Mike Watt – the DenverThread Interview: Touring Econo, Jamming Austere, Pure Dada
“Actually, Chuck Dukowski built the circuit we’re all still touring on,” pointed out Mike Watt, as I watched him from the other side of a Skype video chat recently. Watt was responding to my (constant) amazement at the legendary touring virility he’s been an integral part of for the past thirty years with his many bands – including Minutemen, fIREHOSE, now the Stooges, and his currently touring trio, the Missingmen.
Our conversation rambled on for about a half hour, but the always efficient Watt covered some major ground in that short time. From his current stint with the Stooges, to some of the history of Minutemen and his beloved San Pedro (CA), to the tour he was bout to kick off in a few days, he led me on a musical, improvisational, stream-of-thought journey – and kept his reputation as one of rock’s nicest guys you’d ever want to talk to.
The “Black Flag Tour Experience”
“I’ve been doing that for over 30 years,” he added. “That’s the good thing about Michael [Azerrad], when he wrote that book – he got the title form one of my songs – “Our Band Could Be Your Life,” he continued. “Before that, I remember there was all kinds of stuff – like on PBS and shit – all kinds of stuff that went from The Sex Pistols to Nirvana, and they tried to say there was nothing in between.”
“Things come and go – things change. But, y’know, the way I tour hasn’t changed. It’s still where you count on people to be in those towns, to have a scene going when you come to town.”
But there was something in between – a lot of somethings. There was Watt’s life, for one, along with a whole slew of underground, mostly hardcore punk acts like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat and more, that formed the so-often ignored musical bridge between ‘70s US and British Punk and the early ‘90s Grunge thing that grew out of it. Before Nirvana’s stardom finally “legitimized” Punk Rock for the millions.
Watt is still touring the same way, now with his latest trio, The Missingmen, which features Watt on bass (or “thunderstick,” or “thud staff”), Tom Watson on guitar and Raul Morales on drums. They’re covering the world with the latest, third installment of an opera he essentially started regurgitating three albums and fifteen years ago with “Contemplating the Engine Room.” After that classic album and 2004’s “The Secondman’s Middle Stand,” and the regimen of touring that led him pretty much everywhere on the globe, Watt found himself in a position where he could finally face another part of that musical bridge: his longtime best friend and co-conspirator, and Minutemen’s legendary leader, D. Boon.
Documenting the Past
“When he got killed in that wreck, I couldn’t really listen to the Minutemen,” said Watt. “It would make me sad too much. And then – you know about this documentary, “We Jam Econo”? These two guys – they were too young to see us – in fact, the whole documentary is kind of about how they found out about us. And I had to, y’know, they wanted me to drive them around town, and go through the albums,” he added. “So I had to listen again. When I did, I was like ‘Whoa! I wanna try this again!’”
Once Watt heard the short, minimal tunes, along with Boon’s screaming, high-treble guitar style and George Hurley’s frantic drumming, he found he was finally able to get past the tragedy of the loss of his lifelong friend, and face the desire to make that kind of music again. That music is his masterpiece – or at least the culmination of his journey – entitled “hyphenated-man.” Watt and The Missingmen will be here in Denver next Thursday night, October 4th, at the Larimer Lounge, to give you all a chance to see and hear the stream-of-conscious, Coltrane-soaked genius of the whole thing.
Hell – in a real perfect world, it would only be about two minutes long, because I’d play all thirty parts at the same time!
“Both the first – “Contemplating the Engine Room” – and the second “The Secondman’s Middle Stand” are about the old days,” Watt explained. “The first one’s about Minutemen, and D Boon, and the second one’s about this sickness that almost killed me.”
“Both of those had beginning-middle-end – one had a happy ending, one had a sad ending. So – I didn’t want to repeat myself – so, I was using elements of the old days, and I didn’t want to talk about those days,” he continued. “I wanted to talk about now. In a perfect world, there wasn’t any beginning-middle-end – it was all middle. Hell – in a real perfect world, it would only be about two minutes long, because I’d play all thirty parts at the same time!” (laughs).
