The Rumpus has made it possible for me to talk to a lot of musicians I might not otherwise have met, but meeting Mike Watt, founding member of The Minutmen, fIREHOSE, Dos, etc., has to be the most memorable encounter that has come to pass since I began writing this column three years ago.
The occasion of the conversation was the release of a catalogue (On and Off Bass, available from Three Rooms Press) of Watt’s digital photographs of the San Pedro waterfront which were displayed in a gallery on the West Coast not too long ago. The catalogue also includes entries from Watt’s ongoing tour diaries (and these surely deserve publication in their entirety, unamplified by the otherwise very worthy photos), pungent prose morsels, bits of mad poeticized wisdom. As with everything that Watt has turned his attention to since he began making art in 1980, On and Off Base is sincere, funny, handmade, beautiful, totally idiosyncratic, and entirely original.
I knew a little bit about how Watt writes, from various encounters over the years, his beat/punk explosions of neologism, but I wasn’t prepared for how much of this Wattspeak would also be essential to how the man expressed himself face to face. In person, Watt is funny, a little bit shy (or perhaps has just done more interviews than he wishes), but also intensely charismatic. He is a remarkable storyteller, one whose earthy approach to language is nonetheless peppered with a lot of references to high art, the legacy of a curious mind and an autodidactic approach to the classics. Watt goes where he goes in conversation, and the language bends to his purpose in a way that recalls Kerouac, Burroughs, Whitman, and his beloved Huck Finn. The middle of his life’s journey has led Watt recently to work with the pace of someone decades younger than he is (fifty-five), and the book that was our occasion here is not his only recent release. There’s Spielgusher (available on Watt’s own label ClenchedWrench), his album of settings for Richard Meltzer poems, which I described in column #34, and his recent album of songs about Hieronymous Bosch and masculinity, hyphenated-man (ClenchedWrench, 2011), and a host of other collaborations beside. It seems impossible that a guy with balky knees who nearly died of septicemia a few years ago could get it all done. But that is just what makes Watt so winning.
I feel really lucky to have been present and fully conscious for this interview (which took place in Greenwich Village in early May of 2012), I wish it had gone on for several more hours, and that’s why, by reason of awe, the questions are not my most sophisticated. Let this be the record of my intense admiration for this American artist.
The Rumpus: Are you a Dorothy Parker fan?
Mike Watt: Uh, that hotel, right, where she spent the time, right, with that little round table?
Rumpus: The Algonquin?
Watt: The Algonquin.
Rumpus: Yeah. Did you read Parker?
Watt: Yeah, I saw some—.
Rumpus: I’m interested in your reading habits.
Watt: Right now I’ve got Cormac McCarthy—.
Rumpus: Which one?
Watt: The trilogy.
Rumpus: Do you like All the Pretty Horses?
Watt: That was the first one; I’m halfway through The Crossing. And, uh, he knows how to put together sentences.
Rumpus: He can make a really good sentence.
Watt: Kind of this Faulkner trip, going and going. Where’s he from? Eastern Tennessee or something?
Rumpus: I know where he lives now, but I don’t know where he came from. Somewhere in the south. Now he’s in Santa Fe. He’s a southwestern guy.
Watt: Sure, sure. Cowboys, but not old time cowboys. The guys in forties and stuff, young men in Mexico.
Rumpus: Did you read him before now, or is this the first time?
Watt: I just got into him. I didn’t know anything about him, and then somebody said, what was I reading? I was reading something and they said, You got to check out this guy.
Rumpus: You haven’t read Blood Meridian yet?
Watt: No. They told me that’s the violent one. And they made a movie out of one of his . . . they told me. Larry! The guy who took over on the drums for The Stooges, he’s from Knoxville, that’s why. That’s where I heard about it. I had just finished . . . Elroy, I’m into Elroy.
Rumpus: Which one? My Dark Places?
Watt: No, he’s got a new one. That was a couple years ago. The Cold Six Thousand? And I got the sax player into it; he’s read all the Elroy. I got to meet him once. I really liked those four LA ones. He’s tall, trippy guy. I don’t know how I got into him, I think it was The Black Dahlia. And then The Big Nowhere. And then the one they made into a movie, L.A. Confidential.
