In a brilliant five-decade career, Mike Watt has broadened the musical vocabulary of 80s hardcore and inspired the 90s alternative nation. He continues to serve as collaborator with underground artists stretching from Japan to Europe.
But although he’s been a member of the reunited version of The Stooges and toured America with Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder as his backing band, Watt admits he only got into music to hang out with childhood friend and guitarist D. Boon.
“When the [late 1970s Hollywood punk] movement came, we got caught up in it,” Watt says. “We were very lucky because the scene was open enough to let lots of cats take a chance at making a band and play their stuff without artistic compromise.”
Together with drummer George Hurley, they formed The Minutemen in 1980. While peers in the nascent hardcore scene, like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys, would define the genre’s militant sound, The Minutemen would become just as influential. Their contribution was to broaden the genre by incorporating disparate influences 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, and the autonomist way we maintained our independence.”
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, practicing and recording their songs in order to cut down on editing time, and using their albums to promote their numerous tours, which they 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 much of the weight of the heavy coin. We were all living on our own, so you had to balance a lot.”
Shortly after completing a 1985 tour with another emerging indie act, R.E.M., D. Boon was killed in a van accident. Watt’s would eventually overcome his depression – and desire to quit music – after Sonic Youth convinced him to start performing again.
Eventually it was a superfan of The Minutemen, Ed Crawford, who
convinced Watt and Hurley to start a new group, Firehose. With Crawford
on vocals and guitar, the band continued The Minutemen’s penchant for
experimentation over five albums, while forging a unique sound that
would influence the 1990s alternative boom.
“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.
“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.’”
The affection that Watt inspires 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.
“The main theory I was testing was: If the bass player knew the tune, then anyone could come on board on guitar, drums or to sing,” he says. “Everyone was righteous about it and very open. People getting together and creating something is a precious thing. It takes trust and it takes heart.”
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. They would open alongside a band Eddie had formed with his wife Beth, called Hovercraft. Then they would both play with me for the third act.
“It’s so trippy how none of that tour was really planned. We just got together for a couple of days and just 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 cuz 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 has toured and collaborated with Perry Farrell in Porno for Pyros, Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis (on his solo projects) and the reformed version of The Stooges. “It was the fucking Stooges – music I fucking loved like crazy!” he raves.
Watt’s also built links with Japan’s indie music scene through collaboration with local 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 delve into Shanghai's scene with fourshows from March 19-25.
“Nearly every place in the world has some kind of underground music that they can call their own, and that I just can't wait to find out about,” he says. “I love people everywhere who are driven to experiment with different ways of expression.”
He remains busy with recording sessions planned this year for Panther Burns, his project with Tav Falco, and Big Walnuts Yonder – a project with members of Wilco, Deerhoof and Tera Melos.
“I’m trying to keep things down to three trios mostly,” he says. “Two of them were opera bands that have ‘completed their mission’ but I love playing with them so much that I’m writing them each new albums – not opera, but a collection of songs written for them specifically.”
“The other, Il Sogno del Marinaio, is a three-way collaboration with two Italian musicians. Although it’s an ever-evolving collaboration. It’s actually a European band, now that I think of it. Huh, I’m in a European band? Never thought of that.”
Beijing: Mar 18, 9-11.30pm, RMB80-100. DDC.
Shanghai: Mar 19, 8pm, RMBTBA. Doing Livehouse, Rm 211, 338 Wenhui Lu, by Longcheng Lu 文汇路338弄211室, 近龙城路
Shanghai: Mar 20, 8pm, RMBTBA. Uptown Records, see event listing.
Shanghai: Mar 21, 9pm-late, RMBTBA. Live Bar, 800 Guoshun Dong Lu, by Shuangyang Lu 国顺东路800号, 近双阳路 (2833 7674)
Shanghai: Mar 25, 9pm-late, RMB80-100. Yuyintang.