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Mike Watt is a legendary musical figure. He's also the type of guy who would never embrace such a designation if you passed it his way. Rather, he would thank you for the kind words and then make you feel like you're old friends hanging out at a show. And that's always been the appeal of Watt. Despite being enormously talented, he's admirably gracious. At the end of the day, he's wise enough to know that how you treat people matters more than your stature.
As Minutemen, Watt and his bandmates — George Hurley and the late D. Boon — forever altered what being in a punk-rock band could look and sound like. Rather than succumb to fashion-victim tendencies, Minutemen explored the nature of human existence through mini-political manifestos, speaking directly and honestly about what it means to want something, to be someone, and to be a real friend with bonds deeper than a superficial connection through ephemeral cultural artifacts.
After the untimely death of D. Boon in December 1985, Watt and Hurley formed the like-minded fIREHOSE, almost as an acknowledgement that Boon would not have wanted them to quit playing music. For his part, Watt has done anything but stand still. He's kept plenty busy between numerous collaborative projects, several solo albums and his ongoing stint as the bass player for the re-formed Stooges. With his cohorts, the Missingmen, Watt recently released the story-cycle album Hyphenated-Man.
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"I was just trying to confront myself about what I feel right now," Watt says of the record. "I wrote it last year when I was 52, and I thought it was an interesting place to be in my life: a middle-aged punk-rocker. I never really thought about that. I didn't know I'd make it. My body is a little lamer, but I have a lot of experiences, and it's a trippy place to be. I reconciled some things, some things you can't reconcile — like how us humans treat each other sometimes. I think maybe the bottom line, I realize now, is that life is for learning, and I'm a student of life."
While Watt could have easily rested on his laurels, Hyphenated-Man sounds like an artist trying to stretch his creative horizons. "I start with a title, then the music, then the spiel," says Watt of his songwriting process. "So I used these little creatures from the Hieronymus Bosch paintings. It helped me focus. It's kind of like the same guy with a bunch of funhouse mirrors stuffed in his head."
Earlier this year, Watt launched his new label, clenchedwrench, and the slate of upcoming releases includes a spoken-word album by Richard Meltzer, a sort of lyrical and journalistic hero to Watt and Boon for his work with Blue Öyster Cult, as well as Meltzer's copious and varied pieces on music, and Spiel Gusher, a collaboration between Watt and a couple from Tokyo that's due out in September. Watt founded his imprint after he got tired of playing by his previous labels' rules, with them dictating what or how much music could be released by one artist.
"I got so much stuff in the pipeline," he explains, "and I didn't want to do the dance, because this shit is coming out whether anybody wants it or not. I can't think of a more econo reason than that. It's not an ego thing. I want all these things to have their own lives, so I'm staggering them three months apart. It's the closest I've gotten to having children. They're here after you're gone. I think about that a little more than when I was younger."
Among his other offspring, there's another album on deck that Watt did with Nels Cline, whom much of the music-listening world knows as a guitarist for Wilco but who also played in the highly underrated Geraldine Fibbers, among several other projects. "He's an amazing cat," says Watt of Cline, whom he first saw playing with Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra on acoustic guitar. "I asked him to open for some fIREHOSE gigs when fIREHOSE was just starting," Watt recalls. "He reminded me of D. Boon, who also liked to play with Spanish nylon strings. It was as simple as that. He's a very openhearted, gentle, beautiful man. And he's a wild motherfucker on the guitar. I don't have to practice with him. People say they want that first-take feeling — well, he can do that."
He'd have to in order to keep up with Watt, who is still very much engaged in the musical underground, as evidenced by the playlist from his weekly podcast, The Watt From Pedro Show. And he hosts that broadcast on top of overseeing his seemingly endless litany of collaborative projects and maintaining a heroic touring schedule. Oh, with regard to that last one: Watt is doing a good deal of the driving on the current tour. Asked if he still "jams econo," Watt replies, "That's exactly what I do. If it works, don't fix it. I'm always looking for economy and the best way to preserve that. I'm not doing this to service a lifestyle."
And he's clearly not living in the past. Whether solo, with Banyan, the Stooges — or anything else on which he puts his inimitable artistic stamp — Watt allows the music to speak for itself rather than insisting upon long-gone relevance in the wake of shoddy product.
"Younger people are more open-minded, I think," he says of how his music is being received by a younger audience. "There were weird ideas about punk in the old days, even among punk people. That's okay: It made me what I am, and it didn't make me bitter. It actually made me more grateful for people being open-minded to where I can do crazy shit. I'm more about the new days. The burden to be creative should always be there. I like the fact that it's more econo to make the music now."
The stories of Watt hanging out before or after a show with fans and connecting with them on a human level are legion. Like many of his peers out of the '80s punk and hardcore scenes, Watt remains a respected figure — because of who he is, certainly, but also because of the respect he gives.
"I don't try to take anyone for granted, and I keep pushing," Watt concludes. "I don't think I'm better than anybody else. I'm grateful to the movement and try to be part of that in a productive way. I don't think I try using people or anything. Maybe it's why I got into it in the first place, to be with my friends."