One of the treasures of American punk rock, Mike Watt has been pounding the bass since he played with Minutemen in the ’80s. He’s still touring and recording nonstop, with a seemingly infinite succession of bands and projects. He’s also a great natural talker — or spieler, as he puts it in his one-man argot — and his idea of the relationship between recordings and performances is a bit different from a lot of rock musicians. As he puts it, “The music paradigm that’s changed since I was with [the Minutemen's late singer/guitarist] D. Boon is that ‘work’ has become not just a verb but a noun: having things that’ll be here when you’re gone. In those days, everything was in one of two categories: There were flyers and gigs, and anything that wasn’t a gig was a flyer! A record was just something to get people to the gig; everything else was subordinate to the gig.” But now, he says, he thinks of a record as “maybe a little more than just a flyer — we’re not gonna be here forever.” On the advent of the release of his new book, On and Off Bass, and the fIREHOSE compilation lowFLOWs: The Columbia Anthology (’91-’93), we asked him to tell us a bit about the experience of playing live with some of the bands with whom he’s recorded over the years.
It was all about the gigs. We were so gig-centric. We thought that's the most control you had. We were 13 in 1970 — we didn't know about the punk scene and garage bands in the '70s. I've come to learn about 'em through Pebbles and Nuggets, and the Stooges gentlemen tell me about those days. But for us, it was just brand new. Of course, the dynamo at the center of everything was D. Boon. He made an economy for me and George Hurley to be in there just as strong as him, but he was a big, big part. We wanted to celebrate just the act of playing: trying to find our own voice, thinking out loud.
Last year Edward [singer/guitarist Ed fROMOHIO] asked me to do some gigs. We hadn't played for 18 years. The way I got projects stacked up now, it's hard to just jump on things. I have to plan in advance, and at the time Edward asked me, I was just coming out with the third opera (hyphenated-man). So I said wait 'til next year, and I'll make that time. He's going to arrive here in six days, taking the train from Pittsburgh, and we're going to [practice] for two weeks — he picked a setlist, an hour's worth of songs, and we're going to try our hardest to do 'em. Georgie's [Minutemen/fIREHOSE drummer George Hurley's] got a room in his pad, we use my prac pad in Pedro, and we're going to go for it and then play gigs for two weeks. I just played with Georgie last week — we did Minutemen songs as a duet — and he said, "It's really emotional for me to play with you!" He had his head down, like an I'll see you at the finish line" kind of thing. We did play for 14 years, and then it's been pretty much of a gap.
Contemplating the Engine Room, The Secondman's Middle Stand, hyphenated-man: Those are in the tradition of — do you know that Who album with "A Quick One While He's Away"? That was the idea of these things. I was thinking, "I can't get all this shit in one tune, so I'll make one big tune with lots of parts." I wrote the third opera, hyphenated-man, on D. Boon's guitar, and I showed it to [guitarist] Tom Watson, and I said, "Can you do this?" It's always a surprise what's gonna happen. I'm gonna do one more tour of it. We've got the fucker beaten into us, now. It was getting pretty good toward the end of the last tour, but we've really got it now. I put that band, the Missingmen, together especially for that proj, the same way I put the Secondmen together for that album. But actually next year I'm going to a new album for the Secondmen. It ain't an opera, but kind of a concept album about work — both those guys [organist Pete Mazich and drummer Jerry Trebotic] are longshoremen.
That was the first time I've worked for another man. I did three tours with them, and it was pretty amazing for me. It taught me a lot of things. It was also my first time working with a frontman — a man who doesn't work a machine and is kind of like a conductor. Perry [Farrell]'s very interested in that. He didn't tell me the chords, he'd tell me the story of the song. I'm on the title song of te second album. I remember he said, "Now, this is about a battle with cancer — you tell God, 'You can take my life if you let my pop live.'" And then you switch gears, you're surfing, there's a big-ass wave, and you gotta hard-charge it. You got it?' Another thing I got from that band was the idea of eye contact. Porno for Pyros guys are way into using the eyes. It changed my whole way of playing with my bands live. I have my drummer way up front, facing me — we're all set up to look at each other.
