Mike Watt co-founded, played bass, and composed many of the songs for the influential indie-punk band The Minutemen, which sadly was silenced when guitarist D. Boon died in a car accident. Watt has also played with fIREHOSE and, since 2003, The Stooges.
On October 1 and 2, Watt was a guest musician for Yoko Ono’s performances in Los Angeles, the second of which was reviewed here. This interview, conducted by phone on 10/8/10, covered his thoughts on these concerts, plus his recent projects with The Missingmen and Floored By Four.
[Earlier interview with Mike Watt available here]
Mike Watt: I was invited [laughs].
JM: Why you, though?
MW: I wonder. Sean Lennon was running the band. He was like the stage director guy, with [Yuka] Honda helping him. And so I think it was in his mind. He’s been very kind to me. I got the invite, and I was all up for it. I was surprised.
Actually I’ve played with some of those people before, though. Nels Cline. The drummer, Yuko Araki, her and her husband [Shimizu "Shimmy" Hirotaka], I’ve recorded three albums with in Tokyo. It was the first time I’d ever played with Sean Lennon. I’m not saying because I played with them other people I was invited. Hell, I don’t know. I just tried my hardest.
Yoko Ono, 77 years old, pretty inspiring. I just want to keep playing when I get older, and she was the embodiment of that kind of spirit. Her thing is pretty uncompromising, but at the same time it’s pretty affirming. It is tricky. It’s very individualistic. I get the feeling it’s not trying to be better than other people. It kind of invites in. It was a great gig.
I got to see her live last February. It’s the only time I ever went and saw a gig that I wasn’t playing, you know, out of town. Because I didn’t know if she would ever play in Southern California.
JM: She played in Oakland. Is that the one it was?
MW: That’s what it was. It was at Fox Theater or something. So that’s the first time I saw her. And, wow. And then to play with her.
Tiny lady, but huge spirit [laughs]. It was a trip. Her son was a big part of it, too. But the way all the different people pulled together was really happening. Very happening.
And then I got to play with Per [Perry Farrell]. I didn’t play with Per in fourteen years, since the Porno For Pyro days. That was righteous. And I got to hang out, and speak with him between the soundcheck. That was great.
Then the first night with Ig [Iggy Pop]. But I’ve played with him more recently than fourteen years ago.
JM: I missed the first night because I was out of town. So what did Iggy end up singing?
MW: “Waiting for the D Train”.
JM: Did he rip his shirt off?
MW: Ah, of course. I wonder if it was even on when he came on. He had, like, a coat on. But I knew it was coming off. This time I didn’t get hit in the face with it. ‘Cause I was standing a little more off to the side [laughs]. Usually in The Stooges I take it in the face, the vest, or whatever. He’s just the greatest.
Maybe a lot of those folks had never seen him, you know what I mean? ‘Cause maybe a little different crowd. It was so great. Other people, I knew they knew. Just the teaming of them both, it was great energy. That was great [laughs].
JM: Even though the concert was about a week ago, I’m still thinking about it a lot.
MW: I mean, I saw that one in Oakland, so I had kind of an idea. But that was more the Plastic Ono Band. This had the melding of the guests. Sometimes, like with Sean and Harper [Simon], she wasn’t even onstage, only her spirit. It was trippy. It was a great gig.
The sound on the side was so fucking lame and shit, so I would go in the hall, in the back. I would watch it with the people. Except I had to be onstage for my bit [laughs]. Because I wanted to see it like everyone else was seeing it.
MW: I did the soundcheck with her. You know, I didn’t know a lot about her. Her music, especially, I just haven’t heard. And, man, she can sing and play. She came in, sat down at the piano… I kind of only knew some image stuff. She’s definitely a musician. It blew me away. I don’t know why, you know? Everyone there was a musician [laughs], so why wouldn’t she be one? She was really good. Really good singer and player.
A lot of that stuff just came about, you know? Not a lot of prep. Everybody coming together and making it happen. Of course the Tokyo crew, they were solid. They’re in Iceland now. Tomorrow it’s John Lennon’s… and it’s Sean’s birthday, too. They were born on the same day. What a trip. They’re very intense about music, and also they’ve been a core group now for more than a year. But the guest people, they just came on. So that was pretty wild. Not totally improvised, but pretty much going for it.
