Mike Watt: Hanging with the Minuteman

By sizemore Last edited 212 months ago
Mike Watt: Hanging with the Minuteman

Mike Watt is a punk rock legend. His band, The Minutemen, opened kicked down doors for just about everyone that followed, back in the day and along with bands like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth helped revitalise the American music scene of the 1980s. Double Nickels on the Dime remains one of the best and most influential albums of the underground. Who knows how big they would have become if it wasn't for the tragic death in a road accident of Mike's best friend and fellow Minutemen founder D. Boon in 1985.

The remaining Minutemen (Mike and drummer George Hurley) morphed into fIREHOSE for a while, but Mike has also had a successful solo career, working his bass into the sound of too many musical greats to list. Most recently he became an official Stooge by playing his beloved four string with Iggy Pop who he'll be joining again for Leeds and Reading later in the year.

We had the privilege of seeing Mike and George Hurley back together as The Minutemen Duet in their support slot to Shellac at The Scala in December. It was an incredible gig partly due to the decision to leave the late D. Boon's guitar parts silent. Even Steve Albini commented afterwards that the bill had been the wrong way round and his band should have been supporting Mike, George and the ghost of D. Boon.

Mike will be hitting Londoners at the ICA this Bank Holiday Monday with his band The Secondmen and new album, The Secondman's Middle Stand, an opera detailing (and boy, do we mean detailing) his latest brush with the grim reaper when an area of the body that a lot of people are uneasy in talking about exploded on him. Fighting back from near death Mike worked the experience directly into his music and has produced yet another challenging piece of work that we just can't. stop. playing.

Mike was kind enough to chat to us over the phone just prior to taking off on his current tour. 38 shows in 40 days to organise and he still had time for Londonist! Check out what he had to say after the jump.

So the last time we saw you was in December supporting Shellac.

The duet with Georgie. Very difficult for us. I mean you know some of those songs were 25 years old and I couldn't really get the pick together for the Minutemen songs so I had to just kind of fudge it with fingers holding index to thumb together and using the nail kinda. But the idea in a way was to try and evoke D. Boon a little bit, me and Georgie playing with nobody trying to do his part… so people maybe think of him.

And it worked so well. It was haunting. It's odd, but by leaving those parts out it was like he was there.

Yeah, I thought it was the only real, I mean for us, me and Georgie, the most honest thing we could do, because the man in our life is irreplaceable. So to just get somebody and stuff a pillow under his shirt or something... ridiculous. So we were gonna do like the old songs although I think only a couple were his songs because it was even weirder to do his songs without him. I tried to do a lot of Georgie's and then fill in the rest with my songs. I also tried going further back because the early Minutemen songs were really strange to us. They all were strange, but especially those early ones.

It was us really trying to find our own sound you know. We were before punk so we copied records. So it was hard first to find out who we really were, so punk helped us get brave enough to try things. Some English bands like Wire really helped us get our confidence up. Of course, up in Hollywood too, seeing those bands live from England and other places and on the records… all this stuff gave us confidence because all these people were taking chances so we thought man we should get in on this.

In December, after your set, Steve Albini said that it was ridiculous that you guys were supporting Shellac. How does that make you feel? Are you the wise respectable father figure of the underground now or do you just get on stage and feel 18 again?

Man, I wish. Music is a kind of means of suspending time a little bit. So yeah, the scene... that was very generous of Steve Albini. Like I was just telling you about punk… it definitely was a movement. I'm not sure how hierarchal it was, but it still goes on today. People influence and inspire one another, not really copying so much, but its all tied in with the confidence thing. Empower. Empowering. That's what it is. So maybe that's what he was talking about.

Some of it too is circumstance. I mean me and Georgie are still around so its not like we're better than anybody. It doesn't make it better just because we were earlier. There's always going to be cats earlier than you... Mr. John Coltrane... and there's going to be people coming after. It is neat that there can be connections. That's what the arts are for and with human beings in general it's some kind of fabric. So maybe that's what Steve was talking about.

That was at the Scala, but you're playing the ICA this time out.

