Feature Interview: Mike Watt

Discussion in 'Features' started by TalkBass, Mar 23, 2004.

  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    This feature was published on TalkBass.com July 2001

    Mike Watt is a true original. Part kid, part musical maverick, part road-veteran with all the veteran's smarts of someone who has been there and done that. Talking with him you get an idea of why he is so good and been so influential. This is a man who loves his work.
  2. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    The On-Ramps and Off-Ramps of Bass
    With Mike Watt By Imre Komaromi

    MikeWatt is a true original. Part kid, part musical maverick, part road-veteranwith all the veteran's smarts of someone who has been there and done that. Talkingwith him you get an idea of why he is so good and been so influential. Thisis a man who loves his work.

    After having been in two of the most important post-punk bands, fIREHOSE andthe unforgettable Minutemen, Watt (as he refers to himself in trademark third-person)went on to write and record two successful and critically acclaimed solo albums:Ballhog or Tugboat, and Contemplating the Engine Room. The later being a "punkopera" that paralleled the life of his father in the engine room of a Navyship with his own life on tour with the Minutemen and his interaction with itsmembers, George Hurley and D.Boon.

    Watt has recorded solo bass albums with his side-project, Dos, featuring BlackFlag bassist, and ex-wife, Kira Roessler. He's had people such as Eddie Vetter,Dave Grohl, and Flea guest on his solo work, and even had the Red Hot ChiliPeppers dedicate an entire album to him (1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magic).

    With all the success and influence Watt has had in his career, he has remainedone the most genuine and true artists out there, and an extremely nice guy toboot! Talking with him is an experience all unto it self, you have to stay focusedto keep with his train of thought, ideas whirl around each other, collidingwith and bouncing off each other. At the end of one of his "spiels"Watt closes it all with one of his larger-than-life belly laughs. But stayingwith James Joyce-like stream of consciousness is the reward. In the end, notonly has Watt infused you with his knowledge of music, touring, and bass ingeneral, but his enthusiasm grabs hold of you and refuses to let go. Suddenly,you remember why we're all in this game to begin with - the music.

    I sat down with Watt, questions at hand, but after about ten minutes, or so,I realized that trying to stick to some sort of formulaic interview would befutile, and no fun really! So I let the tape recorder go and ran through topicafter topic with Watt letting his ideas, memories, and imagination run as Ilistened to him talk about bass, the state of music, the 70's punk scene andthe death of Joey Ramone, and anything else that entered into his mind. On-Ramps, off-Ramps and glue

    You know I'm always thinking about onramps and off ramps and how to get thecats to the next part, or out of this one. And if you're not sure, then you'relike glue that's just sliding around, not holding it together - see the bassis like glue holding the tiles together, and I don't want to (as a bass player)let those cats or the audience down. But, then again, what's the glue withoutthe tiles? It's just a puddle. So, politically, the bass can really be one ofthe best parts to play in a band.

    Picks and fingers
    Using a pick is an interesting thing. It can make you play more consistent,but you have to play with it off the string, so it creates a whole differentfeel. When we (Minutemen) first started, I couldn't play fast enough so I useda pick, up until we recorded Double Nickels on the Dime, on that one there wereonly four songs that were recorded with a pick; that was when I made the switchto fingers. I think guitar players like it when we (bass players) use picksbecause of the definition it provides. I like using fingers because it blendsit, like a trombone almost, but maybe that's why others don't like it - they'rehaving trouble telling the notes apart or something.
    I like to have honk in the low-mids, to me that's where it's at, I have problemwith Stingrays for this reason. People ask me all the time why I don't playthem, to me the pickup is in a weird place, a little too close to the bridge.To me, the spot where Leo Fender put the pickup in the P-bass is where I likeit - a sweet spot. A lot of it depends, too, on where your hands are, whetherit's up by the neck or down by the bridge…that has a bearing on everything.So I'm still inclined to say that a lot of the sound still comes from the hands,regardless of all the rest.

    The mystery of bass

    Bass can be a mysterious thing to a lot of people, and this can be to our advantagesometimes. See you can come out of nowhere and really surprise folks, it's like,"whoa, I didn't know you could do that on bass!"
    Whereas with guitar, it's been played out so much that it becomes quite a burdento then live up to those clichés, in a way it makes us a lot more freebecause of that mystery. But I think at times we can be a mystery to ourselves,too, because of the expectations others have on us - our responsibilities tothe band. I toured with Jay Mascis who really is a cat concerned with time,and he would tell people, "I can go off because Watt is going to be there!"
    But he would want me to go off too…I think this responsibility can alsobe an opportunity, though. A lot of people get bummed out, they think it meansplaying one thing all the time - and that's not it at all, it's just keepingthings together, and I don't think that means you have to play just one partall the time.

    More than four?

    Well, see for me, I have trouble with a five-string bass, much less anythingmore. To me I still feel there is so much I can work with on a four-string thatthe rest seems to distract me, I can't speak for others, though. To me I thinkusing all the chords and tapping and such makes it sound more like a piano.These cats really shine by themselves, but when there in a band they can getrolled over…see there's a certain space for us, just like cymbals havethere own space, and I think it's too easy to get lost. There's so many otherinstruments competing for space, like guitars, kick drums, etc…you canjust get lost. There's a place in, like, the low-mids that our space - Jamersonreally knew how to find that place, that place where it just really punchesthings up…it just moves, it percolates; there is just something trippyabout that, I also think using open notes is a good thing, I don't think youshould always fret every note. Also, for me, I can have a problem with the sizeof these basses. My hands are small and I have to use smaller basses like aGibson, I was having so much pain in my hands after a gig or practice that Ialmost couldn't hold the steering wheel in the van! But, I switched to the GibsonI use now…all the pain went away.

    The Stage as a Petri Dish

    I'd like to make the stage safe - for the younger cats especially. I want themto not be afraid; the stage is a petri dish, a place where we can try thingsout, we don't have to go by all these formats. We can get crazy, have some emotionout there, maybe if they see me, a middle-aged guy out there they may think,"Why not, he's doing it!"

    I would like the stage to be safe to go crazy with the art again, and thatwas one reason I felt good about doing the opera out live. People would getthese strange looks on their faces as they realized that this whole performancewas one long song. But I got a lot of feedback that way, too. A bunch of Navyguys gave me things after these shows. A submariner gave me a goldfish he had,another guy gave me his uniform - I ended up relating to a lot of people onlevels that weren't even musical! And that to me is success, because music isan angle on life, and if the music speaks to them, even if they aren't sureexactly why, then it's success.

    The NEA, playing out, and furthering the arts

    The arts have to be supported. Take a look at the great depression, I thinkwithout the arts we would've totally gone down the tubes, but the arts werestrong, and I think that was a true savior for us. Now I'm not always sure justhow to go about supporting the arts, other than grabbing my bass and gettingout and playing. I'm for anything that gets good art out there, you know? I'mnot always sure on the devices of it, per se, and I'm not exactly sure abouthaving a committee and a bureaucracy and things like that where art is concerned- but whatever gets it out, man, ya know? I think it always needs to be talkedabout, though, because some people really want to censor art, and I just don'tknow about it. When it comes down to subsidies and money, and how do you makea living as an artist…well, I tell you, the way I found out is to be theman in the van with the bass in your hand, you know?

    The Internet and electronica

    I think it ups the ante - we (bass players) gotta be more inventive. The midikeyboard was pretty scary, too, when it came out…but there are still thingsthat we can do that they can't. We can slur on the strings, play just open strings,the touch and sheer geometry of the strings sets us apart. It's nuance - that'swhat we have that they don't. I think sometimes they have nuance "buttons"on the machines, you know, to try and catch up! See, one thing I got out ofit was maybe we're paying too much attention to our left hand and should paya bit more to our right hand. See a lot of the electronic music goes for rhythmmore than the melody - and that's more about the right hand than the left. Seewe, as bass players, can still be a big source of a lot of drama in the music,and I don't know if the guys with all the samplers and stuff can do that. Theycan't play in real-time like we can - they have to load a new sample!

