Louder Than War Interview: Mike Watt – ex Minutemen / fIREHOSE bassist and current bassist with The Stooges, Cuz and many, many more
Mike Watt, the man who played bass in one of the best and most influential punk rock / hardcore band ever, The Minutemen, has just finished his latest tour of Europe with his Missingmen. We spent over an hour with the man talking about his (many) current projects (below) as well as about punk rock, The Pop Group, The Minutemen, Iggy Pop and so much more (in this separate post).
Just over a week ago one of my music heroes came to Bristol to play his first gig in the city for 25 years. He was here to do his Third Man Opera in full – a forty five minute song in thirty parts – an endeavour which, during the gigs, he’s been playfully describing as a bit bonkers, even going as far as to express surprise that we’d pay good money to come along and see them. We’ll assume it was tongue in cheek, but with Mike being one of the most genuine people in music I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he was being straight up.
If I were to compile a list of my “dream interviewees” Mike Watt would be second only to John Peel (and jointly second with D. Boon, natch). Since I first discovered The Minutemen back in the mid 80s they’ve remained my no. 1 favourite band – something you’ll hear from most fans of the Minutemen. They were and still are game changers. Stereotyped as “punk” thanks to their SST / Black Flag connections the truth is that they were not only always on the edge of that genre but that they were much more than it too. You can see echoes of their influence rippling down through most guitar based music genres over the last thirty odd years, and they are as influential today as they’ve always been, not something you can say about many bands and not something that Brother Mike would accept – he’d just refer you back to the bands who influenced The Minutemen.
So, when I heard Brother Mike was headed Bristolwards there was only one thing for it – to jettison my lifelong fear of interviewing anyone “face to face” and “in the flesh” and request some time with the man.
Having just prior to the interview told my mother I was a tad trepidatious about meeting Brother Mike, it was with her words of “you’ll be alright, he’s got a nice face” ringing in my ears that we were introduced and directed into a small room above that night’s venue, The Fleece. I took out my carefully prepared questions, put them down on the bench next to me from whence they immediately fell onto the floor and stayed there until twenty five minutes into the interview when Brother Mike pointed to them. I picked them up, glanced at them once, then put them down again not to be turned to again until the interview was done and dusted; a reflection I pass on not to infer I have a crack memory and the latent interviewing skills of a Michael Parkinson, but rather to make you realise that Brother Mike is a raconteur of the highest order. Apart from occasionally coaxing him along with words, comments and even the odd question (y’know, like a real interviewer) the hour we were together was all Brother Mike. And not to put too fine a point on it, I was like a pig in shit. I honestly could have sat there all evening listening to him and wouldn’t have minded about missing the gig one jot.
Sadly, though, Brother Mike’s bladder had other ideas.
Left with very nearly 5000 words of wisdom I had to make a decision on how to use it all. So here’s how things stand: this, the proper interview, is about all Mike’s current and future proj’s of which there are many. There’s also another piece going up which basically takes care of all the sidetracks Brother Mike went off on; in part thanks to me pushing him there and in part because for Mike all roads appear to lead back to the “golden days” (my words not his) of the early 80s. Certainly every conversation we started on ended up there anyway.
Not that he isn’t fired up about his current proj’s of course. Far from it – every time we started talking about a new band of Mike’s he got incredibly animated – you can tell he deeply loves music and all his musician friends.
So roughly in order here’s some of the projects Mike has on at the moment, all of which we talked about:
- The Missingmen and his Third opera
- The second Il Sogno Del Marinaio album
- The Black Gang
- Big Walnuts Yonder
- The Hand To Man Band
Feel free to skip to any of those sections using the search feature in your browser. And yes, I know we forgot to talk about The Stooges for whom Mike’s been the baseman for over 10 years.
So, in time honoured “interviewing a musician while they’re “on the road”” fashion (I may not have conducted any interviews before, but I sure as hell have read a few) I started by asking how the tour was going. And in time honoured Mike Watt “being asked about a tour he’s on” fashion he returned the stats…
“Third England gig, 48th gig of the tour, 56 gigs, 59 days.”
I responded by pointing out the bloody obvious – that it’s a long one.
“I’m pretty used to it. It comes from The Black Flag days – they used to do four month tours. The biggest one I did was 71 gigs in 73 days, 56 gigs on a row. You know, if you’re going to go out and play, why not get as much in as you can? I like to play every day, you get a good rhythm with the band. And you get to see as much as you can. They’re all different.
We digress here, can’t remember why, and talk about the 70s UK punk scene – fascinating stuff you’ll find in this other post.
Under casual orders from Mike’s press person to talk about CUZ, as well as being interested in hearing about that project anyway, I jump into a gap created by Mike reaching for his Chow Mein and fire off what I believe is called “an open question”, namely…
“So, we better talk about CUZ I guess…?”
