INTERVIEW: Mike Watt talks music, politics and touring with Flipper

Mike Watt

For four decades now, Mike Watt has been one of the quintessential bassists in alternative music. From starting his band, the Minutemen, with his childhood friend D. Boon to beginning several additional projects and collaborating with the likes of The Stooges, Sonic Youth, Porno for Pyros, Juliana Hatfield, and Sublime, among many others.

In the run-up to a European tour with punk legends Flipper, Mike spoke with XS Noize writer Aaron Kavanagh, where the two discussed topics like the West Coast punk scene, Mike’s transition from ‘70s arena rock into punk, James Joyce, Irish socialism, working in a band with his Academy Award-winning ex-wife, the expansiveness of bass as an instrument, Spotify’s treatment of artists and artists pulling their music, freedom of speech and its impact on the internet, touring with Flipper, his countless side-projects and collaborations, Mark Sandman, the politics of instrumentation, among many other topics.

mike watt
Mike Watt w/The Stooges on Randall's Island, NY on August 14, 2004, by Peter Whitfield

I was interested in the upcoming Flipper tour. When you guys started the Minutemen, it was in San Pedro [pee-dro], if I'm pronouncing that correctly...?

Well, if you're living here. It's not really proper Spanish. Sort of like "pasta." [Laughs] But yeah, even the Latin guys here say pee-dro. I came here when I was nine from Virginia - my pop was a machinist mate in the Navy - and they said in the old days, a lot of sailors for the Merchant Marine were Scandinavians, so they had no idea of how to say shit right. [Laughs] So, their language is good, but not so much with the Spanish. So, we say pee-dro, and it's about 400 miles south of the city where the Flipper guys live, outside San Francisco. California...it's a tall state.

Did you guys [Flipper and the Minutemen] overlap back in the day? Because you were operating at the same time.

OK, we opened for them. Black Flag got a gig - I just saw a flyer for this - April 25, 1981; so, 41 years ago. And I remember, you know, great band. They got a lot of criticism from some of the young people involved with hardcore who wanted bands just to play fast. I know this sounds insane, but - it was only a couple of years - but ‘70s punk and ‘80s punk is just so much different in some ways. ‘70s punk is very small in the United States, and it's like anything: there's no way to do it.

Yes, some bands didn't even have guitars; didn’t have drums; didn’t have whatever, you know? But by the time the ‘80s come, it was fast guitar music. But, the ‘70s… - and I saw a lot of this overseas too - ‘70s punk in England was insane. Throbbing Gristle, right? You know, it was not really a style of music; it was more of a state of mind. And no, that's hard to convince people who weren't part of that movement to know that. When I look back, I really think the main principle was anti-arena rock. It was for people who didn't know about clubs, you know? I helped The Stooges for 125 months, and I learnt that in the ‘60s, there were all kinds of garage bands, basement bands, and little labels, and clubs, club music.

I mean, how many bands started after an arena rock gig and how many started after a club gig, where people can talk to each other? You could talk to dudes in the band! It was just a whole different kind of thing. So that's what I think the main difference was. The funny clothes, the funny names, not knowing how to play, I think that's been a long tradition of the art forms. I didn't think that punk rockers invented that thing. In fact, the word “punk” was funny for us because, in Pedro here, “punk” was a guy who got fucked in jail for cigarettes. So, why would somebody call their music this? [Laughs] But it was for people, I think, that just didn't kind of fit in and was looking for a parallel universe.

I think the Little Richard part of rock ‘n’ roll was getting lost…You’d always get more embraced by arena rock, [which] was the Nuremberg Rallies part of it; less than the Little Richard part of it. [Laughs] I remember there was a band up the city called Black Humor, and they had this line that goes, “The only thing new is you finding out about it.” In a way, that's the human experience because, yeah, we want to be inventors, but, a lot of times, we’ve invented it for ourselves because a lot of this stuff has been done! That’s OK…you can still be very original like Flipper can show you. Black Flag, Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü, you know? All those guys. Very inspired by that movement.

And you mentioned The Stooges, and I know you played with them, and you were saying when you and [Minutemen guitarist and singer] D. Boon started getting into music, you began with arena rock bands, like Creedence [Clearwater Revival] and T.Rex and Blue Öyster Cult…

T.Rex was the first gig we saw! So, when I met D. Boon, we were 12 years old, and the only rock ‘n’ roll band he knew was Creedence!  He didn’t know about Cream or The Who or anything. I had eight tracks - in those days, the new thing was eight tracks - which was very hard to learn because you can't move the needle! Yeah. Oh my God. And his ma puts me on bass, you know, the first day I go over to his pad, and I don't even know what a fucking bass is, and, at an arena show, you can imagine, everybody’s a sixteenth of an inch tall, so you can’t tell what a bass is! It looked like a guitar to me!

But at that same time that you guys were listening to that stuff, the [protopunk] scene in Detroit was going on. Like you mentioned The Stooges, and you had, like, [the original incarnation of Alice Cooper] The Nazz and the MC5…

You know what? I gotta tell ya, at this very period, they were playing up in Hollywood, at the Whisky a Go Go. The early ‘70s. We had no idea, though. We thought the only gigs were arena rock gigs; we didn't know about clubs. I'm 13 in 1970; we're in this weird fucking place. No, it's this weird place where club music does not exist. For most of us. Obviously, yeah, for those people going to the gigs in Hollywood. And a lot of them were girls. And a lot of them were into this thing called “glitter,” right? Glam and shit. And that's actually the roots of our punk.

So, when did you become aware of this proto stuff?

OK, so here's what happened. You know, music for me and D. Boon was the way we were together, right? We tried to copy the Blue Öyster Cult and Creedence songs, like you said, off the record. We never thought about music as a way of expressing ourselves. So, songwriting? Well, we didn't know anybody who wrote songs! No one wrote songs, you know? If you can believe how stupid this time was, OK? And so we're trying to figure out, I don’t know, “Tie Your Mother Down” or some shit with our buddy Marc Weiswasser, and we're taking a breather, and this guy comes walking by. Now, he's a Pedro guy, but he found out about Hollywood, and he became the drummer for The Weirdos. His name was Jeffrey Ivisovich, or “Nickey Beat,” right? Because they all had other names.

And he had a Kotex around his neck, and his hair was all sort of [spiked], and he said, “You know, there's a scene up in Hollywood?” Hollywood is about 30 miles north of Pedro; we're in the harbour. He said, “There's a scene where people write their own songs.” We said, “What?!” So, we saw this gig; it was the Bags on a Sunday - four bands for four dollars - and you could tell they were just learning, but they were playing their own songs. And there were two ladies in the band, and they weren’t playing the tambourine.

It was just a whole, whole other [experience]. And I looked at D. Boon and, without thinking, out of my mouth, fell, “We can do this.” There was just something about seeing this shit happen that I never felt at an arena gig. Even though I love T.Rex, he was so little! And the sound was so bad.

So, just think you never knew about a club thing and then, all of a sudden, you're in this world where you can see [Germs bassist] Lorna Doom’s [instrument]. “Yeah, there's only four strings on the bass ‘cause they're bigger!” and then, when they get done playing, the guy next to you is up on stage and Pat’s there, [Germs guitarist] Pat Smear, you can talk to him. It just was another reality, you know? Now, you gotta understand most people hated this scene. They just hated it! So, it seemed like if you had enough nerve, they let you on board. They took something real personal - me and D. Boon sharing through music- and let us do that in front of them. Let us take a tune. How can you not fall in love with the scene like that, you know? I’m still travelling on that momentum. [Laughs] It's like 45 years later!

One thing I was kind of interested in: You mentioned the hardcore kids weren't really into Flipper, but I know when the Minutemen started...

I bet you they are now! I bet you they are now! You know how peer pressure's hard, especially when you're younger. So…look, Black Flag, on My War, during that tour, they just put side two on the back of the t-shirt because that was the slow side. I think it was just a way of saying, “Look, anarchy is not just a slogan. It's not just talk; you got to live it. You got to be open-minded. You're saying, ‘no coercion,’ then no coercion!” Some bands could play fast; in fact, the Middle Class were the first guys who could play fast.

They were really good at it. Orange County band. Had a guy named Mike Patton that wasn't the Mike Patton [from Faith No More] that we knew. He produced the Adolescents’ album. But there's nothing…and Bad Brains could play fast! Oh my god, they were great! In fact, [Bad Brains guitarist] Dr Know told me they were a fusion band before that. Whatever it took, you know? Let the freak flag fly. There are all different things. But, man, these kids had to go to school, get beat up by stoners, and jocks for wearing…funny clothes. Do you know what I mean? So, a different set of pressures.

Flipper had a great song dealing with this; it's called “Brainwash.” “Oh, you wouldn't understand anyway.” In a way, you know, that's what it was. I gotta say there was some contempt from the Old Guard; the ‘70s punk rockers didn't like the kids in the next shift. And in fact, a lot of them dropped out. They dropped out of the movement. Sad, but, you know…I'm gonna go chase trains and yell at them because you're going too fast? [Laughs] You know what I mean? It doesn't mean you have to pander and go for some kind of, like, New Wave thing or shit, but you can't…You got to kind of put yourself in their shoes, and that's the way I did it. And yeah, you know, “hardcore,” I thought it was [Minor Threat and Fugazi vocalist] Ian MacKaye, his thing about [his independent record label] Dischord, right? They make “hardcore” out of the word “D.C.” and “records.” Yeah. It’s funny how humans both create together, and then they try to wipe out each other and turn each other into herds. [Laughs].

I was always told that “hardcore” came from [the Vancouver punk band] D.O.A. [From their album] Hardcore ’81.

Yeah, yeah. Well, D.O.A. helped build the circuit. Them and Black Flag, the touring circuit. Oh, we owe those cats. Yeah, yeah. The U.S. is big, but Canada is like, “Jesus Christ!” And those cats…I think “hardcore” to them was the way they toured, and the same with Black Flag. These bands did 90 gigs…they did three-month tours. I think [D.O.A. vocalist and guitarist] Joey Shithead is now a member of the city council?

[Laughs] That's right. [“Joey Shithead,” real name Joseph Keithley, has been a member of the Burnaby City Council in Burnaby, BC, since 2018]

Yeah! Much respect! I always loved that cat. But you're right; they called that record [Hardcore ‘81]…They had [bassist] Randy Rampage and [drummer] Chuck Biscuits. Good band good power trio. Later on, they got the [Canadian] Subhumans singer on bass, Wimpy. Then we lost him to a heart attack. Good scene, good guys, good cats.

Flipper and Minutemen in the hardcore scene ate shit for their music style, but also, I think there is like a lot of lyrical comparisons between the two bands like there is a sense of dissatisfaction being very directly spoken out about modern living. I was wondering if you found them to be kindred spirits between the two bands.

Yeah, yeah. Especially on that level. You know, they teach you all this civics in school and stuff, but then if you start acting it out, yeah, they don’t like it, especially if you do it artistically. But… the other thing I see similar too is a lot of their…tunes are driven with the basslines, ya know? They have the two singer guys' trade-off. Also, the idea of the guitar player wanting to reimagine his role.

