Interview Highlight: Mike Watt

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On January 17th 2018 legendary bassist & punk rock pioneer Mike Watt spoke to D.J. Jon The Reptilian at the Mint in Los Angeles, CA where he was performing as part of Eric McFadden & friends annual residency.
Mike Watt will be performing with Mike Baggetta and Stephen Hodges on Friday March 22nd at the Uptown Night Club in Oakland celebrating the release of the Wall Of Flowers Record.

Jon The Reptilian: This is Jon The Reptilian on K.A.L.X. BERKELEY.

Mike Watt: Hi, Jon The Reptilian! This is Watt the Bass-man

Yes, Watt the Bass-man! I am here with the founder of Minutemen and FIREHOSE.

Part, because D. Boon

Well one of the founders. So I’d like to go back to the beginning of you playing bass. You kind of learned it as you composed those songs.

D. Boon’s ma! We said we wanted to start a band. We were 12 years old. The 70’s was different. Not till the movement did we write songs, you copied off record so Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath. Geezer Butler was a big influence. But, we didn’t learn on our own. Like when the moment came and people just took up basses and played. It was this weird thing of just hanging out with your buddy in the bedroom after school, just trying to copy songs off records. There were no tabs. F*ck, I didn’t even have records. I had these things called 8-tracks, so you couldn’t go back. Had to wait for the motherf*cker to come all the way back around again. So, that’s how I got started. It was really just to be with my friend. [D. Boon’s] ma played guitar as a girl, so she wanted him to play guitar. It was the early 70s in the projects of Pedro, so not a lot of guns, but there’s some fighting. So, she’d want us in the house after school. So it was never for a career; it was just to keep us out of trouble. So, that’s how I got into music.

The thing is we graduated from Pedro High,1976 right when the movement started. So we were really lucky. We’re really from arena rock. We didn’t know the 60’s, we were only boys in the 60’s. The first gig D. Boon and I went to was T. Rex at the Long Beach Auditorium, it’s torn down now. That’s the beginning of me with music. First arena rock, then being put in a band with my friend. I didn’t even know, because, you know, at an arena show you’re far, Jon, you can’t tell the strings are bigger. I didn’t know basses had bigger strings. I could see in the pictures there was only 4 tuners so I thought they had thinner necks. Like you said, learning as you go. But when the movement came, that was different. Now you had a lot of cats with you: Meat Puppets, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Saccharine Trust, and all those guys.

You have a style of very aggressive playing, a lot of up plucks and being very hard on the bass strings.

In the old days, I first used a pick. Then in about 1983, I go to fingers. At first it was too fast. But I like no pick in a way, because you don’t have to carry one. Fingers are hard to lose. But I wish I could play with a pick because it’s all vocabulary, slap, pick, whatever it takes. I’m not purist about anything like that. But, yeah, you’re right, we’re very aggressive. 1980 when we started, actually 39 years ago this month, Ronald Reagan was elected president, he did his little whatever spiel when he got put in office, that was the time so, yeah, maybe we a little aggressive. Also, we’re coming out of the 70’s and arena rock, I dunno, we were very excited to play too. I know that had something to do with it.

So is that aggressive style of bass playing something you came up with, or were you influenced by other bass players?

All kinds especially, the guys in England I said Geezer Butler, but there were other guys like Trevor Bolder from Spiders From Mars, Andy Fraser from Free... England wasn’t afraid to turn the bass up loud on their records.

Over here at that time, [there was] only the R&B, so James Jamerson was a huge influence on me, Larry Graham from up where you are. But the rock was kinda blurry. D. Boon was way into Creedence records but he never used the sleeves and they were covered in grape juice and the stereo was this cheap plastic thing you had to put six quarters on it to keep it from skipping. I could not hear the bass. But that’s how I got into wearing flannel; I was looking at the album covers as I used em to roll the mota, and I noticed the singer wearing these cool rock n roll shirts. So I thought wow if I wear one of these D. Boon will still like me. Stu Cook, great bass player, I can hear the lines now but when you’re young and not experienced you don’t have the sensitivity. But, good thing for England, they put the bass really loud like the R&B guys did. So, that’s where I learned a lot of it. Then when the punk gigs came in clubs you could hear bass. You couldn’t hear the bass in the arena rock.

Now we’re back with MP3 and earbuds of not hearing the bass again.

Right! Right! Ain’t that weird. We looped it.

So skipping forward I thought we’d talk a lil about the Ball-Hog Or Tugboat? record.

I call that the wrestling record 1995! The idea again is bass. I thought the bass players knew the songs, anybody could come play the drums, guitar and sing. So I got forty eight friends, It’s not really a solo record, there’s forty eight other guys on there.

It’s like a variety show almost.

