Mike Watt: Interview
Mike Watt For President
Bassist extraordinaire and zealous punk philosopher Mike Watt is a living
legend... and most people don't even know who he is. Through a sordid
nearly-three-decade career, Watt has kept his feet firmly planted on the ground
and maintained his persona (or lack thereof) as just a regular guy from San
Pedro, CA while managing to consistently push artistic and musical boundaries.
As a member of the Minutemen, one of the most important -- if not the most
important -- band in the early '80s punk movement, Watt and his bandmates forged
one of the most fiery, eclectic, relevant catalogs in the annals of music -- one
whose influence still resonates to this day. (If you don't already have a copy,
I strongly recommend you pick up the Minutemen's classic Double Nickels On
The Dime Double LP).
Following the tragic death of his best friend and bandmate, D. Boon, in late
1985, Watt had planned to retire from music. An Ohio guitarist and fervent
Minutemen fan by the name of Ed Crawford soon persuaded Watt and Minutemen
drummer George Hurley otherwise via a new trio called fIREHOSE. The group blazed
on (no pun intended), for nearly eight years, signing to Columbia, and releasing
5 albums before disbanding in 1994.
In 1995, Watt went solo for the first time, releasing Ball-Hog or Tugboat?,
which featured cameos from members of Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, Nirvana,
Soul Asylum, and the Screaming Trees. In 1997, he issued Contemplating The
Engine Room, a self-proclaimed 'punk rock opera' based on the lives of D.
Boon and his father, a chief in the Navy.
In 2000, after successfully recovering from an internal abscess in his perineum
(Watt's close brush with death is documented in full on his new record and first
with new band The Secondmen, The Secondman's Middle Stand), Watt was
invited by Iggy Pop to fill in for the late Dave Alexander with the reunited
Stooges on select North American and European dates. Following his short tenure
with the Stooges, Watt focused his energy on projects, both new and old- playing
with Banyan and his long-running side project Dos (with ex-wife and former Black
Flag bassist Kira Roessler), maintaining the Hootpage, hosting an Internet radio
show, and, as always, workin' the thudstaff and jammin' econo.
You've been in this, for lack of a better word, business-
[Laughs] Okay- you've been in this racket for about 20 years now-
25 years. What has changed and what really hasn't?
In the way I do things, not much. 'Cause I liked the way it worked from the
beginning, which is: keep it simple, keep it direct, no middleman. Hands on the
So, what I try to do is put myself in trippy situations, musically, 'cause the
way of doing it -- I liked it right in the beginning. Like I said, never had a
manager... really not a musician -- I got into music when I was 13 'cause I
liked my friend, D. Boon. So there was always a personal connection for me. A
lot of musicians are too much of princesses for me; that's why I like my men
here. Pete [Mazich, organ/vocals] and Raul [Morales, drums] -- the latest crew
-- they just love to play, man. They're not all concerned about that "rock n'
roll" and whatever. It's not real rock n' roll anyway -- rock n' roll is Little
Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. It's not all this phony royalty shit. These
people... just because you can work a machine, you deserve to be treated better?
No. That's like if you know how to write, you should be -- what are you going to
do with the writing? You know how to ride a bike -- okay you don't fall down so
much -- but where are you going to take the bike? That's the way I look at it.
So the mechanics involved with this were actually started in vaudeville and
stuff. Like in the fall, you tour clockwise; spring, counterclockwise. You know,
you get out of the north before it's too cold; wait for the south to cool. No
days off -- if you're not playin', you're payin'. Springtime --
counterclockwise, get out of the south before it's too sweaty. Wait for the
north to cool off; things like this. Make sure you have guys with you and
they're just as passionate about it as you are.
What I've learned back then and still believe today is you get a kink in your
neck if you look down on people or if you look up to people, but if you look
straight ahead -- no kinks. Basically, I see this as a problem with humans. We
abstract things to such bizarre levels we forget about acting human to each
other. 'Cause to me, that's what the arts are kind of for: to prove to us we are
alive. There's all different ways to do it and it's not based on personas,
experiences, and expectations, we have dreams... The basic thing is to bring
your perspective since... if you looked at your thumb, it would be unique to
someone else's. So why shouldn't your expression? It's one of the reasons why
I'm doing a weird-ass opera... not to sound so self-important but I'm also
trying to give people confidence. "God, this fucking middle-aged dude can do
this, why don't we try something wild?"