“OK, CUZ is great … it’s a trippy thing and it’s a thing that could never have happened in the old days. The way you can connect with people now without being in the same room … So, how it started was, Ian Parton, the boss man of Go! Team (for which Sam Dook played for), this man made an album all by himself and he used parts of records… stuff he was hearing offa TV, movies, Bollywood … and then he needed a band to do gigs. Sam Dook was the first man to join the band. I was over here a lot with The Stooges, but mainly at the festivals, so there were loads of days off in between. I took a train to Brighton from London and we just jammed for three days and then I said to him to take pieces and we’ll be the samples instead of the records of Bollywood or 70s cop shows. So he’s going through these things and finding little licks, me on the bass, him on the drums. Then, from Pedro I was sending stuff too; spiel, more bass, bass solo and he could add on, all kinds of stuff … and he asked friends too. So that was the whole idea. But he’s been touring so much that the proj is six years old now, something like that … in fact we recorded enough we’re ready to go with round two real soon.”
Those of you who havent heard the album, Tamatebako, are in for a treat as it’s an absolutely fascinating listen. The first single off it (which we wrote about here) is kind of pop music, but with a Japanese bent. The album isn’t all like that though, there are also many tracks on the album with brother Mike’s unmistakable growl on them which contrast dramatically with the lead single off it which has vocals by Kaori Tsuchida. The pace changes regularly on the album and it’s alive with little ideas popping off all over. Having heard what Mike had already said about Brother Sam constructing all the tracks in Brighton, I wondered if Mike considered the album to be mainly Brother Sam’s invention…
“In a way it is, cuz even though I’m playing those parts I didn’t put them together like that, y’know, some of those bass parts (on the album) weren’t even together, he just took them from here and there and put them together. Maybe I get credit for a bit of playing, but he’s the man on the wheel spinning the pot.”
“Another thing I like about it” Mike carries on, “is that I never made a record with a guy from England before. So some of the songs he just played his guitar on them and I added some bass – these were not from the jams, I just liked the sound of his voice and the way he was playing with these trippy rhythms and the flute.”
“So I’ve added to my vocabulary as I’d never made a record with a guy from England before.”
I comment that it’s surprising that Mike’s not played with anyone from England before as a lot of his heroes come from here and we’re off on another detour, one which begins with brother Mike saying “Lots – specially on the fucking bass, cuz in England they weren’t afraid to put the bass up loud, y’know” and ends with Mike telling me how he and D. Boon used to listen to records with coins on the arm of the player so it didn’t skip – evidently a universal experience.
So tell us more about this tour and the Third Opera…
“Well, I put The Missingmen together to do this opera. A forty five minute song in 30 parts. It’s my third one. The first was in ’97, Contemplating the Engine Room, (a punk rock song cycle using naval life as an extended metaphor for both Watt’s family history and the Minutemen), The second was in 2004, The Secondman’s Middle Stand (inspired by both his 2000 illness and one of his favourite books, Dante’s The Divine Comedy) and now this one.”
This one was written on D. Boon’s guitar right?
“That’s right, a telecaster. Now, I don’t write much on the guitar, a little bit in The Minutemen like History Lesson or something, but there were certain things I wanted to do so it wouldn’t be too much like The Minutemen; I had to give respect to Georgie and D. Boon and not rip off my own band – cuz a lot of that shit goes on – but I wanted to do little songs again, so I taught Tom all the guitar parts, then I taught the drums to Raoul using my voice (demonstrates such). I never got them listening to the bass. We recorded them mid tour in Brooklyn, no bass, no spiel, then a year later I flew back there and put the bass and spiel on. Just like with CUZ. I still think it’s real. It’s just different real.”
At this point Mike points out the questions I’d prepared to ask him had fallen on the floor. I pick them up while Mike goes for his Chow Mein again, glance at them, see the words “Big Walnuts Yonder” and say “Oh yes, Big Walnuts Yonder…”
“OK …there’s this young band, a Sacramento band, named Tera Melos … Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos’ lead guitar) heard my first opera on which the guitar man was Nels Cline. He said “I’d like to meet Nils Cline, play with him.” He said the same in Tokyo so I asked Nels and he said “great.” So I wrote them eight songs on the bass, so they got a lot of room to do what they want. I said “you pick a drummer” to Nels and he said “what about Greg from Deerhoof?” So Nels took me to see Deerhoof and Greg said yes. We booked a studio for three days, Tony Maimone’s studio, (legendary bassman for Pere Ubu who also produced the Golem track we recently premiered.”
“So that all came from Nick asking me to do that – or actually he just wanted to know Nels as a fellow guitar man. The title came from a poem by Richard Meltzer who was a huge hero of mine and D. Boons.”
We talk about Richard Meltzer a bit now and about how the Minutemen’s next recording was going to be with songs Richard had written and he was going to play sax on them. “That’s right and then there was a car wreck so we never got to make them. “But then, 20 / 25 years on, we did make it under the title Spielgusher on my Clenched Wrench label.”
