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Mike Watt is an easygoing sort. He's a big, friendly guy with a gruff voice that makes him sound even bigger and friendlier on the phone. At the moment, Watt's speaking from Los Angeles. The rambling conversation concerns, among other things, Watt's long career as one of the better-known and more creative bassists in rock. He's been at it for more than 15 years, and he's seen a lot. His manner allows him to wave off the kind of traumas that would send lesser constitutions into a tizzy--like the recent breakup of a long-standing band: in Watt's case, the demise of fIREHOSE, which ceased to exist about a year ago.
"Ah, you know, I just pulled the plug on it," Watt says with an audible shrug. "It was time, you know?"
But there's one trauma he doesn't wave off so easily. There's a subject that can turn Watt's gregariousness down a considerable set of notches. The subject is D. Boon, Watt's childhood friend and former bandmate in the Minutemen, a proto-punk outfit that helped define the American indie/underground scene in the early Eighties. D. Boon was killed when the van he was riding in rolled over off I-10 near Quartzsite. The accident took place ten years ago this summer. Watt says it still hurts.
"Yeah, big time," he says, his voice lowering. "You've got to understand, we were never in other bands, so the way I play, my style, it's all wrapped around D. Boon. I mean, I was never a musician. I started with D. Boon because that was our way of hanging out. We started when we were 12--his mom decided I should play around with the bass. Punk came at the right time and the right place for us, and that's why we got to make a band."
Watt allows himself a little laugh. "It was kind of like a couple of kids building model airplanes in the bedroom. We just copied the song off the record. You never thought about playing the Forum."
From such humble seeds--Watt says he didn't know a bass was supposed to have bigger strings than a guitar until high school--the Minutemen tore through a lifetime of songs in six years. D. Boon would scratch out spare chords and bellow alongside Watt's self-taught improvisations and the muscular drumming of fellow San Pedro, California, pal George Hurley. The sound was like a mutant strain of nervous jazz set to radical politics and punk's do-it-yourself mindset.
The Minutemen ended the second D. Boon died. Watt was lost, his "reason for playing music" gone. But he got going again with the help of a Minutemen fan named Ed Crawford, who hitchhiked from Ohio, knocked on Watt's door, introduced himself and said he wanted to start a band with Watt and Hurley. Thus, fIREHOSE.
But by January of last year, Watt realized fIREHOSE had gone flat. Watt also noticed that this band that he used to rebound after the loss of the Minutemen had now been together longer than the Minutemen. The milestone made him think.
"I always felt kind of weird about not taking chances," he says of this post-D. Boon phase. "In a way, fIREHOSE was kind of a boilerplate of the Minutemen." He sighs. "But, man, Edward was not D. Boon. And it was kind of unfair to Edward."
Watt broke up the band and decided to do some self-therapy. Where he once took what he admits was the easy way out--playing similar music with familiar musicians in a safe environment--he now went the opposite direction. For his first solo recording, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, Watt enlisted the help of, count 'em, 48 collaborators.
"It was just a freak thing," Watt says. "I played drums with Georgie [Hurley] for 14 years, so for this, I used 14 different drummers, that kind of thing. It was just to do the opposite, just for a freak."
Watt managed to enlist a number of old, old punk friends for the project. Fellow SST Records alumni Cris and Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets played banjo and lead guitar, respectively, on the opening cut. Another old SST buddy, Henry Rollins, contributes a Rollinslike confrontational diatribe, and a former member of the Germs, part-time Nirvana man and current Foo Fighter Pat Smear is featured on a vocal track. Other notable hipsters include Evan Dando, J Mascis and half of Sonic Youth. Indeed, the CD includes the debut of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore's new baby, who offers a crying jag in the name of art. All in all, an enormous project. "I didn't know how it was going to turn out," Watt says. "Most of it, I just had bass lines, I'd play it for them and see what they could do."
The CD's 17 songs were recorded in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles. Watt tried to avoid a "party 'n' jam thing" by keeping the recording atmosphere intimate. "I only let people in the studio who were playing. It was very personal. It was like all these different bands every time you went in there."
The results, for the most part, are striking. Frank Black does a beautifully sensitive vocal turn on the Hot Tuna-tasting "Chinese Firedrill," and Evan Dando stamps his slacker persona on "Piss-Bottle Man," a Who-sounding song Watt penned for his dad.