When Mike Watt steps into Sacred Grounds, a coffee shop and venue in the working-class port town of San Pedro, California, he’s received like the mayor. Fist bumps and pleasantries are exchanged with the patrons. Watt spots me at a back table and ambles over on wobbly knees that affirm his fifty-eight years. He greets me with a firm two-handed grip, peers over his eyeglasses, and introduces himself like a punctuation mark: “Watt!”
Getting coffee with Mike Watt in San Pedro is like having tea at Abbey Road with Paul McCartney, or meeting up with James Jamerson at Motown’s Hitsville USA studio; Watt’s bass playing put this town on the punk-rock map. Watt has resided in San Pedro since age ten, and we’re seated a short distance from the port of Los Angeles, a harbor from which his father, a naval officer and Vietnam vet, often shipped out to sea. The Minutemen, the band he cofounded with D. Boon (who played guitar and shared singing duties with Watt), celebrated San Pedro in song, but came to an abrupt and tragic end when Boon died in a van accident in 1985, at age twenty-seven. Over the course of our chat, Watt frequently steers the conversation back to his father and Boon. Both men led short lives but remain attached to Watt like phantom limbs.
I first saw Watt play bass live on a Lollapalooza side stage when I was fourteen. He strummed with an egg whisk instead of a pick, and banged on the strings with his fist. He was wild without being flashy. He’s a committed student of bass guitar, and adheres to a philosophy of the bass as a supporting role. Since the horizontal electric bass’s invention, in the 1930s, Watt can be counted as one of the players who pushed the four-string into uncharted territory.
From the punk-funk of the Minutemen to the jazzy rock of fIREHOSE to the thunder of the reunited Stooges, Watt maintains a workmanlike approach to music. In recent years, he’s collaborated with younger artists on a variety of projects, including Il Sogno del Mariano, a band with two Italian composers half his age, and CUZ, a collaboration with Sam Dook of the Go! Team. Watt experienced a creative rebirth after the success of the 2005 documentary We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen encouraged him to revisit his past with Hyphenated- Man, a 2010 “opera”—his third—inspired by the band.
Before we sit down, I ask Watt—who’s wearing a red plaid flannel, blue jeans, and black Chucks—if I can get him a coffee. “I’ll take whatever you’re having” is how he responds, gruff and deep. So I buy him a Guatemalan brew. During the two-hour interview, he never takes a sip.
I. “CALL HELL”
THE BELIEVER: I walked through San Pedro this morning, and I noticed a historic-landmark sign that read Williams Bookstore is the oldest bookstore in Los Angeles.
MIKE WATT: It just went out of business! Motherfuckers. I met Bukowski there. He’s buried in the graveyard where D. Boon is. Now, I’m not from here. I came to Pedro in ’67. I’m from Virginia. My pop was a sailor in the navy, and California’s closer to Vietnam. But D. Boon and Bukowski are in the graveyard up there. It says on Bukowski’s gravestone Don’t try and there’s a picture of a boxer on it. But I met Bukowski across the street there, at the Williams Bookstore. I don’t think he liked people reading their poems to him.
BLVR: You read poems you wrote to Bukowski?
MW: Nah, I knew he didn’t like younger poets walking up and reading him their stuff. I just asked him about this thing in Notes of a Dirty Old Man where some guy asks him to go on a bank robbery and he thinks he’s a cop. And I asked him, “Is that true?” Because it seemed to me like that might have happened. And he says, “Look, kid, writing is for pretending.”
BLVR: You’ve composed a wide range of material on the bass guitar, from thirty-second hard-core blasts to full-length punk operas. How did the bass become your vehicle for expression?
MW: I got put on bass here in Pedro. I was thirteen. I had just met D. Boon. I knew him from the navy housing. My pop was stationed on the first nuclear aircraft carrier. Believe it or not, it was called the Enterprise, but not the starship. Pop worked in the nuke engine room. He was a machinist. We lived in a proj. It was 1970, ’cause I was thirteen. There’s not a lot of guns, but there’s fighting. D. Boon’s ma wanted us in the house after school. She didn’t want us to make a career out of music; she just wanted to keep us out of trouble. She said that every band has a bass. And if you looked at the album covers, yeah. It looked like a guitar, but you could tell it only had four strings. So I thought it was a guitar with four strings. I didn’t know it was low. At the time we were big, big Creedence fans. It was the only rock band D. Boon knew about.
