Mike Watt is still the man in the van with the bass in his hand. For over 3 decades he has toured the country in his Ford Econoline, first with incomparable punk band the Minutemen, in the 90s with the fluid fIREHOSE, and later with the power trios that have followed: The Missingmen and The Secondmen. His other musical projects include an ongoing gig as the bassist for Iggy and the Stooges; “Dos y Dos”, the 4th album of twining bass duets with former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler; Spielgusher, a long-time-coming collaboration with rock wordsmith Richard Meltzer, and a tour with his former bandmates in the recently reformed lineup of fIREHOSE.
These incarnations of music are punctuated with other modes of expression, the written word of his “spiels” on the Hoot Page, the webpage of all things Watt, as well as the heard word of the online “Watt from Pedro” radio show. He has also just put out a book of photographs and tour diary excerpts with Three Rooms Press, Mike Watt: On and Off Bass: A Photographic Memory..
Being a visual artist is new to Watt and he claims inspiration from his two best friends: D. Boon, the other founding member of the Minutemen, whose paintings grace the covers of several of their albums and Raymond Pettibon, whose illustrations bedecked albums and fliers from the beginning of Watt’s musical career and who has established a well-deserved place in the pantheon of contemporary art-that-matters. His photographs bring to our eyes what Watt sees in his town, peddling the streets of San Pedro on a bike or paddling its waters in a kayak. There are shots of intensely colored pelicans, sea lions perched on dinghies, images of the coalescence of nature and man in ships’ rust and reflections of Angels’ Gate Lighthouse. Taken with his accompanying words, they provide a glimpse into the artist’s experience, but then, Watt gives us that in many manifestations.
Through these different means, Watt brings his world and his experiences into focus, sharing them unabashedly with whoever chooses to come on board. He brings the past into the present, never merely resting on his laurels and always missing D. Boon, his missing friend.
Rocker talked to Watt recently about his new book, and other things that matter.
Rocker: Rockerzine is all about getting older and still rocking. By what you do and how you’ve lived your life, you provide a good model for people. You’re not some huge fucking rock star sell-out: you just do what you do and you do it really authentically. How do you stay true to being a punk rocker?
Watt: A lot of the stuff I do is the way I did it back then. I still jam econo. Tour in a boat, a van,…when I do my tours with my guys. Things are a little different, but you stay true to the ethic, which means give ‘em your best, play your best, and don’t take anything for granted. None of that rock star crap. We got into punk to be against that. Why should I turn into that? So I’ve always fought against that kind of sense of importance, or sense of entitlement, like people owe you. Fuck, people work all week to come see you play. I think maybe YOU owe THEM, and give it the best you’ve got.
I try not to be an “I Love Lucy” rerun so I try new stuff. There’s this thing people say: “Oh, yeah, I was from the old days.” No, you’re just lucky you didn’t die yet.
I don’t think just because you were born before someone else it makes you better than them. Them being younger don’t mean they’re lamer. Let’s bring it all on and make an interesting trip out of it instead of this stuff about hierarchy and “better than” and “lamer than” because you know what? That young man, he’s gonna have his own ‘back in the day.’ You get too much of that ‘back in the day’ and a young person can’t teach you anything stuff. You think you’ve known it all and you quit. I think when you quit learning you quit living. You become kind of a mummy or something.
Now, the body changes. I’m not the same guy. But you know what? I also have some experiences that I didn’t have then. So maybe I don’t have to make the same stupid fucking mistakes I did when I was younger. So this is just part of the journey. But the ethics: I don’t have to change them. They worked back then, they work for me now. Jam econo; try your hardest; and try to blow minds, you know? That was what the punk movement did for me and D. Boon too. It blew our minds. It let us say, “Why not? Why not try this. They’re trying it. They’re trying some new shit. Why don’t we try it?”
When people market nostalgia, though…When I was young it was called “Happy Days” and “American Graffiti” and that kind of thing.