On the tour coming up. About time. Watt hasn't toured over your way on his own tour in about seven years. And just like the commitment I made to myself after this last opera, this 'Secondman's Middle Stand', I want to be making records more regular and I want to come over to you guys more regularly too and not just every seven years. I want to come over because I really enjoy playing over there, getting to meet people, seeing the different scenes and also them getting to meet us. The Atlantic makes us almost relate to each other through images. Going back to Wire and The Minutemen and listening to those records… it was an image. We were actually feeling a spirit, people creation/art thing. And in a way bands (or painters, or writers), we're miniature ambassadors in a way because there's all these hustles on other levels that try to spin things in their own interests and I think it's quite natural and human to try and subvert those kinds of imageries. It's an actual connection; playing for each other, me talking with people who live in these towns I'm playing. I learn a lot and hopefully some cats learn something too. We cut out the middleman. Like the idea of the fanzine, right? We don't have to put everything through Spin magazine or something like that. It's more personal.

I think in some ways this is the way the world is trying to heal some of the hurts that these other convoluted kind of sick unhealthy ways of connecting are causing. I think it's always been with humans that there's these different tendencies, and so to get some kind of balance going we need this personal thing. So for me: playing for people. Going way back to Minutemen days me and D. Boon talking about the world now that we're punk rockers and we can decide everything, right? Arena rock is behind us. So we thought well, there's two categories, there's gigs and flyers and everything that ain't a gig it's a flyer to get people to the gig. We really thought that was probably our strongest suit… playing for people. And then not just making notes like 'ahh look at us operate these machines' but us finding out the town, finding out that gig, finding out that listener and then the same thing in reverse on us.

The music is the thing that gets you to go and see the band live…

Yeah, a flyer! That's exactly what I mean by flyer. We thought interviews, a video, even a record... all flyers. I know in the old days the thinking was that you tour to promote a record, but we really put out records to promote the next tour. You know what I mean? It was the idea of the flyer. There's something about the flyer, you make it yourself, you don't just buy an ad on television. There's art actually going into the flyer or the way you present yourself because again like marketing schemes, like genre and stuff, they kind of hide the personable stuff, the human part. Playing a gig was that kind of Nuremberg thing that drove us away from arena rock… all the lights and far away. Going to a club and seeing a band up close where I could actually see that a bass guitar had bigger strings. I couldn't see that as a kid so I never knew. I just never knew. So in a lot of ways, our early days especially, a lot of reaction to stuff that was being foisted on us was 'hey we can take this in our own hands and make up our own minds'.

The Internet in a lot of ways is an extension of these old ethics that was the early punk stuff, being on an independent label, touring in your own boat, your own van, these kinds of things they didn't just die they just changed, manifested into new forms. It's kinda cool. So I don't have a fear of Internet trading and stuff. In fact I just read an article online from the New York Times and some of these big labels – whoa! Don't get too heavy on these judgements for file sharing because this is a way that a lot of folks are hearing about the music.

When you think about it, the whole history of music, about 99.9% of it has been performed live. The idea of sticking it on some kind of media and selling it… that's really short-lived in the whole history of it. In the old days before phonograph records and all this it was just playing for people. And even written music isn't that old. A lot of it was that you simply performed it for people. So in a way we're returning back to the root and this thing about a proprietary piece of media... it's just a little blip on the radar in the big scheme of things. But you know how some tendencies are to be greedy and not let go. They refuse to loosen the grip, but you know what? That's the way it goes. When I was a boy the same beef was on cassettes 'oh we don't want cassette recorders, this is going to kill record sales'. Believe it or not it was the same argument thirty years ago and they lost. Cassettes didn't kill records. In fact what happened is that kids (and guys my age) got to make mix tapes and all of a sudden they're trading 'em with their buddies so all of a sudden you're getting turned onto shit you might never have heard in the long run. It was a good thing see, but these people are short sighted or afraid of competition so out of one side of their mouth you get 'yeah free enterprise and an open market place of ideas', but not really. It's just propaganda. Really they want to own everything and have one company. There's another tendency among humans to want to subvert that and it's going to happen. Either with attitude or technology or a combination of both.

So what kind of an experience was making the documentary We Jam Econo: The Story of The Minutemen? We heard it came about after a fan emailed you with the idea to do a film?