BLVR: CCR went to the same high school as my dad, El Cerrito High, up north near Berkeley.
MW: That’s right! Cerrito! Creedence weren’t actually from Berkeley. They’re from Cerrito. They were born on the very, very, very northwest part of the bayou. [Laughs] Art’s for pretending. Bukowski was right. D. Boon had those first six Creedence albums. Didn’t take good care of ’em. They’d have grape juice on them; he’d have four or five nickels taped to the needle to keep the record from skipping. So I’m listening and I can’t hear Creedence’s bass player—his name’s Stu Cook. Can’t hear his bass lines at all. I didn’t know what the fuck that guy was doing. So you know what I thought? I thought, If I wear the singer’s shirt I could be like them. I didn’t know about lumberjacks or farmers. I thought the flannel was Fogerty’s rock-and-roll shirt. You know, Marc Bolan wears a boa, and this guy wears a flannel. It’s his shtick. So I thought, If I wear this shirt, D. Boon will still like me. Because I could not tell what that guy was playing.
BLVR: Have you ever had the itch to compose on another instrument?
MW: Most dudes compose on the piano or the guitar, and there’s so much harmonic content. But when you compose on a bass, you’re more of a springboard for the other cats. The training wheels are off. It’s an open sketch. Some people can’t handle a song written on the bass. They grumble, “You might as well write a song on the cymbals!” It gives them too much freedom, not enough direction. When I look at a guy with a five-string bass, with a B string thrown on there, I scratch my head and think that there’s so much more I have to learn about a four-string bass. A guitar man gave me a quote by Leonardo da Vinci: “Learning never exhausts the mind.” People whine, “I’m thinking too much.” Well, don’t think. Learn.
BLVR: How did American R&B bass inform your playing?
MW: One thing about the R&B guys is that the guitar men would play real small and trebly, leaving room for the bass player to work. They actually wrote songs for bass. With American rock and roll, bass came last. With original rock and roll, the bass mimics the left hand of boogie-woogie piano. Bum-bum-BUM-bum-BUM-bum-bum-bum. In Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry music, you can tell the guitar is coming from piano angles. So there’s always been a left hand. There’s always been strong bass. When stadium rock came along, part of it was the equipment, part of it was the acoustics of these arenas: the guitar guy became ascendant. He became a cross between Paganini— have you seen pictures of that guy 150 years ago? He wore a cape! Total showbiz cat, played a million notes—and the guitar guy crossed that with the saxophone, think Link Wray: that raunchy, fuzz-tone wah-wah sound. In early rock and roll, the guitar man was buried in the rhythm section, with the bass and the drum. But in the ’60s, with the emergence of rock stars, the idea of the guy who worked guitar became really ascendant.
BLVR: When you were starting out, what punk bass players did you look up to?
MW: I got this album by a New York band called Richard Hell and the Voidoids. There was an ad for the 7-inch in Creem magazine and it said, “Call Hell.” It had his phone number. So I called Richard Hell, totally scared, and said, “Is this Hell?” Hell was the bass man, and he wrote the songs. He was the leader. I couldn’t believe it. I always thought the bass man was the low man on the totem pole. I put a picture of Richard Hell on my bass. It was a line in the sand in this town.
The kind of kids who’d play rock and roll. The kind who’d listen to Richard Hell.
BLVR: As a bass player, how would you define your role in a band?
MW: I love the politics of the bass: you look good making the other guys look good. You’re the glue. You’re kind of the kick drum, kind of the guitar. When people use the head, they look at the tile. Bass is the grout that holds the tile together. With the bass, even if it’s my band and my songs, I’m in a support role. I drive the fire truck, make sure the ladder man in back doesn’t go flying off when we round a corner. It’s not a bow-ofthe-boat position. It’s the keel. You work the rudder.
