from the Warrensburg Free Press - June 19 - July 2, 2003 issue
Contemplating The Life Of A Punker
By Matt Bird-Meyer
Mike Watt konks in the boat before a show.
To konk is to sleep. The boat is the van, in which Watt "jams econo." Econo, of course, is the Econoline van Watt uses to tour the country, a humble trend he's maintained since he and the Minutemen pushed off on their epoch-making punk rock tours in the early 1980s.
"It's the center of the touring universe for me," he said of the boat. This is the vernacular of a punk rock poet, a master bass player who only maintains his mastery by constant performance and practice.
I missed Watt before he went on at the Bottleneck on May 24. He was konked by the time I rolled into Lawrence. Watt remerged from the boat earlier than usual so he could witness Jucifer, a power duo that played through an amazing setup of no less than five double stacks of speakers and amplifiers with its drummer perched on an orange folding chair.
This was Watt's 50th stop on his "Cord That Spun Its Own Top Tour," a 54-stop tour that included a brief hiatus so Watt could play bass for the Stooges' reunion show near Palm Springs, Calif. Dressed in a flannel shirt with "Bass = Love" printed on the back, a studded belt holding up his blue jeans, Watt played a lengthy set with just bass, Hammond organ, and drums. I finally caught up with Watt in his hometown of San Pedro, Calif., for a spiel over the telephone.
"I haven't changed much," Watt said of touring, his desire to play for people and to collaborate.
Although glad to be back home, there's little rest for the bass player whose standout licks inspired many a young skater punk, painter, poet, and rock 'n' roller. Besides hitting the horse tracks with his good friend Raymond Pettibone, whose artwork appears as jacket art on most Minutemen and Black Flag albums, Watt has at least six songs to record while he's home. He's doing two for Dos, a bass twosome; a few songs for different compilation albums and some other recordings, including a song for a punk rock karaoke compilation and one verse in a 35-verse song set to a James Joyce poem.
The ProTools studio he set up in his Pedro pad comes in handy here. And after that, maybe even in the middle of all this work, Watt plans to begin his next album soon based on a fever that nearly killed him three years ago.
"It was a hell ride," Watt said.
Watt may have dropped anchor in the L.A. harbor town of Pedro many years ago, but at 45 there's nothing stopping him from collaborating with friends like Iggy Pop and The Stooges, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, and his Pedro buddies in The Secondmen. He is also compiling a catalog of solo albums - a list highlighted by one intriguing autobiographical album, his 1997 "Contemplating the Engine Room."
This album is a metaphor for Watt's experience with the Minutemen, a sort of Rosetta stone to a musical career rarely found in an industry caught up in marketing efforts and popularity.
Inspired by his father, a 20-year Navy man, the entire album is one continuous story of three Navy men. D. Boon, Minuteman guitarist and singer, is the boiler man. Watt is the machinist's mate and George Hurley is the fireman. His next album will also be a continuous song, telling the story of his near-death experience in nine songs.
Watt crafted "Contemplating the Engine Room" by drawing up a storyboard set to specific times of the day and certain colors, wafting sage in the recording studio and requiring his two collaborators, Nels Cline on guitar and Stephen Hodges on drums, to read the novel "The Sand Pebbles," by Richard McKenna. James Joyce's "Ulysses" also inspired Watt's fluid storytelling style in developing this record. Although Watt has toured 10 times since releasing the album, it's a fascinating and heartbreaking story that ultimately leads to the death of the boiler man, who sleepwalks overboard one night and drowns at sea.
D. Boon died in a van crash in 1985, a tragedy that temporarily grounded Watt's musical career, which he speaks of as "shore duty" in the album.
"The unforgiving sea tore you from me, left me here pullin' shore duty," Watt sings. "Seems like there's more duty. Maybe that's the beauty."
The album parallels many of his father's Navy stories, such as in "Wrapped Around the Screw," the story of the sailor who committed suicide by jumping overboard and was later found wrapped around the propeller. Watt's father died in 1991, during the recording of the Firehose album, "Flying the Flannel."
"Losing people is a very difficult lesson," Watt said. "I never imagined D. Boon would ever get killed. He was such a strong, vibrant person. It really struck me hard."
Watt will never let the memory of D. Boon fade. "Punk is whatever we made it to be," reads the sticker of D. Boon that is slapped on nearly every piece of Watt's equipment. Many Firehose albums are dedicated to his memory.
Watt first found the bass at age 13 when D. Boon's mom suggested the two start a band. They graduated from high school in 1976, just as punk rock emerged as both a means to make a political statement and a means for artists to express their weirdness. The Minutemen blended both, but mostly stuck with the facts of working class life and politics. D. Boon was an avid non-fiction reader, turning the band on to current and past events that shaped the songs they played.
"We were coming out of the 60s," Watt said. "Into the 70s there was a coming of age. The mood of the country had changed. The punk scene was not afraid. It just seemed like (1960s activism) turned off like a tap."
The punk artists of the 1980s weren't looking to fit into a formula, Watt said. They were looking to find what lay outside that comfortable sphere.
"Today, punk's a lot more popular," Watt said. "Now, it's normal for kids to have a punk phase in their lives. Back then, it wasn't as young. We had a lot of people come from glitter and glam. There was a lot more experimentation."
Although punk has become marketable, Watt still has hope for musicians making original music. His Web site, www.hootpage. com, is dedicated to chronicling his life in music and giving young musicians an idea of how hard a touring band works.
"The punk thing - the idea is there are no rules even if you don't know how to play," he said.
That's why he still considers himself a punker before a musician. He started playing at a young age just so he could play along with his best friend. That turned into a serious touring band that was bent on sharing its message with anyone who would listen.
"It's human contact, being vital in the now and not be a museum piece," Watt said. "We have 'interesting conversations.' That's what I call it. When we play, our instruments speak to each other." Watt said he plans to tour again after his next album is complete. After that, he intends to record one record every year. Until then, his next two gigs are with The Stooges on Aug. 8 in Long Island, and on Aug. 14 in Detroit.
loop back to mike watt's hoot page