Mike Watt on the Missingmen, Hieronymus Bosch, and being a middle-aged punk
Photo by Tony Nelson
Throughout Mike Watt's 30+ years in the music industry, it has become quite clear that the man can play a mean bass and pen some indelible, spirited songs. What also became quite clear when I chatted with Watt on the phone from his longtime home in San Pedro, California, is that he loves to talk about music. Throughout our engaging, insightful 40-minute conversation, Watt opened up about not only the inventive, original music he's currently making today (which includes touring with the reformed Stooges), but his long and storied history with such landmark bands as the Minutemen and fIREHOSE.
Watt is quite simply a fountain of musical knowledge, and he conveyed his remarkable experiences from throughout his career with a refreshing level of both passion and candor. In advance of Mike Watt + the Missingmen's sure-to-be fiery performance on Sunday night at the Turf Club, here are some snippets from my interview with the legendary musician right before he hit the road on what Watt has playfully dubbed the "2nd Heapin' Helpin' of 3rd Opera U.S. Tour 2012,' his final tour in support of his stellar recent record, Hyphenated-man.
Asking Watt about how life is treating him in Pedro sparked a long, sprawling answer which eventually got around to hm talking about once again bringing his live show to the Turf Club in St. Paul.
Mike Watt: The reason I'm coming to St. Paul is I'm bringing around this 3rd opera of mine, Hyphenated-man. I kind of have to put it to bed and get on to another collection of songs with my Secondmen guys, Pete Mazich and Jerry Trebotic. Although, this thing here [Hyphenated-man] is not out of breath or anything. I've just been playing these songs with Tom (Watson) and Raul (Morales) for about two years now.
But I'm still really into this tour because we can really play it, it's a piece of our fabric, our mind, our skin, you know. It's not some kind of foreign thing that we've got to get in the ring and wrestle. I'm really proud of Tom and Raul in the way that they brought everything they've got to these songs and this tour. It's not just like taking out the trash or something, this tour is the result of some things just adding up. It's not the years, it's the miles.
Gimme Noise: So, Hyphenated-man was inspired by the characters in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch?
Yeah, I used the little creatures and the little men of his paintings for inspiration. But also, in 2004, I was helping Tim (Irwin) and Keith (Schieron) do the We Jam Econo documentary, and I hadn't listened to the Minutemen a lot since D. Boon got killed because it would make me sad. But I had to listen to them then, because the guys wanted me to drive 'em around and tell 'em about stuff. So I was listening to the Minutemen and I was like, 'Wow, I want to do something like this again. I like this.' I mean, we got it from Wire, these little songs, you know. But I thought, well, I owe it to D. Boon and George (Hurley) not to rip off my old band and shit. So, I tried to do something else with it, and make it into an opera.
It's kind of a weird thing anyway, being a middle-aged punk, and I wanted to write about it. Because I sure couldn't have written this when I was younger. It's supposed to be like if you put a mirror in head, and broke it into 30 parts.
And how did Bosch factor into your songwriting? Pretty heady stuff to try and fit into a rock record.
Some people think these little creatures are kind of like visualizations of proverbs and aphorisms and stuff. But I don't know 500-year-old Dutch. So I just made up my own meanings, you know, for me. I kind of appropriated his little visions. Sometimes, to really deal with true things, you got to get kinda symbolic, you know? So I used this stuff for metaphor and analogy and stuff like that.
Does it make it any easier for you to write when you're taking inspiration from these other artists like Bosch and Dante's The Divine Comedy?
We're all taking cues from other artists, but I'd rather have it be visual or from a book because when it comes to music, it's like you're ripping off their licks. But this way, you're just borrowing imagery. You still aren't inventing every fucking lick, but it's better than copping off their records. I'm always really self-conscious about that. I don't want to be consciously stealing other people's licks.
That's why I look at these other art forms for inspiration. I do need inspirations, I've always needed that. Otherwise, I feel like I'm just building track homes or some shit. I need something to give it [my music] another meaning, so it seems vital to me, essential. So I can pour feeling into it, and it's not just form."
Your musical partnership with Tom and Raul seems to be a strong one. How have those two helped energize you and your music at this point in your career?
I put this band together expressly for this project. The whole mission was to create this third opera and take it on the road. Those guys helped redefine me in certain ways. It's really important how you make the situations go if you don't want to be fucking "I Love Lucy" reruns forever, you know. You have to take situations that will bring out different shit in you. And this really did. It really has."
Do you still remain active in the McNally Smith College of Music's Mike Watt Bass Guitar scholarship?
Yeah. To me, that was a huge honor. You know what, if people want to do music, and put their shoulder into it, I'm really into that. And if I can help in any way, I want to be there. That's a really good thing for me to be a part of.
Mike Watt + the Missingmen play the Turf Club on Sunday night. Tickets for the 21+ show are $13, and doors open at 8:00 p.m.
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