it was between the fourth and fifth gig [that] we made this album. So how can you say it came about? Maybe Stefano kinda brought it together, or maybe it happened, you know what I mean? That’s how something… some spark happens, it’s usually how these things work, some spark from somebody and then you take it from there and see what happens.

So you had an expectation that you’d be making a record before you went over there.
Yeah… I said let’s record an album, why not? [Since] you’ve gotta get the songs up for the gig, you know… In the old days I had a different idea of records, they were like kinda fliers for gigs. I still look at them in that way but I also look at them as works unto themselves, and a kind of document. So right away I asked, and they were into it. They’re brave, their roots are kinda avant-garde… they’re not arrogant, they’re not proud, they’re brave, they’re not afraid to take chances. But they’re really humble guys, they’re great guys.

You’ve done avant-garde stuff before, back with Sonic Youth…
A big part of the punk scene was avant-garde. Remember it came in during the ’70s, punk, and it was kinda crazy, it wasn’t so orthodox yet. It actually wasn’t a style of music, it was more of a state of mind. So yeah I’ve always been interested in it, I’ve met people in that scene that taught me a lot about it, and I’ve tried to do some, yeah. It’s interesting.

Speaking of avant-garde, I’m looking at the cover of the Minutemen’s first album The Punch Line right now. How was that received when it came out? Because it didn’t really look like anything else on the scene at the time.
You know our first time in Europe was early ’83 with Black Flag – it was just England, as far as the islands, in fact it was just London, right? And I think we got bad reviews… The albums, they were kinda received good here, I think, in the US. And then later on in Europe… We didn’t get over there much, the Minutemen only got over there once. But [with] The Punch Line, we got kinda compared to a band in Europe, from Holland, called The Ex. That’s what I remember The Punch Line getting kinda compared to over there. Over here? There was a band like us a little bit from Canada called NoMeansNo, we get compared with them. Of course there was a band in England called Wire that we were very influenced by, that Pink Flag album, and then another one too, not London, maybe Bristol, called The Pop Group, we were very influenced by them too, but I don’t think people really made those connections, for some reason. To us it was very obvious. 

You know… we were called US hardcore, which is OK, whatever – labels are fuckin’ trippy anyway – but [people] would expect us to be more identified with those bands [though] we were trying to find our own sound. But god we were influenced a lot by Wire and Pop Group. And then of course the bands we saw up in the Hollywood scene like The Germs and The Dils, and our contemporaries Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Meat Puppets. The idea was you didn’t really want to copy people, you know out of respect, and a lot of people [would hear The Punch Line and go] ‘Wow, this is a different kind of hardcore, it’s hardcore but it’s different.’ That might’ve come about because we were from the ’70s punk. But especially here, in Hollywood, those people stopped going to the gigs and you ended up playing just for the hardcore… it was only hardcore young people left in the scene. So there was these kinda – I don’t know, people had their contradictions in their minds, but for us punk was ‘no rules’ so you could do whatever you wanted. It’s funny how right away it got a lot of rules.

You know The Punch Line wasn’t the first record – Paranoid Time was, the little one – but the one where we got the most recognition was Double Nickels On The Dime. I think that’s probably the high point of the Minutemen, probably the best record I played on.

Wasn’t the story about that one that you’d already recorded an album and then Hüsker Dü made Zen Arcade which made you want to get back in the studio and do something bigger?
Well, do another album’s worth. We wanted a double album like them. We saw that they did that, it came about a month later [after we recorded] they did Zen Arcade with Spot in Hermosa Beach so we wanted to do one too, so we recorded a bunch of songs so we could have two albums. Of course we didn’t really have a concept ’cause they were recorded apart, so we had to come up with stuff like the Sammy Hagar thing – you know he couldn’t drive 55, so we would – and then Ummagumma, with the solo songs. It’s pretty funny, we had no idea that it was gonna turn out the way it did, but like I said I think it’s probably our best. It seems it was received pretty good.

