interview w/mike watt

by Chris Goodman

conducted over the phone on
monday, january 26, 2009

Mike Watt... Bass player in the Minutemen, fIREHOSE and recently the Stooges alongside Iggy Pop and the late Ron Asheton. Not to mention countless projects with other musicians from around the country and even some overseas. The man in the van with a bass in his hand is known for jamming econo since day one and for those of you not familiar with Wattspeak, jamming econo is Watt's slang term referring to the idea of doing things economically. For example, touring the country in a Ford Econoline van, carrying your own equipment, booking your own shows. Cutting out the middleman whenever you can. The Mintemen were known for their short songs and to-the-point lyrics which also serves as a perfect example. Why confine yourself to a "verse, verse, chorus, verse, chorus" style of music when you can get your point across in more economical way... Crushing basslines and ripping guitar parts about one minute and thirty seconds at a time.

Watt's music is also very hard to put into one category and he likes it like that. D. Boon said that "Punk is whatever we made it to be" (Mike had stickers printed with the saying and a picture of D. Boon to benefit Doctors Without Borders) meaning that punk was the WAY in which you did something and NOT what the music sounded like or what the people playing it wore. It's also been made clear that punk to Mike and D. was never an angle to sell records. Which is exactly the point, Watt himself said, labeling shit is for a marketing man and Mike see's his job as making that man's job real hard.

I wanted to interview Mike because of his seemingly relentless efforts to keep making music and keep inspiring young people to be creative. Talking with him though, I learned that inspiring people is not what it's all about... It's also about getting inspired from others yourself...

[C = Chris Goodman, W = Mike Watt]

C: I've read before that you kayak and bike during the week to stay in shape. How does a normal day play out for ya?

W: That stuff with the bicycle and thekayak, that'searly in the morning when I get up. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday I do the kayak and on Monday, Wednesday and Friday I do the bicycle. San Pedro is in the harbor of LA so I'm close enough to do the kayak. I pedal kind of along the shore too... near the warehouses. Ya know I'm 51 now and I'm a little less resilient since I'm less younger so I have to work a bit. I'm no jock, no athlete. A lot of that stuff is just good for the head.

C: Do you think that helps with writing, getting out there in the morning?

W: Yeah, in fact I write a lot of music and words when I'm doing that stuff instead of in the old days when I'd write with the bass in my hands. It seems the music exists in it's own world more abstract and more free... You feel different rhythms than the stuff you're used to working your fingers on a machine... a bass or something. It's more in the head. Honestly, your body is moving so there's rhythm's from that that aren't happening when you're sittin' there with a bass in your hands.

C: Henry Miller said something about how to write you've gotta actually get outside sometimes instead of just sitting in your room thinking about what it's like to be doing something.

W: Yeah. You need a little distance or perspective. Sometimes with the thing in your hand you revert to what you already know. It's reruns. Like track houses... but maybe you put the garage on a different side.

C: You've always felt that the live show was what's most important, right? That everything is just to get people to go to the shows?

W:That goes back to the Minuteman days. Me and D. Boon were talkin' about things and we decided to divide the world into two categories... gigs and flyers. Everything that wasn't a gig was a flyer that was from our initial reaction to the punk movement and seeing the gigs. See ya gotta understand where we were coming from. We were coming from arena rock. We didn't know about these little clubs and shit. In punk the gig was the main deal. We felt like that was where we had the most control over the situation.

C: Seems like anyone can record on a computer these days for a couple of bucks. How do you feel about the fact that anyone can start a band and record their stuff and put it up on the internet now without too much of a struggle? Do you think that since it's revolving around the internet that it's taking away from the live show in at all?

W: Well a gig is a gig cause there's human beings and you witness them and you connect with them. But as far as the internet, that's in interesting way too. The metaphor would be like it's a telephone pole to put your flyer on. It's just a means. There are good uses for it like a fanzine. You do it yourself, no middle man. Bring your stuff right to the people. The big burden that ain't been solved is being creative. And I don't think that should burden should ever be solved. It should always be a problem. What should never be a problem is shit costing too much or you being cut out cause you're the wrong kinda people. Wrong class, wrong land, that we need to go away with. But the struggle to come up with something creative to create your own voice should always be kinda difficult and challenging.

C: That sets me up perfectly for my next question... Where do you think young people, or old people but lets say young people's creative energies need to be going in this day and age? Do you think we're gonna have a new purpose for music...?

