Like almost everything else Mike Watt does, even his way of answering the phone is full of endearingly offbeat humor and quirky charisma; the first ring is barely over when the alt-rock icon picks up and heartily shouts “Watt!” Anyone who has seen Watt interviewed in We Jam Econo, the trenchant documentary about his groundbreaking ‘80s band, The Minutemen, or heard the music the prolific Watt has made with them, his subsequent band fIREHOSE or his many solo projects, knows that the San Pedro punk pioneer’s got a lot to say and a unique way of saying it. His latest solo outing, Hyphenated-Man (due out March 1), is no exception; nor is the outpouring of ideas Watt expresses in our conversation, as he weighs in on his most recent rock & roll ruckus.
Hyphenated-Man is a conceptual piece, consisting of 30 tracks that offer meditations on Watt’s current time of life – he’s 53 – through a variety of odd characters. “I tried to confront myself with the middle-aged thing,” says Watt. “It just seemed like I couldn’t get it all in one tune like [late Minutemen frontman] D. Boon, or Hank Williams. It’s one big song in a bunch of little parts.” Watt also admits the influence of rock’s original conceptualists, The Who. “I guess the Who called their thing [Tommy] opera,” he says, “That’s probably where I got the idea. I remember when we heard it, me and D. Boon as boys, we thought it was recorded kinda small, but actually there’s ‘A Quick One,’ that they did before that… we thought it was kinda trippy, where you could hook ‘em all together like chapters in a book. We never thought about music in that way, we come from AM radio, where everything was way more song-oriented.”
“It’s not so much a story with a beginning, middle and end,” says Watt of his own humble “opera.” “It’s supposed to be Watt in the moment,” he explains, “thinking about himself. So the characters are kind of manifestations for me to trip on this place I am in my life now…feelings I have at this point, little meditations.” And where does Watt draw the lyrical inspiration for these fractal narratives? “I’m influenced a lot by writers,” he says, “and a lot of them are surreal kind of guys like Joyce or Faulkner or Pynchon, and the Beat people like Burroughs and Kerouac—there’s a musical thing to it that I feel affinity for.”
While Watt departed from his usual bass-centric songwriting method this time around, composing the entire album on a guitar that once belonged to Boon, that forceful, angular bass playing still seems to be very much at the core of each track. He attributes the impetus for his up-front bass style to his late Minutemen pal. “A lot of that’s from D. Boon,” reckons Watt. “When we started the Minutemen, he was way into this idea of getting rid of the guitar-dominated hierarchy, and he really wanted to bring the bass and the drums up just as equal, so he played very trebly and wouldn’t use power chords, and we wrote the songs so there’s a big dialogue between the guitar, drums and bass. When I was young…I tried to figure it out from records—Jack Bruce and John Entwistle, and R&B guys like James Jamerson, where I could actually hear the bass, and these guys were kind of outrageous players.”
So does the old Minuteman ever wonder what his music would be like today if he were still working with his departed buddy Boon? “I ask myself all the time,” reveals Watt. “’What would he think, what would he do?’ Every time I do something I’m always thinking about him, it’s trippy. He’d probably be a motherfucker on guitar… I think it’d be intense and very interesting.”
But even without Boon by his side, the tireless Watt’s got a lot on his plate. Besides his solo work, he also happens to be the bass man behind Iggy Pop, having been a member of The Stooges for the last eight years, and he’s got recording projects in the hopper with everyone from ex-wife/former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler—with whom he’s had the duo Dos since 1985—to Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. “I’ve got so many projects in the pipeline now I had to start my own label called Clenchedwrench.” Watt says, connecting the dots by adding “Thirty years ago, me and D. Boon started [Minutemen label] New Alliance; in a way, it’s gone full circle.”
PS – Watt’s typically hectic tour schedule in support of Hyphenated-Man is too extensive to fit comfortably in our little corner of cyberspace, but can be viewed in all its glory on his Web site.