But The Punch Line, we got a good review in the LA Times for The Punch Line… That was recorded in ’81… Yeah, you know it was different then. When you’re new it’s different from when you’re around [for a while] it seems, with reviewers, ’cause they can’t find out about you, so all you can do is like make yourself worse if you have a good reputation! I don’t know. You just try your hardest. You can’t bring back the old days. Trying to live in the old days is insane, so I just keep going on. You ask people what they think of a record? They’re gonna tell you. [People have] opinions, it’s OK. But one thing about coming from the old days is you kinda had to not care about what people said. Actually in the old days there was a lot of negative shit from everywhere. People hated punk, over here in the US, a lot, and so we just got a thick skin and kept going.

You’ve described the new album as “a sailor’s dream of discovery through connections that baffle linear thinking”, and the album as a whole certainly has a dreamlike, floating quality to it. It reminds me a lot of the more introspective bits on Contemplating the Engine Room – were you thinking of that when you were making it?
Well a lot of those influences are Andrea and Stefano too, because they come from the avant-garde [and] ambient stuff… There are parts of the first opera Contemplating the Engine Room that are dream parts, especially after midnight, it’s mainly dream, so I tried to make dream music for that. I was consciously trying to do that with that one. With this? I just tried to be sensitive to the guys I was playing with and try to set up a conversation, dialogue with them that would be kinda interesting. Yeah, a lot of dream elements from them, maybe some from mine… ‘Il Guardiano del Faro’ – the lighthouse keeper – yeah, that’s a guy on a raft, daydreaming… ‘The Tiger Princess’ is kind of about a dream… Yeah maybe, maybe there was a conscious kinda dream thing. I picked the title for the band because the band started as an idea, you know what I mean? Stefano is originally from Genoa, which is a port – I don’t know, they like the idea of the sailor… I never thought about that, that the name is kinda tied in with the music, so thanks for that.

I think the tour where you first met Stefano, you also played with ESTEL when you came to Ireland that year, and you went on to record with them.
Yeah I think we played Dublin and we also played down by Cork, a little town, and ESTEL was at Whelan’s, that’s where I met them guys, they’re great cats. And I got to collaborate a couple of times with [them and] Brother Steve Mackay, the sax player for The Stooges – a whole album and an EP. Yeah, great guys. [For that] we had a day off, we went with them to some stable, a studio that was in a horse stable. Same idea in a way as Il Sogno del Marinaio, you know: there’s an opportunity here, what can we do with it? Same idea. What was different in a way was that ESTEL was already a band and we were collaborating with them, whereas with Il Sogno del Marinaio it’s kind of a band unto itself, so a little different. But the idea of seizing on a moment, it’s kinda the same.

So it was more improv, what you were doing with ESTEL, it was more just what was going to happen in the moment?
No they had [material]… well some of it actually was. One of them I wrote for them to play right there. A lot of it was compositions they already had, so me and Brother Steve played with them. It was our turn to improvise… The EP was all like that, four songs plus ‘Fun House’, and when we did the album both me and Brother Steve brought in some compositions, but they still had some compositions too. I can’t remember if any were jammed out – you know fully, like nobody had any idea. I thought always somebody brought something to start it off with and the other people reacted to it.

Is doing stuff on the fly like that something that’s been more new for you?
Well I did it in the past. There’s a Saccharine Trust record called Worldbroken where I replaced the bass player ’cause he got scared the night before, and that was all improvised and then they did [the record] in the editing. I just did a second project with the Deerhoof guy John Dieterich and that’s done that way. Me and Georgie did something with the guitarist Elliott Sharp called the Bootstrappers in the late ’80s. The Minutemen would do some jams even in the sets, you can hear some of them on The Politics of Time compilation. So I’ve done a little bit of it.

How much of a change does that make from what you’d normally do? I know about the Minutemen records that you would rehearse them super-tight before you went in the studio.
Yeah, they were like gigs, we recorded those things like they were gigs. We had to be more econo. They weren’t meant to be improvised, they were songs! A different kinda thing. It takes a little bit of courage to improvise music.

Have you found that you’ve had more courage to do that the last few years?
Well I just did the second Hand To Man Band one with John [Dieterich] in December… The guy who’s really into that stuff is Nels Cline, he’s got me more and more about that. But jams are scary. I had a band with [Stephen] Perkins called Banyan that we did and Nels, when he lived in So Cal, was part of that and he would improvise at gigs… It’s tough man, you really have to have trust… I’ll do it, especially if the situation calls for it, if you don’t have time to practice with people to get things together. You have to work at it to make it special, though, so it just doesn’t sound like anything. You’ve gotta give it personality somehow just like you do with songs. It’s tough, man. I think it’s worth it to get in there and try, though.