II. ECONO AND MERSH
BLVR: Throughout your career, you’ve collaborated with the artist Raymond Pettibon. What have you learned working with him?
MW: Punk seemed to me like the funny parts of being a hippie that the hippies threw away. When I met Raymond at the early punk gigs, he introduced me to Dada and showed me how that connected to punk. I’d see Raymond at the shows. He had so much knowledge. That man learned me more than anyone. An incredible cat. Pettibon comes out of this early punk scene. When I found out about the scene, I wasn’t a college kid. Pedro is working people, not academics. But then through the punk scene I met college people like Pettibon. Raymond graduated from UCLA at nineteen with a degree in economics. He played me John Coltrane for the first time [points to a Coltrane button pinned on his shirt]. Had a big impact. I knew Coltrane was older, but I thought he was doing punk, too. I didn’t know he’d been dead since ’67! I didn’t know anything about bebop or jazz, living in navy housing. So Pettibon taught me all kinds of shit. He brought me to gigs: Yma Sumac, Al Hibbler, Little Jimmy Scott, all kinds of wild-ass shit! We saw Elvin Jones maybe thirty times. These guys would bring young people to play with them. It was an econo way of doing things, but it also passed the tradition down. I hadn’t come from that. We didn’t have that kind of thing, having someone older show you how the world works. Pettibon is six months older than me. He’s born on Bloomsday, 1957. He’s my closest thing to that jazz tradition.
BLVR: Now that you’re getting older, do you check in with Pettibon with more or less frequency?
MW: Pettibon lives in New York now, but I’ve spent so much time with Raymond. I’d sit there reading while he’d paint for ten- or twelve-hour stretches, for days and days. We’d go watch a lot of prep- and high-school basketball, too. Summer leagues. They just leave the buses running the whole game! Team changes on the bus, no locker room. Raymond knows every player. Same with the horse track. Raymond knows every jockey, every trainer, the lineage of the sires and dams. Raymond’s got an incredible mind. But he’s really shy when you talk to him. He’s got a huge heart. You know what he’s really into is the shitter. That shows a side of him I never knew.
BLVR: The shitter?
MW: The thing with 140 characters. He’s great at it.
MW: That’s what you call it.
BLVR: Since your days in the Minutemen, you’ve spoken with a unique slang vocab: “Pedro-speak.” Why is it important to have your own language?
MW: Pedro-speak is insular. It’s shorthand. Even pronouncing Pedro. If you say “Pay-dro,” we know you’re not from here. It’s a test. It can be provincial. I was talking with Joey Ramone once, at RFK Stadium, at some big-ass jive thing. The stage was bigger than most clubs. But Joey said to me, “You know, I think punk is like a big hay wagon. If you’ve got something to offer, c’mon, jump on.” I love that idea. I think of my vocabulary that way, too. You’ve got some good slang words? You creative? You wanna have some fun? That’s what it is. But it’s not exclusionary. When we go on tour, we’ve got our slang, but when we meet up with you, we wanna learn yours. Some Pedro-speak is imported.
BLVR: What’s the origin of the word mersh in Pedro-speak?
MW: Mersh comes from the old stoner days. It’s the hundred-dollar-a-pound mota. You didn’t have to smoke a lot to get a headache; it was before we got the good stuff. It’s not short for “merchandise”; it’s mersh like commercial.
BLVR: How about econo?
MW: Econo is because we’re working-class. Why should a lack of green paintings stop you from implementing your ideas? If you’ve got to record the songs in order, from midnight to 8 a.m., on used tape, then do it. And boats—or vans, we call ’em “boats”—they’re Econolines. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what a wall or a floor was. The floor was a deck, wall was a bulkhead, ceiling was overhead. My pop’s a sailor. To us, econo was empowering. It meant you didn’t have to be mersh. Other bands had assistant hair techs. Other bands would say, “Do you know how many people you’re putting outta work, operating like that?” I hold my ground, though. I’m Local 47.
