Mike Watt remains one of alternative rock’s greatest utility players. As bassist for punk pioneers The Minutemen, he lived to serve the low end, underpinning guitarist D. Boon’s trebly guitar bits with rumbling rhythms and countermelodies.
Oddly enough, he couldn’t have told you the difference between guitar and bass when he started playing nearly four decades ago. When it came time to start a band, Watt took up bass only because D. Boon was already an accomplished axe man.
And because Boon’s mom said so.
Watt was both flustered and fascinated when he encountered his first instrument. It had four strings instead of six, and they were thick—like the cables on suspension bridges instead of metallic dental floss. Unaccustomed to the heavy gauge strings, and with no true sense of the instrument’s role in a rock context, Watt nevertheless learned as he went, capably serving the “low flow” of the Minuteman musical triangle. By the time the band’s ambitious 1984 double-album Double Nickels on the Dime came along, Watt had eschewed picking and was thrumming with his fingers like a jazzman.
On tour, Watt cultivated a road-warrior aesthetic that emphasized maximum mileage with minimum overhead. The Minutemen shared vans with other acts and slept in friends’ homes after gigs rather than ante up for seedy hotel rooms. This budget-mindedness carried over into Watt’s songwriting—or was perhaps borne of it; so renowned were the Minutemen for their abbreviated anthems that many presumed the band took its name from the average running times on The Punch Line and What Makes a Man Start Fires?
The trio carved a niche in San Pedro, dropping singles like “Paranoid Times” that confounded hardcore enthusiasts with their impressionistic arrangements, mind-warped verses, and overall economy. Punks weren’t supposed to be brilliant instrumentalists or cerebral lyricists. But Watt, Boon, and drummer George Hurley could be as virtuosic as they were loud, fast, and abrasive.
The Minutemen recorded several albums and EPs before an auto accident claimed D. Boon in late 1985. Devastated, Watt had no intention of pursuing music without his childhood chum and musical ally…until Ohio Minuteman fan Ed Crawford persuaded him to soldier on—with him and Hurley—as fIREHOSE.
Watt collaborated with other notable musicians in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, including Eddie Vedder, Perry Farrell, and Henry Rollins. One of rock’s most respected and reliable session men, Watt also jammed in various studio and stage configurations with members of Nirvana, Soul Asylum, Beastie Boys, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. He even formed a bass duo (the aptly-named DOS) with then-wife Kira Roessler (ex-Black Flag) and helped launch Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters.
Watt’s solo debut featured guest spots by many of his famous friends looking to return the favor, but it also showcased the bassist’s chops and abstract lyrics. In 1997 he released Contemplating the Engine Room, the first in what is now a three-volume set of song cycles—or “operas,” as he calls them—wherein music becomes a metaphor for Watt’s past, present, and future. A debilitating illness almost killed him in 2000, but he recuperated and found catharsis with The Second Middleman’s Last Stand.
Sessions with Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth) and Scott Asheton (The Stooges) led to Watt joining Iggy Pop’s revamped outfit on tour in 2003 and on record in 2007 (The Weirdness). He also made time for a collaboration with Pere Ubu’s David Thomas—and a few bass tracks for Kelly Clarkson’s third CD.
Watt stretched out with The Secondmen, formed The Missingmen (with guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales) to record and tour his third opera, The Hyphenated-Man, and continued globetrotting with The Stooges. His adventures took him to Italy, where he met a pair of young musicians who probably reminded him of himself and D. Boon: Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi would become the latest in his growing list of cacophonous conspirators.
As Il Songo del Marinaio, the trio cut a disc late last year that chronicled their early jams. Now they’re back with a second installment—and a whirlwind tour that’ll find the boys playing some fifty gigs in as many days.
We spoke with Watt by phone recently about the band—and bass in general—in advance of the Il Sogno concert at Grog Shop on October 6th. We also fielded some responses later (via email) from Pilia and Belfi, who explain their backgrounds and contributions to Canto Secondo. Watt insisted his band mates have their say: Despite his accomplishments and star-studded CV, he still considers himself a student—and regards his musical partners as his teachers. We were only happy to oblige, and have inserted Pilia and Belfi’s comments into the “ebb” of our transcription of the half-hour conversation with Watt.