There’s some part of Il Sogno del Marinaio where we set up situations where there could be improvisation, but it was very important for us – how did they explain it? – [to keep a] narrative. I don’t play with a lot of musicians here who say that, narrative. But they did like a narrative, you know there’s something going on, not just showing off licks to each other, you’re trying to make a fuckin’ interaction, a conversation out of the ensemble. I think it’s worth it to set your standards high on that, though. It’s like rolling the dice – even with everything in your mind all conscious like that, there’s still risk in it. It’s kinda trippy. There’s people like, well Nels Cline for one, but Damo Suzuki – I mean this guy, he tours like that, he doesn’t even have bands, he plays with whoever’s there, and that’s pretty inspiring… I have this friend here, she plays with Nels’ brother Alex, her name’s Motoko Honda, that’s her whole world. In fact songs – she came in the studio when I was recording – it blew her mind, the way that stuff is, with chords and stuff and forms. When you talk to people when they’re totally on the other side, where songs to them are the rarity, that’s kind of interesting. 

But you know, to me there’s lots of different ways to make music. It’s hard to know ahead of time which is better. Maybe neither is better, it’s really a relative kind of thing. It could be a pressure cooker, it could be an intense classroom, but it’s worth it. For me I’m not secure enough to do that 100 per cent of the time, I like to have songs too.

Well you definitely had a lot of songs on ‘Hyphenated-Man’…
Actually it’s only one song.

But split into 30 parts!
Yeah… and that was very difficult to learn. It took me fuckin’ two years to learn and play it in front of people right. And just about as we were putting it to bed I finally – there was so much shit to remember! See, you’re kinda freed up with improvisation that way. You can make it up as you go along. You gotta have some kind of memory, but it’s a different kind of memory from fuckin’ like 300 or something parts… There were 30 main parts but then each of them had five or six. So yeah, that was tough to learn, but I’m glad I did it, again. Just because something’s hard don’t mean it’s lame. Tom and Raul were a big part of that, they really helped me to live that motherfucker. That was tough… I got to bring it to Ireland… And it was trippy on people, you know, they didn’t expect that shit, but in a way that reminded me of the old days with the Minutemen – ‘shock and awe’, you didn’t know what was comin’! Interesting stuff, our situations.

Did it feel like what it was like playing with the Minutemen when you were playing those songs?
Well you know Tom is probably – so is Nels, they’re pretty close to D Boon in knowledge, but still different. And Raul is not really like Georgie. But the format of the little parts with the little themas? Yeah, that was a little bit like the Minutemen, running them together like it’s all one song – well it was one song. In the Minutemen we used to do the gigs like they were one song. So in some ways, yeah, probably closer to that experience than I’ve been with other stuff in a long time… I wanted to do it that way on purpose, but I had to change something so it wouldn’t be a total sentimental memory-lane stroll, you know? So the libretto, it’s all about me now, I wasn’t really singing about the old Minutemen days.

It definitely didn’t feel like a nostalgia vibe at all when I saw you play at the Dublin Econo Blowout on 18 June 2011. It felt like it was right there in the now, and it didn’t feel at all as if you were miming the record even though everything was played really tight.
And the little parts – but even the little part thing, the Minutemen idea, that goes back to Chairs Missing. So there was some stuff from the old days but I tried to make it so it would be relevant to now. I had to, I owed it to D Boon and George Hurley not to rip off my old band!

You’re releasing the new record on your new label clenchedwrench, which I think is the first time you’ve done your own label since New Alliance in the early 1980s?
Yeah the first release was the third opera; the second release was Dos, the fourth album; the third release was Spielgusher, with [Blue Öyster Cult lyricist] Richard Meltzer; and now the fourth one is Il Sogno del Marinaio. I’ve got a lot of projects, so I’ve kinda returned back to putting out my own stuff, it’s easier to make it happen.

