Mike Watt in Conversation with Jeff Ho

MIKE WATT INTERVIEW BY JEFF HO WITH PHOTOS BY DAN LEVY

Hey, Mike, I wanted to ask you a few questions. 

Okay. We’re in the boat. We’re not in Pedro. We’re in Santa Monica in the boat. 

Yes. The boat! You’ve got a new touring van. It’s nice. Thanks for inviting us on board. So you live in San Pedro, but where are you from?

Well, I’m really from Virginia. I came to Pedro when I was nine. My pop is a sailor and it was a lot closer to Vietnam here on this side, so I came to Pedro at nine, and I never left. I’ve been in Pedro now 52 years, almost 53. 

They’ve got a skatepark in Pedro called Channel Street and they just got approval to open it back up and rebuild it. 

Yeah. It’s actually two parks right next to each other. It’s under the Harbor Freeway at Channel Street. The city hired some of the guys to build one at Peck Park too, so we’ve actually got three skate parks. The two you’re talking about are going to be redone because they got closed down for a while, which was very sad. You know who it was? It was Andy Harris. He’s a longshoreman guy with the San Pedro Skatepark Association at sanpedrosk8.org. Andy is the guy. I did some benefits and stuff with the guys to get the money up to get those things built years ago.

MIKE WATT AT HARVELLES IN SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA. PHOTO © DAN LEVY

Right. Nice. How do you feel about the relationship between punk rock and skateboarding?

Tony Alva is a bass player. Do I need to say anything more? That goes way back. I think it’s the same kind of thing where it’s econo. If you want, you can spend very little money on a deck and some trucks, and then you can come up with your own style. When it comes to the punk rock movement and the skate movement, I think they go hand in hand. In fact, when Brian Brannon was doing Thrasher, he had me write a column about why I tried to play my bass like it was a skateboard. I do think they are very much in commune with each other. It’s a whole philosophy, ‘We jam econo’, that’s tied in with this stuff. When they didn’t have the parks, they used people’s pools. You used the sidewalk or whatever you had. It’s just like playing in the garage or the bedroom or the basement. It’s the same kind of thing. Parallel universe. Sometimes you have to make do. Walt Whitman did it. Leaves of Grass. 1855. DIY is an old thing and skating is a big part of that. The problem I had was that I’m before urethane wheels. It was this red chalk shit and steel wheels where even the tiniest pebble would knock you over. If you could believe it, the dudes in Navy housing, actually sat on them like go-karts to go down the hill, to keep the center of gravity down so you wouldn’t wipe you out. Even the sidewalk cracks would wipe you out because the wheels weren’t flexible.

That’s the truth.

Those were lame days. Urethane changed everything. When urethane comes out that’s when you started seeing Dogtown stuff. 

Yeah. Urethane made the skateboard ride like it had four-wheel drive. 

Yeah. Can you believe people were sitting on them like they were go-karts? They were long too and they had these red clay fucking wheels or steel. The little short red boards had steel wheels and they’d be eight-sided after a month. [Laughs]

Yes. So what do you remember about Don Kirshner and the rock concerts? 

They were taped at the Long Beach Auditorium, which got torn down. It’s now called the Long Beach Opera House. The Long Beach Auditorium was where me and D. Boon saw our first gig together. It was T. Rex. We were 14 years old. Then we found out that behind the stage was another smaller place and that’s where all the Don Kirshner’s were being taped. You could see them for free, but you’d have to see the same song 10 times and the assholes holding up a sign that says, “Applaud” but we saw T. Rex, Black Sabbath and Steppenwolf and all that shit. I remember Patti LaBelle coming through the crowd with the cowbell for the eighth or ninth time. He’s the guy who invented The Monkees and then his son ended up hosting the Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.

Yeah. So you’ve said that Richard Hell was a big influence on you. How do you translate that into your music and work? 

He was a huge influence and he is a bass player. I gotta tell you that bass players, that’s where you put your slow friend. It was like right field in Little League. [Laughs] You know, where nobody’s gonna hit the ball. Here’s Richard Hell and not only is he writing the songs and singing them, he’s the leader of the band. I couldn’t believe this. It was just all that hierarchy stuff. D. Boon didn’t dig that anyway. Richard Hell, and also his guitar player, Bob Quine – D. Boon was way into him too. There was something about Richard Hell that really made me think, “Yeah, man, I really am glad I am a bass player. Thank you D. Boon’s mom.” 

“Tony Alva is a bass player. Do I need to say anything more? That goes way back. I think it’s the same kind of thing where it’s econo. If you want, you can spend very little money on a deck and some trucks, and then you can come up with your own style. When it comes to the punk rock movement and the skate movement, I think they go hand in hand.”

Cool. Yeah. So how did everything get started with New Alliance Records? 

D. Boon started that with Martin Tamburovich. We were inspired by SST. We found out that being in the movement was not just about having a band. It was about putting out records and zines and letting the freak flag fly and doing everything you could.

Right. Okay, you’ve got a radio show. 

Yeah. I’ve been doing that for 18 years now. All the shows are archived at twfps.com – The Watt From Pedro Show. I just did one this morning. I do ‘em  usually once a week, for three hours. For me, it’s like paying on the debt that I owe the movement. They let me and D. Boon play our music and come to Hollywood and play gigs. I thought, now that I can have a show on the internet, why not let all the people that might not be able to get heard, heard, and also talk to them about their journeys through music because everybody has a unique one. 

Yeah. Okay. What movements or causes are you currently backing?

Well, Doctors Without Borders is my favorite charity because they just want to help people that hurt, and I’ve always given money to them. There’s the ACLU and Amnesty International. I belong to those two also. I’ve been a 30 year member of American Federation of Musicians Local 47, so I’m a union man, too. Wilmington always has a Labor Day march and I’m always in the parade. I’m up there with the longshoremen.

Cool. How would you describe your style as a bass player? 

Well. That’s kind of hard because I’ve got a lot of influences, but here’s my easiest answer. “What kind of bass player are you?” “Well, I’m D Boon’s bass player.” He had the biggest influence on me. 

Right. Let’s talk about Norton Wisdom. 

He’s an incredible artist. Also he was the oldest lifeguard in Malibu for a long time. 

Norton Wisdom once said, “There is nobody tougher than Mike Watt. There is no water boarding or anything you could do to this guy to impress him.” Who is the toughest motherfucker that you know?

Wow. Well, Norton Wisdom is pretty tough too. I’d say Nels Cline and Hank Rollins and Ian MacKaye. There are a lot of cats from the movement that are tough. Pat Smear. I love them. 

How long have you known Norton?

Well, he’s an old buddy of Nels Cline and, when we started helping Perkins with Banyan, he would come on stage and interpret the gig with painting in real time. I thought that was an incredible dimension to add to a gig. He’s very sensitive, so he’s interpreting the music and he always made room for the bass.

MIKE WATT + THE MISSINGMEN AT HARVELLES IN SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA. PHOTO © DAN LEVY

Yeah. I saw him with you guys when you were playing at the Liquid Kitty.

Yeah, Dave Childs. 

I have to thank Dave Childs for what he’s doing and the Punk Rock BBQ.

Absolutely. Sure.

You just described Norton’s art and what that personal impact has made to you. 

It’s real time. He’s adding a dimension that you don’t usually experience at a music gig. He’s  blending in, like my best friend, Raymond Pettibon. He’s a visual guy. Me and his worlds are separate, but I’ve had him write words for me. One time I tried to do that with him in Riverside on top of an art gallery. I was playing bass while he was drawing, but all he could draw was pictures of Joe Stalin. [Laughs] Norton has been doing it a long time. Nels told me he’s been doing it since the ‘70s, and Nels is all about improvisation too. Norton ain’t planning. He’s just feeding off the sitch.

He is. Okay. Stephen Perkins, drummer. 

Yeah. Beautiful man. Love him. He’s the guy that put together Banyan. That’s his project. I first played with him in Porno for Pyros and did three tours with him. He’s a beautiful man. We do this Hellride thing too where we interpret Stooges with the John Coltrane perspective. He’s a great cat. Peter DiStefano is too.

Yeah. Peter is great. He’s off the hook. Have you heard the new Iggy Pop record?

No, but it’s called Free. He called me right before the last tour and he told me he had a radio show too in England on the BBC. You know, I got to serve 125 months with him. Three of the Stooges are gone now, but he’s still going. He plays music through his whole career. In fact, I just did an instrumental version with Larry Mullins who is playing drums with Nick Cave now. We just did an instrumental of “1969” because it was the 50th anniversary of the first Stooges album. No Stooges. No movement. They are key to what I’m doing. There would have been no Minutemen without Stooges. 

