Mike Watt: 'Having batteries thrown at you on stage is the worst'

Renowned Minutemen bassist on his punk heritage and China debut

Mike Watt (centre) and the Missingmen
When Mike Watt, bassist for The Minutemen and fIREHOSE, decided to record his first solo album in the mid-'90s, he called up a few friends to see if they would 'step into the ring' with him, as he puts it. The resulting album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat featured contributions from Henry Rollins, J Mascis and Frank Black, plus members of Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys, Bikini Kill, Jane's Addiction and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When he took the LP out on the road, Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl and Pat Smear formed his touring band.

But this was no cynical rolling out of star names to sell the brand Watt - promoters were even under strict instructions not to use Grohl or Vedder's names on any tour materials - it was a 'mutual love dance' as Watt's website puts it, a genuine show of affection from musical greats and a recognition of Watt's importance to the '80s punk movement and the '90s alternative rock scene in the US.

Mike WattPioneering punk band the Minutemen grew out of Watt’s childhood friendship with D Boon in ’70s California. Boon’s mother, grasping for an activity that would keep the kids indoors and out of trouble, decided they should start a band and that her son would play guitar and Watt would play bass. To fulfil his role, the young Watt simply removed two strings from a guitar, ‘because that’s what a bass looked like’, thus presaging a DIY approach and proclivity to ‘jam econo’ that would stay with him for the rest of his career.

By 1980, Watt and Boon had graduated, George Hurley had joined on drums and the band were tearing their way through sets of short, sharp punk rock on seemingly never-ending tours, including with close cohorts Black Flag.

In 1985, with the band on the cusp of gaining mainstream recognition, Boon was tragically killed in a car crash. Watt went into a period of mourning for his childhood friend, but he was eventually coaxed back into music by Sonic Youth, who enlisted him for their Ciccone Youth sessions. For the best part of the next decade, Watt toured with Hurley and guitarist Ed Crawford as fIREHOSE, before releasing the ultimately star-studded Ball-Hog in 1995.

Since then, it’s fair to say he’s kept busy. There’s been a seemingly ever-expanding array of projects and challenging, inventive records, such as his 2010 album Hyphenated-man, themed around the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, or his occasional releases with ex-wife and Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler under the name Dos. And he’s toured with a varied cast of musicians, including as part of the re-formed Stooges.

In March, his appropriately named First Time in China tour will be his debut in these parts. UPDATE: Read Mike Watt's tour diary from his First Time in China here.

Ahead of his trip to Shanghai, he spoke to us from his home in San Pedro, California.

This is going to be your first visit to China. Is it somewhere that's been on your tour radar for a while?
Well you know I've been invited twice before and just never had time, but I've always wanted to come. If you call a tour more than a month, this last tour I did with the Italian guys [with Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi as Il Sogno del Marinaio] that was number 60. So I like to get everywhere and I've done it for a little bit but, man, if you think about it, China and India - they're actually half the world! And the closest I've ever gotten to Africa is one Stooges gig in Tel Aviv. So I've missed out on a lot of the world. Even though I've played a lot, there's still a lot I'm missing.

So it's important to you to play somewhere new?
I want to learn, I want to check it out. Maybe they're a little curious too - I've got a little bit of history and maybe they want to see how I play... I don't know. But I am definitely interested in the whole dealio. Y'know, just like even a US tour where I've been to some of these tours many times, they're still different because time changes things. People change. There's dynamics involved. Now, first time thing it's always the mind-blower right? But I actually still like doing Southern California gigs too.

It's trippy about music, y'know. I'm not really a musician; I got into this when I was 12 to be with D Boon and was just lucky. I work at it - I work very hard at it - but I still consider myself pretty lucky, so I don't take any of it for granted; not entitled to any of it. I see it all - and this is part of my third opera, being middle-aged [Hyphenated-man] - y'know life is a classroom. Actually, it's many classrooms and I get to go to a new one soon.

But even the old ones, because the teachers change, the student body changes, the hall monitor changes, the principal, the janitor - it's all dynamic. See here's the danger about not getting killed and still being around: you think you know it all, which is a dangerous place. I don't like that.