It’s hard work starting a label in this day and age, with downloads and everything. How do you feel about that?
In some ways it’s easier. Downloads? Yeah, people do that. So [the records] are like fliers to the gigs, like the way the Minutemen did it back in the first place. Actually 99.999 per cent of music history is about playing for people; only for about 100 years have you got to put it on a piece of media and sell it. But there are physical works so when I’m gone there’s something to hear, so I think it’s important to still put out things. ‘Cause gigs go up into the air, and everybody can’t be at all the gigs, especially if they’re born later, so I think it’s important. They’re like my children. I never had kids so this is the closest I get, putting out my works.

Since you mention that, it reminds me of something Grant Hart said when I interviewed him a couple of months ago. I asked him if he was afraid of losing his musical legacy, with Hüsker Dü’s SST records being harder to get these days, and he said that he felt like his memorial is already built, and it didn’t really matter to him whether people heard them or not. How do you feel about it when it comes to the stuff that you’ve done in the past?
I feel I’ve still gotta keep working at it – you know, maybe if I’m still alive that my work can progress. Actually he’s still putting out records so he’s a work in progress. Maybe you don’t have to prove anything to other people, but to yourself and the guys you’re playing with. You don’t want to take things for granted, I don’t think. You want to try hard, and everybody’s got something to teach you, so life’s a journey like that. And it’s OK, it’s interesting.

But do you feel any kind of disappointment that people today may find it harder to find the Minutemen’s records or the early fIREHOSE stuff, or even the major label stuff that would have been deleted?
Last year they put out some fIREHOSE, Columbia put out all the [major label stuff], I think it’s still in print. The Minutemen stuff? It’s probably easier now to get it because of the internet than the older days. I don’t know if that’s such a problem.

It’s maybe easier to download it, but…
No doubt about it! Young people aren’t afraid of old music like in my days. They’re very curious about older stuff, they search it out, you’d be surprised. Nothing like when I was a teenager. And I think that’s OK. But you’re in the moment, you play with people – that’s where you’ve got to be 100 per cent conscious, maybe like you were just born. You can’t think about being an old Minuteman. You wouldn’t want to let down your legacy, but you can’t reinvent it. You can tarnish it, you can soil it, but you can’t worry about that… In fact I think people are into that, they like to see people get worse! Maybe some people do. Some people I know, music’s only a little part [of what they do], like Rimbaud with poetry, right? He only did it a couple of years, never did it again. If you stick with it, I think you gotta have some fire, unless you’re just trying to service a lifestyle… I take it seriously. 

[Grant Hart] just made this opera called The Argument. That seems very serious; I know he spent a lot of time on it, and maybe he has to say something like ‘I don’t have to worry about my legacy’ because, how do you have the courage to try other things? Maybe you have to say that to yourself or you’ll always be in your own shadow. But I know he was very serious about The Argument. It’s based on Milton’s Paradise Lost… He’s into being a musician, I know that.

Is clenchedwrench just going to be for your own projects, or would you be open to putting out others in in future?
I just ain’t got the time, really. It’s hard enough just to do it with the shit I’m doing! But it’s really about the guys I play with, though, it’s not really all about me. I’m involved, but it’s not like ‘Mike Watt with this’ or ‘Mike Watt with that’. I mean that’s a basic component of why I do it on clenchedwrench but it’s not the results – the results to me all sound like collaborations. Although I’m involved, they’re all different because [of the] different people I play with. I’m not trying to do different versions of the same Mike Watt trip. I go do these things to show different sides of me, because of what they bring. Part of it is I think being a bass player – again the backup thing, you know? You’re a backup guy to your own project. For example I’ve got an album coming out with Nels Cline this year called Black Gang. I wrote all the songs on the bass, and when I went in the studio with him he’d never heard any of this shit – that’s how we did Engine Room, too – and he just reacted to it in real time. He did all the improvising. It’s wild. I asked him to play his most psychedelic and he brought it, he did good. It’s a trippy thing.

