Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

[Editors Note: We've been lucky enough to have interviewed Mike Watt four times: I talked to Watt once with fIREHOSE and twice as a solo artist, then Mikey Erg had a turn. This is our 5th Mike Watt interview, conducted by Brooklyn musician, promoter, and writer Jamie Frey.]

by Jamie Frey

Like many people my age, I discovered the Minutemen in that sample at the front of Sublime’s “Waiting For My Ruca,” when you hear D.Boon’s voice singing Mike Watt’s lyric, “Punk rock changed our lives.” It’s from the Minutemen’s “History Lesson Pt. II,” where the song’s narrator proclaims that Joe Strummer, John Doe and Richard Hell are “Bob Dylan to me.” There are many of us that know the truth in that statement, many of us who discovered punk rock and were set on a trajectory that would keep us far from the status quo for the rest of our lives.

When I was a kid, I discovered the Ramones, then the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and a few years later, I found what I like to call “the greatest generation,” mind-blowing music that I’d never seen mentioned outside of music magazines: The Replacements, Husker Du, Descendents... and the Minutemen. This trio of childhood best friends played Beat-inspired tunes that sounded like nothing else, with politics as hard as their funk, a band full of new ideas and philosophies. It started when Mike Watt and D.Boon found themselves with guitars in their hands at the encouragement of Boon’s mother. Then one day they saw the Germs. Those circumstances led Watt on a lifelong journey that led him from the Minutemen to fIREHOSE to the Secondmen and the Missingmen, eventually joining the revived Stooges, one of the bands that inspired him in the first place.

I spoke to Mike Watt on the release of Ring Spiel ’95, a live album culled from the tour that accompanied the release of Ball Hog or Tug Boat?, an album Watt made with the most incredible personnel of any record, including a “who’s who” of my aforementioned “greatest generation:” Frank Black, Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, Evan Dando, Dave Pirner, and J. Mascis amongst them. To tour the record, Watt assembled a band with Eddie Vedder (on guitar) and the Foo Fighters (including Pat Smear of the Germs.) My conversation with Watt plays out like “History Lesson Pt. III:”

Q: You’ve lived through a lot of things. You’re an American icon to me and a lot of my peers. How do you feel after this election as an American?

MW: Every election, I hope somehow the country survives. The first time I got to vote, I helped Mr. Carter. They let the 18 year olds vote in 1976, they changed the law because they could be drafted but they couldn’t vote. So they changed it from 21 to 18, and that’s the first time I got to vote. But, yeah, they’re all kind of scary. Because the way people get is kinda strange. And you see a lot of historical examples and you go, No, it won’t go like that, will it? And so you’re hopeful. Now what I did, I grew up with D.Boon and we got in a band so we could make music, so we could think out loud about this kind of stuff. But yeah, they have these beauty contests and there’s consequences.

Q: Where there any books that you read as a young man that informed the politics of the Minutemen?

MW: Well, we were boys in the Sixties, and in the Sixties, people were in the streets about civil rights and free speech and the war. Other people came out in the streets to beat them up for that. And we learned by example from that. Our time came in the Seventies though, it was much different. But I think we were informed by that Sixties experience. When you’re a boy, sometimes it’s hard to make sense of things. I was way into the space race, I was way into dinosaurs. I think what drew us to the punk movement was the fact that people couldn’t seem to make a difference, they were frustrated, that was one of the reasons arena rock was so big in the Seventies. But I did 125 months with the Stooges and I learned from them that there was a club scene, there was a garage scene, there were small labels in the Sixties, it just got all lost in the Seventies. So in a way the punk movement was us learning about what had happened before.

There are all these different traditions… I’ll tell you one book that was pretty intense for us, that’s (Walt Whitman’s) Leaves Of Grass, this poem, the first edition with the 12 poems. This guy wrote these 12 poems to try and stop the Civil War. I guess people knew it was coming, there was a 10, 15, 20 year slide into that conflict. But (Whitman) thought that people, farmers, workers at lunch time would read these poems and think, fuck it, we don’t have to go to war. We can live up to the promises of the words we built this country on, or at least work up to it. Now we’re talking 1855. So in a way, the Minutemen are kind of part of a tradition.

