FOREWORD: There truly is no other like ex-Minutemen icon, Mike Watt. My friend Al and I are convinced he’s the most approachable and fun guy in all of music. His solo debut, Ballhog Or Tugboat? featured a cornucopia of underground sensations who had befriended the very personable Watt – Eddie Vedder, Evan Dando, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dave Pirner, Flea, Pat Smear, Frank Black, etc.
At a pre-show party in Manhattan, Watt was drinking bourbon and coke before what he called “an overly efficient waitress” took his drink away before it was done. We walked him to the venue he was gonna play at but had to stop at some sidewalk-decked restaurant because the owner recognized him and wanted to say hi. We never stayed to see him play because the club was streaming hot and overcrowded with douchebag industry types.
Last time I saw Watt, he was playing bass in J. Mascis & The Fog at the Bowery Ballroom around ’05. He was skinny as hell since he’d just gotten an enlarged perineum drained and had to relearn his instrument. Still, Watt soldiered on, releasing his third solo disc, The Secondman’s Middle Stand in ’04 (featuring vocals by Petra Haden). When Iggy & the Stooges re-formed, Watt joined on bass for decent ‘06 comeback, The Weirdness. He also has a regular internet radio program, The Watt From Pedro Show. What follows is a weighty conversation with Watt concerning punk’s early days, the Minutemen, and his solo stuff.
This article originally appeared in Brutarian (a cool Washington DC magazine with great illustrations as well as articles) to support ‘97s Contemplating The Engine Room. I’ve also included, at the bottom, a concurrent Smug Magazine article concerning Watt’s conspiracy theories.
I remember when I was young always wanting to hang out with the older kids who had cars, smoked dope, drank liquor, and were cool. Well, San Pedro native Mike Watt fits the mold of that wiser, more developed street kid. In the early ‘80s, he was in the Minutemen, a highly influential and unheralded avant-rock trio whose lead singer-guitarist D. Boon died in a van accident in ‘85.
At the urging of Ohio fan, Ed Crawford, Watt picked up the pieces, and along with Crawford, formed the ambitious Firehose. They put out six albums from ’86 to ’93 (Flyin’ The Flannel and if’n being personal faves).
In early September at a Columbia Records release party, I met the crazed Watt while he was drinking bourbon and coke. With cheap shit bass in hand (he bought it for $50 then had the nerve to return it the next day), we walked to NYC’s dismal, sweaty Elbow Room, where Watt showcased material from his second solo LP, the loosely-coined ‘punk rock opera’ Contemplating The Engine Room (made with Jazz-informed guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Stephen Hodges).
The basic Contemplating The Engine Room story according to Watt: “this guy runs away from a farm town, joins the Navy, finds a crew, they get their routine together, and pull into a port and have some R & R. They get drunk, konk out. The boilerman sleepwalks, falls in the water, and drowns. But it’s not a documentary: it’s mostly about the Minutemen. The boilerman is D. Boon. The fireman is George Hurley and I’m the machinist. The whole boat is like the old SST Records family. I mention Husker Du and the Meat Puppets. We were all on this one big boat.”
I respond to Watt: Yeah. The boat down the underground tunnel for bands not getting enough popularity even though they’re better than the dogshit infiltrating the airwaves.
WATT: Even with all the shit that went down, we always thought this was not supposed to happen. We played around, traveled about. So what if it was eleven guys in one van? At least we were doing it. I look back at those days and realize that’s what made me who I am now. Be true to yourself and let the freak flag fly. Fuck the people who hate punk. It was big in England, but over here in America everyone called you a fag. The people who really hated us were the rock and rollers. They were running the studios. We used to have to have to play Polish and Ukrainian halls.
Commercial radio and classic rock stars with big heads could eat my ass. Pretentious loads!
WATT: But we learned to be self-reliant and create our own little world. We made our own little record labels and own our little circuit. Ani Di Franco and the riot girls with Kill Rock Stars Records do that now. That spirit is still here. And I think we helped build that up. And I hope the doors never get shut.
How bad does MTV suck?
WATT: I look at MTV like a telephone pole everybody wants to put their flyer on. I heard its mostly game shows now. Are Jenny Mc Carthy’s tits plastic though?