Right, right. Each tune is a different band, to test my theory, is the bass gonna aid and abet or is it gonna bogart? There was a tour for that album and a live gig came out last year called Ring Spiel, from a gig in Chicago a few months after it came out [with]some of the guys on the record, Dave [Grohl], Ed [Vedder], Pat [Smear], William Goldsmith. I knew that tape had been floating around. I asked those guys and they said, “Sure Watt put it out.” Pat Smear said, “It’s about time.” And I thought, “Whoa”! But I listened to it, and it’s rough! We only had a few days to prac’ (practice). But they did really good. So proud of Ed, Dave, Pat…well, Pat, You know, he’s a Germ. And me & D. Boon we learned watching him. He’s an incredible guy, still so beautiful man.

Yeah, you got the Kirkwood brothers from the Meat Puppets…

They’re old buddies, the Meat Puppets. I just did a tour with them. Now they’ve got the son in the band. That’s how long we’ve been around. So there’d be a couple pracs’ and we’d get it. I used three towns: here, Seattle, and New York City. I just went through my, in those days we had phone books, and I’d call my friends up, I didn’t use any managers or labels or sh*t, just had a good time.

And like you said on the tour after that record you had Pat Smear, Eddie Vedder, and Dave Grohl.

Some guys from the record, Yeah. ‘Cuz there 48 guys on that record but we couldn’t fit that many in the boat. In fact, they had their own bands. That was the first tour for Dave’s Foo Fighters,because he made that first album by himself. Then Ed did this thing with his wife, then, Beth, called Hovercraft. So they drove in their own vans, that was a much different kind of tour for me.

That’s what was interesting to me. Because the Germs were punk rock icons, as were the Minutemen then you also had Nirvana and Pearl Jam. So you had the Southern California Punk rock thing and also the younger…

Dave played before that. He’s from Virginia, like me. He was in a band called Scream. He started as a teenager. Those guys are pretty impressive. They’re not really from the older days, like Hüsker, and Minute Men, and Black Flag, they’re from a little later, but they had the same kind of spirit. But it was different times, something called alternative. Some kinda jive. In our days it was called new wave, it was jive, too. There’s always gonna be some jive. Also hustles and co-ops. Because Little Richard wrote Tutti Frutti but Pat Boone sold many more Tutti Frutti than Little Richard. And that’s like 60 years ago.

The other interesting thing is, Pat, Dave, and Krist, the Nirvana guys, had recently lost their frontman at a young age under tragic circumstances. Was that something you felt you could relate to as it’d happened to you with D. Boon as well?

I liked Kurt [Cobain]. He was always very kind to me. I remember the last time I saw him he said, “Hey it’s good to see you Mike” and I said, “It’s good to see you too, Kurt.” And he said, “No, I mean it. Really. It’s good to see you.” I could tell there was some heaviness on him. And, yeah, like you’re talking about loosing D. Boon. …yeah…yeah…yeah..yeah.

You know, Krist [Novoselic], his first 12 years he spent actually in Pedro where I live, by the harbor. Yeah, he’s not from Washington state. He’s actual from Pedro. There’s a big Croatian and Slav community, and that’s where he’s from. But he moved up to Aberdeen in Junior High school and he met Kurt. Yeah, I can appreciate how upset…you know… We didn’t really talk about it…It was a hard blow.

Like with the D. Boon thing it’s hard to talk about, especially when that day comes. The day I celebrate for D. Boon is his Birthday, April 1st. I don’t celebrate that other f*ckin day. It’s horrible. But you know, sh*t happens. I don’t mean to be flippant. But, life deals you a hand and somehow you deal with it. I had never made a record without having a trio. I came from the Minute Men, then I did Firehose, and that was a scary record. I called up friends and see if they wanted to come play. Some went way back, Spot, and the Kirkwood brothers, like you said. Some were more new. But, all very genuine and very kind to me. And played their asses off. No one was a princess It was beautiful. It was really beautiful. I love all those people so much. But you’re right it came out of a heavy time…Kind of. Seems there’s always heavy times. We just lost Joe Frank. This guy, he made these spiels, like mime movies with his voice. I listened to him in the 80’s. Cancer got him a couple days ago. It’s a hard subject for me, Jon.

I wanted to talk a little about the Banyan project.

Well, Banyan is Steve Perkin’s band. He started in 1997 with a recording with myself, Nels Cline, and Money Mark Nishita. And these guys came up with this idea, that we recorded with called Dust Brothers, I can’t remember their names I’m sorry. Nice guys up in Silver Lake. They put us in this house and each of us are in a different room. We can’t see each other. We got headphones. They put f*ckin’ Stravinsky’s [The] Rite of Spring over the headphones and tell us to jam to this thing. After about an hour of that they edited up an album. That’s the first Banyan album. Then different cats came and went. Like we just lost a bass man that did stuff when I was with the Stooges called Rob Wasserman. I just played with his sister last week. There was a trumpet man from Indiana named Willie Waldman. The Thing about Bayan is... you ever been to Hawaii?

