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The Hyphenated-Man Finds Enlightenment

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FLAGPOLE.COM ∙ MARCH 23, 2011

ince D. Boon got killed, I didn’t listen to much Minutemen. It’s kinda heavy for me,” says Mike Watt. The problem of how we negotiate the past is one of our great and difficult mysteries, and it will likely stay that way. But working problems, head-on, has always been what Mike Watt does. The blue-collar ethos he developed growing up and growing older in the small harbor town of San Pedro, CA consistently guides his approach towards music and art. Punk rock changed his life, and in turn, he came to symbolize everything it could promise: proletarian grit, open-hearted idealism, political eye-poking, pragmatic utility, fearless experimentation. His role as a musician has been simultaneously primary and supportive: he has written four albums of solo work, but his instrument, as key to his life as a wrench to a mechanic, is the bass guitar. In his music with the Minutemen, fIREHOSE and others, Watt has struggled with the weird existential stuff for which punk rock was invented to unpack. Who was art for? What is our labor worth? What ought to be questioned? The answer to that last question is everything, as it turned out; that was the big crux of the Minutemen, his massively important trio with drummer George Hurley and guitarist D. Boon. When D. Boon died in a car wreck, Watt put the Minutemen away. That was in 1985. When Flagpole reached Watt at his home in Pedro, the phone scarcely rang before the man himself barked “WATT!”, and right off we started discussing how he got back into the Minutemen. “Are you aware of this We Jam Econo?” Watt asks. He’s referring to the 2005 documentary that explored all the multifaceted sides of the Minutemen: three-man salon of ideas, ripping and buoyant live act, dudes in van. Boon, Hurley and Watt responded to the immediacy and brevity of punk but especially dug into its inherent destructive/regenerative nature. With old rules shredded, experiments in dissonance, rhythm, spoken word, folk, jazz, country and (most famously) funk were all part of the new map of possibilities. The songs were short, but within those songs were previously unthoughtof challenges. When filmmakers Keith Schieron and Tim Irwin approached Watt for commentary and reflection, he obliged them in spite of whatever pain the reflection might inflict. In re-discovery: surprise. “I was kinda interested, like, whoa, look at these little things! We made these little songs. And that wasn’t our idea—we got it from Wire, y’know. Pink Flag.” Two times before, Watt has dealt with the past with longform albums he calls operas. The first, Contemplating the Engine Room, dually mapped the Navy life of his father and the storyline of his time with the Minutemen. His second, the markedly difficult The Secondman’s Middle Stand, explored his brutal stay in the hospital through the narrative lens of Dante’s Divine Comedy. His third and newest opera, Hyphenated-Man, was borne of his rediscovery of the Minutemen’s catalog and is no less conceptually rich. “When I was a teenager, I got kinda fascinated with this Dutch painter named Hieronymous Bosch… these little creatures,” Watt says. “It seemed like his paintings were one thing made of a bunch of little things. And that reminded me kind of a Minutemen gig or album. So, I used those kinda things to frame up this idea about confronting myself in this day, these days, this moment. Which I guess is supposed to be some kinda mid-life crisis or somethin’?” he says, laughing. The Bosch comparison is not unreasonable: while the concept of “econo” was the Minutemen’s signature ethic, meaning maximum efficiency with minimal filler, the lattice they formed

when one stepped back revealed real, vivid and thoroughly felt-out art. “I was thinkin’ of The Wizard of Oz,” Watt continues. “You notice the Scarecrow and the Tin Man and the Lion are actually the farmhands. Y’know, ‘you were there, you were there…’ And Dorothy’s trippin’ on what dudes do to be dudes, y’know? Which I think is the crux of the middle-aged thing for guys, like, what does it mean to be… whatever,” he digresses, sounding maybe a little embarrassed. “So, the Bosch things, they’re like little men made of different parts, so I thought, whoa, maybe these things could go together to make a piece.” Taking himself out of his normal element of bass guitar, Watt pulled out D. Boon’s Telecaster guitar and set about writing his puzzle pieces. Only one of the 30 songs rendered exceeds two minutes, and each contains a microcosm of personal investigations. Did the exploratory experience feel akin to completing a jaunt down a canary-colored highway? “Well, actually, what the fuckin’ man behind the curtain tells ‘em is that they always had it. They don’t have to give ya a badge or a diploma, remember all that stuff? What is it? Validation and all that shit,” he says. “But I hope that that’s the main thing that people get from this third opera, is that life is for learnin’… If you think you got it all figured out, you’re missin’ part of the trip.” These reflections in turn led to a revelation which in turn has led the already-prolific Watt to ramp up his output even more. “I’ve done so many gigs in the last 10 years and so few recordings, I really thought it was out of balance. And when you’re gone, all you’ve got is those works. Gigs are very important, it’s in the moment, it’s part of life, but they’re gone when you’re gone. And I never had children—this is the closest thing I got to kids, is works.” He proceeds to rattle off a staggering list of upcoming releases, including his long-running dueling basses duo Dos (with ex-wife Kira Roesller, formerly of Black Flag), a rekindling of his collaboration with jazz guitarist/ Wilco sideman Nels Cline, the Black Gang and way more—so much Watt has started his own label, Clenched Wrench. Watt’s current tour (with his latest trio, The Missingmen) to present the new opera to folks is a different kind of return for him: a return to the club circuit. For nearly a decade now he’s been playing far bigger spaces as bassist for The Stooges. “It’s a little different,” he chuckles. “But life is about takin’ turns. With everything. So, why not with gigs?… But it’s comin’ on eight years with The Stooges. I’ve actually done that now longer than bein’ in either fIREHOSE or Minutemen.” And so it’ll go for Mike Watt into the future: stretching each project as long as they will allow, taking each vehicle to the logical conclusions they were built to find. We’re lucky to have him, him and his un-“punk” urge to look back and glean knowledge from whatever path he’s taken. His story isn’t over yet, and it will continue to be told. Because for Mike Watt, the autobiography has been in the living. Jeff Tobias

WHO: Mike Watt + The Missingmen, J Roddy Walston and the Business WHERE: 40 Watt Club WHEN: Saturday, Mar. 26, 9 p.m. HOW MUCH: $10 (adv.)

Mike Watt

Mike Watt’s Mid-Life Crisis

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http://flagpole.com/images/jpgs/2011/03/23/FP110323.pdf