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.
Aquarium Drunkard: Hypenated-man was influenced by the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch.
Mike Watt: Partly. What came first was–you know this documentary, We Jam Econo?
AD: I do.
Mike Watt: Well, I had to be–well, I didn’t have to be–I was asked to be a part of it, so I listened to Minutemen again.
AD: You hadn’t listened to them since the group ended?
Mike Watt: Yeah, because of D. Boon. But I had to be ready for this documentary, so I listened to it again. The idea we got from an English band called Wire. You know about this band? They had an album called Pink Flag.
Mike Watt: So it wasn’t like we invented little songs. We just liked it. I wanted to do something like that again, but I didn’t want it to be a nostalgia trip. And then, right around the same time, I was in Madrid playing with The Stooges, and I went to the Prado. They’ve got seven or eight Bosches there. I liked them as a boy, in the pictures that I saw in the encyclopedias and stuff–coupled with the dinosaurs, which I also liked when I was a boy. Seeing the Bosches in real life, you could see how a lot of little things made one big thing. So, those two ideas, and this third thing, with The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was tripping on what dudes do to be dudes.
AD: What do you mean?
Mike Watt: Well, you can be the courageous man, the smart man, the flying monkey. They’re all metaphors, obviously. I think middle age comes into this, too, where you think, “What the fuck am I doing?” And of course, it’s guys in the movie. Ladies have got their whole thing, too. For her, she could have been a witch: a good one or a bad one. But guys had all of these different things: man-behind-the-curtain-man. You could see all of these different men. Imagery-wise, I was using the Bosch pictures, because I like to start with a title when I’m making songs. It helps me to focus. Also this idea of funhouse mirrors; it was like I was looking at myself from different angles. So I mixed all of those things together.
AD: Yeah, I think it’s interesting how the songs work. They all work on the literal level, where you’re just describing the Bosch characters. But you manage to pull this secondary meaning out of them, and the physical attributes start to accrue a kind of sadness.
Mike Watt: The guy didn’t write one letter or one diary or anything. I’m kinda appropriating them to tell my own story, you know. Now, some people have ideas. Some art critics say that Bosch was visualizing things that people say. One is pretty obvious: the guy’s blowing his nose like it’s a trumpet, like he’s tooting his own horn. So it might have been stuff like that, and they never were supposed to be literal. But, man, I don’t know five-hundred-year-old Dutch, and plus I wanted to tell my own story, so I kinda borrowed it, you know what I mean? And I know it’s set in a Christian theme, too, with The Last Judgment, and I didn’t do that at all.
AD: I was going to ask you about that. From The Garden of Earthly Delights, you only take from the two right panels. There’s no looking-at-Jesus-man or chatting-with-Eve-man.
Mike Watt: I wasn’t even looking at that kind of a theological thing. I was using them for very acute situations–this idea of different parts. You get to middle age and you realize that you play a lot of roles. There’s the guy I’ve gotta be with my guys, my partners, my bandmates. Humans can compartmentalize themselves, and it seemed like the parts that made up this guy. They weren’t supposed to be literal in any way, they were just supposed to be springboards for me to tell this story, which is just me thinking about myself from different perspectives. A third of them came from the painting you said, and a third of them The Last Judgment and a third from The Temptation of Man. I found some kind of resonance with them for what I wanted to talk about. That’s why I use that word, appropriate. More than stealing!
AD: It’s funny, because you’re sitting here talking very deeply about how important Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings are to you, but you always present yourself as just this poor old yokel from Pedro.
Mike Watt: Oh, I know. People think that the town is full of people like me, and they’re very surprised. Actually, I’m from Virginia, and I moved here when I was ten, so I’m not a real Pedro guy. But I’ve been here for forty-three years.
AD: I think they’ve probably grandfathered you in by now.