That was sort of what the Minutemen were about: giving the workingman
Totally. Absolutely. Me and D. Boon, Georgie -- coming from the working
thing and all that. "You're not supposed to be in a band. You don't look right.
You don't come from the right thing. You're not schooled." That's what punk did
for us, opened us up. It's hard to explain now because it's such a thing. It's
kind of a style of music [now]; in those days it was more of a state of mind.
You got to understand, there were no clubs in those days. It's all arena rock,
so the idea of something little and close that you could put your hands on was
really new and it was very profound on us and blew our minds. So this is why I'm
so passionate about it because I owe that movement a huge debt and I'm trying to
pass it on. My drummer's 20 years younger than me -- this is kind of a neat
thing because maybe I'm middle-aged in a way that can be good for mentoring. Not
showing him exactly how to do it, but show him you can! You know, you have to
find your way; everybody's got to find their way. It's not like a selfish thing
because in the whole, the big group will be stronger for it because we'll have
all these different perspectives.
I like to think of Tesla, he just had ideas. He won over Edison who had all the
money, all the government, and all that. He had these ideas and when they asked
him about them he said that he saw the stuff in a dream, so maybe it was always
here. This is why I always end with that Roky Erickson song, "I've Always Been
Here Before." 'Cause some stuff isn't always invented; it's discovered and
channeled through your unique perspective. So, the idea of the rubber stamp, the
cookie cutter, the Xerox machine. Well, that's what those things are for -- not
for human arts. This idea of genre and consumerism, I mean this is almost
contempt for humanity, thinking we're like herd animals. But, you know, you can
get caught up in those things. Well, I'm here to learn; it's not like I've
figured everything out either. I was lucky to belong to some tools. In fact, you
can't stop learning. Buddha said, "When you stop learning, you stop living."
Actually, I was the youngest guy in the band when I played with the Stooges.
"I think there's all different kinds of
ways of expressing yourself. Wouldn't you want the guy rebuilding the carburetor
to make an art out of it?"
Yeah, I heard about that. How was it?
It's insane. I can't believe it. I was 16, if anyone told me 30 years now
that I'd be playing with them... but I'm the little brother; I'm all-ears,
hardly talking. The years these cats have been around. They went through a whole
different experience. It's a trip, man, they love John Coltrane, Pharoah
Sanders, Motown; they put it all into their music. So, you listen to Funhouse
-- it don't sound like it was recorded in the '70s, [it sounds like it was]
recorded next week! What an intense thing. You know, how many things are
4th-5th-6th hand? And here I get to go right to the source! And Iggy Pop- I
mean, he's like D. Boon. These guys play their gigs -- every gig -- like it
might be their last. There's no sleepwalking, no connect-the-dots. It's like 'go
for it!' And how can you not be inspired? So, yeah, it was quite a thing for me.
It's strange about the whole trip, you know? I'm very influenced by writers,
though. I don't think it's all about the bass guitar. My best friend, Raymond
Pettibon, who's a painter...
Yeah, I love his work.
Yeah, I think artists. I think there's all different kinds of ways of
expressing yourself. Wouldn't you want the guy rebuilding the carburetor to make
an art out of it? Trying his best, his most creative. It's funny how we've
bureaucratized and hierarchied to stuff where we should have respect for all
kinds of fuckin' endeavors. Get rid of all that stuff! 'Cause it didn't work in
the old days, why should it work now? And all the struggles to try to get us
free of that, you kinda forget, kinda forget... me too. Which is why I try to
put myself in situations where I have to learn, I have to be aware. Strange
time, right now.
I was going to ask you...
Yeah, the elections...
The Minutemen and the punk movement sort of flourished during the Reagan
administration, so I was just wondering if you saw any parallels between that
time and what's going on today.
Absolutely. Just a lot of things go in cycles. Any farmer would tell you if you
want a good crop, you need a whole lot of manure, right? I say keep it coming.
In a lot of ways, I think the country's strong enough to survive whatever
happens. I think politics is actually more than a beauty contest every four
years -- does it say 'leader' in the Constitution? The guy's a public servant in
charge of the executive branch, but he also holds the codes to the nuclear
weapons. That's pretty fuckin' heavy. He does work for us. Maybe there's 280
million leaders, if we could just have a little confidence. Sometimes I think
people just want to shirk the responsibility, "let him handle it!" No! I think
Jefferson and those cats were thinking we gotta all be in this in some trippy
way. It ain't about parties. It ain't about left, right -- sometimes I think
that's for calling people's names. At a time, when they were working for
workingmen thing, maybe there was a left wing 'we want decent conditions of
working' and maybe right wing was 'no, it was better in the old days.' I wonder
about, 'cause they want to change the Constitution stuff; they don't really want
the old days! They say they're conservative, but they want to screw with that
document and take all kinds of things those guys worked hard on to make a -- and
then liberals are hulking. How can a really rich man know about a workingman?
