Mike Watt, bassist for The Minutemen, Firehose and currently The Stooges, is the last of a dying breed. He’s a punk forefather that you can still look up to, a musical hero you can still respect. It’s not just his endless ability with the bass, but also how he lives his life and the musical choices he’s made. He doesn’t rest on laurels, live off nostalgia, or cash in his integrity to make a buck. At age fifty-three Mike Watt is still a young kid, incredibly amped to be in a band.
When I spoke with Mike he was on the cusp of getting his third punk rock opera out to the public. The band and opera, called Hyphenated Man, is a third in a series of punk operas spanning major themes in Watt’s life. Talking to him I could hear the passion for music in his voice and the dedication to letting the Freak Flag fly. Conversations with Watt are like his playing, fast, hi-energy and often leaping onto tangents. From his new work, to the Minutemen, The Stooges, Hieronymus Bosch and even The Wizard Of Oz, my conversation with Mike Watt is among my favorite in nearly twenty years of doing this.
CRAVEONLINE: Hey Mike, how’s it going?
MIKE WATT: Oh it’s good man, just trying to get this 3rd opera thing going so we can play it to people.
CRAVEONLINE: Oh, okay, well let’s start this off with the opera. What is it exactly?
MIKE WATT: It’s the reason I put the Missing Men together, to make this thing. First one, Contemplating The Engine Room, was in 1997, the second one was the Second Man’s Middle Stand. The first dealt with the Minutemen, the second with the illness that almost killed me and this third one with Tom Watson and Raul Morales is called Hyphenated Man.
CRAVEONLINE: What’s the difference in the three?
MIKE WATT: Well the other two had a beginning, middle and an end. The first one was kind of sad, the second one was happy. Well, happy I didn’t die. This new one is about being in the middle. I got the idea when Tim (Irwin) and Keith (Scherion) were making that We Jam Econo documentary on the Minutemen and I had to hear Minutemen stuff again. I couldn’t listen to it for a long time, but I had to listen to it for that piece. They did a great job to.
CRAVEONLINE: Oh yeah, without a doubt. It’s one of my favorite documentaries.
MIKE WATT: It’s funny man because they never saw the Minutemen, they were too young, but they were so earnest. I just thought they were the right guys to do it. Their spirit was genuine; they wanted to know about us.
CRAVEONLINE: How did hearing the old stuff inspire you?
MIKE WATT: I really started getting into these little songs. No filler. I saw this thing when I was kid, there was this painter, a Flemish painter maybe 400 years ago named Hieronymus Bosch and he had these trippy paintings with all these little creatures. It seemed he had a lot of these little things going on to make one picture work. I thought that was a lot like the Minutemen, a lot of little songs to make one gig or an album. So I used him as an inspiration. In respect to George Hurly and D. Boon I shouldn’t copy the Minutemen. Though actually we got the little song idea from Wire.
CRAVEONLINE: Really? What record?
MIKE WATT: That Pink Flag record. I was thinking of these little creatures in the Bosh painting and so I made thirty parts and each one is a different kind of little man. The other side of it I was thinking, this is a little trippy, but I was thinking about The Wizard Of Oz. If you notice those farm hands were also the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. My perspective is that Dorothy is tripping out, growing up, and seeing these guys do trippy shit to prove they’re men. When you get to middle age and you start thinking about this shit, some people have a crisis or whatever, but part of it is about all these fucked up things we do to try and be what we’re supposed to be.
CRAVEONLINE: I know what you mean, I’m thirty-nine and you really start looking around at your life.
MIKE WATT: You start saying “I’m calling the shots now”. It’s not really a crisis, well some cats freak out, but it’s more a way of looking at things. You’re body ain’t as strong but you’re little wiser, you’ve put in some years, and it’s a weird place to be. So that’s kind of where this thing is, mixed a little bit of the old with my little songs and like Bosh putting together little creatures and then Dorothy trippin out about what dudes do to be dudes. In that movie the only two people she kills are witches. You could be a good witch or a bad witch but you’re still gonna be a witch.
CRAVEONLINE: I never thought of it like that.
MIKE WATT: I heard the guy who wrote that invented the storeroom window, like the Macy’s window, where you’d have shit in the window for people to see from the sidewalk.
CRAVEONLINE: I didn’t know that.
