Interview: Mike Watt
Certain individual musicians seem to embody the true spirit of the music they play. By any definition, Mike Watt fits that bill. From his early days with punk legends the Minutemen, to his current peripatetic existence as the bassist for Iggy and the Stooges, Watt has earned a reputation for honesty and artistic vision and integrity. He is in near-constant demand as a sideman, and his solo projects are eclectic and challenging. When many of his contemporaries are gone or have left the scene, Watt has continued to pursue his singular vision for the better part of 30 years. The man jams econo.
At the end of September, Mike Watt joined together with friends Nels Cline, Yuka Honda, and Dougie Bowne to unveil a powerful new project called Floored By Four. Watt composed a bass line for each of the band members and then let the improvisatory chips fall where they may. The result is a record as challengingly diverse as the man himself. We recently had the opportunity to chat with Mike on subjects ranging from Iggy Pop to his own creative process.
Mike, this interview has been a long time coming. We started trying to put it together back in July and you were just getting ready to head back onto the road with The Stooges. How did that go?
It was great. The only bad thing was my knee blew up.
Oh yeah, I saw the pictures of that on your website. How did that happen?
It was the last note of the first song in a town near Marseilles, France, called D’Istres and I just came down at a bad angle. It had been 19 years since the last time I’d had trouble with it. It was at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago [and] I was playing with fIREHOSE. I was born with bad knees — I had surgeries when I was in my 20s. You get older and you forget that riding the bike strengthens them. So I just came down at a bad angle. But it sucks because it takes forever to heal.
So it just sort of went out on you.
Yeah, but I kept playing. (laughter) I sat on the riser. Iggy didn’t know what was happening at first. He turned around and saw me and started gesturing, “Get up!” like I was taking a breather! I was like, I can’t move.
It has to be kind of daunting playing with Iggy — physically speaking — I mean, it has been about 10 years since I last saw him, but he was crazy on stage. Incredible energy. How has the abuse he’s taken not taken a toll on his body?
Well I was going to say, he’s got bad knees, too. (laughter) We actually have the same syndrome called Osgood-Schlatter. When you’re young, different parts grow at different speeds. We’re kind of prone to weakness there. Ig has it in the arms…yeah, he’s taken some blows. He’s told me he has about half of the ligaments in each arm.
Doesn’t deter him, though. That’s the trip about it. It’s actually very inspiring — it totally motivates me. “Wow, Ig’s there doing that, I can too.” It is a little easier to sit and feel sorry for yourself, but you see a guy like that — he’s 63 years old. His work ethic is unreal. Reminds me a lot of D. Boon when he plays a gig. He never wants to cut anybody short. He wants to give everything he has. For me, it’s empowering and inspiring. Actually, its very contagious, too. I told his wife that it gets to a point where, literally, if some giant garbage disposal opened up on stage and he jumped in, I think I’d jump after him. I just get so caught up in it. He’s very enthusiastic about music and working the gig. (laughter)
You’re actually the “Young Turk” in that scene–
Finally the youngest guy. (laughter) But yeah, these songs…I mean, I listened to [The Stooges] when I was growing up, as a teenager. Back then, remember, they weren’t the most popular band. But for us, when the early punk scene came — and especially in SoCal where everything is so spread out and balkanized — they were the one thing we all had in common. So it’s a trip. I do have to focus on them because I get lost. I’ve got to help make these songs live. I can’t just sit back and be diggin’ on them. It’s a trippy thing.
If my research is correct, before you hooked up with Iggy weren’t you jamming for fun with some guys doing Stooges covers?