Not having to be like kind of the arena rock guy. Brother Ted [Falconi, Flipper’s guitarist], you know, kind of like D. Boon, “I'm going to make a statement with the guitar that embraces the band. It doesn't make me separate from the band.” It's not like, “You know, I'm on the top of the pyramid.” I think those there's a lot of similarities between Flipper…but you know what, there's a lot of similarities between a lot of the bands of that time because that's the thing…like Joey Ramone called it, “the big hay waggon.” You want to jump on the hay waggon, but not with the Xerox machine, not with the rubber stamp, not with the cookie cutter. You want to bring your thing, right? I mean, listen to those records coming out of England: The Fall, Lemon Kittens, Alternative TV, you know, [The] Pop Group, Wire.

And you know, in the first albums by The Jam, the first album by The Clash…All those big-label ones, the first album’s good. It gets terrible after that. [Laughs] So, you know what I mean? You don’t want to be just a copy; you want to bring something on board too because you think that’s what, or what I thought, was the price of admission. Like, that's how you get into here: you got to bring some ideas too. It's not just about wearing a uniform and agreeing with some kind of status quo. It was like, “OK, that's just the first step. Now that you’ve got the bass, but you just park it on the corner there? Tell people you’re a bass player, and you never grab it?”

OK, so I think in that way, I think us and Flipper were very [similar]. Again, I think it comes from the scene being so small that like, if you didn't care, nobody else was gonna, you know? So, OK, you win the Halloween costume contest, you know? What the fuck does that mean? No, it's a launchpad; it's a springboard for expression, you know? This other property of music, we never knew that existed until we were exposed to the movement.

You were saying before that when it came to arena rock, you just couldn't distinguish the bass in their songs, but you're like, one of the most…

Yeah, well, you got to understand when you see their pictures of all those amplifiers on the stage…that's because they only used the PA mainly for the voice, and they were designed for what, sports? Theatre? I mean, there's a terrible sound, you know? Terrible sound. So, the bass was just some [Makes a droning noise] and, there was a whole hierarchy thing, anyway; bass was like where you put your retarded friend, you know? It was like a right field in Little League, where nobody gets the ball. [Laughs] It was just so much about hierarchy, and that was great about the movement because everybody was starting so sudden; you were even with the guitar. The drummer guy, who's so much important to rock ‘n’ roll, all of a sudden, now he's really important; he's not the dude in the rear with lots of gear, man.

In fact, in the last 20 years, I've had my drummers up in front because…what a bunch of bullshit to not. There’s so much front and fake shit about arena rock, and there was something about getting back to the essence with the club sitch, which the movement embraced. You know, I end up doing fucking big ol’ fields…Glastonbury and shit with The Stooges and shit. It’s so funny. You know, a farmer would tell you, you want a good crop? Use a lot of manure, so…[Laughs] I don't know. But yeah, yeah. In fact, D. Boon said that, for him, the most political thing of the Minutemen was making the guitar all trembly; he got the idea from R&B bands. Because he wanted to bring up the drums and bass. Of course, me and Georgey [Hurley, Minutemen’s drummer] were into that. He was into some kind of egalitarian thing between the instruments.

He thought the lyrics were just thinking out loud; he thought the real politics was the way we organised the sound, which was actually already done, you know? The Pop Group was hip to this, you know? Why not put Captain Beefheart with Funkadelic? Why not?! Why not do whatever you fuckin’ want? [Laughs] That's what was so funny: you saw that music was put in all these fucking gulags, with these Berlin Walls. Why? Just so some marketing man could try to make his job easier? It's poisoning the whole music thing. But you know, that's something you gotta self-realise; it’s hard to be told that, but when you find out, it's just so fucking obvious.

mike watt
Mike Watt at King Georg in Cologne, Germany on October 28, 2016, by Martin Styblo

Well, I know you were also inspired by the writings of James Joyce…

Oh, yeah! Big time!

...and he was often someone who messed with the idea of structuralism. And I was wondering, did that kind of influence the way you made music, the way he linguistically used language?

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, you know, literature is just another form of expression. I don't think they should be divided up. In fact, I think they should inform each other. My best friend, you know, especially after D. Boon, [illustrator and visual artist] Raymond Pettibon, uses the image. Why not word? Why not image? Why not sound? All these things, you know, why not? They're all ways to find a voice. If I could use the metaphor of the flannel, using all these different fabrics to get this…more than the flannel even, the plaid, right? A good plaid is a good plaid, and you just know it when you see it.

Flannel is a way of brushing cotton, so you know it when you wear it. It ain’t no polyester. [Laughs] Jim Joyce is a big inspiration, and here's another thing: using literature, you don't have to worry about ripping off the licks as much because you gotta use another layer of abstraction there. But my whole first opera was based on [Ulysses]. Why not put the life of the Minutemen in one day, like he did with his [book]? You know, [it’s about] this guy and his wife, one day when they meet, but he wants to talk about the whole world! What a great excuse!

I know the Minutemen also kind of… - and your music in general, not just the Minutemen - mixes a lot of ideas of different cultures… and obviously Ulysses was a mix of Greek and Jewish and Irish history. Was that another kind of inspiration from the idea of mixing many cultures, or was that just a by-product of living in the U.S., where there are so many different cultures coexisting?

Well, look at him [Joyce], right? He starts that thing [Ulysses] in Trieste, Paris, Zurich: that's what it says at the beginning, right? So, you guys are doing a little U.S. version…in fact, Europe…it's pretty mixed up and stuff. These kinds of traditions, I think we borrowed some from the Europeans, but yeah, the makeup of the country. I mean, the other part is stealing it from the original people. [Laughs] Yeah, some inconvenient truths. But with this idea of being cosmopolitan, yeah, I don't think it's such a bad thing. I don't think you have to lose something. It's like expanding your vocabulary: you learn a new word; you don't have to get rid of the other words. Now you got more words, right?

Yeah, it’s not a zero-sum game.