The first band I ever helped out [post-Minutemen and fIREHOSE] was Porno for Pyros and Perry Farrell told me, 'Mike, always keep the child's eye of wonder', so I took that to heart. And that was about 20 years ago.

And are you going to get out and see much of the country while you're here?
Well, I'm not doing the west of China or Hong Kong, most of it is in and around Shanghai and the east. But I really am grateful to the promoter dudes because maybe too much is too much at first. Not in terms of numbers of gigs, just the logistics. I'm used to a lot of gigs - I go back to vaudeville, y'know: When you ain't playin' you're payin'. The biggest one I did was 71 gigs in 73 days, 56 in a row, so ten gigs in a row really ain't a lot for me. And they're going to give me two days off to show me stuff too.

You're known for doing a lot of the driving yourself when you're touring in the US...
Of course [chuckles]. I'm doing one in May to the Mid-West and the East Coast, yeah it's 28 gigs in 28 days - a month - and it's kinda lame. I mean in one way we gotta start in Austin and end in Denver, so that's like half the country, we gotta make a hell ride. And there's distance involved. But, y'know, there's righteous shit outside the windows as you're driving by and yeah. I've got two kinds of callouses: I've got 'em on the ends of the fingers from the bass strings, but then I got them on the palms where the fingers connect - there's callouses there and that's from the wheel.

But you'll be alright giving that up and just getting on trains instead here?
[Laughs] Yeah, well look I've done that in Europe; the last couple of tours I haven't been driving, the Italian guys have been driving, so I've learned to let go. Y'know bass players, even when they're the boss of the band, you look good making the other guys look good - I've learned. It's a different kind of rudder man than a lead singer or the guitarist or manager type. The bassman, he's glue, y'know? And if he's got nothing to stick to, he's just a puddle. And also, I've learned you can't learn everything always being the boss, so it's good to take turns, move it around - and especially in a place I've never been before.

And it'll be easier to operate the camera. Since maybe about 2000 - I don't know what you call that... turn of the century? - but I started writing diaries, so when you ain't gotta be the wheel man, you got time to do a diary. They help me keep it together, but I do want to share my experience because with us US people, we still have a blurry image of China and I think the best way is to see it for yourself, yeah!

Have you spoken much to other musicians or bands who have toured here before? Steve McKay was out here...
Yeah brother Steve McKay was out there twice. John Talley-Jones of the Urinals, another old friend of mine. And yeah, everybody dug it. Everybody I've talked to - y'know, people from my scene, I haven't talked to the ska bands or heavy metal guys so much, but people from my scene - they've all dug it.

You're known for these incredible tour schedules. Is being on the road more significant to you than writing or being in a studio?
It's all part of it. You play different roles. Even being in a band, there some place to do that. One way is to have your own band and tell the other guys what to do; another way is to join someone else's band, like 125 months with the Stooges, and then you take direction; and then the third way is like with the Italian guys, collaborating like with D Boon. But when it comes to your own music thing, you're talking about composing, versus recording, versus playing in front of people - I think all three are good in healthy doses. If you get 'em out of balance, it's a little whack.

I'll tell you the hardest thing though, of all the roles in this music trip: the session guy. That's the one I've found the most scary. Because they've got the song already done, you gotta come in there, you gotta hear the song, you gotta come up with a part, you gotta play it good and then they gotta like it. That's so much... that's the scariest one. Well, they're all scary. Like I said, I wasn't a born entertainer, so I had to shove myself into it, but it's all worth it at the end of the day. But the session thing, I'm glad I don't have to do a lot of that.

The touring thing is trippy, because it's not just working a gig, it's also what people pay money for... vacations? It's something like that. A journey, sojourn, a sally-forth - what would Don Quixote call it? Yeah, a sally-forth. So it's not just working a gig, just playing Harold's Place, a biker bar here in Pedro. Something like this, it's a journey big time. But I got it from D Boon, I got it from Ig, and their model is you work a gig like it might be your last, because who knows?

In the studio, you can always hit stop. Especially nowadays, you know I've got a little studio here in my pad, because with the internet you can collaborate. I've done whole albums. You can go back and stop, but you can't do that at a gig. A little bit, but not too many times [laughs]. Audience gets a little, y'know... [laughs]

But I do like that idea of it being a journey. And then the folks on the way. In the old days it was about people. And I tell you these days too. I never saw punk as a style of music, I saw it as a movement. Everybody's got something to show you man, something to learn you.

