WRECK PARK

ISSUE NO. 0

AN INTERVIEW WITH MIKE WATT

  We spoke to Mike Watt last spring about art, punk, tradition, and the history that has come to (or rather, fails to) define him. Speaking with Watt is an event. It has the effect of dislocating any semblance of continuity; Watt’s knowledge of the history of punk, art, and his native California, is encyclopedic; he speaks in entropic bursts of names (often either first or last, rarely both), places, ideas, and concerns. In the interest of preserving the energy and enthusiasm Watt brought to the interview, we have elected to make only the bare minimum of continuity and clarity edits. A small glossary has been added at the end to help clarify names and neologisms. After a brief exchange of introductions, without hesitation or prompt, Watt began…

MIKE WATT

  My, whatever, journey—not so much academia—but you know, the usual showbiz racket…yeah it’s a little different than [academia], but maybe there’s a parallel. I think what you’re doin’ … sounds like a big tradition of Walt Whitman…who was self-educated and wrote poems; he thought these things were going to be read at the work place and stuff, and on farms…in fact, I’ve read things where he actually tried to stop the Civil War with poems… and it was totally DIY, more than 160 years ago. It’s strange that some things get called traditional and conservative, but then other things don’t get that even though they go back and are responsible for a lot of the ways [or options for action] because of those pioneers and those groundbreaking moves, they get no credit. Blows me away. So I think in a way a good way of showing respect is working in those traditions…

WRECK PARK

  I’m glad you mentioned it, because I wanted to talk to you about Whitman…

WATT

  When I went to school it was very applied, it was electronics and I didn’t get a lot of art and culture through the academic thing, which was…you know, I was interested in that, but I had to do it on the outside, so I wonder what a guy like [Whitman]…how was he treated…

WRECK PARK

  Maybe that is a good place to start. I’ve been thinking about your career, and it seems that art has never been a part of your life, but that you have made a life fundamentally around art, making art, sharing art, and engaging with art in some way. You say you didn’t get that in school, how did you make this life possible for yourself?

WATT

  Well there is, I think, some coincidences and stuff. Actually I got into music to be with my friend. His mother got me to play the bass, this is how we hung out. Graduated high school around ’76 right around the time this movement takes place where they let anyone with enough balls to go do it. So, we could bring our private thing into the public. Met some people that believed in, I don’t know, some old vaudeville tradition: you take it around the town. You just don’t play a gig in your own town. The Black Flag guys…you have to see these things were total coincidences, even the way I met D. Boon. Probably, a lot of human people. Humans have this happening in life, coincidences come in and completely change things. And so I gotta say, meeting D. Boon, the punk movement, and Black Flag and their idea of you know…vaudeville, working the town, it all added up to what I’m doing now…if you want to make it the simplest of streams that gathered to make the river…those are probably it. So, actually, they are people connections. They are all about people. D. Boon. Punk Movement: a peer group. These things all added up to what I do now, for a living. I don’t have D. Boon anymore, I don’t have Black Flag, the punk movement is much different than it was…although, in some ways, still vital…It’s about people, in my life. Either as coconspirator, or an enabler, or an inspirer, you know it’s like that. My thing isn’t really the “man alone” thing. If you really look at it close enough. Although I’ve kept a lot of autonomy and independence…it’s still built on relationships with people. It’s almost like the politics of my instrument, you know? What good bass guys [do is] look good making the other guys look good.

WRECK PARK

  Your work seems to play into this idea of it being people as much as accidents or coincidences; let’s talk about your varied musical projects: the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, the Stooges – Hellride East being specifically unique in playing Stooges via [John] Coltrane…

WATT

  We were celebrating a band that is pretty well responsible for a lot of the movement. I think it is important to acknowledge those kinds of things. Not everybody can be born at the same time so…it’s very interesting how younger people are very open minded. They want to know about things. They are not so caught up in their moment. I remember being a teenager in the ‘70s. We would listen to stuff five years old. It was way more narcissistic as a generation. Nowadays I talk to younger people who want to know where things come from. One of the reasons is because there are more resources. They can go check the internet and stuff like this and check stuff that we…it wasn’t as easy. Maybe even the consciousness wasn’t there. You thought everything began with you and that everything older wasn’t important. I think people aren’t as much about that nowadays. They understand what’s new is like technology. Other things like culture they don’t have to be new. There’s a lot of culture from old days too. Not to be kneeled down to or anything, but part of the whole picture.