They probably are. And that’s such an insecurity problem when you have to increase size. What’s the matter? Some guy isn’t going to fuck you because you’re flat?
WATT: A friends of mine who’s a talent agent in Hollywood told me almost every girl on TV has plastic knobs.
By the way, my friend told me to ask you if we should open trade with Cuba to get good cigars.
WATT: And help break the mafia – the cigar mafia. I think if we get half our shoes from Red China, we could lighten up with the cigars from Cuba. As soon as Castro’s gone, it’s over. He has a one-man system. People are starving. But the US just needs a country to kick around. I think we should open up the market completely. I think I should play there. Why should I have to go to Europe instead of playing Latin America?
Right. In fact, “Fireman Hurley” (from Engine Room) has Spanish guitar, Latin rhythms, and danceable bass lines.
WATT: I had been asked by people to use nylon strings on my record. I said OK. And that Nels is so easygoing. He’s no stuck-up motherfucker like most goddamn guitar players.
On Ballhog Or Tugboat?, J. Mascis plays a little guitar. I heard he’s a rather difficult character.
WATT: He’s just a shy kid. Well, he talks slow so people can’t handle that. They think he’s a slacker. I think he’s a good cat. He’s out touring again.
What was the first concert you attended as a kid?
WATT: T. Rex at the Long Branch Auditorium in 1971. D. Boon’s dad sat with us in the crowd. He was smiling. He didn’t know anything about rock. But Marc Bolan got killed in a car accident afterwards. I visited the tree in London that killed him. That tree is all bent over from the car hitting it. I think Joey Ramone is putting together a T. Rex tribute at CBGB’s for him.
How did you originally meet D. Boon?
WATT: We were twelve when we met. In the park, by accident, he jumped out of a tree and landed on me. He thought I was this guy Eskimo. He had memorized a whole George Carlin album. And I had never heard of George Carlin. And he’s reciting all these bits, and I’m like, ‘Jesus Christ, this is the smartest kid I ever met.’ The next day he took me over to his house and played the whole record. His dad was into Buck Owens, who had all these Country radio hits in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That was all Boon knew when I met him. I asked him, ‘Boon, haven’t you heard of The Who, Cream, and Creedence?’ That’s why Creedence was such a big band for us. They were a bridge for us since D. Boon’s favorite song was “Tall Dark Stranger” by Buck Owens. I told him, you got to hear some other shit. Then he liked T. Rex, Alice Cooper, Blue Oyster Cult, and Black Sabbath. We learned every Black Sabbath song.
Then how did you mix Jazz elements into the Minutemen songs?
WATT: I don’t know. We never listened to Jazz as kids. Jazz was punk to us. It sounded like noise. Imagine never hearing Jazz and then being turned on to Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. As a teen, the only bassists that mattered to me were Geezer Butler, Jack Bruce, and John Entwistle. It’s weird the way things turn out.
How come you’re not a flake like most Southern Californians are?
WATT: Because I’m originally from Virginia, where my father was a sailor. We got stuck in California because of the Viet Nam War. My mother got sick of moving and got divorced. She said my father married the Navy instead of her. The Navy is really fucked with the family. They move you every year. They yank kids out of school and tell you to report to this town in thirty days.
WATT: I was in a really bad state. I didn’t want to play after D. Boon got killed. But then Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth came over with that Ciccone Youth idea. It was my idea to do Madonna’s “Step Into The Groove” and “Burnin’ Up” for a single. That was my way back into music. But the rest of the Ciccone Youth album is a joke. What happened is Sonic Youth told a lot of people they were going to make their version of the Beatles White Album. So what they did was take my Madonna songs and build a concept around it and called it The Whitey Album. But I wasn’t making fun of Madonna by covering those songs. It was a serious tribute. I went to a Madonna gig and I couldn’t get over all these little girls dressed like her singing along. I never saw girls flock to see a girl play before, unless it was Joan Jett. It was mind-boggling.
I own some of Joan Jett’s early Runaways singles, like “Cherry Bomb.” The only other girl band who rocked as hard as them in the ‘70s was Fanny.
WATT: Fanny was a total lesbian band with big Afros.
I didn’t know they were lesbians. Sounds delectable.
WATT: Oh yeah. They were pre-Indigo (Girls). Very k.d.
I bet k.d. lang’s got a bigger dick than me.
