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