The punk bassist steps out of his comfort zone as one third of the Italian art rock trio.
“This is going to be my 65th tour,” bassist Mike Watt of his current American tour with il sogno del marinaio. The group is a trio that formed when Italians Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi asked him to join them. They’ve made two albums together including the recent Canto Secondo, and now Watt’s showing them America his way—“jamming econo” for 53 shows in 53 days. The tour comes to New Orleans Sunday at One Eyed Jacks.
Watt has entered middle age, but he has worked constantly since he learned to play bass to be a part of Minutemen in 1980 with his friend and inspiration, D. Boon. He continues to embody punk not as a style but an ethos. He agreed to play with Pilia and Belfi even thought their music was a little out of his comfort zone. “This is what I learned back in the old days with D. Boon,” Watt says. “You have to take chances.”
“There’s a problem with hanging around too long in that you think nobody can teach you anything,” he says. “That’s why I like playing with younger guys—they can teach you. School didn’t end at ninth grade, 12th grade, college, and that’s not a bad thing. When the drummer man does that fucking song in 5/4—that odd stuff, whoa. A part of me wanted to say Let’s do something that I can do easily, but another part said, Don’t stoop, Watt.”
Minutemen flirted with odd time signatures in their attempts to cover Captain Beefheart, but he’s still challenged by them at times. When he recorded with a Japanese group in 2009, the drummer tapped her 7/4 pattern on his back to help him feel it.
In America, it’s tempting to think of il sogno del marinaio as Watt’s band because he’s the best known of the three, but “I’m in the student chair; I’m this crude guy,” he says. Pilia and Belfi have more traditional music educations, and the largely instrumental band reflects that background. He did write four of the 10 songs on Canto Secondo, but unlike some of his projects designed to play specific music of his, “this project is more like Minutemen or Dos; it’s all collaboration.” Pilia and Belfi recruited him to join them, and they spent eight days on a farm in Italy recording it essentially live. They cut it in the barn and lived in the farmhouse next door. “I never left,” Watt says. When he got home to San Pedro, California, he “spieled” the lyrics to “Animal Farm Tango” and sent them back.
Watt’s talking via Skype from his study in San Pedro with his camera looking down on him as if he’s seated in a gunner’s chair. He’s getting all of the press knocked out before going on tour because once he gets on the road, he wants to stay in that mode and not switch out to do publicity. He talks in excited bursts about the issues that are clearly on his mind as a result of his collaboration with guys half his age.
“I think kids think that we invented everything in 1976, ’77, that they were born in the wrong time. Absolutely not. There was all this work being done before that with dada, Mr. Whitman, all that crap. It was our turn to find out about this stuff for ourselves. We invented very little.”
He’s thinking about groups. “The kids like the idea of a band,” Watt says, and we talk about the difficulty audiences have focusing on group identities, even though the gang-like nature of a group is appealing. “Look at ensemble casts,” he says, observing that the problem isn’t only a musical phenomenon.
“I made this album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat? in the ‘90s, and I had to deal with the name game,” he says. The talent lineup for it was a ‘90s rock who’s who, with Dave Grohl, Eddie Vedder, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, Cris and Curt Kirkwood from The Meat Puppets, most of Sonic Youth, Evan Dando, Henry Rollins, Frank Black and more. “We’d go to a radio station with some cutting edge modern rock jock [said mockingly], So Mike Watt—you’re from the old days, right? What’s Eddie like? Nothing to do with the music or anything.”
On the other hand, he give young people credit for not being obsessed with newness and youth.
“Younger people are so much more open-minded these days. We were way more concerned with our own group. These people don’t care about music being 30 or 40 years old. They like Black Sabbath, and it’s an old, old band.” The only time Minutemen even considered performing with someone outside their generation came when rock writer Richard Meltzer approached them in 1985 about collaborating. Boon’s death prevented that from happening, but Watt and Meltzer recorded their version of the music and spoken word project in 2012 under the name spielgusher.
By habit and mindset, Watt still thinks in terms of groups as well. No single one defines him in the way that a band typically defines its members, and he recognizes the line is fuzzy. “They’re projects, yeah, but in the moment they’re bands.”
His highest profile and highest pressure band/project in recent years has been The Stooges, where he has been the only non-original member of the group. He still has anxiety that his tombstone will read Fucked up a Stooges album—referring to 2007’s Steve Albini-produced The Weirdness—but since the band affected how Watt thought about rock ’n’ roll, playing with them was a dream. Despite the seeming simplicity of the bass parts, Watt learned a lot because he was accustomed to the democratic ideas Minutemen had about rock ’n’ roll sound, where no instrument was sonically placed ahead of others. His bass was treated as equally attention-worthy as Boon’s guitar in the mix, but not in The Stooges.
“With The Stooges, there are certain physics, and I am part of the kick drum,” he says, but occupying that space wasn’t mere or simple. “Scotty [Asheton] on the drums held back. He wasn’t ahead. And Ronnie [Asheton] had a sense of the drone, which put up a dome of sound. With Scotty holding back, there was a trippy tension that gave much tension to that music. You have to be very careful with the bass.”
“Hardly anything was an accident and nothing was on the thug level,” he says of The Stooges. As a guy with a strong work ethic, Watt appreciated Iggy Pop’s. After a set at a festival in England, Watt remembers Iggy telling him, “ I feel like I’m playing to every dude. I’m a short order cook. You want fries with that? You want a coke? You want cheese on that?”
Watt didn’t audition for that gig, nor did he audition for il sogno del marinaio. In fact he says, he has never auditioned.
“I take these coincidences and then work to make them happen,” he says. “We’ll get the music. We just have to practice more. You have to do the work.”