At a time when most of his contemporaries are slowing down, Mike Watt is a very busy man. The former member of Minutemen and fIREHOSE (two of alt-rock's most prominent and influential bands) released Spielgusher (a melange of instrumentals and spoken word, courtesy of Richard Meltzer) earlier this year - and in the tradition of Watt's pedigree, it's a sprawling, 63-track opus filled with slacker manifestoes that alternate between the profound and the profane. He's also promoting a new book, On and Off Bass, which fuses personal memoirs with original photography. And if that wasn't enough to occupy his time, Watt continues to host a weekly radio podcast from his home, The Watt From Pedro Show, spinning tracks by jazz and alternative artists, and interviewing everyone from former members of fIREHOSE and Nirvana to a man known only as Brother Matt - whose laid-back persona appears to have taken its cues from The Dude in The Big Lebowski. During our nearly hourlong conversation, I was struck by how we instantly bonded over musical tastes, photography (a talent I've pursued for over thirty years) the current state of rock, and by our mutual "near-death" experiences, which proved both frightening and transformative in our respective lives. This meeting of the minds became one of the most delightful and insightful interviews I've done in some time - so brace yourself as two aging hippies wax poetic, philosophical, and at times, cranky.......
David: Thanks Mike, for taking time out for this interview - I understand things have been kinda hectic for you in the last couple of weeks.........
Watt (chuckles, then responds): Man, it's been pretty intense. Heading out to New York City to promote my new book, doing interviews and signings and stuff. Hard at work on my fourth opera as well - that's coming along good. Shortly after the book promo in NY, I'm off to Europe, touring again with The Stooges (Iggy Pop's band) - this month marks my ninth year going out and playing bass with them.
David: Your newest release is entitled Spielgusher. Tell us about it.
Watt: Well, as you mentioned, it's a collaboration between myself and poet Richard Meltzer, with assist from a husband and wife (Yuko Araki, drums and Hirotaka Shimizu, guitar) currently living in Tokyo. Actually, the concept for this album began as something d. Boon and I wanted to do with Minutemen - nine out of ten pieces Richard originally presented to us back then were intended as song lyrics. Then Boon died (in a terrible van accident at the tender age of 27) which sorta put the kibosh on that project. Over the years, I've tried working with other poets/spoken word artists on similar projects, but things eventually got weirded-out, what can I say? In 2004, Meltzer recorded his spiels for the album in Portland, Oregon. Four years later, me, Yuko and Hirotaka jammed together to make up the instrumental tracks. So as you can see, this has been in the works for some time now - it was just a matter of the timing being right to unleash it on the world.
David: How long did it take, once you resumed the project to turn out Spielgusher?
Watt: Things went by fairly quickly. Richard left it up to me to pair which tunes should accompany his spoken word. From the outset, we saw this project as its own entity - not something we were then going to hit the road and tour with......that didn't seem to be the right aesthetic here.
David: I know what you mean - I just did a spoken word/music concert called The Reverberation of Spirits for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, and have been debating whether me and my guitarist buddy Phil should go and record those concert pieces as an album proper, or instead, go into the studio and do something completely fresh and different.
Watt: I think you should go with whatever vibe feels right to you - whichever way you decide, both ideas are valid. I remember going with my friend Langley (a painter) to one of his art openings and thinking: what the (bleep)? The stuff's already finished and on the wall! It was a very uncomfortable experience kinda being there inert, while folks are sitting around talking about your friend's paintings like that. The moment you're in the process of creating is so vital.....when you're younger, you're more tuned into the energy of what is happening as it's happening. You're not focused on say, now how do I go about the promotional end of things? What's great about Spielgusher is that Richard's poetry already exists as published work - the gift I bring to Richard's words through my music is that the collaboration produces something special, something that will outlive us after we're both gone - something folks will check out and hopefully feel the connection Richard and I made during the process of recording.
David: Does it seem like a different animal as well? I mean, the process of recording versus the process of just performing for its own sake?
Watt: Yeah! You can be performing what you've written, or actually recording, and the dynamic for each becomes a separate element unto itself. There's an interaction going on between performers - whether it's you doing the spoken-word thing and jamming with your buddy Phil, or me writing songs and recording them with my buddies - the energy of the performance aspect feeds on itself.
David: Your other artistic pursuits include photography - your new book in fact, mixes anecdotes on your life and travels with shots you've taken over the years. How did your interest in photography start?
Watt: In the old days, buying a camera (SLR) was just the first installment - then you had to buy the film, and pay to process and develop the images. During the recording of my first opera (Contemplating The Engine Room) the folks at Sony/Columbia gave me this digital camera that recorded images on a floppy disk, and I thought, "Wow! You mean you can just delete crappy shots you don't want? That's awesome." Later on, some cat from here (San Pedro) was moving to Atlanta, GA and sold me his ten-speed bicycle for five dollars. I was determined not be be one of those folks who buy a bike, then turn the thing into a clothes rack instead of getting on the damn thing. I fell on my ass more than a few times before I finally got the hang of it. As I started riding and tooling around in the early morning hours of the day, I started hearing and seeing stuff around me - one of the cooler things about having the bike is that I started getting up early in the morning to cruise around. The more things I saw and heard during my morning rides, the more I wanted to capture what I was observing, and that's how using the digital camera in that way came about. I didn't intend on being some kinda photojournalist or anything, it was sort of a coincidence. Living by the harbor and being into kayaking as I am, I also invested in a waterproof camera. The San Pedro region has a lot to offer in terms of nature - we've got cliffs and shoreline and I think we're also the third largest port in the world right now. San Pedro is on a peninsula too, so we get sunrise facing East, even though we're on the West coast - the orange-yellow light of sunrise is pretty righteous. But it also gets you thinking about the new day, and the potential that lies before you.