So, I wonder if left and right mean anything. I think there's more 'front-seat'
and 'back-seat'. I think there are guys who want to be driven around and other
cats who want their hands on the steering wheel. I think the Minutemen was more
of a front-seat band. [chuckles] I think a lot of people, in some ways, are. I
think it's the consumerist, the materialistic thing that says, 'you can be
driven around,' 'here, we'll take of it for you.' 'Whoa!' That's when the danger
signals go up [chuckles]. 'What do you mean you're going to take of it for me?'
Every time that happens it's a nightmare! In the short term it might be okay,
but in the long run 'all we have to do get rid of the right part of the human
family and everything will be right... just all them bad people.' It never
They're all simple solutions.
And they fuckin' cheat us every time! So, yeah, there's struggle. But that was
one thing about the Minutemen. We knew it was struggle, but [chuckles] shit
that's where we came from, you know? The shit wasn't going to happen to us. In
some ways, we were really lucky 'cause punk was such a small scene. You weren't
going to be a star, so you never thought of it. In fact you got a little
self-resilient about your art -- 'hey, they don't like it, so what?' Ya gotta go
for it. Same with the political thing. In fact, you guys -- the generation now
-- to give the Minutemen respect is very generous of you. Punk was so small in
those days; we're way in the minority. You guys give us a lot of respect by
keeping us in the minds, not letting us die and just become nothing beyond a
tiny scrap of history.
I personally think people don't give you guys enough respect.
Yeah, but a lot of shit gets forgotten, especially tiny movements. We were so
tiny of a movement. But it just shows to go you that maybe you're not satisfied
with a lot of the choices out there, so why not check out what these cats were
doing. "Why was there a punk scene?" Maybe there's a good reason for it now. In
a way it's not all us, what I'm trying to say is it's a team. McCluhan said
there really wasn't a mass, just all small groups of inspired minorities. That's
what a band is, in a way -- a little minority. A book publishing company, a 'zine,
now a website. Same ethics. It's funny. The machines change -- like with the
Constitution -- the 'press', right? Now, the Internet, the radio... they
probably would have named those machines if they had 'em in those days. They
name the machine, they say speech, but they say 'press', too. We should watch
out about that. My father, the guy joined the navy at 17. He took an oath to
defend the Constitution, right? Not to the military or... 'Support the troops.'
No, the troops are supporting the Constitution. In fact, there's a thing in the
amendment -- I think it's the 4th amendment -- "no quartering of troops";
there's a limit to how much you can support them. "No quartering/" There was the
king and a president couldn't act like a king and say, "you got to put up these
soldiers." No, there's a line. The president had to be a civilian; he couldn't
wear army clothes like that guy on the aircraft carrier doing whatever. You know
what I mean?
I think people got to keep that document in their mind 'cause what else is U.S.?
You know, 'cause there's always this litmus test- 'You want to leave them.' 'No,
buddy, why don't you read the paper?' And it's 'are we living up to them?'
'Cause, you know, the guy involved in writing it had slaves? He had problems,
but at least he admitted it. It was like holding the wolf by the ears; he was
scared. But at least he admitted he was scared. He didn't try to overcompensate
with a macho thing. He knew there was a problem and it was going to have to be
dealt with. No solution like... The Patriot Act or wordgames. No! You got to the
work, the footwork. It might be tough, but in the long run it's worth it. Gag
and silence people like that, you strangle them. We're going to miss out on some
of the ideas we need. We got big problems, we need solutions from every angle.
You can't strangle it all. Just 'cause we're all marching the same way it's
going to work? They'll make the fucking deal so thin and fragile -- there's that
Pete Townsend album cover where's he's standing on all those eggs with a
jackboot, the combat boots…and that's life. We're so certain, but we're really
on fuckin' eggs! Whole shit could go! Even my pops said that with that Ollie
North shit -- the Contra. He said, "Boy, man, it's a game. They got the guns.
They don't believe it's over." When one some clown says it was neat 'cause he
cheated and got guns for whatever and this and this and around the law, he's
cheating all of us. He ain't gettin' away with shit! No one's getting away. Even
my father... it was funny, you know? But that's the other thing I realized, too.
