Always Riled Up: The Knowing is in the Doing – Mike Watt: An Interview

“The knowing is in the doing. You find out where the wall is by pushing against it.” – Mike Watt

Some artists are iconic because of record sales or bigger than life personalities but a lot of the time they reach that hallowed status because of the influence they wind up having on others and their ability to stay humble in the face of praise. A lot of the time it’s because they have their own guiding philosophy that keeps them contributing long after others have come and gone. The latter can operate in the spaces between traditional measures of success much of the time. Some even deflect the praise onto those they’ve worked with instead of keeping the recognition to themselves.

One such guiding philosophy that has grown legs, arms, and wings over the last decade and morphed into a new chimera all its own is the DIY (do-it-yourself) philosophy that has driven all manner of music. We could even say that much of the music Heavy Blog loves wouldn’t exist without this ideal. The ideal works in all manner of arenas, even in the political. The ability one has to think, feel, and do for one’s self is at the center of the type of self-determination towards the betterment of larger society, contributing to a movement if you will, that drives this now decades old idea that really bloomed in the earliest days of American punk rock in the 1980s. One of the men who still drives this idea, econo as he must, across the land is Mike Watt. Back then he did it with the Minutemen and now he does it with a whole other set of humans on his bandwagon.

Mike Watt isn’t just an icon of punk music and the DIY movement, though. The first notes one gets from speaking with him is someone who is almost apologetic in his opinions, nearly overly modest, but always operating with an underlying integrity that’s foundational to who he is. The influential bass player who first came to notoriety in the early ‘80s alongside his friends D. Boon and George Hurley out of the blue collar, Southern California town of San Pedro in the form of the Minutemen is still operating today producing new work and seizing opportunities left and right all while the legacy of his bass playing bleeds through into numerous bands and artists, his philosophy ringing through in all manners of artistic endeavors from those who come into contact with he and his work.

The thing about people with this particular make-up is that usually they have spent some time thinking philosophically about where they are and how they’ve gotten there. Watt is no different in this regard but a conversation with the man in the van with the bass in his hand can range topics in the span of seconds but always operates on the lines of what it means to follow your heart while expressing yourself. For him, after all this time, it’s still all about the “movement” for people to do “it” themselves, following the pilot in in their own heart across the rough seas of life. “It” being whatever helps anchor us to the truest expression of ourselves.

One of the moments that helped Watt realize that he should have been doing his own thing all along was when he and D. Boon discovered the music of the band Wire. “Wire was a palate cleanser; I had learned Blue Oyster Cult and Creedence Clearwater Revival but they were a way for us to try to find our own voices after a culture of trying to copy songs off records.” That the band played stripped down music that got right to the point without pretension appealed very much to the duo that were two-thirds of the yet to become indie and punk legends, the Minutemen.

Part of what made the efforts of Boon, Watt, and Hurley so remarkable is that they achieved so much in a compact space between the “thinking out loud” lyrics and the independent movements of the various guitar-bass-drums combinations in their songs. That the Minutemen were able to achieve a certain brevity is something that Watt attributes directly to what he and D. Boon learned from Wire. “They were econo with everything they did” creating the impression for their band to not “waste peoples’ time with other shit.” Their most well known album, a two-LP set, Double Nickels on the Dime illustrated it while simultaneously inverting it. Over the course of 45, yes 45, songs the band delivered concise one and two-minute blasts of the kind of subversive rock indicative of the early punk scene.

Coming out of San Pedro the band were aware of the various scenes happening across Southern California at the time but as Watt describes it “We’re like 150 small towns in SoCal. When you start meeting people and no one knew about your town, we didn’t know about their towns either! It was about having a little bit of identity, having a lot in common with people who did not fit in with whatever universes they got stuck in and we’d come together in these trippy little clubs and performances so we’d bring in a little bit of identity to it.” He emphasizes the fact that the participants in whatever seen had to do their part. “You had to bring in something to contribute.” So they didn’t feel any pressure to prove Pedro was the best but rather to be just another contributor to a very large and very diverse scene that included bands like the Bags, the Germs, and eventually other contributors like Black Flag and X. The Minutemen, for their part in it all, felt a kinship with Minneapolis’ Husker Du whose own double album, Zen Arcade, had actually been a major influence on the development of their own iconic release. And ultimately, regarding their scene or any scene coalescing Watt says, “Hey, we’re all from somewhere but we’re all here now”.