WATT: So does Joan, I heard. You know, k.d. is actually a performance artist. She’s singing torch songs now. She always reminded me of old school lesbian Phranc, who was in a band, Nervous Gender. They were these intense gay punk guys. A lot of them have since died of AIDS. They had a song with a chorus that went: ‘Jesus is just like me/ another cocksucker from Galileo/ Jesus Christ was a homosexual nymphomaniac/ a homosexual nymphomaniac.’ For a Pedro guy like me to come up to Hollywood and hear this was so fuckin’ bizarre. I never saw a band like that. Phranc only had one song in the band back then, and it was “My Mommy’s Chest.” Punk rock was a mind blow. It wasn’t these hardcore little kids from Orange County.
Who were some of your favorite punk bands from back in the ‘70s?
WATT: I loved the Germs. I loved the Dils, the old X, the Bags. I liked the whole scene. A lot of them didn’t have vans so they didn’t like to tour. That’s why I like Black Flag. They were about taking it to the people. I think the Hollywood bands thought they were all going to get signed and become famous. Other people knew it was just a fad and they were having fun with it. But Greg Ginn (of Black Flag) knew he was going to have fun with it and take it around. He literally built that club scene that didn’t exist. It was a domino effect. Kids would tell kids about gigs at their college these bands were coming around and it got bigger. That’s how I got signed by Columbia. We changed the way labels looked at us.
Did Columbia ever tell you how to make your albums?
WATT: No way. Our contract wouldn’t allow them to. They promised artist control with none of this demo shit. Some artists moan at interviews about control, but they let the record labels spend a lot of money on their pretty faces. A lot of these cats get into contracts and don’t protect themselves. Even Greg Ginn knew not to change the Minutemen.
What were some of the dilemmas you faced when the Minutemen were starting out?
WATT: A lot of times D. Boon would get pulled off the stage by bouncers when we’d start our gig because they couldn’t believe he was in the band. I think that opened things up. When people saw this huge guy in the band maybe they thought, ‘I could try this.’ That’s what I had originally thought with those punk rockers. ‘Those guys are up there. Why don’t we go for it, D. Boon?’ We thought being in a band was about good looks and costumes and knowing all the notes. We grew up with arena rock but could never see ourselves as arena rockers. Punk rock we thought we could do.
WATT: Well. “The Bluejacket’s Manual” is about boot camp. I relate punk rock to boot camp. I compare my father leaving a farm town to the Minutemen bursting open and getting away from arena rock.
Part of the inspiration for the new album comes from Richard Mc Kenna’s naval novel, The Sand Pebbles.
WATT: The book is great. I read it before recording this while on tour with Perry Farrell. But the movie with Steve Mc Queen was always my favorite movie. So I try to link all these parallels. I called it a punk opera so these little kids would listen to it and give it a try. I wanted to blow minds. If I called it a concept album they’d shelve it next to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon. When I first heard the word punk used to express artists, I laughed. Where I live that’s a guy in jail who gets fucked for cigarettes. He holds the guy’s little belt loops and it a little wuss. I thought, ‘Why would anyone want to call themselves that?’ That’s a jailhouse sissy.
What’s with all the storm sounds towards the end of the album?
WATT: That’s when the guy on the boat drowns. Also, the Minutemen didn’t have a happy ending. D. Boon dies and I didn’t know how to sugar-coat it. So it’s like a tragic opera. See, you don’t know this stuff unless Watt tells you. That’s all Pedro waves in the background. Pedro people are all rednecks and not that enlightened. It’s a harbor town. I’m staying because of the geography and it’s proximity to Hollywood.
So did you return that bass to the shop you brought it from in New York City like you said you would?
What type of bass guitar was it?
WATT: Lim-Gar. It was a pawnshop piece of shit. The night before I had to go on after that Cars guy Ric Ocasek at the Elbow Room – what a laugh that was. He stalls for an hour and fucking plays fifteen-year-old songs like “Just What I Needed.” The sound guy, Mr. Door Knob pony tail is like, ‘Come on Mike,’ rushing me. And I’m like, ‘Sony paid for this room so why are you rushing me?’ Ocasek was never in the building. He just drove up and went onstage.
I hope that place burns down.
WATT: So do I.
While you were trying to eat food in the dark at your record release party, what possessed you to drink bourbon with coke?
