The Philosophical Meanderings of the Musical Mike Watt

By Trevor Wallace

Mike Watt: Punk rock Statesman, co-founder of the Minutemen, Firehose  and Dos (with Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler) and a driving force behind musical projects as diverse as the modern-day Stooges, the Wylde Ratttz (with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Stooge Ron Asheton, his most recent project, il Sogno del Marinaio as well as a couple of operas (yes, you read that right) Watt has been a thriving and perennial mainstay of the punk and post-punk era nearly since its inception.

Watt took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with me last year. It took me this long to get this down on virtual paper. Apologies to Watt and his manager “Howling” Wuelf.

It took a few false starts on Skype, but we finally got together via the Web last August.

The conversation was meandering and less resembling an interview than two dudes (one slightly star struck, the other just chill) chatting before a gig. Here are some of the highlights.

On hooking up with the Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia, the two Italian guys that make up the other two-thirds of il Sogno del Marinaio:

“To be fair, it was mostly their doing but there were some coincidences. I was doing my second opera in Europe in 2005, “The Second Man’s Middle Stand,” and six of the gigs were in Italy. The Italian promoter put this young guy in the van with us, turned out to be Stefano as kind of a helper or something. Very nice cat. About four years later I get an email from him. I didn’t even know he played. Turns out there’s a festival and he has a buddy named Andrea. [The email says] ‘He plays drums, I’ll play guitar, you come play bass.’ I was like, Okay, and we ended up putting together six gigs. And I thought ‘every time you get a chance, record!’ You never know when the last one’s going to be, you know?

“So as we worked up the material for the gigs, we recorded it. I said, ‘In the middle, between gigs three and four, we’ll take two and a half days and make an album.”

Watt described Belfi and Pilia as erudite, university educated musicians and artists and said he himself comes more from the thug end of the musical spectrum. A humble, slightly self-deprecating musician with a tongue in cheek sense of humor, Watt comes across as a friendly, loquacious older brother of sorts.

“Anyway, I didn’t want to put that album out until we toured, so it stayed [in the can] for three years. And these days you can share files so you don’t have to be in the same room, so it kept getting added to, and we brought on other people and finally about a year and a half ago we did a Europe tour, I think 23 gigs and we decided to do a second [album].

“The studio was in a barn, about 200 years old, just north of Bologna near a prison. I never left the place; they cooked for me – they’re both excellent cooks. Italian food there is much more simple than here. They’re really just a couple of sweetheart guys. It’s really like Minutemen or Dos where it’s really more of a collaboration. With my operas, I ask my guys to realize my vision. In 125 months with the Stooges, it was just ‘Watt, help us do this Stooges music.’”

“But these guys aren’t just players, they’re also composers, so they bring in these pieces. More than half the songs on the album aren’t mine. These guys haven’t really been to the states, so that’s why I wanted to take them on tour. Not just so they could see the country, but so the country could see them. My name’s kind of being used but it’s not ‘Mike Watt and il Sogno del Marinaio.’ I’m more part of the crew – on bass it’s kind of like that anyway. It’s like even if it’s your own band, you’re there to make the other guys look good. That’s the politics of bass.”

“A lot of things in my life start out as coincidence or lucky, then I have to start working on it. For example, D. Boone falling out of that tree on me, K. with Dos – which is going to be 30 years old this October. She’s producing the album that’s going to be called “30 years” right now. I get the call from Ig about the Stooges. There’s a lot of luck in my life but then you have to work at it. Same with this project. It came out of the blue.

“Even though [the other members of il Sogno] and I are twenty years apart, we still come from the punk scene. You know, I’m part of 70s punk and I thought it would stay a fringe thing. It’s really trippy how that worked out. That’s the most common ground I have with these guys, coming from the punk scene – me from the 70s, them from the 90s. But all of us come from the understanding that punks not really a style of music, it’s more like a state of mind. Take chances and just go for it. You don’t feel you fit in so you just try something. So even though they’ve been to university and they have degrees and they’re trained and everything, they can relate to an old man.

“That’s the problem with being around and not getting killed and stuff: you begin to feel like you’ve seen it all and know it all. That’s really dangerous. That’s my philosophy coming into middle age. Everybody’s got something to teach you, so in a lot of ways, I’m their student. Back when D. Boon and I were teenagers and I imagined playing with someone twenty years older, it’s ridiculous. But I think these days are different. The music has really gone over generations.

“Think about someone like Black Sabbath, right? A teenager can like Black Sabbath and they’re like a 40 year old band. That would’ve never happened in my day. NEVER happened. I know these days people like to complain about the lame new days but they don’t remember the lamer older days. I remember my dad when the show “Happy Days” first came on said, “Those weren’t happy days!” Sentimentalism means you just remember the nice things and forget all the lame shit.

“These are interesting days. Young people are very open-minded. Music, painting, writing, all the expressions are an interesting fabric for us humans. It doesn’t always have to be something to sell shit with. You can share. It doesn’t have to be just about the guy you grew up with.

“I think people have become cynical because it’s been forced on them. Use can use the knife to cut the chow or to poke people. It’s the way it’s wielded. The weirdness isn’t in the expression, it’s how it’s wielded. It’s not a magic wand, it’s something that brings out what’s in you. If it’s bringing out some bunk shit, then yeah, it’s probably going to be bunk. Even if you have good intentions, it still might be bunk, but it isn’t like you weren’t trying. I am about being skeptical and having a little bit of doubt, but I’m not cynical and bummed out on everything. It’s that know-it-all attitude again. Saying everything is lame is being a know-it-all. It’s about that selling people stuff thing. You want people to be automatic experts so they’ll buy your stuff. They have the greatest opinion in the world. I can tell by the way people post on the Internet when they’re anonymous. It reminds me of the CB radio days where they don’t have to take responsibility and they can say some very mean things. I’m all for free speech and letting everybody know that you’re retarded or enlightened or whatever, have some hang-ups. But when you don’t have to meet someone and look them in the eye you can be cruel just to be cruel. It’s like pulling wings off a fly.

“But getting back to il Sogno del Marinaio, it means ‘the sailor’s dream. A very interesting thing that happened in my life was meeting these guys and getting to make this music. It’s a work in progress. The title [of the second album] is ‘Canto Segundo’  which means ‘second song.’

“The song ‘il Sogno del Fienile’ means ‘song of the barn’ and is about making the record. I’ve got a tradition of that. ‘History Lesson Pt. 2.’ I like to self-reference,  get a bit meta. It goes back to Bob Dylan’s ‘115th Dream.’ It doesn’t always have to be factual, like John Fogerty’s ‘Born on the Bayou.’ The very northwest bayou. (CCR were from California, not the Deep South as their music would imply.) Blending in the facts but it ain’t all the facts. But not being too self-important. I always think of Richard Hell. ‘I belong to the Blank Generation.’ What the fuck’s the blank generation? On his chest, he wrote ‘you make me’ and then of course there was a blank. Having a little bit of fun is what it’s about. That all it’s about.

“When I self-reference myself it’s not to be self-important, it’s so you know who to blame.”

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