Uh, Yeah.

Like on Oahu right? There’s Diamond Head. On the way to Diamond head there’s this statue of Mahatma Gandhi and there’s one tree there that’s turned into a f*ckin’ forrest. There’s one too in New Jersey where Thomas Edison got it as a gift. These trees make other trees off their limbs. Kinda related to Ficus, these weird trippy, I think they’re new world things. So that was Perk’s idea, like limbs, different things, the band never did prac’ it was all improvisation. We did a lot of gigs up in your area.

Yeah I saw Banyan at the Red Devil Lounge a few times, 12 Galaxies a couple times.

One of those Red Red Devil shows was not too good. But, one of them was OK. I remember we did 2 of em. The 12 Galaxies shows were better though. I liked it when Nels Cline and Perk was there man. In fact after that sickness almost killed me my first gig back was with Perk and Nels on the Santa Monica Pier. I wore the f*ckin hospital scrubs it was like f*ck this sickness you ain’t kill me and I’m playing with two of my buddies.

And the Live at Perkins' Palace album is killer.

Yeah, That’s a little different. That’s tunes. I actually wrote most em on there. Perkins was in his backyard. I’d do anything for this guy, man. So I wrote him a bunch of tunes. It was different than the live thing of just wailing on it. You like that huh? I like that one too. Nels plays like a motherf*cker on it.

You know, just to reminisce on a personal memory of mine. The first time I saw Banyan was opening for the Les Claypool Frog Brigade on New Years Eve at the Fillmore. The encore of that show was probably the greatest encore I’ve ever seen, it was Les Claypool Frog Brigade plus Bayan playing together “Moby Dick” into “Tomorrow Never Knows” for like 40 minutes. That just blew my mind.

That was Les’s idea but he’s another cool people, really happenin cat. I remember one time he played down here and he calls me up says, “Come on Watt I’m at the Palace.” Well, it’s called the Avalon now. I come over there and he says, “Why don’t you play “Taxman” with me. I got this Rickenbacker bass.” So we tripped on “Taxman,” you know by George Harrison. You know, he made a record with Sean Lennon.

Yeah, The Claypool Lennon Delirium..

Yeah, so, maybe he’s got a thing with the Beatles. I’ve been more and more appreciating Paul McCartney. Banyan is Perkin’s band, me and Nels joined. I’ve already played with Nels and he’s introduced me to this kind of stuff. By the time me and Nels get to Perk, Nels has already schooled me on a lot of it. but of course Perk takes it out further n sh*t. I actually first played with Perk, not in Banyan, I’m in that last version of Porno For Pyros. Martyn LeNoble got a little sick so they brought me in. I played a couple songs on the second album and did three tours with them. That’s the first time I got to play with Perk.

Could you talk a little about how you first got involved with playing as The Stooges bass player?

They picked me. I got a call from Igg. I was with the Secondmen in Tallahassee at the Cow Haus and after soundcheck the club cat says, “It’s the phone, Watt.” So I get on the phone and it’s f*ckin Igg. Igg says, “Hey. Ronny says you’re the man.” Because I had played with Ronny on a couple things, the soundtrack to that Velvet Goldmine movie with Todd Haynes, and then also Jay Mascis + The Fog, I brought him on the tour when I helped Jay in 2000 do those Fog tours. So Ronny must’ve told Igg. They hadn’t talked in 29 years. So Igg said, “Would you do me a favor? Would You wear a T-Shirt Instead of a flannel?” And I said, “F*ck Yeah!” It’s not my idea anyway it was John Fogerty. I said, “What about Levis and Converse?” He said, “That’s strong.” So he talked a lot about the lights and told me about some nightmares of ridiculous situations. Then he gets to the music and says, “Now look, however we end the songs that how we end.” That was kinda mysterious to me. Then I remembered his first album had a lot of fade outs. How do you do fade outs live? So that's what he meant.

Two weeks later I left my guys in Memphis. I fly out here and do a practice with them at S.I.R. here in Hollywood. The next day we do Coachella. I got a sickness on the flight but didn’t tell them. Did 35 gigs straight afterward. Yeah so that’s how I got in it was Ron Asheton. Igg has always had his solo thing that's Iggy Pop. If you look on the first Stooges record he’s called Iggy Stooge. And they’re just called the Stooges, till the third record with James Williamson, then it’s called Iggy & The Stooges. I’ve never seen it called Iggy Pop & The Stooges. But he’s touring around. He’s 71, same age as this boss we’ve got only in a little better shape. We lost the Asheton brothers and brother Steve Mackay from up by your parts. So there’s nobody left. James Williamson’s from the third album and he’s doing ok. But, there’s no more Stooges. But, I got 125 months to serve with them, Jon! I’d never imagine I’d do that. And every gig was a righteous time. Love those guys.

