Interview: Mike Watt

by - May 19, 2020

Mike Watt / Howlin' Wuelf Media
SAN PEDRO, CA — Mike Watt is one of the world's greatest all-time bassists. In this interview, originally published on Scream & Yell, he discusses his first solo record, "Ball-Hog or Tugboat?", released in 1995. He also talks about Eddie Vedder, Nels Cline, Jeff Tweedy and Bob Pollard, among others.

So, I wanted to discuss with you the 25th anniversary of your debut solo album “Ball-Hog or Tugboat?”, which was released on February 28, 1995. Does it feel like it’s been that long?

Well, I’ 62 years old. I was in my late thirties. So, I wasn’t that young… But yeah, I do remember it. When I think back about this record, it definitely feels like it was kind of a sea change in my life. Before that album I mainly had done Minutemen and fIREHOSE. So, when I go do this record, which is really funny that it’s called a solo record, cause there’s 48 people on it, but… I’m not working on the trio anymore. There’s 17 different bands on the record. With D Boon I would bring all my music to him, and with Edward I did that too. I remember bringing Edward “Piss-Bottle Man” and he thought, “well, maybe this isn’t a song for this band”. So that’s when I started thinking about “Ball-Hog or Tugboat”. Just the idea of the bass player knowing the song and having other people come in. Traditionally the bass player is the last to be brought on except maybe in R&B and funk music. So, that’s where the title comes from. Am I gonna be the guy that brings this together, or is it gonna be just, you know what I mean, like a “fake lead guitar bass”, which I don’t really think is what bass is. Bass is not really guitar, it’s got strings like a guitar, but it’s more like a drum set, in my opinion. Specially the notes, they are down there with the kickdrum and the toms. So I used the metaphor of wrestling, like the studio was kind of a wrestling ring, and I called my friends up, see if they wanted to come play with me and do this record. It was three different towns, pretty spontaneous, it was done really quick. I wanted it to be a record that stand on its own. I didn’t want it to be so much hype, or people making a big deal about names of some of these people. I didn’t use managers or anything, I just called people up and did this for a little bit. And it got me to what I am doing nowadays. So, looking back, it was a really important record for me.

When you wrote songs like “Against the 70s”, for example, did you write it with Eddie Vedder in mind to be the singer on the record? Or “Chinese Firedrill”, for that matter, did you write it thinking of adding Frank Black’s vocals to it?

No, of course not. I didn’t know who was gonna be available for this. There wasn’t hardly any practice, all this stuff was done very spontaneously in the studio. I did have a few songs, but I felt if the bass player knew how to play them, anyone could come and play drums or guitar or sing. So I showed it to them right there in the studio. Nels Cline, I did a little practice with him. There’s a song on the record, “Coincidence is Either Hit or Miss”, that’s kind of what it was, you know?

How did the idea of reuniting so many different musicians come together? Did you invite them or they were the ones who approached you to record together? I imagine many, if not all of them, were big fans of your previous work on the Minutemen and fIREHOSE.

No, it was my idea, my record. I asked them. The only one who approached me was Kathleen Hannah, when it was almost done. She heard about it and asked to be on it. Like I said, I wrote “Piss-Bottle Man” and brought it to Edward, in fIREHOSE. There’s no way I wrote that for Evan Dando. But I thought Evan would be kind of good to do that tune. You know, that was a strange year, 1994. fIREHOSE broke up, the first week or two of the year, and I did not tour, the first year I did not tour since the Minutemen days, so, it was kind of unusual. So I thought of doing the record, but I never thought about touring. Cause there was too many people on it. That was David’s (Grohl) idea, he called me up, he said he and Ed (Vedder) would be my band, they had their own bands who could open the show, it was all very spontaneous, there was no strategy behind it, or plans… I thought of it as the old bebop days, when people just jammed together, no big stuff, setting it all up, and no expectations, no preconceptions of the way it should be, just let the freak flag fly.

So, you guys were travelling on a van and playing every night, which was the punk thing to do. However, many of your fans didn’t really appreciate you playing with rock stars. People were throwing coins and all kinds of things at you, specially Eddie, right? How did you guys deal with that situation back then?

I’ve gotten stuff thrown at me a lot of times before, when the Minutemen open up for Black Flag and then when I opened up for Primus. But I think what you are talking about is… Eddie got money thrown at him. Those weren’t my fans, those were Pearl Jam fans! You know about this shit. Who’s the guy who shot John Lennon?

Mark David Chapman.

Yeah, he’s wearing a fucking name tag! These guys are like this. It’s this love/hate thing. That was so fucking weird. When I saw this teenager throwing money at Ed, and his t-shirt said “Fuck you, Eddie”, I just thought, “what’s wrong with you?”. You’ve never been to a Mike Watt gig, you’re not a Mike Watt supporter. You just want to tell your friend the next day in school that you did this stupid shit. That was something I never had to deal with in tours before, cause I come from the underground and a small scene. But what can I do about that? They just come to the gig, they’re assholes.

