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Interview With Mike Watt - Musings On Blue Öyster Cult, The Stooges, And Thurston Losing His Shit (Part 2)

12 October 2014

Here’s the second and concluding part of the immensely fun interview I did with Mike Watt at last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties gig in England. If you missed the first part, you can catch up here. Watt’s in the middle of his 50 day tour with Il Sogno Del Marinaio so if he comes to your town, be sure to catch this dynamic trio.

You’ve been playing bass for a long time. Do you feel like there’s still things you can learn?

Big time. In fact, I don’t even have to move to five strings. There’s still a lot to learn with those four strings. The thing about bass- the physics are against you because the notes get really small if you play too many. It’s always a search for the right notes.

Who are some of the bass players that have influenced you?

In the old days, it was the ones I could hear. With US bands, you couldn’t hear a lot of rock bass. It was very difficult. When I met D Boon he only knew Creedence. He had those first six records, and I couldn’t tell what that dude was playing. That’s how I got into flannel. I thought that if I wore the singer’s shirt, he would still like me (laughs). We were thirteen, I didn’t even know what a fucking bass was. I didn’t know they were bigger strings until I was sixteen! I played a guitar with four strings and I had no idea. Because with arena rock you were so far away. And there was this hierarchy too in the ‘70s rock, it was weird.

Give it up for Blue Öyster Cult!

Yeah, oh yeah. We saw them many times. I got to be friends with Joe Bouchard. But you have to keep your mind open. See, a guy just starting out on bass can write a real righteous bass line because of this thing about simplicity and the right notes. Very econo. James Jamerson, he’s on all kinds of top ten hits. He had to keep reinventing himself. But I think what helped him- I mean I’m here to ask him. He died when he wasn’t that old. And kind of ignored, because slap bass came in and they just moved him out. Kinda fucked up.

Who was that again?

James Jamerson, he did all that Motown stuff. “My Girl” (ba bum bum, ba bum bum). He’s the man, he made it swing. He’s bad ass. He played with one finger, came from stand-up school. He’s the one, whether we know it or not, we owe him big time for bass guitar. This cat, he was something else, a huge influence. With rock and roll, though, it was over here. The English guys were not afraid to put the bass up. You had guys like John Entwistle, Jack Bruce, Geezer Butler, Trevor Bolder, the cat in The Animals (snaps fingers), Chas Chandler! The cat in the Kinks, the bass is loud! I think part of it was producers’ decisions, but whatever, they let the bass man in. It was bad. I can hear Stu Cooke now on the Creedence records but I couldn’t back then. No way. I was like “What the fuck is this guy playing? I can’t hear!” I had no sensitivity. We were stupid about a lot of shit.

Have you seen We Jam Econo? I talk about some of this shit. We talk about some people like loose strings, and some people like tight strings. We didn’t relate it to pitch. We thought that if you played “Down On The Corner” and it sounded right, you were in tune. We didn’t know your “Down On The Corner” had to be the other guy’s “Down On The Corner.” Must have sounded like a fucking din. We were ready for punk, believe me. Thing was, by copying all those Blue Öyster Cult and Creedence songs, when punk did come we knew how to play.

Speaking of BÖC, I saw a video on Youtube recently with you and some others doing “She’s As Beautiful As A Foot.” Was there anything else recorded from that?

That was with Dezzo (Cadena) and Dave Markey and Thurston. I think it was at the Bangles’ guitar player’s house. They asked me to come over there. But I’ve been asked- I had a Stooges gig over in Korea, in Seoul, and that same day Eric Bloom asked me to play with him in Boston. Now they are gonna play NAMM in Beverly Hills at the end of January, and I’m gonna go see them. I haven’t seen them in many moons. They just lost Allen Lanier.

Yeah, that was sad.

He hadn’t been playing with them for a while. It’s mainly Buck and Eric. I think fucking they had the Quiet Riot guy for a while.

Rudy Sarzo.

He can play!

I saw them and he did a little bass medley of songs he’s played on…he did an Ozzy song, a Quiet Riot song.

Is that right?

Yeah, and then they did the drum solo. Still keeping the arena rock flame stoked.

But they’re playing casinos and shit now.

I think they’ll play whatever they can get.

I know, I know. Eric actually said they’re doing better now than those days.

They’ve started to work in some different tunes, like “Golden Age Of Leather” is back in the set list.

I don’t know that one.

It’s on Spectres. It’s a good song.

Is Spectres the one with “Godzilla”?

Yeah, it’s right after “Godzilla,” second song.

That’s about the time I said, “Woah, I think I’m good”

Check it out, I think you’ll like it.

