Music Preview: Mike Watt & the Secondmen
Mike Watt is often called "the godfather of indie-rock." It's for good reason -- from his early days as a Reagan-baiting punk rocker in the influential California band The Minutemen, to solo and sideman work, he's never compromised his integrity for an easy buck. Watt's fiery bass playing and common-man mentality have won him high-profile pals -- Sonic Youth, Perry Farrell and Eddie Vedder all sing his praises. Well-read Watt is rarely without a book at his side. When he plays in Burlington with his three-piece group this week, expect intelligent, left-field rock.
The king of "econo" touring, Watt's still the man in the van, bringing intense and lyrically sophisticated music from town to town. Lately he's been playing with Iggy Pop & the Stooges -- at 47, he's the youngest member. A recent health crisis (an infected perineum) nearly killed him; the ordeal is chronicled on his latest CD The Secondman's Middle Stand. It's a hilarious, poignant record, driven by punchy Hammond organ and Watt's unflinching observations.
Watt is no stranger to personal tragedy; he lost best friend and Minutemen guitarist D. Boon in a van accident back in '85, and has dedicated every subsequent release to his fallen comrade. Through it all, he's remained amazingly positive -- just try to find a picture of him without a shit-eating grin. Watt spoke to Seven Days from the road, prior to his show at Club Metronome next Tuesday.
SEVEN DAYS: This is your 53rd van tour! Doesn't all that driving get old?
MIKE WATT: It's the way I learned it. I remember the first Minutemen tour with Black Flag had all 10 of us in the same boat, head to toe. I just feel like one of the threads in an interesting flannel. It's like bein' Don Quixote, tiltin' at windmills -- there's somethin' romantic about it. You know how you read accounts from musicians about what a nightmare it is? Well, we never saw any nightmare in it. D. Boon was big into history, so we got to go to places we'd only read about. Also, my pop was a sailor, and when I was a kid, he'd come back with all these stories -- I think this got to me! Towards the end of his life, I'd send him postcards from the tours. One time he said to me: "You know, you're kinda like a sailor, too."
SD: Your lyrics are as insightful and bullshit-free as they come. Have you ever considered writing a book?
MW: You know, I've been writing these tour diaries... Tryin' to practice up on it. I'm very influenced by writers. I love books and I read constantly. Right now I'm readin' one of these historical novels. You know, where they pretend like they're there? It's called I, Elizabeth and it's about Queen Elizabeth I. Written in first person!
SD: As a bassist, you've played in some pretty intense combinations. Any favorites?
MW: Yeah, I helped Perry [Farrell] out with some Porno for Pyros tours, J. Mascis [Dinosaur Jr.]... And now, most recently, I'm a Stooge!
SD: What's it like being the young kid in the Stooges?
MW: I'm like the little brother, which is a role I've never played, really. You can't really learn everything always bein' the boss. Sometimes it's good to be a deckhand. And those guys are very interesting gentlemen. Boy, they've got some stories! We just opened up for Madonna at a castle in Ireland. That was a mind-blow! I was too afraid to talk to her, but she was kickin' up some dust, man. She was pretty good.
SD: Watt was afraid of Madonna? She should've been scared of you Stooges!
MW: I was tongue-tied. She walked right past me but I couldn't even take a picture. She was trippin' about Iggy's costume. She goes, "That all you gonna wear?" and Iggy goes, "Yup." He reminds me of D. Boon. When Iggy plays a show, it's like it could be his last one.
SD: What music blew your mind as a kid?
MW: Well, I've been playin' [Blue Öyster Cult's] "The Red and the Black" since I was 13! Creedence was big, too. Me and D. Boon learned every song. That's why I wear flannel. But when we saw punk in Holly-wood, it looked like anyone could get a gig! You couldn't really do that with arena rock. In fact, I'd never been to a club until punk rock. This was the mid-'70s -- it was kinda alienatin'. You could only play in your bedroom. But with punk, the first thing I told D. Boon was, "We can do this!" It wasn't so much a style of music as a state of mind.
SD: What are you listening to now?
MW: I listen to Coltrane every day. He was in the moment, huh? I never grew up on it, though. I heard him in the early Minutemen days. I thought they were just older guys playin' punk!
SD: Your new album deals with illness. Are there broader themes?
MW: Well, I know the lyrics are pretty literal, but when I play it with my guys, it seems more like an allegory for the middle years. I was almost killed by pneumonia when I was 22, and I never even wrote a song about it. And now, years later, I write a whole opera! One thing about my sickness was that when I was layin' there I thought, fuck -- the space between my records is longer than the whole Minutemen thing! I'm gonna get back to makin' one record a year again.
SD: Your playing is technically proficient yet completely balls-out. How do you balance the two?
MW: Well, I played in a band with D. Boon. And he was like that. When you get guys playin', it's good to get a conversation goin'. And sometimes you gotta get a little aggressive! But other times, quietness can be really loud.
SD: You're an avid biker and rower -- fitness-wise you could probably put any young hipster to shame. Were you always outdoorsy?
MW: Well I didn't ride a bike for 22 years, but this cat was movin' to Atlanta and he sold me a 10-speed for five bucks... so I tried it out again. I'm not really a jock or an athlete, but there's somethin' about pushin' the fluid through the body. You learn to listen, there's no motor runnin'. Gettin' older, I'm more like a kid. You know, the mid-life crisis -- you get a convertible and a 20-year-old girlfriend? Well, I think I leapfrogged all that and went back to age 9!
SD: Do you think this country still has a chance, or have we completely sold ourselves out?
MW: Well, in my twenties, I knew everything -- in my forties, not as much. I am more hopeful than when I was young, but that was during Reagan. It's funny how history repeats itself. But us Minutemen, though, we're still pretty hopeful. I mean, we're elastic enough as a people that we can survive any crazy notions.
SD: Anything you want to tell young kids trying to make their way in music?
MW: Well, these kids are some open-minded people -- not like my generation. Guys like us were way in the minority. It reminds me of a gig I did with Jerry Lee Lewis in the '90s. He said, "Folks always talk like things were better back in the '50s, but shows are better now." I said, "Why's that, Jerry Lee?" and he said, "In those days, kids were stupid!"
SD: How political are you these days?
MW: I haven't changed a bit. I didn't grow out of bein' a Minuteman. I'll always be a Minuteman. What does the Constitution mean? Will that question ever go away? No.