Exclusive Interview: A Conversation with Mike Watt

Punk rock legend, Mike Watt of Minutemen, hops on a Skype session to chat with us about DIY culture, 1980's punk, and his experience within the San Pedro scene.

 

Photo by: Spenser Judd

 

Okay, so just you know, Mike Watt is a bassist's bassist. He knows how to bust out a groove and glue together a song or scene with his sense of rhythm and sheer rawness. He's like the Les Claypool of the 1980's punk rock scene or better yet, he's the Mike Watt of the 80s punk scene. Known for his involvement with Minutemen, The Missingmen, and other projects, Watt is as DIY as it gets. Even if these names don't ring a bell, you've probably heard "Corona" by Minutemen, it's the Jackass theme song. So yeah, Watt is a legend by all means. He helped pave the way for so many punks over the years and he still has that intense energy whenever you catch him live.


A few months back, I sent it down to Long Beach to catch Meatbodies play at Alex's Bar and was pleasantly surprised to find out Mike Watt & the Secondmen were on the bill. I saw them for the first time back in 2017 at Dirty Penny Fest on the come-up of a bad acid trip. Their unique style of punk rock, rockabilly, and bluesy funk instantly triggered that LSD to kick in a bit too quickly... Haha, so I had to step out of the show before their set was up.


I'm glad I had this new opportunity to see them again without the acid fuckin' with my mind because their stage presence is unrivaled. Each member tunes into the other's grooves, perfectly riffing off each other's instruments where the songs melt into each other seamlessly. Their set at Alex's Bar was a cozy clash of energy that made me feel right at home.


After the set, I was geeked up from the onslaught onstage and wanted to know more about the artists behind the music, so I made it a mission to get ahold of Mike to chat more about his take on DIY culture and the current state of underground music. Here's what he had to say...

 
 

Mike: So you wanted to talk about zines?


Spenser: Yeah, we started making our zine earlier this year.


Mike: Spenser, zines were so important in the old days. Yeah, they were like the fabric like you weren’t gonna wait around for Rolling Stone or whatever bullshit to validate or whatever, you know. They were just shills for the record companies they were propped up by, so here in SoCal our big one was Slash and Flipside, there were two of ‘em. They were all over the country and they were like the fabric, I mean it was more than just a zine. This was how Chuck Dukowski got his first circuit going that we toured, actually I still tour on this mother fucker 40 years later.


Spenser: No way


Mike: Yeah, the guy running the zine, his band would probably be opening up, we’d conk at his pad, we’d find the venue. Yeah, zines were a huge fabric in our scene.


Spenser: That’s beautiful, I was inspired early on by BYO and what Youth Brigade was doing.


Mike: Oh yeah, D. Boon put out Prole for about 6 or 7 issues. Yeah you know the whole idea, it’s like having your own website. Actually having a website’s sort of like having your own zine, with no filter, no middle man, you let the freak flag fly you know. Then what happens, everyone goes to Fakelook, Instantham, and Shitter. They go to the corporate things. You know it exists, anyone can have a website. Anyone can have a zine as long as you have a ‘puter or a smart leash you could be in Sierra Viejo you know.


So what do you wanna ask me?


Spenser: We’re kind of already going into it. What’s your take on DIY culture and how has it changed over the years?


Mike: Well in some ways it ain’t changed. Like, it ain’t gonna get down until you do it. Real DIY, I’m not saying like some branding. You notice this word “indie” is kind of a style of music now. (laughs) It’s so bizarre. Motherfuckers…anyway it’s actually an old tradition, Spenser, yeah I’m thinking 1855 first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.


Now he puts that motherfucker out, he thinks he’s going to have 12 poems. Because it was a slow slide into the Civil War, everyone kind of knew it was coming. He thought 12 poems, yea guys at work, you know at the factory or at lunch, would read this shit and say, “yeah fuck it we don’t have to go to war”. (laughs) Okay, whatever maybe not, but it doesn’t matter, this is what the man felt like he could do with his expression and his art and since, yeah maybe it’s something that corporate money couldn’t get behind, he said, “Fuck that, I’ll put it out myself.” So apparently “conservative” means old values, old things, well nobody talks about this shit. Yeah, they talk about how to be a police state and shit like that.


Actually, DIY, do it yourself, letting the freak flag fly is an old tradition. It’s not really that new. In fact, going back to the punk movement that I was a part of, there was this band in the city called Black Humor up in San Francisco and they had this song, where in the chorus, the lady hollers, “the only thing new is you finding out about it” and that is the fuckin’ truth. That’s a lot about, what the movement was about in a way.