For a guy who favors blue jeans and flannel shirts (and the occasional handlebar moustache), Watt has a staggeringly broad knowledge of the visual as well as musical arts. He’s an avid photographer, maintains a scrupulous tour diary (which he posts online), and even hosts a weekly podcast from his Pedro home. He can be garrulous and witty, but he’s also deep-minded and reflective. As our monster interview suggests, Watt is a consummate “Spielgusher” as well as a master of the “thud staff.”
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hi, Mike! Nice to be talking with you again. We’re glad to be covering the new album, and we’re looking forward to your return to Cleveland.
MIKE WATT: Well, this project is called Il Sogno del Marinaio. It means “the sailor’s dream” in Italian. I brought in a couple guys from Italy, who’ve never done a big tour before in the U.S. It’s actually our second album that we’re gonna be supporting; it comes out two weeks before we shove off. It’s a trio. I’m kinda partial to trios. But this band is much different than, say, Secondmen or Missingmen—which I put together for the second and third operas that I wrote. This band is more collaboration. These guys are also composers, even though they’re both twenty-one years younger than me. But they both brought in tunes, and I brought in tunes. So it’s more like Dos, or D. Boon and Minutemen. Sort of like that. They’re more avant-garde, too. They can do rock and punk, but they went to school. They’re formally educated in music. Which is different, because in a way, I’m the student.
EXAMINER: Just to make sure I have it straight, Stefano Pilia is the guitarist and Andrea Belfi is the drummer?
WATT: Andrea, yeah. He lived in Berlin a couple years, but he’s from Verona. Stefano lives in Bologna. He’s originally from Genoa.
ANDREA BELFI: I studied drums privately for about 5 years, and I also got a private music course diploma called BTEC, where I studied composition, alongside drums and music project management.
STEFANO PILIA : I studied classical double bass and electronic music at the conservatory music academy in Bologna, but in time I started playing music listening and playing punk rock and rock. I can say that the bigger weight of my "school" and "studying" has been listening to records, and still is!
EXAMINER: The name of the new album, Canto Secondo, loosely translates to “second song,” no?
WATT: Yeah, that means like, “the second song.” Second song, or chapter two, you could say.
EXAMINER: And the first album from this particular trio—Il Songo, that is—was La Busta Gialla. I had to look up that translation. “Yellow notebook,” is it?
WATT: The Yellow Folder. That was the name of the first album. You can see it on the cover; that was Andrea’s composition folder. Like I said, they’re both composers. This one’s a little different than the other trios, where those other guys helped me realize my ideas. Or The Stooges, where I’m asked to help realize their ideas. That’s why I was saying this band is different in that it’s more of a collaboration. But yeah, his composition folder was yellow. We’d only been playing together a couple days, and we needed some songs for that first album. So it was, “Hey! What do you have in there, Andrea?” So we took some right out of there. And I thought, “Let’s take a picture of your folder on the table. We’ll use that for the cover!”
EXAMINER: Andrea, can you talk a little about the "yellow notebook" that helped inspire some of the music for the first Il Sogno record?
BELFI: The "yellow notebook" is the folder where I put my music sheets. During our first mini tour and recording session we agreed to use that object to represent Il Sogno del Marinaio’s first meeting, plus yellow is Mike's favourite color!
EXAMINER: You’ll certainly been busy, Watt. A year or so ago it was the Spielgusher project, then these two Il Sogno projects—and touring with Iggy in between.
WATT: Oh yeah. But Spielgusher was only a record; it was never gigs. It was just an album because of the collaboration with [journalist / lyricist] Richard Meltzer. The story behind that was that Richard Meltzer was gonna collaborate with The Minutemen. He’d written ten poems, and was gonna sing and play sax. I’d made a copy of the words, gave those to D. Boon and told him, “Here, work on these.” But then he went on that van ride. He was sick with the fever. I told him, “You’re sick. Maybe you shouldn’t go.” But anyway. “Here’s the words. I’m gonna try to think of some licks, and you come up with some, too.” Because we were huge fans of Richard Meltzer. He wrote words for Blue Oyster Cult, wrote all those crazy books, and had a punk radio show in the Seventies called “Hepcats From Hell.” It was just incredible for our lives that we were gonna play with him. Then of course D. got killed in that wreck. So like, twenty years later, Richard records me 48 poems—with those ten included—and I took those words and ideas to Tokyo. And with this guitarist and drummer, I made 65 pieces of music in three days. I put the poems to words. Some were instrumental. So that’s what Spielgusher is. Never any gigs. It was hooked up for that thing with D. Boon and Richard—not for Minutemen.