MIKE WATT: Yeah man I started really looking up on this because I was thinking about it and how trippy it was. Flying monkeys, little people, lollipop men, witches guards like oh-e-oh, all these different things for guys. Man behind the curtain even. He even says if you’re brave here’s a medal, if you’re smart here’s a diploma, if you’ve got a heart here’s a clock. If you go to an existential thing you’re like I’m gonna decide this shit now, I put in my time. That’s how this opera is. It’s like if you broke a mirror into thirty pieces and shoved it into my head. That’s the third opera.
CRAVEONLINE: How do you translate that into something live?
MIKE WATT: It’s a fuckin’ piece of work let me tell you. It’s hard. The way I recorded it was different than anything I ever, well even the way I wrote it. I wrote it on one of D. Boon’s telecasters and I ain’t for shit on the guitar, I can’t even hold a pick. Much respect to Tom Watson for following my crude palsy demos. He only had one guitar solo, because the rest is my stuff. Then we did it for Raul and worked out the drum parts because I can’t play drums. I just had him try out a bunch of things. I never let them listen to the bass or the whole spiel out of respect for D. Boon and Hurley and the little songs. So I was on tour and I took three days off and recorded it in Brooklyn at Tony Maimone’s studio. He played bass for Pere Ubu, big heroes for D. Boon and me.
CRAVEONLINE: I’m confused, so they didn’t know what they were playing?
MIKE WATT: I had them play the guitar and drum parts just them, no bass, no nothing. The two months ago I went in and put the bass on and did the whole little songs spiel. You can’t really do that at a gig. You can’t say ‘wait a year and I’ll bring you the bass’, you can’t do that. It was like the Minutemen where we said we were gonna do stuff you’re not supposed to do. So it was kind of weird the way I wrote it but that’s where I am right now. It’s about forty-seven and a half minutes; about thirty little songs and each song has about five parts to it. So there’s over two hundred parts of this fucker to learn.
MIKE WATT: Yeah we’re doing that right now. Lots of little bass solos.
CRAVEONLINE: So much could go wrong.
MIKE WATT: Yeah but you know, I can’t ride a skateboard but I can virtually ride a skateboard with this piece. If I fall down I’ll get back up, we’re getting it together. We’re gonna do a tour in October, twenty-two gigs in twenty-two days. Then I got some European dates and then I’m bringing the whole thing to the states.
CRAVEONLINE: So are you all done with The Stooges?
MIKE WATT: We’re done for the year; the next gigs are in January in Australia.
CRAVEONLINE: How has the whole Stooges thing been for you?
MIKE WATT: Man, it’s been seven and a half years. I don’t know if we’d have had a punk scene without them so it’s a total mind blow for me. This is something I would’ve never predicated and I know D. Boon is laughing his brains out.
CRAVEONLINE: Did even you learn something from playing with them?
MIKE WATT: I tell you, it’s the most interesting classroom you’ve ever been in. These guys are incredible cats. Iggy’s work ethic is like D. Boon, when he comes to play a gig he plays a gig. There’s no halfway with that guy, it’s a kamikaze attack. There’s no connect the dots, no sleepwalking, it’s just in the moment. It’s fucking intense.
CRAVEONLINE: He’s one of the only guys still doing it that brings it. It’s no nostalgia trip.
MIKE WATT: No way man. He’s gonna be sixty-four in April. I’ve worked some intense music and shit and nothing is harder for me than a Stooges gig. You get caught up in it man. I told his wife that if a garbage disposal opened up on stage and he jumped in I’d probably jump in right after him. It’s so contagious. You see him get into it and you can’t just stand by. He’s a beautiful man, to put bass in with those kinds of drums; it’s a total mind blow. I’ve been with them longer than I was in Minutemen and as long as I was in Firehose.
CRAVEONLINE: I haven’t heard Hyphenated man, obviously, but I did get to hear Floored By Four. That thing is insane.
MIKE WATT: I’ve just been collaborating and recording like crazy for the past few years and it’s all starting to come out now. One of the first was this Floored By Four thing. It’s a crazy story how it happened, but with Nels Cline, he’s a cat you can just get with. He’s done so much improvisation, worked with so many people, if you’ve got it together and bring him the tunes, he’ll go to work.
