Just like James Joyce had his Dublin, Mike Watt has his San Pedro. The port town on the Los Angeles harbor has been the bass player's stomping ground since he was a kid, and he knows every inch of the place. His dad, a career Navy man, was stationed there. It's also where Watt met his best friend, D. Boon, and his longtime musical partner, drummer George Hurley. But perhaps most important, it's where Watt, Boon and Hurley formed post-punk's most groundbreaking power trio, the Minutemen. San Pedro is a place Watt has celebrated in song for more than 20 years. And it's where Watt -- who turns 40 in December -- still resides.
Lately, Watt has come to know San Pedro (or as he calls it, simply "Pee-dro") more intimately than ever. Knee problems often keep him off his feet, so Watt has taken up biking for low-impact exercise. Each day he pedals around Pedro -- south to Point Fermin, west to Royal Palms beach, past the trailer park and along the cliffs overlooking Catalina, past marinas, shipyards, boathouses and the longshoreman's hall, then back home. Biking has given Watt lots of time to think and to develop musical ideas. The end result is his latest CD, Contemplating the Engine Room, a semi-autobiographical song cycle he likes to call his "punk opera."
"The bike was so much a part of my last year, I wrote my whole opera on it," Watt says with an irrepressible enthusiasm and unassuming sincerity that make him seem familiar right away. "It's two hours by myself, without talking. The motions of the pedals, hearing the waves -- all the tunes came from that. I recorded the spokes; you can hear the wheels and the bells and the parrots, the palms and the water. There's one song called 'Pedro Bound,' where, if you follow the words, it's my exact route -- the whole 20 miles."
With his bike's path as Engine Room's vague thematic framework, Watt goes about appraising all the things he's experienced, both in Pedro and beyond. Soon after D. Boon's tragic death in a 1986 van accident -- a death that brought the Minutemen to an abrupt halt -- Watt and Hurley accepted an invitation from diehard Minutemen fan Ed Crawford (a.k.a. Ed fROMOHIO) to form fIREHOSE. Seven years later, fIREHOSE had run its course, and Watt assembled the star-studded solo effort Ball-Hog or Tugboat? In recent years he's stayed as busy as possible, even touring as the bassist in Porno for Pyros, where fans too young to remember the Minutemen just figured him for "some old guy." Now, with a punk opera as his second solo release, Watt is taking stock of what has evolved into an enduring career.
"I'm almost 40, and all this stuff has added up," he says. "I'm trying to integrate everything. The bike, my history, being a Minuteman, D. Boon, Pedro...."
By calling Engine Room a punk opera, Watt knows he's setting himself up for charges of pretension. Still, he says, "I didn't want it to be known as a concept record. That sounds so '70s. I would never want to hear something like that. I call it a punk opera so people will wonder what the fuck I mean by it."
As it turns out, Watt's latest outing is nothing if not conceptual. On the most literal level, it's a raging response to what Watt views as the misdirected scrutiny bestowed upon Ball-Hog. That CD -- on which Watt jammed with members of the Pixies, Screaming Trees, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth, among others -- was widely branded as little more than an all-star alt-rock bull session.
"I made some mistakes there," Watt admits. "That record got hyped to fucking hell; I don't think [the critics] ever thought about the music. I was trying to redefine Watt. I didn't want to use one band because of what I did to fIREHOSE, which was make it just like the band I was in before. So I made all these little bands. In a way, the opera was a reaction to the way [Ball-Hog] was accepted: I wanted to have something that was so much me -- all Watt, Watt's story, Watt's everything."
On a metaphorical level, the "engine room" is Watt's mind, and the tracks on the CD follow a day in his inner life. "The whole piece covers 24 hours, and each song is a piece of the day," Watt says. "It starts right before dawn and ends around that time, like in Joyce's Ulysses -- that's where I got the idea. As it gets more into the night and you go to sleep, it gets more unconscious, less linear. There's less form, less 'chorus/verse' kind of stuff, because that's the way your brain is when you're sleeping."
