Interview: Mike Watt. Take A Crow Bar To Your Head.

Mike Watt at The Lexington in London on 19 April 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Mike Watt at The Lexington in London on 19 April 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Mike Watt limps over to greet me with a big smile. He’s preparing for the final show of a two month tour and has a bad knee and a soundcheck to do. None of this dents his enthusiasm for sitting down to talk about his third punk opera, how literature and 500 year old painters are the best inspiration for music and why Iggy Pop is the only man to get the shirt off his back.

Initially known for being part of early 80s US trio Minutemen, he almost quit music when his bandmate D Boon was tragically killed. In the years that followed he’s formed bands including Firehose and Dos and worked on numerous projects with the likes of Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, Thurston Moore and Perry Farrell amongst others. He’s played bass for The Stooges for more than a decade. Now, he’s back in Europe with his band The Missingmen to perform a 45-minute song. From minute man to epic man – the unpredictable Mike Watt.

Tonight’s London show is the last night of a 56 date European tour, how are you feeling?

It’s my 67th tour. I’ve been doing it for 34 years. I consider it a great opportunity, I don’t see it as a burden. I’m mean OK, there’s some fatigue involved. But what about a fishing boat, what about a coal mine in Wales, you know? I think I got it a little easier than those guys! Even with this bad knee, I could be holding a colostomy sack, you know? Keep it in perspective. People pay money for vacations and I get to see and interact with all these people, everyone has stuff to teach me. You’re not going get any belly aching from me.

How has this tour been compared to previous ones?

I’m starting to build something over here. Especially smaller towns in England and on the Continent, too. A lot of France was brand new. Some of these other ones I’ve been to before and it’s interesting. Hardly anybody there is my age. Last night in Southampton people were closer to my age, but a lot of them are young people. It’s a very weird piece – it’s a 45 minute song with 30 parts. It’s not your typical thing. It gets down to whispering. And you know, especially for a drinking crowd or something. You gotta pay attention. But a lot of people do that and I gotta give the people that are coming to the gig credit at having the open mind. I was 13 in 1970 – we wouldn’t listen to shit 5 years old! We were so into our own self. I gotta give gig-goers and listeners a lot of credit. I don’t think I really have the super ass magic wand to hypnotise these people. So maybe things have changed. I mean the guy or the ladies on the stage should take chances with art but it’s not always up to them. The people can have something to do with it, too.

You’re going to play Hyphenated-Man straight through?

Well, it’s only one song. It’s my third one of those. I never thought I’d do one. I come from Minutemen you know which was influenced by this London band called Wire that had little, little songs. Pink Flag was that album. Heard it in ‘77. Was right after high school. We couldn’t believe that shit. Why not? Why do they have to be long? Why do they even have to be short? Why can’t they be tiny? Actually now, thinking back, it came from The Who. On Happy Jack there’s something called A Quick One While He’s Away and I think that had the influence on us, where it had like 8 parts but it was one tune. We didn’t really like the Tommy thing. There are some parts that are OK. But we liked that Quick One, me and D Boon.

It seems with the two minute, three minute ones I didn’t have enough room to say what I wanted to say, so I had to make a big old thing. This one’s supposed to happen right in the moment and so it’s almost like coming into a fun house and there’s all these mirrors with the weird angles and actually in a perfect world all 30 parts would be played at the same time. Now that would be asking a lot of Tom and Raul. Possibly very short, too. (Laughs). So, we have to play them one after the other. But it was supposed to be all circular. A lot of it is about middle age – the big thing is masculinity, but another thing is about reconciling things. You have to learn how to do that. But some things I feel you can’t reconcile, like how people can be inhuman to each other. Where’s the good reason for that? Some people come up with some kind of programme where they’re going to make things better by getting rid of the wrong people but I just can’t get with that.

So the 30 ‘men’ are all aspects of one man?

Yeah. But I appropriated images for these men. They’re from this painter from 500 years ago. (Laughs)

This is the Hieronymus Bosch influence?