Did it feel like the songs came more alive once he started responding to what you’d written?
Of course. You know I write on bass most of the time – I didn’t do it for the third opera, but most of the time I write on the bass and it’s not to realise the finished thing, it’s only to serve as a launchpad, a springboard. I’ll record with him again later this year, with the Deerhoof drummer Greg [Saunier] and a guitarist named Nick from Tera Melos and [it’s the] same thing: I wrote these eight songs on the bass but they’re just starting points. In my mind I don’t even… I might have some feelings about certain stuff wanting to get expressed but I don’t try to put a vision in my mind of exactly how it’s gonna be. I want to keep on playing with what they bring, their reaction, their gut instincts, their artistic vision. It’s not so much like a sideman thing. The sideman thing is a little like what I asked Tom and Raul to do, but then at the same time I wrote that shit for them. I put together the Missingmen just for that third opera and I wrote it just for them to play. A little different… 

They’re all supposed to be a little different ’cause of the situations and the people involved. With Spielgusher, you know Richard brought me those poems, [and] I improvised all that music with ‘Shimmy’ Shimizu in Tokyo and put it together and wow, that was a much different process than the other things. Dos? Me and [Kira Roessler] have had this band for over 25 years, and that dynamic is much different than any other band I’ve had. And now [I’ve got] Il Sogno del Marinaio and Stefano and Andrea are a big part of it. To me that’s why all four of these records sound different. I also do a lot of collaboration with people who send me files. I just did some with some French-Canadian guys who sent me a couple of songs from a band called Red Mass. They wanted bass for one and singin’ for the other so I did it for them. Some guys in Italy too, Firenze, a band called Obake, I put some bass on a song… Also when I don’t even meet the people, they just send me the files. That’s stuff that’s much different than the old days, where you couldn’t collaborate with people that way. That’s something the internet provided, those kinds of connections.

Have you got anything else that you’ve done over the past couple of years that’s been waiting for release?
Well the Black Gang I told you about. I just did the second Hand to Man Band with the Deerhoof guy John, so that’s gotta come out. There’s an album called Mouthful I did last January in Memphis – that’s got no guitar or keyboards, it’s just horns, bass and drums – and that’s gonna come out in a couple of months. That was interesting, [I’ve] not a lot of experience playing with horn guys, that’s very trippy.

You had some horns on the Minutemen records…
Yeah but mainly that was D Boon. That was our buddy Crane, D Boon put him on his songs. I don’t have much experience – D Boon didn’t either but he just went for it. Even still with this Mouthful thing did last year in Memphis, I gave the basslines, only three though. [For the] other six songs people brought in compositions and I played to ’em. But the horns are a while different world.

What else is coming? Well what I’m working on next is a Secondmen album, the band I had with Pete Mazich and Jerry Trebotic for the second opera. They weren’t here when you saw me play because that time they couldn’t so I had Paul Roessler and Raul. I’ve got a collection of work songs I’m doing with them – it’s not an opera, just a regular album. We’re gonna do it here in Pedro… I’ve got some other stuff too, but I’ll keep it secret.

Okay! I wanted to ask you about something I read in a magazine the other day, It was an interview with Duane Denison from Tomahawk…
Yeah, good guy.

…and he was saying that you were one of the names that came up for their vacant bass player slot.

You didn’t know anything about that?
No, not about that! Duane, he’s coming to town I know but it’s when I fuckin’ leave! I think he’s coming to town with Patton and Tomahawk, I think they’re doing gigs. They made an album, in fact – you know I’ve got a radio show I’ve done for 11, it’ll be 12 years in May, called The Watt From Pedro Show, and David Yow was my guest on Wednesday, and he told me about Duane doing a new Tomahawk album. I think Duane wrote me and told me too, because he asked me to be in town to come to the gigs. I didn’t know about playing! Sure, I’d love playing with them cats. The version I saw of Tomahawk didn’t have Duane, it had Buzz [Osbourne] and it had Trevor [Dunn] and the drummer man was… Who was that guy? Kind of a fusion guy… Who was that drummer in Missing Persons, who was married to the singer? Terry Bozzio, that’s who it is. Oh you know what? That wasn’t Tomahawk, that was Fantômas! Well you know Mr Patton’s got a lot of things going on…

It seems like they share a lot of members between them too.
For sure Mr Patton. He’s the vision, he’s quite an interesting music person. But wow, that’s news! I gotta write Duane about that. I know he’s got a band called Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers – he lives in Nashville now, and I think he married a lady lawyer there. I like him a lot, he’s a great guitarist – that stuff with the Cargo Cult and The Jesus Lizard. I wrote something for the Jesus Lizard book that’s coming out. They wanted impressions, I had ’em – bam, I wrote a spiel. Maybe it’s a picture book with some writing.