Absolutely. Absolutely. And just think about it too, like Jim Joyce - now his second book [Finnegans Wake; actually Joyce’s fourth and final novel] was kind of hard because now he’s making up words - but you can make a very original book without inventing one new word, just using the stuff around. Just like with cooking with good recipes, you don't have to invent new food items; it’s the way you use them. The way you season them, stuff like this. And with the punk rockers in our movement, we jam econo. Again, not a slogan. We were econo! But, using what you had, you could get a lot of shit done. You could make records; you could do gigs, you could write songs, you could tour, all this shit we didn't know that was available. We thought it was some big machine, you know? Pink Floyd, right? “Welcome to the machine.

In a lot of ways, I think that was real, and there's something about them…maybe Roger Waters was nostalgic for the Syd Barrett days, when they were playing clubs, you know what I mean? So, I think this dilemma has always been hell. I think D.I.Y. goes way back, way back. I remember the Chumbawamba guys telling me about England rebel songs from the 1600s and shit, and - in fact, it was a peasant rebellion in the 1300s -Tyler Wat, they told me, was the leader. Yeah, so my name is in there; maybe I'm part of some of these traditions. So, some of this stuff…[is] actually a tradition; so, if you want to get conservative, be careful. [Laughs] It's not all that you think; it might be very rebellious and questioning and critical, like you were talking about, with Flipper and the Minutemen, thinking about what we're doing out loud. We’re not saying one thing and doing another. What's up?

That was something I was interested in because your lyrics - and D. Boon’s lyrics as well - were always very direct…. And what's interesting is, I think a lot of punk bands did very satirical lyrics, like, when you think of like Jello Biafra or Steve Albini or someone like that, they tend to write from the perspective of the person they’re criticising; where you guys kind of just said what was on your mind directly, but your band names were like the Minuteman, which was like the ‘60s right-wing, paramilitary, right? And then, before that, you guys were called the Reactionaries…

Yeah! That’s why D. wanted to use that name! You know, he asked me for a list of names; I made a big ol’ list. And I had it as two words, because you know how English is, we got a fucked up thing. He wanted to make fun of right-wingers - so did I, but I didn’t think of it - I was making fun of us as arena rock gig-goers. So, Minute Men! Tiny men! He said, “No, put the words together. These motherfuckers are appropriating patriotic symbols, and we can dilute that shit,” and I said, “OK.” But isn't that funny, how that thing, that duplicitousness of Mr Wittgenstein, talking about words and how it’s some kind of compact we have between each other, but then we can get some introspection and some satire? As you say, some fun. I think we call it a pun. Pun rock, right? Not punk rock. [Laughs] But, Jello, yeah, Jello is really good at that; Steve Albini is really good at that. I remember that I wrote a song for Mike Jackson; I thought Mike Jackson could sing this song and that we would never have to explain ourselves.

[The Minutemen song] “A Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”?

Right, I never got an answer. And then, one part before D. Boon’s guitar solo, I said, “If we heard mortar shells, we'd cuss more in our songs and cut down on guitar solos,” and then I have him do a guitar solo. [Laughs] So, we like to make it fun too. Also, in “History Lesson – Part II,” I have us say, “We were fucking corndogs.” Now, that could be an adjective, but it can also be a verb. [Laughs] Because Mr Joyce is about this, he's having all kinds of fun with that shit, you know what I mean?

There was a band…The Pop Group broke up, and some of the guys made a band called Rip Rig + Panic, and they had this one song called “Knee Deep in Shit,” and there's a line where he goes, “If Jesus would have laughed when he was crucified, his killers would have been terrified.”…I remember asking my mother; I remember there was a Blue Öyster Cult review for Tyranny and Mutation, and they said, “Black humour.” I was just 13, right? So, I asked my ma, “Ma, what's black humour?” She said, “Michael Watt, you go read Joseph Heller Catch-22.” OK. It's funny, but not funny? OK. [Laughs] Here's the other thing, the hippie thing kind of lost their humour in the ‘70s, and I think that's one of the reasons our movement came around. There's always got to be a funny part of the human experience, I think. But maybe not so much “Yuck, yuck” or saying funny things, you know, smartass things on the internet. Are you familiar with dada and the surreal?

Yes. Dadaism. Yes.

 Yeah, I think the punk rockers got inspiration from those cats.

Yeah, absolutely. I think, especially you can hear that - speaking of Flipper - you can really hear that in Generic Flipper, where there is a real sense of like, “We're dissatisfied with the world, but we're also…like, why do you deserve fine art? You know, we're gonna make this abrasive, noisy album.” Do you know what I mean?

But also, like Jim Joyce, it's worth it, right? “Yes, yes, yes. Life is the only thing worth living for.” Molly [Bloom]’s “Yes, yes, yes.” It's trippy. So even though they are sceptical and critical, it is an affirmation. It ain’t nihilistic.

No. No, it's not. And that's the thing I really enjoy about your songwriting is that there is a mix of the personal and political, and I think those two things are intertwined. In a sense, I don't think…a person's personal perception of life can be divorced from politics, you know what I mean?

Sure. Politics is power, right?

Absolutely, and I really enjoyed it that you weld those things together, like in your storytelling and in your songwriting, and I'd never really thought of the idea of the actual music itself just being a political declaration.

Yeah. The knowing’s in the doing. To understand, we're like boys in the ‘60s. So, we're seeing this stuff on the streets: free speech, civil rights, anti-war, but we're too young to be part of it. When our time comes, it's all over, and it's like, you know, “Yeah, arena rock!” [Laughs] Yeah, I think we were searching. And there was something about the movement being small, too; you didn't have to compromise yourself.

Nobody cared anyway, so why not let the freak flag fly? I don't know; there were all these kindred spirits. Even meeting the Black Flag guys, they’re 15, 16 miles away, but we didn't know them. SoCal’s 150 towns; we’re so Balkanized. You fly over it; it looks like one town, but we don't know the guy in the next thing, and then they want us to open up just because we're living in the town where they want to play? That’s how small and trippy the scene was, but there's something about that, and it can't last for long.

