Mike Watt banged up a knee while onstage thumping his bass with legendary proto- punk band the Stooges a few weeks back, so, at least for a while, there won't be any kayaking or morning bicycle rides around his beloved San Pedro for the local art-punk champ. But that doesn't mean he's going to stop playing.
"I'm still doing the gigs," he says with a crusty laugh, "I ain't quit, but it's like an ironing board, man. It's totally stiff, and it's just immobilized. But I got more gigs to do. I gotta stay in motion."
That means he'll soon be hopping back in the van to crisscross the country, like he's done countless times since his days with the esteemed L.A. punk trio Minutemen, which formed 30 years ago. In that time, he's gone through four vans: "This one is only a few years old, it's got 248,000 miles … it's a big country."
One of the hardest-working men in showbiz, Watt is renowned for his slapping bass and wild enthusiasm in many bands both local and national. There's his Material Girl tribute band the Madonnabes, and the original Punk Rock Karaoke with Eric Melvin of NOFX and Greg Hetson of Bad Religion. Watt's been doing some shows recently with former Minutemen drummer George Hurley and recorded three albums with Hurley, Saccharine Trust guitarist Joe Baiza and various lead vocalists under the name Unknown Instructors. Also, there's Hellride, Li'l Pit, Pair of Pliers, the Jom & Terry Show, Crimony, Dos, the Secondmen and Bootstrappers. He's got his Missingmen band going too, as well as a weekly Web radio program, "The Watt From Pedro Show" (twfps.com), his Hootpage blog and loads of other things — including his third opera.
This summer, the bassist has been occupied with Iggy Pop's revitalized Stooges, with whom Watt has been playing since Coachella in 2003. It's a longer period than Watt's stint with the formative band of his musical life, Minutemen, which "was five years and 11 months." His time spent under Pop's tutelage has been extremely valuable, he says.
"Iggy's a great cat, as a music person, but he actually knows a lot about culture," says Watt. "He's very intelligent. I've learned so much about being a better bass player from that guy. There's these guys that don't operate machines, they have different perspectives of the sound; they're more like conductors, almost like a bridge to the people. So they can help you, especially with bass, because it's kind of mysterious how bass works. It's not just a guitar. It's a weird thing, kinda like grout between the tiles.
"Iggy's songs are so much a part of our scene, they're like the Source," he says with a trace of awe. "I never believed I'd be in that situation."
He's being typically modest. Says former SST Records labelmate Henry Rollins, "Mike is the only living bass player I know who could be in the Stooges. To hit that pocket the way they do, they needed a bass player who understands what makes it work, and that's Mike Watt."
Watt likes being the grout, he'll tell you over and over. It's an idea he got from his late Minutemen bandmate D. Boon, who died in a van crash in 1985.
"A lotta my stuff comes from playing with D. Boon. Boon was all for pushing the bass out, in a more egalitarian thing. It was more like political ideas in a band, the way he'd pull back on his guitar. And that's where a lot of my style, whatever, comes from. But all bands are not like the Minutemen."
"If you ever see Watt play or listen to his records," says longtime Watt collaborator guitarist Nels Cline, "you notice that he always brings every ounce of his being to all that he does. The Minutemen were the beginning of my personal involvement in what could be called the punk scene in L.A., which was a scene — at least in the initial stages — that as a jazz-type dude I thought had little to do with me. But upon seeing the Minutemen, I realized that it had a lot to do with me, because of the vastness of their music, the originality of how they expressed themselves."
The amiable, gregarious Watt is a beloved and valuable figure on the L.A. scene who can always be counted on to push his music forward. His recent recording project Floored by Four released its debut full length on Sean Lennon's Chimera label. It was made in New York with a quartet also featuring guitarist Cline (best known these days for his work in Wilco), ex-Cibo Matto keyboardist Yuka Honda and drummer Dougie Bowne. The result is risk-taking, spontaneous and thought-provoking electric music — that's also a lot of fun to listen to.
In crafting the album, Watt played or sang each player a very basic bass part to improvise around and sat back to be the glue as each worked his or her magic.
"Writing songs on bass is pretty weird," he says, "but I kinda like it because it leaves a lot of room for other people. And I'm playing the bass and saying, well, what do you wanna do? If you've got all these years of improvisation and stuff — like us four, you can just jump on it."
Floored by Four is one of many projects on Watt's plate. He has the freedom to stay busy but likes even more the opportunity to keep growing, however far it may take him from his "punk" roots. He's got another three albums recorded with Cline coming out; a project with a Canadian artist he's never met (they exchanged files over the Internet); another album with his longstanding Missingmen crew; more work with Unknown Instructors. At his count, there's a total of about "13 to 14" items in the pipeline.
Watt's most crucial current "proj," as he calls them, is his third punk opera, to be titled "Hyphenated-Man." The follow-up to 1997's "Contemplating the Engine Room" and 2004's "The Secondman's Middle Stand," it was recorded in Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone's New York studio with Watt's Missingmen crew (former Slovenly guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales), and it too is all about establishing a new freedom in the way music called rock might be shaped and what its sources of inspiration might be.
Inspired by the Minutemen's oft-brief tunes, many of which clocked in at under a minute, as well as by painter Hieronymous Bosch, Watt is creating "Hyphenated-Man" out of 30 little songs that, combined, will reveal a broader whole. The idea is similar to, he says, the life he's been living, or hopes for. He wrote it all on D. Boon's Telecaster.
"This third opera is different from the other two," he says. "The first one had a sad ending, the second one a happy ending. This one, there's no ending. It's all middle." The theme is suggestive of its author, who, at 52, is a middle-aged man, still doing what he does and looking to glimpse an overview on what it all's about.
"'Hyphenated-Man' is a voyage into the middle, without being all sappy about it. You played the game, but still you confront yourself: What is 'Man'? In middle age you start asking yourself these questions, and it's not like you've gotta figure it out. But you're more open. There's more questions than answers."
Meanwhile, Watt keeps pushing forward with the same drive and determination that mark his best basslines.
"The recorded work is real important to me, because I've never had children, and they're still gonna be here when I'm gone," he says. "All my focus lately has been in trying to get all these things done, and out, and fighting for trippy places to put my bass, situations where I'm not just stuck in the 'I Love Lucy' rerun."
Mike Watt's got a legacy to uphold, of relevant, progressive and utterly smoking music.
"I've gotta keep going. D. Boon would want me to keep going. Keep the child's eye wandering, I've been told. Be excited about things, just fire it up. Go for it. And don't make it more complicated than that."