During the Dust Bowl, there was this cat Woody Guthrie, he sang songs that we had actually learned in school. Some of the songs they left some of the words out, but we were singing those Woody Guthrie songs in school as kids. There’s always been this side. If you think about how people live their lives, people take turns. You have to have empathy. One day you’re gonna be playing the role (of the underdog.) I know this because in bands, there’s three ways things work. Sometimes you got the idea and you ask people to come on board to help realize it, sometimes other people have the idea and they ask you to come on board to help realize it, and then sometimes you collaborate. Everybody brings something to the deal. Like the thing I have going right now with the two guys from Italy (Il Sogno Del Marinaio.) When I do my operas, I ask these dudes, will you play these parts? And of course with the Stooges, I’m taking a little bit of direction there. But I think that’s healthy, I think this is what life’s about, and I think people are getting a little rigid and a little crusted up in, treating some of these issues – which is basic to how we’re going to deal with the power, right? – and they’re treating it like sports. My team, your team. It’s weird. Because the consequences could get really crazy. We need the fabric of expression – sometimes it’s just spiel, sometimes it’s painting, sometimes it’s poems, it’s music – there are interesting ways people can connect without one cat having his boot on the other guy’s throat.

You know who taught me and D. Boon a lot was this cat (SST illustrator and painter) Raymond Pettibon. He got me into a lady who wrote a book called This Is My Life named Emma Goldman. She was from around a hundred years ago, but there are some things that are just timeless issues. Like respect for people. Emma Goldman was just a teenager but she started organizing these sewing machine ladies in New York City. There’d had been a terrible fire and a lot of these women died because the working conditions were so bad. [The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, still one of the deadliest industrial disasters in history. – Ed.] So because of Pettibon, we got turned on to people like Emma Goldman who organized. He also turned me on to bebop, he turned me on to Coltrane for the first time.

Getting involved with the moment, that’s so important. I’m from Virginia, right? Moved to Pedro when I was nine, my pop’s a sailor and California was closer to Viet Nam, so the Navy puts him here and my world is all Pedro guys, it’s a working town, the harbor and everything. It’s in the biggest port in the country now, back then it was because of the war, it was a lot of military. It used to be a big fishing town but they fished it all out, now they mainly just catch squid. But the cans, the container ports, the longshoremen, that got real big. The war ended, the war effort died, and it turned that container port into a big thing. So mainly it’s working men here in Pedro, and they’re probably the only guys in SoCal who don’t have to commute. They live right next to the docks where they work. We find out about this scene in Hollywood, this punk movement. We graduated high school in 1976, so it was right about that time. And we go up there, and it’s people writing their own songs. Which sounds ridiculous today, but nobody did that back then. And we meet the people, it’s a very small scene, small group, but they are pretty deep on a lot of subjects. You can tell that socially, they’re not too much together, just like me and D.Boon, especially me. But still very interesting people. Crazy clothes, fake names, intense personalities and characters. And I think that had a profound effect on us. No one picks where they’re from, but you can choose where you’re at. And that’s why I think we gravitated to that scene. The other thing was that they had no problem with us getting up there and playing in front of them, when we finally got enough nerve up. For a couple of years, we just watched. Bands like the Screamers, Nervous Gender, and the Germs.

Q: So as a kid you drive up from Pedro to go to L.A. to see the Germs, and now all these years later, you have Pat Smear in your band.

MW: Right. You believe that? That’s kind of empowerment, huh? There were these people inventing their own music, and we’re all reacting against arena rock, which was everywhere. In arena rock, you’re all anonymous, nobody talks to each other, everybody just stands there and likes this one dude or this one small group of dudes, and everybody else gets left out.? It seems like humans never learn the lessons of that… what do you call it? That hankering? Some kind of shortcut? The one guy everyone likes and everybody else works around that? Back then, we had autonomy. Everything fractured into these weird little things, and they let these guys from Pedro play in their scene. And maybe because it was so small, you had to learn to do a lot of the stuff yourself. But think of Walt Whitman. He had to put out that book himself. And when they talk about old traditions, why don’t they talk about this guy? They also leave out some other old traditions that are pretty disgusting, like slavery. But when these politicians talk about tradition, I never about Walt Whitman from them. So that’s what we’ve got to do, we’ve got to put it out there with the arts, and make it less like sports. There’s nothing wrong with sports, especially something fast and kinetic like basketball, it’s almost like music. It’s incredible. But when we’re talking about these other issues, it gets a little ridiculous. You take a cat like Richard Hell, right there on his first album, he’s got that line where he leaves a blank. I’m a member of the _____ generation. And by not saying, he was saying a lot.

Q: It’s like you said about arena rock, you’re tearing down the godhead. You’re making a statement about humility.

