Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Watt Makes a Man Start Fires

It’s been a week since City Paper ran my “5 Questions with Mike Watt” piece but when it did, I still thought there was a lot of good comments that stayed on the cutting room floor. Here’s pretty much the whole conversation, which took place as he was driving in his van to the twelfth of 51 gigs on the tour and as I was whacked out on Novocain on half my face. Watt was in a great mood and at the points where “laughs” is indicated, it was typically a hearty guffaw.

What’s up with your knee?

It was at a Stooges gig in France, near Marseilles [in July 2010]. Last note of the first song, “Raw Power.” And I just turned wrong. It’s healing very slow. But I keep pushing. Gig number 12 tonight in Gainesville. 51 in 52 days. So I try to look beyond my middle-aged physical shortcomings. What can I do? I can work my fingers, though. It is difficult in a way, ’cause I want my whole body to express this third opera.

You’ve always kept going despite injuries. I remember a fIREHOSE show where your head was bandaged up because the van caught on fire.

I just try to keep perspective, Michael. For all the lame shit there’s some good shit. So I try to — [laughs] — be occupied with that and not let the other things get me down too much. Everybody has some lame stuff or circumstances. A farmer would tell you, to get a good crop, use a lotta manure!

Do you think you got that ability to keep going from your dad?

Oh yeah. I think so. Coming from working people. I think also [I got it from] the early punk scene, which was not very popular. We built a kind of self-reliant, us guys in our own band and the bands in our scene. Black Flag, the Huskers, Meat Puppets. The guys putting on the gigs. And the fanzines. It was like a parallel universe. I guess I have a huge debt to the movement. And, yeah, going back too before that with my Pop. If you weren’t into it, it wasn’t gonna get done. OK – it’s the reality on the dealio. It is interesting how in a way – there’s no choice but in a way it’s a lot about choice. It’s a weird duality.

Well it’s about making a choice and sticking to it through the thick and thin.

I guess it gets kinda like an existential [thing]. On the other hand, I kind of believe the knowing is in the doing! Instead of just thinking about it, you’re actually working on it. To make it happen, whatever that is! [Laughs]

You’re finding out what will happen instead of wondering.

Or just sitting in the coffee shop just talking about it. I’d rather be in the practice pad with my guys getting a thing ready. I’m all into talking and ideas and all this, but there’s something about acting on stuff. That’s where the whole idea of jam econo comes. You don’t let those material short comings keep it just [in the] spiel stage. Try to make it happen. Like a skater. When you fall down, get back on the board. You can’t really talk your way out of it.

You’ve spent the greater part of the last 30 years on the road, getting in a van and driving across the country. How do you still stand all that driving and squalid existence?

You can say a lot of things about the US and Canada – ‘cuz Canada’s on this tour too. They are big. That means you gotta roll some. At the same time, it’s kind of interesting: People take time off and spend money on vacations to do stuff like this and travel around. We realized this from the early tours. There is the B word burden but there’s also this O word opportunity where all these different paths… I just have this opinion – it’s kind of the bottom line of the third opera: Everybody’s got something to teach you. So it’s neat going to all the towns, all the different regions, all the different ways people cook up their chow. There’s bayou, there’s mountain, there’s river, there’s sand. I guess, again – this perspective idea. Having five starving children and working in a salt mine might be a little more tough. [Laughs] But I know what you mean, Michael, I know what you mean. I just weigh it all out and look at the net thing and think it’s happening. It’s kinda like my Pop – sailor’s life. Isn’t that trippy I almost ended up being like my Pop. Or I am. It’s kinda.. different… That’s the interesting thing about getting into the middle years. Because in the 20s you knew everything! And that’s what this third opera’s about too — things like that which you just mentioned. I never had children so I’m kind of the opinion where maybe these recorded works are like my children. They’ll be here after I’m gone. We never thought about that when we were younger. It was more like they were flyers for the gigs. I look at it as having their own little lives.

I was fascinated to see that the new album was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch. The thing I like about your work is that on one hand you’ve got the working class roots, but then you’ve got Dante and Bosch influencing your work.

