The Day I Met Punk Legend Mike Watt: Interview

In 2004 Saskatoon hosted the bassists of the Minutemen and Black Flag

Back in the summer of 2004, Dos, a bass jazz duo comprised of punk legends Mike Watt of the Minutemen (and later The Stooges) and Kira Roessler of Black Flag, played at Amigos in Saskatoon for the Sask Jazz Festival.

Aside from getting to take in an absolutely brilliant show, I had a chance to sit down with Mike Watt for a interview before the show.

And it was completely mindblowing.

Back in the 1980s when hardcore was still a yowly American toddler, bands like Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys were crossing the continent bringing a new thing to life.

And chugging right along with them was the Minutemen, whose concise, ragged blasts of punk embraced blue collar philosophy and DIY-or-die aesthetics.

The godfathers of hardcore gave us classic music that still resonates today. But the Minutemen gave us something cerebral. The mantras of “Punk is whatever we made it to be” and “Our band could be your life” still stand as steadfast truisms.

They also gave us utter love and loss. Band mates D. Boon and Watt were childhood friends, playing music together right up until Boon’s death in a car accident.

For anyone interested in the full story of the Minutemen check out the documentary We Jam Econo, or check out Michael Azerrad’s punk history book Our Band Could Be Your Life.

Even better, pick up a copy of the Minutemen’s LP Double Nickles on the Dime, which is one of the most important American rock albums to emerge from the ’80s.

The memory of talking to Watt in the back patio of Amigos is strangely surreal, especially considering how open he was about talking about Boon, Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop and the brief window into everything else he has done over the span of his remarkable career.

It’s not every day you get to talk to a rock legend in your own backyard, especially one as humble and as storied as Watt.

This interview was originally published in the zine Chickenshit Soup for the Soulless #5, of which maybe 40 copies were printed. Thanks to Chris Reimer for the photos.

Dos 1

Chris Morin: So this is your first time playing in Saskatoon?

Mike Watt: Yeah, after 24 years of playing around. I’m a slow learner. Your land is big and our land is big – to make it in one tour is heavy. But I really like it the few times I’ve played. I’ve done Vancouver since the Minutemen, but to come across the prairies…

CM: I think in the States there isn’t usually as much distance between cities as there is between the cities in Canada…

MW: But that’s the way it is. For me touring wasn’t always just about the gig. It was getting to them and from them. That’s a journey. When I drove from Vancouver to Calgary that was quite a ride. The Canadian Rockies are much prettier than the American Rockies. It was spectacular and intense. I’m a sailor’s son so I normally wouldn’t get to see this. I don’t take any of it for granted. About five or six years ago I started doing tour diaries, and I should have done them from the beginning.

CM: You have your book Spiels of a Minuteman…

MW: I got seven copies left. I sold them all in Winnipeg last night. It’s all my Minutemen words and a tour diary from back when the Minutemen and Black Flag were all in the same van in Europe. It was great.

CM: I read the diaries in Henry Rollins’ Get In The Van…

MW: Henry wants to wring my neck. But Henry is a really sweet guy, very loyal. That was an intense period for him. We kind of teased him a lot. Us Minutemen, we argued a lot but when we all got together against another guy it was even worse. But we all loved each other. It was a tight crew, us and Flag and the Huskers. It was the intensity of the movement and the times.

CM: Do you think that time is lost now?

MW: I think there are people doing it now but there are hardly any of those guys left. Bob Mould [of Husker Du] is still playing. But a lot of those cats aren’t playing anymore.

CM: Do you still feel a connectedness to any of it still?

MW: Yeah I basically do things almost the same way. I still tour in the van. I’ve been on a major label for thirteen years but I still make my records the same way. I deliver the finished master with no suits in the studio. I’ve learned a lot. And I’m a Stooge now – I’m finally the youngest guy in the band. But they [The Stooges] didn’t even really set up the touring thing. Black Flag did. They basically set up that circuit everybody tours on, but The Stooges set up the music template with their first album. It still doesn’t sound like it was recorded in 1968. It’s trippy. And you know how much stuff comes sixth hand and I’m right at the source with these guys. In fact, tomorrow I fly to Berlin to do three weeks with them.

CM: So is there a difference between how you would approach a gig with Iggy and The Stooges and a gig with Dos?

MW: Well Dos, my oldest band of 19 years, is an experiment between two bass players, so it’s kind of like an intimate conversation. Whereas with The Stooges obviously Iggy is the bow of the boat. He’s there to work the room and the stage and we’re there to help him out. Basically it’s the same idea; both bands are trying to make music that’s in the moment and not just sleepwalk, punch the clock and connect the dots. So for all the differences there are a lot of similarities. I mean, me and D. Boon were 16-years-old and listening to Stooges records so it’s a mind blow for sure. Dave Alexander put down some incredible bass lines. You can’t always learn everything from being the boss so it’s good to be a deckhand too. Especially if you’re going to ask some cats to take directions and realize your ideas you should learn it yourself. But I’m only 46 and I’m still learning.

watt book

CM: You said something about punching a clock. Have you ever felt like you were doing this?