MW: Yeah, yeah. But the thing is, when it came time to play, D.Boon liked to play his guitar. He was very driven. He liked to play and sing and dance. Iggy is like that too. Edfromohio was like that. Hard chargers. I’d get on stage, I was scared shitless. You take this new album, Ring Spiel, total pants shitter. It’s 21 years ago now, I hadn’t really thought about it, but this s how it happened. Back in April, this guy Tim Smith at Sony Legacy, he said, we got this tape, Watt. It’s been floating around a lot time, you want to put it out? And I’m like, what? Oh yeah? Listening to it, I was scared, but it turned out there wasn’t as many clams as I thought. Looking back on that tour, it was a total pants shitter. But looking back at my journey in music, this was the point where I got brave enough to play with other people.

Q: You got to get in the ring, right? That’s the conceit of the title? Like a wrestling ring.

MW: You know, first I played with the guy I grew up with. Then I played with Edward and Georgie, seven and a half years, 20 tours with fIREHOSE. Those guys really helped me at a time when I was really hurting. But when it came time to pick the material, Dave Grohl called me up and said, why don’t we do a tour, a little one, where we’ll open up and then we’ll be your band? And I thought, well what kind of stuff should we play? It’s only a couple of days of practice. So I’d take a Minuteman song, I took “Policial Song For Michael Jackson.” Most of the songs from Double Nickels On The Dime, I wrote about Ulysses, because I just got done reading that James Joyce book. But I wrote a song and I sent it to Mike Jackson’s manager, and I thought, if Mike Jackson sings this song, everybody would know what the Minutemen were about. I never got a letter back. But I still thought it was a good song for the Minutemen to do, and then I thought, maybe it’ll work with these guys too. The Foo Fighters, they were from the next shift, and Pat Smear was from the shift before me. And I was kind of in the baloney seat, the baloney man. I thought maybe that tune would work. Nowadays, like us doing this interview here, right away you knew I was a Minuteman, so I don’t have to explain a lot.

Q: All those things you did, they’re still very much alive. I play in bands, all my friends play in bands, I started a band with my best friend when I was a kid. And all those things that you did, they live with us. Somebody turns you on to the Minutemen, and then you find Sonic Youth, and Black Flag. It’s like you guys finding out about Walt Whitman and Coltrane.

MW: Here’s the thing, we’re part of a movement. There never would have been a Minutemen in a vacuum. The thing about the movement was, if you were part of it, you had to bring some of your own stuff. But on the other side, we were inspired so much by these other cats, letting their freak flag fly. And I think you have to give yourself some credit too, for being open-minded enough to listen to a band from 30 years ago. We were doing this stuff before you were even born, and you don’t care about that. That’s pretty righteous of you. And I have to give you respect.??People have to learn stuff for themselves but it’s good if you have someone who can give you a little big of insight, perspective. It’s not like I can give you marching orders, because we’re in this moment now, it’s not exactly like the old days. But there’s some kind of perspectives, I think, we can pass along. I say this because me being young in the Seventies, we had no respect for anything old. It was a trend. It was coming out of the Sixties, where people were divided along age lines. It doesn’t seem like we’re divided along age lines as much anymore, we’re not as agist anymore. For instance, those guys in Italy (Il Sogno Del Marinaio,) they’re 23 years younger than me, and it’s no problem. Back in the Seventies, that never would have happened. People are more open-minded today, at least on some stuff. Even though there’s lame shit out there, on some levels things are better today.

Q: I’m glad you think that.

MW: I was there. Let’s take making music. It was very expensive. The gear, the recording equipment. Today it’s so much easier, cheaper. Yeah, the creativity problem hasn’t been solved. But maybe that should never be solved. But the econo… just because you don’t have big bones, doesn’t mean you should be locked out of expressionville. More econo. And more open-minded. Like, take a band like Black Sabbath. They must be 45 years older than their audience. But young people have no problem liking them, right?

Q: Oh yeah. They were my first favorite band, when I was 11 or 12.

MW: They were a big influence on my bass playing. And then I found out that Geezer wrote most of the words too. Ain’t that a trip. I think the last album of theirs I really listened to was Sabbath Bloody Sabbath but up until that point, I knew every song by heart. I took a lot of bass licks from that guy. And today, a young person can go through the same experience I did, that’s how open-minded they are. Now, when I was their age, was I listening to some guy from the Twenties or the Thirties? No. It was different days. So that’s why I’m saying, it’s not completely better, but there are some things that are more happening.

I gave a talk last week, my sister’s a teacher in junior high and I went in for Career Day. And I went to the same junior high school where she teaches! It’s 45 years later. In those days, girls could wear pants to school only one day a month. What was that about?

Mike Watt, 1995

Q: Let’s talk about Ring Spiel a little more. This is a live album right after you had released Ball Hog? Or Tugboat back in ’95. I just listened to that again and it really holds up.