It’s not just so much the case of the Black Dahlia, it’s the way he writes about LA, because I’ve been there since I was ten. And it’s interesting what people just write about it history-wise. It’s kind of a made-up town, right? And the cops were really intense. I guess he did a stand-up bit, he’s a gangster, and there’s all this kind of stuff, and the sex cop working for Howard Hughes, those kinds of things. And of course the lady, Elizabeth Short, maybe that’s who she was, her story, tragic and all of that. The other one, too, the dude that cruised the jazz places . . . Seems he got more and more econo and clipped, almost inventing his way of abbrev, that’s like insane. Almost like a stench of his personality, I think that’s what writing’s for in some ways. For readers, too, because no matter what, like Dante, that’s what I got into young. Eight hundred years old, but I can read more story in there. Cuz’ it’s just scribbly lines on paper, so it’s such a personal way of sharing through arts, and, man, to understand it, you have to kind of put yourself in it, I think, or I do. So all of a sudden, he’s writing about me, and all of this weird shit, like I was reading Confederacy of Dunces, and I finished it in New Orleans. I was on St. Charles, it’s tricky about literature, because it’s so open-ended. Once I read a Kundera book called Immortality, and he was talking about how there can never be movies, because of the alleys and, yeah. And then movies can’t, or maybe they can, who knows. He also wrote this book I read a little more recently about the rules, or the history of the novel or something.
Rumpus: Yeah, what’s that thing called? I read that book. (The Art of the Novel, –ed.)
Watt: It’s really about his favorite writers, or it’s instructions about how you would write a book. There’s no ladies, they’re all Euro-centric guys. But why not?
Rumpus: So did reading and literature play a part in the formative years of The Minutemen?
Watt: Big time. D. Boon got me into history, I never really—well, my ma got some world book from some door-to-door guy, so I started with the A’s. It’s weird how they’re connected, there’s no, like you didn’t have hyperlinks. So I went and read that thing through, but that was the only non-fiction, really. Because I was born in ’57, space races were big, so science fiction was what I read. You know, Bradbury.
Rumpus: And Clarke?
Watt: I didn’t like him so much, but Dick.
Rumpus: Of course.
Watt: And Clarke was like ’69, I think. But yeah, like we were all going to be astronauts. And then we got to the moon, and that was over. I was into dinosaurs, too, so I guess that was kind of fiction. At that time, they thought they were lizards, and I think they’ve agreed now that they were birds. So D. Boon got me into non-fiction, but, and I did that, and I’d hang out with him and talk about stuff. But I was still committed to fiction in a way. It was just something about it. And the big one for me was, after that science fiction stuff, was Huck Finn. And then that was like . . . I didn’t know about, I mean for a while it was all about CREEM magazine and stuff. But, man, when we started doing it, it was like this big side option, you got to go to places. Yeah, so we were, I was on the river with Jim, you know? And then that’s how I found out about the Commedia, still in high school.
Rumpus: Did you read the whole thing or just in—.
Watt: Translations. No, no, I know that’s the interesting thing, Inferno. Also, I thought his life and how he never got to go back to Florence, and how he always kind of paid off the dudes he was living with. Maybe Joyce did that too, because after that was Ulysses. So I can of got these big whooping ass, uh . . . call them epics? What do you call these things that are big and long?
Rumpus: I think epic is good.
Watt: Yeah, and Minutemen, especially Double Nickles on the Dime, there’s a song in there called “June 16th.” I was twenty-five years old when we finished it, and, uh, I just wanted to write about Ulysses. There’s another thing, too, you know, I, uh, I’m kind of afraid about other musicians stealing their licks, when you’re, I don’t know, when you let other artists be a springboard for you. Through poems or paintings or literature, not so much copying the exact riffs, the chords, they still help you out, you know. And of course they got their own reasons why they came up with their stories and their threads. And I don’t know if it’s disrespect, but you just grab these things and then push your thing on them. And that’s how I did it. And I felt a lot more right about it than other musics.
Rumpus: You mean words were more influential than music?