When I look back at it now, it wasn’t a style of music or haircut or funny names really, I mean that was part of it, but really what it was about was anti-arena rock. But there was this idea too about, yeah Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, having your say and if you have to, doing it yourself, you know, cause that’s the only way it’s gonna get done. Yea you know the whole idea of people having a club where people meet each other and talk. I mean how many bands are starting clubs, how many bands are starting arena rock shows, I mean the things were nothing but Nuremberg rallies to make money anyway.


You know what I mean, a farmer would tell you if you want a good crop you’re going to be using a lot of manure. It seems nature-based, it’s a reaction, it’s like some kind of situation that comes onto you, and then how do you negotiate with that, how do you deal with that. It’s not something trying to be snarky or a smart ass.


No, it’s dealing with the situation and trying to come up with solutions, not belly-aching and being some entitled, spoiled kind of shit. No, do-it-yourself stuff comes out of trying to find solutions to things that kind of look like they’re impossible.


You find out, “Woah maybe there's a shot at this, maybe there’s a shot. If we try to do it, cuz notice I don’t say the “I” a lot of times it is a “we”. It is hard to dream by committee, but a lot of times these types of things take cooperation. So maybe if we get together, we’ll have a better shot at trying some things. Instead of thinking you’ve got it all figured out, well I mean you do have to have a hankering or gumption to try it yourself, but in another way, it takes a big bunch of humility. That’s the weird thing about it, yeah it’s like a duality in a way. Not being so full of yourself, but enough of yourself so you’ve got the nerve to try. You can’t put yourself in a palace where “I know it all” and be taught anything. In fact, the experience of doing shit like this is actually one of the greatest classrooms ever. That’s the way I look at it.


Spenser: Fully, I think collaboration’s a really important part of it too. Do you think the Internet helped DIY culture to an extent, or at least helped to open people’s minds about collaboration?


Mike: Well you know, it’s dualistic too, like all things human. You can take that knife and cut your burrita into two pieces or you can stab your bite, like look what I tore off. Most of it’s...the United States interstate system right, that’s a military road. In the old days remember we didn’t have the Internet, so we used pay phones when Chuck Dukowski booked that tour circuit. Now AT&T...not too independent of a company, not too indie (laughs)


Right so you’d put your two quarters in there, if they didn’t jump on the line you didn’t hang up on their ass, right. So I’m on the interstate and the Volkswagens going by, they don't jump out and try to grab my steering wheel and share my road. That’s what I’m saying in part, well some people would say, “well to collaborate, you’re diluting your message”. Fundamentally, you’re about keeping your autonomy and your integrity, you’ll never enter into any collaborations or whatever coexistent situations because that would threaten that, right? Like what I was saying about AT&T, that’s what the way I look at the Internet, it’s just a means.


Here’s another example Spenser, a pocket knife that’s used to do some whittling. Where is the art in the knife? Is it the knife itself or what’s going to become of it, like the art you’re going to get out of that, right? So yeah that’s how I see the Internet. It’s not going to save the day, but it can be used in certain ways to help you get that expression out there to share with folks. The good thing about it, it ain’t one way so they can actually fuckin write you back even.

Right, so there are good things about the Internet and yeah I mean it’s a place where people spread lies and hate and are really full of shit, but man that’s one of the dangers. Just like getting on a skateboard, oh welp might break the neck. (laughs) So it’s fraught with things, but I think it’s worth it. I don’t think it’s entirely bad, you know it’s like that pocket knife.


What are you going to carve? Are you just going to worship the pocket knife or carve some shit with it? That’s the way I look at the Internet.


Spenser: Real...


Mike: Yeah look, D. Boon’s mom put me on bass and I didn’t even know what a bass was, but I was going to get to be in a band with him if I learned about it. I didn’t give a shit, you know I’m into the bass big time but it seems like bass is kind of like being a puddle, like glue right. If you got nothing to stick to, you're just a puddle but if you have things to stick to, you can make total sense. You can be totally relevant. You can glue that drumset to the guitar man, you can make a fuckin’ three-piece. So I pray into the bass, I’m totally fuckin’ grateful for it and you know why, it’s a world of a buttload of possibilities. It’s just up to me to spend some time to figure out, how can I use this to realize expression and then get back together with my co-conspirators…you know the other guys in the band. (laughs)


Spenser: Yea, we recently caught you guys with Meatbodies at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach. You were definitely just tapping into the moment, what’s your relationship with the bass been like?


Mike: That was a clam show, I blew some clams, I was better the next night with Flipper. You know Minutemen opened up for them 41 years ago, ain’t that a trip. Yeah and now here I am helping brother Ted and Steve. Great cats, you know, and beautiful music. I was trying my hardest and people, you know the responsibility to gig-goers who came to see you play. You’ve got to give them the best you can even though it might be hard. I mean I guess you call those ethics. It’s weird how close it is to that word “aesthetics”, cuz aesthetics are an artistic thing and can be more personal while ethics is what you stand for. Yeah, it’s trippy how they’re so close. I don’t know probably some Greek or Latin, something that goes way back. See a lot of this shit ain’t that new, the problem is that it doesn’t get used, in my opinion.