MW: Well thank you. That was a weird time, because Ball Hog? Or Tugboat isn’t really a solo album. There’s 48 dudes on that record. The title tells you the what the experiment was. If the bass player knows the song, maybe anyone else can come in and play, whether it’s guitars or drums or sing. I thought the bass player could be a key guy in the band. So I made 17 different bands, and I kinda used the metaphor of the wrestling ring. Get in the ring with Watt. And out of the blue Dave Grohl calls with an idea of how to take it on the road. Because I never thought that record could get toured. You can’t get 48 guys in the boat. But he comes up with this idea where he’s put together this band to play this album that he made all by himself live, and then he wanted to play drums behind me. So it was kind of a collection of coincidences of how the tour happened, and a little more intentional with the album. But I always thought of records as flyers for gigs. This is the first time I looked at a record as just something you could do. There’s this old say, why does a dog lick his balls? Because he can. That’s the way I looked at this record. I just called up dudes around the country and said hey, you wanna see if you can play if you heard the bass doing this?

Q: So on Ball Hog, you wrote the bass lines for everything, and you had the words. And then you just let these guys play? That’s sick.?

MW: There were some tunes where I practiced with Nels Cline and his drummer. Three or four songs, just to have a backbone. Because it was very scary for me. Like I said, I had just come from playing with Edward (in fIREHOSE) and then from playing with D.Boon (in Minutemen), and I had played with Georgie (on drums) the whole time, 14 years, so it was kind of a sheltered life. The only side thing I had ever done was DOS, the two-bass thing with K. (Kira Roessler, whom Watt would later marry.) So it was a scary time for me.

Q: I listened to Ball Hog yesterday and while I did, I looked at the personnel on the record. I can’t even think of a cooler group on one record. It’s kind of like having the Beatles and the Stones and the Kinks and the Who and Bob Dylan playing on one record.

MW: A lot of it (the tour) was Dave (Grohl’s) idea. He wanted to play guitar so he only plays drums on 7 or 8 tunes. So when Tim Smith (at Columbia Legacy) told me they had this tape, I asked all these guys if they’d be okay with releasing it and they were all into it. In fact Pat Smear wrote me and said, “’Bout time, Watt!” And man, I couldn’t believe it. These guys are not embarrassed to play with me, ok.

Q: Well, it’s like you were saying before how Smear as the first shift and you were the shift after that. These guys like Grohl and Vedder, they’re gonna go down in history as the big boys of their shift. And after that, it was interesting what those guys went on to do. Dave embraced the arena, and he’s very, very good at it. And Ed, Pearl Jam at that time, they went on this whole trip where they didn’t want to do that. They didn’t want to make videos, they didn’t want to do Ticketmaster. So if you look at these guys in 1995 and then look at them now, what was it like having these two guys in your band? Where do you think they were at that time?

MW: I think they wanted to be connected with the world. With Ed (Vedder), it was like, look, I could do other things. I could play drums with my wife’s band. Dave Grohl was like, look, I don’t have to play Nirvana covers to make a living, he made this record and went out there and played it for the people. Both of them accepted this on their own terms. I know we’re part of this other world, but we’re also part of this world that Watt’s been doing for a while now, and in fact Watt’s still doing that world. They knew that world. Dave Grohl I think was 17 years old when he played in Scream. So they knew. It wasn’t totally alien to them. I think what was more alien was all that hype that came with the big world. There was still a little hype with Ball Hog. That wasn’t my fault, I tried to stop it. When you come down to it, it’s just playing. Famous? What does famous really mean? I think some people need fame, but for others, it’s baggage. They’d rather give to playing the drums, playing the bass.

Q: The way I see, you start a band and you’re playing with your friends, and at first it’s all about the music. And then you start gigging and this whole other things comes along, and sometimes it just gets in the way of the music. And all these other people get involved who have nothing to do with the music – managers and lawyers and promoters and labels and stuff - and you have to fight to stay in Column A and not get sucked into worrying all the time about Column B. And the more success you have, the more you have to struggle to keep that garage feeling. I think both those guys felt that.

MW: Yeah, but you look at them, they both pretty much controlled their situation. They didn’t become little puppets. And of course Pat is always going to be Pat. Pat’s really the inspiration to all of us, he’s the shift before. When me and D.Boon saw the Germs, it was almost like they were giving us permission to let our freak flag fly, man. Don’t worry, it’s okay, try it out. It’s like doing skateboarding in front of people. Yeah, you might fall down, but so what? C’mon, just do it. That’s the way I look at it.

