Friday, September 5, 2014

Mike Watt

Mike Watt as the "Prac Pad" in San Pedro's Angels Gate Cultural Center


At Angels Gate Cultural Center
3601 S. Gaffey St., San Pedro

Over a dozen years of conducting band interviews and all the unique Jigsaw adventures I've had in Los Angeles thus far have taught me to always expect the unexpected. Never in my wildest dreams, though, did I imagine that I would get to experience loading out with Mike Watt.

It was a bit daunting to even prepare for a conversation with the legendary bassist and co-founder of groups like the Minutemen, Dos and Firehose, but what better way to break the ice with someone than to work up a sweat carrying a drum set from the band van to the "Prac Pad" together? There we were in the heart of Angels Gate Cultural Center where Watt's rehearsal space has been located for the past 28 years, and only a few minutes go by before he begins to give me a detailed history of the place.

Originally established as a military base commissioned to protect the harbor, most of Fort MacArthur's land was eventually turned over to the City of Los Angeles in 1977 and divided into Angels Gate Park (home to the Korean Bell of Friendship) and Angels Gate Cultural Center, an artists' colony that houses workspace for 52 local artists, writers, photographers, jewelers, printmakers and, of course, musicians. 

Inside the Prac Pad
"I have one of the oldest spaces; it was the officers' latrine. I pulled out all the shitters and put that bulkhead and hatch in. To my port were the showers, there's a guy who builds sets for Hollywood in that one; where the sinks were, is a crane operator. They both work full time and do music on the side; I'm the full-time music guy here," explains Watt. "When D. Boon and I were boys living in the proj apartments, it was hard to play with a drummer. We were always looking for a guy who had a shed, someplace to make it happen. So when I found this practice pad I really held onto it. This isn't the biggest pad, but it's big enough for trios, which I'm partial to anyway. I'm very lucky. "

The cultural center is located at the top of a hill with a gorgeous view of the harbor, but as we finish carrying the kit inside and I get my first view of Watt's space, I see an even more breathtaking site. The walls of the practice studio are covered in memorabilia – posters, paintings, photos, notes – that he has collected over the years.

"Here's the libretto for my third opera [2011's Hyphenated-Man], so I could pound all of the words into my brain," Watt points to a poster board hanging on a wall covered in lyrics. "Most of this stuff is all what people give me on tour. This anchor hanging around my neck was given to me, as was this bicycle spoke around my wrist. I'm superstitious, maybe it's good luck to keep all these things, and it's a form of gratitude." 

It's evident in his body language just how sincere Watt is when he speaks of his thankfulness for his fans. His speaks with humility and a frank openness about everything and anything, including his amusement over calling a former military home base for almost three decades when his Navy veteran father told him never to enlist.

"The military is still in my life! It's trippy, but at least it's in positive ways," he chuckles. "When I was a boy I never saw him because of Vietnam. He had his 'tours,' but when he came home, the first couple of days he would drive me around, telling me about his adventures. I think that gave me the hankering for touring, that sensibility of working the ports/towns. That's why I used his life in the navy as a parallel in my first opera [1997's Contemplating the Engine Room] to tell the story of the Minutemen. This tour coming up is my 64th tour, and I never get tired of it."

The tour he mentions is in support of Canto Secundo, the sophomore album from his trio with guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi that released last week. Watt came up with the three-piece's name, Il Sogno del Marinaio (Italian for 'the sailor's dream'), in tribute to both his sailor father and his Italian mother. Since both Pilia and Belfi are Italian, the name just fit.
Watt, Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi (Hiyori Minato)

"Stefano and Andrea aren't just players, they're both composers. The closest thing I've done to this band is Dos or the Minutemen where there's collaboration," he describes. "With the opera bands or with the Stooges, it was either giving direction or taking direction. I know my name's used a lot because these guys aren't really known here, but it's not a band like those other bands. Do I call it Mike Watt and the Missingmen because I'm full of myself? No, I want people to know who to blame! Don't blame Raul [Morales, drummer] or Tom [Watson, guitar], blame Watt."

Having met Pilia in 2005 while touring Italy with his second opera, The Secondman's Middle Stand, Watt immediately said yes when the guitarist asked if he would come back to the country to play a festival with him and Belfi four years later.

"We're going to learn a bunch of songs for one gig? Let's do five or six gigs. We're going to learn them for the gigs, so let's record them. In the old days recordings were just flyers for gigs, but as I become older I realize these are your gravestones for when you're gone," Watt tells. "So we recorded La Busta Gialla, which didn't come out for three years because [we're all] involved with lots of projects, and finally got some time to tour a year and a half ago. I really got to know them playing on that tour, so we said, ‘Let's make a second album.’”

While La Busta Gialla featured several guest players, Canto Secundo ('the second song'),  which was recorded by Bruno Germano at Vacuum Studio in Bologna, really showcases the trio, and Watt feels the band has really found its voice on the effort. Whenever he mentions his fellow musicians and Germano, he calls them "fratello Andrea," "fratello Stefano" and "fratello Bruno," literally referring to them as brothers, and his affection for them is palpable.

