Q&A with Mike Watt
Mike Watt is most certainly a man whose thoughts cannot be expressed in a mere 500 or words or so. Needless to say, the Rough Mixes entry focusing on him in this week's issue hardly scraped the surface of our recent conversation the punk elder statesman. While on tour supporting his newest punk rock opera "Hyphenated Man" and in advance of his upcoming show in Denver at the Larimer Lounge, Watt took some time between his soundcheck and his gig opening for Dinosaur Jr. at the Neighborhood Theatre in Charlotte, North Carolina, to speak with us about the joy of making music with friends, the pain of losing them, and how at 51 it is especially important to acknowledge that life is not a rehearsal. Read the full transcript after the jump.
Westword (Matt Scheidler): How's the tour going so far?
Mike Watt: Well, it's about a third done. It's happening. I'm very proud of my men.
WW: The global economic crisis isn't having an adverse effect, I hope.
MW: [munching on a potato chip] People have been very generous to us. I've been doing this a long time. There's gonna be hills and valleys, you know, and if you jam econo, and you're not trying to swagger with some goddamn lifestyle, then you're looking at other things that determine what's success and what's failure.
WW: How does it compare now with the '80s when you were first touring? Is it a whole different scene?
MW: Back then, it was just people thinking punks were a bunch of dicks. Younger people [i.e., kids today] are much more open-minded than in the older days. So, that way, it's different. I won't say "the good old days," you know, cause there was a lot of closed-mindedness. But you couldn't really blame the kids [back then]. It was a bunch of people getting all weirded out and not giving us a shot. But there was good things about that, too, cause it helped build into us self-reliance, you know?
WW: Punk seemed to be a bit misunderstood. Did people just not get what it was about? Did they just think it was violence and spiky hair?
MW: They thought it was just a style of music, but it's really a state of mind. But, you know, you can't run other people's lives. In fact, you don't want to because you believe in autonomy. So, whatever it takes, you gotta be patient, and hopefully, they come around. You get with your guys. You try your hardest to build music, a sound [burp], find your voice from within, which is what the arts are about. There's other disciplines, like painting and writing-- poetry -- and I draw upon all those things as inspiration.
We're all a team, we're all taking turns trying to get our works together. I believe everybody's got something to teach me. And that's why I get into this shit so heavy. I have no other reason. It's very fortunate for me to have somebody like you to be interested and care, so I'm very grateful to you. In the old days, that's what helped the Minutemen: people writing about it.
WW: Just getting the word out grassroots-style.
MW: And people going to the gigs and checking us out and not just trying to know what we were by rumor and what other people say as far as like maybe negative opinion, but they go to the gig and make up their own minds.
WW: Well, right on. So, you're opening for Dinosaur Jr. right now; how is it touring with J, Lou and Murph?
MW: They're doing good, and it's fun for me and my guys to be with them, and having Lou come up on stage and sing that Minutemen song "Black Sheep" with us. It's just like the old days when Minutemen first played with Black Flag. On tour we would all come and jam together. It's an old tradition. fIREHOSE would jam with people, too, like the Blue Oyster Cult's Albert Bouchard. Whoever we were touring with would end up on stage with us for a couple songs.
WW: That's the way it should be: just party together and have a good time up on stage and just play your hearts out.
MW: Aw, that's very nice of you, Matt.
WW: So, you're going to be in the recording studio in New York City this weekend [May 01-03] recording the new album?
MW: My third opera. It's called "Hyphenated Man," and I'm playing with my Missingmen, Tom Watson and Raul Morales.
WW: Have you been playing with those guys for a while, now?
MW: Well, not a lot because I was in the Stooges classroom for five-and-a-half years.
WW: R.I.P. Ron Asheton.
MW: Yeah, I loved Ronnie. I'm wearin' a coat that he gave me.
WW: Right on.
MW: He was a beautiful, man. I talked to his brother yesterday. Iggy called me two days ago. He was very nice to me. We're playing "Funhouse" this tour, me, Tom, and Raul, so the spirit of Ronnie lives within us. I don't think there would be a punk scene without the Stooges, so we're all much grateful for all the work Ronnie did for us -- for inspiring us. He's the reason I was even in the band, the Stooges. I got this call from Iggy, he says, "Ronnie says you're the man." And that was a pretty incredible call for me!
But now I'm doing my third opera -- it's kind of a trippy piece. I've always wanted to do this, and that's the way things worked out, you know, and Ronnie . . .
WW: Ronnie's death?
