Punk legend tells FBPO all about the early days, Minutemen, fIREHOSE and, of course, the Stooges!
Mike Watt is a punk bass pioneer, best known for his work with the Minutemen, fIREHOSE and the Stooges.
FBPO: How about if we start from the beginning? Tell me about your musical upbringing.
MW: I got into bass here in (San) Pedro. I’m not from Pedro—I came here when I was about 10, from Virginia. My pop was a sailor and it was closer to Vietnam in those days, around 1967. I got into bass because of D. Boon’s mom. D. Boon was a man I met when we were boys. I was about 13. I met him in a park when he jumped out of a tree. He was playing with his friends and thought I was someone he was playing with, but turned out they all left, so I just met him lucky like that.
I started to go visit him at his pad. His mom had played guitar when she was young, so she had him learn guitar. This is the early ’70s, so there’s not a lot of guns, but there’s fighting and stuff. So she wants us in the house after school, I guess to stay out of trouble or whatever. She wants us to have a band.
FBPO: How did you get into bass?
MW: I remember seeing on the back of most album covers there’s someone on bass. I didn’t really know what bass was, but it looked like every band had them in the pictures. It looked like a guitar with only four strings. It was a lot different than now, with how accessible musical knowledge is. Even when we started going to gigs, there was arena rock stuff, but there was never club stuff with punk.
D. Boon’s mom had no idea we were going to go out and do this for a living. To her it was just something to do after school. What you do is try to copy songs off of records and back then the only rock band D. Boon really knew was Creedence Clearwater Revival. He had their first six albums and man, I just could not hear bass on those records. That’s when I started wearing flannels, because the singer was wearing these kinds of shirts and I thought, “Maybe I can’t learn bass lines but he’ll still like me because I’ll wear this guy’s shirt.” That’s kind of how I got into flannel, too.
FBPO: Who were your influences on the bass?
MW: For U.S. people, it was James Jamerson, Larry Graham, all those Motown records. With England, I could hear rock & roll bass pretty good. They made it big and defined. John Entwistle, Geezer Butler, Jack Bruce, even on the Hendrix records and the Kinks and the Animals, just all of that stuff. You could really hear the bass, so I was kind of influenced by those people at first, and picked up on it.
I was almost 16 when I found out bass had bigger strings. For a couple of years I was playing a guitar with just four strings. We figured they just had a skinnier neck. I don’t know why we didn’t relate the word bass with lower, kick drum stuff. We just didn’t. Like I said, there wasn’t that much accessible information, like instructional videos and stuff.
FBPO: So you just picked up what you could off of records?
MW: There was this guy named Roy Mendez-Lopez who lived in his car and he started showing his stuff, like how to try to copy songs off the radio and what the role of the bass was. I finally found a bass up close at a place called Chuck’s Sound & Music, I think. They would sell records and instruments and school band stuff, horns. It was really strange. I remember in Hollywood, the big store was the organ shop. It was nothing like it is nowadays. It was pretty nebulous how they sold that stuff to people who didn’t know.
Anyway, I saw this thing and I put my hands on it and I was like, “The wonder!” I couldn’t believe how big they were. It was an embarrassing situation because this was the first year of high school, tenth grade, and I had homeroom and I was bragging to some guy that I played bass. This guy saw me in the music store tripping out on this thing and he goes up to me and he says, “I thought you said you were a bass player.” I told him I was and he said, “That’s a bass,” and I said, “Oh, I know.” I did not know that. It sounds so naïve and idiotic. So that’s how I got started on it.
FBPO: Did you ever play upright?
MW: Actually, yes! I worked on a project in the ’90s called “Li’l Pit.” We put out a 7″ record on the Kill Rock Stars label. Other than that, not too much. I remember the best bass player in our town. He was in the school band. Those guys would play upright and electric. Nobody that I knew. We were in the projects. I didn’t even know anyone who could play keyboard because they were too much money. No one had a Fender and no one had a Gibson. The first bass I bought was a Kay. It cost me a hundred bucks and it was tough getting that money. It had really bad action. It was almost like playing a standup.
FBPO: How did you get interested in punk music? I think punk was different back then than whatever it is now.