BLVR: You’ve mentioned your love of CCR and of Fogerty’s flannels, and you released an LP with fIREHOSE called Flyin’ the Flannel. I’m curious if there’s a history behind the flannel you’re wearing right now.
MW: I got this one in a trade, off some kid at a gig. Sometimes I’ll get traded a one-pocket flannel. I hate one-pocket flannels. But I’ll hold on to ’em for trades. If I see a kid with a two-pocket flannel, I’ll say, “You wanna make a flannel trade?” That’s how I got this one. Straight-up bunked him. He was a sweet kid, obviously had no druthers about having a one-pocket flannel. Some skateboard company made a Mike Watt flannel last year. They reproduced the pattern from the flannel I’m wearing on the Double Nickels cover. I made sure they put snaps on there, too. It’s gotta have snaps. When it’s coming off, there’s no waiting. Snaps are the greatest invention next to piss bottles.
BLVR: Define piss bottle.
MW: In the boat, you’ve always got a piss bottle. After I graduated high school, my pop took me up to Yosemite for a couple weeks. We’re driving up there, and he won’t stop. He’d pull the piss bottle out from under the seat. I wrote a song about it, “Piss Bottle Man.” Some inventions like that are huge leaps forward. Like the bicycle. Had a chariot for thousands of years, never thought to line the wheels up like a bike till three hundred years ago.
III. “IN THIS TOWN, A ‘PUNK’ IS A GUY WHO GETS FUCKED FOR CIGARETTES IN JAIL”
BLVR: Your father keeps coming up. Was he supportive of your life as a punk rocker?
MW: My pop knew punk was something I did with D. Boon. It was weird, the first time we talked about it. It was a weird scene. I graduated high school in ’76. So that summer, I’m eighteen. My dad comes down here. I’m living on my own. I lived on Twenty-Second. One hundred thirty dollars a month, furnished. And the roaches came with it. My pop came over with a six-pack. We’re drinking the beers, sittin’ on the deck. And he asks me, “So what’s this punk thing about?” And I tell him, “Me and D. Boon, we’re gonna write our own songs. We’re gonna play gigs, find our own voice.” He goes, “Yeah, yeah… what’s it really about?” I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Is it socialist?”
MW: That’s what I did! I laughed! Then he grabbed a chair leg. He had hazel eyes, but they went gray when he was pissed. They went cement gray, and he raised that chair.
I said, “I didn’t mean to laugh. It just came out!” He put the chair down. He was nineteen when I was born; he was in ’Nam until his thirties. Cancer killed him from working in those nuclear engine rooms, when he was fifty-two.
BLVR: Did he ever come and watch you play?
MW: He never came to one of my gigs till I was with fIREHOSE. We played a gig in Fresno at the Spaghetti Factory. He saw me play, and he saw how I ran my band and how I ran the gig. It tripped him out. I started sending him postcards. That’s how I got the idea for my first opera, Contemplating the Engine Room, because he said, “You’re kinda like a sailor, traveling around.” From ’77 to ’91, we never talked about my music. I think my sister secretly gave him some Minutemen records. But he never brought it up.
BLVR: How did your dad react to your performance in Fresno?
MW: Well, we conked at his pad that night. He retired to Fresno. After twenty years of the navy, he didn’t want to be near the ocean. “Never Again Volunteer Yourself ”: NAVY. I could see him secretly smiling. He was tripped out. In the navy, he was a chief. In the army you call it a sergeant. It’s as high as you can go without being an officer—you gotta go to college to be an officer. But Pop could see I was like a little chief. Pop just didn’t get punk. You could imagine, in ’77, with Sid Vicious and punk sensationalism. We dealt with being spit on and having used rubbers thrown at us, bags of puke, diarrhea, batteries—they hurt. But that wasn’t the whole deal. It was about freedom of expression. Not everybody gets it, and I don’t fault ’em. But that’s why I talk about those days, because those ethics can’t die. Punk isn’t a musical style; it’s a state of mind. In this town, a “punk” is a guy who gets fucked for cigarettes in jail. That’s where the term came from. Why would somebody call their music that? I got into this because I wanted to be with my friend.