WATT: Why, is that not happening?
Oh, it’s happening to your gut.
WATT: Well the caffeine keeps you up.
Did you ever have to play a show while you were completely fucked up?
WATT: I can’t hear pitch and I can’t tune. I try to avoid that. A lot of kids think you’re drunk out of your mind. But playing Minutemen songs would be too difficult.
Yeah. Those Minutemen songs were only 90 seconds long.
WATT: With thirty parts.
How did your stint as bassist in Perry Farrell’s Porno For Pyros go?
WATT: I couldn’t have done this punk rock opera without spending ten months in the S.S. Porno. That was quite an experience. He’s kind of like D. Boon. He gets onstage and sings. I was getting into all the things he had us do, like get onstage in pajamas. I was watching him. He has a great way of getting his music over. He doesn’t use D minor chords. He uses movie words or theme words. That’s what I did with Nels.
Nels Cline did a great job on the Geraldine Fibbers latest album, Butch. What did his playing add to Watt’s sound?
WATT: He’s from the scene from twenty years ago, doing improv music as the Nels Cline Trio. Nels is a cat who’d never say ‘That’s not my style’ or ‘oh, that’s not me.’ On Engine Room, I’d say to him, the sailors are laughing, and he’d just get into it. He likes making music like theatre. At first, Hodges was really thrown for a loop. I wanted to bring in a new guy. And since he worked with Tom Waits, who turns his music into stories, I decided to bring him in. He has played Classical and Blues. He plays glockenspiel on “In The Engine Room.” But Nels knew what to do from the start. I had a little easel there with all the songs written down. And each song had a different time of day. This song takes place before dawn. And that was it.
Singer-songwriter/ bassist Mike Watt became an underground champion when he played alongside the late guitarist D. Boon in the prolific avant-rock trio, the Minutemen from 1980 to 1985. After Boon’s death in a van accident, Watt formed Firehose with Minutemen drummer George Hurley and Minutemen fan Ed Crawford. Six hell-raising albums later, Watt collaborated with his many indie rock pals on his belated solo debut, Ballhog Or Tugboat?
Currently, Watt is riding high with his semi-autobiographical long player, Contemplating The Engine Room, a punk rock opera filled with instrumental deconstruction’s and nifty homage’s to D. Boon, punk life, and his naval father. He’s also featured in the one-off Wylde Ratz, a side project with Steve Shelley and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Julian Lennon, and Ron Asheton (of the Stooges).
As a foremost authority on conspiracy theories, UFO’s, extreme politics, Internet newsgroups, and just about any other off-handed topic you care to bring up, Watt shared some profound insights before his Halloween show at NYC’s Tramps.
Will you be decorated for tonight’s Halloween show?
WATT: I’ve played nineteen Halloweens in a row. Tonight, I’ll be dressed in a sailors uniform. In the early ‘80s, when the Replacements were young, I remember playing this gig with them on Halloween. I had green shoes, a big red nose, a white face, and was dressed as a clown. And that fucking singer, Paul Westerberg, was giving me shit. And I said, ‘Who the fuck are you dressed like, a rock and roller?’ He was looking down on us. The bassist, Tommy Stinson, who was only fifteen, had painted his guitar strings bright orange, and his brother was wearing a dress. They go out there all fucked up and couldn’t make it through “Black Diamond” and some covers. But Westerberg gave me shit for wearing a Halloween costume I made with my own hands.
What was D. Boon dressed as that night?
WATT: D. Boon had the funniest suit. He had all these layers of green on with fatigues. And he goes to me, ‘Posk,’ which was my private conspiratorial nickname, short for Poskeynitt, ‘Posk, what am I?’ And I said, ‘You look like D. Boon.’ ‘No. Really what am I?’ And I said, ‘I’m lost.’ He goes, ‘I’m an artichoke.’
What was D. Boon’s first name?
WATT: D. was short for Dennes. The guy in Blue Oyster Cult was E. Bloom, Eric Bloom, and since we were avidly into BOC, D. had his first name shortened. Before I met him, he had only listened to Buck Owens. His favorite tune was “Tall Dark Stranger.”:
Why don’t most conspiracies work?
