Simply put, Mike Watt just kind of does whatever the f-ck it is he wants to do.
That’s easier said than done, but when you carry a resume that boasts the Minutemen, fIREHOSE and The Stooges in addition to a successful solo career, you’ve earned the right to carve out your own sonic path. And the seasoned bass maestro has made good on that artistic freedom, trying his hand at everything from huge collaboration (1995′s Ball-Hog or Tugboat?) to not one, not two, but three punk operas.
That’s right, suck it Green Day.
These days, the man in the van is busying himself with the second US tour behind 2011′s Hyphenated-Man, Watt’s third punk opera, which finds the bassist retreating back to the short, kinetic art punk nuggets he long made his trademark years ago. We talked with Watt prior to his set at Brighton Music Hall on Oct. 17 about the new opera, playing alongside his idols, and his impeccable fashion sense.
You’ve never been shy about how big of an influence The Stooges have played on your music, but you’re coming up on 10 years with the band. What has it meant to spend the last decade as part of that legacy?
It’s mind-blowing. That it even happened at all, it’s crazy. I do believe I owe them my best notes. I always try 100 percent every time I’m up there with them. I don’t think we’d have a punk scene without The Stooges. We just owe that band so much, and this is a way to pay them back directly [Laughs].
Has joining the band influenced your playing in recent years?
Ig [Iggy Pop]‘s helped me become a much better bass player. Perry [Farrell]‘s helped me quite a bit too, back when I was playing with Porno For Pyros. But those frontmen are like conductors. They get the big picture. You get some perspective from them that you can’t get when you’re standing by your amplifier playing your machine. Ig’s sense of music, it’s very interesting. On the one hand, there’s this explosive chaos, but then he knows a lot about the old days.
He knows a lot about a lot of shit.
Now you’re revisiting the Hyphenated-Man record. What made you want to come out and tour the record again?
It’s two years now since we started doing it, then we kind of put it to bed. But we’re playing it better now than we ever have. It’s basically like a 45 minute song with 30 parts, so there’s a lot of shit to remember. We had to pound it into the muscle memory, and we’ve got it to that level. Tom [Watson] and Raul [Morales] really know the piece well, and I’ve got the best handle I’ve ever had on it. So in a way we’re really proud of this tour, because we really can play it. It’s one thing to practice it in the practice pad, but you really learn it by playing it for people. That’s where the piece really lives.
You’ve got to make it come alive.
It’s kind of a trippy thing, so I understand if people don’t get it [Laughs]. But there’s a lot of bands out there doing the same thing, so why not give them a little variety? I never thought about middle age, then I got there, and this is a thing I couldn’t do when I was younger but it would be jive if I did it when I was older.
You mention you couldn’t do this album when you were younger, but it’s definitely reminiscent of the early Minutemen stuff. It’s very tight and compact.
Oh, yeah, well the words are one thing, but the music? I totally vibe from the Minutemen. There was a documentary called We Jam Econo, it came out in 2005 about the Minutemen. The guys who made it were too young to see us then, so the documentary in a way was them finding out about us. And being a part of it, I had to listen to the Minutemen again. When D. Boon got killed, it was hard for me to listen to that stuff. It made me sad, but I had to listen to it again to know what I was talking about. But I was listening and I thought “Wow, I’d like to try this again,”
but not like a Happy Days, sort of nostalgia trip.
I just decided to use that old form, but with words to describe what’s happening to me right now.
I also felt kind of responsible to George [Hurley] and D. Boon, like I shouldn’t be ripping off my old band. So I tried to make it a little more Missingmen instead of Minutemen. Tom and Raul learned the parts without the bass, so they wouldn’t be influenced by the only real Minuteman in the band. But if you hear some similarities, that was kind of on purpose.
You’ve called Tom and Raul “grandsons” to The Minutemen. Was there a sense that they were really tapped into the music and they were right for this project?
Well the whole mission of the Missingmen was to do this third opera. And to be honest, that mission has been realized. We made the thing, and now we can play it for people. Tom Watson was from a band called Slovenly. He played with the Minutemen and we put out a few of their albums on New Alliance. And though he’s younger than me by five or six years, there’s kind of a link to the old days. He plays kind of trebly, so D. Boon had a little bit of an influence on him. Raul Morales comes out of a punk scene that developed in San Pedro in the 90s that I wasn’t even aware of because I was touring. Touring bands were playing house parties,and I was really interested in this scene that just came up. So Raul, he’s from the newer days. But they’re both in a way related to the Minutemen.
They just come from different schools.
Yeah, they’re separated by time, but there’s a connection.
This album is your third punk opera, but unlike the others there’s not as much of a narrative thread.
I didn’t want it to be a repeat of the other two. The first one has a beginning, middle and end and ends sad, and the second one ends happy. The third one I wanted to be in the moment, so it has no beginning, middle and end. It’s all middle.
It’s supposed to be like if you took a mirror, broke it into 30 parts and put it in my head, it’s like an inventory of what I think of myself.
There’s nothing to be solved, so it doesn’t have that kind of drama. It’s more existential and not so much a narrative.
As a songwriter, do you prefer writing a lot of shorter songs, or fewer songs that are a bit more fleshed out?
When we play this thing, it actually feels like it’s one song that goes all over the fucking place. They don’t seem like separate songs to me. but my next album, it’s just going to be a collection of songs. It won’t be an opera. But on this album about a middle age punk rocker, it just didn’t seem like I could put it all in one song.
So you’re working on new material in between touring?
Yeah, I want to put together the band I put together for the second opera, the Secondmen, which is an organ, bass and drum trio. I’m getting songs together for that for next year to record.
But you’ve also just released a book, too.
It’s pictures I take in the morning when I’m on the kayak. A New York publisher put out a book of that and took a bunch of my tour diaries, writings, poems to go with it. That was a trip. It wasn’t really a plan, but it was something that was presented to me. It started with a show at an art gallery in Santa Monica, and from there it became “Hey, let’s do a book.” I’d never even seen any of them printed, you know? The pictures were just like “Here’s my town, here’s the sun coming up, here’s a dolphin or a pelican.”
I’m more of a bass player than a picture taker.
Do you like keeping busy with so many different things? Does it get hard to keep on top of everything?
I try to stay busy with bass and keep charging with the music. But if other stuff comes up, I’ll try that. I’m not gonna try and pretend I’m as good at it as bass, but I’ll try. There’s an apparel company that’s coming out with a Mike Watt flannel, and they came to me and asked me what I like about flannel. I just gave them the colors from the Double Nickels On The Dime cover. They gave me a demo, and I’m wearing it every night of the tour. I have this thing where I wear the same shirt every night of the tour, so if I see a picture I can remember the tour.
But that says a lot about your influence. To you it’s a shirt, but now there’s people marketing a product around that shirt you wore 30 years ago.
And that’s trippy. I can’t tell you I feel secure about being a clothing designer [Laughs].
FENWAY RECORDINGS SESSIONS PRESENTS:
MIKE WATT AND THE MISSING MEN
BRIGHTON MUSIC HALL
158 BRIGHTON AVE.