MW: So we start with arena rock, right? We’d see stuff like T. Rex, Blue Öyster Cult, Alice Cooper. Then we graduate high school in 1976, so it just seemed like we were in the right place at the right time. There was a cat here in Pedro who changed his name to Nicky Beat. That’s what these punk guys would do—change their names. He was walking around the army base. There was a section soon to be dug up and made into a marina, but they were renting out these barracks. We were jamming with a friend of ours named Marc Weisswasser and this guy, Nicky Beat, was walking around down there with a Kotex around his neck. He told us about a scene up in Hollywood where people wrote their own songs. I mean there’s another naïve thing—nobody wrote their own fucking songs. The best guy in the town was the guy that could play “Black Dog” the best or whatever. It was all about copying. This dimension of music, that it could be like a form of expression, was lost on us. It was more like building models or something. It was just a whole different way of approaching it.
So we’d go out and we’d see these bands play and you could tell they were just starting, but they were writing their own songs and playing their own music. Some copies, but mainly their own tunes. It seemed like they’d let anybody play. In fact, the whole club dynamic was trippy, where you could be close to talk to people. You didn’t sit in the dark far away. The scene was almost like the band and the audience were taking turns playing for each other. They’d come right off stage, they’d be out there. You could talk with them and everything. There was no hierarchy.
Some bands didn’t even have guitars, just synthesizers. A lot of the time there were artist people involved, maybe even anti rock & roll, like provocative, you know, with imagery and statement and sometimes mockery. But a lot of times, the way we figured, it was reaction against arena rock. Being with the Stooges now almost ten years, there was a club thing in the ’60s. We just didn’t know about it because by the time I’d come, it had all left the clubs and it was just big rock. We were attracted to the thought of trying to write your own tunes and a lack of hierarchy. Even in the music it seemed like since we were all starting and trying and learning, the bass was kind of even with the drum and the guitar. It’s one of the things I figured out after a while. Besides bigger strings and shit, bass player is where you put your retarded friend. They were the lamest guys in the band. It was like right field in little league. It was that kind of idea and that got lost with punk. Bass players were just as important. You can even hear it in the sounds and stuff. Then there’s Minutemen.
FBPO: Tell me about that band. How did that band come to be?
MW: First gig we went to, the first thing I said to people when we turned in was, “Man, we can do this.” I’d never had that feeling at an arena rock show.
FBPO: Who else? Just the three of you?
MW: Actually, D. Boon and I had a band before the Minutemen punk band called the Reactionaries, which was us three with a fourth man named Martin Tamburovich. Martin was the singer—he’s not in the Minutemen. But the other common guy is George Hurley. He was the drummer for both the Reactionaries and the Minutemen. Actually, when the Minutemen started, George wasn’t in the band. We had a welder named Frank Tonche.
But anyway, in ’78 we get the nerve to try and make our own punk band. After going to the gigs for a year and a half or so, we decided to try it. That’s the first time I’d ever written songs. I had only written one song as a teenager and it was called “Mr. Bass, King of Outer Space” and it was about blowing off the other guys in the band on the stage with a bass solo or something. There was more of this insecurity about your role in the band — being the bass player as in my case — your perceived role, and we didn’t understand it yet.
Part of the punk thing was putting political ideas into the fucking band, so D. Boon played really trebly. He wouldn’t use power chords. He wanted the bass way up front and the drums, too. He wanted it like a redistribution of wealth. In a way, it had to be him because he was the guitar man, so it’s kind of like he let go of some of that power, the stereotypes and clichés of how to be a band, especially a power trio. He brought up the rhythm section. I was into that. Also it galvanized this idea in my head that any time you get more than one guy playing together in an ensemble, you try to make a conversation, an interesting one.
A lot of this was us just trying to find our own sound. We felt kind of tainted, kind of polluted, where we had already been through this arena rock and learning off records and these cats were just learning right from the beginning. We were trying these kind of extreme things. We went for little song forms. We were trying to find our voice, which I think anyone trying to play music and not copy is looking for. If you look at your thumbprint, that’s individual enough, but to translate that into an artistic expression, that’s an endeavor. We were set up on it, though. The big motivation for us being with that movement, the punk movement, was really important that way. We never considered a style of music. It just seemed like a framework or a state of mind. Let the freak flag fly, you just try. It was a very small movement, too. There weren’t that many people and it seemed like the people into it were like full on.
