Legendary punk bassist Mike Watt reflects on making music his way
Widely regarded as one of the greatest bassists on the planet, Mike Watt is often referred to as the best punk bassist to ever pick up the “thudstaff,” as he likes to call it. With a career that has spanned nearly 40 years, it comes as no surprise that Watt, who is a founding member of bands like the Minutemen, Dos and fiREHOSE, has some pretty interesting takes on making music and his instrument of choice.
Luckily, he has no problem sharing his insights with nearly anyone willing to listen.
ON MAKING MUSIC
Nowadays, Watt believes the creation of music can be boiled down into three equally important approaches.
The first way, he said, is when you find someone that you can collaborate with without either musician needing to give the other any instruction. This was something Watt encountered when he first started playing music with his former bandmate and co-founder of the Minutemen, D.Boone, back when they were only 13 years old. Because they had been playing together for so long, Watt said that the two could simply communicate with their instruments when writing a song.
“When we were playing Minutemen songs, it would be really quick between me and D. Boone because we didn’t have to teach,” said Watt. “We just played and the other guy would start playing along.
“Most of our time was spent with (drummer) George (Hurley) because we didn’t want him just doing a backbeat. We wanted to work him in, so he has fills going in and out of every part — there is no straight-edge things,” added Watt. “If we spent any real time in construction, it was with him.”
The second approach there is to making music, according to Watt, is to take instruction from others. One of the best examples of this in his career came when he joined Iggy and the Stooges from 2003 to 2013. Touring with The Stooges, who he admired when he was just an up-and-coming musician himself, while also producing several live records and two original studio albums (“The Weirdness” and “Ready to Die”) with them, showed Watt that at times you have to simply play what is being asked of you.
“You have to learn to take direction. I wasn’t going to tell The Stooges what to play,” he said, with a laugh.
This is something Watt will once again experience when he joins the the group Flipper for a European tour later in 2019.
“That will be kind of like playing with The Stooges, because you are recreating an old thing,” he said. “So, you can take direction on something that has never been played before, but you can also take direction when a band wants to play songs for people, but they only have two of the original guys left and they ask you to help.”
As you may have guessed, the third way Watt said there is to make music is to be the one giving direction to the other band members. These days, he experiences a lot of this, being involved with numerous groups and side projects. In fact, of the 12 groups Watt has served as band leader for since fiREHOSE dissolved in 1994, he still plays in seven of them from time to time (that doesn’t even count the half-dozen side projects he also contributes to). But of all those groups, the two Watt performs with the most regularly are the Missingmen and the Secondmen; in both, he tells the other members how he wants them to play on their albums (he currently has albums in the works with both bands).
“Those are the three different ways that I have found, and I think it is healthy to kind of equal them out,” Watt said. “I am trying to be real plain-spoken about this, because sometimes this kind of talk gets lost in the air. This is how I really make it happen in real life and make a living doing this, without reducing it down to some shtick that doesn’t have any intrinsic worth.
“To me, this makes sense and I don’t have to have doubt,” he added. “It has its own kind of momentum in a way.”
ON THE BASS
When it comes to his beloved bass guitar, Watt said that he believes the instrument is still trying to find itself 50 years after James Jamerson defined it in the 1960s with Motown Records.
“We are still trying to figure out what it is,” he said. “It is kind of in there with the kick drum and for sure it is in there with the toms; I don’t know about the snare drum — maybe when you are slappin’ it is in there with the snare drum. But it definitely isn’t a real guitar.
“The bass is mysterious,” he added.
Though one can get a bass with two-dozen strings on it these days, Watt said he doesn’t think that is necessarily helping move the instrument down the road any.
“Is adding more strings really helping?,” he asked. “I think those four strings are in a certain zone of the music for a reason. I am not trying to get too metaphysical about it, but there is a lot of work that can be done in that little zone.”
When he was first introduced to the bass by D. Boone’s mom when he was just a kid, Watt said that it felt a lot like being stuck in right field in Little League. However, that changed when the Minutemen formed, as the band wanted to make a statement out of its arrangement.
“Bass in the Minutemen was different,” Watt said. “D. Boone wanted the politics of the band to be in how it was made up; how we pieced it out.
“Before that, the singer and the lead guitarist were definitely at the top of the pyramid,” Watt added. “At the bottom of the totem pole was the drummer and the bassist — there was just this hierarchy.”
Taking a page out of funk music’s playbook, the Minutemen decided to bring the bass up front and to change the way D. Boone played his guitar. By playing lead guitar in the high range while clipping cords, he left plenty of room for Watt to fill space in the band’s songs.
With so much room for his bass playing in the Minutemen, Watt would ultimately end up writing most of the band’s tunes. Though he would leave out the drums and lead guitar while writing, he would structure the first chorus and the bridges, and allow his bandmates to fill in the rest.
“D. Boone loved that stuff, and so does Nels Cline,” Watt said. “A lot of people are like ‘there isn’t enough information’ — it’s like writing a song on the kick drum or the cymbals. They are used to guitar and piano, with all of the voicing and harmonic information.
“That just goes to show you that music is music, and there is a lot of different ways to do it,” added Watt. “It might even come from some crazy thing like philosophy or economics or politics, but there are different ways to do it.”
Occasionally, Watt works as a session artist, helping to add basslines to nearly completed songs. He has done this many times over, working for artists like Kelly Clarkson and groups like Porno for Pyros. But even as a bassist with the highest level of skill, he said session work is extremely intimidating. So, in his typical fashion, Watt has found his own way to go about it.
“Normally, you come in and everybody is standing there, stroking their chin. You have to learn the song, come up with a part and then play it,” he said. “You are really sweating bullets, you know? The producer is there and you have to really be reading his mind and figuring out what he wants.
“It is a lot better having my studio here (at home) — which I call ‘Thunderpants Studio’ — where they can send me their tracks, and I am not in front of people. I can try things again before I send it off,” added Watt. “I have made whole albums with dudes this way, and it is very interesting. It is something that never would have happened in the old days.”
Though Watt said being creative is hard and often frustrating, he finds it very important to always be pushing his boundaries.
“It is like swinging for the fence and missing. But as long as they are going to keep throwing you pitches (you keep swinging),” he said. “It is not like that is always going to happen. If you just lay down, you will get rolled.”