Ask MIKE WATT, minuteman!
from Vol. 2, No. 4
Veteran bassist, minuteman and all-around nice guy Mike Watt came to Montreal twice in the past year, the first time for the launch of his Montreal-produced book, Spiels of a Minuteman, a bilingual tome which includes his tour diaries from a 1983 minuteman tour with Black Flag, his complete song lyrics from 1980-1985, introductions by himself as well as by Thurston Moore, Joe Carducci, and Richard Meltzer and art by Raymond Pettibon. For the book launch in Montreal, Mike played an amazingly tight set of minuteman songs and another set of Stooges covers with an assortment of Montreal musicians, all of whom had practiced in advance, but only got to practice with Mike once or twice before the show. (Nevertheless, it was one of the most electrifying shows in recent memory. Few bands from the early 80s still sound as innovative and eclectic as the old minuteman albums do today.) The second time Mike came by was with the secondmen, his innovative bass/ organ/ drums trio, who put on a very interesting show at the same venue (La Salla Rossa) a few months later.
I’d hoped to interview Mike in person both times he was in town, but a confluence of hectic schedules (and a seriously gruelling few days preceding his book launch) made it so that an email interview would have to suffice. Long-time (and legendary) Montreal bassist Clank (formerly of Fair Warning, Failsafe, Rhododendron, Megalo, too many other bands to mention and currently in B9) helped me construct a few questions for “the man with a bass in his hand,” and following are the results.
The first four questions are from Clank:
FP: Are you back to playing your Thunderbird bass?
No, its neck is too long! I did play it at the first Stooges reunion gig at Coachella, cuz the little Gibson EB-3 was with my guys in North Carolina. (I was in the middle of my own Secondmen tour and had to fly back to do that gig, returning to my guys to do the next five weeks with them.) As I’ve gotten “less young,” my hands get too sore from playing long scaled basses. I sure love that bass though!
FP: What’s up with the Secondmen anyway—more tours coming, albums?
We’ll record the next record in December after a support tour for the Chili Peppers this October.
FP: Do you still find inspiration in Dante’s Divine Comedy?
Big time. It’s a big influence on my next album. I first read it as a teenager and read it again after that sickness that almost killed me (see http://hootpage.com/hoot_pissbagillness.html).
FP: Do you find that your Sunn amp has less power than the Ampeg you used to use?
I don’t use that Sunn amp (1200s) anymore except at practice. I use an Eden preamp (the Navigator) through a QSC PLX3002 (http://www.qscaudio.com/products/amps/plx/plx.htm) power amp going to Eden D410XLT speakers (two cabinets). Plenty of power.
FP: Now, some questions about your book, Spiels of a minuteman— You write about learning music to bands like BOC, T-Rex, Sabbath etc. Personally I find early BOC and T-Rex to hold up really well today, very fresh sounding. Do you still dig some of that stuff yourself?
Sure do. I listen to stuff now though I wasn’t even aware of then, like tons of John Coltrane.
FP: Ever meet Jack Bruce, Larry Graham or any other of your bass idols?
I never have met those cats though once I got to play Jack Bruce’s Cream bass – Bruce Gary traded a Chapman Stick and some money for it and a friend (Harvey Kubernik) brought me to his pad in the Valley and showed it to me. It had a letter authenticating it and everything. What a great bass, but I don’t know how it sounded cuz I didn’t play it through an amp. I did get to meet Gene Simmons a couple of times and he had an influence on my bass playing. Same with Richard Hell.
FP: You mention a big influence was “The Pop Group” from England, who sounded like Beefheart crossed with P-Funk. That sounds amazing—and the whole James White/ Contortions sound is coming back now in a big way. But I never heard of “The Pop Group”—do you know whatever happened to them?
You can find pop group info here: http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~edge/pop_group/index.php
Funny how things come and go in cycles. The Pop Group had a huge effect on me and d. and on the Minutemen.
FP: Did you guys actually cross over and play a gig in East Berlin during that tour with Black Flag?
No, it was in West Berlin. We had to cross through East Germany to get there, though.
FP: Did you get much flack in the early days from audiences or hardcore bands for incorporating funk elements and ‘progressive’ arrangements?