It’s interesting to hear this, because I always thought it was your fans reacting to you playing with these famous guys from mainstream bands.

Well, not really. I guess, yeah, they were more mainstream than me at the time, but they were not New Kids on the Block. And Dave was just starting his new band at the time, and Eddie was playing with this weird, experimental band, where he was playing drums. He wasn’t doing what he was known for. And even when playing with me, he was mostly playing guitar. So these guys weren’t doing what they regularly do. It was kind of different, it wasn’t so mainstream, but what happened is that mainstream attitude came in, all this hype and phony shit, yeah that was terrible. But, you know, Dave was in a band called Scream. And Eddie had played in a band before called Bad Radio. So they knew about all these stuff, but you’re right, there was some popularity right? But that shit’s terrible, come on, it’s fucking Hitler shit. But it was something I didn’t really foresee, cause I never had to deal with that kind of fame before. That was no Mike Watt fan! I hope no Mike Watt fan ever does stupid shit like that. But that shit happens, there’s this mentality, when you get kind of popular, the scene becomes different, people like things because other people like things, they don’t trust their own judgement. So you’re not dealing with open minded people, you’re dealing with a herd, or a bunch of cows. People are not in their best moment. So that was not a good part of the tour. But playing with those guys, we only had a couple days of practice. And I thought that was pretty amazing to pull that off. And Pat Smear, I mean, Jesus Christ. Pat Smear was a hero of Minutemen, he was in The Germs. That’s what I found interesting, these guys could fucking play their asses off. In just a couple days we put together a whole fucking tour, did this thing, even though there were some problems with this phoniness and hype shit, as far as playing together, you know, getting together songs and making a gig, I thought it was pretty successful. And I was pretty amazed, specially coming from where I did, where I never… This was kind of a different thing for me. It was scary, exciting scary. I don’t look back on the other stuff, I can only imagine what Ed felt. I hope those guys grew out of that stuff. And also there was this sickness that came around, a flu. We were travelling on a van, but that’s what we always do. I had my van, the other bands had their vans, maybe that’s why I didn’t get sick. But anyway, they were champions, they were soldiers, they played so fucking good. Actually, a few years ago we released one of the shows from this tour as a live record. The Chicago one. Man, that tape had been around, cause the Chicago Metro always record their gigs. So, when the record company asked me about it I said, well, I’ll ask Dave and Ed and Pat. When I listened to it, I thought there were going to be a lot more mistakes. I’m really grateful to them guys.

You have a few covers on the record as well, such as Sonic Youth’s “Tuff Gnarl”, where you actually had most of the band to play it with you on your record. Why did you choose that specific Sonic Youth song to cover?

Cause I like it! You need a better reason? I think the words for that song are some of Thurston’s (Moore) best words. I got J. (Mascis) to play drums on that song, but J. jumped off in the middle. That’s why you don’t hear any drums in the middle. So Steve (Shelley) was there and he jumped on. I picked that song, also to me the music is kind of symphonic, and Nels Cline… I actually did it for Nels Cline and Carla Bozulich, who always wanted to sing it. I thought we could do a great version and make it justice, give it a new meaning. But I think J. did really good too, kind of Keith Moon drums. Until the jumped off of it. (laughs)

What’s the story behind “Hearbeat”, specially the lyrics?

This song was going to be an instrumental. But it was like 45 guys on the record and I thought, “man, I gotta have more women on this”. So I got Carla. Petra and her sisters did some singing, played some violin… I asked Tifanny, a friend of J. Mascis, if she would sing. Actually, this song is made up of a Dos song, and a song I’ve written for the Minutemen, I put them up together. Anyway, the one person who asked to be part of this project was Kathleen Hannah. So, on this song, Tifanny sings the words that I wrote, and the words that Kathleen Hannah, I guess, recited, those are her words. I was in New York City, and I was already down with the studio. Thurston was with us. And he said: “You know what, we can use my answering machine, from the studio”. So, he had Kathleen call him up and leave the message you can hear in the song. So, that’s the recording. It’s not a real message, she makes up this… Some of that stuff is very real, but some of that is made up, for sure. That’s the way Kathleen is, she mixes up things together, but the impression you get by listening to that, is like she doesn’t want to be on the record. But that’s the complete opposite of the reality, she wanted to be on the record, she asked me to. But that’s what you can do with records, you can mess up with reality. I have been asked a lot about that. That’s the story. Kathleen wanted to be on the record, she was. You know, her husband’s on there. Mike D. They’ve been married 26 years, she told me that I had something to do with it. But come on, I was just trying to make a record. The same thing happened to Nels Cline and Yuka Honda. I made a record, you know, usually when I make projects, people don’t marry each other, but sometimes it happens. (laughs)

One of the musician’s that has the most presence on the record is Nels Cline. He probably wasn’t one of the more well-known guys back then, but after he joined Wilco, certainly a more mainstream audience was able to get to know him better. He also played with you on the second leg of that tour. Do you still play with him often?

