Bass, flannel and ‘jamming econo’ to the end: Pioneering punk rocker Mike Watt to perform in Eugene Thursday
Mike Watt can’t stop playing bass. No matter what life throws at the punk rock icon, he is always drawn back to the four-stringed instrument that has developed into an extension of himself — so much so that his email signature reads, “on bass, watt.”
In January 2000, Watt had a near-death experience that forced him to stop playing bass for nearly six months. He eventually taught himself how to play again and turned the experience into his second rock opera, “The Secondman’s Middle Stand.” When he felt crippling pain in his hands from playing bass, he switched to a bass with a thinner neck. Watt has completed 60 tours — what he defines as traveling for a month or longer — and he plans for 60 more.
“I’m a bass player. So what does a bass player do? He plays bass,” Watt said in a Skype interview with the Emerald. “This is what I do as long as I don’t hurt anybody with it.”
In 1980, Watt’s highly influential and most renowned band, the Minutemen, released its first EP, “Paranoid time.” The bassist has been a seminal figure in the punk rock world since. He has played with dozens of acts including fIREHOSE, Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl. In addition to a 10-year run with Iggy Pop and the Stooges; he has also recorded with acts ranging from Sonic Youth to Kelly Clarkson.
As a 13-year-old living in San Pedro, California, Watt first learned about the bass guitar when his childhood friend Dennes Boon’s mom insisted that her son would play guitar, leaving Watt with the bass. At first, Watt thought it was a relegation on par with playing right field in Little League baseball, or the place where the player with the least talent is placed.
In 1970, Boon jumped out of a tree and found Watt instead of the friends he was playing with. The pair was always mentally in tune with each other as they struck an immediate kinship founded on playing guitar and collaborating on songwriting with a do-it-yourself approach they call “jamming econo.”
“You don’t even have to teach him shit,” Watt said of Boon. “You play something and he plays something right away, like some osmosis thing.”
Watt and Boon teamed with fellow 1976 San Pedro High School graduate George Hurley to form the Minutemen, a punk trio that packed more passion and energy into minute-long songs than most bands can evoke in a career. Even if 1981’s “The Punch Line” blasts through 18 songs in 15 minutes, the group’s name was originally supposed to signify the group’s stature as ordinary people (the two-word Minute Men, pronounced my-noot instead of min-it) in contrast to the larger-than-life arena rock gods of the era. Put more simply, they said “our band could be your life.”
Punk rock was not popular in San Pedro in the late ‘70s; Watt recalls being able to count all the punks in the city on one hand: Boon, Watt and Hurley. But as the punk movement grew, the Minutemen used their unique characteristics in each song to become leaders of the scene. When writing, each member would bring ideas that the band would fill in. This approach led to some of the greatest songs the genre has ever seen.
“You’re more like a springboard,” Watt said about songwriting collaboration. “You’re like a launchpad and you’re not so much like the big storyboard. You’re leaving more for the guys you’re going to play with so they can bring in their personas.”
In 1984, the band released its 45-song masterpiece, “Double Nickels On The Dime.” The sprawling LP incorporates a blend of influences from Creedence Clearwater Revival to Black Flag to John Coltrane. Initially, it was supposed to be a single record, but when the Minutemen heard that SST Records labelmates Hüsker Dü were releasing the double album “Zen Arcade,” they returned to writing and came up with another album’s worth of material. Rolling Stone lists “Double Nickels” as the 413th greatest album of all time.
On Dec. 22, 1985, Boon died in a van accident. He was 27; Watt had turned 28 two days prior. Not only did Watt lose his best friend and creative counterpart, he also lost his will to perform.
“How can you ever have that again, especially if you lose the man?” Watt asked. “When D. Boon was gone, I didn’t think anyone wanted to listen to me. I thought that was the only reason I was doing that bass.”
Over time, Watt was persuaded that people did still care about his music even without Boon. Sonic Youth invited him to record two songs on their album “EVOL,” and a Minutemen fan named Ed Crawford drove from Ohio to San Pedro and asked Watt and Hurley to form a new band. This became fIREHOSE, which lasted from 1986-1994.