You can't really tell people; they've got to get a self-realized thing. That's
when it'll make the most sense. Like the Serb cats... they got rid of Milosevic.
It wasn't bombing.
How can we get people to realize these things for themselves?
We can't. The arts can be a little mind-bomb sometimes, but still it's up to
them, in a way. Because there's a basic human autonomy. Sometimes it's
self-defense; it's not a bad thing. Inoculated from too much influence, so they
all just get swayed, caught up in the trendiness. God, that's what the consumer,
marketing paradigm wants, right? Because of the wordgames- -- and they tie ideas
so much to words like Wickenstein said: 'You can't even know anything anymore;
you can only believe.' Because words are tied so hard so whoever's owning the
definitions of the words is almost in control. [Which is why] I think the hippy
people were thinking about the LSD 'cause it reduces them judgment centers, so
you have to re-evaluate things again. It also turned a bunch of fucking people
crazy. I mean, there's no panacea, but they were on to something about those
weird chemicals. Like me and D. Boon had punk rock as kids. [chuckles] It's
weird things that do it. I don't know exactly, but I know that the arts can be
involved. They can also be propaganda- Nuremberg rally, Swastika. You know,
Swastika -- a holy symbol twisted around to be some weird-ass shit. Nazis had 'em
on their belts. "Gott mit uns." God is with us. Everybody said that. "United we
stand." You gonna tell me that? That's not too united. "In God We Trust." Your
God? My God? Our God? Trust? Would you trust a slogan like that? [chuckles]
Yeah, so, I have some critical thinking. Does everybody have to do it my way? I
don't know. Probably not. But to wake people up -- there was a march in the '60s
called the Situationists, right? They thought to put on a spectacle, but I don't
know. Everybody's got their own path. God, it might be reading Huck Finn. That's
a heavy book. Might be a journey, people would go and check out other people in
other towns. That might light 'em up.
"I wonder if left and right mean
anything. I think there's more 'front-seat' and 'back-seat'. I think there are
guys who want to be driven around and other cats who want their hands on the
steering wheel. I think the Minutemen was more of a front-seat band."
Walking a mile in someone else's shoes.
Yeah, right. 'Cause then you've got the guy's shoes and you're a mile away.
[chuckles] This guy, when I went and played in Serbia, the guy gave me a book.
Milosevic, he used the television. They make it look like it's Babushkas in the
third world, no he used television. And what took him on? It was radio stations
and punk bands and stuff. Yeah, pretty interesting. That story doesn't get told
here. It was an Englishman who wrote this book; I know because I knew some of
the people at the station because of the Internet. People let other people make
up their minds for them and they don't check out these kind of things. They
don't know there's opposition everywhere. A lot of people have ideas of us like
we're all blind, whatever. Like overseas, you know? That's why it's kind of
important when you go anywhere; you're an ambassador. You can let people know.
Not always a bad thing. I mean they would love to see an example of someone's
who's open-minded because the cliché is…you know, "number one"...but I like
that. So, it's good to show them. It helps in a lot of ways.
I wanted to know what it's like working in this kind of context with a major
Yeah, 13 years. It's exactly like SST. I think because of the old track record
they gave me that respect. I deliver finished masters. I've never made a demo.
Like AT&T- I call you on the payphone. Not too indie of a phone company. But as
long as the fuckers don't jump on the line and don't tell me what to say, I
don't hang up. I get on the freeway, right? Interstate system created for
military; that's how I tour. So, there's like this dual use kind of thing if you
can preserve your autonomy. And you have to work on that. I see these rock star
guys tie the puppet strings and then they cry later. Why weren't they there at
the beginning protecting their autonomy?
Maybe because they're not aware of it.
They don't want to be. They want to be royalty -- rock stars. Me, because I come
from the Minutemen and stuff, I want to make intense art. So I make sure my
contract was, you know, 'you can't fuck with my creative' and these guys
[referring to band members] too. They probably figured, 'this guy's going to be
another Neil Diamond, but maybe he can do something the other cats on the label
don't.' But I'm ready to make records for any kind of situation because I'm
grounded in those old experiences. I'm so lucky about that. But, I'm trying to
pass that on to other folks, too. It's not just something in back in the day;
it's alive -- you can do it now. And it's because you cats were open-minded
about it. You didn't say it was just a period of history; you want to keep it
alive. So... much respect to the current crop -- the shift. The old shift says
'hey' to the new shift.