Q: That’s the thing about putting yourself out there and getting on stage. You might crash, you might fly. I watch a lot of bands, and I don’t love this rehearsed thing. I like to see people play, even if they might suck for a minute. There’s something so much more captivating about watching that kind of tug of war onstage.

MW: Right. Think about a skateboard. Can you really ride on and be very careful? It’s not a lot of fun if you do. Pedro just built a new skate park, and it’s not very fast, but I see dudes out there and they’re not being careful. There has to be some kind of dare or it’s not worth doing. I think with music, it should be like that too. Like, the wheels are about to fall off, but they’re keeping it together. When we recorded Ball Hog, we only had a couple of days to pull it together. Dave and Ed, they’re fast learners man.

Q: And you listen to Eddie Vedder on that record and he’s really shredding on guitar.

MW: Oh yeah. He’s the one guy on guitar that whole gig. Everybody else is trading off. Me and Ed are the guys who stick to the same instrument. Ed’s kind of there in the rhythm section with me, he’s part of the backbone. He did really good. I was proud of all those guys. And I’m very grateful to them too. Like I said, I never even stood in the middle before. Politics of bass is kind of trippy. You’re there to make your friends look good. I like that kind of politics. Even if it’s your band, you’re still backing up your dudes. ??Q: The bass player’s got to be cool so everybody else feels comfortable in their role. That’s the mark of a really good bass player.??MW: You look at bricks, we’re the mortar. I’m so grateful to D.Boon’s mom for putting me on bass. Because I actually didn’t know what a bass was. With arena rock, you’re so far away, I couldn’t even tell what the bass was playing. In the pictures you could tell it had strings, but I didn’t know the strings were bigger. I didn’t play with bigger strings until high school. I just didn’t know. A much different experience between a club and an arena. A lot of our punk is being anti-arena rock. Which gets tricky because Porno For Pyros, J. Mascis, Stooges, I ended up playing arenas. And they’re pretty terrible. It’s better than the Seventies with the sound equipment they have now, but there’s still nothing like a club.

Q: What are you doing next?

MW: I’m getting ready to do one song for this 7-inch I’m doing with my Secondmen with three bands from the Balkans. Croatia, Serbia, Sedonia. Art from a guy in Bosnia. Me and my Secondmen are doing a version of one of these guys’ songs. I think the next album thing will be the Panther Burn thing that Tav’s talking about. But I’m still writing songs for the Secondmen and the Missingmen. Their mission of doing those operas, the second and third operas, they realized that. They got that mission done. But I still like playing with them, so I’m making records with both those guys. I have another recording coming with the Italian guys, a nine and a half minute piece where we collaborated on 27 parts. “The Focused Glance.” There’s a brand new record that’s coming out on Sargent House called Big Walnut’s Yonder with Greg from Deerhoof and Nels Cline. That’s all recorded and mixed, that’s a wild fucking record. And I wrote eight of the tunes on the bass. I think there’s a place for bass in the future where it’s a composing tool. Not just the last thing. Because it leaves a lot of room for your collaborators. Because it’s a springboard, a launch pad. Especially the harmonic content. The guitars are full of that stuff but the bass, not so much, so your collaborators are more free. And Nels can voice his chords. A lot of dudes are too scared to work like that, there’s not enough outline. But guys like Nels from the improvised school, they love it. I don’t mean to be so biased towards the bass but I just am.

Q: I love playing the bass. I play guitar live, but jamming on bass is pure bliss.

MW: Well, we need you guitar players. We look good by making you look good.|

Q: You played the Grand Victory last time you were in New York, right? That was a pretty small club.

MW: Yeah. With Tav Falco, a longtime hero of mine. What an honor to get asked to play with him. In fact, kind of a coincidence, he’s in L.A. and asked me to come visit him at some friend’s pad tonight. So I’m going to drive up and practice before Tad flies back to Vienna. But he has plans to make a Panther Burn record in Memphis in April with Toby Dammit on the drums, the guy I did the last two years of the Stooges with. ??But yeah, Grand Victory, that was fun. I played a Beatle bass, a Chinese Hoffner Beatles bass that is really fun to play. Two hundred and fifty bucks brand new. Little flat rounds, I haven’t played flat rounds since I was a teenager. It was a trip. Tad had me wear a suit, I wore pointy shoes. It was a different kind of tour for me. We had one day practice, 25 songs, one day. Yup. But 21 years ago, that’s what the ring Spiel thing was getting me ready for. I can’t have what I had before with D.Boon. That’s changed forever. But life deals you a hand, and you play it. The Ring Spiel was part of that journey. I just got off tour last week with the Italian guys, and if you consider a tour more than a month, than that was Number 60 for me. Only 60 more to go.


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