"Fratello Bruno has his studio in a barn with a farmhouse next to it where I stayed, and they cooked for me every day. They're really sweet, genuine men. It's a sincerity that they have. When they say ['fratello'], it's not just for show," he shares. "There's young people in the music scene that are really intense and beautiful. It's almost like all that work we – the Germs, the Minutemen, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü – did wasn't for nothing. It wasn't just about our bands, we were laying out something that other cats picked up on. There are a lot of ethics and values from those old days that got transmitted somehow to cats that weren't even born yet, that have their own world. In [Pilia and Belfi's] case they're from another land, but we have so much in common it really blew my mind." 

Through music, two young Italians and a 'cat from Pedro' have found common ground. Although Watt has several years of experience on them, he actually views the two Italians as the teachers and he as the student. However, he is going to have to assume the role of leader as the trio embarks on a national tour next week that has them doing a whopping 53 gigs in 53 days.

"It's in the tradition of Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, the way we did it in the old days. The way D. Boon used to play gigs, like Ig [Iggy Pop], was that it might be the last gig so you don't go half way. That had a big bearing on me, and I just figure when you go out, do as much as you can before the weather turns bad. It's like vaudeville [Fun fact: Watt's maternal grandfather was a vaudevillian for a time.], the idea of working the towns," he says. "One thing about Pedro, probably why I've stayed, is I'm spoiled by the geography and the weather. I figure there's Pedro weather in every part of the country, you just have to time the tour right, usually in spring and fall. If it's a fall tour, I go through the country clockwise to get out of the north before it gets cold and wait until the south cools off. If it's spring, I go counterclockwise to get out of the south before it's too sweaty and wait for the north to thaw."

Aside from the ideal weather, what makes San Pedro so special to Watt are the many experiences he has had in the town since moving there at the age of 10. There isn't a better guide to the L.A. community than him, whether he's talking about its fishing industry or Angels Gate. When I tell him that I've never visited the Korean Friendship Bell, he proceeds to bestow a wealth of knowledge on me.

Korean Friendship Bell at Angels Gate Park
"When I graduated high school in 1976 it was America's 200th birthday, and Korea gave that bell as a present. It doesn't have a clapper, it has a big log that they bang it with on New Year's and Fourth of July," he informs. "The basketball court there is used a lot for commercials, and there's also a youth hostel. Euros get kind of bummed out because they want to see Hollywood, and they're 30 miles south! The Minutemen living close enough to play in Hollywood but not being in Hollywood helped make us us." 

The Minutemen's story began when Watt was 13. D. Boon just happened to fall out of a tree to the ground right next to him in a San Pedro park, and they became fast friends. As a way to keep them off the streets after school, Boon's mom, who played guitar, told them to form a band with her son on guitar and Watt on bass even though he had no idea what a bass guitar was ("I just played a regular guitar with four strings. I didn't see a real bass close up until I was 16, and it blew my mind!"). The only albums Boon had were Creedence Clearwater Revival, hence Watt's lifelong affinity for wearing flannels.

"I thought if I wore the singer's shirts that D. Boon would like me, that's how I got into flannels. I was from Navy housing, I didn't know they were for farmers and lumberjacks. I thought, 'Marc Bolan has a boa. John Fogerty likes this plaid," he confesses with a grin. "Even playing music, the culture at the time was to copy. The guy who plays guitar the best is of course the one who plays 'Black Dog' the best. No one used music as expression. It was more of a technical thing, trying to copy."

Some of the albums they tried to emulate began to inspire what would become the musical foundation for the Minutemen.

"With D. Boon, his idea of politics was not just put them in the words, he wanted to put them into the band. Since he was the guitar man, dominant at the top of the pyramid, I was going to play little and trebly. We got the idea from R&B bands where I could hear the bass – Larry Graham [Sly and the Family Stone], James Jamerson – and English rock bands where they put it loud – John Entwistle [the Who], Jack Bruce [Cream], even the Animals and Kinks. Over here it was too blurry, except for R&B partly because of how they composed it, they played trebly to make space," he recalls. "The whole idea of the Minutemen was we're going to make it like an economy: I'm going to hold back, play trebly and leave room. I want the bass and drums up there, not just holding the beat but with fills. We're going to get a conversation going where the power gets distributed equally. That's where the Minutemen sound comes from." 

One of the first punk gigs the two friends went to in San Pedro – the Bags – was actually in the barracks on the lower reservation (now Cabrillo Marina) of Fort MacArthur. The Minutemen eventually came together in 1980 with Boon on guitars/vocals, Watt on bass/vocals and George Hurley on drums with the intention of eschewing any band member hierarchy and genre boundaries à la the ethos of the burgeoning punk movement. 

"I can't imagine the Minutemen without the punk movement. It was profound on us; it changed everything. It wasn't styled music, it was more like permission to go crazy, a state of mind. The style was up to each band, the way you painted, wrote, took pictures," he recalls. "This scene really attracted us on an acute level,'why not use songs as expression?' It was exciting, provocative and we didn't care that it was still little. [When punk was new] we had to build up a thick skin and not care what anybody thought. In school we didn't care about safety in numbers because we weren't getting it. I didn't care as long as D. Boon was my friend."