Of course, but we were trying to find our own sound and explore that concept of “anarchy” everyone in that scene was talking about. Real anarchy for us was the war going on inside our own heads, trying to break down the Berlin walls that got built up there after years of arena rock. we found it kind of natural these cats who were so orthodox with form being weirded-out by the likes of us.
FP: Was breaking the toilets in clubs really something punks did a lot of at early 80s hardcore shows? Also, when did punks finally stop throwing lit cigarettes, huge firecrackers and such at the stage during shows? Is there really any comparison with the punks and “slam-dancing circles” of yore and the mosh pits and “mall punks” of today? And could this line from your diaries be the birth of body surfing: [at a show in Cleveland] “they picked up one guy and carried him like pall bearers”?
When you have a scene with no rules (or hardly any), all kinds of characters can get involved. We never broke any toilets but we did spit on people when we got all excited and way bourboned-up. There was more of “pogo” thing with the dancing rather than “slamming,” which
came with the younger folks, what they called “hardcore” after the 70s punk we were actually from. Us as punks in the audience was more of a late 70s thing and then as punks in bands more starting with the minutemen in 1980 (though we did have a band called the Reactionaries for two years before that but they didn’t do many gigs). With younger people with more energy, yes – the crowds did get more physical with each other. Almost like fighting! I saw this at Primus shows I did with them in the middle 90s! It’s not just an 80s thing. Pogoing was more in your own space (just up and down) and not so much hurting other people. There was an Aerosmith gig years ago where a big firecracker was thrown at one of the band guys – it wasn’t just punkers being violent though that got sensationalized a bunch. I just played with the Stooges in Detroit and though I didn’t get hit, tons of shit was being thrown at us. I think it can happen at any time. There’s probably crowd surfing at Randy Travis gigs maybe. I’d hate to generalize and make everything generic – punk wasn’t just about violent crowds.
FP: Did I read correctly, that after a gig in New York, Allen Ginsberg was hitting on Henry Rollins in a big way?
Well, he was foaming pretty much on him – however, Henry was very polite back. I think everyone knew where each other stood and there was no disrespect.
FP: Now that you’ve played with the original Stooges, how would you say you set of Stooges covers with Montreal musicians go last spring? Did you know at that time you would soon be playing with the REAL Stooges?
I thought those Montreal cats were very kind to play with me like they did. It was very nice of them. I had played with Iggy, Ron and Scott separately but never all together until that Coachella gig back in April. The Montreal gig you’re talking about was three months before that. I’ve had a few Stooges bands (one with Porno for Pyros’ Stephen Perkins and Peter DiStefano, one with J. Mascis and Murph, one with two longshoremen friends from Pedro here – Adam Gaxiola and Jerry Trebotic and one with Nels Cline and Kevin Fitzgerald of the Geraldine Fibbers) over the last bunch of years (especially after my sickness) so I am quite versed in that music. It was a mindblow though, I have to tell you, when the actual Stooges thing happened and I was involved. I actually first played with Ron maybe seven years ago for a soundtrack to that “Velvet Goldmine” movie.
FP: Any thoughts on MP3s/ file-sharing and the supposed death of the majors, death of CDs and vinyl, etc.?
Me and d. boon divided the world into two categories: gigs and flyers – anything not a gig was a flyer, so if a mp3 file turns someone on to wanting to come see Watt play for them, then I think
it’s a good thing. I like playing for people, who would be interested enough in seeing what I was doing. I don’t live off of record sales so maybe I’m biased that way. I make my living playing for people.
FP: In my mind’s eye, the world the Minutemen played in was a stressful time, with Reagan in charge and fears of nuclear war abounding. Listening to SST bands, Crass and the like bring the whole mood back to me. Any thoughts on how the Reagan years measure up to these Bush II years, and the consequent effect on music?
It’s a stressful time now, yes indeed! I think it does show up in the arts, however abstract or obvious. These times are kind of like those times where some concentrate their personal power by promoting fear and we all know this is an old game. “The only thing new is you, finding out about it” – that’s what someone told me once.
I think being influenced by the prevailing climate is a natural tendency of those in the arts, though sometimes it can also be something to react against. Trippy, this thing about human expression.
Spiels of a Minuteman is available from the publisher, l’Oie de Cravan. To get one, send $15 to 5460 Waverley, Montreal, Que.