FBPO: Like a cult following?
MW: Maybe us, being boys in the ’60s, we saw all that stuff going on with civil rights and the war and just wanted to have a part in what was happening. It just seemed like a real fertile time. In the ’70s, it looked like our turn. Trends and things all went the other way. It (arena rock) seemed more looking back to Nuremburg rally-type stuff and I think that’s what attracted us to the punk scene because it was opposite of that, more personal and intimate. You know, when you’re a young person reading Nietzsche and stuff like that. You get all fired up. Then having a musical thing to try to articulate, it’s very personal.
I was never really a musician. I got into this stuff to be with my friend. I would say it was a lot of lucky fate and it all came together at the same time. It’s probably about 99% responsible for where I am now. I’ve done a lot of work and I keep working hard at it. It seems like there were these collections of things at that time that put me on the road to where I am. I went and got a degree in electronics. I could tell that certain paths opened up for me.
FBPO: Where did you get your degree in electronics?
MW: Here in Wilmington at Harbor College. My pop had no music people in his family or anything. He didn’t know you could do this for a living. Neither of us thought that. During the Minutemen time, we all had daytime jobs, too. It was kind of a surprise learning that you could make a living off music.
FBPO: Weren’t you a paralegal for a while too?
MW: I did some of that work, oh yeah, for an lawyer in his 90s named Mr. Hanley. I did all kinds of little jobs. D. Boon did and Georgie did and that’s the way we did it. Like I said, the music was a very small scene. It didn’t seem like it was going to get popular, but for us that was okay in a way because there was something about playing your own songs in a band that we really liked. People got more open-minded to the scene and touring and putting out records. We met the guys at SST (Records) and it (music) all became extensions from this primary connect, which was the personal one I had with D. Boon. That’s how the music was all forming, until he got in a traffic accident.
FBPO: Yeah, that was very tragic.
MW: All of a sudden, music had to be for music because I didn’t have him anymore. Luckily, there was a lot of momentum from those older days and I’m still running off of it. I think it’s been 27 years, somebody pointed out to me.
FBPO: At what point did you realize that this was going to be for real, that you were going to have a career in music?
MW: There was a band after the Minutemen called fIREHOSE and a lot of the work that the Minutemen had done was kind of an investment into fIREHOSE. Also, at the time, young people from college were into this kind of scene, so it was bigger. fIREHOSE did tons of tours.
In those days we put out records like flyers to get people to the gig. The gig was everything. Starting the Minutemen stuff, we just got all these things that we took as a priori about music. Punk meant to us that we should think about all parts of stuff and make our own decisions. So we decided to split the world into two categories: gigs and flyers. Everything that wasn’t a gig was a flyer.
A punk gig for us was really profound. It seemed like there was nothing between you and the people going, or the least amount of filter, middleman, you know? Everything else seemed like there were other things in between. But a gig, it seemed, was most direct. Everything in our mind was about getting people to come to the gig so we could do an interview, take a picture, make a record, lay down video, all this stuff.
It’s hard to get people to the gig. We never even really looked at records as the noun version of of the word “work” — only as the verb, something to make to get people to gigs. For us, they were almost temporary. I’m so glad we did as much as we did, though, because, like in D. Boon’s case, he can’t play for us. He had a different idea then. Everything was so spontaneous and in the moment. We never really thought of legacy or stuff like that. I’m sure glad we did do them, whatever the reason—flyer or whatever. Probably Double Nickels was the best one I played on and what the Minutemen are probably known more for. I remember in the moment we never thought about it, what would people think of you because of a record. We always thought in terms of gigs.
FBPO: Changing pace for a minute, what about your duo with Kira Roessler? Dos?
MW: That’s probably the first time I did what’s called a “side project,” something that wasn’t music with D. Boon. It was in the fall of ’85, actually not long before any of that stuff happened to him. The idea of just making music for two basses. She comes from the beginning of the Hollywood punk scene. Her brother was an organ player in the Screamers and, like me, about the old day hierarchy where the bass “belonged” and so we were into fucking with that. Like I said, it’s one of these kind of punk things. Maybe it’s not such a musical idea, but it ends up kind of pushing the music ideas, the idea of writing songs for just two basses, which a lot of people even now think it’s kind of crazy. [Laughs]
FBPO: [Laughing] It’s an acquired liking!