Watt: I just felt better about it as respect to that artist. Because I still had to abstract it out to put it to a bass, to spiel, to put to tunes. So there’s a level there where it’s not just like stealing every fucking thing and putting it in a glass box with a tag with my name on it and that bullshit. You know, uh, I’m more scared with other musicians, although I let other musicians influence me, but nothing like the other art forms. I just feel safer about it, and also, it’s in this realm where, you know, it’s not just about notes. There’s something where, you know me and D. Boon, we didn’t know about clubs until punk. The first gig was T. Rex, and I still like T. Rex, but the experience was so much different. Just rolling out the fucking floats on New Year’s day, you know. And we wanted, we saw the punk people really wanted to make their music personal. For one thing, they were just learning, they were just writing their own songs. It’s hard to tell people about the culture of those days for us, people like us, because no one we knew wrote their own songs. This guy was like who could play “Black Dog” the best, you know? I know it sounds naïve, but there was no idea of music as expression. It was like bulding models or something, it was like jammin’ Creedence in the bedroom, and then the gigs, you could never imagine playing those things. Club’s much different. First thing I told D. Boon when we went to one of those gigs was, Man, we can do this. I never had that kind of empowerment before. So now there’s this place where you can do this, so now it is what is to be done? So we wanted . . . oh, man, we felt tame, right, we copied off those records, Creedence and Blue Oyster Cult, these cats, they’d just start playing while they were learning. So we kind of fouled, so we, uh . . . well, D. Boon’s idea was, We got to think out loud, so, yeah, issues, we even worked them into the band, no more guitar, like no hierarchy, we’re going to make, we’re going to talk about, yeah, like political ideas and how the music’s organized. And me, I wanted to make it the same kind of way, but with this fiction thing, this connection I had with books.
It’s so tricky. How could this guy, writing eight hundred years ago, be writing about you? And obviously he wasn’t, but that medium lets such shit happen. I mean, not all about it, not completely, but man, almost every book I read, I start seeing parts of me, and the guy didn’t know me. So I wanted to bring this in somehow, and also, I didn’t have to worry about copying other guys licks, bass licks and stuff. I always felt bad about that, too, and you think about a writer, except maybe Finnegans Wake, and he’s using the same twenty-six letters, well, I guess he is there, too. My point is you can write an original book without inventing one new word. So maybe that same thing with the notes too, that shit with the bass.
In some ways, our early punk was sort of reactionary against the arena rock, something, like, when the younger guys came, when hardcore came, it was their first rock and roll. People ask me about the dynamic, how we were different than those hardcore guys, and I think the dynamic was different, we were coming out of a big reaction against arena rock, and they weren’t coming out of that. So they didn’t have any rock to react against. It was their first one. Just like maybe Little Richard, you know, was reacting against McCarthyism or something.
Rumpus: Bing Crosby?
Watt: Bing Crosby, Jim Crow, who knows? But I think some situations, like a farmer, right, you want a good crop, use a lot of manure, is the way it works. No friction, the wheel just spins, you just got to grab that road. So that’s what we were coming out of, our whole thing was against arena rock.
Rumpus: But I love the writing in this book, your book. I wanted to talk about your writing a little bit.
Watt: Well, these are diaries.
Rumpus: I know, I know, but even your press release for Spielgusher is outrageously great writing, and everything I’ve read by you as a writer, I’ve really, really admired. So I’m sort of wondering about you as a writer, how often you undertake to write . . .
Watt: Okay, tour diaries. I would love young people to get interested in first-person experiences, how could this idiot go walking and check out places, his work. The primary thing is for Watt to be focused: if I’m writing about what just happened, the clams I blew, maybe I’ll be better on the next gig or something. So it’s all these things to keep focused. Because in a weird way, tour can be . . . and then it’s hard to do. But if you got the mission in mind, you know, and then the diary helps with that shit.
There’s a third thing, too. I always worry about getting a record ruined in my hands. And then maybe I have to find other work, and maybe I could be a writer. I do have a little ambition in a way. I respect those guys so much, writers.
Rumpus: So have you written fiction? Have you actually written a whole short story or anything?
Watt: No, no. So the diary’s some kind of practice if I have to, you know, if I can’t play bass anymore.
Rumpus: So do you keep a diary every day?
Rumpus: Only on tour?
Watt: Only on tour.
Rumpus: And have you ever assembled all the diaries somewhere?
Watt: Through mikewatt.com, I put them all up there, so people can check them out there. But it’s mainly a thing to help me keep a focus, something like a Spielgisher, yeah, I want to tell people about the new record. And man, even though I like econo, it seems that I’m kind of a windbag sometimes.
Rumpus: I think that’s a very moving press release. And it’s really appealing that you wrote it yourself rather than giving it to someone else to do it for you. And I thought it was moving the way you talk about you and D. Boon and being interested in Meltzer back in the day (Richard Meltzer, rock critic, novelist, and lyricist for Watt’s Spielgusher album, -ed.)
