Inquiring Minds

Mike Watt: A Candid Chat With the Yoda of Punk

Mike Watt, flexing in Philly, 2012
Mike Watt, flexing in Philly, 2012 Photo by Johnny Gee/
Mike Watt, formerly of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE, is almost an indescribable force of punk nature, someone whose roots are deeply wedged in the Los Angeles/San Pedro landscape of the late 1970s, yet his work continues to blend Jack Kerouac's beat-language kicks, John Coltrane's soulful musical expansiveness, and port-town humor, work ethic, and grit with equal aplomb and adaptability. He is not merely a survivor (though he did overcome a near-death medical ailment); he is a supercharged folk hero that is homespun surreal (listen to the uncanny music of his project Big Walnuts Yonder and read his blog) plus an emblem of what remains true and tried, organic and productive in modern music. He upends all notions of music careerism, art as commodity, and literary journey making.

His newest album, Ring Spiel Tour ’95, is an incredible slice of tour documentation highlighting his superstar assemblage, including Pat Smear, Eddie Vedder, and Dave Grohl (whose drums are dizzying and acrobatic), which gathered for a 31-gig trek through the cramped clubs of Bill Clinton era underground America. It is a bygone moment, a convergence and nexus like few others, whose tunes like “Against the ‘70s” were caught on blistering tape in front of a rapt Midwest audience.

But the Houston Press’s David Ensminger had a few other things on his mind in this Trump era while exchanging emails with the Yoda of punk.

Houston Press: You just recently celebrated the birthday of D. Boon, whose legacy seems even more important in this reactionary political climate. You sing his  “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” on the new live album. How can we all apply his principles, ideas, or point-of-view in this uncertain era?
Mike Watt: I can't, in all fairness, pretend I can say what D. Boon would say, but … I wish to god I could hear him weigh in on all this. Your question is exactly how I feel. You can't know how much I miss him as a dear buddy but also as a voice thinking of the people and not just himself. I know Raymond (Pettibon) sure ain't into this [current political] crap, but then it's been around in other forms with other douches as well. I think of what D. Boon wrote once for that song "Shit From an Old Notebook":

let the products sell themselves
fuck advertising, commercial psychology
psychological methods to sell should be destroyed

because of their own blind involvement
in their own conditioned minds

the unit bonded together
morals, ideals, awareness, progress
let yourself be heard!

By the way, that was the last Minutemen song I ever recorded using a pick on bass. It was all fingers after that.

You remain a man of ongoing conscience, one who plays benefits and donates your own proceeds to Doctor Without Borders – why do they seem the best beneficiary?
Yeah, I like that organization much, like their ethics about humans helping humans. It's a nightmare they have to deal with maximalist power trips, but they keep on keepin' on with somehow trying to preserve some kind of humanity between us.

For years and years, you have worked the bass with everyone from the Stooges, Sonic Youth and Jane's Addiction to Tav Falco. Which of those relationships has influenced your own musical growth the most?
Every stitch I find myself in I try to make a place to learn and to get further down the road with bass and composing. I think of life as one big classroom, and folks I come in contact with are most kind when they share what makes them them with me. I believe everyone has something to teach me — that could mean a kid just starting on bass. It's what I was trying to say with my third opera, Hyphenated-Man: life is for learning. I'll tell you this about Iggy, for sure the 125 months I served with the Stooges had him making me a way better bass player

Also, Thurston Moore helped me big time after D. Boon got killed, he was the one that got me on bass again after that wreck. I owe everyone so much, like the guys I play with now. It never quits, and in my mind, why should it? Just listen to the new Big Walnuts Yonder release with cats like Nels Cline (Wilco), Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), and Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos)...Even with me writing eight of the ten tunes, I was there to learn. Hell, bass brother Tony Maimone (Pere Ubu) recorded us, incredibly lucky Watt!

You also remain committed to DIY media efforts — your constantly updated web page, the Watt From Pedro iradio show, etc. — yet you find time to kayak off the coast too. Do you need both, buzz and reflection, like a ying/yang?
I kayak Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the Los Angeles harbor, part of my Pedro town. Why not be my own engine room if I'm that lucky to live that close? Just like touring, life for me is about taking turns: you roam and you roost. Even in [projects]: sometimes you give direction (my operas), sometimes you take direction (Porno for Pyros, J. Mascis, Stooges) and sometimes you collaborate (CUZ, Il Sogno Del Marinaio, Big Walnuts Yonder). For me, it's like inhale/'re right about the ying/yang comparison.

Like MDC, you are fresh off a tour of China (a country misunderstood by many Americans), which is chronicled in your vivid, off-the-cuff journal. Now you’ve had some time to reflect, what were your biggest impressions of both the music and the people?
It was my first time ever to China, so glad to have the opportunity. Yes, first-hand experience is very important. The diary for me is also very important cuz it provides focus, which can be tough on tour. I should've start chimping those from my first tour instead of 1999 or something. Back to about China: they are finding their own way, which is really happening. Everyone I met had a good take on finding their own voice while at same time acknowledging how much we all got in common.
There are so many different currents happening there at the same time. It's a trip. I would like to go back and see even more parts. Of course, one real heartbreak is the pollution, but everyone I met there wants big time to heal that up.

Houston Press: To someone who is not a musician, how would you explain the Reverend “Wattplower,” your new bass model: what’s the special essence of it, and why did it take four years to develop?
The Reverend Guitars were very kind to me with this bass project. It was a very dynamic development, taking even longer than that. They came to a Detroit gig of mine in 2009, and the boss Ken Haas asked me about it. I just looked it up in my diary!

(look at the Detroit May twelve entry)

The designer man, Joe Naylor, was also very much personally involved, and both cats were key to the whole enchilada. They would make a prototype, and I'd tell them what I thought was not right for me and what would be better, and every tour I'd come around and they'd have another. I thought for sure they were gonna say, "Fuck this guy, he's too picky," but they didn't; instead, they kept on keepin' on and gave me respect.

That's why I give them much respect. I think it's done now, though, with these pickups with new winding I really like. I think it's the eighth or ninth prototype. If my name was on it, it would have to be something I believed in and would play like I meant it or else I would feel big-time jive. What I put into it was stuff I've learned from practical experience of working a buttload of gigs in different situations. They're thinking of a long-scale version even — that's what I use for recordings. When you get respect, I feel you gotta give respect, and that's what I feel big time about Reverend's about people being real and not foisting front or hype.

Your exhibit “Mike Watt: Eye-Gifts from Pedro” and “Mike Watt: On and Off Bass” have gained much attention, including The New York Times. To me, the combination of your diary-like entries (compressed everyday haiku spiels) and prints feels much like the photography monographs of Allen Ginsberg and Robert Frank’s work with Jack Kerouac. What matters the most to you about the photobook/gallery projects?

That was an idea brought to me by the Three Rooms Press people. They heard about the show put on by Laurie Steelink at the Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica and like with the Reverend Guitars folks, were very dynamic in the development — trading many ideas back and forth. Laurie Steelink did the same thing with the gallery show. In both cases, me being a bassman before a photoman made me feel insecure, so I provided all the content, and then I had these folks help with the context stuff. Being on bass, you really learn to work with people cuz working bass can be like being like glue: with nothing to stick to, you're just a puddle. What I'm most grateful for these in these collaborations is that these cats show folks maybe other dimensions of me that maybe might not be so apparent.

Mike Watt (or mike watt) + the Jom & Terry Show open for the Meat Puppets Thursday, May 25 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $20-$22.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
David Ensminger