Calling Mike Watt a legend of indie music would bestow upon him a sheen of grandeur that he certainly wouldn’t choose to accept. Though his work with the Minutemen and fIREHOSE firmly established his reputation as a singularly gifted bassist, everyone from Eddie Vedder to Sonic Youth showed up to play on his first solo record, and he has toured as a member of the Stooges and J Mascis and the Fog, Watt has always been more about following his muse and inspiring the creativity in others. His latest album, Hyphenated-Man, is the third in his series of punk operas. The first, Contemplating the Engine Room, dealt with his youth and time in the Minutemen, while 2004’s The Secondman’s Middle Stand used Dante’s Divine Comedy as a frame for his near-fatal illness. Hyphenated-Man again uses literature, this time L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch as Watt examines his daily life, musical legacy, and the prospect of being punk at 50.
Most people don’t get around to writing one opera, and you have to go and write three?
My tradition is tiny songs, and I kind of blended that with this third one. The tiny songs go together to make one big one. I never saw myself writing in this format, but I don’t have the talent to say what I want to in a single song. I got the idea from The Who, who did a similar thing on A Quick One. On the first one I was trying to talk about the Minutemen, and I just couldn’t do it. On the second one, I was trying to write about the illness that almost killed me, and I couldn’t do it. And this one here, I’m trying to write about Mike Watt, punk rocker at the age of 53. I had the same problem. It’s really a necessity thing. I need to write about these things and this is the only way for to write about them. All three have ended up so unique and strange. They’re like my children. The first two were so personal, and this one is probably the most technical thing I’ve ever tried to play. It’s going to be tough to try to play it live.
How did go about setting up a tour for the record, then?
I played it in Japan in October and November. That was the first 15 times I played it. Then I played it once in England and once in West L.A. The first time I play it on this tour will be the 18th time I’ve played it. How do I go about it? I just try to fucking beat it into myself. All the little parts, all the spiels. I got the music pretty well down, but there are some spiels that I still fucking space on. That’s kind of pathetic, but that’s the challenge of putting one of these shows together.
How did you put your band together?
Actually, the Missing Men was put together specifically to realize this third album. I’ve got Tom Watson from the old days, who was in a great band called Slovenly. There’s Raul Morales, who came into the San Pedro punk scene in the ’90s. I was touring so much during that time that I wasn’t even aware of him. He’s like one of the great-grandchildren of the Minutemen, and having that history on stage is important.
Your first two operas had pretty heavy, personal themes. What inspired Hyphenated-Man?
It goes back to 2005. I was involved with that documentary, We Jam Econo, and I ended up going back and listening to the Minutemen stuff again. This was the first time that I really went back and listened those songs, because it was just too much for me to hear D. Boon again. I wanted the story of the Minutemen to be told, so I forced myself to go through all that material. After listening to all those songs, I was inspired to write small songs again. The things that I wanted to say were coming out in that format. It’s about being 50 and where I’m at right now. The Bosch and Baum gave me the inspiration to start the process. I find the Bosch paintings fascinating and I wanted to be inside his head a little. The Wizard of Oz is really about on some level what it takes to be a man. The lion, the scarecrow, and the tin woodsman were all the hands on the farm. They all needed something in order to become men. One thing I hated about the movie is that he was just the tin man, instead of a woodsman. The job was important to the character, but it was like Hollywood didn’t want him to be the workingman. That was the idea of the book, was that all of these needed characters needed something in order to become full men. That’s what I was shooting for on this record.
Would you consider this album noncommercial?
I’ll play it for everybody, and hopefully it will reach the people who need it. I don’t consider what an album will sell when I’m recording. There are albums that sell, and that’s fine. Being “merc” has never been what I’m about. I want people to hear the music and think that they could do something just as good. You just have to have enough huevos to get out there and make something. People are way too uptight. I want to set up an environment where people can be inspired. After seeing Watt up there doing his thing, they can feel safe letting their freak flag fly.
How do you reconcile the art and business end of your career?
I think it’s a great thing to be as self-sufficient as possible. I’m not used to shit-hoarding a bunch of stuff. The only problem is that the man at the gas station wants to be paid in those little green paintings. There are bills to be paid in the real world, but expression cannot be subjugated to commerce. On the other hand, there are lots of bands in the world, so maybe there can be one more band to take that stand. And there are other dudes who can’t even work that party line. Making art at all is too much. Rimbaux was only able to keep it up for two years, but they were a good two years. Some people are able to keep it together over the course of many years, and can maintain enough of a balance to have a meaningful career.
Is going out on tour still exciting?
This is my 65th tour. It’s got kind of a Don Quixote feel to it, that I’ve done it that many times, but I’ve got Pedro here like a bungee cord drawing me back to my home base. There’s a little bit of fear involved. The road is the great unknown, and I have to go out there and bring my men home safe. Touring is crucial, though. I can’t be a musician without being out there to get first-hand perspective about how people are living. There’s a tendency in our society to form opinions without seeing anything. People in the United States think the French hate us because they see it on the television. If they go, it’s apparent that’s not the case. That’s why I like to go on tour. I don’t want to hide in a hotel room; I want to be out there and see what’s going on. The gig is only a small part of the day. The rest is my time. I want to be out there seeing things and meeting people. I can’t understand when guys in rock complain about touring. There’s too much royalty going on. I’m just a guy doing my job. The guy who works on my car doesn’t expect to be treated any certain way because he fixes my engine. He maybe should be treated like royalty, but that’s just a theory of mine.
How do you deal with your status as a living legend?
I feel like I should try to live up to that every night. It’s very kind that anybody would admire my work; I see this every night when I’m playing with Iggy Pop. You never know when it’s going to be the last one, so you go out and give the best every night. I might stumble or clam some nights, but I want to be up there on the stage every night. It’s always been that way; I wanted to be there with D. Boon playing music. I didn’t want anything to interfere with that feeling. You try to take the compliments graciously and then quit when it starts inflating your head.
What do you have planned next?
I have probably 12 or 13 things in the pipe right now. I did one with Nels Cline (Floored By Four) that I’m real excited about. I’ve also got an album about work that I want to do. It will be all about work, but the songs won’t necessarily go together. There are so many different things that I want to do, that I have to watch out that I don’t dilute myself. It’s all about being able to invest every possible part of myself in this music.