Mike Watt interview
photo courtesy of Michael McCullough
by Jason Gross (October 1997)Scenario 1: I'm writing a paper in a 'New Journalism' class about a fictional band from San Pedro, based on the Minutemen. I do some research and put so much detail about the area in the paper that my professor thinks that I'm from California. Scenario 2: Double Nickles on the Dime comes out while I'm in college and I latch onto it immediately- it's funny, fierce, exciting, deep, ridiculous, sprawling and just about everything I'd want out of a rock record. Scenario 3: After morning the passing of the Minutemen and following the career of its bassist and one of its concept-meisters (a cigar smoker and wrestling fan after my own heart), I bug the hell out of a fellow fan, the inimitable Michael McCullough, for an article about the Minutemen. After publishing it, it appears in a book about writings from the Internet called Coffeehouse. Scenario 4: The same music nut offers me two article from the legendary mersch-meister about his worst gigs and his redneck hometown that I once wrote about. Scenario 6: One of my musical heroes is talking to me just before a gig about his whole career: he's in the middle of a tour to support his latest CD, Contemplating the Engine Room which traces the story of his life. Scenario 7: Watt and I elope and prove once and for all that the roar of the masses ARE farts.
PSF: What was it like for you before the Minuteman, growing up in Pedro?
I got there when I was ten because of the Vietnam War. My dad was in the Navy. In the Navy, you move around a lot but I was born in Virginia. Eleven addresses in my first ten years. When we came to Pedro, my mother said 'fuck this, we're staying here.' I've been there ever since. I was born in 1957 so can imagine what the music was like when I was growing up. The Who, T. Rex, Cream. I met D. Boon when I was 13. His mother made me play bass (laughs). We were running around a run-down part of Pedro and she wanted to keep us in the house and out of trouble so it was 'American Woman' and Procol Harum for five hours every day.
In '76, we graduated high school and at the same time, punk rock starts. It had a huge effect on our lives. Up to that time, we'd never written our own songs. With these cats up in Hollywood, they didn't know how to play, they weren't copying records. They just made their own songs and we were very inspired by this: Germs, the Weirdos, the Bags. It was not going on in Pedro: it's the harbor of Los Angeles.
PSF: So why'd you stay in Pedro?
It was our home for one thing. Hollywood was close enough to play there. Pedro ended up as a great thermos bottle. It kept us ourselves. You move too close to something that's hip and happening and you become that. You miss the beat of your own heart. I think we were being smart, staying in Pedro.
We really didn't plan it out, it was just circumstance. We didn't really know you could make your own records or tour around. We just got fired up and started going for it. We met Greg Ginn (Black Flag) and other people like that who were very intent on making songs and music too. Not really aspiring to the arena rock that we grew up with. We'd met Husker Du and the Meat Puppets and there was guys like this in all the towns. Being in Pedro, it wasn't such a limitation.
PSF: Minutemen were really different from these other bands though. Were there any particular ideas behind the band?
Oh yeah. We wanted to play anything we wanted to and you would still know it was the Minutemen. With us, watching these other bands, maybe they weren't like us but they had their own sound. There was a lot of power trios. Like I said, Husker Du, Meat Puppets, they sounded really unique too. That was the idea. When hardcore came in around the early '80s with the kids from Orange Country, it was very generic. But they were much younger and I think it was more a social thing and less a music thing with them. Different reasons why people get involved in a movement. It was a bizarre movement, believe me! Much an autonomous collective- we never really took orders from anyone. And that's just what we thought you did to be part of the scene- be original. And the Minutemen were definitely trying to find their own sound. Things like real short song length, no guitar solos.
PSF: Politics were also really important with the group.
Yeah, the lyrics. What we tried to do was, if you met us off-stage, you wouldn't know it was just the guys who were just up there. We tried to inject a lot of ourselves. We saw that's what these cats were doing. So I think the Pedro thing was kind of important for us. We were very much different from most Pedro guys. Much so, I can't tell you. But we also thought we were different from the other punk rockers too. We just thought it was the currency of the time. It was very exciting and very adventurous.
PSF: Another interesting thing about the group was that was a jazz influence to it.
