Legendary punk bass player, Mike Watt, chats with great weather for MEDIA editor, Jane Ormerod.
Mike Watt - The Minutemen, fiREHOSE, The Missingmen, reformed Stooges, collaborator with every great artist you can think of - is in New York City to play an eagerly-anticipated show at (Le) Poisson Rouge on May 2nd. He is celebrating the release of Mike Watt: On and Off Bass, a collection of photographs snapped around the harbor of his beloved hometown of San Pedro, California. Kat Georges and Peter Carlaftes of Three Rooms Press cherry-picked the accompanying snippets of poetry, quotes, and anecdotes from 1,500 pages of Watt's diaries over the last ten years. The resulting book is stunning, insightful, and downright full of surprises.
Jane: Looking at the photographs in the book, I was really struck by their solitariness. The air, the light, the feeling of peace. And then the diary extracts give a sense of wider community. The early morning peace is a contrast to your life in a band with the touring and sweat and noise.
Mike Watt: That’s right. It is a contrast. And that’s what life is about. Taking turns. Leaving my San Pedro town and visiting other towns. As your Mr. Shakespeare said, “Life’s a stage.” You've got to play different roles.
Jane: Talking about Shakespeare, your lyrics on Double Nickels on the Dime were influenced by James Joyce. What other literary influences do you have?
Mike Watt: Ha! I don’t know if D. Boon was reading much Joyce. I was just twenty-five years old and was just very caught up in that book,
Jane: Are there any other literary figures standing in the wings?
Mike Watt: Well, for my second opera I used Dante’s Commedia – it totally paralleled my life. In the first opera, I used part of Ulysses too, but I also bought in this novel, The Sand Pebbles, by Richard McKenna. I used a lot of literature stuff. I find it very important to be inspired, enabled, springboarded, by other artists. I’m kind of afraid of other musicians because I don’t want to rip off their licks, but if I need imagery I use it. Like in my latest opera (Hyphenated-Man), I use the imagery of Hieronymus Bosch. I think there’s another level of abstraction, and I feel little more safe than using another musician. It allows me more respect, you know, because I have to go through process and abstract it into the music, but the other thing is “Goddamn! Did I steal his lick?” Ha! Ask Led Zeppelin about that.
When I start riding the bicycle, the kayak, these experiences link up too. I compose. I don’t compose with the fucking bass in my lap all the time like I used to. I actually do the stuff in my head and then I bring it home. And I have to realize it instead of the other way around – which is doing what you already know how to do. So I do these other things. The same thing when I try to steal someone else’s artistic approach. Like I was in The Prado in Madrid and I saw Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights and the first thing I thought was “Wow! So many little things to make to make one thing - it’s like a Minuteman album.” So you see, there are parallels and I feel more comfortable about that. I’m not really interpreting their stuff. A lot of times I’m just using it for my own means. I want to talk like a fifty-four year old punk rocker. I don’t think Mr Bosch was probably in the same place, but he helped me a lot. Some people think those little amalgamations, those little creatures, might be just visualizations of proverbs and aphorisms but I don’t know six hundred year old Dutch so I made up my own shit.
Like that movie, The Wizard of Oz. I thought that for Dorothy it’s a coming of age story - but I think the only love interest is the fucking dog. She’s checking out guys to see what they do to be guys. You notice when she comes back that the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion are the farmhands? “Oh, you were there and there” and I was thinking about this – like a middle age thing – and I was thinking what is it to be a man? Well, Dorothy was tripping on that. You can be a flying monkey man, a munchkin man, you can be a tin man – or you can be the man behind the curtain man. And notice his spiel, right? “Oh, where I come from if you’re brave you get a medal, where I come from if you’re smart you get a diploma, where I come from if you have a heart you get a clock.”
Mike Watt: What he was saying is all this shit is validation! You don’t have to make up your mind anyway! So see what I mean? I use these kind of images. Almost all my works, I borrowed from other artists. Springboards to help me tell my story with the bass.
The pictures are much different. The pictures came about with the invention of digital cameras. In the old days you had to pay for film, for developing, but with this digital shit you were just shoot shot shoot, click click. At the same time, I bought my first bicycle. I didn’t ride a bicycle for twenty-two years. I got into riding around and said “Look at all this shit!” It’s different than songs, operas, compositions. You can’t simply set this shit up - it just happens. And if you’re together enough, maybe you can capture some of it. But that’s a big part of being alive. It’s not controlling and setting up things because things can be happening in your town where you pedal, where you paddle.