BLVR: How has being a punk lifer affected your family life?
MW: Never had one. I think about my pop. As a boy, I never knew him. He was always at sea. So that’s why I never had kids, because of the touring. There are choices you have to make. I coulda been a proxy pop, but I didn’t want to do that, so I ended up being no pop. My sisters never had kids either. My mom used to say to us, because she had to raise us, “I hope you have a kid just like you!” She’s half-Sicilian. So all three of us were so scared; we never had kids for that reason. I was married with K [Kira Roessler, formerly of Black Flag] for six years, and that was tough. We’re better friends now. We’re tight. It’s hard to have a family with this life. I’m not gonna pretend about it at all. It’s a sailor’s life. I’d been through it with my pop. This is the punk navy.
BLVR: In 1995, you embarked on a now-legendary club tour with Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder opening for you, and then playing as your backing band. At that time, did you feel like you deserved a slice of the action those guys were getting?
MW: That tour was their idea. The gigs themselves were very strange, because of all the hype. Ed and Dave called me. Dave had just made an album by himself, and he wanted to tour with a band called Foo Fighters. And Ed had a band with his wife, called Hovercraft. So they called me and said, “Look, Watt, our bands will open and then we’ll play in your band.” Pat from the Germs was gonna play with me, too. “Alternative” was this record-industry creation that had taken over. But those guys were the real deal. Grohl’s punk history goes back to his teen years as a member of the band Scream, from the DC hardcore scene. Ed had a band in San Diego called Bad Radio. But they got swept up in that alternative thing.
BLVR: Those club shows must’ve been surreal—they were two of the biggest celebrities on earth at that time.
MW: I’ll tell you something surreal that happened because of that tour. I was questioned for the Oklahoma City bombing. The FBI came to my house. They said, “Mr. Watt, why were you in Junction City on this day?” I showed them all my receipts. The two FBI men, one looked like Lee Harvey Oswald, and one looked like Bill Clinton—
BLVR: Wait, back up and tell this story from the beginning, please.
MW: So there was only one day off on that tour with Vedder and Grohl, between Denver and Lawrence, Kansas. I was gonna stop in Abilene, where Ike was born. But I ended up in Junction City that night. There’s a hotel there called Dreamland. I saw it being torn down on the last tour I was on. I do a lot of tours, so you get familiar with the landmarks. McVeigh stayed in the Dreamland, but I stayed down the road in a Super 8. I don’t stay in hotels; I conk at people’s pads. But this was the one night in between gigs. I had no band. It was just me on that tour.
BLVR: So you were staying near McVeigh the night before the OKC bombing.
MW: That’s right. It was April. The feds were wondering why I was in that town, with a van, and I don’t live there. The defense said that there was an Arab man seen in fatigues. They were trying to prove that it was more than the two guys, McVeigh and Nichols. Maybe I was in on it, they were saying.
BLVR: I remember the defense was trying to find a John Doe number two. McVeigh denied that anyone else was involved.
MW: Yeah! They came to my pad a couple years later, during the trials. The Lee Harvey Oswald guy did all the talking. The Bill Clinton guy didn’t speak much. But the Lee Harvey guy says, “I’ve got to decide if you’re the man I’m looking for.” And they look in my pad and I’ve got about twenty Raymond Pettibon paintings hanging on my bulkheads. And the Bill Clinton guy goes, “You paint these?” And I said, “No, they’re by my friend Raymond.” And the Lee Harvey guy goes, “I’m gonna need a photo of him. I’ll get it at the DMV.” And I said, “You can take it of me right in front of Raymond’s paintings.” I’d just had sickness and a fever, so I was getting pissed off. I don’t recommend that kind of behavior.
BLVR: I can only imagine what the FBI thought looking at Pettibon’s paintings. He’s the ultimate anti-authority artist.