WRECK PARK

  And punk was a big part of this. As you said, it didn’t have to be big stadium rock. You could write your own songs and take the vaudeville approach—just write songs and do it.

WATT

  It made things to people like me and D. Boon very obvious which we should have realized all the time, you know? When Woody Guthrie says “if I had a hammer,” he’s not talking about selling hammers to everybody at the fuckin Nuremburg rally. But yet, “this land’s for you and me”—it’s not a selfish fuckin’ Ayn Rand trip either. There’s a weird duality around the individual and the group and I think a part of human tragedy or folly is not getting it together that way. Trying to use shortcuts, which is a pretty complicated thing how that works; we’re not beehives, we’re not wild grizzly bears, it’s a strange kind of thing. But I think it’s worth putting energy in and investigating…to try to pretend that the matter is settled or can be decided with supplying certain demographics with items they need for the market…some of it has to be very personal. On the other hand some of it has to be very kind of, in a dream world. I don’t think the creativity problem should ever get solved. Now the means to tackle the thing, those things should be made more econo. The Minutemen philosophy: “we jam econo”…yeah we didn’t have a big thing for a big arena but we could still make music, we could still use this form of art as expression. It took a movement of other weirdos who didn’t fit in to show us that. But at the same time we never thought it was really a style of music. It wasn’t a template to hide behind, actually it’s supposed to be the springboard or launchpad…

WRECK PARK

  It’s more of an approach than a specific sound…

WATT

  Let’s say you are a carver. You have a piece of wood and you have a knife there. Now the way the art is inside that jackknife is with potential right? It’s with opportunity. It’s not actually the knife itself. You are going to use that…it’s almost equal with the stick. What is to be done? What is to become? The art actually isn’t in the movement, it’s what is to be done. I’m getting abstract here, but I don’t know what other way to talk about it.

WRECK PARK

  That’s fine.

WATT

  It’s very interesting how the arts and expression…it seems like there is fabric, between humans, that isn’t like the usual ones, which are pretty tyrannical—somebody’s on top somebody’s down below—this thing where you use aesthetics to connect people, they can always say “I don’t like this,” “turn this off. I’ll try making something myself.” So that’s why I’m kind of interested in it that way. [sarcastic] Then you make a perfect art machine or something? It’s almost like making the perfect movement. These things are hard to tackle. Even with your own expression, wonder if it ever lives up to what you dream, or maybe you get surprised and things revealed themselves that you really had no intention of.

WRECK PARK

  This idea of the tradition and using punk as this tool—the knife that is the potential to make something. Let’s talk about punk not as a sound, but a tool to create something in dialogue with tradition: the Minutemen covering Steely Dan, Van Halen, and Creedence [Clearwater Revival], or Hellride doing the Stooges…

WATT

  You need your own voice to juxtapose; if you don’t have your own voice to begin with then those covers don’t make any sort of sense. But if you do have an image and you do things like that I think they make some kind of sense, because they are counterpointed with something—whether it be an ironic thing, like Steely Dan, or a tribute thing, like the Stooges. You have to have a voice you are speaking from, I think. This was very important to the Minutemen when we first started, because all we did before punk was copy records. We didn’t know what we really sounded like, we never wrote our own songs, we just had another idea of music. It was just something we did to hang out. Well it could still be that. But it could also be a form of expression. With punk, people with funny names and clothes and learning in public showed us that that was very important. Music could be a source of expression. And again…finding out later, I can draw that back to Walt Whitman. A very old US tradition, maybe not 99 percent of people, but it was there. It’s been there.

