[here's the unedited version of what Michael Menduno wrote for "Guitar World's Bass Guitar" magazine's April 2006 Issue]
HE JAMS ECONO
By Michael Menduno
He looks more like a machinist's mate than a rocker; bushy handlebar mustache, salty gray receding hair, his trademark short-sleeve plaid flannel shirt--a lifelong fashion adaptation that he says was inspired by Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogarty, faded jeans, waterproof watch and a silver anchors aweigh pendant that he wears around his neck. The only thing that hints at the wiry 48-year old punk rock fusion bassist cum songwriter's true vocation is a nickel-sized button with a picture of patron saint John Coltrane pinned over his right shirt pocket. That is, until he climbs on stage and lets loose with one his driving melodic bass lines that quickly gets the crowd cranking.
Although Mike Watt is perhaps best known for his early underground work with the legendary Minutemen (1980-1985), and later fIREHOSE (1986-1994) which signed with Sony/Columbia Records, he has arguably gone on to become one of the most prolific, out-of-the-box artists of his generation, and in the process, has expanded the envelope of what a determined bassist can do. The "All Music Guide To Rock" calls him "the living embodiment of the punk rock spirit."
Though he shies at the description, Watt found his voice in the punk movement and continues to draw on its principals. "Punk opened up doors for us that never closed again," says Watt who resides in his hometown, San Pedro, CA, and has more than 50 recordings to his credit and at least as many collaborations. "It offered a world of possibilities. I think that's so important for musicians to have. You get cynical and jaded if you start to feel it's all figured out. You need to know there's a lot to do."
Watt sets a high bar.
KEEP ON TOURIN'
This spring the veteran punk rocker begins his 58th econo tour--Watt's term for his preserve the autonomy, drive-your-own-van-and-stay-with-friends approach to touring. He'll be showcasing his latest project the Missingmen, featuring Tom Watson on guitar and drummer Raul Morales, and nearly forty new Watt songs that were inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, which Watt discovered exploring the El Prado Museum in Madrid last summer, between concert gigs.
Touring is a central tenet in Watt's universe. He has religiously toured the indie rock club circuit with his bands each spring and fall for the last two decades, in addition to touring with others. "I learned early on that getting out there and playing--actually working the machines in front of people--is the most important part of the whole deal," says Watt who averages more than 150 gigs per year. "It's the tradition I came from and the tradition that keeps me in the ring."
Watt's spring foray follows touring New Zealand in January with Iggy Pop and the Stooges, one of his steady side projects. "Being a deck hand with the Stooges is very trippy [like a parallel universe]," reports Watt. "I haven't been there with them for twenty-five years, so my ears turn into elephant ears and I listen. Iggy is the coxswain. What an opportunity!"
Then there's rehearsing and playing with the cast of Watt regulars du jour; Dos (from the Spanish dos), his twenty-one year old love child --a unique two-bass band that he and former Black Flag bassist, ex-wife Kira Roessler birthed in 1985, Banyan with the Stephen Perkins band and guitarist Nels Cline, Hellride with ex-Porno-for Pyros Peter Distefano and Stephen Perkins, and a improv band called los punkinhedz with Money Mark Nishita.
And if that weren't enough to keep him humming, the self-taught bassist is putting the final touches on several record projects including Dos's much anticipated fourth album, and a follow-up to his collaborative Unknown Instructors album, released last summer with poet Dan McGuire, former Minutemen and fIREHOSE drummer George Hurley, Joe Baiza on guitar and Jack Brewer on guest vocals--think beatnik poetry meets punk jazz fusion.
Watt will also be laying down his new Missingmen tracks for his third 'concept album' when he returns from spring tour. Watt calls them punk rock operas. His last two creations "The Secondman's Middlestand" (2004) and "Contemplating the Engine Room (1997)", dealt, respectively, with Watt's Dante-esque journey through a serious illness that nearly killed him in 2000 (sample song: "Pukin' to High Heaven"), and the loss of his father, a chief petty officer in the Navy, as told through the story of three sailors on a ship.
In addition, the underground documentary "We Jam Econo," that chronicles the life and times of the Minutemen, including the untimely death of guitarist/front man D. Boon (his common name, pronounced Dee-boon) who died in a car accident in 1985, is scheduled to be released on DVD this spring. The film has been shown in select theatres since December. "I wanted to see this produced so that people would remember D. Boon," says Watt who remains linked by sprit to his former friend, band mate, mentor and muse. "I also want people to see how we did it. To empower people, to not be afraid, to see from our example, that if three corn dogs from "Pee-dro" (the proper local pronunciation) can do it anyone can."
Oh yeah, and this Pedro homey still finds the time to host his own eclectic online streaming/podcasting show, "The Watt Show from Pedro" which features music, Coltrane's jazz and more, in addition to a forum, "Talk to Mike Watt" on TalkBass.com not to mention his out-of-the-box email list. Did I mention he bikes on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, paddles on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and practices every day?
Watt is a busy guy.
From his frenetic chromatic bass lines in "The Glory of Man," on the Minutemen's Double Nickels album to the fat, melodic octave-rich figures that form the underpinnings of "Beltsandedman," on Secondman's Middlestand, Watt has created a rich, unique voice over the span his nearly 30 year career.
Though his early influences include Larry Graham, Geezer Butler, Jack Bruce, John Enwistle and Kim Gordon, he says that the origins of his style are rooted in his experiences playing with the Minutemen. "A lot of my style comes from the fact that D. Boon played all treble and didn't do any power chords. That opened up the sound for me and gave me the whole notion of a trio as an interesting conversation with its drama, tension and release. I particularly like trios because there's more room in the boat."