Watt: Well, when I’m writing like that, even with the diary, I’m trying to make it like I was talking, it’s conversation. That’s the one thing that got me about Huck Finn.
Rumpus: That colloquial voice.
Watt: Versus like, uh, like Last of the Mohicans. Or even Mr. Poe, who I ended up reading all of his stuff. The way part of the story is in French, like, are you smart enough? Or Latin. Nothing against it, language is beautiful—I’m not against any words. But there was something about, yeah, the colloquial.
Watt: You can almost taste them words.
Rumpus: You know what Hemingway said? Hemingway said about Huck Finn, We, all of us, came out from under Huck’s skirts, and I think that’s so true.
Watt: What I got about Hemingway was econo, really. And supposedly he did some press work, right? Maybe that got into it? He had to report, like a reporter. So you couldn’t be all wavy and shit. But, uh, yeah, his Old Man and the Sea, it’s almost like a child’s book.
But heavy, man.
Rumpus: Well, how does the photography play into all of this? How often are you taking pictures?
Watt: Well, it started—a couple things happened at the same time. One was digital cameras. Because in the old days, man, buying the camera was just the first installment, and then there was the film, and developing, and waiting forever, you know? So I was on tour for the first opera, and Columbia Records, which is part of Sony, sad “Here, we got this thing, Watt, this big ass thing that’s got a floppy disc and it writes pictures to it! Take this on tour!”
Same time, I’d gotten, a cat was moving to Atlanta and was selling his ten-speed for five bucks, and I’m thinking, Okay. I’d gotten a car at sixteen, right, a VW. Bikes were for little kids, but I was thinking, Okay, I see these things in peoples’ pads, they’re getting turned into clothes racks, I’m going to fucking ride this thing. Twenty-two years, falling down a lot, and choose the morning, I started late, I think that part of the middle years, for dudes it’s hard to hold pisses, man. I started waking up earlier and earlier, only staying up late for gigs. And also, not as many people seen me wreck on this motherfucker. And less traffic. And my town is trippy. It’s kind of like Malibu with hammerheads: it’s a weird mix of industry and nature. So why not see it with, uh, it’s kind of its own.
So I started early in the morning, taking this camera, and could shoot all kinds and not spend any money. Delete all the lamers, 99%. So all these things happened, and I was born with bad knees and had surgeries in my early twenties, so it was hurtin’. So after a couple years, I started the kayak, because my Poppa was into it, right. I started kayaking to give my knees a break, so Tuesday, Thursdays, Saturdays is kayaking, Mondays, Wednesday, Fridays is bicycling. And those two things together, with the tunes, yeah, you’re putting them together, you’re setting up the stops, the starts, the chords, the melodies. This shit, you can’t set it up. If you’re together enough, maybe you can grab it. And so I liked that it was another side of, you know, in a weird way, being creative. More like an editor, a chooser, a decider—but you can’t put it together. Nature, she brings the shit on, you know, even putting you where you get to see her do her thing, you know, all that stuff, you know. You can move a foot over, maybe change things. But a lot of it’s the way she puts it, and I like that thing in a way. Part of me getting in the middle years is like, because I think the danger is like, Ahh, I’ve been around, getting cynical, like nobody can teach you anything. And so I really resist this, and I want to be a student. And so the kayak, you know, I can’t tell the ocean—it just lifts you twenty feet in the air, and you have to have this incredible respect, but it also, like, uh, Perry told me once, the child, I wonder, the curious thing. Remember when you played just to play, and not to be all fucking, what’s it called, infantile? Not to be like that. Heard about this, I was talking to someone told me about this movement where dudes wear diapers and shit in them. Just to do it. So this ain’t going that far, you know. I know mid-life is about twenty-year-old girlfriends and convertibles, but I think I leapfrogged that and went to twelve. But not three, not two.
So this idea, just getting on the bike, seeing what, also like a kind of philosophy thing too about the morning, uh, what’s going to happen? We got the whole day to do something, you know. Well, Joyce said it in Ulysses, it’s one day, right? So intense. I mean, what is the week? It’s kind of abstract. A month is kind of with the moon, a year with the sun, but a week for sure. From the week, we get the weekend, and these things, I don’t think are normal, uh, not normal, natural demarcations. I think the sunrise to the sunsets, like my racket is, like, sunsets, like stay out all night, shit like that.
