Mike Watt: Still Living and Learning Music (INTERVIEW)

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Mike Watt is a workingman’s musician. Since earning a reputation as one of the world’s most talented and creative bass players as a founding member of seminal California punk band the Minutemen, Watt has stayed busy with an overwhelming amount of projects. Whether playing as a member of legendary Detroit rockers the Stooges or composing his various operas, Watt injects his musical personality into everything he does. Look up Mike Watt on Wikipedia and you’ll find a staggering number of albums, collaborations (or “collabs”) with the likes of Nels Cline and Dave Grohl, and involvement in too many bands (his own and others) to even keep track. Somehow the 56-year-old bass player has managed to maintain this prolific output and keep his music exciting with his trademark style of unpredictable and complex punk-funk playing.

Watt’s current project – one of many he has going at any given time – is no exception. Il sogno del marinaio, which means “the sailor’s dream” in Italian, finds him teaming up once again with Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia, a drummer and guitarist from Italy he connected with and released an album, La Busta Gialla, in 2009. The chemistry in the trio worked well enough both onstage and in the studio that they decided to team up again for another album, the recently released Canto Secondo, aptly translated to “second song.” Each musician brought their own tracks to the table, giving the album a more authentic sense of collaboration. The album as a whole feels experimental and exploratory, but still flows along with Watt’s “econo” jamming. Canto Secondo can drift into strange territory as the musicians stretch out and search for new possibilities, but for longtime fans of Mike Watt it is yet another interesting project from this titan of bass. This week il sogno del marinaio hits the road for their first U.S. tour, playing an impressive 53 shows in 53 days. Recently, Mike Watt took the time to chat from his home in San Pedro, California (or “Pee-dro” as he calls it) about the new project and the key to keeping music exciting after 35 years.

With this current band, you’re doing a tour with 53 shows in 53 days, which is a lot of dates. How do you make that work?

I don’t know if Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia have done something like that, but you know me. My tradition with Black Flag and Husker Du – Flag used to do four month tours – what’s the old vaudeville saying, when you ain’t playin’ you’re payin’. Actually, Black Flag built a lot of the circuit that most of us tour on – they don’t get enough credit I don’t think. Ill sogno del marinaio did do a tour a year and a half ago, but it was a European one. Andrea and Stefano are 21 years younger than me and they’re strong guys. I do have a hurt knee, so I ain’t as good in the load-ins and load-outs. Not only do I get to show them our land, but the land gets to see them. They can play their asses off. I gotta also say about this band, it’s kind of a return to me in some ways to the idea of collaboration, like what I do with Dos or Minutemen. With the operas or the Stooges, either I’m giving direction or taking direction, so this is kind of a return for me back to the collab. Those guys are composers, and they can make things tough for me because they’ll play in 5 and 7. I can do 4, 3, 6, 8, 2, but these other ones are kind of a challenge. I might have some years as far as gigs on them but they are definitely up their with the capability. It’s sort of like D. Boon falling out of the tree; I just met him by accident. It seems like a lot of opportunities start with some luck thing, and then you gotta work at it. So part of these 53 days and 53 gigs is working at it. The first album wasn’t really released in the United States, so we wanted to go for it.

How did you all connect?

It’s the guitar man Stefano Pilia. He actually got put in the boat with me nine years ago when I was doing the second opera in Europe for the Italian gigs. The promoter put him there as a kind of helper man with language and getting around. In 2009 I get an email from Stefano saying, hey I’ve been invited to play this festival and I got a drummer friend named Andrea Belfi, and why don’t you come on over and play with us at the festival? I figured maybe we do a couple more gigs and get this stuff up. This is stuff that has come up on me in middle age; now whenever I get the chance to record I do it. In the old days there were gigs and fliers, so we weren’t that precious about recordings because they were just to get people to the gigs. Now I look at them kind of like something that can be here after I’m gone. When you’re younger you don’t think about that mortality thing too much.

So Stefano said we would do six gigs and in the middle we would record the album. We were in a barn just outside Bologna near the prison. I never left the place; these cats cooked for me every day. We had a tour under our belt. The name means a sailor’s dream, so that could be almost fucking anything. My mama’s people came from Italy, so there is a connection that way. All three of us are from the punk scene, just 20 years apart. So there are some connections, but in a lot of ways it is out of the blue, almost like D. Boon jumping out of the tree. But you know what? Maybe that’s the way life is. Like seeing Black Flag handing out fliers for one of their first gigs and them asking us to open up because they couldn’t believe there was a [San] Pedro punk band. It’s a trippy thing and hard to quantify. I do know it wasn’t some lunch deal between managers. You can play that name game, and I found that with the Ball-Hog or Tugboat? album. You know that record’s twenty years old next year? Fuck. I just had friends come and play but there was some kind of hype because of people’s names. I get it from people here in Pedro too, like why do you play with longshoremen and dudes from Pedro? You could play with anybody. There has to be something organic in the chemistry. Some people, when I tell them these stories, are like fuck, why don’t you pick me Watt? But it’s not like I’m out picking, things just happen.

