The bridge that united the punk world to the jamband scene was built in the 1990s. As Nirvana broke down the commercial barrier held up by a stream of ‘80s hair metal acts followed by Green Day setting it aflame, bands like Phish, Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler and others were crisscrossing North America building a fanbase, one-by-one.
That do-it-yourself ethic is something extremely familiar to Mike Watt. As bassist and founding member of the Minutemen, he not only helped to establish a modern touring circuit where none had existed but, along with childhood friend d. boon on guitar and drummer George Hurley, expanded the dimension of the hardcore punk scene with music that incorporated free jazz, funk and folk. Besides racking up thousands of miles on the road, the trio released six albums and countless singles and EPs over the span of five years. It came to an abrupt end when d. boon died in a car accident in 1985. (For a fantastic read on the minutemen and other artists from the early days of the independent music scene, check out Michael Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 )
The significance of this history lesson is that the events of the past live in the present for Watt, who remains affected by his friend’s sudden passing even as we discuss his latest solo release, hyphenated-man. (Watt prefers lower case spelling.)
At that time, Watt and Hurley called it a day. But a devoted minutemen follower (Ed “from Ohio” Crawford) convinced them to continue. The three formed fIREHOSE, which recorded and toured for seven years.
As a solo artist and as an interview subject, Watt balances a blue collar mindset and work ethic with an intellectual hunger. That combination peppers the storylines of his three punk operas including hyphenated-man. The first one dealt with the Minutemen as well as his father, who was in the Navy while the second chronicled Watt’s near-death experience due to infection of his perineum.
This time around he muses about middle age with a lyrical influence derived from the surreal paintings of Hieronymus Bosch , while nodding to his past via music that was not only written on d. boon’s guitar but reflects the immediacy of the minutemen’s style. The new album features 30 songs with only two barely breaking the two minute mark.
For more on the 15th century artist Bosch and his imagery, which was used to illustrate moral and religious concepts and narratives, visit this page.
Conversing with Watt spans the verbiage of jazz-man, counseling-man and working-man. I catch him in mid-pain – an injured knee that cropped up during his bass playing activities as a member of the Stooges led to a fall and a newly-injured arm. Despite the physical ailments, Watt remains in good spirits and whipsmart talkative.
JPG: One of the first things I wanted to bring up is terminology. Why use the word ‘opera’ rather than ‘rock opera’ or ‘concept album’?
MW: I have a couple concept albums in the pipeline, one about autumn and one about work. But a concept, I see more like a bunch of songs revolving around an idea where an opera is like one song with different parts. We got the idea from [The Who’s] A Quick One (Happy Jack). There’s a song on that called “A Quick One [While He’s Away].” That’s when we first heard this kind of concept where you’ve got a bunch of parts that make up this one song. And then they did it bigger with Tommy and they called that ‘rock opera’. But that’s kind of grandiose a little bit, so I called mine…you know I’ve done two others. I call them ‘punk operas’. (laughs)
It’s something I never really thought I’d do. We liked that “Quick One” a lot, me and d. boon, and it just seemed like I didn’t have the talent to say what I wanted to say in one tune. So, I had to make this big elongated form. The first time was Contemplating the Engine Room, the title track talked about the Minutemen. The second one ( The Secondman’s Middle Stand ), oh man, that was about the sickness that almost killed me. Those were kinda like telling about stuff that had happened. So, they had a beginning, middle and end, more or less narrative for the libretto. (slight laugh) These are parallel terms in a way, obviously. But the first one was kind of to the tradition. It ended sad. The second one ended happy. I guess you would call that a comedy. Not really, it could be sad too but I don’t think…
The third one, I just thought it was a trippy place where I’m at in my life and I wanted to write about it, and not really recount something from the back, from the past. It doesn’t have the kind of form as those other two, in a way. I mean, I couldn’t play all 30 parts at once, so one comes after the other but they’re supposed to be almost happening at the same time. I kind of came up with the sequence, how I wrote ‘em. That was the flow — thinking about this led to thinking about this led to thinking about this.
At the very end I did make two changes because actually ended it with “Man-Shitting Man.” I used Mr. [Hieronymus] Bosch a little bit, allegorical help, but I think I got too carried away in this big vision, which was the Last Judgment and all that. I was in the studio with Tony Maimone and we’re finishing it and I’m like, ‘Man, I can’t have this be the last song.’ A lot of the piece is about me reconciling things, middle-age mind but there’s some things you can’t reconcile like the way some people are… humans treating each other sometimes. I can’t figure it out. But I had to acknowledge it. That’s part of being where I’m at now. But I couldn’t end it with that! At the last minute I decided. So I said, ‘I’ll take this one out of the middle, “Wheel-Bound Man” and I’ll put this one at the end.’ It’s one of my bass solos anyway.
JPG: I’m glad you did because I highlighted that last line. I was going to mention that — “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’.”
MW: That’s interesting you say that because that, you know for all of them, whatever it is, that’s the one message I want to get through with the pieces — I’ve learned that life’s for learnin’. In the 20s you know everything. (laughs)
JPG: I’m in my 40s and I know too much unfortunately, you know what I mean?