Back in 2009 Mike Watt formed a group called Il Sogno del Marinaio with guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi. It’s a curious album, some would say difficult even, but it definitely fits with what Watt Mike was saying about making everything he recorded sound different to each other. There’s a second Il Sogno Del Marinaio album out soon so I asked Mike to tell us something about it…
“They’re 21 years younger than me … and another trio … I mean there’s so much you can do with bass, guitar and drums. We made this album. They’d only invited me to do some gigs, then we decided to record the songs. We played three gigs (in Italy), recorded the album, played three more gigs. It was a bit like these bebop guys improvising.” (Brother Mike is a huge jazz fan and opens every episode of his “Watt From Pedro” who with John Coltrane).
“We’ve made a second album and they’re mixing it right now (as I can’t with being on tour.) They’ve never done a big US tour so they’re coming over. It’ll be 51 gigs in 51 days … I’m gunna show them the US. The album’s due out in August.”
“So those are my most imminent projects … but i do have an album to mix by The Black Gang (Nels Cline plays guitar and Bob Lee does drums). It’s about Autumn, colours like orange, red, yellow. We’re making that psychedelic … so I’ve got to mix that. He’s overdubbed electric sitar, a 12 string guitar. It’s a Nels Cline tour de force. He doesn’t prepare at all, he just plays he’s got so many years of improvising he can just bring it.”
We interviewed Mike and the rest of The Hand To Man band when their first album came out – so is there going to be any more music from them in the future?
“Yeah, Thollem and John Dietrich, but we’ve got a different drummer this time, it’s kind of like what we’re doing with Brother Sam and Cuz, but it’s more free and improvised. Brother Sam’s making it into song forms … I don’t want to say pop …” (I begged to differ here, telling Mike that a lot of the songs on it are quite poppy.) I’m not sure he agreed but he carried on “…yes, but i mean there’s no space out jams and that stuff.”
We return to tonight’s gig. I asked Mike how long it took the other guys in the band to pick up the music…
“I put these guys together to do the third opera … I picked them and I wrote it for them to play. Tom goes way back, he was in Slovenly and he knew D. Boon, Raoul is from Pedro.”
“Politics of bass that I’ve learned is that you look good making the other guys look good, so even though it’s my band and my songs I’m still pushing my guys. I’m the grout in between the tiles. Y’know D Boons mum, I can’t thank her enough for putting me on bass, it’s an interesting place, specially as composer, coz you have to leave a lot of room for your guys to express themselves. There’s one or two bits Tom improvises but most of it comes from me. Raoul comes from hardcore, but he’s one of the softest hitter hardcore guys I’ve met.”
Aware that the first support band of the night have started playing (we can hear them below) I go in with a final question about whether Mike always tries to check out other bands on the bill when he’s playing and if he has any tips for us, bands to look out for…
“I try to. It’s how I find out about a lot of bands. I have my own radio show, I don’t play anything mersh at all. There’s a lot of good music out there, not just from the old days, there’s a lot of cats. There’s this cat called Tobacco from Pittsburgh putting out some wild ass synthesiser shit, all analogue, there’s these buddies I got in Tokyo (sorry, didn’t catch the name) and over here in Ireland there’s Adebisi Shank and in Belfast there’s And So I Watch You From Afar. Instrumental bands, these guys are fucking cooking, in fact they asked me to put spiel on their songs. Music can be a fucking happening, happening thing. There’s these girls on Oakand called Sistas in the Pit. I told Ig about them and he got them for The Stooges. People say there’s too many bands – cmon, can you have enough bands? Get out and listen to more!”
I mention to Mike that he should make sure he checks out local (to Bristol) band Hysterical Injury when he plays London as they’re supporting him there. To my surprise he becomes quite animated – it turns out he not only knows them, but has played them on his brilliant the Watt from Pedro show! Brother Mike – always one step ahead!
At which point, 58 minutes after I turned on my recording device, we wrapped the interview up. I picked my questions up off the floor, realised we probably covered everything I wanted to and went down to watch the first band playing, Milo’s Plane, a young band who wear their influences not only in their band’s name, but on this occasion on their t-shirts too – Sonic Youth and Black Flag. A few songs in I turn round to find Brother Mike watching. Playing to the audience, maybe, the band finish with a song by Wire which, judging by his face, has Mike buzzing. He goes up to shake hands making their year I imagine. It’s great to see.
Let there be no mistake, Mike Watt lives and breathes music. Forty years of making music and he’s still as excited and impassioned about it as he ever was – and ever will be. His extraordinary enthusiasm for making new music, finding new compadres and talking to starry-eyed oafs like me is incredible. They all say he’s one of the most straight up guys in music and they’re all right.
His band’s set was astonishing. They rattled through the thirty songs at quite a lick then proceeded to encore us with a selection of Minutemen songs as well, of course, as some Pop Group covers. It was, not to put to fine a point on it, one of the best days of my life
More from Mike Watt including his opinions on Minutemen, The Jam, The Pop Group, touring, flyers, downloads and Louder Than War can be found here.