Another interesting aspect to the approach of the Minutemen and the one that Watt continues to hold to is that of the album being little more than a flyer to support touring. While it seems like an easy and evident philosophy it flips the usual expectation of the record being the thing with a tour as supplemental to that. For Watt, the road is life. The recorded music is what gets him there and “there” has recently included or will include another run around the US, a trip to China that Watt commented on saying “They got a little problem with the air. Perhaps it’s a good example of why not to go to coal. They want to get things better over there,” and a jaunt through Italy, all with a different crew aboard his boat.

But at the end of the day he feels the pull of his familiar home of Pedro or “Malibu with hammerhead cranes” as he characterizes it. For all of its blue-collar nature this home for Watt not only produced the Minutemen but also author, Charles Bukowski, who happens to be buried in the same graveyard as D. Boon. Watt relayed a story of how Bukwoski’s wife, Linda, came to Minutemen shows and that the band read the writer’s work. He even spoke of how his work influenced their lyric writing, those moments of “thinking out loud”, with his own “econo” style. Everything about the band became a mission to do things “econo” in a way that was to the point and DIY.

That philosophy is part of what keeps Watt doing his thing after all these years. He hardly complains, rarely speaks of his influence on others, and still has a wide-eyed approach to the world even as he’s come to grips with the losses he’s faced over his time as an active musician. It’s always about “the movement” that he felt punk really encompassed. To him it’s about making up your mind and doing your own thing. “You weren’t just sleepwalking in some shit that was just handed down to you and you never knew why you were doing what you were doing.” The point was to make something true to yourself and contributed to the larger whole.

Watt, when talking about albums maintains that vision of them as flyers. He says, “It was the most direct connection with the audience. We put out records to promote tours. It was more hooked into playing gigs.” They even treated the process as being akin to performances calling studio sessions “extreme character builders like shows with no audience.” That they simplified their approach he talks about the way the band would try to boil down ideas to their base. “We were reductionists to get a handle on shit.” And that in order to break through they had to see where it went wrong for them. “We thought a lot of the problem for the movement was that we had our heads in the sand but we could be doing this (making albums, touring, etc.) all along.”

A lot of the problem that Watt saw was that people would attempt, eventually successfully even, to categorize this movement with a specific sound. “I don’t like the idea of it as a style. That’s where it got fucked up. It was about playing fast. Sure, that’s one way to do it but it’s about the state of mind.” The varied work that he has embarked upon since the Minutemen points to the retention of the idle while shunning the notion that a band has to sound a certain way and that’s why he uses that word “movement” as a descriptor. “I make a point of using the word to keep people thinking about it as a movement. It’s always gonna be about people. The idea of playing a specific style or wearing a uniform can get stale. You’re in the glass box. The movement has legs because there’s a lot of conceptual parts of it that aren’t just about style elements.”

That philosophy of “econo”, DIY movement building is something that the man in the van with the bass in his hand continues to espouse while encouraging others to join in. “Part of expression is maybe you’re stuck in some reality you want to transcend and that’s a good motivation for art.” It’s these nuggets of zen-like wisdom that come through when having a conversation with a musician who can’t stop going out into the world to learn more. “Education doesn’t stop. Life is a classroom.” To that extent he believes that “If you want to stay healthy you keep in the learner’s seat.”

He continues to learn from life including as it changes and shifts under the weight of politics and the way people talk to each other. “Maybe people don’t use music as much to talk about those issues anymore. They scream at each other” over social media. And then there’s the current presidential situation, “I wasn’t surprised by the election. People are always gonna want a shortcut.” But he believes there’s a way out. “Expression is a possible defense. A way for people to heal themselves after hurting themselves.”

At the same time, he’s reluctant to tell anyone else how to live or what to do. It’s “up to the person because you wanna have a say. For instance, Walt Whitman did that in 1855 to try to stop the Civil War. I like that tradition. I look at the Minutemen, stuff like Dada from Europe, and things we were fighting against.” But he kept returning to a sense of deference. “I don’t wanna say what should be for people because I come more from the Emma Goldman side of that question.” Citing the legendary anarchist for Watt is just another way of pointing out that people should think and do for themselves and not just follow the way those crowds did at the arena rock shows he grew up on. “There’s something about the art forms you should be able to walk away from it if you don’t like it and maybe do your own thing.”

At the end of the day for Watt, it’s about what his good friend D. Boon said, “Punk is whatever we made it to be.”

Mike Watt will be on tour with his Jom & Terry Show alongside the Meat Puppets from May 2 to May 26. More info can be found here.

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