Mike Watt: Well, the way I look at it–grandfathered!–is like a kind-of bungee cord. I want to do exactly what you’re saying; I want to get beyond. But in a way, I have to ground it, too, a little bit. It’s just a home. But you can’t just be at home. I think you have to go away from it. I think about it sometimes as if I’m Don Quixote, you know? You gotta sally forth and drive towards the windmills. But I’m not brave enough to go live in another town every few years, so the bungee cord yanks me back to Pedro. These sally-forths: the typical Pedro dudes don’t do that. Actually, most of them work in the harbors, so they only have to go a couple of miles.
AD: Have you ever lived anywhere else?
Mike Watt: Since I’ve moved here? No. Part of it’s my work, which lets me visit places a lot. So I think that makes it a little different, and it’s why I try to get into it: Whoa, I get to go back home. But in another way: Whoa, I’m getting to leave again. It’s both; a roam-and-roost duality. Not trying to say I’m a chicken-head.
AD: There are several warnings against sentimentalism on Hyphenated-man. You don’t strike me as an overly-sentimental guy.
Mike Watt: That’s funny, because Richard Meltzer told me that I was his favorite sentimentalist. Obviously something like the first album, there’s a lot about the Minutemen on that one. And I would call that stuff sentimental.
Mike Watt: Because I miss him, bad. So I was trying to think about him a lot, and that whole story. It’s interesting, because you might get mired thinking about the past.
AD: It’s not like your records are overwrought, though.
Mike Watt: Yeah, but it’s hard to be conscious of that, because you’re too close to it. That’s for other people to decide, you know. If I consciously went into that trying to manipulate feelings, it’d be a little Machiavellian. I am trying to let the feelings out, but to be calculated and shit would be weird. If you’re making music, you’re composing, you are kinda arranging things, but you don’t do things just to make people cry. Made me cry. Shit came out, especially on that first album. We went on tour for fourteen months and I just couldn’t play it anymore, cos it was so intense. I didn’t design it that way.
AD: Is Hyphenated-man difficult to play live?
Mike Watt: Hyphenated-man was different from the other two operas even nuts-and-bolts-wise. Also, I think I’m a little less young, and the Alzheimer’s is kicking in. There’s a lot of parts in this fucker! I’ve got it down now, though. We’ve done it about seventy-three times. But thinking about it? Oh, god, man, fuck. There are things, like “man-shitting-man,” that are really heavy on me. Especially the last couple of ‘em, the way it winds up like that. It wasn’t meant to wind up. I wanted the middle one to be a kind-of hub, as if the narrative of the record were a wheel. I didn’t want to turn into a rerun! I did the first one sad: a traditional opera. The second one was happy: I didn’t die. This one, I didn’t want to recall an older tale; I wanted to talk about now, which is why I wanted it to be structured like a wheel. Which is really hard to do. In a perfect world, all thirty pieces would be going on at the same time. We’d have trouble doing this. The whole piece would have been like two minutes long. But really, even though I knew that there was no way I could do that, I was working from that premise.
AD: Which song is the hub?
Mike Watt: The hub is “pinned-against-table-man.” It was gonna be “wheel-bound-man,” and the last song was gonna be “man-shitting-man.” I initially put them in the order that I wrote them, because I wanted to be unselfconscious, and of-the-moment. But I realized that if I put that one last, it was too down. It was like a Bosch painting, where the right side is a total bummer. And I didn’t want that. The record’s a little bit about middle age, and about reconciling things. And at the same time, I had to admit to myself that there’s some shit that you can’t reconcile, like the way that we treat each other. I had to say that these things exist, but maybe if I put that last, people’ll think it’s the bottom line. I didn’t mean that. What was the center song, and is now the last song, “wheel-bound-man,” is about how we’re here to learn; I’m a student forever. In my book, that’s healthy.
AD: Do you feel like the songs work as independent pieces?