Yeah. When I was a boy I was into astronauts and dinosaurs and I found that guy in the encyclopedia. I couldn’t believe these things. I saw them in real life. The Stooges were playing in Madrid. There were six or seven of his works. There’s no glass you can put your face right there. He painted on wood. I just made up my own meanings. Appropriated rather used these things. But they’re amalgamations, different parts. Like, some taxidermists have fun, there’s these roadside things in the US – antlers on the rabbit, the jackalope and shit like that. Bosch never wrote a letter or a diary or anything. He’s a kept man, he married a rich lady, his daddy taught him how to paint, he was in his own world. So, OK so be it. I’ll give meaning to them. It will be my thing.

A strange coincide was I was helping two kids make a documentary on the Minutemen called We Jam Econo. They’d never seen us, so the story was about them learning us and I had to listen to the music again. I didn’t want to listen to that stuff after D Boon got killed, so when I heard it again I wanted to play it but I didn’t want to copy out of respect so I see these things in Bosch and I thought wow, that’s how I can do it. It looks like he makes a bunch of little things make a big thing, just what Minutemen did. These little dudes can be metaphors for talking about something Minutemen in their twenties would never talk about. Then I used one more thing – Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz. I do think middle age is about masculinity cause you’re losing it. I think it’s kind of good, I mean, the body does fall apart and all that but you have experiences you just don’t have. So, Dorothy’s here in her world and she’s looking – she’s seen all these things that guys do to be guys. I remember Kim, from Sonic Youth, she once told me that’s why she was in a band – she said ‘I get to peak at boys’ and I thought about that. I think the only love interest is Toto – Dorothy’s not hankering after any of these guys, but she’s checking out their world, you know, and it’s all about this front thing. Validation. I think by middle age – I think with ladies too – by that time it’s like you know what, glass half empty, I’m going to start making up my own mind what’s right and wrong. You get existential on yourself. So, that’s the whole piece and I couldn’t do it in a tune. Or it had to be a big tune. I’m not really a guitar player, I use the things he (D Boon) showed me, so I could have a link back with him. Tom and Raul really make it into something now that’s totally indebted to Minutemen but not ripping them off. It’s basically what I’m trying to do and I’ve done five tours of it. It was very hard to learn all these parts. I’m not trying to be self important but goddam was it hard! So, it’s interesting to do. And also it’s the people’s take on it. We get down to whispering. If they don’t like it, they’ll let you know. (Laughs)

And when you get to the end of Hyphenated-Man live, do you do anything else or do you just want to keep it complete as it is?

We come back for an encore and do six songs from Double Nickels On The Dime. I wrote them over 30 years ago but you totally see the connection. But they’re from a different mind. The man with no experience, but the resilient body, but no fucking experience and just guesses at things. At this point there’s still a lot of guessing but I do have the experiences. Of course, when I was young I knew everything. (Laughs)

The last of the parts on Hyphenated-Man includes the line: ‘I’ve learned life’s for learning as I’m going through my trips’. I wondered what you feel you’ve learned from all your trips?

Well this is the danger about getting older. You think you know everything and you’ve seen everything and nobody can teach you shit. That’s real danger. You get all crusty. You’ve gotta use a crowbar on your fucking head and keep it open. Grade school and high school and there’s the diplomas and there comes a point where it’s over. Bullshit it ain’t over. You’re sitting in the classroom always. And it ain’t a bad thing because it’s not really about memorising stuff for tests. Learning is a trippy thing. 125 months with The Stooges – Ig’s really helped me to play bass. He’s never put it in his hands and played it for me. More like a conductor or the bow of the boat. He does it with ethic. There’s different ways to learn. Life is a classroom and it’s also about taking turns. I think sometimes you’re kind of a teacher. Or you can serve as a bad example. (Laughs)

Mike Watt at The Lexington in London on 19 April 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Mike Watt at The Lexington in London on 19 April 2014 (Imelda Michalczyk)

Talking about The Stooges – you still keep the classic flannel shirt look that you’ve had all the way through, but is it true Iggy was the only person to persuade you to change this?