WRECK PARK

  Maybe you could speak a bit more on Whitman. In your book, On and Off Bass, you begin with an epigraph from “Song of Myself”…

WATT

  There’s this saying, right?: “the only thing new is you finding out about it.” I didn’t really realize how important Walt Whitman was to the traditions that me and D. Boon were finding out with punk. Raymond [Pettibon] taught me about John Coltrane and Dada, one’s a homegrown musician whose main philosophy seems like: all musicians are after some kind of truth. And then this other thing [Dada] from overseas that happened in the middle of the First World War in a neutral country. They were using artistic expression as a critique [of the] fuckin’ nightmare they were in. So I knew about them, but I didn’t realize. It seemed like there was some kind of beatnik stuff—Naked Lunch, On the Road—reading those things, I got a little bit, but I really felt a resonance when I went back and read Leaves of Grass again. And just, it spoke to me so much about what the Minutemen…and then getting the backstory on it [Leaves of Grass]—how he did the fucking things, the editions—of course I like the first one the best (you know he kept addin’ to it and addin’ to it). But that first thing he did, it resonated so much with what we were doing, but its way after the fact. I wonder as Minutemen, ya know living, if we had found that out…D. Boon was really getting into the Woody Guthrie angle. The Minutemen were trying to figure out why we were a certain way, attracted to certain things, sounded a certain way…we were trying to figure that out. When punk first started we thought we were all tainted, all polluted by Arena rock. We would do anything we could to be as pure as the urinals. Like someone who just started with punk. England bands like Wire and [The] Pop Group tried to help us but, I don’t know, the way you get introduced to stuff can be very profound on you…maybe in some ways you’re not ready to learn other things. Maybe it had to come later. So it’s hard for me to second guess this kind of stuff. But I do know in a way, or I guess, my opinion, this is our shift now. There was a shift before and there’s gonna’ be a shift after. It’s a little peculiar maybe for the US situation. But it’s something all humans have engaged in to some extent. Certain groups of them. And inside those groups, some people only for a little bit. I think about Rimbaud: there’s only two, three years of poems, and then no more. And then guess like [jazz drummer] Elvin Jones who’s got the oxygen tank on the stage and he’s playing up til’ the very end. It’s hard to quantify this stuff, but I do believe it’s coming out of some traditions. And that’s why it’s so strong you don’t even have to think about it and the momentum carries through. Just the same as those other traditions, that I would consider, anti-human in a way. We’re strange as a family…animals, plant kingdom…but this is where we are at. Being sentient, being conscious, and trying to figure out better ways of connecting without being tyrant on each other is healthy.

WRECK PARK

  In On and Off Bass you write about your natural state being between people and states and nations, and you tie that back to punk rock…

WATT

  Some of that is kind of a help therapy because I think one problem with not dying and not getting killed and living on is you think you know everything and nobody has anything to teach you. Which is a very dangerous place to be. So this idea of trying to keep the mind open. Be serious about a philosophy that says: everybody’s got something to teach you. I think these are important things. To be in the ring of reality and not all just full of yourself just because you haven’t gotten taken out yet. It’s so much to learn. Of course we know everything in our twenties. But you make it past there, you find out just the other way. Which I don’t think is a bad thing. The one thing you have over the younger person is experiences. And they should maybe be shared. Those are things are only brought into the world by living them. I don’t want to sound like some kind of pragmatist or anything—the knowin’s and the doin’s—sometimes [it’s] just the doin’ and trying to know what the fuck that was. And not get too caught up in your own navel gazing. But it’s ok I think to take stock of some of this stuff and not get too heavy on it, but reflect a little bit; if you have some regret, ok, but part of a journey like that…it’s a dynamic for me. I’m living this part now—the middle age—but it's stuff I never would have thought of as a younger chap because you’re just not presented with those issues yet; you’re just in another place. But like you were saying in the beginning, it convinces me more and more, that life is a journey, and, it’s a fuckin’ classroom. There’s some social constructs that say “K-6” or “high school” or “college” or “you’re going to have your last test…” I don’t believe that. You’re always having tests! You’re never done with the learning and I don’t think that’s a totally bad thing.