But my life in Pedro is actually morning, that orange-yellow light for twenty minutes, if it ain’t grey like this. There’s just something really special about it, though. The P-word, potential, or O-word, opportunity. Seems morning’s for most people the B-word, burden. Like life taught me another thing in a way, I can’t wait to pop! To wake up. First you got to piss like a racehorse, that’s kind of the bottom line, and really was the driving thing, that holding pisses. That’s gross, you don’t have to write about it. The thing about, You got to get up, Watt, or you gonna go conk? Well, then, get on this fuckin’ bike or get in the kayak. And just do. And have this camera in case something happens.
Rumpus: So these are all morning photos?
Watt: All of them. And what Pedro is, even though we’re west coast, we’re on a peninsula, so they’re all sunrises. We face east. Sort of like there’s a part of San Francisco like that, that faces Oakland—.
Rumpus: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Watt: So when people call ‘em sunsets, we don’t really get, there’s a big hill in the way of rich people, called Palos Verdes.
Rumpus: Yeah, yeah.
Watt: Oh, you’ve been there?
Rumpus: I haven’t been in San Pedro, but I’ve been in southern California.
Watt: It’s trippy. I came there when I was ten. From Virginia, it was closer to Vietnam.
Rumpus: What part of Virginia were you in?
Watt: Norfolk. I was born in Portsmith, but I grew up in Norfolk. Norsmoke, Nordream. Yeah, I think it’s the biggest base in the world, but Cali was a little closer to Vietnam, so I came there in ’67. Actually, I was a little bit here, by Albany, Schenectady?
Watt: There was a nuke plant.
Rumpus: That’s a challenging town, Schenectady. Have you played there? You must have played there.
Watt: Uh, near it. But it was GE that had a big nuke thing, and my pop got trained there. Basically, nukes are just hot rocks and boiling water. That are very poisonous. Cancer killed him in ’52.
Rumpus: Oh, so he was exposed in the course of . . .
Watt: He worked there for twenty years. He was in the Navy, and said, Never Again Volunteer Yourself. He was from a little town, he grew up in Red Bluff, California. In a farm town by seventeen, it was the only way out, there was no punk bands yet, and he told me never to join, he didn’t really have military in his family. So Vietnam was his way out. He retired to Fresno, where there’s no ocean.
Rumpus: So if you were born in ’57, then you missed getting called up for Vietnam, right? You were too young?
Watt: I missed it because I was in this weird window. No registration for Afghanistan, no draft for Vietnam.
Rumpus: I had to register, because I’m just four years younger than you, but.
Watt: I just missed it.
Rumpus: Well, that was the first year you had to register.
Watt: It was ’80, right?
Rumpus: ’80, yeah.
Watt: And Mr. Carter. Because the Olympics got cut, I remember them days. It was when we started The Minutemen, January of 1980. People ask about The Minutemen, and, man, those times . . . they were trippy. You were totally a product of that thing. And he only knew Vietnam, he didn’t know Korea, he was like nineteen when I was born.
Rumpus: Oh, wow, really young.
Watt: There was two good things out of the military. I thought about it being on tour once. One of them was he him going on tour, coming home and take me driving six or eight hours, and all the hit we saw, it made me curious. So I wanted to see all this. That’s why tour is never a burden to me. And the other thing was the way we lived in the Navy houses, they pushed everyone together with rank. By this time, I think the wars were getting kinda too dirty for just, uh, they wanted minority people fighting, so I grew up, we weren’t organized by ethnic. We all, we were all together, and in fact, I thought all civilians were millionaires, of course, because they’d live off the base and have their own houses, so they had to be millionaires. But the way they lived was trippy in, yeah, kind of, race, and things like this, we didn’t live that way. I didn’t grow up that way, I grew up with all kinds of people.
Rumpus: And did that effect you musically, being in that kind of neighborhood? Like there was there a lot of black music around and stuff like that?
Watt: Yeah! Yeah, yeah, I learned Jim Brown, you know? When I was a boy, all kinds of stuff. That was a really good thing: I didn’t know about that stuff, that you had choice, you would pick your own tribe. Yeah, the military may be the first integrated institution, really, in a weird way. I’m not trying to praise the thing or anything, but calling it for what it is, I did get two good experiences out of it. Made me curious about the stories, and then living with all these different people.