Rocker: And it’s never true…
Watt: No, of course, ‘cuz it’s a marketing gimmick: it’s jive. I think young people are suspicious of that stuff. They are more open minded to older stuff, though. I remember in my days when we were teenagers you wouldn’t listen to stuff 5 years old. These kids, they’ll listen to 40 year old stuff, no problem. We didn’t do that in the seventies.
I just try to put my bass in a lot of places where I keep being a student. I really believe everybody’s got something to teach you.
Rocker: You’re new book of photos and tour diaries is out now, entering you into the world of visual art to go along with your writing and music. What do you look for in your pictures? How do you know when to click that shutter?
Watt: I don’t know. A lot of it is just “Hey, what’s trippy?” “What’s interesting?” And then I go for it. Because its digital, you shoot, shotgun away, pick up the pieces later, and delete all the lamers.
It’s kind of trippy, the sun, the glare, you can’t always see… You’re almost just pointing this motherfucker and rolling the dice. You’re bobbing around in the kayak, on the bike,… It ain’t like the guy with the fucking lights and the stand and all that stuff. This is on-the-run shit.
It’s much different than the bass guitar stuff. You just go for it. That’s why I call them “eye gifts”. I can’t take total responsibility. A lot of it is just being ready and having my finger on that shutter.
Rocker: How is taking photographs and writing different from playing music?
Watt: Well, I use first person shit in my songs, my operas and stuff. I sing about Watt a lot. So in a way, things are kind of extensions from what I’ve been doing, but in another way they’re much different – there’s nothing to fret, nothing to pluck.
The whole idea of performance in a band, is to try to make an interesting conversation. Those two disciplines, they’re “man alone”. They’re like Raymond (Pettibon)’s thing. I remember going to an opening with him early on and I’m sitting there with Raymond on the stairs and I go, “Man, look at all the shit that’s hanging on the walls and they’re all talking about it.” It’s so fucking nerve-racking and you can’t do it for him, you know? That way, it’s very different. It’s the man alone, private thing.
The politics of being a bass man is you look good and you make the other guys look good. You’re glue, you’re trying to glue it together, know what I mean? Even if it’s your band you’re not the front man. I gotta push my guys out there. I gotta glue it together. It’s just the role, the physics of that instrument. You can be a little dramatic and come out sometimes, but the main idea is to glue that shit together. Most people, when they go in the Head [the pisser, to a Navy dude], they look at the tile. Well, I’m the grout; I’m between the tile.
Glue with nothing to stick to is just a puddle. I don’t want to be just a puddle. But, I’m kind of a puddle when I do the pictures and the diary (insert link). But you know what I am connected with is the nature of the idea of experience, like with the diary, or with the nature: Well, that’s experience, too, of being in my town at the crack of dawn. So I’m connected to that. It’s still not really totally man alone; I’m still connected to something. It just ain’t other dudes with machines.
Rocker: Most of the photos in the book are of the ocean around San Pedro. Why do you think you’re so drawn to the sea?
Watt: I’m about a mile from the water, and my Pop was a sailor for 20 years in the Navy, so that’s a big connection. He used to tell me about his tours. When I was a boy he’d get in from sea and just take me driving 6-7 hours and just tell me about all the shit he saw and it made me curious. So I started sending postcards from tour to him. He couldn’t believe all the pads I was playing. He thought I did music just to be with D. Boon, which is true, but he didn’t understand why I was still doing it when he got killed. He didn’t know I was making a living at this. So I start sending him postcards and he goes, “You know what, boy? You’re like a sailor.” I lost him in 1991. He was in nuclear engine rooms and cancer killed him at 52. He went into the Navy to get out of his town as a 17-year-old. There were no punk bands in 1956, but I just saw some trippy parallels.
Rocker: That must have been a pretty incredible connection to be able to make with him.
Watt: Oh yeah, I was amazed by it. My first opera, “Contemplating the Engine Room” is all about using my Pop’s life in the Navy as a metaphor for the Minutemen, the life of the band… I used this idea of 3 guys in a boat/in the van, and I used the James Joyce thing: I put the whole life of the band into 1 day. So it starts at dawn, you know.