And is that still alive and well today?
Yeah, oh yeah. I've done a radio show for the last 15 years - Watt From Pedro - none of that stuff's mersh. To me, that's the spirit - let that freak flag fly. Expression.

And that word [punk], that was the funniest word I'd ever heard of to call your music scene. Y'know in Pedro, when we were teenagers, that's a guy who gets fucked in jail for cigarettes; I mean, why would anybody call their music that?! But it became some kind of uniform, a sound - that dragged it down, that almost destroyed it. But I think the ethics - can you imagine me using a word like that? [laughs] - there's an ethic about that scene that kept it going.

And in fact, it ain't owned by the older people, it's owned by the people who take it into their hands and make something out of it. For example, if you have a pocket knife, the artwork is in the pocket knife because what is it gonna carve? You don't know the object yet, because that's up to you. But the idea - jam econo, right? - you don't have to live up to anyone else's expectations, you deal with what you're given.

And your cats, you gotta talk about the people you do it with too. Whenever you got more than one guy playing, you try to make it an interesting conversation and this is the important thing about it, that stylistic stuff or whatever you want to call it - what are the marketing terms? The 'genre' - that's incidental. It's ridiculous. We don't pray at that shrine. We pray at the shrine of expression.

And freedom of expression seems like an especially salient message at the moment.
I'm not trying to speak for other people - I've had other people give their definitions and sometimes I'm a little at odds with that, but I saw records from England like The Fall and Wire and Pop Group and these were my classrooms. It was funny, by that time they were saying it was 'post-punk' - people gotta give it labels, right so they call it post-punk, like after. Okay. Well, shit we're all after the Stooges, we're all after Captain Beefheart, we're all after John Coltrane.

Actually, when Raymond Pettibon first played me John Coltrane I thought he was a punk rocker but just older [laughs]. I didn't know he was dead yet; he'd been dead for ten years! I didn't know. I come from navy housing, I didn't know about jazz. But man, the people we met in that movement were deep and D Boon really got learned. I mean they were trippy, you could tell they didn't fit in too well - funny names, funny outfits.

Actually it was very interesting. One of my first, what do you call it? 'Gateway drug'? It was Rocky Horror Music Show. Yeah, there was this movie at The Tiffany and the same people are saw throwing all the toast and singing along [that] I saw at the first gigs [laughs]. It was a trip. And it is still a trip. And look at this, this is the way I get to learn about China, 37, almost 40 years later. No it is 40 years... Jesus Christ.

But you're not slowing down.
I'm still working at it. I've got four tours planned this year, and I might get to do an album down in Memphis with Tav Falco; I mean nowadays you've got to plan like months ahead, there's so much competition and stuff, but that's okay - what's the other way? Not enough competition?

But you know, Raymond took me to see Elvin Jones about 17, 18 times and he ended up playing to the end - he had an oxygen tank on stage. I mean, people are different, but I'm definitely bitten by the bug and it's worth it.

I'm driven. I don't know why. Like the guy I got into this with, I lost him many years ago. But I don't know, it's that momentum from those days, y'know? And not to be Happy Days potsy Fonzy shit and sentimental, but I do owe a debt for being given a shot. Part of that I do with the radio show and trying to turn cats on to trippy music, but the other one is get out there and serve as some kind of example.

And you're still bringing it to new audiences.
Yeah, now being a Minuteman, I'm kind of used to bringing new things to people and them like saying, 'thumbs down', spitting on you and... batteries! The worst is batteries! Throw the dirt clothes, throw the water balloons, but please hold back on the batteries.

I remember my first Vienna gig and the lights went out the first note of the first song and they came back on and maybe ten, 12 used rubbers are all over me. Uhh, sacks of shit, sacks of vomit, D Boon got a whole cup of piss in the face... yeah the new audience thing can be interesting [laughs].

Even in the '90s, I remember Nels Cline with The Crew of the Flying Saucer, incredible musician, and we opened up for Primus and the new audience of baseball cap, shirt off guys they yelled... well, they showed us their enlightened side. That's the last time I ever threw money back at somebody - and of course, I hit the dude who liked us, so I never did that again.