W: Well, man, that's part of the cats making it. Music though is a long tradition and a big part of the culture. Ronnie Asheton said a great thing... "You listen to lots of the truth," the cats before you that made music, "but you gotta mix in your own blood and make it personal." You're talking Henry Miller... Henry Miller, a writer, wrote very original novels. But he probably didn't invent many words. He's using words all kinds of other writers used.

C: Right. We've got 26 letters and it's up to you what you do with them.

W: RIGHT! The way he used them was very original though. It's kind of a two sided thing. You're using something from a tradition but then you're making it very personal. It helps everything, you help other cats get brave to get personal with their thing. The whole bunch of us, lifted up. That's the mission for young people... Yeah, lift us all up. Ya know, all of us by being personal it's both things at the same time... All of us together but all of us individualistic at the same time. It's trippy!

C: That's why I wanted to do this, man. To help people get inspired by hearing what you had to say. You seem to have always served as a forward driving creative and inspiring kinda dude.

W: You gotta serve as the example, right? They see you and think "Wow, he's trying!" And this is a chain reaction. It goes down all the years, ya know? Woody Guthrie, DaVinci, all these cats bouncing off of each other and learning from old things but daring to be bold and experiment. Or be like Tesla and invent something that can help everyone.

C: So you're telling people you gotta just use the world as a bench test it and just get out there and try it, whatever it is?

W: Yeah. You know, it's like skateboarding. You gotta try shit that's too hard. You know you're gonna fall down but you get back up. A skateboards not a lot of money and you can use it to come up with your own style. It's great metaphor for the trip. When I was a kid skateboards had clay wheels and you couldn't even go on the street with them. Then your thing came out and it's a whole new trip. Then this guy Trotsky, talking about the pen knife. The art isn't the pen knife. It's what's to be carved with the pen knife. It's the potential. Ya talk about movements or machines like basses or 'puters to type words on. These are just vehicles to get the idea through and not ends unto themselves.

C: It ties back into taking the bike out to get your brain working and your blood pumping.

W: The thing I've learned is that it's about learning. You put yourself in challenging situations and you'll learn a little more. Everyone has something to teach and every body's got something to learn.

C: One of my favorite quotes of yours was always "I come from the tradition where you find out where the wall is by trying to push against it. Not conceptually agreeing where it should be." So punk to you was always more of how you do something than what the thing you do is, or what it looks or sounds like?

W: Yeah, it was a movement we were apart of. Me and D. Boon. It seemed people were interested in taking chances with expression. And since they didn't have much bones (money) like us. They jammedecono. The style thing was kinda up to each band... to each group of people, each person doing it. It wasn't so much a sound itself it was more of a place to bring your trip to.

C: Let me ask you about writers. What are your personal favorites or who would you recommend people to read?

W: Emma Goldman, she had some good writin' if you're talking political. Fiction people like Jim (James) Joyce, William Faulkner. With poems I've been getting into Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" again. I find in my middle-time here, I'm re-reading a lot I read in my 20's. Those words didn't change but I've changed so they mean something different to me now. Writers, hell... I like Nick Tosches. Richard Meltzer who's coming from a musical angel. Thomas Pincheon books.

C: Whitman had a lot to say with "Leaves of Grass". At a heavy time too.

W: He did, that poem is wild. If there's anything good about the US it's in that poem. I read his only regret was not touring with it. He wanted to speak it at places like farms for working people. He wrote that first edition in 1855 trying to stop civil the war which was a slow thing coming. The second edition was during the war. The last one was in the last year of his life. It went form 12 poems to over 400. On this last tour with the Stooges I went to his house in Camden, NJ. The last place he lived. That same day I went across the river to Philly to the first house John Coltrane bought on 33rd street. He lived there for 6 years. I got to see two of my hero's pads.

C: I recently read "Ascension" by Eric Nicenson. I'm a big fan of John Coltrane too.

W: His music is very inspirational. I didn't know about any jazz til I met punk people. Raymond Pettibon learned me about John Coltrane. I grew up in navy housing and I just didn't know. Then I heard it with punk and I thought they were doing punk too, man. It sounded so crazy. I knew they were a little bit older but I didn't know he was dead. I really became a big listener of his. He said that "All musicians are after some kind of truth," probably anyone in the arts... or any human really.

C: Bruce Lee said that what he wanted to learn was a way to express himself honestly. Not lying to himself. And that was very difficult.

W: I dig that. Just being alive and makin' something of it. Life made something of you, ya know! That's the way I look at it. You're inspired by other people doing it too, it's not like you got the shit by the tail. Like you said, ya just gotta get out there and do it.

C: What's next on your list of things to do?