I've done some gigs with them, and they're weird gigs — they're January and February tours, in ski country. We played in ski pads, in Zion, Utah or the Tetons in Wyoming — beautiful places, and different crowds, for sure. It started out as a pure recording thing. The first album was very strange. It was with Money Mark, and these cats the Dust Brothers came over and they played Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" over the headphones, and had us jam to it, each of us in a different room. When it came to mixing, they edited the jams, but they took out "The Rite of Spring," so you couldn't tell what we were jamming to. But then a trumpet player [Willie Waldman] came on board, and Banyan changed — it became a band to do gigs. But no prac! You just showed up and played. Very trippy.
The brain man behind that band is a fellow from Toledo named Dan McGuire. The first three albums were improvised things — two of them were done at the same time, and then they edited them: [guitarist] Joe Baiza went back and saw what was worthwhile, or more worthwhile, or less unworthwhile. Me and George just did our parts for the fourth one. This time, Dan McGuire said, "Let's try, not improvised, but compositions." So Joe Baiza had me write 10 songs on the bass, and then in January I got together with George Hurley here in the studio in Pedro and did our parts. Joe's next, and then Dan will put on his poems. There actually was one Unknown Instructors gig, after the first album, up in Silverlake. Every chance I get to play with George Hurley, it's fuckin' happenin' for me.
Richard [Meltzer] wrote to the Minutemen, and we were going to get a chance to collaborate with him. He wrote us 10 songs, and wanted to sing and play saxophone. We had just gotten his poems when we got done with what turned out to be our last tour, and we never got to do it. The 2000s came around, and I was still thinkin' about that thing. I asked Richard, "How about you give me some recorded spiels and I'll get some music up behind this thing, somehow, some way." He ended up doing 48 spiels and sending them to me. I tried them with other people, and it kind of weirded them out. Just by chance, I met these husband and wife musicians from Tokyo [Yuko Araki and Hirotaka Shimizu]. Their English isn't as intense or thorough with cuss words and shit, and they didn't have any trouble with it. We came up with 65 little jams; my job was to pick out which of the songs went with which of the jams. A lot of work went into that proj. It was kind of like a gift to Richard for all he's done for us. He used to have a radio show on KPFK — we used to listen to that religiously.
I was playing with Stooges in New York City, and talked to [keyboardist] Yuka Honda, and of course [guitarist] Nels Cline comes up. She'd never heard of him, which kinda tripped me out. I said, "You want to know him? Play with him!" And Dougie [Bowne] was getting back on drums, and I thought, "There's a situation here, when it comes around." And sure enough, Matt Ward asked me and Nels to open up for him in Central Park. I told him I'd write each person a song on bass — I do a lot of writing on bass, it leaves a lot more open for the people you're with. Some people really bum on it, they think it's like writing a song on kick drum or something, but someone like Nels Cline, they love it! We had a couple of days before the gig, we recorded the album, then we did the gig. But Nels and Yuka ended up getting married, which usually doesn't happen when I put together collaborations. That was unintentional. I'm not Johnny Cupid or something.
I'll have played with the Stooges nine years, come April. The gigs still seem like they're two minutes long. I get so caught up on it that I have to focus sometimes, 'cause the tunes were there, you know? It's not going to work if I just stop and listen. On the stage, that Stooges music is like WOW! WOW! I just want to play my best for them. I don't even think we'd have a punk scene without that band. I try hard always, but there's something about the Stooges that I just really, really wanna play good for them. It's helped me be a better bass player in a lot of ways.
Dos is my longest-running band — 25 years, coming up on 26. Dos kind of started as a concept: Make a band without anybody but bass! It's also kind of an interesting challenge because it is a narrow spectrum; composition-wise, it's almost a ping-pong game. K [Kira Roessler, Watt's Dos bandmate and ex-wife] is a very interesting musician and person. A lot of fIREHOSE songs came from Dos songs. It kinda bummed K out, like Dos was a fuckin' petri dish for the real rock band or something. There's no hiding in Dos. There's no cymbals, they can hear the clams — there's no mystery. And there's a lot of fuckin' notes in that band. A lot of shit to remember, you know? The live thing is pretty dynamic, too. I love it.