KEEPING IT ALL IN PERSPECTIVE Mike Watt (Pt. 2)

The bassist talks
about the Stooges, the passing of Captain Beefheart, his recent work with
Jandek, his new record label, and more.

 

BY WILSON NEATE

 

We continue our
sprawling spiel with the legendary bassist. To read Part 1, please go here.

 

BLURT: The idea of
constantly learning from people – is that something that motivates you to
collaborate with other artists as much as you do?

MIKE WATT: Yeah, and with bass, too, the politics of it is
interesting. You look good making other people look good [laughs]. We’re kinda like the grout between the tiles. Most people
go in the head and they look at the tiles, and I’m the grout between the tiles. It’s kind of a
mysterious thing. Everybody’s different, so you gotta fit to them, and you
learn different ways. Even when you’ve played with somebody before, you don’t
wanna bogart and dominate and stuff; you avoid just rubber-stamping things
where you’ve been. So, each time, I really try to approach it like I’m here for
the first time, thinking, how do I make
an interesting conversation out of thi
s? It is a challenge; it is tough. But it’s worth it. Like on this album, I asked
Tom and Raul to set the direction – I don’t think you can learn everything by
always being the boss. Life is about taking turns.

        You know, no
matter what humans do, it seems the longer they do it, the more they do. But the weird thing about bass is that, often, the
physics punishes us; we get all small, we have too many notes. So it’s always
this big search for the right notes, and that’s why somebody who’s just started
playing can write a great bassline. I’ve been surprised so many times when I
talk to people who’ve just started out. It’s not about more and more with the
bass because of the long wavelengths at the low end…and, of course, it’s a
rhythm thing too. And everybody sees that stuff differently, so it’s good to
have a lot of different teachers.

 

Has it been a learning
experience working with the Stooges? You’ve been doing that for the last eight
years.

The Stooges come from a ’60s sensibility. I was only a boy
then, and I wasn’t playing yet, so playing with the
Stooges, it’s a neat classroom to sit in. It’s the primary source, man. I mean,
now you get it second- or thirdhand with other bands, and these guys are the
daddies. So that’s pretty intense. Ig’s really helped me become a better bass
player. For one thing, he doesn’t work a machine; he’s almost in a conductor
position, and he’s also like a bridge to the gig-goers. He gets the big picture
that us people working the machines don’t get, so he’s given me a lot of
perspective in playing. It’s different than the trios I do, where we’re all
engaged in working our things, and it’s hard to get a big sense of it ‘cuz
you’re so involved with yourself. So Ig’s helped me a lot. Also, Stooge music
is really about feeling; it’s not really about a bunch of complicated parts, so
that’s helped me too.

 

Did you ever go to any
Stooges gigs back in the early days?

I didn’t see the Stooges in the ’70s. We didn’t know about
clubs. We were into arena rock – my first gig was T. Rex. We didn’t know about
clubs until punk, and stuff from the ’60s was long gone by that time. I guess there
was a little of it still up in Hollywood, but we didn’t know about it in Pedro.
I wouldn’t have believed it at all if somebody had told me I’d be playing with
the Stooges one day. It’s pretty much of a mind blow. I love playing with those
guys. I just got back from Australia – the first Stooges gigs of this year. It
was my third Big Day Out tour there. I blew some clams, but I always try my
hardest for the Stooges. It was a little difficult with my knee still hurt. I
dislocated it – last note of the first song, “Raw Power,” at a gig in France,
in July last year.

 

How different is it
with James Williamson playing guitar now, instead of Ron Asheton?

It’s just like when you hear those records – they’re
different Stooges. I know it’s only one different guy, and Ronnie was on bass
on those records, but it was a different band. You know, even though James
didn’t play for a long time, he’s still got the sound. He didn’t play for like
30 years! His son wrote an essay in college called “Coffins in the Corner,” about
the guitars in the house that never came out of their cases. The first practice
I did with James, I could tell right away this was the guy that played on Raw Power – it was that guitar sound.

