Google "Johnny Rotten" and "punk rock hero" and you get 164 listings. Do the same for "Mike Watt" and "punk rock hero" and you get 351 listings. Statistically, this makes the Minutemen co-founder more than twice as important as the Sex Pistol. Which is as it should be. Since Minutemen singer/guitarist D. Boon's death in 1985, Watt has toured and recorded relentlessly, working with everyone from Sonic Youth to Kelly Clarkson (more on that later) and spending the last five years as a member of the reunited Iggy and the Stooges. Rotten, meanwhile, formed PiL before going on to become a Beverly Hills househusband. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
We caught up with Watt recently to talk about the Stooges and the Minutemen, the perineal infection that nearly killed him, and what it's like to be the Jack Bruce of punk.
Indy: You've been pretty prolific over the years with the Minutemen, Dos, Firehose, Nels Cline, the Stooges. Did you ever imagine any of this back in your early days?
MW: Fuck no, I got into music to be with [late Minutemen singer/guitarist] D. Boon! I never thought it'd go further than that. You know, you want to hang out with someone you really like. That's why I got into music. His mom put me on bass. Yeah, so I owe him everything.
Also, you know, I always think, "What would D. Boon think?" [Laughs.] Especially these days — well, actually, ever since he's been gone. Because in the days before that, I would ask him. Hell, I still ask him! But now I don't really get the answer. He wants me to think about it.
Indy: What would he have thought about you being onstage with the Stooges?
MW: Hey, he'd be laughin', I know it. It'd be, "Can you believe this shit, Watt?"
Indy: So do you feel like your bass playing is still evolving? I'm guessing that, with the Stooges especially, you had to go for a simpler approach than you're used to.
MW: Oh yeah, many lessons from Iggy. One time he says to me, "Mike, I want you to get in touch with your stupid side."
Indy: I never had a problem doing that ...
MW: Yeah, me either. I had no problem. I was always ready to learn from him. Because yeah, I learned this one way of playing with D. Boon and stuff, but you know, life is about learning. And so if you keep putting yourself in challenging situations, that forces you to learn. And what better place to learn besides Stooges' classroom!
Indy: Which you probably never thought would be available.
MW: Not at all. Most shit is third-, fourth-, fifth-hand. And here I got to go right to the source. So yeah, no problem, it was no blow to my ego. They would show me all kinds of stuff about playing simpler.
Indy: Will you be doing some simpler basslines on your next album?
MW: Yeah, probably, and the songs will also be shorter. There was this documentary out about the Minutemen called We Jam Econo, where they asked me to ride around town [San Pedro, Calif.] and talk about things. And I actually had to listen to the Minutemen music. It was very hard for me to listen to that music after D. Boon got killed, so I never did, like a coward.
And so I started listening again because of the documentary and it was like, whoa, all these little songs, no filler! It was econo. So I decided to — not reinvent the Minutemen — but make little songs again. This will be my third opera, but this one's a lot different. It don't have a beginning, middle and end, like the other two. It's all middle. Which makes a lot of sense, because I'm in middle age, so fuck it.
Indy: Your song "Boilin' Blazes" [from Watt's most recent album, The Secondman's Middle Stand] was, for me, a pretty inspiring take on your battle with mortality. Were there moments when you doubted your own recovery, or were you always certain you'd be back?
MW: No, I thought I was going under! I mean, it was 38 days of fever, and I'm going to the doctor, you know, and they're giving me these pills, but I'm not getting better. And I had a picture of my father — he died in '91 — a picture of D. Boon, and a picture of my cat, who had died the year before. And I thought I was gonna see them three guys again.
Indy: But you had more work to do.
MW: Yeah, damn right I did, by a whole lot. I kind of got out of balance after Firehose and was doing a lot more gigs than recordings. And when you're gone, all that's left is recordings. So I'm recording like a motherfucker.
Indy: As a bassist, you've pretty much become the Jack Bruce of punk rock.
MW: [Laughs] You can blame D. Boon. Not blame D. Boon, but give him credit. You know, John Entwistle, Jack Bruce, James Jamerson, Larry Graham — the people you first hear, I think they leave a mark on you. And when we made Minutemen, D. Boon wanted to organize a band where there's no hierarchy with the guitarist up top. That's why he went for this really trebly sound — he wanted the drums and the bass equal with him. And so he actually made room for me and my style, or whatever, my wrestling approach [laughs]. So a lot of that had to do with the guy I was playing with.
Indy: You're probably the only person in the world who's not only heard of both Kelly Clarkson and the Go! Team, but actually played with them. Can you tell me about that?
MW: Yeah, I played on six songs for Kelly Clarkson. You know, I didn't even really know of her. The producer [David Kahne] said this lady won a game show and was making another record, would you come and play bass? Sure.
But I don't do a lot of session work. That's a hard situation. It's good to do, because it's good to learn. But I mean, you go in there, you hear the song for the first time, you gotta learn it, you gotta figure out a part, people are lookin' at you with their arms folded. Although these people were very nice. She was very nice — she had no posse — and she could really sing, I'll tell you that.
Indy: And which album was that?
MS: [Lowers voice] Fuck, I don't know. [Laughs.] I think it was the second album. She had already done one and she was doin' another one.Purchase some Mike Watt: