Interview: Mike Watt

By , 2017年 3月 14日


Editor’s note: this interview with punk legend and Minutemen co-founder Mike Watt was conducted by Zhao Kai (aka Victor) of The Bedstars (an old pangbianr favorite) and originally published in Chinese by Noisey. See the original version here. Mike Watt is about to start a China tour organized by Round Eye, who’ve in the past brought through such other legacy heroes as MDC, The Boys, and Steve Mackay (RIP).

Watt and his Missingmen will be at Beijing’s DDC this Saturday, March 18, and the tour will also hit Xinxiang, Songjiang, Shanghai, Ningbo, Wuxi, and Yiwu. Find the full schedule at the very bottom of this post, but first enjoy Zhao Kai’s comprehensive, unedited email conversation with one of punk’s great bassists. Jam econo!

Hi, Mike. How are you? I’m Victor, intervewing you on behalf of Noisey China (of VICE China) Thank you for your time. Here goes…

hi there, victor – thanks for having me aboard!

Have you ever played any bass, amp or effect made in China that you especially liked?

yes, I have a hofner china beatle bass (they call it the violin bass – ignition – black) that I got in 2015 expressly for doing a tour w/tav falco and love it much. I had to do a few little things (flip the input jack mounting plate, remove the pickguard and put labella flat wound strings) but it was built really good and has a character that’s much it’s own. stood up to some tough touring too in a soft sack I got for it. I always keep where I konk so if I get a bass notion in my head, I can get right to it w/that bass in my hands.

In your tour you will be accompanied by the Missingmen. Can you please give us a brief introduction of your bandmates?

I put the missingmen together to realize my third opera “hyphenated-man” and in fact wrote the music expressly for them to play. guitarman tom watson is from the old days and in fact me and d boon put out the first slovenly records in the 80s – tom was in that band and he knew d boon in person even though he’s from manhattan beach and not our pedro town. drummerman raul morales is from pedro and I found out about him cuz of this scene that developed here I wasn’t even aware of cuz I was touring so much. hell, in the old days the “pedro scene” was ‘pert-near just us minutemen! I was shocked to find out all this home-grown movement was occuring here ’til this guy vinnie vegas hipped me to it and I saw the leeches which had raul on drums and thought I wanna play w/him. so it’s like I got one part of the missingmen from the old days and one part from the newer pedro days which I thought would be perfect for the piece. the were great and we did five “hyphenated-man” tours. we’re not bringing that to china but instead some tunes I wrote for d boon and georgie a while ago (some of it thirtyseven years) along w/tunes that shaped my musical journey up to these days. since it’s my first time in china, I thought this might give the folks there a good perspective on me cuz you know w/out being a minutemen minuteman, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

The Missingmen

It is not very easy to keep up with all your releases and projects. What are the records that you have put out most recently? Will you showcase a specific project during your China tour or are you preparing something special just for this occasion?

I kind of answered this already, huh? sorry. the latest record I put out is “ring spiel” – tour ’95 and that’s a gig I did twentyone years ago – yeah, we’ll play some tunes from that. the album I put out before that was “canto secondo” from il sogno del marinaio which is a trio I’m part of which is more of a collaboration than w/my opera bands like the missingmen and the secondmen. I only write a third of the material w/drummerman andrea belfi and guitarman stefano pilia (both itailan cats) and was invited by them to join where I’m giving the direction w/my opera bands. in the stooges, j mascis + the fog and porno for pyros I took direction. I think it’s good to mix up your rolls, take turns: sometime collaborate, sometime give direction and sometimes take direction. I found these are three ways to be in an ensemble and being part of all three processes in different forms makes for a healthy and interesting musical journey. what I’ll be bringing to china is stuff more about what mike watt is on a content level about what make him him so none of my operas or where I’m a sideman or w/the italian guys.

What should people expect when they go to your shows? What do you try to give to your audience during your shows?

I think it’s very important to never take gig-goers and listeners for granted and give them everything you got cuz they’ve worked all week to come see you play so I feel you owe folks for being open-minded enough to give you a shot. I think my operas have had an effect on me as for as my performances cuz I like to run the tunes tight, ‘pert-near like it all one big song. I think the goal of any ensemble is to try and get an interesting conversation between the players going so we have much interaction and focus on each other. I like the drums way up front and not hidden in the back. I try to imagine kind of a prac pad that the gig-goers are in a way peeking on it while at the same time, we’re very much focused on working the room and not trying to be wholly self-absorbed. it’s a trippy thing, I learned it from doing gigs w/d boon – I learned so much from him. ig too, I like the way he runs a stage. of course he ain’t operating a maching like us three in a power trio but his ethics are about doing a gig like it might be your last one are very profound on me.

The Minutemen

As an experienced and indefatigable tour musician, give some do’s and don’t’s for all the younger bands that want to get on the road?

you gotta stay healthy, you gotta be safe. you gotta be respectful cuz at the end of the day, you’re a guest in someone elses town or land. that’s what tour’s about, sally forth and work the towns and if you keep that thought central, maybe you’ll keep focus, that’s what do – it’s one big reason I chimp diary, to keep focus. here’s my priorities for tour: 1) get your men home safe, 2) play as best as you can for the gig-goers and 3) everything else. you gotta learn to jam econo which means making the most of what you have, getting the most bang per buck. it ain’t always about what might seem the cheapest price cuz down the road, it might nightmare. you have to mindful of stuff down the road, getting the long view and thinking of consequences cuz that’s the reality on the dealio. you gotta really work together w/your men while still giving each other space so stuff can breathe… it’s BIG TIME IMPORTANT to keep morale up, keep the spirit in the band vibrant w/out being jive about it.

Among the foreign acts coming to China, some research the Chinese music scene beforehand, others try purposefully to come here with no prior knowledge of what they will find and learn as they go along. What approach are you taking? Are you familiar with China’s rock music? If not, what do you imagine China’s punk rock scene would be like?

I do know of pk14 for some time now and have played everything I could find from them on my radio show but I’m lacking for knowledge of china’s rock and roll on a personal level – that’s why this tour’s a great opportunity for me, first-hand experience! the best way to find about stuff like this is to share a stage w/them, right? of course you know I come from underground scene so I have big admiration for underground and have being interest and curiosity about how different folks find their way of manifesting it. everyone’s got something to teach me, that’s my philosophy kind of stuff. I wanna bear witness!

Mike Watt onstage with Iggy and the Stooges

During your long career you have played with an almost infinite list of legendary musicians. In a way it seems hard to think what else a musician could wish for after all this. So is there anything that you’re still hoping to achieve one day, maybe some artist you still haven’t had the chance to play with? If Kiss or Blue Oyster Cult asked you to play bass for them would you go?

I did play one song, “the red and the black” w/the blue oyster cult a couple of years ago – they invited up on stage at this old art deco theatre in beverly hills they were playing at and I got to do the last tune w/them – one that I started playing w/d boon when we were like thirteen! it blew my mind. I’d like to collaborate w/my old friend bob mould, that’s something that might be happening, always have respected him. getting to play w/tav falco was a shot out of the blue that wowwed me up – I’ve been invited to do bass for the next panther burns album being recorded in memphis this july, crimony! of course I have tons of projs in my mind – and getting done like big walnuts yonder this spring w/nels cline, greg saunier and nick reinhart. I’ve got the second black gang album to finish and a collaboration album w/jim o’rourke that needs my voice and mandolin (he asked for it!) – there’s buttloads of stuff I wanna get going and be part of, yes. lots of times though it comes out of nowhere, not planned… that’s why you gotta stay healthy so you’re always “prepared” when opportunities come up. one night in west hollywood I got to play the whole “maggot brain” album w/george clinton, doug wimbish, blackbird mcknight and michale hampton – can you believe that?! bernie worrell asked me to do a bass solo for him after getting to wail on “super stupid” – it was over the “maggot brain” chords which I had never tried, it was a pants-shitter but that’s what life might bring you so you gotta be ready and not to try to force things too much – I think putting focus on your projs is more realistic and less weight on others.

Speaking of Kiss or Blue Oyster Cult, you often cite them as some of your biggest influence. These may not be the most obvious influences for a punk rock musicians. What made these bands so great for you? Do you think their music still relevant today, and how? Is there any other “unusual” band that influenced you as a young musician and that you still listen to today?

you gotta understand me and d boon didn’t know of club stuff ’til the punk movement – all we knew was “arena rock” – you remember I was thirteen years old in 1970 so my whole teenage time is all stuffed w/that kind of scene which kind of was the worst way to experience a band, nothing like in a club, nothing like it all. there’s the who and alice cooper also. you forgot CCR though we never got to see them… when I met d boon (we were twelve!), the only rock band he knew of was CCR! sometimes the sitch you’re king of “born into” and you don’t really have a “choice” cuz you ain’t that aware – especially in the older days. I think it’s one reason we really dug the movement cuz of it being like a reaction for us against arean rock.

When you frist got the chance to be a Stooge, how did it feel like? Any concerns? And will the Wylde Rattz record ever see a proper release?

