It all began in the late '70s with childhood chum and Minutemen guitarist/vocalist D. Boon. Fueled by the endless possibility and energy of punk, they formed the Minutemen with George Hurley on drums and released their first EP, Paranoid Time, on friend Greg Ginn's SST label in 1980. Where Ginn's Black Flag epitomized the sound and the fury of West Coast hardcore, the Minutemen--with their cross-pollination of punk, free jazz, folk and politically charged lyrics--symbolized and embodied the independent spirit of punk better than anyone else. They toured relentlessly and recorded often. They started their own label, called New Alliance Records, that would release (among other indie notables) Hüsker Dü's first EP, 1991's Land Speed Record.
As witnessed by the aforementioned indie music roll call, their influence ran deep and wide. And when it seemed that they were on the verge of mainstream recognition, D. Boon was tragically killed in the early hours of December 22, 1985, when the van he was riding in slipped off the road and he was thrown from the backseat. For a brief, painful while, the world stopped turning. When asked what kind of bass player he is, Watt still replies, "I'm D. Boon's bass player."
Mike Watt "Forever - One Reporter's Opinion"
96kbs, 63sec, 760kb
After Boon's death, Watt and Hurley planned to retire entirely from music when a twenty-two year old kid by the name of Ed fROMOHIO [Crawford], a rabid fan of the Minutemen, crossed the country to literally pound on Watt's front door and implore him to start playing music again. The subsequent trio was fIREHOSE. While fIREHOSE would go on to leave its own distinguished mark on indie music, the band still remained in the shadow of the Minutemen. In 1994 fIREHOSE quietly disbanded, and 1995 witnessed the release of Watt's first solo album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat. 1997 saw Watt's anxiously awaited follow-up, Contemplating the Engine Room. The album--a "punk rock opera" as Watt calls it--is an autobiographical look at Watt's own life as a Minuteman and the parallels between the Minutemen and his father's life, who was an engineer on a nuclear submarine in the Navy and who passed away from cancer several years previously. A bold undertaking, the album finds Watt stretching his craft while still remaining true to his punk roots in every sense.
2000 finds Watt "in the now." And while still very much "D. Boon's bass player," he's stretching his craft even further and involving himself with more projects than one can readily count. Banyan, Li'l Pit, Dos and his Madonna cover band, the Madonnabes, among countless others. His current album in progress--another power troika, this time revolving around bass, drums and organ--was put on hold earlier this year while Watt battled an illness that left him hospitalized for several months, contemplating life--his engine room--while sitting on Death's doorstep.
I had the pleasure of catching up with the King of the Low End Swing recently while he was in New York playing Stooges covers with J. Mascis under the moniker Hellride East. As someone who grew up listening to the Minutemen I was heavily influenced not only by their sound, but by their commitment to the D.I.Y. ethic and the zeal in which they lived that punk ethos to its fullest. Their dedication to the craft and ability to accomplish it on their own terms has had a lasting impact on me. The belief system Earpollution was founded on--that punk is not a fashion label but a state of mind--can be directly attributed to their music and that influence. So it is with high honor that I share with you this interview. Among talk of being sick, the Madonnabes, Watt's new album, memories of D. Boon, and lying on top of John Coltrane's grave seeking answers, I finally had the opportunity to ask the one question I've been waiting fifteen years to pop: "What could be romantic to Mike Watt?"
Mike Watt: It was really loud; my ears are still ringing from it! J. Mascis played so intense... He was like D. Boon: head-on, unrelenting. Boon had a more treble sound, but when J. did that wah-wah thing man...yeow!
Who was the sax player that sat in on the first song?
Watt: Never heard him!
Well, we couldn't hear him out in the audience, either.
Watt: I couldn't hear him, I couldn't hear any of the drums, I couldn't hear any bass... It was one of the most intense gigs! I've done a lot of gigs, but I've never done one like that. I did a tour once in Europe where I had to mime...
You had to mime?
Watt: Yeah, my amp blew out so it was just going direct through the box. It was totally like you never heard one note you played. That was a hard gig to do. We were stuck carrying around this dead amp. Every time we had to unload it to get to the other stuff it was like, "Grrr..."
Were you surprised to see such a big turnout at Brownie's? The place was packed.
Watt: Heh-heh. I just wanted to come back and play after being laid up in bed. Murph and Mascis hadn't played together in seven years--I didn't really realize that. Ha!
Yeah, how long were you laid up for...like nine, ten weeks? What was the story with that?
Watt: I was laid up for three months. In January I got this big ol' fever and I did these gigs with [Stephen] Perkins where I was really sick. I came home and saw the doctor and they thought I had some kind of flu. I kept puking so I went back to the doctor and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. My immune system was all down and they gave me all these antibiotics, but I still went through a space of twenty-eight, thirty days of straight fever. And there was this lump growing between my legs. Just kept growin' and grown'... And the pain was just out of this fucking world!
The thing grew to like the size of a grapefruit and then exploded. Put a hole in me like you wouldn't believe, and about a gallon of puss came pourin' out. So I called my sister Melinda and said, "Melinda, we gotta go to the emergency room!" The people saw me there and their jaws just dropped. They put me on an ambulance to County and the surgeons cut holes in me and went in and cleaned out the infection. I had this giant abscess inside me and I don't know where it came from. They know it wasn't sexual 'cause they crammed cameras all over inside of me. The doctors gave me this anti-syphilis shit that wreaked havoc on my body and made my balls grow to the size of grapefruits! Fuck! It was incredible, this whole trip...
So after they cut me it took two months to heal because of these holes. I had to be stuffed like a turkey with gauze. My sister did it for the first seven weeks and then I learned to do it myself. All this shit just happens and all you can do is deal with it. I had a piss tube in me, and that brought on a bladder infection so they pulled the tube out and it was like pissin' razor blades. That was the worst of it all: to be on the tips of your toes screaming your fucking head off!
photo by craig young
You weren't able to play the bass at all during that time?
Watt: I had tubes in me so I couldn't hold a bass, so yeah, I didn't play for a couple of months.
That was the longest you've ever gone without playing, wasn't it?
Watt: Yeah...that was a long time! Just laying there all that time, my body all atrophied up. I got down to 130 pounds! I only had like four pints of blood in me. When I went to that hospital, they were like, "You just don't have a fever that long. Those other doctors are assholes!" I had to have a blood transfusion so they could put enough blood in my body to operate on me!
Jesus... The Mike Watt weight loss program.
Watt: It was a fucking nightmare!
What was it like climbing back on the bass after three months of down time?
Watt: Fucking lame! Weak fingers. Trembly, no confidence, no stayin' power. Even at the Hellride gig with Mascis, I couldn't play at the end...couldn't even move. I liked that gig, I really did. That was one of the funniest fucking gigs I've ever played in my life. Intense, too! J. Mascis, he's so unrelenting...it was just wild.
I played a couple of gigs recently with [Stephen] Perkins, which was intense. It was with Nels [Cline] and Perkins. The tables were all decked out in linens and candles. The muscles in my shins were hurting from standing! I hadn't stood that long in forever. I cramped. Then I did another Stooges gig on the West Coast with Perkins and Peter [DiStefano] from Porno [for Pyros]. That was a fucking heart attack!
When you started playing again, did it give you a new or different perspective on the whole thing?
Watt: Yeah...like I'm lame. You know, the whole thing about livin' just crashed down around me. I didn't want to die, man! Fuck! I was going down and these doctors saved my life.
The explosion was good--even though it was dramatic and insane. If that wouldn't have happened, I would have wasted away--I don't know how much longer I would have lasted. I was sick, I wasn't eating anything...I was losing my life force. And to hear these doctorss who weren't even panicking. They gave me all sorts of different medication, but the shit wasn't working. And you know what? They think it might have been from an ingrown hair, 'cause I ride bike every morning. It was a trip; the whole year of 2000 has been a trip year for me.
photo by lee ranaldo
Are you in a better space now because of it?
Watt: In a way...but I'm not totally healed. I just gotta get back in the ring, because time goes so fucking slow when you're hurt! Five minutes felt like five hours--it was just incredible. It's a trip, you never think about stuff like that happening and then when it does, all you can do is just deal with it.
It must be especially hard because you have such a strong work ethic and you gig so often.
Watt: This one was hard; I've never been this hurt. It messed with my head. Here I am, forty-two years old. The first half of my forty-second year was spent dealing with this. And now I have to wear socks and underwear--something I haven't done since I was fifteen!
Ha ha ha! Socks and underwear...
Watt: Yeah, fascist tyranny! Have to bend to the will, kneel to the boss...
I'm interested in your opinion on the trial between Jello Biafra and his former Dead Kennedys bandmates, who sued Biafra for failing to promote the band's catalog and for supposedly not paying back royalties.
Watt: Yeah, I think that's lame for Jello. Friends turning on friends... I don't know much about the particulars of the case, but I heard Jello lost.
Yeah, to the tune of $200,000.
Watt: $200,000?! Wow!
Their claim [East Bay Ray, D.H. Peligro and Klaus Flouride] was that Biafra had shorted them on royalties due on the Dead Kennedys' back catalog, and that Biafra wasn't doing a good enough job in promoting said back catalog and image, which is strange to me because Jello is synonymous with punk. You can't walk down a street today without seeing some punk kid wearing a "DK" shirt or patch. You ask to them, "Jello Biafra?" and they answer: "Dead Kennedys...duh!" You ask, "East Bay Ray? D.H. Peligro? Klaus Flouride?" and they just stare at you blankly.
Watt: Yeah, that's true.
photo by naomi peterson
Minutemen "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing"
96kbs, 64sec, 776kb