MW: But for us, it was kind of like victory. We didn’t have to compete with anybody. There were no mysteries, nothing to cover us up, nothing to hide. It was kind of scary too. It’s like getting out there on a tightrope. But we were way into it, just to do it, like a dog licks its balls, you know, because he can. That’s why we made Dos, just because we could.
It started with jamming and then we found out that composition is really important because we’re sharing this very thin spectrum of the audible frequencies and it kind of had to be like a Ping-Pong game. It was hard to layer up like in a traditional ensemble, where people are more broad range with the frequencies. You had to pull out and push in so it wouldn’t turn into just a bunch of mud. It wasn’t like trying to be like guitar players, put a fuzz tone on it. It was actually trying to do bass with bass.
I found out later, when I played John Coltrane and all that stuff. I think his Live in Seattle album had two basses. It was weird. We started finding out that there were some actual situations where there’s a couple of basses together, maybe even that Lou Reed song “Walk On The Wild Side.” So people were trying two-bass things.
We always figured bass was something people always added on last. In fact, I got asked by a bass magazine about the future of bass and I said, “Oh yeah, ten more strings, five-octave necks.” [Laughs] I think the future of bass is actually composition. I mean writing on the bass and not this thing that’s put on after. I think it leaves a lot of room for the cats you’re going to collaborate with. I know there were bassists like Mr. Mingus, writing on the piano and stuff, left-handed playing, and they mark everything out, especially harmonically, the chords and all this, and of course the rhythm. I think when you write on the bass, maybe the rhythm and the phrasing, you leave the harmonic stuff more open for the cats you’re going to play with.
In a way, compositions on the bass are kind of springboards, kind of like a launch pad for ensembles. I first realized this by doing Dos. D. Boon, because I grew up playing with him, never had to teach me his songs and I never had to teach him mine. We just started playing and there was kind of this osmosis thing between the both of us. You just start playing along. The guy we had to work in was George, the drummer, which we wanted to do. That’s where we spent most of the time, but we didn’t have to teach each other songs.
When I lost him, I lost that kind of connection. Kira and I wrote songs for two people on bass and a lot of that nerve regarding writing songs was what I got was from doing Dos. If you listen to a lot of fIREHOSE, even towards the end, they began as Dos songs. There were some other projects, too, playing this with just two basses, and the shit is strong enough for one bass guy to springboard some other cat, guitar or drum, whatever.
I even ended up making an album where I had no band and just brought in people. I figured it was a test. If the bass player knew the song, anybody could sing or play drums or guitar. It was called Ball-Hog or Tugboat. Maybe 1994 or 1995, I made it. It was interesting. If you think about it, the bass doesn’t have to be the last thing added to a song, it could be the first thing. The song can start with the bass part and be strong but not dominate, like you’re hearing on those fucking Motown songs with Mr. Jamerson. Not dominating, not being a fake lead guitar, but being strong and key to the song, the music.
FBPO: You raise an interesting point about writing for the bass. Guys like Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Billy Sheehan… you don’t usually hear those names in the same context with Mike Watt, but do they cross your radar? Do you follow what those guys do?
MW: Those are the fusion guys and the virtuoso guys. That magazine gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award, so I got to meet some of those guys, including Mr. Ellefson. He was a really nice man.
FBPO: David Ellefson, from Megadeth.
MW: Yeah. He was talking to me down there. And Bailey?
FBPO: Steve Bailey. We went to school together in Miami.
MW: These guys were at this thing and there were a whole bunch of other guys, but I remember these guys.
FBPO: You’re talking about Bass Player Live! at the Key Club.
MW: That’s right! There were all of these guys. And Verdine White was there, he’s an incredible bass player.
FBPO: Yeah, he’s there every year.
MW: This guy’s got chops and shit but there’s something about that in the Jamerson sense of the tune. Downstairs in the dressing room, there was big talk about Jamerson. Mr. Bailey—you can tell that cat’s from fusion. David Ellefson plays in a hard rock band but it seems like he probably could play anything. He was so down-to-earth and stuff. But the big rap was about respect for Jamerson. They had like eight or nine guys on stage there.