 

Listening to hyphenated-man, the Beefheart feel
seemed especially strong. He’s always been a big influence, obviously.

Yeah, big time! Minutemen was way into Beefheart. Big time.
When punk came, to us, Beefheart and the Stooges were already doing punk – they
just didn’t call it that yet. Then, the Pop Group was a big influence on us,
too: they took Beefheart and put it with Funkadelic, which to us was almost the
perfect thing. Beefheart really resonated with us. I saw him on the Doc at the Radar Station tour at the
Whisky in Hollywood. My leg was in a cast [laughs]
– I’d just had knee surgery. I even talked to him on the phone once. He was
taking calls on KCRW, and I was the last caller. I was talking about Strictly Personal, and I told him how
[the gatefold photo] used to scare me when you opened up the sleeve, and he
said, “Yeah, it scared me too.” I was wondering if there was something behind
it, and he just said it was stuff he had laying around in his garage.

 

Although he’d been
ill for ages, his death felt like a big deal. He really was a major figure.

It was very heavy. I was doing an interview and the guy had
just heard and he told me about it, and it was hard to talk. I knew he was sick
for a long time but still…. He was Big Daddy. And as way out as he was, he
always had this big blues thing that was very traditional. It was different
than, say, the Zappa prog thing – that was fusion. His way, his vision, was
very personal, but it was grounded in Howlin’ Wolf and stuff. You can hear it
big time. We always thought that was a trippy thing. It’s like writing a book
where you don’t have to invent new words. But it was really original.

 

Talking of unique
artists, you recently played with Jandek at my old school, UC Irvine.

That was a trip. Mr. Jandek – or the Representative from
Corwood Industries – is a very interesting cat. All black clothes and, for the
gig, he had maybe a Stetson. Not a total cowboy hat, but it had a big brim. That
was one of the wildest live gigs I’ve done. It was me and a younger drummer, BJ
Miller from HEALTH. He said to the drummer, “You ever hear of Ginger Baker?
Maybe you should play like that.” He was giving no real direction! I just met
him there the day of the gig. In fact, at one point, he asked me, “So what are
you gonna do?” [laughs] So I said,
“Maybe you want something like a Jack Bruce thing?” And he said, “Yeah! yeah!”
Then I said to him, “I gotta tell you, I’m way into doing this, but I’m a
little bit scared.” And he said, “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be right up your
alley” [laughs], and we went into
this 100-minute song that
went to a lot of places
. I kept trying to change the motifs, and the
drummer stayed in this one kind of thing – he’d never done anything like that
before.

        His music is
very interesting. He used effects at this gig on his guitars. He’d never used
effects before. He’s got a trippy way of playing – a lot around D and G – and
that was really interesting to follow. It wasn’t like a guy wanking at the
Guitar Center. It kind of reminded me of some of that Pop Group guitar by
Gareth Sager. Also, he said, “You know, usually I don’t do lyrics live,” but he
ended up doing some lyrics. The people there dug it big time, but he never
really spoke with them. He never introduced us or said thanks or anything – just
started playing. Then, when we were done, we were done. I hugged him at the end
and told him, “Man, any time! I’m there for you.” ‘cuz I really dug it.

 

Without wanting you
to betray any confidences, what did you guys talk about? Did he say anything about
why he’d suddenly started playing live after all these years?

Well, we never talked about any of that stuff. He talked
real regular, not weirded out at all. He didn’t come across like a total hermit
in the mountains. He knew about stuff. I talked to him for maybe three hours,
about playing gigs, about going to Russia. He did know about our scene. He
didn’t ask me about much current stuff, but mainly about the old days. He knew
about Black Flag and the Minutemen days, and he asked me about a Bad Brains
documentary. The closest I got to it was when the drummer was talking about
writers, and I brought up Mr. Pynchon. I mentioned Pynchon on purpose, saying,
“This guy doesn’t like getting his picture taken,” to see if the Representative
would say anything, but he didn’t. You know, I never even heard his name. He
never said it. But if he doesn’t want to say, then he doesn’t want to say it. I
only knew him from the records, and instead of laying some trip on him, I just
wanted to check out the music. He just seemed like a guy who was into music.