Kind of for fun and kind of for therapy, too. I was struggling with a long period of illness. I couldn’t play bass for months. It was the first time I’d stopped playing since I was a kid, and I got a little spooked. I was having trouble getting back to form. So I started practicing The Stooges covers. There are not a lot of chord-changes but it is a lot about feel. Then I asked Perk and Peter [Stephen Perkins and Peter Distefano] here on the West Coast, and then J. and Murph [J. Mascis and Murph] on the East Coast to play. J. had just got done with that J. Mascis and the Fog, so he asked me to tour with him and do some Stooges songs so he wouldn’t have to sing every song every night. We came through Ann Arbor and he says, “You know Ronnie [Asheton].” I had gotten to record that Velvet Goldmine thing with Ron. He’d come see me play when I’d come through Detroit. He says, “Hey why don’t you come tour with us. I’ll do the first two-thirds and you come on for the final third and we’ll do all Stooges.” We went out on tour, then Thurston [Moore] got asked to curate an ATP [All Tomorrow’s Parties] at UCLA in SoCal. He said, “Why don’t you get Scotty. Scotty’s livin’ in his truck, he doesn’t even have a drum set.” We rented him a drum set. So me and J. are playing with both the Asheton brothers! I think that’s where Ig heard about it. This is like 2002. He asked them [the Ashetons] to be on the Skull-Ring album. Soon after that we played Coachella, in 2003, I think it was. I’ve been playing with him for almost seven and a half years now. I’ve been helping them now longer than I was a Minuteman!
That really is amazing…
(laughter) Yeah! It is something I could never have planned. It has to do with the sickness and not playing. J. Mascis obviously had something to do with it. There were other people who I would definitely have to credit as well. Things happened the way they did, and now I get to serve in the most interesting classroom in my life.
Well let me ask you this: I know you have spoken in the past about the kind of awe you felt when you first started playing with The Stooges. I’d bet that is still there in some sense when you go out every night and see Iggy right there next to you. But now that you’ve been at this…seven years?
Yeah man, seven and a half years, because Coachella was in March or April 2003.
So how has the experience changed?
Well, I have to tell you, this version of the band — I guess we started in November 2009, but most of it is from the spring and summer of 2010 since Ronnie [Asheton died], so it [includes] James Williamson — it’s different even though four-fifths, eighty percent is the same. It is still way different. In a way, it is kind of like a new band. Although we do a lot of old [material], James is much different than Ronnie. He didn’t play for a long time, but right when he started — when I started practicing with James — that was the signature sound. I mean, of course we’re all individuals — but especially if you’re in The Stooges’ band, you can’t be generic. It is kind of like a new band. So there is a new level of awe. (laughter)
Also, Ig brought on Steve MacKay to play the whole set. Way back, Steve used to come out on “1970” and onward. Now he starts with us. The band is a little different. But not Ig’s enthusiasm — he’s just as intense as always, but he’s working it with a little different material — like all of the Raw Power and some off of Kill City. That stuff is different than the stuff on Fun House and the first album, which were mind-blowing to me, too.
Kill City is almost obscure when compared to those earlier records. Wasn’t that like 1977?
Oh yeah, it was on Bomp! I think that is one of the last ones where James plays guitar. He stopped playing guitar after that. And yeah, I always thought it was a trippy record, but a good one. James Williamson told me that Ig, that he thought it was more demos and it actually helped Iggy get like The Idiot and New Values, Iggy and James worked together on New Values…
And Soldier, if I’m remembering correctly, although I’m not sure how much Williamson played on that album.
I think that is when James Williamson got scissored, or quit, or both. They had a falling out and didn’t talk for a long time. Ig, when he plays with people, he makes serious connections. He’s not just sleep-walking, or connecting the dots. It is so intense. Despite all the years he’s been doing this he’s very earnest about it. And James Williamson, there is an authenticity about him, because back then Raw Power was the next chapter in The Stooges rock bible. (laughter) It is an authentic thing. [Iggy is] looking for this kind of connection. I never served in any of the solo bands, but I know a little about The Stooges thing. It’s very genuine. He has such a respect for music, but it’s not just about playing the notes. In fact, sometimes he’s asked me to play the wrong notes! (laughter) It is so interesting.
Iggy wants the songs to come alive, and luckily they are written that way. They do not sound dated. I remember Fun House — it sounded like it had been recorded next week. (laughter) If I play a Grand Funk album it sounds like 1970. That is not the case with the early Stooges records. In a way, the punks took or appropriated the sound that The Stooges were making. It kept the sound going. It doesn’t sound old-fashioned, and in a weird way I think they were ahead of their time. It is very hard for me to imagine a punk scene even existing without The Stooges.