The music world's reaction to punk was incredibly intense, and Watt's dad definitely had concerns.

"My pop gave me a little talk when I was about 19. He gets a six pack of beer, and we're sitting on the deck of my little pad. He asks, 'What's this punk shit about?' He had no music people in his family, seeing all this imagery of Sid Vicious bleeding, so you can imagine what he was thinking," he remembers. "I say, 'Me and D. Boon, we're going to find our own voice, write songs, record, do gigs.' He says, 'Yeah, yeah, but what's it really about? Is it socialist?' I didn't mean to but I laughed, he grabbed the leg of the table and his hazel eyes turned slate gray because he was so pissed. But then he let it go, and we never ever talked about it again." 

His father was never able to see the Minutemen perform before Boon's death in 1985, but he was able to see Watt play with Firehose. Being able to watch his son run his crew of bandmates and expressing himself through music led to his acceptance of punk and music being Watt's actual career.

"He didn't understand why I still played even when D. Boon got killed. He didn't know I was making a living at this, so I started sending him postcards from the road. He was like, 'Whoa you play all over, you're like a sailor.' I could tell from him watching everything at the Firehose show, he saw it was just a way of expressing myself. It wasn't part of somebody's hand-puppet shit. It was validation in a way," he shares. "The lame thing about the cancer that killed him [in 1991], I was just starting to get to know him. Growing up without him, there sure is a parallel to me working the towns and not being home a lot. I never had kids, I didn't want to do that to them." 

Although he never had kids, Watt was married to Kira Roessler for six years. They met in 1984 when Roessler was part of Black Flag, who were touring with the Minutemen at the time. It's clear from the way he talks about her that there is still much love between the pair.

"When she was on tour with Black Flag, K. would fly home to do midterms because she was working on getting an engineering degree from UCLA. She taught herself programming, did it for 25 years after Flag, taught herself ProTools and got into dialogue editing for film," Watt gushes. "She just got her second Emmy for 'Game of Thrones,' and what's more, she got a Golden Reel Award from her peers, who are 99 percent boys – just like in hardcore. I'm so proud of her. She's got balls like church bells." 

The two bassists formed Dos in 1985, a few months before Boon's tragic death. Roessler moved to the East Coast for an internship at Yale, but they continued to send each other improvised jams on four-track cassette tapes.

"She would record on two of the tracks and leave two open for me. We have to give K. the credit for introducing me to trading files, collaborating with somebody without being in the room with them, because she's a force. When she wants something done she doesn't look for excuses, she looks for ways to get it done," he says. "Not this October but the next one, it's 30 years for us. I've had a band for 30 years! We're planning to make an album called 30 Year that she's going to produce and record." 

It was through collaborating with others that Watt was able to begin to move on after Boon died. Although I don't think if anyone can ever completely heal after losing a childhood friend that had become more of a brother than just a bandmate. 

"Life deals you hands. D. Boon got taken away from me, and I had to – I didn't have to, I didn't think people wanted to hear me anymore – but people asked me to play with them," Watt says with tears in his eyes. "Thurston [Moore of Sonic Youth] asked me to be on the Evol record and a Madonna cover for the Ciccone Youth EP. Then this kid from Ohio..."

Ed Crawford, a Minutemen fan and guitarist, drove all the way from Ohio to San Pedro to convince Watt and Hurley to continue making music together, and Firehose was born. Firehose, Dos, the Sonic Youth tracks – these were just the beginning of the next stages of Watt's musical career. In addition to his solo albums (Ball-Hog or Tugboat? and the three punk rock operas), he has collaborated with the likes of the Stooges, J Mascis, the Go Team, Nels Cline, Richard Meltzer and Yuka Honda and performed with everyone from Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl to his Secondmen, Missingmen and Il Sogno del Marinaio trios.

"Collaboration is much more open now, you don't have to live in Pedro to collaborate with Watt anymore. You can live in Italy. It's a whole different sensibility than 'guy jumps out of a tree on you when you're a boy, and you make a band,'" he laughs. "I  usually don't like the name game so much. Virtuosos are amazing, but I like it when people's personas – a vibe, spirit – strike me. I'm more partial to that because of the way I came up through music. I was not a musician, I got into music because I just wanted to be with my friend. So, that's how I pick guys in bands. " 

Watt continues to get solicited and collaborate with musicians all the time because he not only wants to keep growing as a person but give back to the punk movement that has been so integral to his entire life.

"Stop learning, stop living. Don't be a curmudgeon because everyone has something to teach you," he says with a smile. "Part of it is to be [learning], but part of it is to spread it out. I do feel that I owe the movement, and bassists are conducive to that. We're like glue. What's glue without anything to stick to? A puddle. I don't want to be a puddle."

Canto Secondo is currently available. Il Sogno del Marinaio perform Sept. 11 at the Echo. For more information, visit

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