Mike Watt :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Punk rock changed Mike Watt’s life, and then he kept changing. Along with guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley, Watt was a member of the Minutemen, one of the earliest signees to Greg Ginn’s SST Records, the legendary hardcore label that served as breeding grounds not only for Minutemen and Ginn’s Black Flag, but Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, and Hüsker Dü, whose 1984 double-LP Zen Arcade served as the inspiration for Minutemen’s magnum opus, the sprawling forty-five track monster of f/punk poetry that is Double Nickels On The Dime. The melodic muscle of Watt’s bass holds together Hurley’s barreling, fumbling drums while D. Boon lays down serious jazz-scratch guitar leads and spits lyrics dense in politics, philosophy, and enough poetic word-gaming to belie Minutemen’s devotion to their humble San Pedro, CA, origins. Less than two years after the album’s release, Boon was killed in a car accident in the Arizona desert. Minutemen disbanded immediately.

It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of D. Boon’s life and death on Mike Watt. When Boon comes up in our interview, as he frequently does, Watt’s voice–boisterous, and tempered with a slight drawl, courtesy of his native Virginia–becomes nearly still, cowed. There’s some adage about time healing all wounds; but then, Watt’s never been one for adages.

Or, maybe healing isn’t the proper word. Because healing implies a finality, and finality a moving-beyond. What time’s allowed Mike Watt to do is to honor his wound, and to honor his friend. After Minutemen ended, he and Hurley and guitarist Ed Crawford went on to form fIREHOSE. Along with former Black Flag bassist (and Watt’s ex-wife) Kira Roessler, he formed dos, a two-bass combo, who are preparing to release their fourth record in the coming months. Watt’s solo debut, 1995’s Ball-Hog or Tugboat, featured guests as varied as SST mates J Mascis and The Meat Puppets’ Kirkwood brothers, to P-Funk’s Bernie Worrell and the Beastie Boys, to a pre-Wilco Nels Cline. In 1997, Watt would release his first punk opera, Contemplating the Engine Room, which was in part a lyrical exploration of the formation of Minutemen. After an infection in his perineum brought him to the edge of death, he released 2004’s The Secondman’s Middle Stand, a kind-of organ-heavy thanatopsis. Shortly thereafter, he would join the reunited Stooges, thumping with Iggy and the band on tour and on 2007’s The Weirdness. By his own account, he’s got enough work in the can to release three or four records per year. And all of it is dedicated to D. Boon.

Hyphenated-man, Watt’s third opera and first release on his own clenchedwrench label, finds him returning to the short, spiky songs of his early group.   Unlike with his two previous solo releases, there is no metanarrative; the thirty songs, titles all un-capitalized, all connected by hyphens, make up a portrait of Watt at middle age. The songs are named for characters in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, the Dutch master known for his terrifying, hyper-detailed portraits of the underworld. Hyphenated-man is Watt reflected back through Bosch’s imagery, an honest mask.

In 2005, on the twentieth anniversary of D. Boon’s death, writer David Rees reflected on the guitarist’s legacy for The Huffington Post. After calling Double Nickels the greatest rock album of all time, Rees turns his attentions to Watt, and to the years the bassist had then spent on the road, jamming econo in his white van, playing the thudstaff for college kids and grey punks. “That Mike Watt,” Rees imagines, “perseveres in part to honor his brilliant friend’s brief life and the possibilities bequeathed to future musicians, artists, activists, punks, and outsiders–is one of the greatest American success stories of all time.”

And they started out as three corndogs from Pedro.

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