It is the foundational sound. I mean, there are other bands that contribute to that, but–
Oh sure, you know, like Captain Beefheart in a way–
Definitely, especially for you guys, the Minutemen — I hear a ton of Beefheart in what you were doing.
Big time! Big time! The Stooges and Beefheart. We actually thought they were already doing punk, but there was just no name for it.
I remember when we first heard of punk — actually, it was just pictures at first, but then we heard it — and I remember thinking, Wow, some people have been [already] doing this, kind of. (laughter) You know, I told James Williamson this, but [on] songs like “I Got a Right,” that guitar sound and Scotty’s drum sound became very much a template for punk, and even hardcore.
When you think, for instance, where our magazine came from — the “Do It Yourself” ethic — and you think about the whole “We Jam Econo” ethos — punk rock was a liberating force. I graduated from high school in 1979. [During] my freshman and sophomore years we were just obsessed with the new sounds. And yeah, we were the weird kids who weren’t listening to REO Speedwagon and Kansas and all those other bands that dominated the radio…
Yeah man, get this: REO Speedwagon’s lead singer came and saw the Minutemen. In the Valley.
Kevin Cronin? (laughter)
Oh man, you want a weird image? We get done playing and I look out and I see D. Boon, and he’s talking to some cat. D. Boon just got done with the gig and he’s all sweaty, but I notice he’s giving this guy his full attention. And the dude has this really big hair and designer jeans! And it’s the REO Speedwagon guy, and he’s relating to D. Boon. (laughter) Crazy.
Wow, I’m not even sure what to say to that. (laughter)
Then we played their town. They came from Champaign, Illinois. Those bands — it was huge stuff. When the Minutemen were doing it we used to think all the time about the punk kids who were still in high school. Because, you know, the first punk scene was a lot of glam and glitter people, art people — they weren’t really young people. And then when hardcore came, we thought, Man, these guys have to take more shit than anyone! We had to deal with square johns at work and stupid shit like that, but to be trapped in the classroom with all that peer pressure — God, it had to be terrible!
No doubt. (laughter)
When I was writing “History Lesson – Part II,” I was writing it kind of for the hardcore kids. We were trying to tell them, “We’re like you, but in a way you guys got it worse.” It’s a little heavier. You’ve got to deal with these pricks pushing on you. And we had to tell them, don’t worry if we sound a little different, that’s part of the deal. But we could understand in a way why all the hardcore bands did sound the same. They had to bond together because the “picked on factor” must have been incredible.
It is interesting you bring that up. I mentioned to you before we started recording this that I met you way back in 1984 at the 9:30 Club in Washington, DC.
The original 9:30 Club.
Yeah, exactly! I don’t even know where the hell it is now?
Well, you know the back door to Ford’s Theatre was right down there in that back alley.
That’s right, I remember. I don’t know if you remember that particular show, but it got totally out of hand. Largely, it was because the hardcore kids came out in force that night and they were spitting on each other, they were spitting on you guys — it was complete madness. I remember just saying “fuck it” and leaving early. It was mayhem! In the documentary, We Jam Econo, there’s a scene from that show. You guys are on stage and there’s a wall of kids spitting on you, and you’re playing relentlessly against this maelstrom. There is this look of defiance on your faces. Do you think punk rock–
Well, I gotta admit, man, when the Dead Kennedy’s came and played here I spit on Jello. I was all drunk. I had to look at that loogy on his shoulder the whole gig.
Oh no. (laughter)
Yeah man. Jello is a friend of mine. It wasn’t on purpose. We just got caught up in the moment. (laughter)
Sure man, I get that, but what I’m talking about is 500 people.
Oh yeah, you’re right. Our scene was a little different. And smaller.
In ’84 I was 23 or 24 years old, and I was teaching high school kids. The kids spitting were, like, my students and they were just crazy…I guess I just don’t like getting spit on, personally…
(laughter) I hear you…especially when you’re singing or playing an instrument and you can’t block your mouth.
That’s the mind-blowing thing to me! The commitment of the band at that moment. There was no let-up — just balls-to-the-wall punk rock. Do you think that the definition of punk rock — as you would define it — is still the same today as it was when you started out? Is there something happening today that you connect with, or have we simply moved beyond all that to something completely different?
Well, in those days, of course, we had D. Boon, so obviously it was different.