Well hopefully you won't get a lot of battery throwing on your China tour.
Yeah I don't get too much of that any more. That's okay. If you're going to put something out there challenging, you've got to let people have their say. It is a shock though, you do have to at least hold together with your buddies up on stage.

But presumably part of the point of putting your art out there is getting a reaction in some form.
Yeah, actually that was a big part of the movement, especially at the beginning. You could tell a lot of these people, especially up in Hollywood, they weren't even rock 'n' rollers, they were more like artists and provocateur-type people. Some of the bands didn't even have guitars, like Screamers they didn't have guitars - it was totally provocative.

I think, where I come from, it was anti-arena rock. My first gig was T-Rex, in 1971 when I was 14. I'd never been to a club until the punk movement. So a lot of our thing was reaction against arena rock. Now after 125 months with the Stooges, I learned there was a whole club scene and labels in the '60s, but a lot of that all got lost and we didn't know about it, me, D Boon and Georgie. And so a big part of the movement for us was reinventing. Y'know, once there was this band - I forget the name - the lyric the lady sang was, 'the only thing new is you, finding out about it'. And that soaks through in a way.

Unless you want a total spoon feed, then there's got to be some kind of challenge. How do people ride skateboards? Just standing there? Heck no, they throw their body in.

And that's the interesting thing about a gig. We're all a collection of experience and then we bring it, y'know. It's not about, I don't know, reenacting the pageantry of the leader or something, or some kind of automatic yes to the mindset that says, 'yeah, this guy's appropriate'.

So tell us about what we can expect in terms of material when you come to Shanghai.
Well I don't know how much people know of my old days. I play some stuff that I wrote for D Boon and Georgie 37 years ago, and then some stuff closer... you know, all through. But I think I'm going to keep a lot to the little song thing. At first, I thought about bringing the whole third opera, but that's a 40-minute song man, it's got 30 parts! And I was talking to Tom Watson about it and he said, 'yeah maybe we give them more of a sampler' [laughs].

I mean the opera has a lot of motifs from the old days - I wrote it on D Boon's Telecaster - but I think he was right, I think it'd be better to jump around a bit. I want to treat the audience with respect, not like 'oh here's my third opera, you have to sit through this crazy...' [laughs]. No, you have to sit through this other crazy shit.

How do you put together that kind of 'sampler' set list? Where do you start?
Well, at the beginning, with the stuff I first really wrote. Well, I wrote one song as a teenager, it was called 'Mr Bass From Outer Space', and it was about this guy doing a bass solo and blowing the rest of the band off of the stage. I mean, obviously I had issues.

In the old days there was a big hierarchy and bass was where you put your retarded friend; it was kind of like left field in little league where nobody hits the ball. But y'know with the movement it was different. It was a more level playing field.

Actually that's where the politics with the Minutemen was - not the lyrics, the lyrics was D Boon thinking out loud, muttering out loud. The politics was organising the band where the bass and the drums could be as loud as the guitar. And we actually got the idea from RnB, where they made the guitar real treble-y and clipped. You could see how the bass could be big in that music, because the rest of the band were setting it up for that.

So we took that together with the new ethics and ideals of the movement, and that's how we got the Minutemen sound. And it was D Boon's idea, and him being the guitarist - y'know, the top of the pyramid in that old paradigm - it was very generous of him. I was like, 'yes, I'm into it!'. Georgie was into it [laughs]. That was another reason for the trio too - no deadlocks.

And I'm going to try and show the people in China how I've been doing trios for 37 years. And I've had to do it with different people, right? I only had my first guy six years. Tom Watson's a guy going back maybe 18 years now; the drummer man Raul Morales, 12 years. I've been really lucky. I've played with a lot of names, but when it comes to my trios, having your own group of cats that you conk [nap] with, you drink whisky with, you work the stage with, it's just really important to me and I think that's what I'm going to show the people of China.

I think D Boon's whole ideas was like: start your own band! We weren't trying to say we were the best band, it was like, if we did it, do it! Of course, do it your way, find your own path with your buddies, with your cats, but pass it on. And that's what I'm planning to do in a certain way. At the same time, I'm trying to learn about China so I've got my antennae up too - it's very much a two-way street.

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