 

You’re sure it was
really him?

[laughs] Well, it
seemed like the same guy from the records, ‘cuz Jandek did have his pictures
all over the records, of all different ages…actually, he looked like Thurston
[Moore] a little bit…. But I thought, if that’s the way he wants it, then
that’s good enough. He didn’t wanna talk about that stuff, and I was there to
play with him. That was quite enough for me. Look, I got in trouble once with
Richard Hell on my radio show. He was my first punk hero, and I asked him about
the clothes – ‘cuz I was way into those clothes – and he was all pissed off. He
didn’t want to talk about it. I don’t know why. I felt really bad, too. So
maybe I learned a bit from that. These guys, they’ll let you know what they
wanna talk about.

 

Getting back to hyphenated-man…for this album, you’ve
started up a label again (clenchedwrench).

We had New Alliance in the ’80s, and we put out some
Minutemen records, the first Hüsker Dü album and three Descendents albums, so I
feel like I’ve gone full circle. I’ve got so many projects coming out, and
these times are more copasetic to doing stuff like this yourself. In the old
days, we kind of had to do it ourselves because no one else would put it out.
So now I’ve got like 12 or 13 projects in the pipeline, and I wanna get ’em out
and not have to play the game or anything. I just want it out. They’re all
different. They’re not me just doing the same old thing with different people.
They’re shaped by the people I play with. My trios are my trios, and they’re my
link to my past, but when I do these collaborations it’s a whole different
thing – now you can trade files with people over the internet, and you don’t
even have to be playing with ’em in the same room. So I can do that more now
and not be the one-trick pony. I can make these things have their own lives and
give respect to the people I collaborate with.

 

You seem to gig
endlessly but, in comparison, you haven’t been so prolific in terms of
recordings.

I’ve tried to address that by doing more collaborations,
starting in 2007 with Funanori [a project
with the Go! Team’s
Kaori Tsuchida]. Up till then, apart from the operas, I did some Unknown
Instructors records, a couple of Banyan records, the Stooges record. There’s
not a lot of recorded works, but thousands of gigs. I wanted to get that more
in balance, so I’ve been on a tear recently.

 

Did you used to place
more value on live performances than recording?

I used to think that, big time. The punk thing was so profound
on us. We thought the gig was
everything. Me and D. Boon, we divided the world into two categories: there was
gigs and flyers. Everything that wasn’t a gig was a flyer. Fuck the
recordings! We never thought of them as being here after you’d gone. But I
think of ’em more like that now, like children or something. I never had
children, so this is the closest I get. With gigs, life-in-the-moment is very
important, but they go out there and dissipate into the ether or in people’s
minds, or whatever. But that’s it. If Bosch had just talked about those little
men instead of drawing ’em, I wouldn’t know about ’em. So the work as a
concrete entity is more important to me now. The songs get lives of their own:
when people hear ’em, they get their own ideas about what they’re supposed to
be, away from me.

 

You don’t feel
over-protective about them once they’ve gone on their way?

People have so much control over their lives anyway, so I
don’t wanna put more out there. I don’t wanna put a chain and collar on ’em. I’ve
done it to other people’s songs – I’ve got my own meanings for ’em, and then,
when you talk to the people who wrote ’em, it turns out they weren’t about that
at all! [laughs]

 

You’re about to
embark on another epic tour, doing the bulk of the driving yourself. Do you
ever get tired of being on the road and gigging?

If I didn’t have Pedro to come back to, maybe I would. The
bungee cord snaps you back and you roost, then you roam, and then you roost.
And I’ve always had good guys to tour with, so I don’t have the dramas to deal
with: they know it’s all about doing the gig. It is a little harder now. My
hands get sore from playing, so the vibrations from the steering wheel help me
out a lot. The body ain’t as strong, but I like playing for people. I can still
manage. I ain’t totally lamed out. My knee’s still all stiff, but, fuck, it
could be worse. It could be sawed off!

        Gotta keep it
in perspective.

 

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