Jane: Where you pedal and you paddle.
Mike Watt: There was a guy here in New York City. Harry Smith, I think his name was. He would hang the microphone out the window, and just tape fucking sounds. No scripts or nothing. Field recordings. This is where I’m coming from with the pictures. If you want to get into philosophy, there’s something about the fucking crack of dawn. That orange-yellow light. I think it’s there at sunset too but we’re on a peninsula. We’re weird for a west coast town. We’re like that part of San Francisco that faces Oakland. So what it means on a philosophical plane is potential. What is going to be done today? This is the beginning, you know? It’s the most enabling part of the day.
Now the music world is all about nighttime, you know, but nighttime for me is kind of scary. But morning is like everything, man! The whole day is in front of me. It’s not hard for me. Another thing about middle age, your body changes. You get tired earlier. It’s reality. There a weird sense of reality about these pictures.
Jane: That really comes across.
Mike Watt: I have to deal with practicals and rhythms in music but there’s a lot more Dr Seuss going on in the music than in the pictures. The pictures, I don’t really filter or do manipulations with them. I just try to capture.
Jane: So they are what they are.
Mike Watt: Yes. Laura Steelink, for the Track 16 Gallery show, she called the photographs “Eye-Gifts”. Peter Carlaftes got the book title “Off and On Bass” from my emails because I signed them “On Bass, Watt”. If I’m doing this shit right, I’m not on the bass. I’m kayaking with the camera. That was very clever of him. In fact in the first opera, on the track called “Pedro Bound” you can follow my whole pedaling route. You can tell where I turn left and right. Eye-gifts. You don’t set these things up. Hopefully you’re just together enough to capture it.
And I can feel like I’m collaborating with my fucking town. My town is weird. We get raccoons and sea lions, pelicans, dolphins. Meanwhile you see all these hammerhead and docks, boats. It’s a weird mix. My father was a sailor. I came here in ’67 and never left. I leave on tour but the bungee cord always snaps me back. Like Don Quixote. You roam, you roost, you roam, you roost. I need this. I think it’s healthy.
What’s interesting for me is that I have to take turns. Like the little images in the Bosch, the amalgamations, the different parts. Some people think it’s a disgusting compromise and so they go postal and shoot everyone at work, kill the kids, dress up like Santa Claus. I think sometimes like this about middle age, but middle age doesn’t have to be this way. Asking the big questions, I think, is intense and important. Middle age is about reconciling a lot of things, especially things of your own making, but there are other things that can’t be reconciled like how we treat each other sometimes. And that’s when nature seems so, so beautiful. But then she’s kind of a tease too. I’ll be in that kayak and suddenly woo, a twenty-footer! Respect! You mustn’t panic or freak out – you’re not running the show. This is what I’m getting out of this thing. At first I just thought I was sharing my town but maybe I’m sharing a little bit of me too.
Jane: I grew up by the sea, I know the feeling.
Mike Watt: So you understand how incredible it is. There’s one part of my bike ride where I get off my bike, and I sit on the rocks, close enough where the spray gets me but I don’t get soaking wet, and I’m looking out at Catalina Island right there. And the sounds just go hrrrrrrrrrr. You know, Japanese ladies used to harvest abalone here with Vaseline in their eyes, no masks. There’s intense history in my town. Actually all my music stuff is here. I can go by there all the time, go by my first apartment. They cut down the tree where D. Boon jumped onto me, but I can go to these places like where Black Flag had their first gig. So music-wise it’s got a lot of history, but the town itself - without Watt - has it too. We were the murder capital of America in the ‘40’s. One murder a night. It was a very, very rough town. Liberty Hill where Upton Sinclair gave a famous speech. On the other end, I have a lot of personal history. I don’t even think I could live in another part of southern California to be honest with you. There’s something about Pedro. Bukowski, who’s buried here in the same bone-yard as D. Boon, picked it out of all the places and lived here for fourteen years. You know what it says on his gravestone? It says “Don’t try.”
Yes, things are what they are, you know?