Mike Watt's the opposite of a guitar hero—you know, the guys standing at the footlights, guitar held aloft like a religious artifact, face wrenched into an orgasmic look-at-me pose. He is, after all, a child of punk, raised on ideas of humility, community and anti-stardom. Then again, it could simply be that he's a bassman.
"Bass players are like glue. We need stuff to stick to or we're just a puddle," Watt offers during one of his trademark spiels as he makes his way from Albuquerque to Oklahoma City, spreading the gospel behind his latest album, Hyphenated-Man.
It's the legendary bassist's third "opera," as he describes them. These discs are recaps, or chunks of encapsulated life experiences, that have appeared every seven years. Accompanied by a changing cast of collaborators, these operas have traced the genesis of his seminal '80s punk band, The Minutemen, and his relationship with his father (1997's Contemplating the Engine Room) and a near-fatal infection when he was 42 (2004's The Secondman's Middle Stand). And now, Hyphenated-Man is a loose 30-track consideration of life pulled from the perspective of middle age.
The new album's dedicated to Watt's Minutemen bandmate D. Boon, who was killed in a van accident in 1985 and took the band with him. It was inspired in large part by their music and is arguably the closest thing to a Minutemen album anyone's released in the last 25 years. While fellow SST acts like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and the Descendents—all crucial '80s indie rock forebears—have witnessed scores of imitators, no one's really copped the Minutemen's jazzy minimalist punk-funk. Maybe the tragedy earned the band some breathing room. In fact, for years after Boon's death, Watt avoided not just playing their music but even listening to it. But then he was asked to participate in Tim Irwin's 2005 Minutemen documentary, We Jam Econo, so he listened again.
"I still get sad if I think about [D. Boon & the Minutemen]. It's a bad thing. I heard this stuff and I was like, 'Wow. No filler,'" he recalls. "But that We Jam Econo documentary—I started listening to the stuff again and I liked it. I wanted somehow to do it without it being stupid fucking Happy Days shit. I didn't want to be nostalgic or something."
Instead of writing on bass, as he normally would, Watt picked up a black Telecaster guitar Boon got in Kent, Ohio. He put together some demos, recruiting former labelmate Tom Watson (Slovenly, Red Krayola, Overpass) to play guitar and drummer Raul Morales (F.Y.P., Jag Offs), a veteran of the same San Pedro scene that spawned the Minutemen 30 years ago. Both have backed Watt on previous tours. Watt taught them their parts without letting them hear the songs. They cut the drums and guitar without hearing a note of bass or a word of lyrics until it had already been mixed.
"I didn't want it to be too much Minutemen. Because I was using a lot of things from my past and I thought I should give respect to Georgie [Minuteman drummer George Hurley] and D. Boon, but I should also give respect to Tom and Raul because they're different guys," Watt says. "They share some similar things but still, they're not robots. Tom and Raul are both saints to learn from my palsied, lame abilities on guitar."
But the Minutemen weren't Watt's only inspiration for Hyphenated-Man. His prior two operas were thematically driven—by his father's life as a midshipman and Dante's Divine Comedy, respectively. This album's informed by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, especially his massive The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch's surreal, moralistic caricatures of humans—cadged together pieces of men, animals and objects—became the song titles, with their odd shapes and actions serving as metaphors for the way life and our personalities shape us. He even name-checks Kafka and Kierkegaard.
Unlike prior albums, which had a narrative arc, this is all middle, all development. Animated by Watt's inimitable, elliptical poetry, the songs are like pieces of a man competing for air space, all screaming at once.
"It's supposed to be more in the moment, but I did have to put each part after each other. It's pretty difficult to do 30 at once," Watt jokes. "D. Boon always said my words were too spacey ... I'm not too good at making things explicit. I got to use metaphor and analogy. I don't know how to describe it literally."
He does so pretty effectively. There's the "Own-Horn-Blowing-Man," foisting "expression from repression not badge-buffin' or baggin' wind but to get out what's stuck within." And then there's the "Jug-Footed-Man" ("stumblin' around tumblin' down fumblin' about all drown swimmin' in wallow with every swallow sentimental shmaltzy-bound") and "Finger-Pointing-Man" ("conviction's like some affliction, without the clout of some doubt it's fuckin' nonsense"). On the final track, "Wheel-Turnin-Man," he concludes, "Life's for learnin' as I'm goin' through my trips—me on the wheel as it's turning."
"That's the big central thing to the third opera," says Watt. "I think it's always figuring on it. You never answer it. The knowing is in the doing."
So Watt forges on. He's entering his eighth year in the reformulated Stooges—already longer than he spent in either the Minutemen or his post-Minutemen band fIREHOSE. He's still working with his old mate George Hurley. They'll be playing old Minutemen tunes as a duo at the next All Tomorrow's Parties festival, something they did sporadically when We Jam Econo came out. Also forthcoming is a new Unknown Instructors album featuring Hurley, Watt, guitarist Joe Baiza and singer/ saxophonist Dan McGuire. In January, he backed the man from Corwood Industries, Jandek, in a rare live performance—"one of the most exciting gigs I've done, an incredible experience."
At 53, Watt shows no signs of slowing down. He's come a long way since he described D. Boon and himself as "fucking corndogs" in "History Lesson—Part II." But he still retains the sense of youthful wonderment and joy that's central to his music and vitality.
"I need it because it gives me a focus," he says. "It helps. I'm not trying to be naive or infantile, but there's something about—Perry [Farrell] once told me—the child's eye of wonder."
A 2007 cover story for Bass Player magazine described Watt as punk's philosopher-king, but he's not one who cares too much for titles or accolades. He's too busy with the doing and the living, which may, after all, be one and the same. Or, as he casually quips, "Nah, I'm just an enlisted man."