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Interview With Mike Watt - Punk Rock Legend, Plaid Enthusiast, And Honorary Italian (Part 1)

18 August 2014

By any account, Mike Watt is a true icon of music history, not just punk rock. His bass playing was of prime importance to the early punk scene of the West Coast via Minutemen but when the tragic death of D Boon stopped that band in its tracks, he didn’t call it quits. From fIREHOSE to DOS, his work with The Stooges and more recently as the sole American in the trio Il Sogno Del Marinaio, Watt’s infectious enthusiasm and eternal quest for learning has never dimmed. Last year at the End of an Era event that All Tomorrow’s Parties held, I had the opportunity to see the trio play, and then afterwards spend some time with Mike and get caught up in his whirlwind. To say he’s a force of nature is to relate that the Sahara’s a pile of sand. Enjoy part one, which started as we made our way from the Girls Against Boys set to his room.

Mike Watt: His brother Scotty is living in his truck so Thurston says, (Barry made Thurston curate it) he says “Look, Scotty’s living in his truck, why don’t we rent him a drum set?” So me and J played with both the Asheton brothers and Ig hears about this and asks them to join him for the Skull Ring record and the reunion so that how All Tomorrow’s Party led to the-

Reformation of The Stooges?

Yeah!

Awesome.

Isn’t that a trip? Nobody foresaw it.

Have you seen Thurston lately?

His band played, we opened up for him in Dublin on Bloomsday, and he asked me and Raymond to play with him on New Years in New York City. So that’s when I am gonna see him again next.

Where did you play in Dublin?

In Dublin, on Bloomsday, it was a fucking trip.

What club?

What club? Whelan’s. Downtown.

I spent 15 months in Dublin about 10 years ago.

Oh wow.

Yeah, that’s actually the first place I saw Mogwai

Great band. Scottish guys, right?

Yes.

Great fucking band. I forgot about that back door by the bar, the pub. I couldn’t get through when Girls Against Boys were playing. I remember those cats, they were a DC band, maybe ’90s?

Yeah, I guess David Yow did the tour with them.

Really? Wow, David Yow! The Jesus Lizard singer? He lives in SoCal, I had him on the radio the other day, the other week, and he made a solo record. It’s really trippy. He’s a graphics man now.

So how did the whole project start, how did you meet these guys?

Oh, he can tell (gesturing to guitarist Stefano Pilia, who just joined us).

Stefano Pilia: I met Mike in 2005. Mike was touring with Secondmen, Second Opera.

Actually the second string second men, because both of them just had babies and they couldn’t come so it was

Tom and Raul?

No, Raul was in the Secondmen, but he replaced the original drummer, Jerry Trebetic, and Paul Roessler, K’s brother took the place of Pete Mazich. Now they can both tour so I’m gonna make another Secondmen album. They put him (Stefano) in the boat with me for six weeks.

SP: So then in 2008 some guys wanted to do a project so I asked Mike when would you like to come and play?

Cesena, it was a festival, see he books one gig, I say let’s do more gigs, if we are doing more gigs, let’s make an album. I mean you run into middle age and you are running out of time. Glass half empty, let’s make an album.

Are you two brothers? (referring to drummer Andrea)

He is Bologna, and Andrea is Verona, actually when he was young, Genoa.

SP: Andrea and I had played before

So he suggested to bring him on board, make a trio

SP: So we did like I guess ten days, six gigs

In two and half days, because we had a gig that night in Polino!

SP: We did more because-

We practiced first! Outside of Bologna was an old house. A painter man had it. He lives in Berlin now. These cats cooked for me there. In fact I don’t think I’ve had a lady cook for me in Italy, they’re all dudes, and they’re great!

That’s a good side benefit of choosing your band members.

It’s all good. They cook for you at the practice, in the studio! They cook here!

SP: At this time we still didn’t have our songs, so we did some Minutemen pieces, some Mike pieces. Four songs of the trio.

But when it came to the album we weren’t gonna do covers, that’s why you see the “busta gialla,” the yellow folder. It was Andrea’s compositions, we had to pull out pieces. And that’s how it came together, it was just like that. Because we are all in different music projects, we didn’t want it to come out until we could tour. And that didn’t happen until February. So that thing sat there for three years.