I gotta tell you, Jeff Tweedy is the boss of Wilco. He played bass in a band from St. Louis, it was called…

Uncle Tupelo.

Yes, Uncle Tupelo. They even had a song called D. Boon

He’s a big fan of yours.

After D. Boon got killed they wrote a song for him, so I knew him a little bit. But I’m really grateful to him hiring Nels Cline to be in his band, cause Nels has always done experimental wild music, and this way he can still do that, and still make a living working for Mr. Tweedy. So that subsidizes his experimental side, you know? Specially since Nels Cline moved to New York City, after he married Yuka Honda (from the band Cibo Matto). There’s a much more free jazz open experimental scene there. He and his brother Alex tried to get it going here in So Cal for a long time but people wouldn’t support it. There it’s really huge. I do still play with him, but you’re right. He started getting some attention, but the first time he got attention was when he played on my first opera, “Contemplating the Engine Room” (1997), maybe not so much with critics or the press, but other musicians. A lot of people were asking me about this guy playing guitar. And so I ended up making albums with these guys. I said: “You wanna know Nels Cline? Just play with him!” We just set up the project. For years, he just came to the studio and improvised. He’s a great listener. Also, with the internet now we can collaborate more easily than in the old days. Nels has always made himself very available to me. A great guy like that. A very generous, open guy. He’s one of the positive things I like about the music scene. There’s so much phoniness and bullshit, and then you got a guy like Nels Cline, who’s just the opposite of all of that.

Floored by Four: Nels Cline, Dougie Bowne, Mike Watt and Yuka Honda / Howlin' Wuelf Media


There is also a Brazilian connection on the record, since Mario Caldato is on the closing track “Coincidence is Either Hit or Miss”. How did you get to know him?

Well, Mario Caldato, he was sound man for the Beasties. Yeah, that connection was through the Beastie Boys. I opened up for them, Check Your Head Tour, I think in 92. It’s when they started playing their instruments again, really good tour. Horowitz came on stage and played with us, this was fIREHOSE, one of our last tours. We had a problem with people throwing stuff at us. Actually, they had problems too, people wanted them just to rap and not play their instruments. This is the way it gets, things get a little knucklehead, when things get a little “less underground”. It’s pretty fucking stupid.

Are there any leftovers from that recording session? And do you have plans to release a reissue of that album in celebration of its anniversary?

Just the seven inches, the b-sides. We released three seven inches, with b-sides. There are no plans to rerelease the album. I don’t think that would be right. It’s still on sale. I thought the best way to redo it was with the live record we released a few years ago. We ended up doing the vinyl, cause back then we just did the CD. So we did a blue vinyl, it was deluxe enough, I don’t think there’s anything else to do without being exploitive about it.

So, you played with 48 different musicians on this record and a lot more during your career. Is there anyone you still haven’t worked with that you’d like to get together and play?

Yeah, Bob Mould.

Wow.

I’ve always wanted to do something with Bob.

Yeah, that would sound amazing.

There’s another Bob. Bob Pollard.

Wow!

Guided By Voices, right?

That would also be great.

Both of those guys, they got such a vision of their own. I would also like to, instead of repackaging the wrestling record, I would like to do another one, Leonardo.

Yeah, please do.

Only, I would do it in Cleveland. Just with Cleveland musicians. You know, the town where Pere Ubu came from. I really would like to do that. With guys from Pere Ubu, like Tom Herman, Scott Krauss, John Petkovic, from Cobra Verde, there’s quite a few musicians in Cleveland with whom I’d love to do a miniature version of “Ball-Hog or Tugboat?”.

You can make an exception for Bob Pollard, since he’s from the same state…

Yeah, he’d have to come visit. Yeah, I love his genius, he’s so prolific, oh my God.  You know, he just played here in downtown LA in the New Year’s. One hundred songs, a five-hour gig.

He probably played all the songs he wrote that week.

That day! (laughter) He’s amazing.

You came to Brazil in 2005 with Iggy Pop and the Stooges, right? Any memories from that experience that you’d like to share?

Three times in Brazil, two times with The Stooges. One was the James Williamson Stooges and the other was Ron Asheton Stooges. And another time I came to Brazil was with The Missingmen. So, all three times were São Paulo, and two of them also Rio. I liked it a lot. But I still have to know more of the country. Rio and São Paulo are very different towns, but they’re kind of close to each other. (laughs)

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