Punk Is Whatever We Made It to Be
An interview with bassist Mike Watt
Mike Watt's latest album, Hyphenated-Man, is not about the past. "It's kind of a meditation on me in middle age," he says.
But there's plenty about it that's akin to other labors on Watt's half-century-long timeline: There are 30 quick songs on the album, each dense and potent. And it was released on Watt's own label, clenchedwrench, which got off the ground in January. "Me and D. Boon did it 30 years ago with New Alliance, so it's kind of full-circle. We wanted to put out stuff without having to worry about permission or anything."
D. Boon and Watt were childhood mates in San Pedro (pronounced pee-dro by locals), a blue-collar port town in Southern California. In 1980, they formed the angular, jazz-bit punk act Minutemen in their hometown and then toured nonstop. Watt was on bass, which has remained his main instrument ever since. D. Boon played guitar and shouldered most of the singing duties. Five years later, he died in a traffic accident.
Some critics are saying that of all Watt’s work, his latest release is the most like a Minutemen album. And Watt agrees that the little-song format—boiling a song down to small parts—is similar. But out of respect for his old friend, he didn't want it to be too much like Minutemen.
Hyphenated-Man was inspired by the the work of Hieronymus Bosch, a painter from the Netherlands who was born around 1450. He's known for "The Garden of Earthly Delights," depicting human anatomical oddities alongside weird creatures. Watt became fascinated with Bosch as a kid. "I was into dinosaurs, too," he says. "Same kind of thing. Kind of fascinating how he made one big thing out of a bunch of little things."
Watt's career post-Minutemen could be described the same way. He's formed a number of projects, including fIREHOSE, the Secondmen and Dos. He's improvised alongside the likes of composer Nels Cline in Banyan and one-time Beastie Boys keyboardist Money Mark in Los Pumpkinheads. He's also joined bands such as The Stooges and Porno for Pyros. There’s a long list of proper nouns cataloging the multitude of projects he's built or been a part of. And they stack, creating a larger body—his life's work.
“Punk, for us, wasn't a style of music. It was a state of mind.”
It's a harder way of doing things, taking out the filler, distilling your endeavors like good, strong whisky, he says. "It's a lot of changes. You don't repeat the same motifs over and over as much. You're always switching gears." The little-song approach to life.
You have a sticker, and I think it's an old D. Boon quote, that says, "Punk is whatever we made it to be." Do you still think of yourself as punk?
Yeah. Without the movement, I wouldn't be doing what I am now. Punk, for us, I think what D. Boon was saying there, wasn't a style of music. It was a state of mind. So that's why I think it's not a nostalgia thing. You can keep it going in these days.
When you have fewer words in a song, is it hard to pick which ones you're going to use?
Well, the way I write is I come up with a title first and then the music and then the words, so I have focus. This goes back to my Minutemen days. I was afraid of building tract housing, so the songs get the focus. That's what I try to do. I look at the title and have all the words aid and abet that. I usually start out with too much and have to cut down. Like the way you make whiskey, you know, you distill.
What's it like writing songs alone, versus writing songs with other people?
Well, when you write them yourself, you're like the director. When you're collaborating, you're just part of the ensemble. You're trying to make an interesting conversation.
Life's about taking turns. I don't think you can learn anything by always being the boss. For example: The Stooges. Iggy's helped me a lot. I've learned about how to play bass by serving in his classroom.
“What I've come to in my age, 53 now, is that everyone's got something to teach me.”
What's it like being in The Stooges?
Well, I'm the youngest guy finally. It's also very wild, because that music is a big part of my early years. They're very interesting gentlemen.
Ig, he doesn't work a machine. He's more like a conductor. He's not busy operating something, so he's getting the big picture more. He's helped me out a lot with perspective.
Do you ever get frustrated when people tell you what to do?
No. I think in my mind, I ask Tom [Watson, guitarist for the Missingmen] and Raul [Morales, drums] to do things. It's only natural I should be asked to do things. So it's very easily reconciled. It's taking turns. Inhale, exhale. That's the way I look at it. It's not like I'm always taking direction. I got my own projects, too. So there's no problem, no pent-up frustration.
You've worked with so many people. What are you most proud of?
That Double Nickels on the Dime album was probably the best one I played on. That was Minutemen.
What I've come to in my age, 53 now, is that everyone's got something to teach me.
And they all have big consequences. Like when I played with Porno for Pyros, Perry [Farrell], working with him led me to do my first opera, Contemplating the Engine Room. I'm very susceptible to people's influence. They say, Hey, why not try this? Try that?
You call them operas, yeah? Why do you think of them that way?
Because they're one big song made out of little parts. I didn't have the talent to put it all in one song, so I had to make a bunch.
“Most people, when they go into the bathroom, they're probably looking at the tile. The bass is like the grout.”
You've also done a fair bit of improvisational work. What does it take to be a good improviser?
A good listener. Also, be tight in your mind. Let the free association happen quick. Stop double-thinking yourself too much, which is a kind of an honesty to have. But you've got to listen because you're playing with other people. And they should be a big part of the equation, which is different than when everybody is assigned parts and executing things.