EXAMINER: So how’d the new trio, Il Sogna del Marinaio, meet up and start playing? Watt, you practically just finished touring the third opera—Hyphenated Man—with Tom and Raul.
BELFI: Stefano knew Mike during one of his Italian tour in 2005, and then they stayed in touch for a while. Stefano had the opportunity to invite Mike at a festival and a mini tour in Italy on November 2009 and he asked me to be part of the trio.
WATT: Stefano called me. I didn’t know he played. He was put in the van with me on the tour for the second opera back in 2005 when we did the Italian gigs. And he wrote me an email in 2009 saying, “Will you come and do a gig with me and my buddy at this festival?” I thought, “Let’s not do just one. Let’s do a few. Let’s do six. And since we have to get the material up, let’s record it!” So that’s how La Busta Gialla came about. And not only was I doing the third opera with Tom and Raul like you say, but I was also with The Stooges. One hundred twenty-five months of Stooges, and mainly their thing is summertime, doing the festivals over there. So I didn’t want to release the record when we couldn’t tour it. So it wasn’t released until a year and a half ago. We did a European tour of it. We liked that a lot and thought, “Hey, let’s make another record when we finish this tour!”
EXAMINER: Stefano and Andrea, What kind of projects did you plan together (or apart) before teaming with Watt?
BELFI: Stefano are coming from the same circle of Italian experimental/avantgarde musicians like Giuseppe Ielasi, Valerio Tricoli, Claudio Rocchetti, Renato Rinaldi among others, and we met the first time in Florence at an avantgarde music festival in 2003. Since then we collaborated in numerous projects, but the one that brought together much more is the trio with David Grubbs. The Belfi / Grubba / Pilia project started in 2009, and it is still producing records and playing shows.
PILIA: Yes this is the "area" we met and started to playing together, sharing ideas and experiences with different ensembles or more stable projects or—mostly—solo. For ten years I played with my band—together with Valerio tricoli and Claudio Rocchetti—called "3/4 Had Been Eliminated" a sort of electro-acoustic avant-rock, instant composition band. It has a bit of the tradition of an Italian ensemble like Gruppo di Improvvisazione di Nuova Consonanza, but with a much more rock sound flavor, close sometimes to band like This Heat, and at the same time to certain concrete music. Both Andrea and I have been always playing on this line of convergence between a rock sound and experimental music.
EXAMINER: How did the writing and recording process change (if it did change) for this record, Canto Secondo?
BELFI: When we recorded La Busta Gialla, we barely knew each other, except for Stefano and I. So we were trying to find a way to create a new dialogue as a band. It's been an exciting and great experience, where we could experiment together for the first time. Canto Secondo is the result of a stronger relationship between the three of us. Within these last four years we did several shows together, so when we recorded the album in December 2013, we knew our way of composing, arranging and dealing with each other's styles. We can probably say Canto Secondo is a more personal work than the previous one.
PILIA: I think Canto Secondo is a more further step in the research of our identity as a band. We are still developing together, and every time we meet and play is a challenge to go deeper in the music we can do. It is one of the reasons I like the most of playing together in this trio.
Watch Watt, Pilia, and Belfi do some cooking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBr6i1Fhswk
EXAMINER: Watt, you’re always on the move, or working on something. Quite a change from when you were deathly sick, like fifteen years ago.
WATT: Yeah, that’s what the second opera [The Secondman’s Middle Stand] is about. It was in 2000. The sickness almost killed me. I was only 42. It was that half-empty, half-full glass thing, and I thought, “As soon as I get well enough, I better get some shit done!” Not just do gigs. I’ve always loved gigs. It was always about playing with D. Boon and stuff. But with recording, there’s something about making “works” where you’re making something that’s still gonna be there after you’re gone. And I don’t think you think about that much. People tend to think of “work” as the verb. I think it’s important to think of it as the noun, too—a “work.” Something for later, down the road.
EXAMINER: Canto Secondo has some great music, but it’s no walk in the park for people who might not have heard your other “work,” as you say. There’s some complicated stuff on it. Did you have more freedom—or were you more relaxed—given that those two contributed to the writing, and it wasn’t all on you? And that you’re not the only one singing?