Rocker: The ways that you express yourself are very much like what James Joyce did in Ulysses, trying to examine the particulars of the commonplace. You’re recording the everyday events of your life, through your music, writing and now photography, and sometimes you catch these amazing moments in there that are like epiphanies.
Watt: I think that was the point of Ulysses: One life is made of many days. The sun rises; the sun sets. The idea of the week, the weekend; those are abstract. What’s real is the sun rises, the sun sets. And yeah, a lifetime is made of many small epiphanies, I agree with you.
Rocker: The Hoot Page has been running a long time. How do you do your writing? Is it pen to page or straight to the computer?
Watt: I write it right in. They made me do typing in 8th grade and it came in handy. The way that the keyboard was laid out, that QWERTY thing, that was so strange.
Also electronics. I got an electronics degree in college when computers were coming out. They were nothing like this, you know. This was the 70s. We had cards! We used to punch out cards! Do you remember those? We had machines that were just key punch machines. There was no computer hooked up to them. They just punched holes in cards. It was very slow, very terrible.
I went to college at Harbor College, in Wilmington, right next door. I went to Pedro High and learned to do slide rule, too. That never lasted. But the typing did, because of the computer keyboard, so that was a skill. I’ve had the Hoot Page up since ’96.
Rocker: I’m always struck by how everything you do is dedicated to D. Boon. It gives me pause, every time I see it.
Watt: I was so scared to talk about losing D. Boon and then losing my Pop. It took 14 years to talk about D. Boon. Sometimes, for me to get at truth I gotta use metaphor and stuff. I don’t want to trivialize it. I don’t want to make it shallow. These are deep things. Losing people is the hardest lesson I’ve ever learned, you know. It’s very difficult.
I just think there is a debt I owe because I wouldn’t be doing any of this if we didn’t start playing as boys. You know, life deals you these hands – it’s so trippy – and they change your whole world.
He was a strong persona. He was an artist. He was a man. Sometimes Iggy Pop reminds me of him…
Rocker: Tell me about the Minuteman gig you and George Hurley did.
Watt: It wasn’t our idea, this guy Jeff Mangum who curated the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England asked to us to play and I thought it would be bullshit to get somebody to try to replace D. Boon, so I said, “Georgie will you do it as a duet?” and he said okay.
It was a little tough, you know, because D. Boon was a strong musician and here we are playing without him. But I thought it was the right thing to do ethically.
Rocker: So you sang his parts?
Rocker: How did that feel?
Watt: Tough. Really difficult. But I felt honored that these young people wanted to know about the Minutemen. I wouldn’t make a career out of it though. Georgie said, “It’s very emotional playing with you.” It was scary. It was a nervous time. Some people are professional nostalgists, but I don’t know if we are.
Rocker: It doesn’t seem like you can separate yourself from it. You’re very invested emotionally.
Watt: That’s how I got into music. It was a very personal thing for me. I wasn’t really a musician. I did this to hang out with D. Boon. His mama put me on bass. She goes, “You’re gonna play bass,” and I go, “What’s a bass?” I didn’t know what a bass was because of arena rock, you were so far away. I didn’t know what the fuck. So, I thought it was a guitar with 4 strings. And when I was 16 I saw a real one and saw how big they were and I said, “No wonder there’s only four of ‘em!” But we saw on every album cover almost every band had one, so we knew it was part of a band somehow.
When I moved from Navy housing to the projects here in Pedro, there wasn’t a lot of guns—we’re talking the early 70s— but there was fighting and stuff. So she wanted us in the house after school so we wouldn’t get into trouble. It was kind of like “econo childcare”. Yeah, Margie Boon, she was a big part of us, why we played. She put me on the job that I was gonna do for the rest of my life. When I look back on it, that’s the reality.
Rocker: Thank you so much, Mike. Keep doing what you do.
Watt: Promise; promise.
For your further listening enjoyment, an internet archive of Mike Watt’s live shows can be found here