Monday, November 7, 2016

A Legend and his Flannel: An Interview with Mike Watt

mike watt 1.jpg

Bassist of Minutemen talks coming up in the early CA punk scene, Double Nickels On The Dime, and the perfect flannel.

Gad: I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.

Mike: No problem, thank you for having me aboard. What part of Alabama did you say you were from?

Gadsden, Alabama. A long way from California. A little further south, haha.

Well, it ain’t as south as Mobile. That’s right on the water. In fact, Mobile is like a miniature. It’s a little port ya know? They got a couple hammerheads. We’ve got almost 400 (laughs). I’ve played there. Last time I was in Mobile, it was a sad night. Jack Bruce had passed away. I don’t know if you know him. He was in a band called “Cream” in the 60’s. He was the bass man and as a younger Watt, I was very influenced by this guy. Scottish, he was from Glasgow. And you never really know. Ya know, you probably noticed lately a lot of dudes are passing away. I just think it’s the time period too ya know? Although, yesterday Prince was only a year younger than me so he was still a middle aged man. But most of these cats are moving into their 70s now.

Yeah it’s crazy I was watching some videos earlier of Flag. And I was just watching, and those dudes are just still at it ya know?

You’re talking about Keith (Morris) and them?

Yeah man, they’re still going at it like teenagers. It just blows my mind.

Yeah, Keith is a year older than I am.

Are you making any new music?

Oh yeah, several projects ya know? Something that’s being mixed right now is called “Big Walnuts Yonder” with Nels Cline and Greg from Deerhoof on drums. Nick Reinhart from Tera Melos on guitar also. Yeah it’s pretty wild stuff. (laughs) Here’s the whole idea. Nick, I think Nick just turned 30, but he’s a younger guy. And I’ve done a lot of stuff with Nels Cline and he had heard my first opera and he’s like “who’s that guitar man?” And I say “do you want to know him? Play with him!” I mean, this goes back to the old days right? Just cause you wanna do it. So I called Nels and Nels said “Yeah, sure. Bring him over. You pick the drummer.” So he picked Greg (Saunier). Actually, the first time I saw Deerhoof, was from Nels Cline taking me so it just came together like that. And so that’s how a lot of things come together. In the beginning it’s with your friends right? Like the guy I learned music with, D. Boon. But then, later on, you meet other cats in the movement. And say “why don’t we get this going? Or why don’t we get that going?” You know what I mean? It’s spontaneous. My next tour is gonna be in Europe. It’s gonna be in the fall and it’s with these two guys from Italy. That’s another thing that just happened to happen. But now we’ve put out a record. Last week was record store day right? Are you into that? Are you into the physical thing of the record?

Yeah. Ya know, I love how easy it is to stream and the convenience of that, but I love having a physical thing in my hand.

I kinda like both. The thing about physical is- you know about my radio show right? Well, people send me things. But you can have too much things. So in a way, the streaming thing can help with the Zen life. Keeping things a little more simple. But you’re right there is something neat about the physical thing.

Yeah man, I was born in ‘93 so I grew up with CDs, so going to full streaming is sort of tough.

To me, it seems that life just deals you a hand right? (laughs) And you just gotta deal with it. I think there’s room enough for all of it. Everything’s got its plusses, and everything’s got its minuses ya know? Like a steak knife. You can stab your buddy with it, or you can just cut the steak. (laughs) There’s a lot of duality, it seems. But anyway, so this makes 8 or 9 years of this Record Store Day so far. So every year I try to do one. It kinda celebrates it right? So I did it with these Italian guys. It’s called Sogno Del Marinaio. I thought since it was Italian, it should have an Italian name. All these projects.. Dakota can I explain to you this? I’ve found that there’s like, three ways to do music. You can get an idea and then you ask cats to come on board to help you realize. You’re kind of directing. Then there’s the thing like the Stooges right? One hundred and twenty-five months, I got to help do Stoogest music. Where you take direction. And then there’s the third way which is kinda the collaboration. Where some guys write music, other guys write other music. And that’s kind of how it is with (Sogno Del Marinaio.) It means “The Sailor’s Dream.” I think all three ways are good. And the healthy way, I’ve found, is you take turns doing all three. If you get stuck in any one place, I think you’re missing out.

So Double Nickels On The Dime, one of my favorite albums of all time. How did that whole thing come to be?

So Minutemen, that was a collaboration. And then, even more than that, it had the personal thing right? Cause me and D. Boon grew up together and learned music together.

What was it like writing that album?

Okay. Let me just explain how writing songs with D. Boon was. We learned together right? So when we wrote a song- so, the (punk rock) movement comes when we’re about 18-19. And that’s when we started writing records. Before the movement, you copied records only. It was fuckin stupid, but that’s the culture of early 70’s where we lived here in Pedro (CA.) But when me and D. Boon started writing music, we didn’t really have to teach each other the parts because we learned how to play together. Most of the time the teaching was with Georgie (Hurley) cause we wanted to work him in. D. Boon had this idea that it shouldn’t be dominated by guitar. It should be equal. So, Double Nickels is a special kind of thing. Because we had an album done in the fall of 1983. (A couple years before you were born.) But the Huskers come to town in December. And they come and record “Zen Arcade” which was a double album. And I was like “Fuck! We should do a double album too!” So we had to write all these songs.

So much writing!

Yeah! We just wrote an album right? So what I had to do was, look outside for lyrics. It was a strange situation. We did other times too, but Double Nickels the most. So we’re asking like Henry Rollins and Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag), Jack Brewer (Saccharine Trust), his cousin, Joe Brewer. (laughs) Ya know, whoever! We used a land ladies note! So we had to use all this stuff because we didn’t want to repeat ourselves with the words. So that’s how that was written. In a strange way. We didn’t want to copy the Huskers, but we were inspired to do the double album by them. We would have never thought of that. That’s why the SST thing was really important ya know? We all sounded different. We always listened to each other ya know? But we didn’t wanna come up with the label sound. We thought that would have been too generic. Also, there’s no respect copying your friends ya know?

Did you have any idea at the time how huge this album would eventually become?

No we just wanted to do like the Huskers. (laughs) I gotta tell ya. In those days, we’re talking the early 80’s. You put out records. You didn’t go out on tours to promote records like the big labels did. You actually put out records to promote tours! Backwards! So you would put out records every 6 months. They were like flyers to get people to the gigs. We never really thought of them as works on their own. Not till later. After Minutemen ended because of that wreck.. I look back and see Double Nickels being our high point. And if you asked me “What’s the best record Mike Watt’s played on?” It probably is Double Nickels On The Dime. I don’t know how. It was just a collection of different things. The band was just in a special place at that time. What do you call it?.. A perfect storm. (laughs)

There’s one more album I want to talk about that I love so much, and that is MinuteFlag. Who’s idea was that? And how did that whole thing come together?

It’s a collaboration. In fact, that’s a collaboration in real time. No practice.


mike watt minuteflag.jpgBlack Flag was recording some albums. They were doing two albums at the same time. It was called “In My Head” and “Loose Nut.” And what they would do is block off the studio so they wouldn’t have to break down and set up again. It was called a lockout. So they had full access at Redondo Beach. Anyway, Greg Ginn asked us aboard and said “Hey, would you guys wanna collaborate with us? You guys come in the studio and we’ll do some jabs? But it can’t come out until one of the bands break up.” That was his one idea. And we agreed. We didn’t know it was gonna happen like it did, with D. Boon.. ya know getting killed like that. Then it came out and Joe Baiza did the album cover. Only one of the songs has singing and D. Boon wrote the words. And him and Hank (Henry Rollins) did like a duet on the singing. It was spur of the moment stuff. I think Georgie played the bean can. (laughs)

Yeah I saw George was always stuck on the bongos or the bean can.

Yeah right? (laughs) Because their wasn’t enough room for two drummers.

Man, I love that album. So who are some of your biggest influences? Musically speaking.

Well I told you one, Jack Bruce with Cream. You gotta understand, the bass was really strange when I started on it. I didn’t know what it was. I’m 13 in 1970. I was too young for the club scene ya know? So what I know is arena rock. And with arena rock, they’re so far away that it’s hard to know what the fuckin bass looks like. Everyone’s tiny ya know? (laughs) Actually I didn’t even know a bass had bigger strings. Anyway, the records coming from over seas, they mixed the bass louder. Over here, kinda mushy with rock ‘n’ roll bass. But the R’n’B, the Motown, the funk. You could hear the bass. So over here, I learned from a guy from South Carolina named James Jamerson. He’s on a lot of Motown records. Larry Graham in Sly of the Family Stone band, I could hear him. John Entwistle and The Who, Geezer Butler in Black Sabbath, actually a lot of the England rock ‘n’ roll records, you could hear the bass really well. Trevor Bolder in Bowie’s Spiders From Mars, Chas Chandler in The Animals, Pete Quaife from the Kinks, I mean, you could hear these guys. The producers weren’t afraid to pull the bass way up there and thump it in your face ya know? I learned a lot from those guys. There used to be a hierarchy and bass is kinda where you put your retarded friend. Like.. you know little league baseball?

Yeah, I always played right field. But I’m also a bass player so I guess that explains alot.

(Laughs) It’s like right field right? So when you’re a kid, most dudes hit left. So no one hits it to right field. It was sort of like that, but punk changed things. If you’re a bass man, then you can fuckin relate to this. We were given more respect in a way. D. Boon said that was the political part of the Minutemen. He said the lyrics were just thinking out loud. He thought it was the way we put together the band. By playing the guitar trebly and little, and letting the bass and the drums come up. He thought that was more equal.

I feel like a lot of people missed that.

It’s because we never explained it. Our philosophy was the knowing is in the doing. So we expected people to pick up on the shit and don’t use words. But then what happened was, shit got lost. (laughs) Like you talk about Double Nickels On The Dime. Nobody ever understood the album title. It was very clear to us. You had to drive 55 miles per hour exactly.

And that was like a law that was passed right?

Yeah, it was to save on gas. If you can believe it, gas used to be 25 cents per gallon. Then it jumped to 50 cents and there was a panic. Okay, so let’s save gas by driving slower. That’s what it was. And actually, what our reaction was. It was to Carter, from next door in Georgia there. It was reacting more to this guy named Sammy Hagar. Cause he wrote a song saying that he couldn’t drive 55. He called himself the Red Rebel or something like that. The Red Rocker. But his music seemed like- you’re gonna be all “dangerous driver” but you’re not dangerous with your music. So we’ll be safe with the driving.. Well we had to cause we drove Econos and shit. (laughs) But we’ll try to be dangerous with the music. People still didn’t get it. They thought we were talking about the roads or something. Like interstate 10 or something.

And then we get the iconic, driving 55 with the eyes in the mirror cover.

Right? And in the sign, it has our town’s name. San Pedro. But the tragic thing was, when they laid out the picture for the album cover, they moved it over. So it cut off the “O”. Can you believe how difficult that shot was? Because we only had 3 shots. I had my buddy Dirk in the backseat of my Volkswagen. I had to get all three of those things in the shot. The eyes, the speedometer, and the name of the town. And it’s film ya know? You gotta wait till that shit’s developed! (laughs) But we got it, we got it. We took three tries and just rolled the dice. And one of em came out. But they moved it too much over and cut off the “O…” Damn.
mike watt on the dime.jpg
But it’s still a perfect album cover. And that’s the same flannel from the fIREHOSE album cover right?

“Flyin’ The Flannel”. Yep, I used it again. Then, I used it again for this flannel that this skate company had me do. They had a special Mike Watt one. They’re down in Orange County and they had me sit with their lady. Their design lady. And were asking me ya know, all the things I liked in a flannel. It was very cool. I think they’re called Altamont. But it was kind of neat that the Double Nickels flannel kinda kept going.

Have you ever signed any flannel?

Oh yeah, oh yeah. And I’ve traded dudes. If I see a good one. I’ve gotta tell you one thing that’s bunk.

What’s that?

Flannels with one pocket..

Yeah you gotta have the double pocket man.

(laughs) Either two pockets or none but no one pocket. And especially us. Are you a right handed bass player?

I am.

Okay, so the strap goes over that one. The other thing, you kinda want a flap on the pocket. When you bend over, all the shit falls out. Okay, so those are kind of particular things. I like snaps. I like snaps better than buttons. You can take it off quick. When it’s coming off, it’s coming off.

Nothing’s better than some pearl snap buttons though.

Yeah I like that, I like that.

Well alright man, I don’t want to take too much of your time. Anything else you want to add?

Start your own band. Make your own zine. Paint your own pictures. It’s expression. You know fuckin Walt Whitman 1855 put it out himself. Leaves of Grass. It’s an old tradition. We can keep on keepin on.

Well hey man, I really appreciate you talking with me today. I respect the hell out of you.

Respect back, Dakota.

Have a great day man.

Alright, safe seas.
mike watt flannel.jpg
Interview by Dakota Gilliland
[originally appeared in GAD! Zine Issue 11]

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