Mike Watt on Touring: "I Guess You Pick Where You Want to Gruel"
Mike Watt, Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi are Il Sogno del Marinaio.
The night before Minutemen played in Denver for the first time in 1984, at the now-defunct Rainbow Music Hall with Black Flag, the punk progenitors made up of singer and guitarist D. Boon, bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley endured what Watt called a "seventeen-hour hell ride" right after a gig in Minneapolis. Watt says ten of them crammed into a van, and he was on the top shelf with drummer Bill Stevenson, who played with Black Flag at the time, and roadie Steve "Mugger" Corbin.
"You couldn't lift your arms up to read the books so you're just laying there, awake," Watt says.
Thirty years later, Watt still tours with a similar soldering fervor he did when he was with Minutemen. This time around, Watt, along with Italian guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi (known collectively as Il Sogno del Marinaio) are playing 53 shows in 53 days, with the Larimer Lounge on Wednesday, September 24 being the fifteen stop. But Watt doesn't think this kind of tour isn't grueling. He's used to it. He's done it many times before.
"But probably working in a salt mine is grueling," Watt says. "I guess you pick where you want to gruel, right?"
Watt wanted his Italian bandmates, who are 21 years younger than the 56-year-old Watt, to see a lot of parts of the United States.
"I wanted to go out and really do it and not just hit some big towns," Watt adds. "Also, it's kind of my tradition. It's where I'm from -- Black Flag, Minutemen, Husker Du. That's the way we did it in the old days. I don't know, it's kind of an adventure. I feel like Don Quixote."
A few days before Il Sogno del Marinaio (which began in 2009 after Pilia sent Watt an email inviting the bassist to join he and Belfi at a festival in Italy) played its first gig on American Soil at San Diego's The Casbah, Watt says they practiced like motherfuckers for the two days they had to gear up for the tour. During that time, Watt says they ate a thorough diet of Mexican food for lunch and dinner at spots around Watt's hometown of San Pedro, California. One of them was a family place, run by a mother and her daughter, that Watt said was "econo but good taste."
Maybe Watt was repaying Pilia and Belfi, who cooked for him every day while Il Sogno del Marinaio recorded its second album, Canto Secondo, last December in at Pilia's Vacuum Studio in old barn just north of Bologna, Italy. When it comes to music, Watt says the two Italians, who are schooled in avant-garde music as well as having big musical vocabularies, play like the way they cook.
"There's a fun about it," Watt says. "A happy thing about it too. It can get a little heavy, like a movie. Like, movies have themes that are kind of like heavy, that's what it is. You have to write stuff that's kind of like cinema, like a movie. I'm more from Blue Oyster Cult, T. Rex and Creedence, and then of course, the punk movement. You know, that's what we share. Even though we're 21 years apart.
"I've showed them what the punk movement was, and that it wasn't really a style of music, it was a kind a state of mind. We actually share that in way. That thing wasn't just a little blip, you know, it kept going. I could talk about bands. I could talk about Wire and Pop Group. They know about these guys. Flag, Meat Puppets, Husker Du. They know it. That's a trip!"
While the trio might share the punk credo, the group is more of a collaborative effort like with Minutemen or Dos (his duo with former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler) than some of Watt's other projects, like the Secondmen or Missingmen where Watt is essentially the leader and chief songwriter, or touring with the Stooges for 125 months where he was taking direction. With Il Sogno del Marinaio, Watt says he writes about a third of the material, and with Il Sogno del Marinaio's moniker, translated from Italian means "The Sailor's Dream," Watt didn't want his name used.
"I did that on purpose," Watt says. "Secondmen, Missingmen, Black Gang. I used the name Mike Watt with [those names] so you know who to blame. But with this, I asked them, 'Can we make the name in Italian because I'm kind of in in the minority here?' My pop was a sailor in the navy. So that's why I asked them to do that. Also, my mama's people come from Italy. So there's a weird connection there.
"Actually, this life - the touring life - is kind of a sailor's life. My pop told me that when I started sending him postcards. It was just something l did with D. Boon and he was right, that's how I got into and stuff. But he didn't know why I was still playing when D. Boon got killed [in a car accident in 1985]. So I started sending him postcards for the tour and he didn't even know I was doing it. He didn't even know I was making a living at it. 'You know what you're kind of like a sailor. You work in the ports. Kind of like a sailor in the ports.' So that's where I got the idea for my first opera -Contemplating the Engine Room
Watt says with the trio's name he's trying to get across that it really isn't a Mike Watt side project, "that I got a hundred percent Mike Watt in it," he says. "I'm not the boss either. You can't learn everything by being the boss. Life's about taking turns. I say life is a collaboration, even your lungs. They inhale, they exhale."
When the trio plays live, Watt says there are sections in some of the songs that let them improvise, or as Watt says, "let their freak flag fly" while other tunes have a good deal of structure.
"It's a trippy kind of thing," Watt says. "There's also a lot of dynamics. These guys can get really tiny and then they can get really big and loud."
Whether the Il Sogno del Marinaio weaves through more intricate and subtle passages or roars through more visceral territory, both extremes are evident on the act's debut, La Busta Gialla as well as Canto Secondo. But there's also the trio format, which Watt prefers and in which he's thinks he contributes best in. Minutemen, fIREHOSE, which Watt formed in 1986, the Secondmen, Missingmen and the Black Gang are all trios.
"There's a lot you can do with the trio," Watt say. "I don't know about this duet thing where you get rid of the bass player. But I like this trio thing. Somebody once told me, even in classical music where you've got 65 people playing, you can only focus in on three things at a time. So maybe three is the fundamental number."
Il Sogno del Marinaio: Larimer Lounge, Wednesday, September 24, 9 p.m., $17.