WATT: That’s the way them cats are. They really don’t mind it. It’s beautiful. My style of writing is on the bass about 95% of the time. Some dudes are totally freaked out, like it’s too much freedom, and they want it more painted out for them. Actually, [American composer / sometime punker] Nels Cline is the big daddy. It’s like a springboard or a launch pad. You give them a little information, but not too much. The guys you collaborate with, you have fun and play and keep it organic. Everything is just us. No guests. La Busta Gialla had a lot of guests. This has none. We wanted to try it that way. When we finally had the full-on tour, we got used to playing with each other. So we just went to this farmhouse outside of town, where we could be “us” for just eight days. You’re hearing Andrea, you’re hearing Stefano—that’s him on “Mountain Top” and “Sailor Blues.” You hear Andrea on “Auslander.” Because he was from Berlin. He tried some of his German out. “Auslander” means “foreign” in German.
EXAMINER: Like, a stranger or outsider.
WATT: Right, outsider.
EXAMINER: It starts with “Animal Farm Tango.” Tell me a little about that one. Any Orwellian connections?
WATT: Okay, that’s Andrea Belfi’s song composition. He wrote the words. He told me he was trying to get on George Orwell’s kind of satire; that’s what he was doing for words. The sick, animal tango. He’s talking about that book, Animal Farm. I didn’t really know, either. He asked me to do the spiel. In fact, he gave me a guide. They both have different composition styles. Andrea will make an actual MIDI file to guide you, whereas Stefano gives more of a “words” direction. And with me, I just do the bass lines and say, “Here’s your lump of clay! Put it on the wheel!”
EXAMINER: How about “Nano’s Waltz?” Is there a real-life person named Nano?
WATT: “Nano” is what they call a midget, a small person. I guess “midget” isn’t so nice. But it’s somebody who is born small. We had a situation during that European tour where a guy wanted to photograph us in Cologne. Stefano’s a little short. Not “nano” short—but a little short, and this guy…. There’s a photographer trick where if you want somebody to look taller, you ask them to come into the foreground.
EXAMINER: Forced perspective.
WATT: Right! If you know the story, it makes total sense! I’m just talking about a situation…. We all laughed, especially Stefano. He laughed about it the hardest. He said, “Fratello Mike”—“fratello” means “brother”—he said, “It’s nano.” And my ma’s people are from Italy, so a lot of these words come back to me from my grandma and grandfather. Especially the cussing! It came back when I was over there. One thing about these guys that can make it tough for you, Andrea will give you a song in 5/4 or 7/4. Because these guys are schooled, you know? So I thought, “I’ll write ‘em a waltz!” ‘Cause I can do ¾ pretty well, because mainly I’m a rocker. I can do the 4/4 or ¾. But these cats decided to make fun of that situation we had and have a good laugh about it, and then we do the waltz. Because I can play a waltz strong, but a 5/4…. There’s a tune on there, “Alain,” that was a little tough!
EXAMINER: The waltz time…that’s the old 1-2-3, 1-2-3….
WATT: Right, right! We use it a lot in country. And the jazz guys do this 6/8 thing [sings the rhythm]. Alvin Jones did it big time. But the fives and sevens, that was more Captain Beefheart. And I like Captain Beefheart, but hearing it and playing it are two different things [laughs]!
EXAMINER: I can definitely hear Beefheart and Zappa in some of the arranging.
WATT: He [Zappa] did that a lot. Some of those guys—and of course the fusion guys—they did that. But Zappa was really organic, because he mixed in the blues into the freaky times. I found out that those times are used a lot in the Balkans, especially the sevens. The 7/4. They combine this oompa. Because of the Turkish thing. You know, getting into middle age, the bottom line is that everybody’s got something to teach me. You get this idea that school is maybe just up to college. Usually just up to high school. But with real life, you’re always in school. You want to be vital. That’s what cats like Andrea and Stefano do. And pretty much every project I get into, I try to make it a classroom situation for Watt [laughs]!
Watch the new video for "Il Sogno del Fienile" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IYX09pMGcQ
EXAMINER: And the tour starts in about a month, right?
WATT: September 10th. Fifty-three gigs in fifty-three days.
EXAMINER: Would you mind reaching back, discussing how you first started playing bass and joining up with D. Boon?