And all the pops were—for example, in California, they’re all chiefs. Within the Army, you call them a sergeant. So you could see that everybody’s pop was a chief, you know, so there was no low, it was just how you are, how you did things. And we were kind of a sub-thing, you know, the civilians. I mean, we went to school with them, oh, but that was trippy now. I had no understanding. You know when you’re little, it’s hard to know. It’s like being Catholic, you’re raised Catholic, you think everyone’s Catholic. That’s all you know, so it was hard for me to know what civilians were. Yeah, millionaires? It’s crazy, they weren’t millionaires. But I don’t know, I think me growing up with all kinds. And with music, yeah, with music, I think me growing up, I didn’t know about jazz, I didn’t get that growing up.
Rumpus: Because nobody on the base was listening to jazz?
Watt: Maybe they were, but I didn’t know where to find it. No, I found about jazz through punk. Pettibon turned me on to that, and I, actually, I thought they were doing punk, too. I just, I didn’t know Coltrane was dead. It blew my mind when I found that, because I thought it was the same thing: the motion, the wildness. I mean, I remember even in Minutemen, we played all of Ascension before we’d go on. I just thought they were kind of in a little different context, you didn’t know, Pettibon turned me on to Dada, this thing during the first war, in Switzerland—it seemed like punk. The only thing new was us finding out about it. A lot of this stuff, actually, it was tradition, all the stuff we thought was iconoclastic was because of our situation, our arena rock thing. And I think that was important. But in the big scope of things, hardly anything’s new. Like writing a novel and not inventing any words. But still, it’s your book.
Rumpus: Yeah, yeah.
Watt: And, uh, new for newness sake maybe doesn’t mean as much. Like this empowerment thing, this calling into question everything and then deciding for yourself. And I think coming up now, that’s kind of what middle age is about, because the mortality, you start asking questions. It’s not all about the convertible or going to work and going postal. Some cat dressed up as Santa Claus and killed his whole family. Middle age, it is about asking questions, but don’t have to have a freak out about it. I think it’s an interesting place. Your body’s weak, but man, the experiences you have, you don’t really have to do all those stupid things you used to do. So I don’t think it’s that much of a hell. I never thought of it, I was young and old when I was young, but I remember hearing about mid-life crises, and it was kind of a foreign thing. And then when it came on me—that’s why I made this third opera about it [Hyphenated Man, ed.]—that’s what, in the way the book is, too, man, there’s, life’s a journey, and there you are. Send postcards, that’s what I started doing that on tour with my pop, I’d send him postcards. He didn’t understand why I was doing music. After D. Boon got killed, he knew it was something I did with him as a boy, but he knew I was making a living at it. So I started sending him postcards from all over, he couldn’t believe it. He goes, You’re like a sailor, too.
That’s why I used the, yeah, the boat/Navy thing for the first opera, because that was his idea actually, in a way. But I had no way to talk about D. Boon for almost fourteen years after he got killed. The metaphor, maybe for weak thinkers like me it just helps. When I saw them little creatures in the Bosch paintings, I was at the Prado, thinking about The Stooges, oversees, in Madrid, there. And I saw those—because I saw them in the World Book as a boy, and I always kinda liked dinosaurs. But to see them, to see those things in real life was like, Wow! There’s no glass! Hieronymous Bosch! Only signed seven of them. Some people think these are just visualizations of proverbs, and one of these guys, it’s obvious his nose is a trumpet. You know, blowing your own horn, I don’t know, six-hundred-year-old Dutch, I just made up my own shit. Same as Wizard of Oz, I put myself in the movie, the book, but the movie, too. When she comes back, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, you were there, and you were there, so I said, Dorothy’d tripping on what guys do to be guys at a common age, oh, I don’t think there was a love interest, the dog—the dog was the love interest. She’s tripping. And I think it’s kind of about middle age, what’s a man? Because we’re losing our man in a way. Not losing, just, it’s in a different place.
Watt: You know, sometimes this racket, music, maybe with your writing, too, there’s a little Peter Pan, cheating a little, acting like we’re younger cats. And maybe that’s, what do you call it, transcendent? And that’s what art’s about, so I’m not against it.
Rumpus: What’s next?
Watt: Well, the Stooges reunion is in its ninth year this month, so this is where I’m in a very interesting clash, yeah. You can’t learn everything being boss. There’s something about, and then a cat like that, he definitely the bow of the boat.
Rumpus: You mean Iggy?
