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.
One of the CD's strangest moments is a recorded phone message from Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna, who responds with apparent riot-grrrl rage at Watt's request that she perform on the CD. Hanna attacks, among other things, Watt's "all-boys club" and accuses one of said "boys" of criminal sexual misconduct. Hanna also rails about Watt not returning an Annie soundtrack.
Turns out the phone message was prerehearsed. Watt thinks of the recording as performance art. "She's talking about some very real things that are very intense," he says. "But I wouldn't try and slander anybody on the phone. She's really endearing, has a lot of personality. I was trying to show off a side that maybe you can only get by doing these jams like this. Not the forced packaged thing." Watt laughs. "And I don't have an Annie soundtrack."
Another song from the CD, "Against the 70's," has a different kind of tension. It deals with the endlessly recycled market for "classic rock." Watt's sentiments, sung by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, are clear: "The kids of today should defend themselves against the '70s/It's not reality/It's someone else's sentimentality."
"I'm 37 now," Watt says. "And I remember what was happening to me when I was young--Happy Days and American Graffiti. I would wonder, 'What is this? This is my dad's life.' It's happening again now."
As for the recent resurrection of Seventies-style punk, Watt says he's surprised by its afterlife. But, he says, on second thought, "The idea of disenfranchised lame guys doing their own gigs, I don't see how that can ever go out of style."
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Watt still sees himself as such a punk. And that sense of individualism is felt throughout the varied collaborations on Ball-Hog or Tugboat?. Watt obviously won't be able to re-create the CD's crowded roster for his national tour, which kicks off in the Valley. Instead, he will incorporate a pickup band featuring ex-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl (who does perform on the recording) along with members of the now-defunct Seattle band Sunny Day Real Estate. Grohl's band, Foo Fighters, is also on the tour, as is another Seattle act, Hovercraft.
Watt figures lineups will likely change at times on the tour. He also hints that surprise "guests" might pop up at certain shows, lending an added dose of chaos to the already malleable mix. He laughs and says the whole thing might end up like a circus up there, "like in the old SST days when the roadies would be the opening act."
Those old SST days in the early Eighties are still a point of pride for Watt. "One of the best things about the music back then was the regionalism. Hsker D was a Minnesota band, the Puppets were there in Arizona and we were in Pedro. You didn't have a central way of disseminating the info to see what was hip right away. That was what was really neat about those days. Every town you went to had their own take on it."
Watt admits he sometimes gets "silly and nostalgic" for those halcyon d.i.y. days. But he says he uses his memories to influence his music. "You know, D. Boon and I, we never talked about what we would do if something like [the accident] happened. So, I just keep going.