I’m glad you mentioned the stooges cuz w/out them I don’t even know if would’ve even had a movement. them and captain beefheart actually were way ahead, the people in charge of labels did have a name for it yet. to do 125 months w/those guys was something I could’ve never imagined, it was total trip to get that call from ig where he said, “ronnie says you’re the man” – crimony! I felt I owed them the best playing I could do, to be there every moment for them and not let them down. I used to have nightmares where all I’d see is a gravestone and all that was written on it was “fucked up a stooges gig” or something like that. I don’t know about the wylde ratttz but that did have a big part in the lead-up to the asheton brothers getting back w/ig, so was j mascis but he’s shy to talk about. jim jarmusch just made a movie about the stooges – I ain’t seen yet but I trust cuz I know he loves the stooges. I love the stooges and always will.

In your life you have gone through some very dark times, both as a person and as a musician. During those times was there anything special that kept the fire of hope alight against all odds? It is not rare to hear of young artists going through similar experiences: lack of confidence, writer’s block, confusion, depression. Is there anything you would tell to a young musician in this situation, any particular wisdom or insight, based on your own experience?

luck can be good and luck can be bad: there’s two kinds. you gotta keep hope up and the play the best hand you can w/what’s dealt to you. some (or lots of) times w/artistic expression there seems no “justice” to it, no “fairness” or whatever – that can be really frustrating. for someone like me who’s been around and not killed yet, the big danger is thinking you’ve seen it all, you know it all – no one’s got anything to teach you. that’s a terrible place in my opinion. now I would tell a younger person they gotta work real hard at finding your own voice, that’s a struggle but in the end, totally worth it. you know you can write a VERY ORIGINAL novel w/out inventing one new word? think about that. we’re individuals (look at your thumbprint) but at the same time we have so much in common w/each other. that’s the duality that makes up the gap that honest expression can kind of help bridge maybe and that’s what I why I recommend that. it’s good to have integrity, just is, I’m thinking. that’s what life’s taught and keeps teaching me.

Big Walnuts Yonder:Nick Reinhart, Mike Watt, Nels Cline, Greg Saunier

Thanks to your constant touring, your radio shows etc., you have a good vantage point to look at the state of today’s music. What do you see? How is music doing in 2017? Any new bands you are recently into? (I ask this question after having just read this comment left by someone under a video of your song “Against the 70s”: “I wish the kids today would make some kick ass Rock&Roll so I wouldn’t have to listen to the same shit on the radio that’s been on there since the mid 90’s… my generation did it to the baby boomers now it’s someone’s turn to do to us… it’s like no rock bands kick ass anymore?”).

I wrote “against the 70s” actually about that terrible show “happy days” – the fonzie and potsy sentimental nostalgia shill being foisted on my pop’s generation to fleece them… I remember when it first came on, he said “those were not ‘happy days'” and I took it to heart, writing a tune about it twenty years later. listen to my radio show and you’ll lots of stuff coming out today – not mersh of course but stuff I find and cats give me after gigs and stuff like that. john fogerty put out some good thoughts w/his “lookin’ out my back door” tune – it’s easy to think it was better back then cuz the garbage vendors get out the air brush to do what they do. everytime has good and terrible stuff, it’s the way it is – the way I’ve learned it. there’s ass-kickers out there… maybe it’s underground? what we need is curious minds, searchers and farmers to grow the next crop!

D Boon is celebrated as a very smart and curious person, with a voracious appetite for all kinds of knowledges, and your endless discussions with him are just as famous. Do you ever remember him being interested in the culture and traditions of China? Do you think he would have been excited at the idea of coming to China, and why?

d boon was interested in china – d boon loved history and also contemporary and he would’ve LOVED BIG TIME the chance to play china and see the land and people w/his own eyes, I just know it. d boon believed in knowing people started w/you getting to meet them. taking turns doing music for each other is a righteous way to start a connect, right? we just didn’t have a shot in those days, it was hard enough to play our own pedro town when we started BUT we kept on going and although I lost him, he’s always in some way w/me… I’m bringing him to china – we’re gonna play for you!

Thanks again, see you in China!

thanks again for having me aboard, victor.

Mike Watt & The Missingmen + Round Eye 2017 China tour:

3/17: Xinxiang, Subark Livehouse
3/18: Beijing DDC
3/19: Songjiang,Doing Club
3/20: Shanghai, Uptown Records
3/21: Shanghai, Live Bar
3/22: Ningbo, 灯塔音乐现场
3/23: Wuxi, 活塞 Livehouse
3/24: Yiwu, 隔壁酒吧
3/25: Shanghai, Yuyintang

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