SP: What we had done together with the record to us would make a lot more sense if we were out on tour, playing that stuff.

It wasn’t meant just to be a studio project?

SP: No, it really it’s just the three of us, playing together.

That’s right. And we’re gonna make a second one. Barry (Hogan) had us as part of the last thing here, but it was also convenient for us to go from here tomorrow to Bologna. This time we have nine days. A couple of nights he’s got to do some gigs, and then i’m gonna bring him on a US tour. Sept-November, 2014. 51 days, 51 gigs. They’ve played the US gigs, but they’ve never done the full monty.

Are you gonna be like the Melvins, 51 days, 51 states, 51 shows?

They did that? Wow.

They did last year (well, counting DC).

There’s no shows in Dakotas, but five in Cali.

They started in Alaska and ended in Hawaii, did the whole circuit

But they had to fly.

They only flew to Alaska, and then obviously to Hawaii from LA but other than that, everything else was driving.

SP: In 2003 I did one tour in the Midwest and the East Coast

He hasn’t done the whole deal yet, and drummer man even less, but they have played US gigs with David Grubbs.

I caught Grubbs this year at Hopscotch; hadn’t seen him in ages.

They’re part of his trio.

*Does he live in Europe? *

No, he’s in NY. He’s a professor, so when he gets time off, he plays.

How was it adapting to new players, in a new context?

Well they are twenty years younger. But, I am the student. they’re music school trained, from avant-garde. Very interesting cats. For comparison example, Secondmen/Missingmen “Here’s my piece guys, help me realize”. Stooges “Hey Mike, get it together, we got a gig” Ig’s very funny “You’re gonna get it together, right?” Actually he was very kind, there was a spiel he just did “Mike’s always been there for us, 125 months.”

But this band, actually going back almost to Minutemen, or like this side project with brother Sam here, the guy who’s setting up here (for a video shoot). Collaboration – the thing is, although I wanted to do gigs with them, our thing was totally about studio where you captured things. This is like Minutemen days when me and D Boon bring songs, and play. And even in the old days, Georgie would bring the words. So in a way I’m going back 30 years without being nostalgic. Collaboration is OK for a band. whenever you get more than one guy playing – yeah it’s hard to dream by committee- but you’re trying to work up a fucking interesting conversation. And sometimes yeah, one guy gives direction the other cats take. But other times, all three guys bring different things to the party. And that’s where I see this band. You don’t do- unless you are a vain motherfucker- you don’t do reruns of the same goddamn thing. “Now you play with me” “Now you are with me” “Now it’s your turn with me” What the fuck’s that?

SP: Mike, I think what we should do is some Minutemen songs, because people like it. we like it, we enjoy playing it. But Mike was very clever and said no, it’s very important that we give identity to it, so it’s not just nostalgia.

And then the name too – Il Sogno Del Marinaio, it just means The Sailor’s Dream. They don’t need this other guy’s name, the guy who didn’t get killed yet.

That’s one way to put it.

They’re OK with it though- because people haven’t heard of us. But you saw the gig, you saw how important they are. They’re not backing me up. I could understand that. And that’s why I’ve called bands the Secondmen, the Missingmen, the Helpermen, right? Even though I’m the bass player. You know the politics of bass, right? You look good making the other cats look good. I got it from Richard Hell. When I found out about bass, D Boon’s mom put me on bass – this is the 70’s. This is where you put the retarded friend, it’s like right field in little league. Punk changed a lot of that shit. I didn’t know about Charles Mingus. Pettibon taught me about jazz.

I was having a conversation with some friends and we were trying to think of bands who had the bass player as the leader of the band. There aren’t that many, really.

No. And I’m talking about real bass, not just a guy playing lead guitar. I do some solos, but a lot of my stuff is to be glue. And if you’re gonna be glue, and there’s nothing to stick to, what do you end as? A puddle! Ok, people go to the head, sitting on the throne, pissing, shitting, whatever. They look at the tile. I’m the grout! I’m in between the tile. It’s ok. I’m still so glad for D Boon’s mother. I can help make things happen. Maybe I’m the prime mover. It’s still a group and that’s the way I want it to be. But with this band, with the compozisiones- with the Secondmen, Missingmen I’d ask those guys- “This one’s about a middle-aged punk rocker,” “This one’s about almost dying with your taint being infected” – help me out here guys (laughing). “This one’s about three guys in a boat.”