Oh yeah, of course. I meant–
You asked me what is different, and certainly that has been a huge difference in my life. But in the broader sense, I don’t think I’ve ever grown out of punk. Punk was never a style. It was more a state of mind, and I still try to keep that, and I try to challenge myself like with this third opera thing or the Floored by Four project. I’m always writing songs for people to see what will happen. I think I’m using the same kind of spirit that I learned from D. Boon at the very beginning.
I ask because, of course, you mention the operas, and I remember when I was young when I actually had to hide certain records from my friends because they’d either get pissed or even commit an act of violence because I was violating some code of theirs. (laughter) There was a real regimentation and homogenization. Hardcore had a lot to do with that. I was in DC in the early ’80s, and of course no one wants to talk about it now — they all want to talk about the positive politics that eventually came out of it — but the bottom line was it was violent as hell, it was racist as hell, and–
Yeah, but the Bad Brains came out there, too.
True, HR and crew were rising at that time, too, but you had a serious skinhead scene in the city.
Oh yeah, sure.
And a lot of gay-bashing and general deviant behavior. So I think the freedom that you guys represented bouncing from straight punk to free jazz riffs to funk, in a sense, was gobbled up by those who wanted a nice, flat template for it all.
Right. Humans get caught up in that stuff. (laughter)
Yeah, I guess it is kind of a “human nature” thing.
Yeah, because I’ve seen it happen in other scenes. Things get worked into hierarchies, and cliques, and orthodoxies. Even if the slogan is “anarchy,” it is a huge thing to live up to.
How many times have you seen that — if you’re going to be an anarchist you’d better dress this way, or you’d better listen to this music…
Exactly. (laughter) There is something called “irony.” It is the way we deal with — what did Orson Welles call it? — “inconvenient truths?”
But you know what? You have to own up to that and be aware of that or you’re totally in denial. But on the other hand, another part of human experience is mixed up and random and all thrown together — good and bad. Of course, you have to learn how to focus in on the positive.
But back to what you were saying, a lot of people got really fed up with all that and tried to clean it up. A lot of people dropped out of it. They thought it was corrupt. But it was a really homegrown scene, too. People could keep coming up with their own versions of it. I mean look how they sell the clothes in the mall — what is that place called, Hot Topic? Or who is it that has that opera on Broadway? Green Day? There is always stuff like that. But there are guys still making music in their bedrooms. I look at it that way. Those other things are just bizarre and I’m really not interested in them.
Why don’t we go ahead then and talk about your stuff. My tendency is to over-prepare for these interviews, and truth be told that is just an excuse to spend a few weeks listening to a lot of music I really want to listen to. (laughter) But you, dude, sheesh! About three weeks ago I was thinking I can’t interview this person. I can’t focus it.
Yeah, and I’ve got about 12 or 13 things in the pipeline…
So obviously you’re a workaholic — I think I can safely draw that conclusion — at least, in the best possible way. Your level of production is unbelievable.
Well, the recording stuff was way out of balance. For about 10 years I was doing way more gigs than recording. So about three years ago I started on a bunch of stuff. That is why it is all coming out now. I decided, “Man, I have to do more recording!” Gigs are important in the moment, but they go out into the air. And also, with the internet, I can collaborate with people. In the old days you had to actually be in the same room with them. Now I can trade files and stuff. I made this album with this young guy in Canada that I never even met! He just sent me these songs and I said, sure, I’ll play some bass. Triclops just sent me a bunch of songs. And I asked for the chords and the guy said, Well I don’t really know what the chords are. (laughter) But we sat down and figured out the notes. Yeah, but its sophisticated stuff. This guy is rocking this 12-string guitar with this wild drummer.
I’ve just come to this point — I’m 53 this December — that I really feel that everybody has something to teach me. So I want to put the bass in places that it will be challenging to me. I never had ideas about operas. I come from the tradition of short songs. I come from the tradition where all my music went through D. Boon. Things changed. I had to re-do things. That sickness came. Having to deal with losing D. Boon — that first opera came about because I didn’t think I could deal with the subject with just one song. And the same thing happened after the sickness.