WRECK PARK

  Speaking of being informed by different traditions and always learning—and we have touched upon this already—tell me a bit about your relationship to John Coltrane’s music…

WATT

  It was Raymond Pettibon who played him for me. And I thought, actually, he was just an older guy playing punk. I didn’t know he had been dead for twelve years. There was just something about…there wasn’t a lot of rules so you didn’t know what was punk so much. So I just got a feeling, I don’t know why. And then, getting into his records and also Raymond taking me to some of the people—obviously he was gone—but there was people from his age like his drummer Elvin Jones. Raymond taking me to these gigs, these little clubs, twenty people, and these guys playin’ their asses off as older men. And at the same time listening to as much John Coltrane as I could, and not hearing it as a genre, just speaking to me. I could tell he practiced like a motherfucker, you could just tell. And then I started reading about him, and yeah, he practiced fuckin’…when I first started reading about him was the Miles Quincy Troupe thing [see: Quincy Troupe’s Miles and Me] where [Coltrane’s] prackin’ after the fuckin’ gigs. And then Rashied Ali’s talkin’ about him prackin’ at the airport. Rashied was funny, he said something that was strange for me, “he was already so good why did he have to keep prackin’?” And I’m thinking, maybe, he would chase something down and when he got that scale worked out, it worked out to other implications, so he had to chase them down, it was like peelin’ an onion. It wasn’t a question of good enough; he was on a journey, you know? Then I found recordings of him talking, and pictures of him, and all of a sudden, I could never know the man, right?, but I’m getting’ this kind of thing together about that only through expression of his eyes of his voice in the interviews of his horn of the music. John Coltrane to me is almost like—I could talk to him like he was my Pop or something, but in another way, his expression of his works. It’s a trippy kind of thing. Especially after I lost my Pop—cancer killed him, he was an engine room guy, but with nuclear boats, you know? I don’t know, he [Coltrane] became like a go-to guy if you felt no confidence or you were scared about a gig or recording or something…maybe you know, it’s all stuff about him. It’s not so much stuff written by other people—it’s from him. Still, it’s a construct but it’s all from his stuff, from his expression. But other people write about him it’s kind of strange: some people were very angry with him, they thought he was on a campaign to destroy jazz. Weird when I read about this stuff, how much controversy he brought, because he seemed like the most peaceful man in the world.

WRECK PARK

  So the way we have been talking about punk here—as this tool, this knife, this way of going about things—and you saying that you thought Coltrane was playing punk—it seem significant that punk also has been—historically—codified and solidified…

WATT

  Yeah, you can buy the clothes at Hot Topic! Once I was asked to play the Hot Topic stage at the Warped Tour. I thought D. Boon would have liked it, because I thought it was for debating…but it’s the name of a store where you can buy punk clothes at the mall! But the big joke is Thelonious Monk would have never won the Thelonious Monk contest. Or! Pat Boone selling way more “Tutti Frutti” than Little Richard. So this has been going on for a long time; it’s not really a new problem. It’s the way humans, we have some of these kind of ridiculous ways of being.

WRECK PARK

  Do you see yourself or your work as trying to engage with that and resist that in some way?