Watt: Those gigs are like two minutes long, basically. They’re just a rush for me.
Rumpus: So they’re touring? You’re still touring with them?
Watt: Their main thing is, yes, it’s been nine years now. Overseas gigs, festivals in Europe, so that’s what I’ll do. Uh, I want to do one more tour with the Third Opera for the U.S. for the fall. And then I made an album with two Italian guys, so I’ll tour over there with them.
Rumpus: What’s the sound’s on that?
Watt: It’s a trio. I always like trios, where you got two other guys, and you’re just . . . but they’re different. They’re twenty years younger, they come from avant-garde. So it’s a different thing. Actually, they’re students of stuff like Soft Machine. Younger people now are so much open to older music.
Watt: I think our thing was narcissistic: we wouldn’t listen to shit that was five years old.
Rumpus: I know. You had to throw out all of those records.
Watt: I remember when the Woodstock—we saw that Sha Na Na comes out, people were like, Fuck this! This is my dad’s music! That was only like ten years old. These days kids will listen to forty-, fifty-year-old music, they have no problem. So I would say there’s an incremental advance. Now people say how good the seventies were—maybe it was the movies? No, there’s some good music too.
Rumpus: That’s true. The Spielgusher record, too, the music is all over the place, there’s no genre to that album at all. Every snippet is something completely different.
Watt: Three days we did that. Those guys were incredible.
Rumpus: Did you compose that all on the spot?
Rumpus: Because it’s amazing. There’s, like, some stuff that sounds like, you know, fifties. There’s some stuff that sounds like hardcore avant-garde jazz, there’s rock and roll stuff.
Watt: But you know, they got discipline over there [in Japan, where the recording took place with members of Mi-Gu]. Sometimes it’s hard for them to loosen up and get the dream going. But they get the thing on technique, man. If you got ‘em going, and I tried it with some other musicians, and Richard’s, uh, it weirded people out.
Rumpus: He weirded people out?
Watt: You know, if you aren’t from the old punk, it’s hard. You would think, you know, the Bukowski and all the stuff’s that celebrated, it’s pretty fucking, the Selby and . . . people are a little Puritan and prude, you know. I couldn’t judge them or anything, but little Miss Yuko [from Mi-Gu], her English’s not too good. She goes, Mr. Richard uses some profanity? And I said, Yeah. So it didn’t bug them at all, it was just sounds. They went at it full steam, I mean, in a little room like this. It was in May, and it gets humid there. They have this thing about pulling together when it’s time to do stuff.
Rumpus: But you didn’t record with the words playing, right? You just jammed and then you added the words over it?
Watt: No, but I gave them the words ahead of time. I didn’t just want to drop something on them.
Rumpus: That must’ve been a real editing job, then, to glue all those pieces together.
Watt: We did it. The guitar man did it. Mr. Shimmy. He had me, uh, he said, “Mr. Mike, please put which bit of words to which bit of music?” And then I made a little outline of it, kind of with ProTools where the words ought to go, and then he mixed that whole shit. Sixty-five bits. It was, uh, yeah, fifteen instrumentals. 2004, Richard went and recorded forty-eight spoken words, so three of them I kept just his voice, and forty-five we went with the music, and then fifteen we did for instrumentals, so I guess it was sixty-three we all did. And for me, you know, it was like work.
But now, you know, like in The Minutemen days, like I said, we were deciding and re-deciding everything, like, Okay, the world’s only got two categories: there’s gigs and flyers. Because the club, right, the gig was so intense on it, there was no filter, no middleman, no gatekeeper, no tollbooth. So everything, a record, an interview, they’re all flyers to get people to a gig. But now I look at them as works, sort of like Raymond Pettibon just had a son, and I saw it, like the next shift. But I don’t have, really, the next shift, so all I can really leave is works, and D. Boon, same thing happened with him, right? We were so in the moment, you know, because of our situation, our reactionary—by reactionary, I mean against arena rock, I don’t mean Rush Limbaugh—.
Watt: We thought the moment was really important, but now with mortality on me, the work as a noun, like there’s something gonna be here after. And that’s something I could give to Richard. And to myself. And to D. Boon in a way. And Richard, Richard carves it like a tombstone, he was very touched by it. He said, Yeah, it was so mean when I did it, and you guys made it friendly, and I can’t thank you enough that I have something to leave. I never thought of that kind of sentiment. He calls me his most favorite sentimentalist, but yeah, for us old craggy guys, there’s a sentimental component in a weird way, which is dangerous, I guess.