MW: Yeah, that happened in January, and I said I've got to get out on the road and do this. And Tony Maimone will join us in Brooklyn [to record the album], and he's been a hero of mine for a long time. Long time. He was in a band called Pere Ubu, and me and D. Boon saw him in Pere Ubu in the '70s -- late '70s -- so, I don't know, you know.
Actually, I've been doin' a lot of recordin' in the last two years. Last year, I made two albums in Tokyo. I did an album in L.A. with the Black Gang, which is Nels Cline and Bob Lee. I kinda got out of balance in the last two years doin' too many gigs compared to recordin'. Things like Ronnie and D. Boon passing away makes me think of making recordings because they're here after you're gone, you know.
WW: You gotta get something down so folks can remember you.
MW: You gotta do both. You gotta do gigs, too, but it's important to make recordings, I think, cause like D. Boon, that's how we can listen to him still. Even shit like the Jackass show! You can hear D. Boon playin'.
WW: They turned a lot of kids on to the Minutemen with the "Corona" riff.
WW: Now, as far as the operas are concerned, "Contemplating the Engine Room" and "The Secondman's Middle Stand" had a strong narrative structure, the first one with your dad in the navy and the second Dante's "Divine Comedy" --
MW: The "Inferno," -- yeah, the second one was -- the "Paradiso" and the "Purgatorio." The "Divine Comedy" on one and a mixture of "Ulysses," James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Richard McKenna's "The Sand Pebbles" on the first one. This one, not so much a narrative like a novel -- no beginning, middle, and end. More like all middle, it's more like, um, the closest parallel is the little creatures in the Hieronymous Bosch paintings.
WW: I read on your Web site, you say that the little creatures represent parables?
WW: So, each song is a little parable about yourself?
MW: Of being a middle-aged man. There are thirty pieces, and each one is named after a different kind of man that I see in those little creatures. The other half of it is Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz and her tripping on all the fucking things guys do to try to be men. Remember, the Wizard says, 'If you've got a medal, you can be brave; if you've got a diploma, you can be smart; if you've got to fuck, you can have a heart.' And middle age is about finally reflecting on that. You've done all the games society has asked you to do, and you're asking yourself, what does anything really mean.
Now, if you're being a punk rocker, you ask those fucking questions when you're young, you know? The same questions that guys my age, you know, friends I went to school with, they're asking themselves now. Me and D. Boon, you know, we were lucky. We started asking them really early cause of the scene we were in. So, it ain't such a freakout for us. Fuck, we were freaked out then. We got a head start on the freakout! We were playing along with the game, you know? But then it comes along to a point where you realize that it is a game. Actually, it's also your life. It's everything. Remember the Minutemen had a song called "Life Is a Rehearsal". And we seriously believed it was not a rehearsal; it's the dealio. You got to go for it. D. Boon had a big effect on my life, you know. I owe a debt to the scene, to the movement, to my buddy. And that's what I'm trying to do, and I'm lucky to have the men I do with me.
WW: Your guys in the Missingmen, Tom and Raul, you've been friends with Tom going back to the Minutemen days, right?
MW: Yeah, he's younger than us, but Tom Watson was there. And Raul is from the more modern days. He's from the punk scene in Pedro in the '90s. So, in a way, I've got my hands in both worlds a little bit with these two. And with the bass, you look good making your guys look good.
WW: A lot of your bands are just the three men up there: you've got your bass, drums, and guitar, and whoever is spieling spiels. Is it three equal parts of the same machine?
MW: A lot of people go into the bathroom and they look at the tile. When I go into the head, I look at the grout. The bass is like the grout. It sets the tiles. So, what I'm trying to do is springboard my men into outer space.
WW: A lot of the time, you're the one springing into outer space though, aren't you?
MW: Well, D. Boon was very generous. He wanted to fuck all that fucking hierarchy trend of arena rock and bring in the drummer and bring the bass up.
WW: Half the time, he was handing it over to you and springing you into outer space.
MW: See what a generous man he was to me?
WW: Up until the documentary, We Jam Econo, did you just stay away from Minutemen songs cause it was too painful hearing them?
MW: They made me sad. But hearing them again, they seemed very interesting.
WW: How'd you feel about them when you heard them again after so long?
MW: They were interesting. There's not a lot of filler. I like it. They're right to the point. And the new opera, it's like an old Minutemen set: the whole set it wasn't songs, it was all like one song made of little parts. That was always our idea.
Thank you so much, Matt. I gotta go do this gig now.
WW: Thanks for taking some time to talk to us. I really do appreciate it.
MW: Aw, man, I think you're beautiful, Matt.
WW: Have a great show tonight.
MW: Okay, brother.
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