So, here's the other trippy thing…I don’t see Flipper - myself and Flipper - doing these songs as really a nostalgia act. I don't think we're going to be playing for people our age that much. I noticed in the 125 months of The Stooges, we hardly ever played for people our age; they were always younger. It wasn’t like a nostalgia act; they were curious to see where the roots of what they were doing is coming from, and that's how open-minded more young people are. I would say that's a big difference between me, as a young man in the ‘70s; we didn't care about anybody but a couple of years older. Now, kids ain't afraid of 40, 50 years. I give them a lot of respect for that. It was so narcissistic in our day.

Do you think maybe that has to do with the internet, where things are more available online, versus back in the day when you had to buy a record and commit to it?

Yeah, and I also think it was part of the movement. You've got a guy like Lux [Interior, singer of The Cramps] telling you about rock ‘n’ roll. He knows rock ‘n’ roll inside up, but he’s gonna fucking beat it with a stick, you know? He's the garbage man, you know? And then with the high heels on…There was something about; I think, when the kids saw these punk rockers, you know, really living the rock ‘n’ roll thing and not trying to do so much fake royalty…See, rock ‘n’ roll’s such a good idea, all of a sudden, there was this fake royalty, and then it got divorced from the roots, and the movement got it kind of back, and it cracked open the hatch, where it never got closed again.

And I think that's part of it. Of course, I don't know anything 100%. I’m not good enough to be a sociologist; I'm still working on bass. [Laughs]

Yeah, that was the other thing I wanted to get back to: you’re often considered one of the greatest bass players ever, but you were saying… you learned from music where…the bass wasn't as audible as it could have been. What were the albums that kind of really helped you, or the music that really helped you, just learn your craft?

Yeah, overseas. Daily. Like I told you, Creedence, right? So, we got those… – fuck [CCR’s seventh album] Mardi Gras! -…first six records, right? So, I'm listening to all the songs. Of course, there’s like an inch of grape juice; D. Boon ain't using the covers on the little $10 stereo we got; put ten quarters on it to keep the needle from scratching. But I cannot hear what the bass guy’s doing. So, I looked at the shirts that the singer was wearing.

That’s how I got into flannel. [Laughs] Maybe you’ll still like me. So, where I learnt was overseas, like Jack Bruce, right? The Cream bass player. Oh my god. And then guys like…John Entwistle [The Who]; Geezer Butler [Black Sabbath]. But even bands like The Animals, Chas Chandler, and Pete Quaife from The Kinks. The England record producers would put the bass high in the mix. With “The Width of a Circle,” Tony Visconti put his fuzz bass all out there under Mick Ronson. Now, on U.S. records, I could hear it on R&B, so James Jamerson; Larry Graham on Sly and the Family Stone. Oh, yeah, I could hear the bass there, but…some rock ‘n’ roll, like Alice Cooper, Dennis Dunaway; or Joe Bouchard, BÖC, but a lot of the bass I couldn't hear, it was too blurry, but overseas, I learned a lot of my bass.

Trevor Bolder, Spiders from Mars; Andy Fraser, Free. I still use that little lick at the end of “All Right Now” for my soundcheck song. In fact, we lost him here in Temecula; he passed away. A lot of those guys, man, the guys overseas, those bass players, I’m very indebted to them, along with James Jamerson and Larry Graham, over here. You know, you learn from the guys you can hear, you can feel it. It was hard, it was…Bootsy [Collins] on Mothership Connection. Even though it was hard, even though it sounded like he was just doing fuck sounds - you know, because the envelope filters and stuff - it was just, it was more about getting the feel on it. And then when the punk rock bass guys came on, well, it was Dee Dee [Ramone], you know, being the songwriter; Richard Hell, a bass player who's a songwriter.

Then I found out Geezer was the lyric writer. Why not? And “My Wife” is from John Entwistle. Yeah, I'll say the bass dude; he’s just as important as the drummer dude. Maybe the guitarists and singers are along for the ride! I got this joke with the engine room guys called “Snipes men,” right? Snipes. This guy who was one of the first, when the motors came on boats and no more sails, these guys were treated like shit, and then they start thinking about, “Look, you're not going anywhere unless you’ve got this engine room together;” “black gang,” they called it. Snipes men: if you ain't Snipes, you're along for the ride!

And maybe that's the way it is with drums and bass! That was a whole new way of thinking, and D. Boon being open-minded that way with me…Oh, man. It was so beautiful. So beautiful. He liked it; he thought it was incredible. He never liked hierarchies. Hated hierarchies. You know, and that's the big thing I get out of Ulysses, too: no hierarchies. Leopold Bloom: everybody's got something to teach me, you know? And maybe somebody's gonna learn from me. Me and Stephen Dedalus could have a big talk about everything! [Laughs]

I need to ask just because I'm here. Obviously, I’m from Ireland; are you aware of the Irish socialist tradition?

Big time. In fact, there's a plaque by that club Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh. What's his name?

[James] Connolly, is it?

Yeah, Connolly! Absolutely. Absolutely. I wrote about it in the diary when I played there, and stuff and cats at the gig learnt me about it! Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. In fact, you say Ireland because you know what?… Especially now - I’ve noticed this the last 20 years - the music side, they all…both sides always say Ireland. Maybe there's more to that…maybe it comes from some of those traditions? You know, my name “Watt,” they call them Ulster Scots, because England put some guys over there, a couple of hundred years ago, to start some hell and whatever. Machiavellianism. I just finished a book on Niccolò. [Laughs]…But I think some of that healing comes from the socialist traditions and stuff. And yeah, very interested in that stuff. And then, you know, some of those guys that came over here brought some of that. Great, great import. Very grateful for the import; thank you so much. [Laughs] But, you know, I think…they tied them to a chair and shot him on Easter or something? The Easter thing?