MW: I’ve seen this in all jobs. It’s danger. I almost died of sickness a few years ago and the first doctors I went to were feeding me all these pills and wouldn’t even look me in the eye. Then this thing explodes and I get rushed to the emergency room down in the county where most of the doctors are interns and very fired up. It was a complete difference because even though they didn’t have the experience it was the passion. So to punch in the clock is a very dangerous thing. I wrote this song with the Minutemen called ‘Life is a Rehearsal’ where I took the philosophical idea that maybe life isn’t a rehearsal and you just gotta go for it. Wouldn’t you want the guy who was rebuilding your carburetor to be an artist at it and doing the best creative gig? Working for the weekend.
But what is the weekend? I can understand that the month is based on the moon and the years on the sun but the weekend is pretty arbitrary. A lot of these lines are put in the sand and a wave comes and washes it all away. And there are a lot of cats my age who are having a midlife crisis and start following all the recipes and whatnot. I get a lot of guys telling me they want to get in the van and I wonder if they ever could because they’re so used to their thing. Everybody makes sacrifices but to them there is a romantic notion of having no mortgage, no family and no kids. It’s like being a sailor. Not that I’m better than them or anything but it takes a certain kind of thing to do. I had my midlife thing too but I didn’t go get the 20-year-old girlfriend and the convertible and wear the baggy clothes. I kind of leapfrogged back to when I was nine-years-old and got a bicycle. This cat sold me a 10-speed and five dollars and I hadn’t ridden a bike in 22 years. Now I ride it four days a week. I kayak and there’s something about moving your body. I’m not really a jock or an athlete, I can’t really work out in a gym. But just letting things fall on your eyes and your ears while you are pushing your body is like being a little kid with the simplest joys.

CM: You mentioned a midlife crisis – have you ever wanted to quit and get the steady office job?

MW: It’s interesting but I still feel like I have a lot of work to do still and a lot more gigs. I’d love to do more Saskatoon gigs, so as long as I have this hankering and it feels vital and not jive then I’ll pursue it. The big thing about a midlife crisis in what makes them natural and healthy is the doubts. When I was playing my bass I could always tell myself ‘you’re a bass player’ and maybe I wasn’t sure about anything else, maybe I was getting a little girly, but I was a bass player. I’m not the best but it’s something I do. It’s something I did with D. Boon when I was a boy. I know it’s been twenty years but I know there’s a little bit of him in me when I’m playing the bass so I have a lot of links to it. I’m not really a musician. I got into it to be with him. D’s mother put me onto it. But it seems real to me and not just something I use to get over other people. I’ve been trying to write with these diaries and stuff. I’m influenced by [James] Joyce’s Ulysses, even when I was in my twenties and writing Minutemen stuff. The writers have always influenced me. It seems like the real private art form. There’s a writer, a reader and these scribbles in between. That’s it. But there’s a long spell in between records, the longest I’ve ever had. In fact I was a Minutemen for a shorter amount of time than this spell. I’m going back to making a record a year ago. It’s a new rock opera about my sickness. But wasn’t like I wasn’t doing anything. I did 11 tours and then almost died. I love getting into this thing about making records. There’s something about them that they’re like tombstones…

CM: Or they could be called diaries instead…

MW: Ah, good point. That’s what D. Boon used to call Minutemen records; he said ‘here we are at a point in time. We captured it.’ And he was right. So middle aged crisis, here is my theory on why you get these weird things. You start enduring, your body hurts, you don’t have the same resilience, you’re not at the end of the road but you can see it. You’re definitely not a beginner. So it’s a weird kind of thing because when you are younger you don’t think about old people and you don’t say ‘well if I don’t act old I won’t be old.’ But no one really thinks of the middle, like ‘I’ve got to get there and whoa!’

CM: Which is kind of the same as you saying when you are on tour it’s not just the gigs but getting to the gigs.

MW: That’s right, it’s the getting to the gigs. You have to change to stay vital too because a lot of middle aged guys get heart attacks trying to compete with younger guys. When you’re older you can’t. And maybe you should in a way, but you still have to listen to your body. Like Iggy just turned 57; this cat still does stage dives. I’m ten years younger than him and if I did that I wouldn’t be getting off that deck, especially for the next downbeat. This guy is amazing! But there are cats like him and Elvin Jones who jus died at 76 and played a gig a week and a half before he died. These guys are real inspirations. Why not try and keep it going as long as you can. But you have to change. And your songs change. I was 22-years-old and I got pneumonia and almost died. A week later I healed up and I didn’t want to write a song. Twenty years later I almost die and I write a whole opera. You’re in different places and things are important. Even reading books like Ulysses. I read them again when I was sick. The words didn’t change but it read so much more different. I’m the one that changed. Intense!
But I guess if you do something for 25 years it becomes a stable thing. It’s weird. I’ll stop and think about it and, ‘whoa I gotta reinvent myself like Madonna again.’ It’s very interesting. You have to stay a student in a way. Like Perry Farrell told me, ‘you gotta keep a child’s eye.’ He wasn’t talking about being naïve or infantile. You have to keep a sense of wonder and be curios. You gotta keep this in you otherwise you get jaded, bitter and cynical.

CM: Do you think you still keep some of this wonderment or energy from when you first started no matter how much you change?

MW: Absolutely. That’s the only antidote to all these other afflictions time brings you. I can never be a young man again, but in some ways I’m always a Minuteman. Guys are gone and times change. Even in the Minutemen I could see the times change. I’ve never thought about this but things happen. You gotta keep a fire, be the silly optimist in some ways. Not delude yourself or other people but get caught up in the doing and the wonder. There is a wonder to it, absolutely. I get so stressed out two weeks before a tour but once you get in the rhythm of doing it you know it starts and first week out I’m not so nervous. Play every gig like it were your last because it might be.
So I’m trying to learn from this stuff. I think I got a handle on some of it but not exactly. I think there’s a lot of stuff people have to teach me and a lot of these people aren’t the older guys. They’re the younger cats who don’t know where the walls are. Or the older cats who know the wall is there because they pushed against it.
That’s the trippy thing about getting older. It’s finding out how much more you don’t know.