Louder Than War Exclusive Interview: Mike Watt – Stooges / Minutemen Bass Genius
Until now I’ve never noticed that fascism has so many disguises” The Minutemen (1981)
Thirty years ago today, D Boon, Mike Watt and George Hurley were likely facing a flood of phlegm and bottles as they opened for a crowd of hostile, copycat punk rockers in some LA dive. They probably played Disguises (was it directed at the morons in their scene?), one of 18 bite-sized sketches from the Minutemen’s 15-minute debut “album” The Punch Line, out later in the year.
Ok, this probable event is not much of an anniversary to justify a commemorative article nor even that it’s 31 years ago in July they recorded their first EP, Paranoid Time. But who needs an excuse to celebrate the Minutemen? What does it matter that they fired and burnt out so many years ago when there are still many yet to discover my favourite band in the world?
As Mike Watt says: “Somebody once told me that the only thing that’s new is you finding out about it. When (SST label artist and friend Raymond) Pettibon first played me John Coltrane, I thought he was doing punk too. I didn’t even know it was old, and that he was dead.”
The five years and 11 months of their existence (January 1980-December 1985), cruelly curtailed when singer / guitarist D Boon lost his life in a van crash, is a play for today as much as back then, when hardcore was a fledgling and “college rock” wasn’t on the radar.
The Minutemen were part of the hardcore punk scene but they were a square peg. For many numbskulls in the scene then (and maybe now even) punk meant three-chord thrash, leather jackets, spiked hair. But for this band, punk really meant do-it-yourself, rather than do-it-like-the-Pistols / Ramones / Black Flag. And their aim was to encourage DIY individualist bands to form on every block. As they explained in their 1984 song History Lesson Part II: “Our band were scientist rock.” They fused punk heroes Richard Hell, John Doe (from X) and Joe Strummer with British avant-gardists Wire and The Pop Group, and other diverse influences such as Creedence, Beefheart, Blue Oyster Cult, Parliament-Funkadelic and John Coltrane.
The Minutemen were organic, naive, uncontrived and neophyte. Watt is still frantically playing his bass ,or “thudstaff” as he likes to call it, ”for innumerable bands, with names such as The Missingmen and The Secondmen, alongside his on-off duties with Iggy & The Stooges.
“I just did two gigs in one night, he says, “and one of those was a hardcore gig in Orange County and the fucking amp burned out right before the end of the first song. It was still going through the PA, so I could still be heard. But what was I going to do? Throw a fit? But I’m sure kids were thinking “who is this man who looks like my dad? What is this about?’ In a way, I’m trying to blow their minds a little bit. Not that I’m so special or anything, but in weird ways, I’m just as misfit as you are.
“I meet with a lot of young people and I want to give them confidence; it’s ok if you’re a little strange, it’s where this movement came from. Punk wasn’t about being excessive, it was about being ”what do we do? We don’t really fit in, maybe we’ve got to make a world of our own’. Fuck all the peer pressure, instead of trying to fit in, let’s everyone, who’s having the same kind of struggles, probably everyone on the planet, take a chance. Making some kind of Petri-dish where you can grow all kinds of shit, and make it dangerous on an art level, on an expression level.”
He still lives in San Pedro, the town where he was born and raised. Pedro is 30 miles from Hollywood where Watt “learnt punk rock” – but it’s a different universe: a working-class naval port, a place which fashions and glamour tends to bypass. From this place of unstarry alienation came all three of The Minutemen ”who managed to record 200 songs in their brief existence.
As far as they were concerned, there were no boundaries to what a punk band should be. Watt’s wired, jumpy, intense funk bass doodles were juxtaposed with George Hurley’s driving, creative rhythms, while D Boon turned the treble right up on his guitar, in a conscious attempt to give all three parts equal space, while they hollered expressionist haiku-like five-line songs. Many didn’t last more than a minute, but each song was pregnant with ideas “or at least kernels of ideas – all produced with strict economy, veering off in free jazz, folk or squally rock tangents.”
“Basically it was just about calling your band punk, it wasn’t a sound or anything. That was our take on it. Punk was a vehicle. The mentality was, you didn’t just go out and play outside your bedroom. But then we saw these guys who couldn’t even play, trying to write songs and it just hit us like a sledgehammer between the eyes. And we thought, yeah, the form isn’t so important. What’s important for you and your buddies is trying to find your inner voice. It’s hard being judged by others but it means nothing “punk redefines all this shit about ideas of talent and what’s appropriate. It opened up things to us. I know it sounds naive, but you’ve got to understand the state of our minds in those days. All we saw was arena rock. Art in general was far away and unapproachable.”
“You all had to bring something different to the party. To be homogenous was the antithesis of what we were trying to do. We were trying to make a unit of truth.”
In the excellent 2006 documentary, We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen, Watt acts as narrator and takes the film-makers on a trip in his white van, which he calls “the boat”, around Minutemen haunts in Pedro (pronounced “Peedro”). He points out the exact spot in the park where he and Daniel Boon met at the age of 13. D Boon fell on his head from a tree, and from that day forth the two outsiders were inseparable. D’s mother practically forced her son into playing guitar, in a bid to keep him from roaming the streets, and he and Watt taught each other from scratch. The pair graduated from San Pedro High in 1976, just as America’s Creem magazine was documenting the English punk scene. At an import record shop, eight miles away at Long Beach, they discovered Wire and Bristol post-punks, The Pop Group by accident, just buying their records because the covers looked interesting.