The last I listened to was Agents Of Fortune. And you can tell the band all got their own 4 track recorders, and they were all doing their own thing. Some were good, like “True Confessions,” “Tattoo Vampire.” This writer friend of mine, Don Waller, wrote the words to the first song, “This Ain’t The Summer Of Love.”

That’s been covered by a variety of people. I think Current 93 did a version.

I think The Hellacopters did a version! [ed – actually, it was another Swedish band, The Nomads]

As Screaming Dizbüsters.

That’s right. They changed the name. To me, the one I like (now it’s very interesting, the old Blue Öyster Cult records ) is Tyranny And Mutation. That’s the one I really like, and it was recorded really intense. The songs, everything about it.

They don’t play much of that; no “Teen Archer” or “Wings Wetted Down.” Great songs that never get played.

“Wings Wetted Down.” Joe Bouchard. I remember when I got to be friends with Richard Meltzer and I asked him about it because here’s a bass player, writing songs. And he said, “Yeah, Tolkien.”

They still play “Hot Rails To Hell”

That was a Joe song too! And Joe did the first song on the first album, “Screams.” In those days you’d send in the for the lyrics and they would come printed out on computer paper with white and green stripes. And no lines, there were just blocks. That’s where the Minutemen got their style of putting the lyrics for the record.

I still like BOC a lot. Secret Treaties was the first record I ever bought.

I remember when what came out, and there was some new recording method called SQ, it was some kinda Quad. You supposed to have four sets of speakers and whatever the fuck- but it was too trebly. But there are some good songs on there. I saw some of the tours. They opened up with “Stairway To The Stars” but number two was “Career Of Evil” which is a Patti Smith song. And on Tyranny and Mutation she does “Baby Ice Dog.” That’s why I got Horses, because it said Allen Lanier on the back. I didn’t know who Patti Smith was. And then she’s got “Piss Factory,” and that’s Tom Verlaine!

I learned that when Allen died, he was actually uncredited on a Clash song “Julie’s Been Working On The Drug Squad.” I guess the link was Sandy Pearlman, who did the recording for that record.

I remember that song. That’s the red and yellow and blue record, right? That’s the only time we saw them play. Important gig because, in the parking lot, The Dils opened up and then Bo Diddley, by himself. He did a half hour of “ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk” (laughs). Outside handing out flyers was Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski. They’re gonna play their second Black Flag gig, in Pedro! We couldn’t believe it, you’re gonna have a punk band play Pedro!? Dukowski says “Why, is that weird?” And we go “Yeah, because we’re from Pedro!” I spray painted Pedro on my bass, and they thought my name was Pedro. (laughs)

They said “There’s a punk band in Pedro?” and I say “Yeah, it’s us!” Do you want to open up?

Was that The Reactionaries?

Yeah. And at that gig, some guy from Hollywood – this was in the hood, and you know you’ve got ethnic people; you don’t have “White Riot” on your jacket. They don’t know about The Clash song. You want a white riot? OK! The cops had to lock everyone in the venue to save them, because the neighbors wanted to kill them. And in a way, I don’t blame them. “What the fuck’s this shit?!” I don’t think he was a racist or anything, it was just a Clash song. But they didn’t know who the fuck the Clash were. Actually, in SoCal Latins really got into punk, there was a strong Latin punk scene. But not in the hood in Pedro. But that’s where we got to meet them. We ended up with SST 002, “Paranoid Time.” And it’s all because of that gig.

The punk scene in the US was so small, so if there was some dude who was into it, you’d trust them. It was like before (Charlie) Manson with long hair. If the dude had balls to have long hair, you’d trust him.

Speaking of Ginn, what’s your take on the whole Black Flag / FLAG thing?

I’m a big Black Flag fan. I like all the singers, I don’t have a favorite, they all have their trip and I love them all. We were tight. They were the first ones to bring us to England. Part of the tour was in the US. Ten of us in one boat. We’d call it the slave ship, we were packed like sardines. I couldn’t get the book up. I was on the top shelf and there wasn’t enough room to get your arms up to read a book so I’d just lay there. And the routing was fucked up! You couldn’t do a kind of loop shit. You had to go back and forth all, like a star pattern. After the gig, you’d start driving for the sound check, from Minneapolis to Denver. But still we were getting to play other towns and it was a trip for us, we were way into it. We were a really tight crew. So for this stuff to happen, it’s just sadness.

I saw both bands this year and had fun at both but thought FLAG was way better.

Ron (Reyes) just got scissored

Yeah, I read that.

He (Ginn) has the skate guy (Mike Vallely) come on and say “You’re done.”