But he is quick to point out that ultimately the bass must serve the tune. "I want to give bass a voice but I don't want it to bogart. You always have to be looking at the big picture."
For Watt, that means staying true to his artistic vision. "If I get too close to the machine I get lost and have to remind myself it's just a means, not an end in itself. It's the means to make yourself a little more human and reflect that humanness in your creation. Even a beginner can write a great bass line. That one of the amazing things about our machine."
Watt started playing bass at age 13 at the request of D. Boon's mom who wanted her son, Watt and George Hurley to form a band so that they would stay home and practice after school. Watt calls it econo childcare. "Back then, bass was where you put the lame guy," he muses, "like being a right fielder in the Little League. Fortunately for me, it ended up being the best instrument to play in a band." His first instrument was a Teisco guitar strung with four strings. Three years later, he got his first Eb-3 style Kay bass. The trio began by learning all of Creedence Clearwater's songs.
"We didn't even know about tuning," recalls Watt. "We didn't equate string tension with pitch. We thought some dudes liked their strings tight, others liked them loose. But if you played "Down on the Corner" and it sounded right, we were in tune. I'm so glad I don't have any recordings of that period."
DO YOUR THANG
The emerging seventies punk scene offered Watt and the boys an accessible alternative to what they perceived as the elitist commercialism of arena rock where rockers owned Gulfstreams and the chicks were free. "Punk was a great equalizer. It was so empowering, " recalls Watt. "There were guys who hardly knew how to play but they were forming bands and writing their own songs. To us that seemed so much better than playing "Black Dog" in a Top 40s cover band. OK, you'll stumble, and write some lame songs, whatever, but at least you're out there doing it." Their epiphany? "I know it sounds corny, but it was a revelation to us at the time: music is a means to express your own thing!"
The openness of the scene encouraged the newly trio to invent themselves from the ground floor up. "We felt polluted because we learned off records that other cats had recorded. We figured that made it harder for us to write songs. So we tried all these devices to distinguish our music from that old rock'n'roll. We heard this band called Wire from England and they had all these short little songs. So we started by writing songs that were all 30 to 60 seconds." Minutemen's first album "Paranoid Time" (1980) has seven tracks ranging from 38 seconds to a minute and 19 seconds long. (Ironically, Watt has returned to that format with new Missingmen songs.)
But the fiercely polemic band didn't stop there. "We questioned everything," recalls Watt who was known for his passionate arguments with D. Boon, "From tuners, to whether to take band pictures or even give interviews." Originally, the Minutemen didn't do either. They thought the music should speak for itself! But Watt says that they recanted some time later when they realized that their no-publicity-period policy was too bourgeois. "We eventually came up with the idea that the world could be divided into two categories. Everything was either a gig or a flyer. Anything that got people to come see our gigs whether it was a band picture, an interview or our spiel, was a flyer, and we labeled it as such. So we didn't have to feel compromised. It really worked well to keep our music as art. We never thought we could make a living at it."
A LOT TO LEARN
It's been a little more than 25 years since the Minutemen's first album, and Watt shows no signs of slowing down. "I'm out there with cats who are half my age," muses Watt. "I don't compete with them but I can definitely hold my own and learn from them as well. Fortunately, young people are a lot more open-minded than in my day. They listen to twenty and thirty year old music. We would never do that. The music is so much more accessible today."
Last year, Watt's mom made him color his hair. He says it felt wearing a hat and not long after ditched the dye. "I decided that I like the idea of having kids see me gray. There's a little psychological leveler that trips them out--Hey, that dude looks like my dad. Why's he doing this? Maybe it's my punk experience of being provocative. It tells them they are going to be old one day too, so they need to be creative." His advise to the new shift? "Instead of complaining about the man, make a parallel universe. That's exactly what we did with punk."
WATT AS POSTER CHILD
In fact, this year is the first year that the annual Mike Watt Bass Guitar Scholarship will be awarded to an incoming bassist at the McNally Smith College of Music, St. Paul, MN. Watt was a guest artist at a bass clinic held at McNally last fall. The college subsequently created the award in recognition of Watt's spirited canon. "It was an opportunity for me to give back. I feel that's it really important to do," confides Watt. "I'm here to learn, that what keeps me from getting bogged down in the past. I want to continue putting myself in situations that keep me learning, and keep the big picture going."
Watt used to play with Fender-style basses but switched to short scale 30.5" basses about five years ago because he was experiencing pain in his hands. He main bass is a souped-up 1962 Gibson EB-3. He removed the original pick-ups installed a Bartolini ZBS 440 pick-up in the bridge position and moved the neck pick-up, proportionally, to the position that a P-bass pick-up would go and installed a Lane Poor pick-up. He then installed an Aquilar OBP-3k pre-amp, added a pick-up blend control and a chrome Schaller 3-D4 bridge. The tuners are the original ones. He uses D'addario EXL 165 strings.
Watt's primary rig is a rack-mounted Eden WP-100 pre-amp with an Eden WT-1550 power amp (2x600 watts) along with a Furhman PL-Plus Power Distributor and Korg DTR-2000 chromatic tuner. He uses two Eden D410xLT bass speaker cabinets (with 4x10' speakers each). He typically rents Ampeg SVT II amps and cabinets when he tours with the Stooges.
(For more information on Watt equipment see: http://www.hootpage.com/hoot_gallery-thudstaffs.html)
Mike Watt's link-rich Hootpage for all things Wattian!
Disography (Unofficial but very thorough including bootleg releases):
The Watt Show from Pedro:
TalkBass.com, Talk to Mike Watt Forum:
"We Jam Econo" (the movie):