WATT: Right. We knew this guy Lopez, who lived in his car. He showed me and D. Boon how to copy some things off records. He had these pawn shop guitars. And D. Boon, his mom was a guitar player when she was growing up, so that’s what she had D. Boon doing. She wanted us to make a band. I had moved from some projects—this was the early Seventies. There weren’t a lot of guns, but there was fighting and stuff, so she wanted us to stay inside after school, and not get into trouble. This was the era of arena rock. We didn’t know anything about clubs, so we didn’t have any thought to doing gigs. She just thought of it as a kind of econo childcare! But she saw on every album cover that they all had bass, so she said “You’ll be bass.” And on all the pictures I saw, the bass only had four strings. So for a while I just played a guitar with the B and E strings taken off. When I was 16 I finally saw a bass up close and got to put my hands on it. I couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe how big the strings were. I was like, “No wonder the sounds are so deep!” Then the idea hit on me that “bass” means “low.” I had no idea. And also, this has a big connection to the flannel thing; because when I met D. Boon, the only rock band he knew was Creedence. He didn’t know anything about The Who or Cream. The first gig we went to was T-Rex. Anyway, we couldn’t hear the bass on those records. T-Rex was tough, but especially with Creedence I couldn’t tell what the bass guy was doing. I couldn’t hear the bass lines on these lame-ass stereos. They’re all stained with grape juice, and you have to put five quarters on the tone arm. I just thought, if I thought if I wore these Creedence-type shirts, maybe D. Boon will still like me [laughs]! I couldn’t tell what the fuck that guy was doing. I can now; those were some pretty good bass lines. John Fogerty wrote lots of songs. But I really had to stumble through it. On the U.S. side, it was guys like James Jamerson and Larry Graham, because they could make the bass really clear. I think also that their guitar players played with more treble. And over in England, some of those rock and roll guys weren’t afraid to put the bass out front; they didn’t hide the bass. You had John Entwistle, Jack Bruce…
EXAMINER: Chris Squire from Yes.
WATT: Chris Squire. All kinds of rock and rollers. And Trevor Bolder—he passed away last year—on the Bowie records, The Spiders from Mars band. You could hear the bass really clear. It took us a while to get into that, into hearing the bass again. But those were my big influences. Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath, you could hear that bass, man.
EXAMINER: Even after The Minutemen, you’ve been working and touring in some form or another. You did Firehose with [Minutemen drummer] George Hurley and [singer] Ed Crawford [from Steubenville, Ohio]. You teamed up with [former Black Flag bassist] Kira Roessler on a couple albums, started doing your “opera” albums in the late ‘90s. Always touring—and doing it on a budget. You still drive the same van, the Ford Econoline, aka “The Boat.”
WATT: Oh, yeah. I was trying to borrow a little bit from Minutemen culture there. Because D. Boon…. When punk came, it made us have to decide everything all over again. D. Boon wanted to put political ideas in the band, and the guitar wasn’t top dog—it was more equal. By the time he went to that treble sound, all that was his idea. And he wanted me to play more. And these guys I’d learned from, I totally took that up. In a lot of ways, The Minutemen were just in the right place at the right time. You know what I mean? We graduated high school in ’76, met up with the Black Flag guys, and ended up on SST Records, too. It was trippy. All these things came together. I’ve gotta say we were a product of the times. I think it would’ve been a much different situation [now]. It probably would’ve been just me and D. Boon playing for ourselves, were it not for that confluence of different things coming together. The Flag guys set up that whole tour circuit. I still do that same tour circuit that they built up, some thirty-five years ago.
EXAMINER: A year ago you also did a book—On and Off Bass—which I enjoyed, where your photos were collected into an album along with entries from your tour journals. Some of the images in the book reminded me of Cleveland, what with the ports and the cranes and tanker ships, and seagulls swooping around. How’d you get started as a photographer…and then kayaker? You sure take to the water.