I’ll tell you who I just recorded with – it was just a song, but it was Bernie Worrell, the Bernie Worrell Orchestra. I got a call from the drummer man Evan Taylor and he said Bernie wanted to tour with me later down the road, so that might end up being a chance for an album.

That would be great!
Yeah, I got to record with him for the ‘Maggot Brain’ cover with J Mascis on Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and I got to play some gigs with him too. Man, I don’t have a lot of experience [with keys] except for the Secondmen, and that’s one reason why I put together the Secondmen, because of the organ, the keyboards. Me and D Boon, you know we didn’t really know people who played them, they were expensive in those days. It’s interesting for me, keyboard. Horns, too. 

Oh! I can tell you about this album that’s coming out, that I haven’t finished yet – my parts, actually – with Jim O’Rourke. Just us two playing in Tokyo in a studio for a few days. We improvised a lot of that, and I told him that D Boon had shown me some chords on the mandolin so he wants me to put mandolin on this thing… Also Thurston [Moore] wants to come to town with his new band, Chelsea Light Moving, with [John] Moloney and Keith Wood. He wants to come to town and make an album with me on guitar and him playing bass, and then [use] some kind of technique, what did he call it? Automatic songwriting or something, instant songwriting. It’s kinda like improvised, but it’s also kind of like makin’ tunes, I don’t know. We want to do it sometime this year when we’ve got time. Him and his band guys are really hot on it. I am too, I think it’ll be an interesting trip. I can’t play guitar worth shit hardly – you should’ve heard the fuckin’ demos I gave Tom Watson for the [Missingmen] album, I can’t even hold a pick! I only know shit D Boon taught me, in fact I wrote it on his Telecaster. That’ll be really out of my comfort zone, playing guitar in a band, so we’ll see how it goes.

I’m looking forward to hearing that one.
Yeah yeah, I am too! These are the kindsa things, you don’t know how they’re gonna happen till they fuckin’ happen… I think true collaboration is sort of like that unless you’re like some kinda, you’re playing The Name Game or something, because if it’s really gonna be organic it’s gotta be some kind of mix, and if it ain’t happened before you can’t really know! And of course like I said at the beginning, when I get a chance I’m gonna go back to Italy and make a second Il Sogno del Marinaio album. Those cats have lots of compositions, they’re songwriters in their own right, and bandleaders, they’re not sidemen. They’ve played that role, but it’s not really what we’re looking for in this thing. I don’t see ’em as sidemen in Il Sogno del Marinaio, but it seems like I’m getting a lot of the attention because – well they’re 20 years younger, they’re in their middle 30s, and maybe they haven’t been around as long. But for me it’s hard to hear the album and say ‘Wow, that’s Mike Watt with these two other guys!’ We’re a band. But maybe I’m biased. I don’t see me playing those kinds of bass parts with other people, even the ones I fuckin’ wrote, because of the way I interacted with them. And that’s why we gave the band a name, we didn’t call it Mike Watt and The Italian Guys!  

I wonder if you didn’t put any of that information out, you just said here’s this band, you didn’t say how long it took them to make the record or where the people are from, I wonder if that would’ve been a better thing to do. I guess coming from old punk, we’re into this full disclosure shit, we tell everybody everything. Maybe if we could’ve made it mysterious… because it seems that all these other things that aren’t musical ideas become way huger than the music itself. And I think maybe it’s kinda naive, a little bit. But you gotta have to be a little naive to get up the courage to do this shit I think. If you’re worried all about what people think, you know what I mean? So being naive you think ‘Wow people are gonna hear this for just the music.’ It’s not gonna be just baggage, like where’s this guy from, where were these guys born, what kinda accent – you know they speak pretty good English!.. You know Bushie, Andrew Bushe [from ESTEL]. There’s this band outta Boston that just tears him up, you know, “These guys are more Irish than we are!” I’m not gonna say their name but they’re a hardcore band, and they bring out the fuckin’ bagpipes and shit! And it’s so hilarious because these things are not really, they’re nice little garnishes but they’re not – it’s really about music, right? And sometimes music is kinda pretending. For example, ‘Born On The Bayou’ – a very northwest bayou John Fogerty was born on, like Berkeley! Still a good song, you know, but a very northwest bayou, maybe 1,500 miles from New Orleans! I don’t know if these other kinds of circumstances are as important as the stuff that actually is going into your fuckin’ ears! I think that other stuff is kinda after the fact. I had it with the Minutemen too – a Pedro band, nothing to be embarrassed of, from working people and stuff, but actually it’s hard to know that stuff totally [from the music]. You can make guesses I guess, but things are flying out of the speakers [and] you don’t really know.

I gotta tell you, when I go to a gig and watch a band I really have to fight hard for my mind to keep from trying to relate what I’m seeing to somebody I’ve already heard. It’s like my mind automatically wants to put ’em in a prison, a category prison. I can’t just hear the band. So I’m not trying to blame other people. Maybe it’s a human thing.

I think that’s the same for everybody, when you hear something new you want to try and relate it to something you already know just to get a grasp on it.
Yeah it’s parts of your own mind getting in the way, even though it’s your mind that’s also experiencing it. I find myself at gigs like this – all of a sudden there’s parts of my mind that immediately kick into gear: ‘What’s this sound like? Where are they from?’ Why don’t you just let that go, you know? On the other hand, you can tell when people really push the things that aren’t music to make you want to notice [the] music. Maybe it’s not the guys in the band all the time but [you’ll see] ‘This record has this guy and this guy’ and it’s just their names. Maybe it’s like lazy marketing, I don’t know. I’ve been asked a lot of times why I play with unknown people – although I did Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, that had people that people knew.

But they were your friends, so…
Sometimes they come out of nowhere. I didn’t know Raul, he’s 20 years younger. He was a Pedro guy, that’s why I wanted him in the band, but I didn’t know him, I just liked the way he played. I knew it was gonna be difficult for him ’cause he came from hardcore but I thought, if you practice enough you can do it. I like the spirit, the personality, that’s what I get into… The other thing can be kinda difficult because it’s not about the music experience, it’s something else… When people ask me, ‘Why these two guys?’ Well, because that was the situation with those two guys and I dug ’em and I wanted to play with ’em. No expectations either, except our own… I don’t know, have you ever thought of it that way, if you didn’t know who was on this album, can people really listen to it like that? Or is it like another fuckin’ Mike Watt side project jack-off thing? I don’t know.

I think, just speaking for myself, sometimes I might only think to listen to an album because I know that I know somebody on it, but other times I’ll hear something out of nowhere and won’t know anybody on it.
Like taking a music journey – ‘Hey this is what he’s doing now’ – like that, right? Or ‘Can I tell that’s him?’ But you’re right, you can really only speak for yourself honestly, it’s hard to speak for others. But I’m really proud of [Il Sogno del Marinaio] and they brought out things in me that other music situations haven’t, so I really look forward to playing with them.

I wanted to ask about the fIREHOSE reunion last year, because it seemed like it came out of the blue. Was it something you and the others were always open to doing?
It wasn’t out of the blue, a year before that Ed fROMOHIO called me and asked to do some gigs and I just didn’t have any time, so I said “Wait a year and I’ll make some time for you”. So we did two weeks of gigs [in April 2012]. It was like 18 years since I last played those songs so it was pretty tough. I don’t really play that way anymore. But Edward and Georgie, they’re good guys, and there was a lot of people there from the old days, so it was kinda happy days. But it wasn’t out of the blue, no.

What did it feel like playing with them again?
It was very difficult. They had it pretty good – well it was a little tough for Georgie too, I think. I stared at Georgie for most of the gigs, locking in with him. It was tough for me, I probably had the most trouble, especially at first. We practiced for two weeks and then did two weeks of gigs, because Edward lives in Pittsburgh, he don’t live here. And for one thing he was singin’ for two straight weeks, sometimes five or six hours a day, so by the time he did the gigs he blew his voice out! That was stupid, we shouldn’t have had him singin’ so hard during the practices, I wasn’t thinking. Vocal chords ain’t like fingers… But they’re good guys. Strange playing those songs again. But maybe good training, to go back and having to learn that way again… I’m glad I did it.