WATT: Because the guys on top are totally beholden to their underlings, and their underlings lie to them. They’ll lie for money, or because they’ll be punished. Then the guys on top become more insulated while these ‘side mice’ start extorting money, setting them up and selling them out to other conspirators. Adam Smith, the inventor of Capitalism, said whenever two of us get together, we conspire against the rest. In right wing militias, conspiracies are the glue that holds it together.
(At this point, Watt looks up at Tramps exposed basement plumbing and becomes temporarily distracted)
WATT: Don’t you think turd pipes should be clear, so we could have raffles and see what everybody ate.
(laughter) What’s your take on the Kennedy assassination?
WATT: There could be many collusion’s linked to the JFK assassination. The mob and the Cubans had something to do with it –they even tried to kill Fidel Castro with a loaded cigar. LBJ took a step down from Speaker of the House to become Kennedy’s VP. And the mob lost a lot of money when Battista fled Cuba, because Cuba was the mob’s own little haven. Also, LBJ had these kickback programs throughout the States, and Bobby Kennedy was going to turn it over. And Oswald was a strange character. Why was he allowed to go to Russia to marry, come back and be stationed as a marine when he was supposed to be sporting Communist propaganda. Some silly game play was going on. Shit got out of hand and the CIA and FBI are afraid to open the files. It’s like a terrific car accident in the fog. Everyone is responsible, but everyone is in their own little car with their own agenda.
What about Russian conspiracies?
WATT: The Bolsheviks were a conspiracy. Lenin wouldn’t use Russian bodyguards. He used Latvians. He was almost killed by a Socialist revolutionary. Trotsky had sailors shot for wanting anarchy.
How about record industry conspiracies?
WATT: A guy puts together a band and wants them to be major rock stars. But all the radio stations, Spin, and Rolling Stone have to get involved. There’s lots of collusion’s, but it’s still a federalism… Hey, is there a heavy piss smell down here. At that big shoe box in Boston, the Middle East, there was a really bad ammonia piss stink yesterday.
Were the Minutemen a conspiracy?
WATT: Yes. It was a conspiracy against all rock and rollers. We were going to break our foot off in their ass and lay waste by taking it into our own hands. The great conspiracy for all punk bands is to find out how to stay young. The future belongs to the efficient. The word underground comes from Arcadia. It’s an old Greek idea that says all this shit could come to the surface, but the truth will be a river running underneath. And those who know where to dig the well will have a tap on the whole idea. All we have in this world is faith – I believe that’s a wall over there. I believe there’s a smell of piss in this room. We carry our own conspiracy around in our pants… the fecal soilettes.
What about UFO’s?
WATT: How could you not believe in UFO’s They’re unidentified, that’s all. We just need better words to describe what we see. When it comes down to math and science words are too inexact.
What conspiracies fo you face in your hometown of San Pedro, California?
WATT: San Pedro, Wilmington, and Long Branch make up the harbor. It’s all Latin and Catholic, but the eastside hates the westside. If you’re driving your car, and they ask where you’re from, say nowhere. I have a bullet hole in the back of my van. The town is very rough. Here’s how most shootings in my town start. There’s a wedding reception, some unwelcome cats come to the party, get thrown out, and come back with guns. Pride has a lot to do with it. You have to stick up for your homies. It’s a blood-brother bond that sets the seeds for the next great treason.
Amongst charges of sexual indiscretion, cocaine trafficking, and illegal campaign funds, was there also a conspiracy that elected Bill Clinton president?
WATT: It came down to looks. Former President Bush won the Iraq War one year too early. Bush lost it when he went into a supermarket and didn’t know what a barcode reader was. Clinton, on the other hand, was like vaudeville. He knew how to work the crowd and was from a one-party state, Arkansas, where he made deals with chicken farmers. He had to learn to finesse crowds like Hitler did.
Ig you had one Sunday sermon to give, what wisdom would you share?
WATT: I would talk about Christ being in doubt on the cross asking, ‘Why’d you forsake me?’
How could we achieve world harmony?
WATT: Jazz player John Coltrane wanted to find harmony and a spiritual place in his life. But he kept overreaching, poking out and grabbing. He was trying to get beyond imposed boundaries. He’d practice twenty hours a day. Where is the eye of the pyramid focused? We need conspiracies and collaborators because the world is too big for one of us. We need compadres. They help you write the story with some spiel.