JM: So are there any plans to play bass on Lady Gaga’s next single, or anything like that?
MW: [laughs] I don’t know. She had a machine that looked like a bass. It looked like something. Had some synthesizer on it. Did you see that thing?
JM: I saw it, yeah.
MW: I don’t think she ever ended up playing it, but it was right next to her.
JM: So she brought that? I saw it, and thought, what in the world is that thing? [both laugh]
MW: You know who was really good, too? RZA, the tall rapper man. I wasn’t that familiar with Wu-Tang, either, although I get to do some gigs with them this summer with The Stooges. Sometimes it surprises me how little I know about some things. Because I want to know about all kinds of music. Man, he was great. I loved everyone, but he was like, wow. I had to tell him “much respect”. He was really good.
JM: Hopefully for some people in the audience, it was like that with you. They maybe knew about Lady Gaga, but had never heard of The Minutemen, or Mike Watt.
MW: I was really surprised. I came out there and a lot of people were hollering. And I was thinking, wow, I wonder who’s here who knows me. That kind of surprised me, yeah, yeah.
It kind of happened too when I played on that lady… God, she was really nice and she could sing her ass off, too. Kelly Clarkson. We’re kind of from different worlds, right, but actually music is music. But it is strange, because of, I don’t know what you call it, hype or whatever. I mean, if these people were just images and stuff I would tell you. But they really can fucking play. You know what I mean?
I don’t blame people for getting cynical, and thinking almost anybody who’s popular has gotta be some kind of hand puppet fake, right? I didn’t really know of them, so I had nothing to judge by. And then I just hear them, and I think, “Oh my God”. Yeah, they’re musicians. I suppose some people are jive, and shit. But both those cases…
And like you said, they’re different audiences. I kind of have an image, I guess. I’m not supposed to be seen [laughs]. From the underground. I’m proud of where I came from, of course. You know, I wouldn’t be who I am without D. Boon, and the whole punk movement and stuff. I never wanted to be away from that. But music is music, so if people are checking things out because of sounds and rhythms, that seems valid to me, not jive.
MW: It’s an album.
JM: It’s long enough, I guess.
MW: It’s gotta be 45 or 50 minutes. But it’s only four songs. It’s kind of 70’s style [laughs] with, like, long-ass tunes. Not in The Minutemen tradition so much. But I did write the songs. Wrote one for each person, including myself. It was an exploration. Me and Nels, we had never played with Yuka Honda. I played with Dougie [Bowne] once on a Chris Whitley album. One song. He was this great guitarist and singer from Texas. Remember him, Chris Whitley? Man, he was incredible. He passed away from cancer. But that’s where I met Dougie first. He told me he had this studio in New York City…
Actually, it started all with a dinner a Stooges gig in New York City. [Bowne] and Yuka Honda were chowing, and I said I’d just taken Nels to Tokyo for his first time to record there, with that husband and wife team. I said, one day I’ll bring him to Dougie’s studio. And then, out of the blue, Matt Ward got asked to play Central Park, and asked me and Nels to open for him. OK. We could have brought Bob Lee or somebody from L.A., a So-Cal guy, right, but we said, hey, here’s a chance. We can record with Yuka Honda and Dougie. And we gotta get the songs up for a gig anyway, so why not make them into an album?
I’ve been doing a lot of this spur of the moment collaboration. I must have twelve or thirteen things in the pipeline. I’ve been getting a little braver. And Nels, he’s been doing it since the 70’s, so shit, he has no fear. So that’s how it happened. It was a little bit planned, but a lot of it was coincidence. So the couple of days before the Central Park gig, we recorded the thing in Dougie’s studio. Well, lo and behold, two of the people in the band, Nels Cline and Yuka Honda, next month they married. And they’d never even met each other before this record. So that’s sort of a strange consequence.
I’m really in the place – I’m gonna be 53 in December – I think like, man, maybe everybody’s got something to teach me. So I want to put my bass in as many trippy situations as possible. And Floored By Four was something like this.
JM: Any plans for you guys to tour?
MW: Well you know Nels Cline’s with Wilco. So not a lot of time for him. And me with my… I hope we do. I really do. It’d be great.
