High Wattage: Legendary Bass Guitarist Mike Watt

Random Lengths News | August 21, 2004
“Bass is like grout, or glue. Some people look at the tile, I look at the grout,” said Mike Watt with a smile that's a bit disarming. By most celebrity standards, Watt should be jaded and distant. The 53-year-old musician has spent the last 30 years touring frenetically as a bassist with The Minutemen, Firehose, Porno for Pyros, and more recently, Iggy and the Stooges. But Watt is accessible and eager to talk. He has always been at odds with the celebrity side of musicianship.

“You could be watching someone on stage, and then five minutes later they’d be standing next to you,” he recalls of the early days of punk. It’s an ethos that’s never left him.

We met at Sacred Grounds on a Saturday morning in early June, then spoke again just before his new album, “The Second Man’s Middle Stand” was just released by Columbia Records on August 17. Our conversation ran the gauntlet; Dante to D. Boon, San Pedro to speed-addicted politicians. When Watt speaks, his gnarled hands shape fleeting pictographs from Marlboro smoke. Bass players generally stand just shy of the spotlight, anchoring the band so the crowds aren’t washed away by the creative sea.

“[With bass] you’re felt more than you’re heard,” Watt says. “Guitars are like textures. Bass is the driving force.” Watt’s bass is a heavy anchor and his rough voice is reminiscent of a weather-beaten trawler captain singing to the pelicans in the twilight. His bass tone ranges from a washtub one-string to a diesel engine purring overtones like a constant fuel leak.

“The Second Man’s Middle Stand” is Watt’s third album as a front man. It consists of an explosive organ trio, based and recorded in San Pedro at the now-defunct Karma Studios. “A lot of Pedro is in it,” Watt says, frankly.

It’s no accident that the working-class waterfront community of San Pedro is one of punk’s birthplaces in America. Even more than its early reputation for rebelliousness, punk is defined by its home-made, DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos, an attitude of tenacity and endurance that resonates deeply in a community built by immigrant families who made wine in their cellars, passing down transplanted traditions of self-sufficient maritime cultures that stretch back centuries into the mists of time.

Watt, D. Boone and George Hurley formed The Minutemen, arguably the defining act in SST record’s influential stable of punk bands. They spent four years relentlessly touring with like-minded bands such as The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, until the death of Boon in a tragic van accident in 1985.

“A funny thing about the Minute Men—all three of us came from other places. I came from Virginia, when I was 9. D. Boon came from Napa, via Bakersfield. George Hurley came form Boston, Massachusetts, when he was ten…. Hopefully, one day I’ll be an honorary Pedro-ite.”

They may have been transplants, but “Pedro had a huge impact on the Minute Men,” Watt says, emphatically. “All three of us had working-class fathers,” which would have influenced them anyway. “But to come from such a working-class town—all our peers were [working class] too. It came through in our music. We did a lot of punk songs about working. It made us stand out big-time. For us it was just a reflection of who we were.”

They weren’t shy about it, either.

“I remember I spray painted “Pedro” on my bass. Hardly anyone had been here. For a lot of people it’s a mythical place.”

Does Watt see a cultural bond between his music and this community? “Absolutely! For us, punk wasn’t a style of music; it was a state of mind…. It’s kind of like folk music: what you sing about is what you knew.”

“We wanted to be able to play anything we could, and you’d still know it was the Minute Men.” They weren’t striving for a certain style, but for freedom. “No rules,” Watt says, adding quickly, “That was the problem, too.”

One form it took was rightwing skin heads. That was the reason for their name—a deliberate slap at rightwing attempts to lay claim to the myth of America. “We would dilute any kind of power they would get by doing that,” Watt said.

“You’re going to have some weirdness, but its still works out all right as artists…. Then something happened I never expected—it got popular. I never thought it would really catch on. Now it’s regular, it’s a normal thing of life to go through a punk phase.”

When punk started in Britain in the mid-70s, it came out of a very real working-class desperation reflecting very hard times that didn’t hit America for another few years. In America, “It was a reaction to arena rock,” Watt recalls. “When punk started there was Pete Frampton in a kimono,” Watt recalls of what the commercial music scene was like.

“The people I first met in [the punk scene in] Hollywood were artists, from glam and glitter.” Watt explains. “They were more into specatacle—the Situationsists. Where you put on a spectacle to wake people up.” Situationist theory had had a profound influence on the late 1960s coming together of culture and politics, both in Europe and America.