Mike Watt: They don’t really stand on their own. Musically, they do, but not the words. I’m actually in a little dilemma. They want me to play it on the NPR station up here, and I only get two fifteen-minute sessions. That means I have to cut a third–I have to do a Reader’s Digest version. It’s weird for me, because they all go together. But I can’t blame people; I’m just glad they’re interested. Coming from an old punk, when we wrote shit, we never thought about people liking it or not. People hated us all anyway, so you just did what you wanted. In the old days of punk, it was a small scene. It built up the DIY/self-reliance thing. But you didn’t test-screen things, you know. We just came up with shit and laid it on people. Sometimes it seemed like the spit was gonna come anyway. I’m not trying to be all conceited, like it’s my way or the highway, but if I can just get together and work it out with my guys playing-wise, I bring it to people. And I’m hoping that they don’t hate it that much. If they do, they can wait till the next one.
AD: You’re about to put out a record with dos, right?
Mike Watt: Yeah, right. The fourth album.
AD: How long have you and Kira been playing together?
Mike Watt: Twenty-five years. It’s my longest-running band.
AD: What do you get from dos that you don’t get from The Secondmen or The Stooges?
Mike Watt: Having just two basses is a very tricky place to compose from. We’re in the same little narrow space, which means that there’s no place to hide. You have to be creative with the composition. In fact, a lot of the fIREHOSE songs started as dos songs. It helped me with the writing, playing that gig.
AD: How so?
Mike Watt: Because of the narrow space the bass works in, you can butt it up really big-time. You gotta kinda work the holes that you leave for each other. And I do think that that’s one of the big futures for the bass guitars, is composition. I’ve noticed often, it’s one of the later things to be added on, and people compose on piano or guitar. It’s much trickier to compose on the bass; the spectrum is narrow, so it leaves a lot of room for the cats who play with you. It’s like a springboard. It gives them a start-off without making it too narrow, and it still gives them a bit of structure or direction. A lot of people don’t dig it, because there’s not enough structure. There’s cats like Nels Cline who love it.
AD: That strikes me as the kind of thing that Nels Cline would be into.
Mike Watt: I’ve got three albums with him that are coming out. You know, I had to start my own label because I’ve got so many things in the pipelines. Every three or four months I’ll be coming out with a new release.
AD: Yeah, you’ve got something with Richard Meltzer, right?
Mike Watt: That’s right. It’s called Spielgusher.
AD: I know you were talking about making a record with him near the end of Minutemen; is this the same record?
Mike Watt: He gave us ten poems, and he was gonna play sax and sing with us. It was gonna be a four-way with Georgie and D. Boon. He gave D. Boon the ten poems right before the last drive he had; they were in the boat, in the van. Some of those are on this. In 2004, Richard recorded forty-eight of his spoken-word pieces. Then, in 2008, I went to Tokyo with a husband-and-wife guitar-and-drums team, and came with up sixty-five instrumental pieces. That was tricky, because they didn’t have very good English skills. These guys were beautiful musicians, and they just went at it. In three days, we came up with sixty-five little pieces of music. There’s fourteen instrumentals, with these spiels on their own, and forty-five of them work together [with the Meltzer pieces]. He was great–he still is, he’s still around. As a matter of fact, when we were in Portland on the last tour, I got to spend all day and night with him. Great cat.
AD: Were you a fan of the work he did with Blue î–yster Cult?
Mike Watt: Oh yeah, big time. That was where we first knew about him. Then we read the books. He had a radio show here in L.A. called Hep Cats From Hell from midnight to six on Saturday nights. He just became a huge inspiration for us. To collaborate with him like that, it’s like a tribute to him. And it became a springboard for me to do these little pieces of music. It’s a tribute record. When I played it for Richard, it was so neat how happy he was; he really digs it.
AD: And you have a record about work coming out, too, right?
Mike Watt: That’s gonna be my next recording. It ain’t an opera. But it’s songs about work, and it’s with my Secondmen, the group I used for the second opera. They’re both longshoremen here in San Pedro. Man, D. Boon would dig me making a record about work with Pedro dudes. And we recorded in Pedro! That’s due next year. It’s gonna be a collection of songs that revolve around the idea of work. It’s gonna be called Pick It Up and Put It Over There.
Mike Watt: It could mean a lot of things.
AD: Was it hard for you to do the econo thing when you were on a major label?