    I think the Internet is a good thing, though. See back in the Minutemen, meand D.Boon divided the world into two categories: gigs and flyers. Whateverwasn't a gig was a flyer, and so on. So to me the Internet is kind of like allthose old fanzines that were out there. It can cut out the middleman, and whateveris going to get promotion out there for your shows is a good thing. I know alot of people are upset about the mp3's and the pirating…but I tell you,it doesn't affect me, I want more and more people to talk about Mike Watt. Whateveris going to get it out there and get people's attention and maybe get them outto the show - whatever form it takes - well I'm all for it.

    Bass, kick drum, and the next album

    Our note is definitely the kick drum, I'm very interested in that note becauseit is so close to ours…maybe some of the toms, but mostly the kick. See,that's mainly where it's at for us when we're interacting with the drummer.There's something about that "kick drum" note of the bass guitar Ireally like - the guitar player can't do that, they don't move air like that.That's where slapping can kind of miss, it competes too much with the drums,and can kind of disappear! On Contemplating the Engine Room we tuned the kickdrum on each song to go with the bass. I really believe they live together inthat frequency, and it really tightens things up when you do that.

    The next album I'm doing is going to be a drummer, an organ player and me.I'm going to have the organ player really work his left hand and all those bassnotes. I don't want him playing traditional organ, I really want him to workin the bass clef, and have kind of a "dueling" going on between heand I. I really want to experiment a bit; I think I've been a little conservativewith the bass on the last couple of albums. I think with the new album I'llbe able to go off a bit - get a bit more physical with the bass. I'm feelinga bit of pressure with this new album, though, because I tell you, it's beenabout four years since the last album. We used to make records every year ortwo, so this is kind of a weird phase in my life, I'm not used to having towait this long. But I'm also feeling opportunity with it to, the pressure kindof adds a bit of excitement to it, too.

    Joey Ramone and the punk scene, old and new

    [​IMG]Hisdeath broke my heart, man. And, see, he was an important part of punk that manypeople forget about. He was about friends, and saying hey it's safe here andyou can get up on this stage and try it out. He was glad to have you on boardand was always interested in what you had to offer. Joey Ramone had the heartof our scene, man. And I just don't understand this world sometimes, and whysome guys are taken so young. He was a part of the scene that will never die.

    If you want to call yourself punk, man you gotta be crazy with this stuff.And I don't mean in a violent way, but with the attitudes about boundaries,and pushing those walls down - what are you going to do with your instrument,and your sound, and the guys your playing with, you know? I think there's alot of rubber-stamping, and it's like people are using it as a formula to becomepart of some "royalty" - it just seems a bit at odds with the ideasof punk that I grew up with. We don't need any more labels or rubber-stamps,those were the very ideas we were against back then. It wasn't about gettinga tour bus and being a rock star. I think, too, that most kids are expectedto be punks in a way…and if everybody is doing the same thing, then whatare you rebelling against? But you know, just as they can't know what it waslike for me back then, I'm not in their shoes either. And who knows, maybe thekids with the drum and bass think they're being punk! Because you know, punkis a state of MIND, not music, it's not about having spiked hair and playingyour guitar fast - that was one kind, and their were so many others out there.

    There are those that argue me to this day that what I'm doing is not punk,and I know a lot of the reason I can get away with it is because I came outof that scene - I was part of the Minutemen. But the thing that they don't understandis that there was not another scene that would've let me and D.Boon do whatwe did. That was the punk scene and that's my attitude, sure things can changeover time, but it's the state of mind your in, not just fast guitars. I'm goingto challenge myself, I'm going to push things - do things different, like thebass and organ album, that's how Watt stays punk!
    Don't forget to visit Watt's page on the net: hootpage.com.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 16, 2014