To help realize his rather oblique concepts, Watt recruited two of Los Angeles's finest: Steve Hodges, a blues drummer who's played with Tom Waits, and Geraldine Fibbers guitarist Nels Cline. The musicians came to the studio each day without knowing what they'd be working on, and each day they'd end up with a completed tune.
"I really wanted to let Nels and Hodges paint, so I tried to inspire them," Watt says. "I would give a little spiel for the song -- tell the story, give the color, the time of day -- and then we'd go for it. I really wanted to grow each tune out of the story, instead of laying down the basic tracks and overdubbing like some rock and roll assembly line."
As a result, Engine Room is as musically challenging as it is technically impressive. Watt's bass work is impossibly springy; Cline is thoroughly engaging whether coaxing folk melodies from an acoustic guitar or skronking out on an electric; and Hodges holds up through full-on, hard-core thumping and random strokes of percussion. Watt's latest minimalist trio can sound as loose as a garage band and as tightly coiled as your worst avant-punk nightmare -- just like the Minutemen at their best. While often facile and even catchy, Watt's collection of songs is easily the least commercial thing Columbia Records (home to Mariah Carey and Barbra Streisand) has been affiliated with in years -- or, at least, since their last Watt release.
In a purely narrative sense, Contemplating the Engine Room is the story of three sailors -- the singer, the Boilerman and Fireman Hurley -- who work together in a ship's engine room. The 15 songs trace their adventures traveling from port to port, the friendship they develop and the great loss felt when one of them drowns at sea. It's a hardly disguised allegory for the Minutemen, their label SST and, especially, Watt's close relationship with D. Boon. In "The Boilerman," Watt sings, "You worked that six-string strong / Filled our engine room with song / I'm a lucky man to know that man / A hell of a man, the Boilerman."
At the Minutemen's core -- and one of the things that made them so appealing -- was the camaraderie between the three members. The reason Watt got a bass in the first place was because Boon's mom bought her son a guitar to keep him off the streets. "She actually made me play bass. I didn't know what a bass was," Watt remembers. "Really, I'm not a musician. I just did this to be with D. Boon. It was just an extension of our friendship."
Memories of Boon inform much of Engine Room, from Cline's angular, trebly guitar work to Watt's many lyrical and musical references to his deceased partner. "I dropped in little Minutemen parts to celebrate the band," Watt says. "I don't want to get caught up in sentimentalism and nostalgia shit, to be the Sha Na Na of Minutemen stuff. I want to make it so real that it makes sense today."
But there is another ghost haunting Engine Room. Ultimately, the disc is Watt's attempt to reconcile the life he's led with that of his sailor father; hence the nautical setting.
"My father never understood my music; he didn't have music in his family," Watt says. "I remember -- when punk first started -- him coming down to Pedro to have a talk with me. He bought some beers -- which he never did -- and we drank a few. Finally the question comes around, 'What is this punk rock stuff?' I remember him going to me, 'Boy, is this stuff socialist?' He'd call it 'pissing in the wind,' just my way of hanging out with D. Boon. And it was hard for him to understand why I was still doing it without Boon -- it was hard for me, too. My father was like, 'Get on with real life. You gotta pull some regular duty.' "
Watt's dad died of cancer six years ago, at about the same time he was finally beginning to understand his son's passion. Eventually, Watt believes, his dad could see the sense in it all.
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"He was coming on to what I was doing," Watt recalls. "It was dawning on him that maybe this was his boy's regular duty. People want [me] to come in [my] van and play some songs. There was a trippy parallel, thinking about my father leaving his town and joining the Navy to see the world, and us getting in the van and touring. And so, in a way, I'm trying to say, 'Here's where I got to, Pop. My life is kind of like yours.' I think he saw, at the end of his life, that we weren't that much different."
Back in San Pedro, Watt bikes down streets lined with his past. But it's a past he's finally exorcised. There's a giddiness in his voice as he sighs, quoting another, more famous sailor.
"I am what I am," he says.
Mike Watt performs Wednesday, November 19, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8. Helium opens. For info, call 629-3700.