WATT: Yeah, boy. Pedro is a bit like Cleveland. We’re both in cities by the water, you’re by the lake. So it’s a little bit the same [laughs]. My father was a navy man—he’s the Engine Room guy [pictured on that album cover]. I’m actually from Virginia, where there was a big naval base. When I was ten, we moved here. And the Long Beach naval station, they closed that. Now it’s a big tank terminal for all these container ships. I started riding bikes again when I was 38, but that was killing my knees. So I thought, why don’t I be my own little “engine room” and do kayaking? There wasn’t that many in those days, but they were only two hundred bucks, and I could stick one in The Boat, my van. And with the advent of the digital cameras, you didn’t have to worry about developing film. You paid for it just once, econo. So I started taking it on the bicycle or in the kayak. I’d just send [pictures] to my friends—never printed, just emails. And Pedro’s a trip because we’re on a peninsula. We face east. So it was always, “Here’s another sunrise from Pedro” or “Here’s some falcons.” And these people thought I should do an art show of this in Santa Monica. So they picked fifty pictures. And then this book company in New York—Three Rooms Press—they got together with Track 16 [gallery in Culver City, California], and then Laurie Steelink put it together. Kind of juxtaposed it, because I was doing these tour diaries that I’d put up on my “hoot” page. Part of it is to give young people a first-hand experience, the other part is to keep me focused on the tour. They took parts, so it was like, “This is Watt when he’s home, and this is Watt when he ain’t home.” I didn’t trust myself; I didn’t feel objective enough to pick. So I said, “Here’s all these pictures, and here’s the tour diary.” So in a way it was a collaboration.
EXAMINER: The Pedro port shots remind me of the ports here in Cleveland, at the mouth of the Cuyahoga on Lake Erie. Near downtown. The ships, the latticework of bridges and cranes.
WATT: Oh, right! The Flats, right?
EXAMINER: Right! Yeah, all this heavy industrial machinery, but then you get the nature side with the birds and stuff.
WATT: There’s some kinds of nature. Pedro’s weird that way. We’ve got these hammer-heads, that’s what they called these cranes. But The Flats…by the time I played there it was called Peabody’s Downunder. But before that it was The Pirate’s Cove, where Pere Ubu first played.
EXAMINER: Right! Peabodys. They relocated a few years ago, brought it up from The Flats over to E. 21st near downtown. But that just closed recently.
WATT: Is that right? Also when we played near downtown, it was this place called The Phantasy, and they had some kind of boat on the dance floor. You remember a place like that?
EXAMINER: Sure! The Phantasy is still here, in Lakewood. It’s right around the corner from me here as I’m talking to you.
WATT: Wow. I haven’t been to those parts in a long time. Because once I met Kathy [Simkoff] at the old Grog Shop, I liked playing there. But with Minutemen, the first time we played your town, it was downstairs at The Agora—and it burned down. It was called The Pop Shop or something. It was another part.
EXAMINER: I see [Cleveland musician] John Petkovic put you in another video with his band, Sweet Apple. Got you kayaking out on the water.
WATT: Yeah, he’s a good cat. He’s gonna help me…. Do you know about this record, Ball-Hog or Tug Boat?
EXAMINER: Your first record…the one before the operas, right?
WATT: The first opera’s Contemplating The Engine Room. I made Ball-Hog with like, forty-eight dudes on it. I thought if the bass player knew the songs and did the parts, then anybody else could come in and play drums or guitar, and sing. So it’s not one band—it’s all these, eighteen different bands. And I want to do a Cleveland version of that, where I only use Cleveland musicians. And John’s gonna help me get that together! ‘Cause he knows a lot of cats on the scene. He had a band called Cobra Verde. I took them on tour a few times.
EXAMINER: You did the “Riot Industry” video with them. They got you in pajamas and bathrobe eating your morning cereal.
View the "Riot Industry" video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6L0aOiKuWs
WATT: Right, and he took me in a new video with J. Mascis and him. It’s called Sweet Apple. I think he’s only Cleveland dude in that.
Watch the Sweet Apple video for "Let's Take the Same Plane" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVmm_uQydKU
EXAMINER: Yep, Sweet Apple. For their new album, Golden Age of Glitter. So, what kind of basses are you using these days?
WATT: The Gibson EB-0 for gigs. My hands, as I got less younger I started getting more sore! I record with big ones, but I sit down. For gigs, I use that ’65 Gibson EB-0. I put in a pit bull Rio Grande pickups because I don’t like the mud-buckers. I call it the “Dan bass” because a cat named Dan just gave it to me after a gig a few months after The Stooges’ shit got stolen in Montreal [http://hootpage.com/stoogesstolenstuff/stoogesstolenstuff.html ]. It was beautiful. He just handed me this ’65 Gibson EB-0 after a gig at The Casbah in San Diego. But for Il Signo del Marinaio I used Stefano’s Italian bass…it’s kind of a P-bass copy. And I put in Dave Allen pickups. It’s a good bass. It’s called The Tuscany. But it’s pretty much like a P-bass. I like the long scale for recording because I have better fundamentals on the low notes. But for gigs, you don’t notice that stuff, and it saves your hands from making those big stretches. Plus, when you’re playing every day for two months….
