Reality Soldier: Mike Watt - Part One

'Hyphenated Man' returns
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With the 21st century pose of cynicism settling on the shoulders of virtually anyone with a guitar, the sheer passion of Mike Watt is startling. The San Pedro native was one third of legendary punk group The Minutemen, before losing his friend (and vocalist) D Boon to a car crash. Later forming fIREHOSE, Mike Watt currently splits his time between a stint in The Stooges and his solo career.

Virtually a by-word for honesty, respect and sincerity Mike Watt has not lost one ounce of enthusiasm for new ideas. Completing the new opera 'Hyphenated Man' (his third, this time non-linear) the bass player took equal inspiration from the Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch and his old friend D Boon. A reflection on becoming middle aged, ‘Hyphenated Man’ uses a dense series of tiny tracks to build up into an over-arching work

Taking the time to speak to ClashMusic, Mike Watt’s voice crackles down the phone-line from his home in San Pedro.

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What draws you to the opera form?
It just seems that some stuff I’m trying to talk about, I ain’t good enough to put it in one song. Well it is like one song but it takes a bunch of parts. I never imagined myself doing shit like that – I come from a tradition of very tiny songs. This one kind of is a mixture of that, like lots of tiny songs to make up one big.

Did you research classical music?
Yeah I tried a little bit. As a teenager I went to arena rock shows. I didn’t grow up on jazz, I didn’t grow up on opera just stuff on the AM radio. When punk came I met all kinds of trippy people who knew about all kinds of shit, people who turned me onto Coltrane, jazz – all kinds of music, even classical stuff. Meeting other musicians too, in that scene. A lot of people were artists too, like Pettibon. They knew a bunch of stuff that I never grew up with so I got real excited. That whole movement was so mind blowing for us, it opened us up to all kinds of shit.

That SST period seems to be very communal.
Absolutely. Every place had their group of weirdos but then punk when it came here it gave them something to gather round, bring them together. Me and D Boon we knew what we knew, but outside of our thing it was really great to meet new cats who knew about all kinds of shit. Also just on a musical level, getting records from England like Pop Group and Wire was totally mind blowing to us, what they were doing. Even though we never met any of those guys – we didn’t even get to see those dudes play –it still felt like a connection. Like anything went. It didn’t matter about the idea of genre or style, that was just thrown into the air and they mixed everything up.

‘Hyphenated Man’ changed the narrative form of an opera – what led to this?
That’s compared to the other two. It was the subject matter. The first one I’m trying to talk about The Minutemen, the second one the sickness but on this third one I was actually trying to deal with right now. I guess, a middle-aged punk rocker. I was kind of tripping on that, and I didn’t really want to talk about how I got here so much or where I’m going, it was right in the now. Not so much a beginning, middle, end with the story although there is an order – it definitely doesn’t have like an iPod shuffle mode. But I did put them together to go into order. The difference from the other two is that the narrative was like beginning, middle, end but on this one it’s different isn’t so much like that. It’s me almost thinking all these thirty parts at the same time, part of the spiel.

Is that where the link to Hieronymous Bosch comes in?
I was inspired by him. The little creatures and all that. I saw them for the first time just recently – I was touring with The Stooges and I stopped off at the Prada in Madrid. I saw them up close, in real life – not in a book. I thought “wow, this kind of reminds me of a Minutemen gig, or an album where a big thing is made up of a bunch of little things”. Of course, they’re made up of all these little men and another part of the spiel, the libretto, was like this idea of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. To me it’s kind of like Dorothy tripping on the story of what guys do to be guys. Hey, you’re brave here’s a medal! Hey, you’re smart here’s a diploma. The man behind the curtain. But then they always had it, although society has to give you this validation. To me, this seems like kind of the crux of what they call the middle aged crisis for men. They’re thinking “what the fuck is this all about?” This idea of: what is it to be a guy? That’s kind of the big freak out.

It ain’t totally weird, you know, a little retrospection. Be honest with yourself, not to get all sentimental about it but just to trip on it because it is a part of the journey, part of where you’re at so I thought it was interesting to take a look at. Not that romantic – even the word middle aged just sounds like.. fucking lame. It’s not the most romantic of subjects, which is why people probably don’t want to deal with it. That’s what I was dealing with as hey – that’s where I am. I want to have my feet on this thing as I probably won’t be here forever and I wasn’t here before, so why not make a thing on it? A work. I think this was honest feelings for me. I’m not trying to be selfish or anything but it’s hard to think for other people. I don’t feel comfortable doing that. This subject was weighing on me so I decided to write about it.

Has the validation of society ever worried you?
I think especially before punk it was a huge issue. But after punk, those cats showed us that it’s whatever you want. You make up your own mind about it – you don’t really need the validation. On the other hand, the other thing that middle age has brought me – and something I hope has come through the piece – is that I have discovered that everybody has something to teach me. I can keep hearing enough voices then I’m going to learn how to get further with it. One danger about doing something a long time is that you think you know it all, which is fucked up. You don’t get any further down the road, in fact you probably slide back – you’re off into re-run land. One time you don’t need validation but the other time you do need other folks as you can’t know everything. Everyone has a different thing on the dealio, the reality that they can show you. Some shit can be very obvious but you just need somebody to give you a suggestion.

Why did you take the step of using D Boon’s guitar?
OK. One thing about The Minutemen connection is that I wanted to show my respect for Georgie and D Boon, and the band even though I was in it myself. So I had written a couple of Minutemen songs on the guitar but most of the time I had written them on the bass. I thought that with this I had ended up writing the whole fucking thing on the guitar and was writing the bass second. So that would be different than the Minutemen. The other thing is that when I showed Tom Watson the parts and practised with him, we then developed the drum parts. I asked him to do natural stuff, so it wouldn’t sound all convoluted. But also to sit to the tunes. He can’t really play drums so I had to try it out, just making sounds with my mouth. But I didn’t let either of them hear the bass. I thought the one way you can prevent it from being too much like The Minutemen is to get rid of the only Minuteman! I thought that if I stopped them from hearing that they wouldn’t be swayed too much. Even though we used the little songs format, and I learned the guitar from D Boon it would still have its own sound and not be a copy of the Minutemen. I was very conscious of that. I owe it to D Boon and Georgie not to copy shit that we did.

Our interview with Mike Watt continues HERE

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