Yeah, with me and D. Boon, our daddies were into country and western kind of stuff. We didn't hear jazz as kids. We didn't hear it until our twenties- we started the Reactionaries and then the Minutemen when we were 22. We thought that jazz was closer to punk than rock and roll (laughs). That's why we called the band the Reactionaries. We were kinda anti-rock and roll. That's the reason that we never wrote 'songs.' I don't know if we were right about that but we sure felt that way. I mean, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, that was pretty way out for us. We never heard stuff like that. They were just punk rockers that came before. And Captain Beefheart too.
It was hard for us to know what was what. Once we had got thrown into this and we had thrown away our rules (what was talent and what was no talent) we took in everything like that. There was a band from England called Wire and one called the Pop Group. They had HUGE effects on us. Part of it was reacting against rock and roll. Part of it was being in a scene where experimentation and little stories counted a lot more than technique and notes. 1976 was the year of (jazz group) Return to Forever you know. I think we were reacting against that stuff too but with those jazz guys, it wasn't fusion. It was soul and we didn't get that from the fusion guys and with Yes and Jethro Tull and the more and more notes and faster and faster.
PSF: That wasn't your type of music.
Well, it was kind of alienating. It was kind of missing the point for us. The Minutemen was a spring board, not a rung in the ladder for us. We had complete control over it. We could make every decision. We didn't take anything for granted.
PSF: It was interesting that at the same time the group was doing a lot of bar band covers like Blue Oyster Cult, Van Halen and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
We were making fun of our image. That's totally what that was for. We were just trying to juxtapose. When I met D. Boon, he never heard any rock and roll. He was so much into Buck Owens. I said 'Boon, ain't you heard this other stuff?' Creedence was the link. That's what happened as we became the Minutemen and looking for our own sound. By Project Mersch, we were TOTALLY making fun of our own sound. We didn't want to become the same silly stuff that we were supposedly against. We would play at a show like we were the Minutemen but we were not from Mars. We'd come from somewhere- arena rock. By playing that back, we thought that people wouldn't be so afraid of us. People get intimidated when you throw them wild stuff. They think you're trying to be a smart ass. Putting in those covers was our way of just saying 'calm down.' Look at nature- if you want a good crop, you use a lot of manure (laughs).
PSF: You were talking about the other bands at that time and how you felt a kinship with them. You think that's gone today?
Well, with Columbia, I don't see my sister acts and my brother acts. I'm more in touch with the workers there. I never even see the other bands. I think the difference was... punk rock was really big in England when we started but in America it was really small. With it being small, you had to get this kind of fabric. It wasn't just the bands, it was the artists, the fanzine people. We created our own parallel universe. It was kind of like we had to or it would have died. There wasn't really a market for it so we set up our own little world. When the bands went to different towns, you'd know which halls you could play. You couldn't even play clubs because the rock and rollers ran a lot of the clubs. Same with the studios. So you would sleep at their houses. It was like a scarcity thing where you have to or you sink. It was really unfortunate later on when you had these bands later on jumping on major labels and they were the new rock and roll. It really hurt 'em in a lot of ways. We had learned to be on our own. When it came to that stuff, we saw it as graduating from punk rock (laughs). It was still the same world and it was just that other people found out about it.
There really was a peer thing that was really close and really dear. You didn't even have to say anything, you could just look at them. 'Oh, they call you fag, too.' And 'fuck you Devo' and this kind of shit. When things get kind of adversary, it's easy to tell friends and enemies. When things get all murky and mushy, that's when we get all these xerox's. Like nowadays. But now, you still got Mac (McCaughan) and Superchunk- he's got his own Merge label. You got the Riot Grrls in Olympia. And Sonic Youth. I still think a lot of that culture still exists and it's bigger and stronger than ever. I don't think those were the 'good old days.'
That's one thing I'm trying to say in this opera I got. I'm not trying to say that these were the good old days. I'm saying 'this is what made me me.' I would have never been where I am now without the Minutemen or any of those people or that scene.
Last year, I was playing for Perry (Farrell, Porno For Pyros). That was quite an experience, playing in another man's band as a deck hand. Perry has a very unique way of talking about music. It's not really a D minor 7th, it's more like 'the ocean has white caps and you're a bird.' It was really neat. I got me thinking about 'maybe it IS about stories.' There is a danger playing long- more notes, faster, fusion. I really learned how to play ensemble. It's really hard to play back-up parts first. Like writing songs on the cymbals-'hey, can't you hear it guys,' ssssshhhhh-ssssshhhhh. You really kind of have to do that if you want to tell stories. You got the big dominant bass part in every song- there's no subtley to it, no dimension to it. Especially without D. Boon, my foil. I never really had to teach him songs. He never had to teach me his songs. You just played and he played along. I was really missing that.
PSF: How did you take his death?
It destroyed me. I stopped playing. It was the worst.... Thurston (Moore) asked me to play on the Evol record and I did the Ciccone Youth thing with them. Then a guy from Ohio (Ed Crawford) finds my phone number- I didn't know you had to pay to be unlisted. So this guy comes over with bleached hair and he's into the Police. I thought it was so whacky that he would want to come out and want to make a band with me. But for seven and a half years, it just kind of rode the Minutemen horse with this kid from Ohio. I know that's kind of unfair to Edward but I'm really grateful for him helping me in a way.
PSF: So you thought Firehose wasn't that different from the Minutemen?
It was very different with Edward. I should have listened to him more musically. I only learned how to play one way. I just really did a Joe Tito kind of thing and just froze the situation without solving problems. I think it was more like therapy for me rather than a progression or regression. It was just like 'get on the horse and ride.' I've always been afraid to talk about that, especially in songs. A big part of this opera is like a valentine for D. Boon and that whole scene, just saying 'thank you for making Watt Watt.' It's really weird, all the roads that lead you to where you are. I'm going to be 40 in December and you start thinking about those things when you get that age (laughs). How'd I get here? I'm on a major label and I get to make a punk opera. How? Why? What's up?
It was weird last year, touring with Perry. They only tour three days a week. So I had a lot of time to read. I read all of Don Quixote, all of the new (Umberto) Eco. I read Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. It's about this guy in the engine room and all the phony shit and how he can't stand it. Thinking about my own father and how he never understood my own music. He knew it was something I did with D. Boon. When he (Boon) got killed, he could not believe I was still doing it. He didn't know I could make a living out of it. I started sending him post cards from the road. He worked in a nuclear engine room in the Navy. He died of cancer six years ago. He told me 'you know, you're kind of like a sailor.' I started thinking about this- the road, the van, the sailor, punk bass player. Wo! There's some parallels here. This got me all going on the opera.
PSF: Going back to Firehose, why did you decide to put that to bed?
I was in Firehose longer than I was in Minutemen. 980 gigs, 6 records. It was getting to be kinda cruise control. A little bit of auto-pilot. You learn the riffs so well... I thought it was time for more challenges. So I called up a bunch of people, said I was going to go in the studio (for Ball-Hog Or Tugboat?). I knew the riffs, I knew the words. Anybody can come in and play guitar. I went for chaos, I went for petri dish schizophrenia.
PSF: Was it hard to make an identity for yourself then?
I should have used wrestling names, I shouldn't have used real names. That took it to a whole weird ass celebrity thing that I never wanted. My music was so strange that I wanted people to hear it for the music, not for the names. When I saw 'Mike Watt,' it's more like a songwriter credit, it's not like 'Mike Watt the bad-ass.' I just wanted to people to know that I was the guy who wrote it. That is a weird thing 'cause I get asked that. The solo career.
Bass players, we look good making other people look good. Without something to stick to, you're just a puddle. It's just a weird trip about that. For me to make an identity, I gotta rest on my songs. I gotta rest of my performances, my ideas. Just like when I was in Minutemen. Yeah, I'm missing my guy but I'm always going to be missing him. I couldn't really stuff a pillow under Ed's shirt... (laughs)
PSF: ... and pretend he was Boon.
Yeah. It's not fair. I gotta find out where the wall is by pushing against it. I can't say 'it's there because that's where everyone agrees it is.' I wanna go over there and put my hand against it.
PSF: Could you talk about your other band, Dos?
Yeah, it's like uno, dos... Some dudes think it's the computer system (laughs). We've done three albums and we're working on a fourth. I've had that band for twelve years. It's two basses only, we win! When I was a kid, bass is where you put the lame guy. This is what I found out. I've had this insecurity thing. Dos is victory (laughs). To me, Dos is the best in a lot of ways. Kira is so great to play with. It also ups the ante because you're using no rock and roll cliches. You're kind of standing up there naked. I like the danger. She's balls-out. She has no fear. We just did a gig three weeks ago just before I went on tour in Holland with David Thomas at some festival. God, she was great. A real inspiration for me. If I can play with just another bass, you have to really support each other. You're kind of ping-ponging on each other. If I can do that there, I can do any kind of power trio or whatever. That has helped me so much. A lot of the songs I come up with, I first wrote 'em for Dos. With Firehose, there was a lot of that- I wrote 'em for Dos and then brought 'em to Edward. 'What kind of guitar would you play to something like this?'