I’ll tell you the funniest fucking meeting with the boss of Sony, his name is Donnie Einer, and this cat – no blink. At the top of the AT&T building, they called it 550 Death Star, 550 Madison, and I’m up there and I’m across the table from him, just me and him. And he goes, “OK, tell me what you want to do.” I said “I want to make an opera about three guys in a boat.” (laughs) But I didn’t laugh. And he looked me right in the eye, and he goes “Ok, you do that. You know, I got a brother who drives a truck.” We started talking about his brother who’s a truck driver in Ohio. “Ok Watt, you go do that.” And they let me fucking do it. I was fourteen years with Columbia.

But OK, there’s that kind of thing. This kind of thing, this is like – well you know, when D Boon and me did songs, because we grew up playing, didn’t have to teach. I’d just start playing the bass line and he’d come right up with the guitar. Now words, I never got the rhymes, all the rhymes always went to his songs. So I would get the things when he’s driving the van, he’d write down his thoughts on paper, “Fuck advertising, psychological means to sell should be destroyed” OK here’s the lyrics. “Maybe partying will help.” I got the more abstract stuff. “This ain’t no picnic,” that’s gonna go in to his songs because he had the way of doing that. But when it came to the music, it was almost osmosis. No teaching. We spent most of the time teaching the drummer, Georgie, because we wanted a three way tie. We didn’t want him in the background. So we’d work in all the fills, all that shit. So luckily I come from an early experience with this. In a way, with Il Sogno del Marinaio, I’m coming back!

Did you come up with the name?

Yeah. Actually, his (Stefano’s) home town is a sailor town, Genoa, and his dad’s from Sardinia, so he’s had water in his life and got into it big time.

SP: You too, right?

Well i came up with it! (laughs) Right? Because I fucked up the preposition, del, I said de. He helped with the grammar. My pop didn’t have music people in his family, he’s navy, 20 years. that’s where I got the idea of three guys in the boat, from my pop, because he said that’s how it was kinda like the navy for him. that’s how he saw the world. He only saw me play once, it tripped him out. And so someone brought me this (referring to his anchor necklace) during the first opera in Cambridge, Boston.

At TTs?

Yeah, TTs! I was loading out my gear, when my knee was better and this hand comes out- I didn’t even see the fucking person! And they had the anchor. And I thought if I wear this, maybe I’ll get good luck. And so I came up with the name. But, it’s only a name. I actually really like it. For a lot of people, it’s hard for them to say. When we did the radio interview with the BBC? That cat- you know what.. by the end of the interview he could say it perfectly, because I made him say it like twenty times (Mike and Stefano laugh). “Oh, you are having trouble with this? Then we practice.” (laughs). “Il Sogno Del Marinaio!” With the accent and everything. He had it fucking down. It’s like Spanish. Sogno? Marinaio?

I took French.

They say “marine’ for sailor. and I don’t know their word for ‘dream’. Francais?

Hiyoshi: Sorte, maybe? I dunno. I’m not sure!

Sortie is like a journey, right?

Maybe it’s a journey in your sleep

Actually, we use them for airplane missions. Sorties. I don’t know. That’s why I’m torn. I’m trying to learn more shit. I came up with the name, but it ain’t like Missingmen or Secondmen.

I could tell that the dynamic was a lot different, and you’re not singing on a lot of the songs. It’s kind of you guys trade off here and there, more like a jazz thing to me than the other bands.

Because they’re bringing other traditions in. Other experiences in.

SP: I think also that we, together, we still didn’t have enough time. We have exchanged some ideas but aside from the tour we haven’t spent much time together. For me the very interesting thing is that this thing is still very developing-

It’s a work in progress.

Which is good for a project, because you don’t want to hit a dead end.

No, to have it all figured out, connect the dots, bullshit like that.

 

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