CRAVEONLINE: So what’s the crazy story?
MIKE WATT: This opportunity came when M.Ward was doing this gig in Central Park and he asked Nels and I to open up. Dougie Bowne had shown me his studio on Ludlow Street by Max Phish. So I said to Nels, why don’t we just go down there and play with Dougie and Yuka Honda (Cibo Mato) and he said okay. We went in there and did it, kind of New York sweaty style, and what you’re hearing is the result of that. We’d never played together before. I said I’d write each person a song ‘cause if the bass player knows the song, anybody can play, don’t worry. I’m like the grout in the tile in the head. People go in the head and most look at the tile, well I’m the grout in the tile.
Nels has done many of these things with me and Dougie was game so we just went for it. Like in the old be-bop days were dudes just jammed and wailed on it. Not so much a jam because I worked out the bass on each one. That’s why there’s names for each one, a Middle East thing for Dougie, a math thing for Nels, a hard rock thing for Yuka. She ended up dancing on the tables at the Stooges gig saying she was playing this sissy music and she wanted to be rock now. It was that simple, being kids and saying let’s start a band.
CRAVEONLINE: Seems like you do that a lot. Every time I turn around you’re doing something new. How do you choose what you’re going to do next?
MIKE WATT: I go for almost anything now if I got the time. Especially with this Internet situation where you can trade files. That’s how I did that Funanori thing, that lady (Kaori Tsuchida) was in England. I did an album with this young man from Canada, he sent me ten songs, I’d never even met the guy. His name was Steve Howe, but not the Yes guy. I just thought if he was balls on enough to write these songs and send them to me, I have a little pro-tools thing here, I just wailed on them and sent them back to him. Music is really a great thing.
In a way it brings me back. I can never get the years back with D. Boon but I can keep those ethics going. Just go for it man, if the feeling’s strong that’s what matters, everything else is secondary. If I got time I’ll do it. I’m gonna be fifty-three in a couple of months and my basic philosophy is that everybody’s got something to teach me. If I got the time and I got the bass, bring it on.
CRAVEONLINE: You really don’t see people just going for it anymore, it’s all so planned out now.
MIKE WATT: I said something about be-bop. It’s like I didn’t learn about John Coltrane until punk. D. Boon played me Coltrane and I just thought wow it’s this energy, it’s this force, it’s not about marketing. Music is a special trip man; it’s like a good flannel, lots of threads together.
CRAVEONLINE: You think that’s missing today?
MIKE WATT: In some areas yeah. I mean the merch thing has always been there. You look back and Pat Boone sold more Tutti Fruttis than Little Richard, what the fuck is that about? We’ve always had this herd mentality, but on the other side I think it serves as manure to grow a bunch of this freak flag flying stuff. There are problems like there was yesterday, and the day before yesterday and will probably be tomorrow. I think one of the things that can’t be planned out or solved is creativity. You have to go for it. Like the skateboard riding cat, you can’t sit and think it out you have to ride the motherfucker. Lots of cats have other motives so they’re afraid to do that shit.
CRAVEONLINE: They’re looking for the long ride, instead of just doing it.
MIKE WATT: Right, or they’re looking for yesterday’s hit to be tomorrow’s hit. Something not purity of music spirit, they’re looking at it as commerce or something. Music is a human thing so that’s always gonna get messed up. Some dudes treat it as commodity and that’s their choice but that don’t mean I have to follow that and you don’t. I think punk has freed things up where we think there’s more dimensions to the thing. That’s where I learned it. Before punk all I knew was arena rock, I never thought of music as a form of expression.
CRAVEONLINE: You said in the documentary that people get too hung up on the good old days and that they weren’t all good. People have more choices now I guess.
MIKE WATT: Yeah, and young people are writing their own songs. They didn’t do that in the seventies, everybody was copying. Not one dude I knew wrote his own shit. If they were good they played better than you but no one was looking at it like I got this feeling I got to get out. It was more like building models. Kids today are more open-minded. In those days you wouldn’t listen to music five years old. Nowadays people listen to Black Sabbath, there’s no problem, no problem at all.
I’m not saying it’s perfect but the kids are more open-minded. They got this Internet thing now to find out about music, to find out about smaller scenes, to connect with each other without going through the Big Brother gateway. Unless they want to, some people do.