PSF: You have an interesting obsession with Madonna- doing Ciccone Youth and the Madonnabes.
You know, bass strings are big- they're like cables. I gotta play everyday. After Firehose, I wasn't playing every day. So I came up with this idea of just interpreting Madonna works. It was a practice band. I never did any gigs. I could just play with these cats. Girls came by and wanted to dance. My practice pad is real little so they had to dance in the hall. I never even seen 'em dance. After three and a half years, I had a full-blown band! Then I decided to start doing gigs. That was therapy. It was a way for me to keep practicing where I didn't have to invent new songs. I thought she was a very interesting lady in the mid-'80s. The way girls looked up to her. When I went to a gig, I thought it would be a bunch of dudes drooling over this girl with her underwear on. But it was a bunch of girls with the underwear on the outside, wanting to be her. I really liked that. I really like the idea of self-empowerment. It gets weird when it comes to stuff like Promise Keepers but when it comes to getting a little self-identity, I really admire that in a way. I never met her and I never want to meet her. It's all a conceptual thing.
PSF: At the end of one of your gigs, you said 'y'all go and start a band now.' You feel like you're inspiring other people to do the same thing as you?
Oh yeah, I believe that. That was one of the most righteous things about the punk scene. We were almost taking turns for each other. 'OK, now your turn to get the audience, your turn to be on the bandstand.' There's something really noble about that. That's what gave us the nerve to try it. Why not hand it down?
PSF: You see that you're passing on a torch?
Yeah! I see a picture of Woody Guthrie with flannel on, with an old acoustic guitar with a sticker that says 'this machine kills facists.' That's 1937. It's good that some things get handed down. A lot of shit you do have to reinvent to make it yours. It's a weird thing. Like Finnegan's Wake. To be your own man, you literally have to bury your father figure. But he's kind of counting on that too. But 26 letters is enough to write a real good novel. You don't have to invent new letters. Just be original with your words. You COULD invent new words if you're into that...
PSF: You said once 'a title is worth a thousand lyrics.'
Right. It's the whole idea of conceptual context. It's you standing up for yourself and defining yourself and saying 'I don't want the fucking cliches to define me.' I mean, the word 'punk,' that's a guy who gets fucked in jail for cigarettes. Why would anyone want to get called that? That's what I was thinking when I started. 'Oh, punk, yeah, I'll be a punk rocker...' Then I understood what it was about. These guys just wanted to be free. That's why I called the last record a wrestling record and that's why I call this one an opera. People would think about what I'm trying to do. There's just so much lack of content with the fact editting and the TV... I don't know. I feel kind of manipulated sometimes.
PSF: People seem ready to write obits for rock nowadays with all the techno that's getting hyped up. What do you think about this?
Kraftwerk was around with the machines when I was a kid. I thought it was interesting and I think it still can be interesting. But you have Little Richard, a dishwasher who wants to put on a dress and yell 'Tutti Frutti'- I'm way into that. Pat Boone sells ten times the records than he does. I think that's always going to be the problem with any type of music. In the '60s, we had CARTOON bands like the Archies, bands that weren't even PEOPLE! You think these days are so bad. Yeah, we got clones, we got phoniness but I think that's always been with us. All the wars are fought over religions, something personal and private like that- this gets turned into war campaigns. The big war between the public life and the private life. To me, music, the arts, painting, writing, it's all to prove to each other that we're alive. Whatever the device, you get the sound across and I think it's a success. If it paper-maches it over into some phony-ass pinyata shit, then it deserves to be busted up and let all the candy fall on the ground.
It's all rhythms, notes, stories, hearts, balls, and eyeballs. 'It's the way he holds that guitar, that's what I like.' I remember you open up that Roxy Music (first) record and Brian Eno's even got a guitar! But I love that in a way. I remember when that record came out and you were a super-fag if you liked that record, for two years until they all liked that record, those jocks. Same thing with painting their nails. It's a trip about the private life and the public life. It blows my mind. I don't know to really settle the debate except let the freak flag fly.
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