That sucks.

But you know, I can’t talk bad about Greg because he did a lot of good stuff. He helped us out a lot. He was a big influence, we started a label after his, SST. It was all a tight team. But they were different from us. When the Minutemen had an argument, we started socking, screaming, socking. Or go to the library and settle it, whatever the fuck the fight’s about. They were not out- all inside. So, head games. You just didn’t know, all of a sudden the dude’s out of the band. It was like “Whoa!”

It was good seeing Dez and Chuck on stage. It looked like they were having a lot of fun.

(tears up) Dez…very sad. He lost his wife.

Oh that’s terrible. I didn’t know.

Hiking and she fell. Terrible. Dez was beautiful. He was the one I konked with when I first came to Europe. Because that was the trippy Flag. Billy on drums, and Dezzo moved from singer to guitar.

“American Waste,” that era?

Right, right. Actually the Damaged album. So I can’t pick sides. I just can’t, I love all those guys. I have loyalty to all of them. It was a tight scene, I can’t see there being a Minutemen without Flag, SST, and those guys, Chuck, Billy. Fuck, me and D Boon put out first three or four Descendents albums on New Alliance, which was totally fashioned after SST!

I wanted to ask you a quick question around the fIREHOSE reunion-

It was about two weeks.

Coachella and a few West Coast dates?

There were fourteen gigs. California, Washington state, Oregon.

So was that just a one off?

Yeah, Edward lives in Pittsburgh! Hard to practice! When I play Pittsburgh he always comes out on stage and plays with me. Georgie’s not playing as much music these days. But I love playing with them. Edward asked me to do that but at the time I couldn’t do it, so I had to wait a year. Commitments. Like this tour with Il Sogno Del Marinaio, I’ve already started booking it. You gotta plan way in advance.

I guess you need to factor in the Stooges plans too.

Yeah big time. 125 months.

How awesome it is to get to play with those guys?

It’s a mindblow. I remember the call. I was with the Secondmen in Tallahassee, at a place called the Cow Haus. “The phone’s for you, Watt. It’s Ig.” And Ig says, “Ronnie says you’re the man.” And I was like “Woah!” He said “Would you do me a favor and wear a t shirt instead of a flannel?” (laughs) No problem, man. What about Levi’s and Converse? He says, “That’s strong. You know those leather things that kids wear on their wrists? I’m into that.” So we talk about clothes, and lights, and finally we get to the music and the end he says “Look – how ever we end the songs, that’s how we end them.” Three weeks later I’m flying to Coachella, left my guys in Memphis. I got sick on the plane flying over. I didn’t tell those guys. Sick as a fucking dog. But that gig burned the sickness right out of me. The wind blew Ronnie’s amps over. You know Coachella, it’s in the middle of the desert. So it’s been 125 months. You know, we wouldn’t even have a scene without The Stooges, so it’s really important. I gotta play good for them.

How different is it playing with James now, as compared to with Ron?

Way different. They are both individualistic guitar players. They didn’t learn off records like me and D Boon. They learned their own styles. Actually, James kinda learned a bit from Ron. He never used wah-wah and he does on some of those songs, like “1970.” They both have very strong identity. So it’s different playing with them. Both are vital, very vital. It was very much an honor to put bass to that. You know the tunes and their legacy. Incredible band, nothing I could have ever imagined. To imagine it would have been conceited! “Oh yeah, they’re gonna call me and ask me to play with The Stooges.” Yeah, I couldn’t imagine. J Mascis should get a lot of the credit, because he asked Ronnie to come play with us. He loves Funhouse, man. He says that’s how he learned to play guitar, you know J ain’t really a guitarist first, he’s a drummer. Dinosaur was a joke side project, believe it or not.

One last question: Did Thurston ever find his shit, and what was he looking for?

No, because he threw it in the trash. He couldn’t remember the whole fucking time. He couldn’t remember the whole day. He came with us and when he got in the boat he smoked some molta. He had bought a bunch of cables and cassettes. I gave him a bunch of trash, “Hey, dump this shit.” So he dumped the whole fucking thing! So the next day, I remember this in Providence Rhode Island and I call him up. Now he mixed up two phone calls, because he takes one call when I say I’m on the punk phone? Because there was a pay phone outside when they lived on Eldridge Street, and they’d put keys in a sock and throw it down to you, because there was no door bell. So you’d call on the punk telephone and the fucking sock would come down. He mixes that one in with the one where I get the revelation in Providence. I know what happened to the shit, and I tell him “you gotta lay off the mota because you’re losing your mind.” I didn’t know it was gonna be a fucking song. He made a video out of it!