WATT

  Well, I’d hate to be manipulated by that fight because I think that fight is almost a forever thing, right? It can get solved by the individual because they just make up their mind! But how do you do it for society? Keep all the mersh shit out, and now they’ll make that mersh. So I don’t know if you can do that on a big level so I wouldn’t want to waste too much energy in that battle. So you gotta let some of that go and [leave it] up to the receiver. They gotta make up their mind whether it’s jive or not. I’m not trying to be jive. Like I said, one of the greatest things I heard Coltrane say is all musicians, they are after some truth. And I think in the same spiel, the guy asked him, “How would you define classical music?” He said, “Well, I could be wrong, but maybe that’s the kind of music where you’re sitting down when you listen to it.” I think, in one way, the music or expression was something very alive and in the moment and maybe not all the way yours. Some of its history, some of its potential, you know, what could be—you know, where is the wall? Don’t push against it—that kind of thing. But at the same time, it’s shared by all kinds of other people, so it’s not just your struggle. You’re actually part of a community. God, when you listen to Coltrane, how much of the blues can you hear in that? There’s so much blues! Even for all that reachin’ and getting beyond…he still has no problem being a part of the blues. You hear it in, another guy—they might have influenced each other because they were alive around the same time—Captain Beefheart. He’s got all kinds of blues in his music, then he’s got all kinds of like, poem-painting with Howlin’ Wolf voice. It’s strange about that stuff. It was engaging to me. Obviously me and D. Boon came from a situation we couldn’t unlearn. The Creedence records, the Blue Öyster Cult, it was there! But to try to sell sentimentality, nostalgia, or little tribute shrines to these guys? Maybe we owe it to them to try to find our own voice, even though we learned from them. So that’s the dilemma we found ourselves in. We also found, rather than dilemma, or the burden of that, we also saw the opportunity. The [punk] movement…you want a thirty second song? Do thirty seconds. You want to put Funkadelic with Beefheart? You can do that! It’s easy to say now, but for us, we needed something like this movement—people like me and D. Boon—at that time in our lives. It just was a very personal, mind blown thing. It helped us re-evaluate things for ourselves, don’t take anything a priori. And it’s so funny how stuff still had traditional paths going there. We didn’t invent all of this stuff. We were being more aware that there was other ways to do things. And these could be tools to help us find our way. It’s not a totally lonely road either. With George Hurley we became SST 002—we were the second record on the label with the Hüskers [Hüsker Dü], and the Meat Puppets, and [Black] Flag and later on Dinosaur [Jr.] and Sonic [Youth], it’s a pretty incredible thing if you think about it. But a lot of it wasn’t all the way conscious. Couldn’t have been. We would have been wasting too much time on the social connections. Not putting in the work that you have to do—to do the noun “works”, you have to do the verb “work.”

WRECK PARK

  It seems like that has continued. You are talking about doing the work in different ways and always learning. You’ve released three operas in the past couple years. This might seem strange or discontinuous in a world now so instant that you are putting out these really engaging long form pieces. What drew you to opera as a form?

WATT

  It started with The Engine Room. The Engine Room was the first time that I wanted to deal with losing D. Boon. I just couldn’t do it in one song; if I was gonna do one song, it was going to have to be a big song. Now it wasn’t Tommy, but it was a thing from The Who called A Quick One. It’s like this song with seven or eight parts to it. And I think that’s what got me going on this thing where, if one song’s not big enough, just make the song bigger, and the idea of different parts informing each other. It might have been a Pete Townsend kind of thing. I wasn’t like Tommy though, or Quadrophenia, it was like that first one, A Quick One. It was too much for just a tune—I had to make a whole album-song for D. Boon. It was also my Pop. I used my Pop’s story in the Navy. The next one [The Second Man’s Middle Stand] was about sickness that almost killed me. I used literature in that one. First one I kinda used stuff from Richard McKenna’s Sand Pebbles, who actually was in the Navy, it’s the only book he wrote. And Jim Joyce—Ulysses—where he puts life, everything, in one day. I took the whole Minutemen’s life in one day. The second one—The Second Man’s Middle Stand—I used Dante’s Commedia for the sickness that almost killed me. The hell was the sickness, the purgatory was getting well, and getting to do the bass and the kayak, bicycle, was heaven. That’s kind of the first thing where I felt middle-age. It kind of set up the third one. I didn’t know I was going to have a third one. I thought, here’s this one with the sad ending. Here’s the one with the happy ending. And then what else can you do. Well, the third one came which is about the middle, so there is no ending. So that came about—a couple different things—the We Jam Econo documentary came out so I had to hear Minutemen again. In a way I wanted to re-do Minutemen. Without being nostalgic, without being sentimental, I owed D. Boon and Georgie [George Hurley] that. And I wanted to work with that form again. At the same time I was with the Stooges in Madrid, and the hotel was next to Prado. I saw these Hieronymus Bosch paintings and I liked these pictures as a kid—I remember the books and I was into dinosaurs—but seeing them in real life was like “wow!” I was really amazed at the little men and the little parts, and it just made me think of a Minutemen record or gig with one thing made out of a bunch of little…so I thought maybe I could do this, use the imagery for the metaphor and analogy, and then for the libretto, I’ll talk about something the Minutemen would have never talked about: being a middle-aged punk rocker. We never thought of that shit. I even did more severe things though: I wrote the whole thing on D. Boon’s guitar—I’m not much of a guitar player, I know some things he showed me. But I wanted the bass second. I hardly ever write on the guitar. I showed Tom Watson [guitar player from The Missingmen], taught him the whole opera. There is one solo in the second part that is his but all the rest he followed me as I was teaching him. I taught Raul [Morales, drummer from The Missingmen] the drums; because I can’t play drums I used sounds from my mouth over the microphone. But I would not let them hear—because I strapped on the guitar to show Tom Watson—I would not let them the bass or the spiel. But if you don’t want too much Minutemen, get rid of the only Minuteman. So I had them learn that whole fuckin’ thing without hearing the bass or the spiel. Even had them record it in the middle of that tour. Then a year later I flew back to Tony Maimone’s pad in Brooklyn and I used his bass and put the spiel on and that’s when Raul and Tom heard it for the first time.