MW: Bootsy was the guy on James Brown, the famous bass player. Part of that stuff with R&B was the guitar man. It was kind of like what D. Boon did with Minutemen. He got trebly and left more space. It wasn’t just a total “bass player taking over” kind of thing. It was also, I think, in that tradition, the guitar players let go a little bit. They’re really tight in these rhythmic pockets. It really helped that kind of sound. Man, I could hear the bass. It wasn’t like they were dominating, but it was the other guys kind of letting go. What I get about Mr. Jamerson is about him providing a personality there. There’s a duty, but I don’t know if there’s such a defined role. There’s a duty, there’s a responsibility to the tune, to the song, but there’s something about presenting a personality in that context that I found very inspiring and interesting about him.
We were all talking about this. These guys play their fucking asses off, but there’s this thing about our instrument. This might be kind of a philosophy. I’m not trying to speak for everybody, but like most things human, the more you do it or the longer you do it, the more notes you want to get in there. And because of nature, the physics of our machine, with big-ass wavelengths to the low end, it actually gets smaller if you play too many notes. It’s always a search for the right notes. That means some guy just learning on the fucking thing can write a good bass line, believe it or not. That’s what I found because of our instrument, like a drummer with his kick drum—that’s the closest note to us in the band, the kick drum.
It’s interesting. They’ve got these sequences and stuff and can do stuff a human can’t do with his legs so much. Well, I guess some of the heavy metal guys can get those beats going! [Laughs]. But you’re hearing the click-click-click. You ain’t hearin’ the boom-boom-boom anymore. You gotta to give space for the boom, for the low. This is amazing, more than the technique with the hands. It’s a sense of rhythm and grooving, and this is from the front man. He’s kind of a conductor. I first experienced this with Perry Farrell, who’s now with Igg (Iggy Pop). They don’t get all caught up in all this technique. They’re hearing it as sounds. They’re hearing big picture. I think this kind of sensibility goes along with the right amount of notes, whatever that is.
It’s a tricky thing. I think it’s an evolving thing. It ain’t been figured out. I think there’s always a bunch of different ways to do it and that’s extensions of people’s personalities. That’s one early thing I learned on bass, in fact. There was no one right way to play it, yet there were a lot of options. In fact, when it happened to me, going to see a band, of course the first thing I’d start focusing on was the bass player. And I’d be thinking in my head, “Nine out of ten chance, probably the guitar man wrote the song, or the organ man. So what kind of part would I write for this?” It was strange. I would go to gigs and kind of learn bass by putting myself in the bass man’s spot, especially with the punk gigs, where there weren’t a lot of changes and stuff. I would be thinking, “I’m assuming those cats play their ass off like that and they’re looking at the same kind of end result. How are they going to help the tune?” Paul Chambers, playing underneath John Coltrane. He wrote him a song called “Mr. P.C.”
FBPO: Love it!
MW: In those days, bass players were the choo-choo trains with all of those eighth notes fucking flying! The drummer used the kick drum for bombs. He didn’t hold the beat with it. It was a very interesting place where the bass was.
FBPO: This is cool, Mike! I didn’t expect to be talking about John Coltrane and Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers.
MW: It’s kind of getting back at the punk thing of how profound it was on me. It just opened minds up to all kinds of shit, those people in the early days of that scene. It wasn’t kids yet until the early ’80s, but in the ’70s, a lot of those cats had big music. They were record collectors and shit. They turned us on to a lot of things and we had no idea, so it all just became music, no more genre or shit. To me, that was the greatest gift of liberation. I know it was like Halloween—the funny clothes, the funny names, and all that shit, but in some ways it was really profound and that’s probably why I’m talking to you on the phone, so I have to give credit to that situation. It is about music, all kinds of things, Paul Chambers and James Jamerson and David Ellefson. You know, to be led into that was a trippy kind of thing. They were so kind to me.
