BIG BOSCH MAN Mike Watt (Pt. 1)

Spieling with the
erstwhile Minuteman, current Stooges-man, and the once-and-future hyphenated-man.

 

BY WILSON
NEATE

 

If you’re going to suffer an
excruciating knee injury, you want disaster to strike in the least public of
circumstances, when you’re engaged in something that involves no major
responsibilities so you can collapse discreetly and writhe largely unnoticed.
Mike Watt wasn’t so lucky. Last year, the man from Pedro went down with a major
blowout onstage in front of thousands of people whilst working “the thud
staff” in France with the Stooges. Worse still, it happened during the opening
song of the set (“Raw Power”).

 

But Watt soldiered on, finishing
the gig and the remaining dates. Still not fully recovered – but now operating
without crutches – Watt’s just returned from Stooges dates in Australia and
he’s got a new album out, hyphenated-man (ORG Music/clenchedwrench). Rather than put his feet up, he’s heading out on
the road again for a marathon North American tour in support of the record: 50
shows, 52 days, 31 states, two countries – and he’s doing the driving.

 

Following on from Contemplating the Engine Room (1997) and
The Secondman’s Middle Stand (2004), hyphenated-man is the third in a series
of thematically unified, multi-part works that Watt describes as “operas.”
Recorded with the Missingmen, Tom Watson and Raul Morales (pictured above, with
Watt), this is his most ambitious and idiosyncratic project thus far.
Consciously returning to the super-short song format that was a Minutemen
trademark, Watt’s new 30-track opus
draws inspiration from an array of sources: the composite figures (or
“hyphenated-men”) who populate Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings, the experience of
middle age and even The Wizard of Oz are all grist for Watt’s creative mill.

 

Watt’s not only one of the
hardest-working men in show business these days; he’s also one of the most
decent, and it’s always a genuine pleasure to talk to him. In what follows, the
“man in the van with a bass in his hand” spiels in his inimitable, wide-ranging
way about the new record, about jamming econo with the Minutemen, jamming
not-so-econo with the Stooges, and even jamming with cult legend Jandek.

 

*****

 

BLURT: Your new album
is the third one you’ve described as an “opera.” In what sense is it an opera?
What is it about that format that attracts you?

MIKE WATT: We got the opera idea from the Who’s “A Quick
One, While He’s Away” – the idea that you could have one big song be made up of
different little ones. I never really envisioned doing this form at all. I
never thought I’d get into that stuff. With Minutemen, I come from a tradition
of making short, little songs – we
got that idea from Wire – but it seemed like I didn’t have the talent to get
what I wanted to say into just one tune, a regular smaller thing, like D. Boon
did: it had to make a journey. That opera structure – one big song made up of
lots of parts – makes it easier for me to get across the things I’m trying to
talk about. I couldn’t really do it another way. So the first opera was kinda
talking about Minutemen [Contemplating
the Engine Room
], the second one was about the sickness that almost killed
me [The Secondman’s Middle Stand],
and now this one is about midlife. So I call hyphenated-man an opera ‘‘cuz it’s all supposed to be parts of one
song. I’ve got an album coming out with the Black Gang – Nels Cline and Bob Lee
– and that’s about the idea of autumn. I’d call that one more of a concept
album.

 

And when you play hyphenated-man live, you perform it in its entirety, with all the parts in sequence.

Yeah, from start to finish. It’s one piece. But it’s hard to
perform the operas because they’re like 45 minutes to a fuckin’ hour! It’s like
a life, so I live the life of the thing when we perform it. The first one was
really tragic; the second one had a happy ending but with big hell parts that I
actually lived through, and so when I did these things, I’d have to go through
’em. And hyphenated-man is hard
because of all the small parts. There’s a lot of fuckin’ parts and stuff to
remember, but it’s kind of neat to challenge myself like that, I think.
Technically, this one’s the toughest of the three because it’s got so much
stuff to remember. Or maybe my memory’s just worse ‘cuz I’m less young now [laughs]. I did a tour in Japan of the
album last autumn, and that was the first time I did it, and it was tough, man
– especially the first gigs. I think the more I do it, the more I’ll get the
hang of it.

 

So you’re using the
short songs like you did on the Minutemen records, but the difference here is
that they make up a more thematically unified whole.

I hadn’t really listened to Minutemen that much since D.
Boon got killed, ‘cuz it’s heavy and stuff, but when the We Jam Econo documentary was being made, I had to listen to the
music again. They [director Tim Irwin and
producer
Keith Schieron] wanted me to drive around Pedro and spiel about
it, and hearing it again, it was like, Whoa!
This is kind of interesting
– the idea we had of distilling it all down to
little things like that. Like I said, we originally got the idea from Wire, but
then the idea of Bosch making one big thing out of a bunch of little things
also struck a parallel with the Minutemen.

 

Did you find it
difficult making that documentary?

You just have to deal with it. I was thinking, “You know
what? If people see the Minutemen story, maybe they’ll realize that anyone can
start a band.” ‘cuz that was the whole idea: if these bozos can do it…. So, in a way, I got fired up on a
mission – if I tell ’em the thing the way it really was, it can be empowering,
and it’d be part of the debt I feel I owe the punk movement. ‘cuz I don’t know
if we’d ever have done any of what we did if it wasn’t for the punk movement.
I’ve always felt a debt, and it was a way of giving back, by telling the story
of these guys making a band out of nothing, like a lot of people did. I wanted
to show people that it wasn’t just about one time and one place – it can happen
any time. So I got into it like that. Also, those cats who were making the film
never saw Minutemen, and they were learning about us too. That kind of made it
interesting also. They were younger, and they’d seen fIREHOSE, but they didn’t
really know about Minutemen. So it wasn’t like they were coming with an agenda
or trying to put it all into their own context. They were actually just
listening, trying to learn about us.

 

You wrote the new
record on guitar, not bass, which is unusual for you.

Part of this thing was to confront myself musically with
some weird stuff, and I hadn’t written on guitar in a long, long time, so that
was kind of a fresh way to do it. Most of the time, I like writing the bass
first because it gives the other guys a lot of room, but in this case, for this
piece, because of the little songs, I thought, fuck it. ‘cuz one thing about going back to the little song thing
was that I was very concerned with giving respect to Georgie [George Hurley]
and D. Boon. So I thought that to keep it from being too Minutemen-y, I’d get
rid of the only Minuteman. So I didn’t want to write the bass parts first, and
I did some kinda extreme things: when I taught it to Tom and Raul, I didn’t let
’em hear the bass. In the second song, “beak-holding-letter-man,” there’s one
little guitar solo, and that’s Tom’s. All the other things, all the little
melody lines and stuff, he follows the things I wrote.

        Playing with
D. Boon, he wanted the assertive bass, and I kind of developed that thing –
although some of the great players, like Jack Bruce and John Entwistle, a lot
of those guys had an intense influence on me. But I just wanted Tom and Raul to
play together and make the relationship that way, so they’d be playing to each
other and not be so much pulled by the bass. I actually wrote it all on D.
Boon’s black Telecaster. He got it in Kent, Ohio. It’s the only electric guitar
I have – I’m a bass player, I don’t play guitar that much! You can tell if you
hear the demos with just me. They’re pretty palsy. I had to get Tom on there. I
can’t even hold a pick. I learned the guitar off D. Boon, so he’s in there kind
of, but maybe not as strong as if I’d put the bass out there from the start – although
Tom does have some D. Boon influence.

 

And the recording
process itself was different from previous ones, with the guitar and drums
being done first and then the bass and vocals much later.

Yeah, so I had those guys learn the thing without any bass or
singing, and then when we were in the middle of a tour in May 2009, we recorded
guitar and drums for three days at Tony Maimone’s studio in Brooklyn. Then, a
year later, when I had some time off from Stooges touring, I went back to
finish it with the bass and the vocals – which is kind of hard to do, waiting a
year for the bass.

 

You mentioned
Hieronymus Bosch. His paintings provide a sort of frame for this record. You’re
drawing on his major triptychs, with their characters and composite figures –
what you call his “hyphenated-men.”

Yeah, it’s The Garden
of Earthly Delights
, The Last
Judgment
and The Temptation of St.
Anthony
– the main ones. I saw The Garden of Earthly Delights at the Prado,
in Madrid, when I was touring with the Stooges. That’s when I got the idea of
making a piece about it. Actually, I’ve now been there three times to see it.
Each time I go to Madrid, I go see it. I like the little creatures made of
different parts. We don’t really know what Bosch was saying with those
paintings because he didn’t write anything, so we don’t know his thoughts. Some
people just thought they were visualizations of proverbs and aphorisms and
stuff. Some of it’s really obvious, like the guy blowing his own horn, but I
didn’t know 500-year-old Dutch, so I just made up my own shit, my own meanings.