“Over here, it was very mysterious and like a personal journey trying to find an album. What these bands were doing was expression and paying no attention to rules, just making it up themselves,” says Watt. “That gave us confidence. Wire had very short songs, and The Pop Group were putting Captain Beefheart together with p-funk, it just showed us that, man, you can do whatever you want to. You don’t have to worry about getting permission, you know?
“But hearing it happen in Hollywood was a very profound experience. Coming from arena rock to a place where I could actually see a bass guitar had thicker strings. I never saw that before. And the gig’s only half-an-hour long, and the guy who’s on stage is stood next to you five minutes later. All that separation between stage and audience seemed to have gone. The cross of ideas between the audio thing and seeing Hollywood bands live were just a mind-blow.”
Via their own label New Alliance and Black Flag’s larger SST, The Minutemen just didn’t stop releasing singles, EPs and albums, every one of them full of incendiary surprises. But touring was all.
“In the old days of arena rock, we were led to believe you did tours to promote records. The gig was the one thing we knew “…it was always the best. The record was there to get people to the gig. I remember us deciding on everything. We weren’t even gonna use tuners. We had a little pow-wow and said “no tuners! That’s the lame rock star way of doing it.” We wouldn’t even do interviews, we decided it was more elitist doing them than not doing them. We’d make records every eight or nine months, they were like a flyer. They were like telephone calls, means of getting people to the gig.
“We did feel a weird urgency to do as much touring as we could, because we always felt it was a mistake that we were getting to do it. We didn’t think about death stopping us, but something was gonna come in. So we had to do, do, do and, you know, it was hard to stop, man, it was like woah! We’re done with this one, on to the next.”
Their double-album, 1984’s Double Nickels on the Dime still gives tingles.
“The Huskers [Husker Du], they came to town, they made a double fucking album, and we thought, ”Fuck man, we’ve gotta too”. So we wrote a whole bunch of songs. We recorded it for $1100 and mixed it in one night, 45 songs. But later on, we looked back and we realised Double Nickels was the high water mark. And it was the last album where Georgie (Hurley) wrote songs.”
Watt remains devastated by D Boon’s death: “I see D Boon every fucking day. I ride my bike by the park where we started the Minutemen, it’s in my mind all the time, and it’s one of things that holds me to Pedro. My entire music history is here. In some ways, the past is so in me. There’s a respect you want to have – this guy gave so much. Through him, I try to keep myself together, and by that way it does show him respect. While there couldn’t be a punk scene without the Stooges, there couldn’t be Watt doing bass without D Boon. I feel I’ve got to earn this shit. Punk was never a stepping stone for me, not at all. I never grew out of it and I’m still a punk rocker.”
It was Thurston Moore and Sonic Youth who rescued Watt after D Boon died, and got him to play on their Ciccone Youth project and the album Evol. “I didn’t think anybody would want to hear me play without D Boon,” Watt says.
Then a young guitarist named Ed Crawford, bewitched by The Minutemen, found Watt’s number in the phone book and left Ohio for a pilgrimage to Pedro. Firehose were formed. “I just thought Ed had such nerve to come to Pedro. I lived in this one-room apartment and he lived under this table I built for nine months. I thought, in a way, I can really start over.”
Firehose lasted for nearly nine years, while Watt’s musical partnership with his ex-wife Kira (from Black Flag) continues in the dual-bass duo Dos. But the biggest shake-up in the past eight years has been filling the shoes of late, great Stooges bassist Dave Alexander. Watt does it with his usual aplomb and relentless energy.
“But I think whatever music I’m doing, there’s a part of D Boon comes out, because I learned with him. But at the same time, and this is something I found out after Firehose, you can’t learn anything when you’re always the boss. Life is about taking turns. I’ve really tried hard to read these guys and fit in. I feel I owe these guys my best notes. And the way Iggy works the stage, there’s a parallel with D Boon. He worked at it so strong, always like this might be the last gig ” we’re gonna have to play our hearts out. Iggy has the same way of approaching it. It’s probably because we were so inspired by them, and I really feel part of it on stage.”
Playing to hardcore kids still delights Watt, and these days they generally have enough respect not to gob or throw things at him. “Young people sometimes say to me “man, you come from the good days of punk, these are all suck-ass bands today’.. It’s not true. There’s still lots to be done.”
* Check out Mike Watt online .
Watch We Jam Econo on DVD (or on Youtube), read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, listen to Paranoid Time, Joy, The Politics of Time, The Punchline, What Makes A Man Start Fires, Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat, Double Nickels On The Dime, Project Mersh, 3 Way Tie (For Last), Ballot Result and any other Minutemen releases I might have missed (on SST or New Alliance records) Firehose’s Ragin’ Full On, If’N and Fromohio are also un-misable.
Mike Watt & The Missing Men ‘Third Opera’ UK Tour 2014
- Wednesday, April 9 In Brighton, The Green Door Store
- Thursday, April 10 In Exeter, The Cavern
- Friday, April 11 In Bristol, The Fleece
- Saturday, April 12 In Leicester, The Cookie Jar
- Sunday, April 13 In Manchester, The Ruby Lounge
- Monday, April 14 In Edinburgh, Sneaky Pete’s
- Tuesday, April 15 In Glasgow, Broadcast
- Wednesday, April 16 In Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
- Thursday, April 17 In Sheffield, The Harley
- Friday, April 18 In Southampton, Joiners
- Saturday, April 19 In London, The Lexington