Yeah. I mean I'd been asked a bunch of times to do a movie, but these guys Keith (Schieron) and Tim (Irwin), young guys who never saw the Minutemen, they seemed so earnest about it and it didn't seem like a hustle. It felt heartfelt so I thought 'cool, lets give these cats a shot and let em talk to people who were there in the day'. There were two goals I had in mind in letting that thing go down. One of them was so that people could remember D. Boon. Me and Georgie are still here to do stuff, but D.Boon, he can't play anymore for people… so I'm always thinking of him and letting people know about him in some way - not like vampiring on him, but just to say 'hey, look at this guy'. And the second goal I had, and this kind of leads from that, people would be empowered with confidence. They see people like us make a band and maybe they try their hand at art. Especially because of D. Boon… I think he's infectious the way he can make people think 'I can do this!' Even though maybe trends in society or whatever say 'no you're not the right person'. D. Boon, I think his very work, his very art threw down those ideas, man… So I like that spirit. Again its kind of paying back a debt that was handed to us 'hey why don't you do this'? When we went to those first punk gigs it was like 'yeah man we can do this' so I'm just trying to hand down that same tradition.

I like to fuck with labels, cos in the US here the words 'liberal' and 'conservative' are used ridiculously. But some of those things conserve the idea of seeing some guy going for it so you wanna go for it too. I don't know what that has to do with a 'strong military' or 'anti-abortion' or anything, but to me those are neat values. Getting excited about seeing somebody play so you wanna play too or somebody painting or somebody reciting poems. I wish people would fuck way more with the language because you can see people getting channelled just like sheep or pigs at the slaughter house. Their language is so strong, we've got to redefine, we've gotta take back words. That's why we call ourselves Minutemen. There were some corny ass pseudo patriotic clowns using the same name and we thought 'hey we'll dilute their power… we'll call ourselves the same thing and they'll get confused - what do they mean by saying that'? And of course with the documentary I got to look at my own life. I was young and you come into a world full of symbols and power structures - its hard to get a handle on and part of it is this artistic creative thing and taking things into your own hands that way and then you can see where the power comes from. So D. Boon and George Hurley and Watt playing together... I also wanted to show 'em that the guy fell out of a tree… See, we were friends. It's a personal thing. It ain't all about technique or the look or something. You just want to play with your buddies or play with a stranger, a guy who fell out of a tree on you, I wanted to cut through all the shit, all the pretence, so these young guys made the documentary and kind of got a vibe on my take. It was hard for me… I wasn't even in the theatre. I saw a preview of it, a DVD they made me, it was kind of hard for me to watch because I'm windbagging there a lot, but I guess they used me as a narrator to kind of tie things together. So for other people it'll be different. You know how it is hearing your own voice or something - it's ridiculous. And it is very sad in a way, especially the ending. But it had to be honest, but that was very hard.

You're coming up to the 20th year anniversary of D. Boon's death…

Yeah… Somebody asked me 'what are you gonna do with him getting killed, what you going to do on that day?' and I said well you know I'm gonna think more of the day we started the band than the day the band ended. I guess you gotta remember both.

So we've got a DVD release to look forward to because this only got a limited cinema release...

Yeah and its going to be twice as long. You'll have like 50 songs instead of 23 and more spiels from the dudes and you know it was only 90 minutes so they wanted to make it longer for the DVD which makes sense. And seeing D. Boon play… I like the way they didn't cut the songs up. You see a whole song. That's kind of neat. And it lets the song speak for itself. I don't know the exact day it's going to come out yet, but we are trying to get a London showing. People have been in touch to get a showing in their towns so I know that Tim and Keith have been speaking with a bunch of them and I hear there's going to be a London one and hopefully in Ireland and Scotland too.

We were hoping the ICA would have had a screening. That's exactly their line.

Well wow - the ICA… It's like an arts museum or something?

It's the Institute of Contemporary Arts here in London. It plays host to film and music and exhibitions. It's a great venue for documentaries and live performance too. So often in London you only get to see punk banks in these tiny little squalid venues (usually in Camden) so it was awesome when we heard you guys were playing the ICA.

Well how that came about was the cat who brought me and Georgie over to play with Shellac, Barry Hogan, the All Tomorrow's Parties guy, he's putting on that gig and he's the one that picked the ICA and then Carlos, my Dutch guy, the guy who when I play Europe he puts the shows together for me, well he said that's where he saw The Birthday Party in 1981 and said 'this is a good place for you guys to play'.

NOTE: Talking to Mike was a blast and he kindly chatted to us for the better part of an hour, but we just don't have room for the whole interview here. However, there is a FULL transcription of our conversation over on DogTower where space isn't such an issue because their website hasn't gone live yet. If you want to read what else Mike has been up to, his thoughts on the current music scene and more about D. Boon then head on over there.

Mike Watt & The Secondmen plus special guests play The ICA on Monday the 2nd of May.

Last Updated 29 April 2005