        In the songs,
most of the amalgamations – the men made out of different parts – they’re the
bad guys; there’s hardly any of the good ones. But my point wasn’t to make
character judgments about the amalgamations. I used it all for inspiration, for
the motifs, music-wise and subject-wise. It helped me focus things. You know,
when I wrote songs in the Minutemen days, and ever since those days, when I
write songs I start with titles because I need some kind of focus – or I end up
just repeating myself. So Bosch helped me like that, but it wasn’t really about
his big statements, it was more about his studies, his little creatures and
little men made out of different parts.

 

So most of the imagery derives from Bosch’s depictions of
torment and damnation, but it’s not as if the album is literally “about” the
paintings.

The way I used Bosch was kind of pragmatic and nuts and
bolts-y, even though it’s all psychological, based heavily in the realm of the
imagination, which I like. But I did get caught up in it a little bit. That was
something I never envisioned until I was sitting there in the studio at the
very end. The record was supposed to end with the track called
“man-shitting-man,” and I told Tony, “Man, I can’t end this thing with this
song.” I got too caught up in the Bosch Last
Judgment
shit – and that’s just not for me. It wasn’t supposed to be like
that, but I don’t know how that happened. So I took [a more positive song] from
the middle of the record – “wheel-bound-man” – and I put that one at the end.

 

Have you always liked
Bosch’s work?

I was intrigued by his little guys as a boy, because it just
looked trippy – like dinosaurs, it was the same kind of thing. It was
otherworldly.

 

OK, to sum up so far,
hyphenated-man is an opera inspired
in different ways by midlife, by Minutemen, by Bosch….

And the other part of it is the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy thing, with the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and
the Lion – the farmhands. The way I take that story is that Dorothy is just
trippin’ on what dudes do to be dudes, and even the Man Behind the Curtain says
stuff about that, like, “Oh, you’re smart, where I come from you’d get a
diploma!” or “You’re brave, where I’m from they’d give you a medal” – so he’s
implying that those guys always had the things they want.

 

You’re thinking specifically
about masculinity, from the perspective of middle age?

I hadn’t really thought about it until recently. People
always talked about old and young, and I’d never really thought
about the middle. It seems to me that
a big chunk of the middle age thing –
what they call a crisis – is about
this kind of thing, this questioning, which I think is kind of healthy. People
should do it all the way, but I guess you start doing it because your body starts
getting worse, and you start adding up things, asking what it’s all about,
asking what’s your journey, your mission.

 

Is this Watt’s
midlife crisis album, then?

Well, in a way, my work is a kind of Peter Pan world, but on
this record there is the thing about being older, middle-aged…. I don’t know
if it’s so much a crisis ‘cuz I think
it’s healthy to look at it. It’s more of a crisis when you try to be a
20-year-old again, get a convertible, a young girlfriend and all that stuff –
and try to act like a young guy. That’s more like hitting the panic button,
whereas I was just trying to confront myself on certain things. I probably
always had a crisis! You understand this as a writer: every time you have to go
to the plate and reinvent yourself, that’s a crisis, no matter what age you’re
at. We have to do this all the time when we come up with new pieces. Sometimes
the work does come a little easier, but you always feel, “Whoa, what am I gonna
do?” But maybe it’s like that for all humans when they come up to the middle
part and say, Yea, what is to be done?

        I guess this
is also about our mortality and crap like that, too. I feel my body’s not as
resilient as it was, but on the other hand I have experiences that I didn’t
have; I don’t know if I’d trade that to be all stupid and go through all that
fuckin’ shit again – just for a more resilient body [laughs]. So there’s really no crisis on that end of it. I accept
it. I’m very reconciled with the fact that I’m no longer a younger man. But,
hopefully, I’m not at the end of the road either. Being in the middle’s okay,
in a way. It’s not such a nightmare.

 

What advice would a
middle-aged Watt give to a younger Watt?

Life’s for learning! That’s the one thing that I really wish
would get out from the new piece – and why I put “wheel-bound-man” at the end [the
last lines of the song are: “
I think I’ve learned that life’s for learnin’ as I’m
goin’ through my trips –
me on the
wheel as it’s turnin’ “
]. I
really think that everybody’s got something to teach, and it’s kind of hard ‘cuz
you know everything when you’re younger! Everybody’s got something to teach me:
somebody who’s starting out, somebody who’s done it a long time. I think this
is a good thing to learn. I don’t know if you can tell somebody that. They have to realize it for themselves.

 

To be continued.
Tomorrow: Watt talks about his work with the Stooges, reflects on the passing
of Captain Beefheart, outlines his recent onstage collaboration with cult
legend Jandek, and more.

 

 

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