Old days of punk, especially rock and rollers and stuff, they didn’t like that. What’s really remarkable about these days versus the old days is how much more open-minded people are. They don’t judge you like that. I’m very grateful for that. It’s helped us in a way. Back then, you had to do it because everyone hated you. Just walking down the street, we had to go back to our high school clothes and we just kept the punk part in our mind. People are a lot more open-minded and that was really kind of the Bass Player guys to let me in to their thing. They are massive monsters of players. When they gave me that award, in a way I felt they were giving it to D. Boon and the Minutemen, us making a band, too, so it wasn’t just about the bass man.
That’s why I kind of talk about this movement and stuff, because I do look for my own thing, especially my thumbprint, but I do feel part of a trippy kind of thing. Also this sense of—especially after D. Boon—other bass players, like with Dos, the bass brethren, the idea of bass players. Way more conscious of that. When people ask what kind of bass player I am, I still say I’m D. Boon’s bass player, just the bass man, bass person. I liked this idea because we’re kind of mysterious. We’re still trying to find what we are. Nobody’s defined it yet, which is great. We’re working on it. Even that thing on the Fender basses, you wanted your thumb on it, or maybe it was below the strings and they wanted your fingers on it. You played with your thumb, then they want it over the strings and your thumb would go there, you’d play with your fingers. Felt picks, plastic picks, slapping, all these things we’re still checking it out.
FBPO: Do you ever slap?
MW: I did a little bit in the earlier Minutemen. It started to hurt my hand, though. This is one thing, and standup players must really have it. There’s a physical thing to the bass, so when I start hurting, I change technique and get away from the hurting, even though I might be missing out on some vocabulary. It’s just that down the road I don’t want to be too crippled up. That’s one reason I play a little bass for gigs. I play a ¾ bass for gigs and short-scale. For recording, I sit down and I do the big ones, Fenders. I have a little bass that I pull out. For gigs, I use these little guys, EBOs, EB-3s, just because it’s calmer on my fucking hands.
FBPO: How about playing with a pick?
MW: I think it’s a good thing. I’ve done it. In the old days I did it. I wasn’t fast enough and then when I got fast enough I let it go. I did it for J Mascis. I did it for some Stooges, too. It’s difficult for me because I don’t practice with it. What do you think? There’s a big debate over this, right? “A real bass player don’t use a pick.” I don’t believe that. I think a bass player uses whatever he wants. I remember seeing John Entwistle solo. The band wasn’t that good, but he was like “Whoa!” and he was using pick, fingers and slapping in the same song.
FBPO: You mentioned David Ellefson a couple of times. He uses a pick. And Carol Kaye. Does anybody not like Carol Kaye?
MW: Carol Kaye! She got an award that same night I did. She’s amazing and, yeah, I heard she’s picked with a piece of foam rubber in between the strings and the body. She came over from the guitar side. I think at the end of the day, that’s what it is, what you hear at the end. Whatever it takes to get there, it’s okay. To me, to do fingers and to do pick, probably gives you a wider vocabulary and is probably a smart thing to do. There are certain things with a pick you can’t get out of the fingers. You can do that Chuck Rainey thing with the fingernail. That’s kind of close. He’s remarkable with those 16th-note things with his fingernail.
FBPO: Yeah, Chuck’s great.
MW: See, it’s all about these kinds of things, getting excited about something and flying with it, running with it.
FBPO: You mentioned the Stooges a couple of times. How did you land that gig? It almost seems like it was meant to be.
MW: A lot of coincidences. I almost got killed from sickness.
FBPO: I was going to ask you about that, too. Recovering from that illness seemed to be a real turning point in your life.
MW: See, I had not stopped playing since D. Boon’s mom got me on the bass. And when they put those tubes in me, I couldn’t play for a few months. When I tried to play again, it was terrible and I couldn’t believe it. It’s like riding a bike. You’re not supposed to lose this shit. I was all atrophied and had no rhythm. I panicked. I was 42 years old. I survived the fucking illness, but I lost the bass thing, so I started practicing Stooges songs, just for the feel. There’s not a lot of chord changes and if there was no Stooges, there would be no punk music.
It does seem like it was almost foretold that I would join that band. In fact when Paul (Roessler) came, we were already in the Stooges. Of course most people thought it was suck-ass, at the high school especially, but we thought they were already doing punk. There just was no name for it yet.