Rumpus: I have to go, but been it’s really exciting to talk to you, because I’ve been listening to you since Double Nickels. That was the first album by the Minutemen I got.
Watt: Oh, wow. We mixed that one in one night—we paid for that album, it was eleven hundred dollars. We had an album done, and then the Huskers came to town and did Zen Arcade. So we was like, Fuck! We should do a double album too! So we wrote all these songs, and another couple days, we recorded them, mixed it all in one night.
Rumpus: So did you release first? You released first? Right, of those two albums, Double Nickels came out first? Watt: I wonder who came out first.
Rumpus: Because I always thought Zen Arcade was influenced by Double Nickels. That was always the way I thought it went.
Watt: I think we bounced on it, but the idea of a double album was theirs. They had concept, Bob told me that he was a young man in a video arcade, and ours were done on two separate things, so we had to come up with this idea. Uh, we were kind of upset with Sammy Hagar: he said he couldn’t drive fifty-five. But he was making this mersh music, so we thought, Well, we’ll drive fifty-five, but we’ll make crazy music. So that was, you know, that was going to be the whole concept. Like nobody got it. They thought it was double album, Double Nickels. We didn’t put the speed limit sign, because he had one with the red line through it, so we came up with this thing that nobody got. The unifier to make it. But I think all them SST bands bounced off each other. But the thing about it was you didn’t copy style, it was too much respect. So, yeah, the Puppets couldn’t sound like Black Flag, wouldn’t sound like Husker. That was a tight crew, man, those days. Or the movement. I still feel a big debt to it. To go back to that, that was probably our best. That was probably the best record I’ve ever played on.
Rumpus: It’s an amazing record. Just flawless.
Watt: We didn’t know how to put it in order. We got forty-five songs. So in those days it was albums, right? Well, the needle goes down here, so that’s probably where you want your best songs. Have the lame ones hug the label. And there’s four sides, well, there’s three of us, so we’ll draw straws. And each guy will pick a song, and that’s the order. The fourth side’ll be all the ones that nobody picks, that’s why it’s called the chafe. You know, the wheat and the chafe. So Georgie got first pick, and he picked this—oh, yeah, there was one more element. Ummagumma [by Pink Floyd], each guy had like a solo part, right? Like a quarter of the album?
Rumpus: Yeah, I remember.
Watt: So each guy had a solo song on this. And the sound of our cars—that was another thing, to drive home this I can’t drive fifty-five, and you see our cars, like Volkswagens, and D. Boon’s got a Caprice, that motherfucker was running on like three cylinders and sounded like a sewing machine. And, uh, so Georgie picks his own solo song first, and then I got, I got next, and then D. Boon got—no, I was third! D. Boon picked “Anxious Mo-fo,” and then I got “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing,” which I actually said to his management never got a word back. I thought if he’s anywhere in one of our songs, people might know what we’re about, but I never got word back. So we just went like that, round and round and round, that’s the order. I didn’t know how to do it, and I thought, I figured dudes would pick the better songs.
Rumpus: Wait, so each of you picked one song for side one? So George went first, and then you?
Watt: No, I went third. Then D. Boon was second, not third.
Rumpus: So you went all the way through side one like that, and then you went through side two? Watt: No, there’s Side D, Side George, Side Watt, Side Chaff. So we’re picking for our own sides—.
Rumpus: Right, right, right, right . . .
Watt: But they’re all, you know, what’s left. It’s kind of this kind of, you know, from favorite to least favorite.
Rumpus: I got to go back and listen to it.
Watt: Yeah, it’s really weird, it’s how I did it. I didn’t think it could embody the personalities of the dudes, I didn’t know how to do it with forty-five different songs, and we had no concept, and the Hagar thing couldn’t get us over that hump. Or the Ummagumma thing, you know. So then it was like they’ll just be extensions of the guys’ personalities.
Rumpus: That’s probably the greatest work of art that Sammy Hagar ever had anything to do with.
Watt: It’s totally, like he called himself The Red Rocker, and D. Boon hated that.
Rumpus: Did you meet him ever?
Rumpus: You never met Sammy Hagar?
Rumpus: I mean, some day you’re gonna wind up at a bus shelter, and there’s he gonna be.
Watt: With his tequila?