Now with the “Hyphenated Man,” I’m learning how to do it live with Tom [Watson] and Raul [Morales of the Missingmen], and man, is it fucking hard! There are 30 little songs. It is a butt-load to remember. So it doesn’t get any easier — but I don’t want to do just copies of the same stuff. A lot of are different kinds of things, but also the politics of bass is trippy. Bass players are kind of like grout, if you know what I mean. We’re there to make other people look good. I have to push people up. I don’t try to be the “fake guitar” or anything like that, although I do a few little solos on this new thing. But they’re hard to remember. (laughter)
So this is an important educational process for you.
That’s what it is all about. You can see that in the Minutemen music where we didn’t stick to one kind of thing. D. Boon was always pushing us. The idea was we can play anything and still sound like Minutemen. I took that and moved it beyond where I was with D. Boon. I had to — he’s gone. But the ethic is the same. I use a lot of the stuff I learned in the early days.
Isn’t that interesting. Even though the work itself is so diverse, the aesthetic that informs it is consistent with what you started out with.
Yeah, but if you listen to the Minutemen it’s not like, “here’s the reggae song,” and “here’s the ska song.” But we are trying to put all sorts of stuff, whatever gets in our head, and put it into a Minuteman song. I’m kind of taking that and moving it to collaborations with other people. Before, at the beginning, I didn’t even consider myself to be a musician. I got into music to be with my friend. A lot of the people I’m working with now I don’t even know that well. But that is the righteous thing about music: you can get get on a level with someone and you’re tight and you don’t even know them that well, but you can share the rhythms and notes.
It is a language all its own.
Yeah. It’s a great and positive thing.
Well then, let’s segue right into a discussion of Floored by Four. The album was released at the very end of September. What a great collaboration this is. How did it all come about?
I had a Stooges gig in New York City. Yuka Honda chowed with me before the gig and we were talking. I’d just done some stuff with Nels Cline; I’d brought him to Tokyo, in fact, for the first time. I’ve done a lot of stuff with him! That’s a guy where you don’t even have to practice — you show up with the songs and he’s ready to go. Talk about that first-take feeling — he’s the real deal.
So I’m telling her [Yuka] about this and she says, “I don’t know his music.” And I say, well, he knows yours. He knows everybody’s. (laughter) He had just gotten an apartment, so I knew he was going to be in town. And Dougie Bowne had shown me his studio a few months earlier in Manhattan, on Ludlow Street. I had played with Dougie. He was with Chris Whitley, and he’d invited me to record a song in the late ’90s.
So here’s the situation: I had brought Nels, the guitar-player I was recording with, to Tokyo, [and] he had heard the first opera, and he said, “Hey I like this guitarist.” I said, “You like him? You want to know him? You’re playing with him!” So I decided to get everyone together. I decided I’d write everybody a song.
The bass is great because it is a springboard for everybody to be themselves. Most people write on a guitar or piano. The bass is…you know where the starts and stops are, but it leaves a lot of freedom. It is kind of an interesting place to be as far as composing is concerned. You are just setting things up to happen. Then a weird coincidence happened: Matt Ward asked us — me and Nels — to open up for him in Central Park. We could have brought Bob Lee. In fact, I’ve got an album with Nels and Bob Lee coming.
Yeah, a Black Gang album. The same crew that did the last tours of the first opera. It’s about autumn. We just have to mix it. I asked Nels to play his most psychedelic guitar. He went for it man. He overdubbed electric sitar and electric 12-string. It’s a wild record. Not an opera but its built around the concept of autumn.
Anyway, we could have brought Bob Lee, but because of the earlier conversations I said, “Why don’t we try and make an album?” Three days before the gig in Central Park we went into Dougie’s studio, where I met Ivan Julian of the Voidoids.
No doubt. Yeah, [for] D. Boon, and me too — that Black Generation album was huge for us. And he was looking great. We go in the studio and it was sweaty as hell. I showed them the bass lines. Then I said, “What do you guys want to do? What do you want to play?” (laughter) That was it. Just like that. It wasn’t calculated so much. Except I’d told Yuka at that dinner, “I’ll get you together with Nels so you can get to know his music before you play.” And guess what? November 13th they [were] married! (laughter)
Oh, you know, I did actually see something about that. That is totally crazy.