How do you know when it’s right?

I’ve been pretty lucky that way. I was listening to this interview with Alice Coltrane, John’s second wife, and she said he never scissored anybody. They just kind of left the band when they felt it was time. I’m not that conscious about it because there’s something about an organic thing. I guess I don’t have enough failures to know what it is. I’ve been lucky, with Missingmen and Secondmen, and of course D. Boon, his mom put me on bass. A lot of things were out of my control that I kind of rode with, and it seemed to be healthy. It was a great classroom for Watt to learn bass.

You’ve been at it for a long time with so many different projects. What keeps it interesting?

Like I was saying, classrooms. Here’s the problem with being around a long time – you think you fucking know it all and you’ve seen everything! That’s the worst! Stop learning stop living, Buda said or something. Coming into middle age, I’ve really tried to embrace this idea that everybody’s got something to teach me if I can just keep my mind open. That’s what all the projects are for. The way I started with music – I [wasn’t] really a musician, I just [wanted] to be with D. Boon – so all the music can come through to D. Boon. Then we all lost him and Edward [Crawford] came and did another band, but I didn’t grow up with Ed. I remember bringing him “Piss-Bottle Man” and he was like, ‘are you sure this is the kind of song for this band?’

Right before that shit happened to D. Boon I did try my first side project jamming with [Kira Roessler] for Dos, and it was the first time I had done something like that. By the way, [next year] it’ll be 30 years [for Dos]. I can’t believe I’ve had a band going that long, so we’re going to make an album called 30 Years. Dos is still about learning, and it’s also about not hiding because there’s all those fucking notes and no drums, no gongs, no cymbals. I’m partial to trios, there’s a lot of ways to do a trio. I think whenever you get more than one guy playing – the ensemble – my philosophy is that you’re trying to make an interesting conversation. To me, that’s worth investing in. Sometimes it’s good to rearrange the classroom and have different teachers come in. I can’t ever pretend I’m going to have what I started with; I can’t go back. With the third opera I got a little sentimental, but still, I didn’t want some Fonzie and Potsie shit going down. One of the ways of staying with today I think is letting the freak flag fly and the dice roll. If two guys from Italy can teach me how to play better, I think it’s happening. It keeps things exciting.

With il sogno del marinaio, how much of the music was written out and did you each bring pre-written music to the table?

Like I said, they’re composers, so it wasn’t like, I want you to realize this. I brought in five tunes and they each had four or five. We recorded 12 songs; 10 are on the album and two came out on record store day. It worked out about a third each. They both have their own ways of composing. Andrea Belfi will make a mini file where he plays all the parts. When Stefano plays you a song he’s kind of looking for immediate feedback. Me, I like to write on the bass. So three different styles of composing, but very interesting to see how it worked. No power trips. I’ve been in situations where there are a lot of power trips, but they ain’t that fun. Fortunately, these guys work hard on helping you realize your thing.

Do you think there’s a common theme or thread that links all of the songs on the album?

Canto Secondo means the second song, and to me us knowing each other better musically is really good. I think the voice of the album is more realized, like this band has made its own sound. I did ask them when they were composing the album to think of the live experience we had, because that was the first time we played gigs. You can only have your first album once, so the first album’s always going to be the first album. For some people that’s the best thing and it’s all down hill from there, but I don’t know about that with ill sogno del marinaio. To me this is more a band playing together knowing each other.

As someone who’s seen and participated in so many eras of music, where do you find inspiration from these days?

I get a lot of inspiration from writers and painters. The third opera was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch, and also the Wizard of Oz movie. Sometimes I like non-musical influences because you don’t have to worry about ripping off the licks [laughs]. With music you have to abstract it out to a certain level. For the first opera I used James Joyce’s Ulysses, on the second opera I used Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. These days there are a lot of cats making interesting music; there’s a cat in Pittsburgh named Tobacco that I really like. He works with synthesizers and he’s got a band called Black Moth Super Rainbow, they’re great. There’s a great band in Oakland called Sisters in the Pit, these three ladies have a power trio. I even got them opening for the Stooges – Iggy was into them. I like Bosnian Rainbows, and there are some cats in Ireland called I Watch You From Afar. I got friends in Tokyo called Lite, terrible name but they didn’t know. It’s like the beer, that Miller shit. They’re a great instrumental band.