Yeah, the Easter Rising. There was something – seeing as we’re talking about politics – that I was very interested in picking your brain about. I don’t know how familiar you are, but recently, a lot of artists have been speaking up against Spotify. They're saying that artists aren't being compensated properly, where you have some big-name people like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and basically, everyone from Crosby, Stills and Nash, kind of coming out and saying, “We're pulling our music.” But I wonder, do you need a certain amount of reputation and capital to be able to pull a move like that? Where, if you're an up-and-coming independent artist, even if you have control over your own music, it seems like that's the platform you have to kind of be on to get exposure?

Here's the metaphor: telephone pole. Owned by not a very indie company, but maybe I stable with my flyer up on it. But have your own website, right? It's like having your own ‘zine. So, what I mean is, I just toured, right? I did 48 gigs in 48 days. U.S. tour. 12,580 miles; I drove them all. I got a bad knee, so I can't sleep, but I can fucking handle the wheel. But anyway, I'm on a military system…the interstate system’s a military system! And I'm driving; there's, you know, all kinds of assholes driving by, you know, as long as they don’t jump in and grab the steering wheel, OK, I’ll share that road with them. Look at the struggle; I was 14 years on a major label.

I’ve got no nightmares because I kept the autonomy. I think that's what you got to do; you gotta keep the integrity by keeping your autonomy. Remember that Buzzcocks song, “Autonomy”? Sometimes you got to make these kinds of compromises, but in order to do so, do you go so far as to compromise your autonomy? I see that's where you got to really be careful. So, the analogy I used to use was - in the old days when we used to have to use payphones – AT&T, not too indie of a company, right? So, I put the two quarters in there to call you up, and as long as they all don’t jump on the line and tell me what to say, I don't hang up on him, right? So, that's the way I deal with those kinds of people.

I'm not trying to be a smartass about it; I'm just saying that there are certain things and compromises you have to negotiate, but I don't think you have to compromise your integrity. But at a certain level, you keep your autonomy. Like, you keep the right to maybe pull your music, maybe that's some kind of leverage that Mr Young and those other people they're exercising that, which is great. It's funny: how many years were the Cold War? And then what happens? Monopoly cartels? That's the victory thing after they brainwash us with this other system? “Hey, you know, it’s the best idea.” Yeah? Then why you gotta close up all the other options? See how these people, they say one thing, do another, you know? But, on the other hand, if you're just going to – and I see ‘em - willingly try on the puppet strings and then cry about it when you don't become false royalty.

“Oh, you know, they had too much control!” Then why were you tying on those puppets? Negotiate as they do with the trade union and stuff; negotiate a deal. They negotiate at the stock market every day, the price of their fucking companies. They're negotiating all the time, right? Actually, it’s appearance, right? Nine-tenths of the laws are appearance! It's the reality of the dealio! What was that thing in Holland, 500 years ago, with the tulip shit, right? Yeah, nothing’s new about it, right? “The only thing new is you find out about it!” [Laughs] Black Humor there.

Do you know what they did? They’d take album covers from the thrift store and just paint their own names on them. [Amidst laughter] They took other people’s album covers and just spray-painted their names on them! [Laughs] I think they only made one album. There might have been another thing with outtakes, but they were funny. Maybe 1980 or ‘81. They had a lady screaming, “Hippies in black leather jackets!” You know the duplicity of humans because they want to be individuals, and like we're born that way, you just look at your thumbprint, you know? But then the other thing, we want to get in the herd, [to the theme to Rawhide] “Keep them doggies movin’!  No time to understand them, just rope, tie and brand.” [Laughs] So yeah, that's what I trip on. So, the Spotify thing, the most dangerous thing is them being the only game in town, right? And I was brainwashed to that, with the free market, Ayn Rand, whatever. [Laughs] So, you live up to it, guys, you know?

I sometimes think about how the great promise of the internet was to kind of democratise us and give everyone a voice.

Absolutely.

But, in a lot of ways, democracies are full of assholes and bigots too. So, I mean, I think that sort of kind of comes to the fore too…

Are you hip to CB radio?

No.

There was this thing called CB – well, there still is - Citizen Band. So, for five watts, you didn't need a licence and people in their cars, and it mainly became truckers…

Oh, yes! I do know this.

OK, OK. This is kind of the predecessor of the internet's bad side, where you can talk all kinds of shit and not have to be responsible. But all kinds of human shit is duplicity; you take the steak knife, and you can cut your steak, or you could cut your buddy! [Laughs] You know, I can help D. Boon with the bassline for his “Corona” song, or I could hit myself over the head with it, and he loses his bass player. [Laughs]

The other side of the coin is that it does feel like people who haven't had a voice before are getting a voice.

Absolutely.

That promise is coming true, and you're seeing, like, sexism, racism, misogyny, like every bad -ism, is kind of getting exposed too.

But didn’t we have that in the movement, too?

Yeah, absolutely.

We had fascist bands. You have a movement with no rules; what keeps the assholes from [coming in]? [Laughs]

Yeah. Do you think the trade-off is worth it? Do you think, like, OK, you give the voice to the people, but the problem is these people who are also fascists and bigots are also going to have a voice?

Right, it’s a dilemma.

I'm just wondering. Like, I don't have an answer.

No, it’s a dilemma. It's a dilemma. It's always been a dilemma. But a lot of the human experience is a dilemma. [Laughs]

I sometimes think you have to hope that the majority of people are sympathetic [to the rights of others].

Well, look, Leopold Bloom tries to use logic with the citizen. That motherfucker still flings the biscuit tin at him! You know, “Christ killer!”…Over here [the U.S.], they say, “Oh, no, as long as it stays speech, it's OK.” Right? It's when it starts to become action, right?

So, do you stay optimistic for the future of people in general, or are you just kind of mixed on it?

Well, the technology is strong enough that a mistake can wipe us all out, you know? But I do…if you go to bandcamp.com - there's a place on the internet - there's a lot of fucking wild music! I just heard about this band from England called Benefits.

But yeah, I just got turned onto them. I guess it's kind of a Sleaford Mods kind of thing, where they get something in the background, this guy starts rapping over it, and he’s, you know, telling you what's on his mind. And yeah, I don't think it's an archaic form; I’m optimistic about art still being an expressive form. There are things to be kind of bummed out about, especially the technology being so strong if there's a mistake, things can go bad.

But I want to err on the side of, “Man, I'm curious about what he's going to come up with, what she's going to write,” you know? That's where I am. I'm just a true believer in that way. But I'm not… the head totally up the fucking yang, cloud walker. [Laughs] But I'm not totally bummed out. The free speech dilemma, it is a dilemma. I remember there was a printing press in the early ‘70s called Loompanics. Anarchist Cookbook. And the guy stopped printing it. Said, “Dudes are using my book to make bombs,” right?

You have so many side projects that [Laughs], you know, it’s a crazy amount of stuff you’ve got going on. I was just wondering, how many active projects do you have at the moment?

Well, look at that, part of that is because of the internet. During the situation [COVID lockdown], I made like 12, 13 albums with dudes I didn’t even know! Never met! I was doing five Watt from Pedro shows [his podcast]. I’ve been doing that for 21 years, but I was going five guests a week, almost 300 dudes. I think part of it is bass because the bass is kind of like glue. All you need is parts, and in fact, if you ain't got parts, you're just a puddle. Do you know what I mean?

To make sense, you’ve got to be part of something. Something I’ve found out about life, it's about taking turns. So, why always be the shot-caller? You know, why not take direction? Especially if you're gonna ask other dudes to take direction. So that's one reason I got…- especially after I lost D. Boon and then after doing the fIREHOSE thing - I thought, “Maybe each project should have its own band.” I never thought that way, music was something for me to do with my friend, and I could do any music I want, and then I lost him, and then I started doing that with Edward [Crawford, guitarist of fIREHOSE]. I remember bringing to Edward – God, Edward helped me out.

Those were the roughest seven and a half years of my life - I remember bringing him “Piss-Bottle Man,” he goes, “Michael, you think this is a tune this band should be doing?” and that was the thing that made me start thinking, and that's where I got the idea for [his debut solo album] Ball-Hog or Tugboat? Maybe I should have a different band for different projects. And maybe it's - like the title says - if a bass player knows a song, maybe anybody can play drums or sing or guitar. It's not like the bass is better, but the bass is interesting. I’m still finding out about it, still.

mike watt
Mike Watt at the New Parish in Oakland, ca, on November 8, 2012, by Bridget Canfield

Well, speaking of bass, one of my favourite projects of yours is dos.

Ah, yeah! 35 years!

Which you do with your ex-wife Kira Roessler, whose birthday it was yesterday [on the day of recording], right?

Right. That's right. She just turned 62.

And one thing I was interested in, Kira - obviously, she was the bass player in Black Flag for years - but at the moment, she's an Academy Award-winning sound editor for major Hollywood films.

Let me tell you something when she was in Black Flag; she was also going to school at UCLA for Engineering. She would, during those three-month tours, she'd fly home to do her midterms and shit. Incredible. And then, she gets out with a degree; she does computer programming for 20 years and 25 years. It bums her out. So, she teaches herself Pro Tools and how to make soundtracks for movies and television shows. Of course, it's like hardcore; it's all boys, so she's got to break her leg off with all their asses.

It’s freelance work. She ends up getting Academy Awards! But she's always loved the bass. So, that was always on the side. You know, she had to make a living, an independent woman and stuff like that. But… there are a lot of people that are away from the stereotype, you know? Even the Stooges guys, they're really intelligent people. Dave [Alexander] with culture, Ronnie [Asheton] with history, Scottie [Asheton] with nature, Brother Steve [Mackay] with politics. A lot of the people in that movement, intelligent people, it's just…“Punk. Stooge. [Makes bleating noise].”

You get this conception that they’re retarded, but they’re really intelligent people. And K is an inspiration; there's nothing that lady can't do. And she just made a solo album [Kira¸ released last October]. Of course, like my solo album, there were 48 other dudes on it. [Laughs] Bass players, we need other people. Yeah, the physics of our instrument. Her brother’s gonna do this gig with her next week, for this record. He says it's the most complicated music he's ever had to learn for a gig in his life!

When it comes to playing bass with another bassist, have you ever done that before or after dos?

No, no. That was the whole point of dos. Somehow, we’re gonna deal with this challenge, where we’re going to have these instruments that share this very narrow frequency, very narrow! It’s like we're playing badminton or tennis or something. We got to share this tennis ball; we can’t bogart it. And she was actually doing an internship at Yale after graduating from UCLA, and I start…it was an early version of this internet thing; instead of trading files, we sent each other cassette tapes for our 4-tracks.

That’s how that first dos album was made. And she was reading stories to her little nephews that were just born, and those became the lyrics, “Slow little turtle” and shit like that! Yeah, so it was all very kind of practical in a way, but we were exploring possibilities of the bass. And the bass was always about us learning in a band. So, what do we need them alone, just dealing with each other? But somehow, we’ve got to make an interesting conversation. So, it was very, very challenging. But I think it helped me, big time. Especially when Edward came. I didn't know Edward; I didn't grow up with him. So, I didn't know how to write him songs. So, a lot of the first fIREHOSE songs are actually dos songs converted over.

Actually, speaking of bassists, there's a band you and I are kind of a mutual fan of, and I think they're very overlooked, and I really want to get your opinion on their bass player. The band's Morphine, and I know you're a big fan of…

[In unison with interviewer] Mark Sandman.

Tragically gone too soon.

Died on stage in Rome, I think. 50 years old [Mark died on stage in Palestrina, Italy, aged 46]. He was always very, very kind to me.

Could I ask what is it about Mark’s bass playing that resonates with you?

The way Mark played bass was to serve the song. He played two-string slide bass. Interesting, he talked to me about his jobs; he did construction on the side and stuff, and we talked about that. But the way he used the bass to aid and abet the song, even though he wasn't doing it like James Jamerson or Larry Graham, he still was making it happen that way, and he redefined it. Beautiful voice too, man.

But I loved the way he made the [bass] have its own…Let the [bass] have its own voice inside the tune and still supported it. For example, Herbie Flowers in “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed. Actually, there are two basses: one of them electric, one stand-up. They're only playing two chords! People say three chords? That's two! Yeah - Mark Sandman - very inventive, very expressive, very creative, very genuine. Yeah, a big hero to me.

I think I've asked everything I was gonna ask. I guess the final thing I'll ask is the upcoming Flipper tour: you guys are playing the UK, Germany, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands, right?

Yeah, you know, we probably should have played in Ireland. We should be playing all kinds of places; there's not even a Berlin gig, there’s not a Madrid gig, there’s not a Roma gig. You always feel sad about that when you sally forth, you know? You want to tilt at all the windmills! You know, but they told me there's gonna be another leg. What they told me was that this summer tour is going to be the first leg. They want to do another Europe leg.

Great! Would you be on that?

I would love to. You know this is a new thing we're trying; we're trying a power trio. Flipper’s never tried this. And I'm really up for the challenge. Yeah, I really am; in fact, I was offered other stuff. I said, for number one, I already committed to them, but I'm also really looking forward to this. Yeah, I'm getting to do Cream with Flipper! [Laughs] But I'm not gonna “Jack Bruce” it up too much because I love the way that Flipper basslines are.

There’s nothing better than a good bassline, man. Stanley Clarke - I was just reading this – “Oh, yeah. Anybody could do a bass solo, but writing a good bassline, right?” [Talking Heads bassist] Tina Weymouth, “Psycho Killer.” Count ‘em!  Who's the Queen guy? [Aaron and Mike unsuccessfully try to remember the name of Queen bassist John Deacon. This part has been edited out for concision]. Anyway, he's got that song, “Under Pressure.” That's a good econo bassline! Do you know what I mean? Vanilla Ice got some mileage out of it! But there's nothing like an econo bassline.

I was on the sports radio show, you know, that does the Dodgers? They did a show in Pedro, so yeah, let's have Mike Watt on because, you know! And, “What is the bass? What are you trying to do?” I said, “Look, the closest thing to me on that stage - I know it looks like a four-string guitar - but the closest note is that kick drum. I'm trying to get a fucking happening dance together with that kick drum. So, it's a four-string drum set, not a four-string guitar, you know?” So, there's something really interesting…[Flipper drummer] Steve DePace [de-pasche] or “de-pace” as they say over here, right? “Pace,” right, from “peace” in Italian. Really, really good grooves.

And then the way Brother Ted plays. I just love the way the fucking bass…the way that they got that fucking minestrone going, man. I just love it, man. And then the words, like you say, really intense imagery and thought, and I just want to be part of that ride, you know?  I have never been; I've only done it, hearing it while I’m driving, right? Hollering over the radio. I get to be on it with them! Like being with The Stooges or, you know, the Porno [for Pyros] guys or Tom [Watson] and Raul [Morales, both frequent collaborators on Mike’s projects]! There’s just something about playing with dudes. So, that's what I'm really, really looking forward to. And this is kind of a shakedown; Flipper’s never done the power trio.

Flipper’s kind of become, I think, somewhat of a supergroup. I mean, you've had people like Krist Novoselic of Nirvana and David Yow of The Jesus Lizard.

Yeah, yeah. Great guys.

Yeah, and it's become such a big, huge, influential band, and I think if you listen to that first record, you would not think a band like this could be as popular as they are, but like, I think there is room for any kind of music, as long as it’s written with sincerity.

John Coltrane said you could play a shoestring if you’re sincere enough. Yeah. And he was supposedly out in outer space, but that's pretty fundamental and pretty grounded, I think. DePace wants to call [the tour] “’Till the Wheels Fall Off,” because I think he and Brother Ted feel it's their calling, and I gotta say, I feel the same way; music is our calling. So, Mark Sandman, dying on stage, even though 50 was too young, at least he was doing work he dug. And I think that's what they're looking at too. And that’s bitchin’; I want to be a part of that!

Well, thanks so much for the interview, man; it was really a lot of fun talking to you. Thanks, man. This has been great.

Absolutely. Anytime. Anytime. Big love. You keep on keeping on.

mike watt
Mike Watt at the North Star bar in Philadelphia, pa, on October 11, 2012, by Johnny Gee

The publishing of this interview was to coincide with Flipper’s ‘Till the Wheels Fall Off European Tour, which, unfortunately, has had to have been rescheduled. You can find updates on these rescheduled tour dates below: 

10/02 – Brooklyn Steel – Brooklyn – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/04 – Big Night Live – Boston – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/06 – The Howard – Washington DC – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/07 – Sound Stage – Baltimore – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/08 – Union Transfer – Philadelphia – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/10 – Masquerade – Atlanta – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/11 – Masquerade – Atlanta – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/12 – The Ritz Ybor – Tampa – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/14 – House Of Blues – New Orleans – w/The Garden and Kumo 99
10/16 – The End – Huston
10/17 – Three Links – Dallas
10/18 – Kick Butt Coffee – Austin
10/19 – 89th Street - Oklahoma City
10/20 – The Shrine – Tulsa

MORE DATES TO COME…

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