David: It must have been a daunting task figuring out which images should be included in the book.
Watt: The bulk of the images in On And Off Bass came from an exhibit entitled "Eye-Gifts From Pedro", which had a showing at gallery Track 16 in Santa Monica back in 2010. I gotta admit, I'm kinda insecure about this whole business of me being a "photographer" - I'm more comfortable being Watt the bass player, you know? So I had the curator from Track 16 cull the images that wound up in the book. And then the folks from 3 Rooms Press (my publisher) wanted to include journal entries from my tour diary - at first, it felt too much like me massaging my own image, but eventually I gave them free reign to use what they wanted to. In that regard, this book is yet another collaboration.
David: Would you consider the book to be a chronicle, a first-person narrative of the things you've done and the places you've seen?
Watt: I think it's just one perspective on that, not the whole ball of wax. As a matter of fact I insisted, for example, that they include images where there was more white space in the composition than the subject matter itself. I was making a statement about me as an artist - clearly the images, while being of a personal nature, aren't meant to tell the whole story, nor could they.
David: I would expect that photography had some quantifiable impact on your perspective as an artist as well....
Watt: Oh, definitely. It caused me to be more sensitive to my environment - learning to really see and experience things more deeply. And of course, there's the spontaneity of the moment itself, which is totally unlike a studio environment, photographically-speaking.....you're not manufacturing an image, you are the observer, trying to convey the moment, hoping you'll capture something that the viewer will be able to pick up on. It's trippy to look back on some of those images, and to suddenly remember, bearing witness to what I observed just tooling along on my bike - the memories flood my mind, and it's a really awesome thing when that happens.
David: You survived a near-death experience back in 2000. Having lived through that, what shift occurred inside of you?
Watt: I was 42 when that happened. As I was laying there dying, I thought about all the stuff I still wanted to do, and realized there wasn't enough time - on the other side of that, you're always thinking "there's time, there's time", but there really isn't. I think the illness made me more earnest, it definitely shifted my priorities. You know, when your time comes man, it comes. You may be thinking about tying up any loose ends in your life, but when you're that weak and beaten down, it's a messed-up thing. Not to get morbid or anything, but how can you not reflect on your own mortality at that point? Of course, those themes would pop up on my second opera, The Secondman's Middle Stand in 2004. Come to think of it, the cover art for that album was a shot I took of an early morning sunrise. I also used Dante's divine comedy to parallel my own journey - inferno was the sickness, purgatory was the healing part, etc.
David: I don't generally discuss this bro, but that's another thing we have in common: back in 1994, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness myself. I remember my doctors giving me 18 months to live and thinking about all the stuff I still wanted to do with my life. You realize your time is so short, and it forces you to kick yourself in the ass and say, "Well, when are going to get around to that? Tomorrow?"
Watt: Yeah, a terminal diagnosis is the great ass-kicker, isn't it? I wouldn't recommend manufacturing those situations obviously, but unless you're like, totally oblivious it becomes strikingly significant.
David: And that causes us to become more driven, would you agree?
Watt: Very much so. I started my own label, got rid of the middlemen. You see me juggling all these projects with the Stooges, the album, the radio show. In some ways, it reflects the DIY blueprint I employed back in my days as a punk rocker with d boon, you know? I think you're driven to do things in your youth, but when you're older it becomes more vital.
David: It's a different kind of "driven." In your youth, you're driven by the energy of wanting to try out various things creatively, but you're not thinking in terms of posterity or your own.....
David: Exactly. So what would the Mike Watt that's talking with me now say to the Watt of his youth, if you could impart any advice?
Watt: The middle years are interesting - we're all programmed to hate it, like it's just one big freak-out. Except for the decay of the body, the middle years are a great learning curve. If you're smart, you stop making the same mistakes over and over again. But questions about mortality and legacy and what you want your life to mean are worth asking. It aint about either getting a convertible and a 20 year-old girlfriend, or heading into the office one day and going "postal." The real lesson is not about wanting to go back, trying desperately to recapture something, it's seeing that life is a classroom - I get that now.
David: Has time made you mellower?
Watt: Maybe. Or maybe it's made me bolder - in the old days, I only made music with d. Boon. And now I'm not afraid.......actually I'm still afraid but I do it............to collaborate with others, which is still kinda scary.
David: I find that when you dare to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone, it reveals parts of yourself you weren't aware of, and things you thought you were incapable of.......
Watt: Big time! The main philosophy the middle years has taught me is to just let myself be open to what it's teaching me. That's another trap folks fall into: "I've done it all. I've seen it all." Bull! Perry Farrell (Jane's Addiction, Porno for Pyros) once said to me, "Mike, a child's eye wonders...that's the secret." He didn't mean "act like an infant" - he meant don't get so full of yourself that you stop imagining, stop dreaming.....'cause that's when you really stop living.
(Coming up in Part Two of my interview with Mike Watt: More on his personal transformation, what's so lame about contemporary rock'n'roll, and details on the illness that threatened to take his life.........you wont want to miss it!)
To check out some images from "Eye-Gifts From Pedro", click here.