Anyway, here I am trying to get it together again. I even go as far as doing gigs. I put together a copy of these Stooges songs, with two of these guys from Porno for Pyros. Porno for Pyros was the first time I played for another person, like a sideman. I’ve done it three times—once for Porno for Pyros, once for J Mascis & the Fog and now the Stooges, for almost ten years. I haven’t done it a lot, but, shit, in a way I have, if you figure the Minutemen and fIREHOSE. Anyway, Peter (DiStefano) and Perk (Stephen Perkins), the Porno guys, and I made a band and then on the East coast with J and Murph from Dinosaur. We did a couple of gigs each, just to get back on the fucking horse. J had just come out with his solo album and he wanted to tour. He said it was hard for him to sing every song every night, so why don’t I come on tour to play bass and sing some Stooges songs at the end to give him a break. Then we came through Ann Arbor, where Ronnie (Asheton) was living. Ronnie had come to my gigs before that, so I had already met him. I got to work on a soundtrack album for Velvet Goldmine in 1997 or something like that. I actually got to record with Lee Thurston and Steve Shelley and Mark Arm. We come to Ann Arbor and J says, “Hey, call up Ronnie”, so I call him up and Ronnie comes down and jams and J says, “Come on tour.” So it ended up the last third of the set we’d be jamming Stooges with Ronnie.
In 2002, a couple of years later, Scotty was living in his truck so we said, “Let’s rent him a drum set.” And me and J played with both the Asheton brothers. We even did some gigs in Europe doing this. That’s where Igg heard about it, I think, and asked them to play on his Skull Ring album. I was on tour. I remember I was in Tallahassee in March of 2003 and the phone rings there at the bar and they get me and it’s Igg, and Igg says, “Ronnie says you’re the man and we’re going to do this Coachella gig.” So maybe in a way it was J. It wasn’t put together on an intelligent plane. It wasn’t a plotted out, planned out thing. It was just a bunch of events happening. That’s how I ended up in the band. Everybody thought it was just going to be one gig. Now I just recorded a new album with them and we’re ready to start touring this year.
FBPO: What else is keeping you busy?
MW: Well, I just made an album with John (Dieterich) from Deerhoof up in Oakland. A frequent collaborator of mine is this guitarist Nels Cline. He loves songs written on bass. A lot of people kind of get freaked out that there’s not enough information, but a cat like Nels Cline totally jumps on it. He likes that springboard thing. I also made an album last year with two Italian musicians called Il Sogno Del Marinaio and I’ll be doing a Europen tour with them right before the Stooges touring. That’s what I’ve got going right now.
FBPO: How about the future? You’ve done so much and you have such a varied background. What else would you like to do that you haven’t already accomplished?
MW: That’s interesting. I want to make more and more works. With the Internet, I’ve been able to collaborate with a lot of people and do things much differently than the old days. You don’t have to be in the same practice pad. But then I have my trios that are like the old days. I like playing gigs and making works. I want to do more of that. I think everybody’s got something to teach me, so I am interested in being challenged with different stuff, putting my bass in different situations, so I’m kind of forced to learn. I like that. You never know how much time you’ve got, so I try to push in as much as I can. I never had children myself so in a way the works are like my kids.
I just got done playing my third opera, Hyphenated Man, which was really strange. I’ve been touring around for two years. I wrote it on D. Boon’s guitar. I hardly ever write on a guitar. I can’t play very well, but I wrote it on that so the bass parts would come second. Sometimes I do things just to do them.
FBPO: There’s something on your website about Contemplating the Engine Room. It says that you have a beard in your kitchen freezer. Did I read that right?
MW: Yeah, because I never shaved during those months I toured that record. On the last gig, I shaved it off and put it in a sack and put it in the freezer. It’s really tiny now, though.
FBPO: Did you want to do something with it someday or did you save it just to save it?
MW: I just did it to do it. I never knew I was going to write another opera. I never knew I was going to write that one. I finally got the nerve up to deal with losing D. Boon. That was a big part in my life.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
MW: I don’t know. I write these diaries on tour, so if maybe my hands got mashed up, I would try to be a writer. Maybe that.
FBPO feature-10 (more!) bands that changed bass players ...… and what happened next!
Jon Liebman's 3rd book, "Rock Bass" (2nd edition) is endorsed by Mike Watt