How do you think about bass as it relates to the rest of an ensemble?
It's kinda like glue. Most people, when they go into the bathroom, they're probably looking at the tile. The bass is like the grout. We're like in between the tile. The politics is kind of, like, we look good making the other people look good. Trippy thing in a band.
It's kind of a drum. The closest things is a kick drum. But then you've got a little bit of melody, too, so you're kind of like a guitar or the left hand of a piano. It's very mysterious. I still think it's finding its place, which is why I like it.
It's funny, you know. Even though it's your band, you're still backing your guys up. It's the dynamics and the physics. We're very narrow, as far as hertz, frequency. But we're in a place that's pretty powerful as far as pushing goes. I find that interesting.
Is there a common thread among your favorite bass players? Is there something you look for when you see a bass player that will make you say, That person's really good?
“Songs, you know, I never had children. They're like the closest thing, I think. They have their own little lives.”
Like James Jamerson, in the Motown stuff, he was incredible. Then there was some guys from over the water, like rock ’n’ roll, like John Entwistle and Jack Bruce. They're big influences on me. What I think of a good bass part is: If it falls out, the whole song falls apart. It don't have to have a lot of notes. The thing about bass is it's a low frequency. The more notes you play, the smaller you can get. There's always a search for the right notes. That's why someone just starting out on bass can be really impressive and write a great bass line. It's not about more and more, like most things.
What’s happening in music right now that you find interesting?
Collaboration. You can do that a lot easier with the Internet. A young man in Canada I never even met, he sent met 10 songs. I put bass to it, just to do it. Couldn't really do that as much in the old days. So that's very exciting. Also, I think equipment costs a lot less. And just young people, period, are a lot more open-minded than in my days. Thirty-, 40-year-old music? No problem. In my days, yeah, big problem.
How do you motivate yourself to keep making music with all your heart?
Because I really prescribe to the notion of it being expression. It's a way of me getting feelings out. It's not just a hustle or something to connect the dots. I really look at it as a conduit to get feelings out. It seems like I keep getting feelings. It wasn't just a young-man thing.
Like Perry [Farrell] told me once, "Mike, keep the child's eye of wonder. Cuz when you do think you have it all figured out, things can probably get a little boring." So I always look at it like: If you're really feeling this, Watt, then there should be some way to hook it up with some kind of music. Get to the lab.
It is strange. You have to almost go back to reinvent yourself. But it's OK; it's kind of exciting. Like the bass, it's kind of mysterious. What is it, really?
Songs, you know, I never had children. They're like the closest thing, I think. They have their own little lives. People hear them, and they make up their own minds about what they're supposed to be about. I'm still caught up in the wonder of the whole process, and that's what keeps it exciting for me.
What do you want to do next?
After this tour? I got more Stooges gigs all summer in Europe. That's what they usually do, is play the summer festivals over there. After the summer with The Stooges, I'm going to take the third opera to Europe. And then I want to make an album.
I got a Pedro band called the Secondmen. It's organ, bass, drums. And I want to make an album, not an opera, but kind of a concept album about work. They're longshoremen, you know. And D. Boon would love me making an album about work with two Pedro guys.
What kind of bass rig are you using for this tour?
Eden stuff. I've used Eden amps since the early ’90s. I use two 4-by-10 cabinets and their Navigator preamp. My bass is a 1965 Gibson EBO.
Do you always use the same one?
Yeah. I've been using this one a lot. It was given to me by a young man named Dan about two years ago. My bass got stolen. All The Stooges’ stuff got stolen in Montreal the summer before that.
This guy brought me a bass at the gig. Just a gig-goer. Also a cat from New York brought one to me in Toronto, Canada. He gave me a ’69 Gibson EB3. I play that one a lot, too. I call one “the Andy bass,” and I call the other one “the Dan bass.” Very sweet, huh? It was very kind. He felt bad about the theft. I don't feel too sorry for myself. I hope someone's playing that bass somewhere. I accept it and let it go.
Do you like touring?
Yeah. I like playing for people. I like seeing different parts other than Pedro. Though I like always coming back to my town. I like the idea of seeing how people do things I have to do in different landscapes under different weather with different architecture.
But when you play gigs, you know, that's a very intense thing. It's like, you're in the moment. Are you going to choke? Or are you going to have it together a little bit and get this thing put together with your guys? It's an interesting challenge. It's like in-the-moment validation.
Of course, as far as the gig-goers, you want to challenge them a little bit, so they're not in sleepwalk mode, either. It's kind of challenging for both sides. Touring is bringing it to them. Although I've been getting into recording a lot, there's still something about playing for people and bringing it to their town and you getting to go to their town.
My father was a sailor, and I remember him telling me about it when he'd come home from sea. It would just make my head all curious. "What's those places like, pop?" You know? Luckily, I fell in with this trippy kind of work.
Actually, I'm kind of like a sailor. That's what it's like. That's what touring is like. Where he was working the engine room, and I'm working the bass. I get caught up in it. They're little journeys, voyages. The O word, opportunity. Not the B word, burden.