I just came out with my third opera, Hypenated-Man. A week from today I leave for tour in Japan. This is a very strange piece, thirty tiny songs. It’s kind of from my old days of little songs. It’s inspired by this painter, called Hieronymus Bosch, I don’t know if you know this guy.
JM: When I talked to you last time, you mentioned him.
MW: Yeah, from 500 years ago. Well the thing came out the day before yesterday, and now next week I’m going to tour it over there. No US release yet, I’m going to wait until the springtime. But I really want to play it here, too.
It’s very hard to learn. There’s so much fucking shit to remember. I’m pounding it into my head, you know. Both my guys [Tom Watson, guitar; Raul Morales, drums] got it pretty good. I got a lot of it. There’s just a lot of spiel, too. It’s a trip. It’s a challenge. Which I always like about The Minutemen days. D. Boon says, we always gotta write something a little too hard to play. [laughs] So you gotta keep up on it.
JM: Well, I think it’s more exciting for the audience when you feel like you guys are on the edge…
MW: Literally [laughs]. We’re not faking it.
It is a trippy piece. And this is the reason I put The Missingmen together, so in a way it has realized that mission. There’s something about that. It’s been a couple of years now, and, yeah, the reason for the band is here [laughs]. I love it.
A lot of this stuff I’ve been working on now, it’s all coming around to being released. ‘Cause actually, in the last ten years there was a lot more gigs than recorded work, so Watt is trying to address that imbalance.
I do have Stooges coming up again in January. They told me we’ll tour in New Zealand and Australia, The Big Day Out. That will be my third one. I did one before with him five years ago, then Porno For Pyros fourteen years ago.
JM: Any chance of Porno For Pyros getting back together, or at least you playing with Perry more?
MW: Per told me they got a new bass guy for Jane’s Addiction. Which I could kind of tell in a way, because I did a gig last week with [Stephen] Perkins and Peter [DiStefano], the Hellride band, and, fuck, Perk was on fire. Man, he was wailing on it. And I told Per, I had practice with him for that Ono gig, and he said, yeah, Perk’s been jamming his brains out. He said he just had a son, too.
So Perk, wow. So I think Per’s a little busy with this new incarnation of Jane’s Addiction. I think this new bassist – I can’t remember his name [former Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan] – but I think he’s bringing a new fire to that band, the way they were both talking. So maybe a little busy. But I would LOVE – me and Peter, he was the guitar player for Porno For Pyros – I would love to do that. I learned so much from those three tours with those guys. Yeah, great trippy music. So maybe. I would definitely be into it.
MW: I love that song. I love that song.
I remember when it happened. It was the same weekend Darby Crash died. And I was dying of pneumonia in the hospital. It was Pearl Harbor Day, 1980. Around there. And I had fever, I was burning up. They put bags of ice between by arms and my legs. It’s a sad thing.
I mean, I gotta say, when I was young I did not like The Beatles, because it seemed else did [laughs], so I had to be a little contrary. But, especially his words, man.
And he had a good voice, too. Really good voice, it could cut through anything. And you could tell it was John Lennon. He didn’t sing like other singers. Even though you could tell he was way into U.S. rock and roll, there was still something about him, and his voice. I appreciate that now, more and more.
And his lyrics were pretty intense, pretty trippy. They were kind of abstract, but they had some kind of weird way of solidness that was didactic. They’re kind of like, though-provoker kind of things, I don’t know, illuminators. So, yeah, I think we miss him, his art. More and more I’m appreciating it. All those guys in that band in fact could play, man. They could. I can say that now. [laughs]
Sean, at that gig, played everything like a motherfucker. He was rocking that bass. I told him.
JM: Yeah, he seems really talented to me.
MW: Yeah, you know what I mean? Maybe, somehow, John’s fire keeps going a little bit.
I think about him. Someone asked me about “Working Class Hero” a few years ago, and I really started thinking about him more and more. That’s trippy.
I think D. Boon dug him. I think D. Boon liked The Beatles. I remember when I first met him he didn’t know much rock and roll. He only really knew Creedence. But I think he did know a little bit about The Beatles, too [laughs]. So, very sad that he’s not here for his birthday. But he did give us some great gifts.