Mike Watt: Not doing the econo thing. They let me do things like SST. They never came to the studio, I never took tour support, and I delivered finished masters. It was hard to space out the projects, though. They wait a couple of years to put out albums, so that was different. But I wasn’t in that mode yet. I was still in the mode where everything goes through one band; the only other band I was in was dos. So after five of those I decided to have a unit around each proj. So Watt kinda changed, too.
AD: You’ve said that Wire was a big influence on Minutemen.
Mike Watt: Yeah, big time. And there was another British band called The Pop Group. They were from the late seventies. They put Beefheart together with Funkadelic. And we thought that was a great idea. You know who sounded like them was Gang Of Four; in fact, I think they did gigs together.
AD: And Hüsker Dü was a big influence, too.
Mike Watt: Yeah, of course. We knew those guys; they were like our brother band. Them, The Meat Puppets, Black Flag.
AD: You got the idea for a double record from the Hüskers, right?
Mike Watt: It would’ve been disrespectful to copy them, because they were friends. It was a weird kind of inspiration, though, because there would have been no Double Nickels without Zen Arcade.
AD: Who influences you that way now?
Mike Watt: I listen to a lot of Coltrane, but I can’t play like him. You know where a lot of my inspiration comes from is writers and painters. Especially writers. Because they’re not afraid of ripping off the music. It’s scary when you’re listening to music, because you don’t want to bite their riffs. Even though that happens, I’d like it to be more unconscious. But with a writer, at least you’re taking their imagery from another realm of the arts. With the tunes, it’s scary.
AD: Which writers are you influenced by?
Mike Watt: The first album I used a lot of Ulysses, from Joyce. In fact, on Double Nickels there’s a lot of Joyce.
AD: I’d never noticed that before, but then I heard your interview with Sound Opinions and you mentioned it there.
Mike Watt: Yeah, I’d just read it, and I had the images in my head. The way about writing with me is that no matter when that shit was written, I think, “Whoa, that was written about me.” It’s weird. And then on the second album, I did the Divine Comedy from Dante. This opera here was The Wizard of Oz, but it was more from the movie. To me, all of the art forms are valid, I don’t think rock ‘n’ roll trumps all the other ways of expressing yourself.
AD: As a writer, I’d have to agree with that.
Mike Watt: Well you guys have helped me to not play the same riff over and over. You give me a purpose, so I’m not just building tract homes. Writers have always been very important to me. In some ways, your way of expressing yourself is the most personal. You’re using symbols to build pictures, to communicate almost one-to-one, from the readers’ eyes to your pen or typewriter. It’s a really trippy kind of connection that I find really liberating, And at the same time, it’s inspiring. You guys can give me cues to help me think about the ways I’m trying to express myself.
AD: Music doesn’t do the same thing for you?
Mike Watt: Yeah, but like I told you, I got the fear of ripping off the licks. I’m probably doing it anyway, though!
AD: It works in both ways, though. Writers are influenced by the non-verbal qualities of music.
Mike Watt: I’ve heard this. Bukowski loved classical music, as did Philip K. Dick. It’s weird to see the connection sometimes: a dirty old man, or something like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep coming from classical music. But, that’s why the arts to me is a really fucking interesting fabric that humans have to connect with each other. Like a good flannel.
AD: L.A. Weekly asked you what music and love have in common, and you responded that it was the sense of possibility that you get from each. What was the possibility you got from music as a teenager?
Mike Watt: Oh, that was very simple. I got to hang out with D. Boon. No, really, that’s how I got into music. I didn’t really feel myself to be a musician, so much as I thought, “Wow, this is a way that I could get to hang out with D. Boon.” He really had the natural talent for it. And he was a painter, too. In my mind, he was like Raymond Pettibon, a true artist. I really admired him. He was a hero for me. I gotta tell you, when you’re on-stage with D. Boon–myself, I’d get scared shitless–but that guy, working as hard as he did, no one would be afraid. He was an enabler. Big-time enabler. That possibility came out with D. Boon. It was like, if he was there, I could do it, too. words/ m garner