Did it make you think of the way you were thinking back then, playing those songs again?
No. Those were hard days for me… hard for me to go back. It was a hard time. That’s where Edward helped me out a lot, you know? It was a bad time, losing D Boon… I tried to be there right in the moment and play as best as I could, with Georgie – he’s an amazing drummer – and Edward played great, so I was just trying to be as good as them guys.

Speaking of reunions, what do you think about the Black Flag reunions that are happening at the moment? It seems like there are two versions of the band going out on tour.
I think one [is called] Black Flag and the other one’s called Flag. Black Flag was always Greg Ginn, always will be, but he collaborated with a lot of different people… I haven’t seen either version yet so I can’t tell you, but yeah I was a big fan of the band. In fact I like all four singers, they’re all different to me. Some Black Flag records sound better than others but they’ve all got a special place in my heart ’cause I was there. Good band, good music. A lot of drama though, huh? Yeah, humans… [But] they’re all good guys, and I wish them well. God, we owe a lot to those guys – early on the Minutemen connected with them.

You don’t feel like you’re gonna be caught between [the two bands], when you talk about the drama?
No, I probably can like both bands. I know they’re gonna be different. Even if they do the same tunes at the gigs, they’re still gonna be different, which to me is natural.

You’re heading off to do another tour with The Stooges soon.How is that going being with the band?
Well in April it’ll be 10 years, so longer than I was ever a Minutemen or a fIREHOSE [member]. It’s trippy.

Does it still feel like you’re dreaming when you tour with them?
Yeah, but I owe ’em my best so I can’t be dreaming too hard, I gotta focus. It’s crazy how any of that happened, but I’m there so I owe them my best, I try to play my best. You know I love that music, and honestly I don’t think we’d even have a punk scene without that band. They were very important.

Did you say earlier that you recorded a new album with them?
Yeah it’s coming out, I think it’s called Ready To Die. I start practice with ’em tomorrow for four days in West Hollywood… It’s in the news already, I think the mixer man talked about it a little bit.

Did you do any writing on that album or just playing?
With The Stooges I’m a sideman. I’ve only done it three times: the first was Porno For Pyros in ’96, and then I did it again with J Mascis + The Fog in 2000, and then starting with 2003 The Stooges, so it’s something I’ve not really done a lot of. [I’ve done] some studio sideman… I think I’m on a song – maybe it’s a couple? I don’t know, you never know when you do things for albums – but M Ward had me play some bass on his new album. You know, She and Him? He and Her, and Him? Something like that! So I do that sometimes, but live, for gigs, I’ve only really done it three times. So that’s The Stooges news! You know in a lot of ways I’m a caboose on that train, so sometimes I’m a little late to learn things. But they give me a lot of respect, they’re very kind to me, really nice to me. Very interesting guys to be around.

It seems like you’re happy to play that role, because you have other avenues to do your own thing.
Well fuck, I ask Tom and Raul to follow direction [so] I should learn how to do the same thing. You know what I mean? I’ve asked other people to kinda be like sidemen. So it’s no problem. In fact it’s a big honour. It’s a big weight too – you know [The Stooges have] got a huge legacy, you don’t wanna fuckin’ suck out loud and drag that down. Even with the recording, in your mind you’ve got this idea of a headstone at the cemetery and all it says on it is ‘Fucked Up A Stooges Album’. You don’t want that! So I try to work my hardest so it’s not that tough. But you’re right, I do have other avenues. You see that, they call it ‘sideman-itis’, when people get all frustrated ’cause they’re always sidemen. If you look at life, a lot of it seems it’s about taking turns, so this seems kinda natural that way, right? You take turns. You ask people to take direction then you yourself take direction. You inhale, you exhale.

Il Sogno Del Marinaio play Upstairs at Whelan’s on Monday 4 March with support from Ginola. Tickets are €6 available from WavTickets.


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