Touring Econo – Still
“Things come and go – things change,” said Watt about the tour, as we talked just a few days before the first gig would kick off in Ballard, Washington. “But, y’know, the way I tour hasn’t changed. It’s still where you count on people to be in those towns, to have a scene going when you come to town.”
So now, The Missingmen put on a show that’s non-stop, 45 minutes of scraping, chunky guitar, thundering bass and Watt’s signature guttural drawl. It’s a set filled with more than 30 songs – or maybe 30 parts of one song – and Watt wants to put it out there in the way he hears it – in shotgun blasts.
“One good thing about this tour, this piece – this’ll be the fourth tour of it,” he explained. “We really know it now – we know it a lot more now than we did. There’s a lot of parts in that fucker! We let it get into our muscles – into our muscle memory – because in the head – I tell you.”
“Tell you what – the first tours – it was a nightmare,” he went on to illustrate, “and I know that was the only way to really learn it. I mean, we prac at the prac pad, but the real prac is doing it for people. So – we’ve really made it into a living, breathing entity here.”
Which is kind of the best way to describe the opera, really. I saw it last time he was through Denver – also at the Larimer Lounge – in April of 2011, and I remember it starting like a quick slap to the side of the head, and then filling the place like an uncomfortable stomach bubble until it burst and bathed the whole place with sweaty, frantic and funky jazz-punk. And then the trio dared us to take a breath.
“Really – I have so much respect for Tom Watson and Raul Morales for wrapping their spirits around this thing,” he said. “Y’know – this isn’t just parts that they learned, they really know this thing, like they wrote it. It’s really beautiful.”
“I think this is just the third time for me at this newer place, Larimer Lounge. And people are very nice. But this one guy was very upset,” Watt reminisced. “Y’know when I do this opera, it’s this 45 minute thing in various parts and I don’t want to stop, but this man wanted to discuss something with me (laughs) in the middle of the piece! Hopefully he didn’t think I was tryin’ to be some kind of weirdo! I was just tryin’ to focus.”
Mike Watt is so busy – like the James Brown of Punk Rock, maybe – that it seems he’d have no more time for another tour. He’s still playing – after nine years – with The Stooges, he’s spearheading a Japanese hardcore scene (one bad of which – LITE – he’s bringing along with The Missingmen for this leg of the tour), he’s constantly recording and producing tributes, songs and records – many on his own label clenchedwrench – it’s mind-boggling. But he still has time for his Missingmen, something that began with that simple desire to play that old Minutemen minimalist style again.
‘Look – I’ll make one big thing out of all these little parts – like we did in the old days. Except, I’ll talk about right now. I won’t talk about the old days’
“… all fairness to George Hurley and D. Boon, I shouldn’t be rippin’ off my old band,”Watt explained to me. “So I thought, ‘Well – I couldn’t – don’t want to make it totally “Happy Days,” which would be all poppy & shit – so, I’ll write about right now! Which will be the middle aged punk rocker – something I would have never wrote about before!”
“It made me think about being on tour with the Stooges in Madrid,” he added, “and they got this museum there called the Prado. And in it they got six or seven Heironymous Bosch paintings. It was something I always liked as a kid, Bosch – his depictions of all these creatures and shit. I saw the actual things – done by his hands – over 500 years ago.“
“When I was a boy, I was into astronauts & dinosaurs, y’know,” he went on, “space race & creatures. And so maybe some of these creatures look kinda like dinosaurs & space race, and when you focus, and then step back, you see all of these things make one big thing. And I thought ‘Whoa! That’s kind of like a Minutemen gig!’ So I kinda got the idea: ‘Look – I’ll make one big thing out of all these little parts – like we did in the old days. Except, I’ll talk about right now. I won’t talk about the old days’”
Watt went on to explain how The Missingmen came about, just for this part, this third part of the opera, the “Hyphenated Man” gig: “The Missingmen was put together – It was really focused – I put this outfit together to do this opera. Tom Watson was from Slovenly – he was from the older days. Played for Minutemen, even,” he explained. “Me and D Boon put out the first Slovenly records, and he was from here. Well – he ain’t from Pedro, he’s from Manhattan Beach, but it ain’t too far away. Now he plays kind of treble – I think maybe some D Boon influence in his guitar playing – but he’s a real link from those old days.”