Younger people today are much more open-minded than in my day. There’s some bunk, but there’s bunk all the time. Pat Boone sold more on “Tutti Frutti” than Little Richard, and that was like 60 years ago. I think it’s more econo to make music now so maybe you have more cats in the game. Every era has its perils and shit, but there are a lot of things happening today that blow my mind. I remember the first time I heard John Coltrane, I thought he was just an older dude doing punk, I didn’t even know he was dead or anything about that bebop stuff. One thing about the old days, even though the scene in the U.S. for punk was small, those people were very deep in the music, they knew a lot of stuff.

I see a lot of those echoes widespread now. We called them geeks in those days, but nowadays it’s almost second nature that a young person knows about a lot of music. Maybe that’s because of the Internet, but maybe it’s because of a little bit more open-mindedness too. I’m up for chasing anything that’s coming out; doesn’t mean I’m going to like it, but it’s a good time for music.

Il Sogno Del Marinaio — 2014 Tour Dates
Sept. 10 – San Diego, Calif., The Casbah
Sept. 11 – Los Angeles, Calif., Echo
Sept. 12 – San Francisco, Calif., Bottom Of The Hill
Sept. 13 – Santa Cruz, Calif., The Atrium
Sept. 15 – Fresno, Calif., Strummer’s
Sept. 16 – Sacramento, Calif., Blue Lamp
Sept. 17 – Eugene, Ore., WOW Hall
Sept. 18 – Portland, Ore., Doug Fir Lounge
Sept. 19 – Olympia, Wash., Capitol Theater
Sept. 20 – Seattle, Wash., Tractor Tavern
Sept. 21 – Spokane, Wash., The Hop
Sept. 22 – Boise, Idaho, Neurolux
Sept. 23 – Salt Lake City, Utah, Urban Lounge
Sept. 24 – Denver, Colo., Larimer Lounge
Sept. 25 – Omaha, Neb., Slowdown
Sept. 26 – Lawrence, Kan., The Bottleneck
Sept. 27 – Iowa City, Iowa, Gabe’s
Sept. 28 – Saint Paul, Minn., Turf Club
Sept. 29 – Madison, Wis., High Noon Saloon
Sept. 30 – Chicago, Ill., Schubas Tavern
Oct. 1 – St. Louis, Mo., Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room
Oct. 2 – Memphis, Tenn., Hi-Tone Café
Oct. 3 – Louisville, Ky., Zanzabar
Oct. 4 – Columbus, Ohio, The Basement
Oct. 5 – Detroit, Mich., Magic Stick
Oct. 6 – Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Grog Shop
Oct. 7 – Pittsburgh, Pa., Brillobox
Oct. 8 – Buffalo, N.Y., Sportsmens Tavern
Oct. 9 – Albany, N.Y., The Low Beat
Oct. 10 – South Burlington, Vt., Higher Ground – Showcase Lounge
Oct. 11 – Portland, Maine, Port City Music Hall
Oct. 12 – Allston, Mass., Great Scott
Oct. 13 – Hamden, Conn., The Ballroom at The Outer Space
Oct. 14 – Providence, R.I., Fete Lounge
Oct. 15 – Brooklyn, N.Y., The Bell House
Oct. 16 – New York, N.Y., Mercury Lounge
Oct. 17 – Philadelphia, Pa., Johnny Brenda’s
Oct. 18 – Richmond, Va., The Camel
Oct. 19 – Washington, D.C., Black Cat
Oct. 20 – Charlotte, N.C., The Casbah
Oct. 21 – Charleston, S.C., The Royal American
Oct. 22 – Atlanta, Ga., The EARL
Oct. 23 – Jacksonville, Fla., Jack Rabbits
Oct. 24 – Gainesville, Fla., High Dive
Oct. 25 – Mobile, Ala., Alchemy Tavern
Oct. 26 – New Orleans, La., One Eyed Jacks
Oct. 27 – Houston, Texas, Fitzgerald’s – Downstairs
Oct. 28 – Austin, Texas, Red 7
Oct. 29 – Dallas, Texas, Dada Dallas
Oct. 30 – Oklahoma City, Okla., VZD’s
Oct. 31 – Albuquerque, N.M., Low Spirits Bar and Stage
Nov. 1 – Phoenix, Ariz., The Crescent Ballroom

 

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