MW: Raymond’s stuff has no filter. It’s intense. Balls out. These guys go, “Mr. Watt, you tryin’ to tell me that you travel around the country in a van and you play bass for people?” They couldn’t understand that someone could go around making noise as a job. Sorta like my pop.
BLVR: You were a member of the Stooges for longer than you were in the Minutemen. How’d that experience change you as an artist?
MW: Ig’s helped me a lot in terms of my bass playing. I’ve been with him 125 months. Ten years. There’s a Midwest thing I’ve noticed with him—he’s very plainspoken. When he says, “This is what I mean,” that’s what he means. I like that. He’s not running a hustle or puttin’ on airs. He reminds me of D. Boon. Even though they’re from different worlds, they’re really similar. There’s something about charisma. I told Ig’s wife that if there was a big garbage disposal and he jumped in, I’d think about jumping in after him. He makes me forget that I’m the little coward. I’m here to make the gig work with him.
BLVR: In what ways are D. Boon and Iggy Pop similar?
MW: D. Boon reminds me of Ig, his work ethic onstage. Ig’ll look at me and say [Watt’s voice drops a register, and he knocks on the table], “We’re gonna do this fuckin’ gig, Mike.” Ig told me he feels like a short-order cook. “You want fries? You want a shake?” We played a racetrack in England. There must’ve been eighty thousand people there. But he serves everybody. D. Boon was the same way. You cannot be afraid with a guy like that onstage. I looked over at him, I was fearless. When D. Boon got killed, it was like… wow.
BLVR: Is there an expression or saying that D. Boon would use that sticks with you?
MW: “You’re too spacey, Posk.” His nickname for me was Posk. He’d say my words were too much like Steely Dan. His criticism of me—and I agree with him—was that I wasn’t concise with my words. There’s that D. Boon sticker, it says Punk is whatever we made it to be. He said that. Somebody asked him what punk is, and that was his answer. He’s saying very clearly, “We made it.” It wasn’t something we found. We made it. Not I—we. He could use simple-ass words and get huge-ass meaning out of ’em. I stumblebum all over the place with my words, but not D. Boon. He was like Whitman in that way. You know, Whitman put out his own book in 1855—that’s how old DIY is. He put out that first collection of poems to try and stop the Civil War. It’s a trip when you read those poems. It doesn’t sound so old-fashioned. There aren’t any thees and thous. D. Boon was also a student of Woody Guthrie. Punk seemed so modern when we were in the thick of it, but D. Boon was able to connect it back to Guthrie.
BLVR: Your third punk opera, Hyphenated-Man, is a return to Minutemen-style songs. What made you revisit writing brief punk songs?
MW: I reverted to that Minutemen format on my third opera. No filler. Small songs. Actually, we stole it from Wire. At the time, I was on tour with the Stooges. We were in Madrid, Spain, and they have this museum there, the Prado. There’s seven or eight Hieronymus Bosch paintings there. I liked him as a boy. I don’t know why. I liked dinosaurs and astronauts, too. Seeing his paintings is different than seeing ’em in a book. It reminded me of the Minutemen. A lot of little stuff to make one thing. Minutemen records have a ton of little songs that paint one big picture. But I asked myself, How do I avoid making it about nostalgia, like Fonzie and Potsie and that Happy Days shit? So I just said, I write it about being a middle-aged punk rocker, because the Minutemen would never do that.
BLVR: You seem to have a sense of guilt over mining your own musical past.
MW: Well, the third opera I did, I wrote it on D. Boon’s guitar. When the We Jam Econo documentary came out, it made me want to play that music again. I felt really guilty about ripping off my old bandmates D. Boon and Georgie. Richard Meltzer told me I’m his favorite sentimentalist, and in a way I am sentimental. People ask me what kind of bass player I am, and I tell ’em, “I’m D. Boon’s bass player.” There’s something about never wanting to let him go. It’s like, “You gotta let him go, Watt! He can’t get to heaven! You’ll always be stunted!” Sure, if I focus on him too much. I talk to him a lot. He never answers. He wants me to think about it.