Now that wasn’t in my plan at all. (laughter)
That’s really great. The thing I really love about this record is that each song is named after one of the players, and they all reflect the personality of that person. The Nels tune that kicks off the record is just unbelievable. He sounds like he could have been playing with Miles [Davis] on Live Evil. It has that early ’70s, Miles electric funk band sound to it. I take it that once you lay down that bedrock bass line, they had the freedom to move all over it?
Yeah, yeah. For each person I thought of what I might give them as a starting point. For me, it was James Jamerson; for Dougie, it was some weird Middle Eastern thing.
Let me ask you about Dougie’s song. The other songs are — well, your song is four minutes — but the others are about 10 minutes long. Dougie’s song is nearly 20 minutes long. (laughter) How did that happen? Or is it just a rhythm thing? The rhythm section has to stick together.
Yeah, that might be true. (laughter) But also because it’s Dougie! I wanted it to be part of him. I thought he should explore with this thing. The long song thing is really very strange for me. I’m not really from that. I was trying to test myself, too. I wrote these big, long fucking things. It was kind of a dare on myself — if I could keep the focus. I know I can throw almost anything at Nels and he’s up for it; he’s never shirked, he’s never complained, he’s never said “Why don’t you change it?” He goes for it. But I’d never played with Dougie or Yuka Honda. It was an unknown thing. I figured, if they have to deal with me for the first time, then I should challenge myself. I didn’t imagine that Dougie’s tune was going to be that long. (laughter) That’s just the way it worked out.
It fascinates me because on the one hand you’re laying down the rhythm for The Stooges, an elemental blast of rock fury. But then you can hook up with Nels, and Yuka, and Dougie and do something… I mean, it’s improvisatory, but because of those really solid bass lines, the sound is rooted.
You know what? Iggy has really helped me a lot with that. He’s really helped me become a better bass player.
It’s great. You can hear everybody almost talking to one another over this bass line that you’ve laid down for them. At the same time, it isn’t a restrictive thing. Every song sounds so different. You run from electro-jazz to Stax soul! The record isn’t even 40 minutes long and you manage to cover most of American popular music since 1965!
I wanted them to be distinct because the people involved have very distinct personas. They’re not generics at all. They deserved their own dealios. Music is music — and what people will make of it to communicate with each other. When more than one guy is playing — when its an ensemble — what makes it interesting to me is that you get a conversation going. Nels is hyper-sensitive to that. I didn’t know the other two, musically. Nels kind of makes it safe to go crazy. They picked up on his vibe and it was like, whoa! Again, the power of music. I was trying to make a good flannel shirt, you know? With all them threads. An interesting plaid. I didn’t want to see the end of the tunes. I only thought about the springboard part. Here it is. Now what is to be done?
Are there plans to get together with these folks again? Is there a tour in the works?
Well, actually I’m playing with two of them tonight.
Is that the Plastic-Ono Band? I heard about that — that is crazy, dude.
Yeah, it totally is. (laughter) It is a totally trippy thing but I’m excited to be doing it. Such a great thing. Experiences like this — I learn so much. I try to let all of the experiences I have musically get me a little further down the road.
Well, that would more than account for the diversity of the sounds you’re making these days. It is pretty remarkable.
Well, you know, D. Boon, man, I could throw anything at him — I never had to teach him. So, again, it comes kind of from my tradition. That’s the way I did it as a young guy trying to learn music.
I spent a fair amount of time over the past few weeks listening to those old records — the Minutemen records. But one of the most useful for me was that sort of greatest hits thing, Introducing the Minutemen.
Oh yeah, the anthology.
Exactly. I think I’ve given that thing as a gift about 20 times over the years. But the thing I like about it is that it’s chronological, so you can really hear the evolution of the band’s sound. D. Boon is amazing by the end of that record — just burning it up!
In that We Jam Econo documentary, Nels talks about that. In a lot of ways, he’s the same way. He soaks up whatever he can from other folks — but he can play like a motherfucker! (laughter) Its not like he expects everybody to do it his way. He’s picking up what’s going on. I try to do it that way. I’ve tried to do it that way since the very beginning. I’ve learned so much, but I want to keep learning.