W: I might be coming out east this spring with my Missingmen. I've got a third opera I've written and I wanna come out east and record with them. You're by Pittsburgh, I play there a lot. I know a great musician from there. A young guy in a great band called Black Moth Super Rainbow. I've been recording a lot. People send me songs and I putt bass on it. This modern stuff with protools we couldn't do in the old days. Last year in May and December I made two albums in Tokyo. They're coming out this year. Me and K are almost done with the new Dos album. I've got my Secondmen going... The organ, bass and drum trio. There's a lot of music happening.

C: How do you balance all of these projects?

W: You just go for it. If you don't get it all done, try some more the next day. Ha.

C: How about Funanori?

W: That's something I was doing a year and a half ago but I'm still engaged with that project. I'm tryin' to put bass to music with this weird kinda banjo thing called sanshin. With those two albums I made I took Nels Cline over cause he'd never been there before and we made "Brothers Sisters Daughter". The same two musicians Nels and I played with, we put backing music to spoken words by Richard Meltzer. We made an album called "Spielgusher" that's coming out this year. Richard is one of the people to write about rock music and tell that it's more than silly teenage stuff. He knew there was something about Jimi Hendrix.

C: I don't wanna assume that anyone trivializes music... but do you think it's a part of the human condition to take the 'cool stuff' and do something lame with it?

W: Yeah. It's human condition. It ends up as a little tool for a mersh thing. But if you make your experience personal they can't ever do that. That's why you said it's not trivial. If you take it to heart no one can fuck with it. It's the eye of the beholder.

C: So how about zines and that sort of thing versus the computer culture now? I like having the thing in my hand, it's kinda visceral. Plus I can't ever remember shit that I read on a computer.

W: Ha. You know in the old days before the internet zines were a huge fabric in our scene. I still think of them that way, they never went obsolete. The delivery system changes from Kinkos to the internet. See I like the physical copy cause someone can't go out and change every one of them. The internet though... A few keystrokes and someone can change everything. Could be dangerous.

C: Back to Nels Cline. The first time I heard him was on the opera style album "Contemplating the Engine Room". His guitar playing on that is ridiculous. It's almost like a joke how good he is. Can you tell me a little about that album?

W: I was really inspired by this guy Richard Mckenna. He wrote this great fuckin' book called "The Sand Pebbles". He was an engine room guy in the navy like my father. He thought to be a great writer you just read Hemmingway or Steinbeck. Stuff like that. He was never educated as a writer. They made a movie out of it with Steve Mcqueen and I'd say check that out too. When me and D. Boon were boys that was our favorite movie. You'd dig the book. It's about the human condition. When I read it I knew the guy was in the navy. You could tell the cat lived it and that's what I mean. If you can make art and put life into it and make it come alive then that is a happening thing! You can pretend too though! Like John Fogerty with "Born on the Bayou"... He was born in Berkley. That's a very northwest bayou.

C: So would you say that it's mostly mental hangups that keep people from doing their thing. That keep them from being creative?

W: Mostly mental. I was talking before about the class thing or being born in the wrong land... Wrong, I don't know... Gender? These limitations are kinda screwed up. Obviously a cat born in the hood is gonna have struggles that other cats don't have before he even gets a shot at trying art. But then there's the mental thing! People that don't have the physical hang ups still find something to hang up on! It's like me and D. Boon as young guys with the arena rock mentality in our heads. It's all we knew but it was just an idea. It was just one way of doing something. Then we saw these cats in Hollywood writing their own songs. They didn't care about what should be or what could be. They just did it. We saw them and we said "We can do that". It took that to shake up those weird paradigms in our head like arena rock, that we thought were reality but it wasn't reality... Just one way of doing something.

C: So the goal is to get out there, just fucking go for it, and trip people out... Maybe hope it opens their minds up a little?

W: Hopefully it works both ways! Hopefully you get yours opened up too! It's a taking turns kinda trip.

C: Thanks so much for the interview. I really appreciate the phone call. I told your press people I was just some lame dude from PA and was just gonna print this in a zine and that if you didn't have time I understood. They wrote back saying that you'd have no problem spieling to me for a little. Any last words of advice to give?

W: Yeah man. I owe the debt to the scene. I never looked it as a stepping stone or something to grow out of. I still think the things I learned in those days. The only way to keep it alive is to be real about it. I was asking cats so I should be hoping to have cats ask me stuff. Look man. In the beginning of "Leave of Grass" in the first lines... I got it right here, this is weird cause this shit is 150 years old... Why is it still so relevant? "What I assume you shall assume. For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." See, ya know what I mean? We're brothers. Hopefully I'll see you when we come through Pittsburgh. Thanks for asking me good things.

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