Bassist Mike Watt Reps Blue-Collar Ethos
Mike Watt doesn't waste time. Picking up the phone in San Pedro, the town he's called home since his childhood, he answers with a distinct, direct bark: "Watt!"
He plays music the same way he greets interviewers, with no time for introductions and pleasantries. We'll recap anyway: He was one-third of legendary DIY pioneers The Minutemen, joined by guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley. The band's influential sound fused punk's fervor with nimble jazz touches, shards of folky grit, and propulsive funk. The Minutemen ended tragically in the Arizona desert, when Boon died in a car accident in 1985. Watt considered giving up music for good but rebounded strongly in the opposite direction.
He joined Hurley and guitarist Ed Crawford in fIREHOSE, recording for SST before surfing the big wave of punk's popularity to a major-label deal with Columbia. Since disbanding fIREHOSE in 1993, Watt's maintained a dizzying work schedule, balancing solo work with a spot in the reformed Stooges lineup, dozens of improv collaborations, and records with a new trio, The Missingmen. Last year, fIREHOSE reunited for a string of shows in support of a Columbia Records anthology, and Watt promises dozens of new projects in the works, including a new project featuring Nels Cline (Wilco's ace-in-the-hole avant-jazz guitarist), Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, and Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos.
"I've got one last tour with The Missingmen and then I'm going to start on a record with my second band, the band I put together for my second opera — [they're] two Pedro guys," Watt says. "They're longshoremen; it's going to be an album about work."
Watt's career has been defined mostly by that idea, that being a musician is "work." Thoroughly blue-collar in attitude, Watt rarely turns down jobs (he recorded bass for Kelly Clarkson's My December in 2007) and values extensive woodshedding. It may sound less glamorous than being an "artist," but Watt's catalog has never lacked in creativity or inspiration. His most recent work with The Missingmen, hyphenated-man, is an opera comprising 30 short songs inspired by the fantastical creatures of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Watt relishes defying expectations.
"I came out of arena rock," he says. "You don't know about stuff until you get turned on to it. What I found about 'the punk scene,' it wasn't really a style of music, it was more of a state of mind. You had very interesting people who liked all kinds of different music. They turned me on to all kinds of stuff. [SST cover artist Raymond] Pettibon turned me on to Coltrane."
His love affair with John Coltrane's music continues to this day, as he spins a song from the jazz icon during each installment of Watt from Pedro Show, a free-form Internet radio show he hosts each week. In the late '90s, he got into the idea of radio, hosting a show on pirate FM station KBLT in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles (former station leader Sue Carpenter details the struggle of running the illegal station in her excellent book, 40 Watts from Nowhere. Watt's sets — just like the KBLT days — go wherever he feels like taking them.
"People do this," he says, explaining "punk" mentality. "They get all orthodox about stuff, no matter what the original intention was. Humans have a kind of herd nature they give in to. Sometimes they react against it, though."
Watt manifests that reaction against orthodoxy as much as he can.
"Yeah, I've got a lot of things going," he laughs. "I've been trying to juggle as much as I can. I put my bass in different places, and maybe I keep growing, and keep learning, you know? That's the whole idea."
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