“We were told by other bands, ‘Move up to Hollywood,” Watt remembers, but there was good reason not to. “We actually were a Pedro band, and we could write about Pedro.” If they moved, “What were we going to write about, moving up into Hollywood?”

Watt segues easily into another, closely-related concern.

“When you’re too close, you become part of whatever happens that week. Change comes closely together—flavor of the month, or the week or the hour.”

In fact, the Hollywood punk scene didn’t last that long. “Those kind of folks got bored…. It moved the suburbs, it was called hardcore…. The Minute Men were this weird kind of bridge, from Hollywood, we were the last man standing.”

Among their sources of inspiration for Watt and Boon was the 1966 Steve McQueen film with the unlikely name of “The Sand Pebbles.”

“It was our favorite movie—the book was even more intense.” But at the time, “We didn’t even know there was a book.”

McQueen plays Jake Holman, an engine room chief re-assigned to a gun ship patrolling the Yangtzee River in 1928. Having delegated their duties to Chinese conscripts, Holman's shipmates are soft, adrift in a malaise of inaction, and at odds with Holman's prideful work ethic. The young duo of Watt and Boone admired Holman: his rebellion mirrored their own angst over the posturing 70s commercial rock scene.

“Materialism is you feeling empty, so you look for the right objects, but you’re never gonna find it,” Watt says.

After a short sabbatical following Boone’s death, Watt formed fIREHOSE and hit the road for seven and a half years. "We broke up simply because the band had run its course over so many years. We did about as much as we could do," he says, matter-of-factly.

“A movement that prides itself on individuality becomes uniform--people taking themselves too seriously--that's why you gotta make fun of yourself,” joked Watt.

While Watt and company kept their bleary eyes on the road, the music world raced through a series of phases. And then came Grunge. Seattle was home to the industry’s newest cash cow, and if the bands weren’t always compliant, like Pearl Jam’s tiff with Ticket Master, The GAP certainly was, with flannels and faded jeans in tow. A generation of musicians who had been weaned on The Minutemen had grown up; Watt enlisted a few to record his first solo recording, “Ball-Hog or Tugboat” in 1995.

A moment after grunge came Pop Punk. Parents could now cozy up with their teenagers and bob along to the neutered tunes of Green Day. There was a weird contradiction, Watt notes.

“It was a revival of the first punk, but these guys are playing the Forum. It was nothing like the original, but the form was.”

“Uniforms are for identifying the enemy,” said Watt, who dresses like a biker who’s just run over a farmer’s dog and is enlisted to finish a harvest, on the spot, to atone for his sin.

“Punk teaches you self-reliance,” said Watt of having to learn the entrepreneurial ropes while performing on stages around the world. Being a successful musician has much more to do with the 23 hours of the day off stage. This is especially true when there is no major record company support. Schedules and contracts demand an attention that pampered stars generally ignore; Watt has learned to be an attentive businessman.

The Firehose catalog and Watt’s three solo releases are distributed by Columbia Records, with whom Watt has forged an equitable relationship. “It’s unnatural to always get your way,” Watt says. He takes no advance against record sales, and pays for the recording and production of his recordings. With 30 records to his credit, Watt has learned to produce with budgetary restraint in mind. Instead of a tour bus, Watt shuttles to gigs in a white Econoline Ford van, and the one kimono that Watt owns is used to keep his van’s windows clean.

Watt describes his new album as “Another opera—one song cut into nine.”

“It looks at a big picture. A sickness nearly killed me a few years ago…. I was only 42 at the time. I was not ready to die. A young doctor at County Hospital, an intern, saved my life.”

The album melds his own experience with a cosmic model, “Dante’s Comedia,” Watt explains. It goes through all three stages—The Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso.

“A lot of Pedro is in it. One metaphor I use is Angel’s Gate—you pass through it to get into Pedro, and to leave Pedro.”

It says a lot about what it means to be middle age and still making punk music. “I got pneumonia when I was 22,” Watt recalls, “I didn’t want to write a song.”

When not on tour or in the studio, Watt can be found around San Pedro, kayaking in the harbor or cycling around town. “San Pedro’s geography--the harbor, the cliffs-- nothing like it,” Watt says. His fall tour schedule includes solo shows in support of “The Second Man’s Middle Stand,” and tours with Iggy and the Stooges and dueling bass duo, Dos.

“This is going to be my 53rd tour,” Watt says, matter-of-factly. More information on Watt can be found at www.wattage.com.

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