Spenser: How have you seen the scene in San Pedro change?


Mike: The local scene’s actually gotten pretty intense.​​ Todd, the ol’ Recess Records boss, opened up a club here called The Sardine on Pacific and 11th St. It’s a punk club here. You know when Minutemen started here there were like 5 or 6 in the whole town. Now, we actually got venues bands can play. You got cats moving to Pedro now, to be part of the scene. I’d say that’s a sign that it’s healthy down here.


Spenser: That’s awesome, I actually got to check out The Sardine like a week ago. It’s a nice spot.


Mike: Yeah, yeah man for one you’re talking like a mile away. You know, in the old days “30 miles to Hollywood” right now it’s only like a mile. I just played there with Todd’s band doing Stooges, yeah I love them so much. I don’t think we would have had a movement without The Stooges. I love The Stooges music and I got to help them for 125 months.


Spenser: No way.


Mike: Yeah, from 2003-2013. Ig and Ronnie hadn’t talked in 29 years. Quite a mind-blow that got to happen. I thought it was gonna be one gig...beautiful people and I really love that music and it’s so important to our thing. It goes to show…you know people ask me about the old days and I say “well in the old days, it was a lot about people”. I think the new day is all about people too. I think it’s always going to be about the people.


Spenser: Definitely, I find it strange that some people from my generation or these younger kids who grew up with social media have never seen a show outside their phones.


Mike: Well yeah we had social media too, but it was different. It was like bumper stickers and seedy radio. (laughs) People have always been shouting and yelling at each other, okay, it’s just in a different form.

Now, lemme tell you some good things about your generation. My generation, right I’m 13 in 1970, we wouldn’t listen to shit that was even 5 years older. I remember watching the Woodstock movie and dudes were yelling at the screen like, “this is my dad’s music”. Young dudes now, they’ll listen to a

50-year-old band like Black Sabbath no problem.


That never happened back in my day. We were such narcissists. Now, things ain’t perfect of course, but man you would have to be there to know some fuckin’ dudes that were trippin’ on their own shit and not giving a god damn about anything before. Okay, so don’t knock your generation and also, Spenser, nobody picks when they were born. (laughs) There was last shift, then this shift and there’s the next shift and that’s just the way it is, and it’s okay too.


Spenser: Do you have any upcoming plans or shows with The Secondmen this year?


Mike: No, because Pete’s dad is very sick and he’s bowed out of doing gigs for a little while. So we’ve got a studio down here in Pedro that we built in his backyard. I never have to go fuckin’ Hollywood anymore, I can record right here in Pedro. It’s a 32-track ProTools setup. He just got done with building an echo chamber for it now. So he’s busy with that stuff and taking care of his pop, but we’re gonna be making an album. In the meantime, I’m helping the Flipper guys out and Missingmen are working on an album. You know, both Secondmen and Missingmen were put together to be realized by our 2nd or 3rd album. We did those albums and the mission was completed. I just love playing with those guys so much that I wanna make more records with ‘em.


So those are the main things I’ve got going. You know, mikewatt.com has the hoot page, so there’s a lot of news there…what I’m up to and shit like that. Like I said, that’s my zine huh. We were going on about the bad things on the Internet. Well, there’s some good things cuz that zine culture can still live. You couldn't get that thing you printed up at Kinko’s in the older days, so in some ways as far as a delivery system…The “C” word is still big right, CONTENT, you’ve got to have something to write about, right? That’s what was so bitchin’ about zines in the old days. Dudes that went to gigs, you could tell they loved what they were seeing. They would write the most intense reviews and record reviews that would make you go, “man I wanna hear that. Look how this guy writes about this.”


In fact, I’ll tell you, the singer of The Gun Club (Jeffrey Lee Pierce), I first learned about him when he was writing reviews for Slash.


Spenser: (laughs) Oh no way.


Mike: Yea, pinche güey. Kickboy Face was the editor (laughs) can’t remember his real name. Yea everybody had punk names in those days so yeah Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The zine let it go man, people could really fuckin’ express themselves. There was no straight jacket, no leather mask with a zipper mouth. (laughs)


Spenser: So is there anything else you’d wanna leave off for fans/listeners out there?


Mike: You asked me a lot of good stuff. Sounds like you’re a little motivated, so mission accomplished. (Laughs) I can’t thank ya enough, Spenser, cuz you didn’t ask the same o’l, same ol’ questions. You know that same ol’ tired ass shit, your stuff’s well focused.

 
 

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