EXAMINER: You still using your fingers on the bass? No pick, I mean? Work the strings flipper-style?
WATT: Yeah. I try to put two of ‘em together most of the time. So I don’t get that gallop. I get that Jamerson thing they call the “hook.” I’m also getting into using the thumb, especially if I have to do fast stuff. I wish I could use a pick, but you have to keep at it. They’re both good. It’s all vocabulary. I’ve seen Entwistle use his fingers, pick, and slapping in the same song. The guy was a monster with vocabulary. J. Mascis had me play with him, right after that sickness. It was the first time I used a pick in like, seventeen years. It was really tough!
EXAMINER: I’m still a picker. I have a hard time with the fingers.
WATT: Oh, you’re a bass man, too? Great!
EXAMINER: Yep. I am, when my own little band gets together, anyways.
WATT: Keep it happening! Yeah, I think there was a macho thing for a while. Some bass players get into that sports stuff, where it’s almost not even about the music anymore. So who’s more macho? And the pick gives you this attack, this up-and-down that you can’t get with the fingers. And there are things you get with your fingers you can’t with a pick, of course. But in my book they’re both very valid. Entwistle used a lot of pick. The guy was bad! And Anthony Jackson, “For Love of Money,” that was with a pick, and that’s a very funky song [The O’Jays, circa 1973].
EXAMINER: I’ve been playing just over twenty years and still consider myself a beginner. It’s only recently that I’ve come up with some original lines where it’s like, “Wow! Didn’t think I had that in me.” I’m not good enough to be directly influenced by anyone—to hear somebody and be able to consciously apply their style, I mean. But nowadays I’ll come up with something that does remind me of my faves, like Chris Squire or McCartney or yourself—and I’ll feel pretty good.
WATT: That’s what it’s about, right? Finding your own voice and having some fun. That’s what I’ve tried to do. And I got lucky. I got to play with D. Boon. I was lucky in that situation. Because I remember—especially in those old days—there was this hierarchy, and if you were on bass, there was a beat-down. And a lot of bass guys were guitar guys who couldn’t get a gig somewhere else. I think that changed with punk. Because then, everyone was playing in the band, and everybody got level ground. And you had guys like Les Claypool and Flea. I meet kids now where it’s like, the bass is the first instrument they learn on. There was none of that in the old days.
EXAMINER: I’d have to agree with that. When I first picked up guitar, that’s all anyone picked up. Kids might start with piano lessons. As teens, they gravitate toward guitar. It was rare that you heard of anybody begging their parents to buy them a bass.
WATT: Right! And I’m not talking five-strings or fancy stuff. I’m talking good old-fashioned four-stringer!
EXAMINER: Stefano and Andrea, have you guys toured in the United States before?
BELFI: Yes, I did two small tours around the northeast part of U.S. in 2009 with Stefano (and with Jeffrey Alexander from Black Forest / Black Sea) and 2011 with Attila Faravelli.
PILIA: I did a big month tour in 2003 with a band called Settlefish, and in 2005 a small one with Black Forest / Black Sea around the northeast, and later the one with Jeffrey Alexander and Andrea. The last one couple of years ago was a small solo tour with Byron Westbrook around the northeast.
EXAMINER: Guys, thank you so much. Watt, it’s always great talking with you. I remember our last chat, for The Hyphenated-Man, so it was nice catching up.
WATT: I remember! I remember, because you asked me a lot of stuff that wasn’t same old, same old!
Il Sogno Del Marinaio (Mike Watt, Andrew Belfi, Stefano Pilia). October 6, 2014 at Grog Shop (2785 Euclid Heights Blvd. Cleveland Heights, Ohio 44106). Advance tickets only $12.00. Doors at 7:30pm, show at 8:30pm.
Show details: http://www.grogshop.gs/events/2035748
Purchase advance tickets here: http://tinyurl.com/lu6pemk
Mike Watt’s hootpage: