Mike WattHyphenated Man Cometh

Contemplating the Engine Room is one of the greatest records I’ve ever been involved in, where you hear an amazing non-generic artistry, with a vast palette of expression. I think that’s real punk rock.”

–– Nels Cline on Mike Watt

Mike Watt has bunged up his knee, giving his onstage all thumpin’ bass on tour with the Stooges. So there’ll be no morning bicycle rides or kayaking around his beloved San Pedro for our local art-punk hero –– but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna, like, stop or anything.

“I’m still doin’ the gigs,” he says with a crusty laugh. “I ain’t quit, but it’s like an ironing board, man, it’s totally stiff. But I got more gigs to do. I gotta stay in motion.”

Which means Watt’ll be hopping back in the van to crisscross the country again (and again), like he’s done a million times since his days with the esteemed Minutemen back 20-some-odd years ago. (He’s gone through four vans, by the way: “This one’s only a few years old, it’s got 248,000 miles…it’s a big country.”)

Beyond doubt the hardest working dude in showbiz, Mike Watt is famed for his slapping bass and fevered joy in approximately a zillion bands L.A.-wise and nationwide, like his Material Girl tribute band the Madonnabes, Hellride, Li'l Pit, Pair of Pliers, the Jom & Terry Show, Crimony, and the original Punk Rock Karaoke with Eric Melvin of NOFX and Greg Hetson of Bad Religion. He's been doing some shows recently with Minutemen drummer George Hurley, and recorded three albums with Hurley, Saccharine Trust’s Joe Baiza on guitar and various lead vocalists under the name Unknown Instructors. He’s got his Missingmen band going, too, as well as a weekly web radio program, The Watt From Pedro Show (twfps.com), and his hootpage.com blog, and loads of other things far too numerous to cram into this space.

So Watt’s just off the road with the Stooges, with whom he’s been hanging since Coachella in 2003, a longer period than his stint with the Minutemen –– which “was five years and 11 months.” His time spent under Iggy Pop’s tutelage has been valuable, he says.

“I’ve learned so much about being a better bass player from that guy. There’s these guys that don’t operate machines, they have different perspectives on the sound; they’re more like conductors, almost like a bridge to the people. So they can help you, especially with bass, because it’s kind of mysterious how bass works. It’s not just a guitar. It’s a weird thing, kinda like grout between the tiles.”

Watt likes being the grout between the tiles, he’ll tell you over and over. It’s an idea he got from his late Minutemen bandmate D. Boon.

“A lotta my stuff comes from playing with D. Boon. Boon was all for pushing the bass out front, in a more egalitarian thing. It was more like political ideas in a band, the way he’d pull back on his guitar. But all bands are not like the Minutemen.”

The impact of the Minutemen, and Watt’s role within their ranks, oughtta not be underestimated.

Says former SST labelmate Henry Rollins, “He is a bass player's bass player and a musician's musician. I was very lucky and got to see the Minutemen many times, and Mike's commitment to the music then was complete.”

“If you ever see Watt play or listen to his records,” says longtime Watt collaborator guitarist Nels Cline, “you notice that he always brings every ounce of his being to all that he does. The Minutemen were the beginning of my personal involvement in what could be called the punk scene in L.A., which was a scene at least in the initial stages that as a jazz-type dude I thought had little to do with me. But upon seeing the Minutemen, I realized that it had a lot to do with me, because of the vastness of their music, the originality of how they expressed themselves.”

By the way, Watt’s still way chuffed at having landed the Stooges gig.

“Iggy’s songs are so much a part of our scene, they’re like The Source,” he says with a trace of awe. “I never believed I’d be in that situation!”

Sounds like a big responsibility, bro.

“Big time. I want to be buried at sea, but I had this nightmare, with this tombstone, and all it says is, `Fucked Up the Stooges’ Music.’ A huge responsibility.”

He’s being modest, typically. Says Rollins, "Mike is the only living bass player I know who could be in the Stooges. To hit that pocket the way they do, they needed a bass player who understands what makes it work, and that's Mike Watt.”

The super-amiable Watt is well known as a generous-spirited guy who can always be counted on to be pushing the music forward. For example, he’s got this new record just out on Sean Lennon’s Chimera label called Floored by Four. Recorded in New York with guitarist Cline, Cibo Matto keyboardist Yuka Honda and ex-Lounge Lizards drummer Dougie Bowne, it’s risk-taking, thought-provoking electric music that’s also a lot of fun to listen to.

Floored by FourFor Floored by Four, Watt played or sang each player a very basic bass part to improvise around, and sat back to be the grout as each worked his or her magic.

“Writing songs on bass is pretty weird,” he says, “but I kinda like it because it leaves a lot of room for other people. And I’m playing the bass and saying, well, what do you wanna do? If you’ve got all these years of improvisation and stuff, like us four, you can just jump on it.”

Each piece on the album is named after each player. The amazing “Dougie” comes off a little reminiscent of Sun Ra, a steamy slab of exotica that really takes you someplace, like, say, a trek across a baking desert…you see the oasis up ahead, the heat rising in waves off the sand, distorting your vision…

“I would put imagery up like that, and just ask them to try and find their way of trying to approach that. To me, the bass is enough plotting out of the territory, so these people know the beginning, middle and end, but they’d still be free enough.”

Floored by Four is but the merest tippa things that Watt’s got on his plate right now. He likes the freedom to stay busy, but likes even more the opportunity to keep growing, far away as it might take him from his “punk” roots. He’s got another three albums recorded with Cline coming out; a project with a Canadian artist he exchanged files with over the Internet; another album with his longstanding Missingmen band (with guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales), another one with Unknown Instructors…at his count, there’s a total of about 13-14 items in the pipeline.

Watt’s most crucial current “proj” is the third installment of his punk opera, to be titled Hyphenated-Man. The followup to 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room and 2004's The Secondman's Middle Stand, it was recorded in Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone’s New York studio with the Missingmen crew, and it too is all about establishing a new freedom in the way this music called rock might be shaped, and what its sources of motivation might be.

Inspired by the Minutemen’s often tiny tunes clocking in under a minute or so, as well as by painter Hieronymous Bosch, Watt’s creating this “opera” out of 30 little songs that will ideally add up to some kind of big picture –– kind of like, he says, the life he’s been living, or hopes for.

“This third opera is different from the other two. The first one had a sad ending, the second one a happy ending. This one, there’s no ending. It’s all middle.” And that has to do with Mike Watt himself, who, at the grand old age of 52, is in fact a middle-aged man, still doing what he does and looking to get some kind of big overview on what it all’s about.

"Hyphenated-Man is a voyage into the middle, without bein’ all sappy about it. You played the game, but still you confront yourself: What is `Man’? In middle age you start asking yourself these questions, and it’s not like you’ve gotta figure it out. But you’re more open. There’s more questions than answers.”

Meanwhile, he’s grateful for the chance to play, and to keep driving the music –– and himself –– straight ahead in zigzags.

“The recorded work is real important to me, because I’ve never had children, and it’s still gonna be here when I’m gone,” he says. “All my focus lately has been in trying to get all these things done, and out, and fighting for trippy places to put my bass, situations where I’m not just stuck in the I Love Lucy re-run.”

For Mike Watt’s got a legacy to uphold, of relevant, progressive and utterly smoking music.

“I’ve gotta keep going. D. Boon would want me to keep going. Keep the child’s eye wandering, I’ve been told. Be excited about things, just fire it up! Go for it! And don’t make it more complicated than that.”