After 30-plus years in the music business, bass player and punk-rock pioneer Mike Watt has risen to legendary status thanks to a consistent career built on a relentless work ethic.
Watt got his start as co-founder of the punk band the Minutemen in 1979, alongside singer/guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley. The group produced a slew of influential releases for the SST label, including the classic 1984 double-album Double Nickels on the Dime, and rose to prominence on the underground scene before the tragic death of Boon in 1985. Afterward, Watt and Hurley regrouped in another trio called fIREHOSE with new guitarist (and Minutemen devotee) Ed Crawford and basically picked up where the previous group left off. fIREHOSE recorded and toured for nearly eight years before disbanding in 1994, leaving Watt free to pursue other projects.
Since then, he has released four excellent full-length solo LPs (including a trio of concept/rock opera albums) and has performed with everyone from J Mascis to Perry Farrell to the current incarnation of Iggy and the Stooges, just to name a few. To top all of that off, Watt has also just released a book of photography titled Mike Watt: On and Off Bass.
Watt comes to Memphis this week on the last leg of a tour supporting his latest solo record, Hyphenated-Man. Watt spoke to the Flyer this week about his long career in punk rock.
Flyer: My introduction to your music was your 1995 solo album Ball Hog or Tug Boat?. That album features several guest artists, including Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, members of the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, etc. What was your idea for that record, and how did it all come together?
Mike Watt: The concept was a test of the bassist in the band as a composer. My position was if the bass player knew the song then anyone could sing, play drums or guitar, etc. I used the metaphor of the wrestling ring for the studio. Everyone was beautiful, and hopefully listeners thought more of my role as "tugboat" instead of "ball hog," you know? I just called up cats and asked them if they wanted to come over and give it a try. I didn't use any middlemen. It was just like casual time in the practice pad and having fun just going for it. Everyone was great!
It wasn't too long after that that I discovered Double Nickels on the Dime. Are you at all surprised by the lasting legacy of that album?
It is probably the best album I have ever played on. It captured a time for us.
The Minutemen were known for very short songs and incorporating elements of funk and jazz into the music. Where did that stuff come from?
We got the Beefheart-meets-Funkadelic thing from an English band called the Pop Group. Also, D. Boon wanted the bass and drums equal with the guitar; he wanted to put political ideas into our sound and not just [into the] words. We got the short-song idea from another English band called Wire and their album Pink Flag.
What did you think of the documentary film about the Minutemen that came out a few years ago, We Jam Econo?
I have much respect for the filmmakers for making that happen. They were too young to actually see us, so that doc is kind of about them finding out about us. I thought if folks saw our story then maybe anyone would be confident to start a band. It wasn't like I thought the Minutemen was the best band or whatever.
Tell me about your new backing band, the Missingmen, and the record you've made together, Hyphenated-Man.
I had just helped with the We Jam Econo documentary and was tripping on the Minutemen stuff. I like the idea of distilling things way down to the bare essence, so I wanted to try it again without being nostalgic. Therefore, I thought I'd make it an opera, and the libretto would be about being a middle-aged punk rocker.
I wrote the whole thing on one of D. Boon's Telecasters. I'm not a very good guitar player and used mostly stuff he showed me when we were young. I wanted the bass to come second, which was much different than usual for me. Bass is nearly always first and lots of times the only part I write for my songs besides the spiels [vocals]. I also would not let Tom [Watson, guitar] and Raul [Morales, drums] hear either the bass or the spiel [making them play only to Watt's guitar and then adding his bass and vocals later]. Out of respect to D. Boon and George Hurley, I thought I shouldn't be ripping off my old band, so I thought I'd get rid of the only Minuteman — me.
Mike Watt and the Missingmen
With the Joint Chiefs and Adios Gringos
Saturday, October 27th, 9 p.m., $12