Over the course of his brilliant five-decade career, Mike Watt has broadened the musical vocabulary of 80s hardcore and inspired the 90s alternative nation.
Now, the American rock hero collaborates with underground artists stretching from Japan to Europe – and hopefully, soon, China.
Watt knows a thing or two about collaboration. Together with drummer George Hurley, he formed The Minutemen in 1980. While peers in the nascent hardcore scene, like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys, define punk rock’s militant sound, The Minutemen were just as influential. They incorporated disparate influences into the genre from country to funk, exemplified on their classic 1984 double album, Double Nickels on the Dime.
“We were very influenced by our peers, while at the same time having the respect to never copy or steal from them,” Watt explains. “I was proud of us developing a sound we could call ours.”
The band also gained accolades for its ‘econo’ approach – recording as inexpensively as possible by booking cheap late-night studio time, recording on used tape and using their albums to promote their tour dates, scheduled around their day jobs.
“‘Econo’ was a philosophy for us because it was pretty much the only way we could do it,” Watt says. “We came from working families and didn’t have the weight of the heavy coin. We were all living on our own, so we had to balance a lot.”
Watt admits that, at first, he only got into music to hang out with childhood friend and guitarist D. Boon – but shortly after completing a 1985 tour with another emerging indie act, R.E.M., D. Boon was killed in a car crash. Watt would eventually overcome his depression – and desire to quit music – after Sonic Youth convinced him to start performing again.
“The Minutemen were very important to me – so important that I’m gonna bring you cats some songs I wrote in those days, so I can share a little bit of those ‘roots’ of my beginnings,” Watt says of his March 18 show at Dusk Dawn Club.
“I like that the idea that finding your own voice is a good thing that people see in The Minutemen. People see our story and might think, ‘hey, maybe me and my buddy could start our own band.’”
Watt’s ability to inspire collaboration was evident in his first ‘solo’ album, 1994’s Ball Hog or Tugboat?, which featured 48 guests including members of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Beastie Boys, The Lemonheads, Wilco and Parliament-Funkadelic.
To support the album, Watt famously toured small clubs with a backing band featuring Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder (on guitar). Both were at the height of their fame.
“It was Dave’s idea,” Watt says. “He put out this idea of a tour for this album he had made with his new band, The Foo Fighters.
“It’s so trippy how none of that tour was really planned. We just got together for a couple of days and did it.”
While they attempted to keep the details of the tour secret, with Grohl and Vedder performing in disguise, word quickly spread. Watt was introduced, briefly, to the mainstream.
“I gotta say, it was pretty much a pants-shitter for me ’cause I had never really been in that sitch before,” Watt admits. “But looking back on my ‘musical journey,’ it was a real sea change for me. I started trying things I’d never been brave enough to do before. Hell, I started writing operas.”
Over the past two decades, Watt’s influence has gone global, beginning with Japan’s indie music scene through collaborations with acts like Lite, Mr. Shimmy and Ms. Yuko. He hopes to do the same in China on his forthcoming tour, which is being organized by Shanghai-based freak-rock act Round Eye.
While admitting that his knowledge of Chinese music is limited to acts he’s discovered through the Internet, like P.K. 14, Watt is excited to share the stage with local stalwarts like Beijing opener Streets Kill Strange Animals.
“Nearly every place in the world has some kind of underground music that they can call their own, and I just can't wait to find out about it,” he says. “I love people everywhere who are driven to experiment with different ways of expression.”