Mike Watt says he never had a first name until he played in a punk band. As a child, this son of a Navy enlisted man moved with such frequency from town to town, and base to base, that no one ever got to know him long enough to refer to him by his first name.
Maybe for that reason, the 40-year-old bass icon is almost like a punk version of the one-named superstar, in this case known simply by his surname. His friends--including Eddie Vedder in a guest cameo on Watt's 1995 track "Against the '70s"--generally refer to him that way. On the credits for his latest solo album, Contemplating the Engine Room, he lists himself simply as Watt. And when he calls me on a Wednesday morning during a tour stop in Brussels, Belgium, his first words are: "This is Watt."
Watt's childhood as the son of a sailor has been on his mind a lot lately. Last year, while touring as Porno for Pyros' fill-in bass player, he began thinking about the way Porno singer Perry Farrell used his music to tell stories onstage. Watt had always shied away from opening up his own back pages to the public, probably because his punk roots made him keenly aware of the pitfalls of such confessionalism: cheap sentiment and nostalgia. But Farrell's example made him reconsider his creative strategies.
It had been six years since Watt had lost his father to cancer, and nearly 12 years since he lost his best friend and creative partner, D. Boon, in a car crash. More and more, Watt considered the parallels between the nomadic seaman's life his dad had chosen and the punk lifestyle he and D. Boon had adopted when they formed the legendary San Pedro, California, band the Minutemen.
"So I started thinking, 'Man, I should tell my story.' And a lot of strange coincidences happened. I found this book in a used-book store called The Sand Pebbles, which was me and D. Boon's favorite movie as teenagers. It was all about this guy in the engine room, it was written by an engine-room guy, my father was an engine-room guy. It seemed like the perfect metaphor: the boat, the van."
Like the protagonist of The Sand Pebbles, who hated the phoniness of the military, and preferred to work below deck, Watt and Boon chose an underground path as a reaction against the bombastic arena rock of the '70s. They formed the Minutemen in 1980 with drummer George Hurley, and set the hard-core punk scene on its ear with their fast, jazzy, alternately pointed and absurd, and amazingly short songs. They reached a creative peak in 1984 with the 46-song two-record set, Double Nickels on the Dime, and seemed poised for greater triumphs when Boon's life was cut short two days before Christmas of 1985.
Watt and Hurley soldiered on in the band fIREHOSE, with Minutemen fan Ed Crawford on guitar, before Watt went solo in 1995 with Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, an album that featured an array of Watt's friends trading off on lead vocals, including Vedder and Lemonheads front man Evan Dando. Watt realized that his own presence had gotten lost in the hype over Ball-Hog's celebrated guests, so he felt that with Contemplating, he wanted to make a more personal album, one that exposed his own life in a way that he never had before.
"It's hard to find a way to do it without making it silly or some kind of gimmick," Watt says of the album's autobiographical tone. "It's not just D. Boon and my father, it's also the scene in the old days. All these people I played with or played alongside, they made a culture that I still use to do my art or expression with.
"Yeah, you take a chance of making it into some kind of Happy Days shit if you bring it out, but it really felt good when I was finished with this record, in a lot of weird ways. Like I could die, and I'd finally said what I wanted to say, which was, 'Thank you.'"
Watt expressed his gratitude through a highly metaphoric conceptual piece--he prefers the loopier designation "punk opera"--which traces a single day in the lives of three friends working in the engine room of a boat. The parallels between the Naval life and Watt's own punk odyssey are continually brought into sharp focus. "Fireman Hurley" is an obvious tribute to the Minutemen drummer, and Watt mourns his lost friend Boon in typically idiosyncratic fashion on "The Boilerman": "Sang me some Creedence songs/I was your bassman from then on/I'm a lucky man to know that man, a hell of a man."
Contemplating takes a while to kick in, at least partly because Watt's deep, non-singer's voice is tough to swallow in big doses. But Watt knew that no one could sing such personally significant material but him, and on repeated listens, his workingman's drone begins to make dramatic sense as an accurate instrument for the characters he's depicting.
Watt himself says that the album is "pretty abstract," and the songs have more of an emotional logic than any perceptible linear story. When working with his two musical cohorts on the album--guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Stephen Hodges--Watt tried to explain to them what he was aiming for with each song: the time of day, the characters, the appropriate mood. Some touches only reveal themselves over time, such as Cline's wonderfully wigged-out guitar fireworks at the beginning of "The Boilerman," a homage to Boon's angular playing style. Watt's commitment to Contemplating's structure led him to write and record the songs in the same order as they appear on the album.
"They were all written early in the morning when I take my bike ride," he says. "It seems to me that the day is the primary cycle, and we live and die, kinda, we go to sleep and kinda resurrect ourselves in the morning.
"The record's really about lines and boundaries, and people dying--losing people, and meeting people. Crossing over from the rock 'n' roll to the punk, crossing the equator. In a way, it was easy. It was like a device. I think all the moods you go through in a life you through in a day."
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With this album, Watt had to balance delicately his desire to celebrate both his father and the punk community that fostered his work with his native punk distrust of anything that does not speak to the moment at hand. He likes to say, "There is no good old days, that's just a lie." But he risked making this statement because he believes that his story offers valuable lessons to this generation of aspiring musicians.
He points out that all the major bands in the punk community that gave him his start--the Minutemen, HYsker DY, the Big Boys, the Meat Puppets, DOA--sounded completely different from each other. This point supports his contention that punk was never meant to be a static sound, but rather a spirit which inspired honesty and constant musical reinvention. Watt reminds himself of that need for change with little tricks, like tuning his high-E string down to D for this album, both as a tribute to D. Boon and as a way to disorient himself enough to capture something fresh on the bass.
"I'm trying to say, 'There's still gonna be room for invention with bass, guitar, and drums,'" he says. "Woody Guthrie was playing the guitar much before us. We could not copy him. But I've got a picture of him where he's wearing a flannel shirt and he's got a sticker on his guitar saying, 'This guitar kills fascists.' So we were playing in his tradition. But part of that tradition is coming up with your own voice. And I think this is what got lost with some of the commercialization of punk and this jive shit called alternative."
Mike Watt is scheduled to perform on Friday, April 24, at the Mason Jar, with Gloritone, and Les Payne Product. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.