You have a few albums out you dub the “Punk Rock Operas.”

I’ve got three operas. First one was Contemplating the Engine Room in 1997. The vinyl version just came out 20 years later. That first opera was about losing D. Boon. The second one is The Secondman’s Middle Stand in 2004, was about that sickness that almost killed me. The third opera, Hyphenated-Man [in] 2010 was about being a middle aged punk rocker. I used different devices for each opera.

So, for the first opera I use my pop’s life in the Navy. He’s a chief in the engine room. Chief’s kinda like sergeant. Second opera, about sickness, I used Dante's Divine Comedy. The inferno is the sickness, purgatory is the healing, paradise is doing the bass and kayaking and cycling. The third one, Hyphenated Man, I used little images 90% of them from three Hieronymus Bosch Paintings. These little creatures are combinations of things. I thought that’s kinda what middle age is because your body is falling apart anyway, so, you gotta put together sh*t. A lot if it’s from experience and persona; not the sh*t you’re born with, because that’s all breaking down. Stuff you gather in life. I thought middle age ain’t that bad. So It’s an affirmation.

First one is very sad, it’s about losing people. I put my pop in there, a break up, and having D. Boon get killed. The second one is a happy ending: I live, I don’t die. By the way the sickness came from a Banyan gig up in f*ckin’ Wyoming, Jackson Hole. I was in a club called the Mangy Moose and I was feeling a pain down there. It probably was an ingrown hair that should’ve been f*ckin lanced. But, instead they fed me pills that were for syphilis, it was so f*cked up. I’m not saying all doctors are bad but some guys gotta look for a different line of work. Then the third one, there is no end or beginning, it’s middle right? It’s middle age. I don’t think there’s a fourth opera in me but I am recording a fourth opera as far as music goes this year. The libretto was written by a beat poet in Cherry Valley New York called Planet Chernobyl. His name is Charles Plymell. He printed the first Zapp comic. He used to live in the city with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. I’m not writing the libretto so you can’t say it’s my opera, but me and Petra Haden are doing the music. Just violin, bass and a little mandolin and singing.

This year I’m not touring. First time I haven’t toured since I started with D. Boon. I wanna compose and record this year, 2018. Me and Perk are gonna do a Hellride album. I’m gonna do a Secondmen album. Both Secondmen and Missingmen were bands I put together for those operas and they deserve their own albums. Then, you know, I got a band with two Italian guys, Il Sogno del Marinaio, I’m making an album with them. I’m doing a lot of composing and recording. I’ve spent a bunch of years with the Secondmen organ man making a studio in the back of his pad, we call it Casa Hanzo. So, I don’t even have to leave Pedro. Like you were talking about Ball-Hog Or Tugboat?, the L.A. part was done at Cherokee right here Fairfax and Melrose. $1500 a day in those days! Nowadays things are way more econo. It’s not all bad new days. There is a lot of bad new days, but not all. I can do a lot of collaborations just trading files. I’ve made whole albums where I never even met the dude. So, you know, it’s not all bad days. The main thing is to just keep playing. Keep working.

Well, we’ll definitely look forward to all that new material as it comes out.

Thanks Jon, You know, I’ll tell you, it’s so special up there. I turned 60 December 20th [2018].

I was at that show. Bottom of the Hill!

That’s where I celebrated. I didn’t do it down here. It was packed out, way oversold! Everybody was so kind to me. And what a way to turn 60, to drive up with my buddies, I felt very lucky. There’s this thing in Japan they say Kanreki, and in China I think they call it Jiazi. 60 is the second wind. It’s not like the stamp on the head that says past expiration date, like over here. It’s the second wind. So Kanreki! You know? Jiazi! I think in Korea it’s Hwangap. But, they’ve all got the same kind of tradition. 60 is not lame they throw you a big party. So that’s what I felt like there at that gig. Everybody was so kind to me. I gotta thank parts North. Thank you so much.

So is there anything else you’d like to tell the listeners about? I guess we’ve covered quite a bit.

Well I’ve got a radio show. 16 years now: The Watt from Pedro Show.I just had Jack Grisham on today, the T.S.O.L. singer. I do it once a week and all the shows are archived, almost 500 shows. So people don’t know that side of me so much. But Watt likes to spiel. I don’t play any mersh music. It’s all stuff cats give me at gigs or flow online. Just dudes doin’ it. So maybe people wanna know about that. Thanks so much for talking to me, Jon.

Thank You for spending some time with us here at KALX.

I was at the KALX station!! I got a sticker in the boat, the one with the radar thing, it’s got orange in it.

Might be from before my time.

Yeah maybe. I’ve noticed there’ve been different regimes that move through but they’ve all been cool through all the years. So keep on keeping on at KALX!