WRECK PARK

  Can you talk to us about your book, On and Off Bass? How did it come about?

WATT

  I didn’t pick any of those pictures or those excerpts. But I wrote them and I took all those pictures. I didn’t feel confident about being my own editor. That’s a brand new field for me. I’ve been doing it for a little while, but I never showed them to people. But they picked excerpts from my diary; the diary is to help me on tour keep focused. It’s also, I get to see a lot of things because of my work. I’m trying to coax people into having first-hand experiences. I think it’s really important. Not like mine are any better than anyone else’s, but we should all have more and more first-hand experiences so we don’t have opinions based on jive shit. That’s where the diaries come from.

WRECK PARK

  What made you decide to put out a book at this time?

WATT

  Well I was asked to, for one thing. I didn’t solicit. But I thought it was a good thing for me because, especially when you get to this point, when is the last gig? When’s the last book? I never had one before. In a way it was a way to tell people about why I like [San] Pedro [Watt’s hometown in California], why Pedro is not better town than anybody else’s, could be anybody’s town. Or anybody’s town could be their Pedro. And I just thought I needed to put something like that out before maybe something happened to me and I never had the chance to. You start thinking that way more in this time of age than when you’re a younger man. You think you have time—you do have time for things. You should be careful, not just put everything out—have a reason, not just to flatter yourself. But I really thought I should put something out like that, especially when people brought the opportunity and it didn’t look too self-aggrandizing—it really speaks to Pedro in a way. And even the tour diaries, it speaks of the places I’m at and the people I’m playing with. And so I was comfortable with that. I’m not really comfortable with “look at me, I’m a badass!” I’m really not comfortable with that kind of thing at all. Even the We Jam Econo documentary. I let those guys do that because, they never saw us, they were too young—I thought if people saw that, me and D. Boon making a band…anybody can make a band; it’s not like we were even the best band in that movement.

Watt’s Recommendations

Books:

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov

Watt - Samuel Beckett

The poetry of Richard Brautigan


Music:

Lite (http://lite-web.com/)


General:

Kayaking, “wear a life jacket”


Glossary

Black Flag: California punk band formed in 1977. Founding guitarist Greg Ginn also founded SST records to release Black Flag’s music; SST eventually came to release records by a number of seminal punk groups.

Minutemen: California punk band comprised of Mike Watt, D. Boon, and George Hurley. Became the second band on the SST roster.

Mersh: Most noted as the title of the Minutemen’s 1985 EP “Project Mersh.” The term typically denotes something “commercial,” produced only for capital gain.

Spiel: Used to describe most written and verbal communication, especially Watt's own. For instance, Watt refers to the lyrics of his work as "the spiel;" Watt's website directs inquiries for "speil requests" to his management.

Raymond Pettibon: Artist who designed many early punk album covers and fliers, including those for Black Flag, Minutemen, and Sonic Youth.