Since then, Watt has toured and recorded at an impressive rate and with a dizzying roster of talented friends, even being asked to join his childhood heroes Iggy Pop and the Stooges for 10 years.
“I’ve been very lucky to play with these cats,” Watt said. “I have to work at this and put a lot of effort in, but I’m lucky with associations.”
Since his Minutemen days, Watt has found influence in a variety of musical styles from obvious sources such as classic rock and punk, but he is also influenced by jazz, paintings and literature. Watt admitted that there are other benefits to drawing from non-musical sources: “You don’t need to worry as much about ripping off the riffs,” Watt said with a laugh. “There’s a layer of abstraction there.”
When he and Boon first began playing songs, they thought being the best guitar player meant playing the best cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” As they kept playing, Watt discovered that art is a vehicle for expression. He borrowed a quote from John Coltrane to describe this approach: “A musician is after some kind of truth.” He views the nature of other arts as being a similar search for personal expression.
“Take the example of writing,” Watt said. “What a personal way of communicating. You’re asking two people to join together through little scribbles on paper. You can write a completely original novel and not invent one word. That’s kind of the goal of music too, right?”
Watt’s 2011 album “Hyphenated-Man” is inspired by three concepts: characters from Hieronymus Bosch’s painting “Garden Of Earthly Delights,” Dorothy’s journey in the “Wizard of Oz,” and being a middle-aged punk rocker looking back on his youth. The album is supposed to be a cyclical journey that is all middle — it has no beginning or end.
“Another metaphor is like a funhouse at a carnival with the mirrors,” Watt said of “Hyphenated-Man.” “All these different angles all at once. That’s what I wanted it to be in a way. Of course I’m stretching it. There’s no way you could have made that in the real world, right? But that was my idea.”
Connecting all these mediums into new art is part of how Watt continues to create more music.
“There’s something about bridging into the other expressions that keeps things interesting,” Watt said. “Like a good flannel — a lot of threads.”
Watt will turn 60 this December. “That’s so weird to say. This is the start of old,” Watt said. “I guess 60 is you’re leaving middle age.”
Despite the multitude of musical releases and tours he’s been a part of, the books he has written and the legacy he has left in the DIY punk scene, Watt insists he still has plenty left to accomplish.
Every week he and his DJ partner “Brother Matt” release a three-hour podcast called “The Watt From Pedro Show.” Each episode begins with a John Coltrane song, and Watt never plays commercially popular “mersh shit.” Instead, Watt plays music from young artists who hand-deliver him their tracks after his concerts.
“It’s part of my debt,” Watt said. “I feel I owe the movement since me and D. Boon and Georgie were given a shot. Exposure. Let people hear. ‘Let yourself be heard,’ like D. Boon says in ‘Shit From An Old Notebook.‘”
On May 5, the debut album from one of Watt’s current bands, Big Walnuts Yonder, will be released after a two-year wait. Yonder features Watt on bass, Nels Cline (from Wilco and various Watt projects) on guitar, Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) on drums and Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos) on guitar and vocals. Watt also hopes to record non-opera albums with both the Secondmen and the Missingmen as well as a second album with The Black Gang.
Following this current 10-shows-in-10-days tour with The Missingmen, Watt has three more tours scheduled for 2017. One is a nine-show trip to China with The Missingmen. Another is a 31-gig circuit with the “Italian Guys,” Il Sogno del Marinaio. In May, Watt and backing band The Jom + Terry Show will begin a 22-date East Coast tour in support of The Meat Puppets.
Until it’s physically impossible, Watt will continue to do what he does best: play the bass, “Fly The Flannel” and Jam Econo.
“I got more work to do. I got more pieces I want to realize. If I can’t get it all done, I want to die trying.”
On Thursday night, Watt and The Missingmen will perform at Eugene’s Hi-Fi Lounge. Tickets are available at ticketfly.com.
Correction: This post originally said that Mike Watt would be playing at the Hi-Fi Lounge on Friday. Watt and The Missingmen are playing Thursday. Cancel your plans!
Follow Craig on Twitter: @wgwcraig
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