“It’s a whole philosophy, ‘We jam econo’, that’s tied in with this stuff. When they didn’t have the parks, they used people’s pools. You used the sidewalk or whatever you had. It’s just like playing in the garage or the bedroom or the basement. It’s the same kind of thing. Parallel universe. Sometimes you have to make do. Walt Whitman did it. Leaves of Grass. 1855. DIY is an old thing and skating is a big part of that.”

So can you tell me how you met D. Boon? 

Yeah. There’s a documentary on YouTube.com called We Jam Econo. He jumped out of a tree on me. I had just moved to these projects out of the Navy housing because my mom didn’t want to move to Alameda. My pop got on the Enterprise in the engine room. She said, “Fuck this. We will stay in Pedro.” So we had moved to this project, which had just got built. It’s shared with an older project in our biggest park called Peck Park. It’s the day after we moved in and I’m walking around. He’s up in a fucking tree and he jumps on me and he goes, “You’re not Eskimo.” I go, “No.” He had really bad eyes. I guess his buddy, I met later, everybody called him “Eskimo”. He’s a beautiful guy. They had run off, so I was just there. I said, “I just moved here. I’ll show you where I live.” So we’re walking across baseball fields to the new pad. I was 12, so I’d never heard of stand up comedians and shit. He starts reciting these bits and I think, “Whoa, this is the smartest dude in the fucking world.” So I show him my pad and he said, “Okay. Tomorrow you come over and I’ll show you where I live.” I go to his pad the next day and he puts on a cassette and off the TV he had tape recorded this guy, George Carlin. He didn’t make up any of those bits. He memorized them! [Laughs] But it was too late. That day, the second day I met him, I met his mom. His mom played guitar and she goes, “You’re gonna have a band and you, new guy, you’re going to be the bass.” I didn’t even know what a bass was. That’s why I said I’m very grateful to D. Boon’s mom. She died when we were 18. She died when we were young, but she put something in  motion and, Brother Ho, we’re talking now. 

Yes! That’s so cool. So you’ve often said, “If you’re not playing, you’re paying.” 

[Laughs] I took that actually from vaudeville. I’m getting ready to play this tour that starts Thursday. It’s 45 gigs in 45 days, because when you’re not playing, you’re paying. If you’re going to go out there, go out there, man. 

[Laughs] All right. Okay. I’m going to say these names and you tell me what comes to mind. Raymond Pettibon.

Love him. First guy to play me John Coltrane. I thought John Coltrane was a punk rocker. I didn’t know he was dead. [Laughs] Raymond taught me so much about so much shit – Dadaism and surrealism and all that stuff.

Sonic Youth.

Yeah. Thurston. Kim. Lee. Steve. Good people. They helped me a lot when D. Boon got killed. I played on their Evol record. That’s because I stopped playing when he got killed, and Thurston said, “Come on.” We did a project after that called Ciccone Youth. 

J Mascis. 

Incredible musician. I got to do a couple tours with him. He’s probably the reason the Stooges got back together. I just did an Unknown Instructors album with him.

Iggy Pop.

Iggy is the bow of the boat. Beautiful man. All the Stooges, Ronnie, Scottie, Brother Steve… I was  finally the youngest guy in the band. [Laughs]

Dave Grohl. 

Slammin’ drummer. 

David Markey.

Yeah. I love him. Did a few videos with me –  “Mannequin”, “Down With the Bass”…

Jordan Schwartz.

We go back probably as far as Dave Markey, since the Sin 34 days. 

Black Flag.

SST-002. Minutemen, right? Our first recording and first tour. They brought us to Europe for our first time. They brought us to a lot of places. Big, big influence on us.

Suicidal Tendencies.

We did some gigs with them, before Mike had all the ink. He was always nice to us. 

Big Boys.

Oh yeah, beautiful. Tim, Biscuit, Chris… Our gig with the Minutemen… Butthole Surfers and Big Boys first gig in Hollywood at the Grandia Room. It was up on Melrose near the old Anti-Club. 

D. Boon. 

Always D. Boon. I loved the man. 

San Pedro. 

Once I got there, I never left. Even on tour, the bungee cord just springs me back, Brother Ho.

Do you have anything else you want to say about new stuff you’re doing or your upcoming tours with The Missingmen? 

I’m bringing a drummer with me that’s four months shy of 40 years younger. I have a new Missingmen album coming and a new Secondmen album coming and a new Il Sogno Del Marinaio album coming – all kinds of stuff. I just turned 62 in December. The clock is running, brother. 

FOR THE REST OF THE STORY, GET ISSUE #77 AT THE JUICE SHOP HERE.

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