CRAVEONLINE: True. So let me ask you this, how did you get involved with the Plastic Ono Band?
MIKE WATT: They asked me. Yuka Honda is the band director, very strange coincidence. I’m playing one song with them, with Iggy. It’s a trip.
CRAVEONLINE: That’s awesome.
MIKE WATT: Yeah it is. When I was young they had that three piece album, the one with the sky and I thought that was a trippy thing. When Public Image Limited came out I thought to myself maybe Johnny Rotten heard a little bit of this. I was a big fan of the first Public Image record, that was interesting, trippy shit.
CRAVEONLINE: I was always much more interested in that than the Sex Pistols.
MIKE WATT: Well the Sex Pistols were always a mind blow for me because they were singing with their own accent. I didn’t realize that’s how The Who talk and The Stones talk and Led Zeppelin. They were using accents when they sang. So when I heard Johnny Rotten sing for the first time, well the music was a lot like the New York Dolls in a way, but the voice was just so different.
Joe Strummer, the Jam singer, the Stranglers, Alternative Television, all those cats. I’d never heard Brits sing in their normal accent except maybe Herman’s Hermits and that was kind of a joke thing. Syd Barrett kind of used an England voice but not really anybody else. D. Boon and I thought about it with the Sex Pistols and thought they were just trying to be who they are. That gave us the confidence to talk and sing about what they were.
CRAVEONLINE: I never thought of that, my whole view of the Sex Pistols is hindsight.
MIKE WATT: We graduated from high school in 1976, we were right at the right time. We learned our punk from seventies punk. The Ramones had been out a couple of years but to us The Ramones was their own world. We didn’t really know that The Ramones had influenced The Sex Pistols. You could tell the New York Dolls did.
CRAVEONLINE: The New York Dolls never get enough credit for their inspiration.
MIKE WATT: They were very cool. Talking to Richard Hell he told me they influenced him and he was in that band right after with Johnny Thunders call The Heartbreakers. Richard Hell invented the punk clothes the Pistols started wearing. Humans are like that, they bump into each other and co-mingle it’s natural.
CRAVEONLINE: Would you ever do anything with Firehose again?
MIKE WATT: I saw George a couple months ago. Edward (FromOhio) called me up to, he’s writing his own Firehose songs. I got seven and a half years with them and twenty tours. It’s fourteen years with George counting the Minutemen.
CRAVEONLINE: I only ask because I’m a drummer and I want to see George play again. He was one of the reasons I became a drummer.
MIKE WATT: George was a very personable drummer.
CRAVEONLINE: It always seemed like you guys were battling, then being in the pocket, and then battling. It was awesome.
MIKE WATT: That was D. Boon’s idea. He thought political ideas made everybody equal. You want your countries that way, so make your band that way. So he made his guitar real trebly and thin to give George and I a bunch of room. We’re all first born so nobody’s gonna back down.
CRAVEONLINE: There are still songs where I don’t know what he’s playing on the hi-hat.
MIKE WATT: Yeah he was wild on the hi-hat and the little cymbals. When we were teenagers he got the Billy Cobham album Spectrum and I think that was one of the first drummer records to go gold. George brings a little of that to his drums. He taught himself how to play. He used to make surfboards and got tired of that, he almost drowned a bunch of times and said fuck this. George got this album by The Who, got headphones, and taught himself to play listening to Keith Moon. So he’s a weird mix of Cobham and Moon.
CRAVEONLINE: You said earlier that you hadn’t been able to listen to the Minutemen material for a long time. Have you made peace with that? Can you listen to the stuff now?
MIKE WATT: Yeah I can, and I couldn’t before. I have Keith and Tim to thank for that as well. I’d just remember him y’know, I could hear him playing and see him playing.
CRAVEONLINE: Last question. What is punk rock to you?
MIKE WATT: D. Boon said punk rock is whatever we made it to be. It was more of a state of mind than a style of music. Hey if I don’t fit in I’ll find some cats and we’ll make a parallel universe. Let the Freak Flag fly. Try to find the inner voice. We all have one. You have to get that out through the music and that’s why the punk movement had to come.
CRAVEONLINE: We could use something like that again.
MIKE WATT: It will. It’s reborn with everybody who takes up a bass or a drum.
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