MW: (laughs) Yeah, you start figuring out you know hardly anything, but it’s okay because it’s a learning process. In fact, playing this thing for people, I didn’t count on this, I didn’t foresee this but it totally manifests this idea because it’s a hard motherfucker to play. There’s a lot of shit to remember.
JPG: Even though they’re short, there are 30 songs on this new one.
MW: The other two were more, very emotional for me. That made them hard to do. I’ve never even done ‘em again. Even though the second one had a happy ending, I had to go through all that sick shit at the beginning, it was too hard. This one’s not too hard emotionally. I’m a lot more content with these ideas.
JPG: Was it emotional at all as far as the writing because you were writing more in a Minuteman style and doing it on d. boon’s guitar?
MW: Yeah, it was very emotional that way, but it was an emotion that doesn’t break me up as bad. Some, I still, when it goes from the “Hell-Building Man” to “Man-Shitting-Man,” that gets very heavy for me because, like I said, I can’t reconcile that shit. But these things, it’s things that you can’t fix that really can bother me. I couldn’t bring d. boon back with the first one. Then, the sickness. What’s it called? ‘Empathy,’ you know, to deal with myself. You actually feel the shit. It’s why I can’t watch a knee surgery film because I feel the knife.
Yeah, I was scared. It took me some courage to get this fucker out. d. boon helped me. I wrote the thing on one of his Telecasters. I ain’t much of a guitar player, only the shit he showed me. The guy lived in his car even though he’d only admit it a little bit when we were boys. Part of it is because I kind of took some Minutemen form. There was certain devices that I tried to use to give respect to George and d. boon. One of them was…I did this sometimes with fIREHOSE even and Minutemen. I would write on guitar first ‘cause I wanted to write on the bass second. I usually write on the bass 95% of the time. One of the reasons is because it gives the other guys a lot of room to do their own thing. I wanted to write the bass second on this.
Also, another reason I did that, I didn’t want Tom, Raul, my missingmen — Tom Watson and Raul Morales – I didn’t want them to hear the bass, the spiel. I didn’t want them to be influenced by the only Minuteman, really, in the band. Even though I wrote it and stuff I still thought this was a kind of a way that wouldn’t be pushed by the bass. I even had ‘em record it without them.
JPG: Yeah, I read that. That’s crazy.
MW: (laughs) You can’t really do that at a gig.
JPG: I was going to say that the songs sound much more cohesive than one would think they should.
MW: Well, I wanted them to have a really strong rapport. I put the band together three years ago, just for this project but I wanted to wait until they played a long time together because I wanted something organic between them two before I foisted this whole other trip. It came to me…you know about this documentary, We Jam Econo?
MW: Keith [Schieron] and Tim [Irwin], these young men, they were too young to see [the Minutemen], so the documentary is, basically, them finding out about us. They wanted me to talk to them about it, so I had to listen to Minutemen again. I didn’t really do that a lot after d. boon was killed because it was heavy. But then hearing it, I was like, ‘Wow! I kind of like this idea of no filler.’ We got the idea from this England band called Wire. Their Pink Flag album had these little songs. But there’s still something about hearing that stuff was like, ‘I want to do this again.’
Around the same time, I was on tour with the Stooges in Spain. Madrid has this museum called the Prado. They got seven or eight [paintings of Hieronymus Bosch], they call them El Bosco, I couldn’t find them at first. And I found ‘em and I saw ‘em in person. It was much different. As a boy I was kind of tripping onto him. He was, God I couldn’t figure him…I, saw him in the encyclopedia. My ma got me the World Book thing. I was into dinosaurs and astronauts, too. They just seemed so far out, you know? Seeing ‘em in person though was nothing like a picture in the book. They’re on wood and there’s no glass. You can go right up to these things. 500 years old. But what tripped me out was he had all these little designs to make one big thing. And this reminded me kind of Minutemen like “Double Nickels [on the Dime],” you have all these little tunes to make one thing or our gigs. So, that’s where I saw the parallel. And so, that was the device I was going to use to write about this time, this middle-aged punk time for me.
But I brought in another thing. You can’t blame the artist like Mr. Bosch or Mr. L. Frank Baum, [author of] The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I brought this in. My take on Dorothy. If you notice the Lion and Scarecrow and the Tin Man? They’re kind of like Bosch things. They’re combinations of weird things. But they’re also the farmhands, right? ‘You were there and you were there,’ at the end she says. Seems like Dorothy, well, she doesn’t really have a love interest. I think it’s a coming-of-age story, well, maybe the dog. But coming-of-age, I see her as tripping on what men do to be men. Yeah, and that’s kind of what I was trying to do right about this period of life I’m in. So in a way, I’m a weird version of Dorothy. When those cats go to the man behind the curtain he says, ‘Where I come from, if you’re smart you get a diploma. If you’re brave, you get a medal. If you got a heart, you get a clock.’ The Tin Man got a pretty lame one. My sense is he’s saying you’re always asking society to validate you and there comes a point in your life where you just say, ‘Fuck it. I’ve got to make up my own mind about some of these issues myself.’ I fit that in with the Bosch and the Minutemen. (laughs) This is where the third opera comes from. In a way it’s much different than the other two. In a way it’s kind of the same because I didn’t try to make one big song.