Yeah, the first phone call. He says ‘Ronny says you’re the man’, you know, the guitar man Ron Asheton. I could not believe a call like that. He says ‘look will you do me a favour, will you wear a t-shirt instead of a flannel?’. (Laughs) I said, ‘what about Levis and Converse?’. He said ‘that’s strong’. I mean he’s a mid-west guy, they don’t have front as much as the coast people, I’ve found. So, we talked and he has some nightmares about the drummer in lime green and the bass guy in orange and all this stuff about visual. Because, you know, he don’t work the machine, he’s got the big picture, he’s the conductor guy. You know, without Stooges we wouldn’t have a punk scene.

Once you get back home, what will you be working on?

Well, first it’s catch up, I’ve been gone two months. My longest running band is called Dos, it’s just two basses. We’re gonna go to Houston and play Girl Rock Camp. Kira is a huge hero because she’s Flag and all that. I got an album to do with Nels Cline in New York City, with a young man named Nick Reinhart from Tera Melos. He wanted to know Nels – I said you want to know him, play with him. And I got a trio with two Italian guys, was here last year, it’s called Il Sogno Del Marinalo. The Sailor’s Dream. They’ve never done a big US tour, so September to November, 51 gigs, 51 days.

I wanted to ask you about literature…

Yeah, a big influence!

…about it begin big influence on your work and you as a person, I wondered if you could speak a bit about that?

There’s a level of abstraction. If you listen to other people’s music, you’re ripping off their licks – at least with their paintings and their words you have to kind of translate it. But I think writing is the most personal form of expression we got with each other. It’s almost one on one because you’re taking these little symbols and turning them into all kinds of things – emotions in people’s heads, feelings, guesses, mistakes, all this kind of world that’s living in literature there’s nothing as private as that. In fact, every book I read, no matter when it was written, I’m in it. Because I think the mind does this to try to get a hold of it. I start reading my own life. Dante in the 1300s – come on, give me a break, he didn’t know me. Even Huck Finn didn’t know me. But I get into these books and they help me try to get my voice out, my story out. I have to build parallels – like in the second opera I used Dante’s Comedy, first one I used Mr Joyce’s Ulysses. Took the life of a whole Minutemen in one day like he did. Week’s kinda abstract but the day is definite. The sun rises, the sun sets. I was 25 years old and it was so intense to me. This is a married couple talking about one day but he’s actually trying to talk about the whole world. Wow, the structure, you know, secret language. Literature’s so much about that. I just got done with The Master and Margarita. They wouldn’t let him print it. But here it is, we got it now. The Pillow Book, before that, by Sei Shonagon – this is like a thousand years ago in Japan and she’s just got lists of things, things that are interesting. Aesthetics. And what is art? It’s aesthetics in some form. Well, it’s expression for sure. There’s something really wonderful and personal about literature that helps me with song writing. You know, I never wrote songs until punk. Punk wasn’t a style of music, it was a place for these outside, weird, strange people that met up in Hollywood and made records far away. It was weird how it got so narrow and it’s this one thing now. I never gave up, I never thought it was some child phase. Still part of the movement. The embarrassing part of the movement. (Laughs).

What are you reading at the moment?

I got Richard Brautigan in here – Trout Fishing In America. Some hippie guy. I guess they threw him out with the bathwater. He’s actually before the hippies. Actually, it’s very dark, it comes across childish and it was embraced by hippie people. I got to be friends with an old beat poet, Charlie Plymell. He put out the first Zap Comix, he lived with Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Very interesting guy. He wrote me a libretto – I might make a fourth opera. But he knew this guy, he saw him at parties – they’d have naked parties. It’s so embarrassing because he’s trying to fit in. I think he ends up shooting himself.

Will you write a novel?

I do tour diaries. I’m always worried about getting hurt and losing my hands. So, the back up…I thought writing, maybe. So, I do the diaries to try to get it together. Maybe I’ll write something.

We’ve over-run our time and Mike’s band is waiting for him to do the soundcheck. He gets up to leave, but before going he takes my hand and thanks me sincerely for the interview. He may joke about being the ‘embarrassing’ part of punk, but you don’t have to spend much time with him at all to realise he’s an artist that punk and the rest of the musical landscape can be heartily proud of.

Interview and photographs by Imelda Michalczyk on 19 April 2014.

The live review of Mike Watt & His Missingmen is here:

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