Yeah, yeah. And [James] Joyce… The people I met in the ’70s punk scene, they weren’t from Pedro. They were painters and artist people. D Boon was a painter, although we didn’t know much about the culture of it. These people we met really [were] trippy people that knew about art stuff and intellectual stuff and had big influence on us. Which you might not imagine with punk, because it became more of a thing for younger people. But the first punk was actually people from literary, glam and art people. I think people got lost on that because it moved to the suburbs in the early ’80s with hardcore and it’s kind of a lot different. But that’s ok. That’s why I’m kind of a weird mixture.

So about Bosch, every track on the new album represents…

One of his creatures. Little men. I was kind fascinated as boy. In the encyclopedia, I saw him. I was into dinosaurs and astronauts too. [Laughs] It was just so freaky, you know. I actually got to see the real ones in Spain. There’s eight of them in the Museo del Prado in Madrid that was really trippy. Wow. More strong than a picture in an encyclopedia. It just reminded me of ….in the Minutemen we used to use all the little things to make one thing. I think that’s what he did. His pictures are made of lots of little pictures. So that gave me idea for the mechanical part of the third opera. Also [the album has] this thing about the Wizard of Oz. Because the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tinman are kind of put-together men. The whole thing may seem like Dorothy tripping on what men do to be men. Which I think is a middle-aged kind of pondering a little bit. So that’s all the nature of Hypenated-Man.

In “Pinned-to-the-Table-Man,” where you’re saying, “Be brave, Watt,” is that you talking to yourself or is that supposed to be another character?

That was going to be the only instrumental. I was in Russia with the Stooges and I thought I should use words with every one of these parts. What had happened was, that was one change I came up with — that spiel and hooked it on to there. But I had to make it the middle of the record, ’cause I had taken the middle song, “Wheel-Bound-Man,” and put it on the end. I was going to end the thing with “Man-Shitting-Man,” but it was too down.

Yeah, that one’s heavy.

I kind of got caught up in the Bosch big picture, which I didn’t want to do. I only wanted him to help me with the little stuff. I didn’t like that last judgment, [laughs] but I got caught up in it. So I was in the studio with Tony [Maimone, ex-Pere Ubu bassist who recorded and mixed the album] just ready to finish and I said, Man, Tony, this is wrong. Let’s put the middle one on the end. So those were the two changes I made from how I wrote it. That’s trippy you picked up on that. I never used the word “I” until the very end. There’s one place in the beginning where I use “I” in quotes but the whole thing is supposed to be me thinking out loud and confronting myself. Without being too much of a drama queen. [Laughs] No, it’s existential. It’s getting back to that again. Yeah, yeah. I think it’s ok to ask these kinds of questions. There’s some shit I can’t reconcile like “Man-Shitting-Man.” Humans can be very fucked up with each other. Another thing …there comes — a peace, a weird harmony. You can figure out and not be co-opted or be deluded. I think that’s part of the journey of a life. The middle years are trippy. That’s why I wanted to write about it. I never really thought about them when I was a youngin’.

Was it a challenge going back to writing short songs after not doing it for awhile?

Yeah, yeah, it was. I did it on D. Boon’s Telecaster. I was a little afraid. I normally write the bass second. You know…sometimes you just don’t want to do it easy. Like most times! It’s a hard fucker to play in front of people there’s a lot of stuff to remember. It’s like one big baby with all these things. But it’s okay. I can look in the mirror and say, “Yeah, Watt, you’re still learning how to be a bass player.”

You put Hyphenated-Man out yourself, right? [It’s on the Clenchedwrench label.]

That’s right.

First time since the New Alliance days? [The label that he created during the Minutemen, which also released Husker Du’s Land Speed Record.]

Exactly. You know it, Mike. I got a lot of projects in the pipeline and I figure they’re going to come every couple of months. I won’t have to do any kind of dance. It’ll happen ’cause I want it to happen like in the old days. The more things change the more they stay the same sometimes.

You mean with record labels?

Yeah and the internet. Big labels don’t really mean that much really. They don’t mean anything.

So was your deal with Columbia up?

Yeah, after the second opera. You can’t do 12 or 13 things in the pipeline. You’ve gotta do one thing every couple of years. And…I might not have enough time. [Laughs] That’s another thing about the middle years – a little more earnest.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful article Mike- love him talking about Bosch, and how art and literature influenced punk. Also love his positive, DIY attitude!

shanleymusic said...

Thanks. Talking to him regenerated all my interest in what he does.