“Raul – when the punk scene came into being out here in Pedro in the ‘90s,” he went on, “I wasn’t even aware of it, I was touring so much. In the old days, y’know, Minutemen – we were the only punk rockers in town. There wasn’t even a scene really – so I was really surprised.”
“In fact,” he added, “there were some people even moving into town to be a part of this scene! They were hosting bands to play in their living rooms, in these house gigs. I found Raul – he’s kinda part of Minutemen, he’s like a, uh, grandson or something,” he explained.
“He’s part of Minutemen, too, because, part of this opera was – in a way – to kind of indulge myself. I wanted to do that form again.”
And doing that form again is exactly what this is.
Iggy & The Stooges, and There’s Dada
Watt’s been playing for The Stooges now since they inducted him in 2003. To say it’s been a dream come true is kind of an understatement, according to him.
“It’s very surrealistic to me. It’s been 9½ years now, and y’know, we wouldn’t even have had a punk scene without the Stooges, and I owe them my best notes,” he said. “It’s helped me become a much better bass player. They’re all very interesting gentlemen – and I’m finally the youngest guy in the band.”
The latest incarnation of the Stooges is still touring – Watt just played with the band few days after we spoke, in Europe – with legendary frontman Iggy Pop, Scott Asheton and James Williamson (Stooges guitarist on the classic Raw Power LP), onboard after the death of Scott’s brother Ron in 2009. To hear Watt describe it, the power of the Stooges is till there, still raw.
“I’ve got to play with some cats who are really sincere – about the same kind of things I am. I mean, how do you find things like that?”
“It’s like being in a classroom – I love it,” he went on. “These last 9½ years seem to have gone by in 5 minutes. It’s almost like I’m like a kid – but I need to focus, to play with these guys. These songs have been in my head for so many years before that – it’s pretty surreal.”
“First time I was sitting in the chair – me & Thurston [Moore] were doing the soundtrack with Ronnie [Asheton] for the movie “Velvet Goldmine,” and Ronnie starts playing “TV Eye,” just a few feet away from me. I couldn’t believe it. That was the sound – it was that sound.”
“That’s one thing I gotta say,” Watt reminisced. “I’ve been very lucky. I mean, besides, yeah, getting to play with the Stooges. But even with my own music. I’ve got to play with some cats who are really sincere – about the same kind of things I am.”
“I mean, how do you find things like that? I mean, I grew up with D Boon, y’know? And so it was kind of an extension of the way we used to hang out,” he added. “Y’know – we were together. The other thing was – well, I think it came out in the movement, too.”
Mike Watt also related the early Punk Rock scene – that same one he helped to build, and that made that bridge between the Sex Pistols and Nirvana – to the early days of the last century, particularly in Art. He’s not the first to have done it – look at Greil Marcus’s “Lipstick Traces” for a whole damned treatise on the subject. But Watt did live a lot of it, and it was Watt’s memory we were talking about.
“Even though D. Boon was a painter and stuff, we didn’t know about dada. We didn’t really know any of all of that,” Watt explained. “These people in the middle of a war got this kinda – there were a lot of similarities between our scene and dada and the surrealists in the 20s. This dada thing – what I’m finding out is that there are echoes of other movements in all of this.”
It makes sense, too, when you relate what Watt said to his music. Not only is there a hefty dose of Coltrane’s “Meditations,” a sloppy helping of electric, bass-string-bound scat and funk, but there’s also a discernible flavor of John Cage, or Marcel Duchamp. It’s this strain that lifts Missingmen – and that lifted D. Boon and Minutemen – up and over the movement, and it’s that stream that’s keeping it alive in Mike Watt now.
“The important thing is that you gotta find your own voice, rather than being a Xerox machine or a cookie cutter – of course,” explained Watt. “Everybody brings a lot of themselves to it, too – but then a lot of this stuff is kind of – dare say – traditional? Preserving something, some old ethics – like silly politics.”
“ You try to bring back some of the stuff from the old days, and then try to be a little progressive,” he said, chuckling, ”and then all of a sudden you have to wear a certain type of tin foil hat.”