Watt: I'm not going to have any guitar on it--just organ, drums and bass. I'm going to be a bit more aggressive on this one.
Who do you have lined up to play on it?
Watt: I have Barrett Martin [Screaming Trees, Tuatara] on the drums and Pete Mazich, a B3 Hammond player. It's going to be intense. A different thing in a way, but the same old Watt, except it's going to be about Watt "in the now." I was very loyal to the band setup for fourteen years; six years as a Minuteman, seven-and-a-half in fIREHOSE. I never really had any side bands except for Dos [Watt's ongoing collaboration with former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler]. After fIREHOSE I tried to make a record with a whole bunch of people [Ball-Hog or Tugboat], then on the next record I wanted to say something about the Minutemen [Contemplating the Engine Room]. This record is about Watt "now." Thing is, Watt "now" is forty-two! I'm in the middle--I'm not a beginner. And I never realized that you just go and go and go...you don't stop. I'm going to call this new band the Secondmen.
I saw you play in Seattle a day or two before Contemplating the Engine Room came out in stores. You played the album in its entirety (as you would go on to do for over a year). I saw you next a little over a year later...
Watt: Yeah, that was at the Crocodile Café.
Yeah, all three times you swung through Seattle behind Contemplating you played there. You went through a number of people playing with you while touring behind that album (Joe Baiza, Stephen Hodges, Bob Lee, Nels Cline, Tom Watson, Vince Meghrouni). That was such a personal album. I'm wondering what it was like when you first started playing, then going through all these lineup changes, how it felt when it was all said and done?
photo by john eder
Mike Watt "In the Engine Room"
96kbs, 30sec, 361kb
Watt: It was a trip! It was difficult trying to develop people like that, especially after being in fIREHOSE and the Minutemen. You build up all these years of trust playing with only two other people, and here are all these guys fresh in the door. Bob Lee learned the piece in two weeks!
He's an excellent drummer, though!
Watt: He is a great drummer. Hodges never did remember it all and he recorded it! Everyone was different so it took some time to adjust, but I will say this about L.A., and maybe it's the same for this town [New York] too: There's a lot of cats playing! And I'll say this as a compliment to age: Some guys as they get older, they pull off shit like what Bob Lee did [learning a difficult album in a short span of time]. Joe Baiza and a lot of these other guys are self-taught--they learned their craft and got into it because of punk.
Were you self-taught?
Watt: No, D. Boon and I learned to play before punk from this hippie guy who lived in his car.
Ha! Blame the hippies for Watt and all these years of being punk and disorderly with his music!
Watt: Yeah! It was this hippie guy named Roy Lopez who taught us. He had clothes that he shoe polished white and he had knocked out the back seat of his car and was livin' in the back. He would tell us "practice!" in this mousy voice. He built his own guitars and he was the only cat who taught us music.
So what's this ongoing fascination with Madonna?
Watt: Well, I gotta tell ya, I had a picture of her hanging in my living room and I had to take it down after seeing that "American Pie" video.
I haven't seen it. Is it that bad?
Watt: Whoo! Oh boy, for one thing it's a horrible song...in a big way...a major way. But Madonna, she's just a weird trip. She's still in control, but... With more of her earlier stuff, I think she has good jams.
Yeah, but, Mr. Mike Watt, Mr. Minutemen, Uncle Punk Rock, this is Madonna we're talking about here, and you have a side band called The Madonnabes!
Watt: It's more of the older works that we do. But I still think she represents...you know, she's still in command of her own career and she has no one telling her what to do. The Madonnabes came about because of the dancers. We have these lady dancers who started playing with me when they were fifteen--and they're really gifted! They danced out in the hall while we practiced...never saw them, really. We never gigged, we just practiced these Madonna tunes.
Ha ha ha!
Watt: And that's the effect that Madonna really had--it was these girls.
But...what was the effect Madonna had on Watt? Were you dancing to the songs?
Watt: It was at the end of Black Flag and Minutemen. After D. Boon got killed, I did a band called Ciccone Youth.
Right. That was with Sonic Youth, if I'm not mistaken.
Watt: Right. That was before the Madonnabes. I did a song called "Burnin' Up," and they did "Into the Groove."
She was a trippy symbol for those Reagan years. She seemed like the perfect symbol of that...whatever..."material world." So I put her on my bass, and that was pretty heavy. There's some heavy things we did in punk rock. For a while we didn't shave, and it was not cool to have beards back in the old punk days. Ha! Heh... There were things, like in Europe, a lot of leather. There were a lot of judgments made, and to me it didn't matter. I thought Madonna was the perfect symbol of the time.
The Madonnabes is just a band to stay in practice. The way the bass is made, if you're not playing it all the time you go to shit! So it kept me playing...with these [San] Pedro guys, who couldn't play worth shit. Here we were banging out Madonna songs. It was like I was fifteen again when I was doing it to Blue Öyster cult, or Black Sabbath, or The Who. So that's all that it is, just celebrating her words, 'cause to me punk rock always had a good humor thing to it. Maybe not like Weird Al Yankovic... That guy has got the easiest job in the world! Goddamn!
photo by joe voets
Mike Watt "Intense Song for Madonna to Sing"
96kbs, 35sec, 426kb
Was it true that Pat Smear was singing a Madonna song--I think "Like a Virgin"--for the first part of the Ball-Hog or Tugboat tour?
Watt: Yeah, but it was "Secret Garden," not "Like a Virgin."
Was he nervous?
Watt: Yeah, but Smear is an old friend. It's cool to still see those guys around.
It was great watching Joe Baiza play on the first round of touring behind Contemplating.
Watt: Baiza started playing music because of punk! He was twenty-six or twenty-seven, and he was a painter. One day he said, "I want to play guitar" and he just started. It was wild. That scene had a courageous thing. But it's not over--it's still around. Every kid that starts a band that way...it's kind of like the rebirth of punk. You know, it's not a style, it's a way of doing things.
You've been playing with numerous people since the demise of fIREHOSE: Banyan, Li'l Pit, Dos, among quite a few others.
Watt: They're all different kinds of bands. Li'l Pit is stand-up bass, which is really hard. We just did a song with Stephen Perkins and George Hurley both on drum sets, and Petra on the violin. We did a Who song for a tribute.
Watt: "Helpless Dancer" off of Quadrophenia.
Banyan is Perkins' jam band, where you have to play "'round the spot" and make up stuff. It's a hard band. Hellride is Stooges songs. Dos is my oldest band--fifteen years. We're currently making a fourth album.
How did you hook up with Nels Cline?
Watt: He's been involved with the L.A. improv scene for a long time.
He's amazing to watch--all the toys he makes those crazy sounds with and the energy he channels while he's playing.
Watt: Yeah! He's very inventive.
I saw Cline and Gregg Bendian due their take on [John] Coltrane's Interstellar Space a few months back. That show just blew my shit away! Which reminds me, when you were touring behind Contemplating you were playing Coltrane's A Love Supreme on the P.A. before and after gigs.
Watt: Yeah, that and the Stooges' Funhouse. You know, to me, when I was a kid, I didn't hear jazz, I didn't know what it was. When I heard it I thought it was like punk. I started listening to it again in my early twenties when I was getting into punk. Guys like Albert Ayler and Coltrane...those guys were crazy!
Yeah, and what they were doing was exactly what punk was intended to be.
Watt: Punk had a big effect on me--it was like an explosion. It made me really evolve. I didn't see it for a lot of other things, like the fashion or a particular guitar style.
That's what I always saw in Coltrane. He was possessed by something he had to get out.
Watt: To me it was his whole sound. And even though it was stuff done in the '60s, to me it sounded like it was being done right then. I didn't know. The first band that sold out the Whiskey A-Go-Go was a band called the Screamers, and they didn't have a guitar player! Punk was trippy. Van Halen was called punk! Everything was called punk... Anyone that had a skinny tie... The Cars...blech! All that new wave shit.
I went and laid on Coltrane's grave when I turned forty. You can take the train from Penn Station to Long Island, and the graveyard's right there. I was lying directly above him, right over his head, thinking, "John Coltrane, what were you thinking when you were making these records?"
Like I said, it's not really a style, it's a way of doing things. So obviously you've got to be a link in that chain. And it's not a bad thing to think of, you've just got to be original! Going out and starting a band and making it wild and trying to be original, wherever you're at with it. And that's what the scene seemed like to me then. And as the years went on, it seemed to be the only part of the scene that interested me.
And you're still the man behind the wheel of the van. Driving back and forth cross-country year 'round, logging endless hours setting up gigs, hauling your own gear, being up front and honest with the fans.
Watt: Because that's how we did it back then. I think that's really fucking cool you're still into it and what it's about. There's kids I talk to today who think everyone's shit is flown around by jet airplanes from gig to gig.
For me and for a lot of people, it's a respect issue. We look at you and go, "Here's someone who's still doing it manually--doing it econo-style--all by hand. Fucking shit up on all levels with blood, sweat and tears, and not at some corporate expense. Obviously it means a great deal to him--obviously there's a great deal there that should be paid attention to."
Watt: Yeah, it really does mean a great deal. You know, the guy that got me into this--D. Boon--he's not around. I have a big debt to him. Those old records...I like them, I really, really like them. They're so bold and I can just see D. Boon bouncing around stage every time I hear one. Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, Black Flag...that was a really cool scene back then.
One of the inspiring reasons for doing Earpollution was the Minutemen...your music. Realizing that you can do it your own way, on your own terms, and make it count for something.
Watt: That's fantastic! And now I'm a link in your chain. The fanzines were really big in those days, and they still are. In the old days that was the only way to get the word out, and it was still a big part of the fabric.
I just saw Richard Meltzer the other day. He was talking about how before the really big labels got involved, it was like the bands and the writers were in the same trenches--they were co-conspirators. Then the industry guys got involved and it sadly became way different.
For me it's always been about turning people on to good music. "Here, check this out! Give this a listen!"
Watt: That's what Meltzer said he did.
Hey, do you know what ever happened to Sportin' Greg Norton? [Hüsker Dü's bass player who silently went his own way after the band broke up] I had heard a rumor that he was a cook somewhere in the Midwest.
Watt: Yeah, he's a cook. Nice, nice man. I still talk with him.
Is he doin' good?
Watt: Yeah. He was a great part of a great band. Bob Mould's still playin'. I hear he's writing wrestling scripts.
Yeah, now that's weird!
Watt: He always dug it.
You stopped playing for awhile after D. Boon died. Did you ever wonder what you would do if you had hung up your bass back then?
Watt: You know, I was in a bad depression. It was heavy on me. [long pause] I had no idea what I was going to do. Sonic Youth helped me a lot; they forced me to play, and that was a really, really good thing.
Both for you and the rest of us who've admired your music over the years! One final question: What could be romantic to Mike Watt?
Watt: Heh heh. Yeah... I still play that song, you know. We were so goofy looking back then! I'm still goofy looking...
Mike Watt "Chinese Firedrill" 96kbs, 46sec, 554kb