Interview: Mike Watt
Music, to me wasn’t about music, it was about friends but it was a lifeline for me, it gave focus to my life. The experience is to share music.
Mike Watt is right up there with the finest bass players in the history of music and undoubtedly one of the hardest working on top of that with a multitude of bands and records both past and present. Northwest of Hamuretto, the new album from his Spirit Of Hamlet project which is out now is the latest in a long line of music that Mike Watt has been involved with and is a joyous listening experience that features Watt alongside members of Acid Mothers Temple and Clang Quarter. Gavin Brown caught up with Mike who told us all about Spirit Of Hamlet and how the whole project and album came about as well as the vast range of music he is currently working on, influences on his bass playing and his time in the legendary Stooges and Minutemen.
E&D: The new album from your Spirit Of Hamlet project called Northwest of Hamuretto is out now. How did the group together and the album come about in the first place?
Mike: I’ve got an internet radio show called The Watt From Pedro show, I’ve had it for 21 years now. I usually go once a week when I’m not on tour, but because of the situation of the last couple of years, for 14 months, I was having five guests a week. One of my guests was Scotty Irving, he was referred to me. That’s how I get to know all these people, I get connected to guys on the show. I was really interested in Scotty’s approach to music and creativity, so I asked him if he wanted to do something on the drums and I’ll put bass to it. He said, I know a guitar man called Kawabata Makoto from Acid Mothers Temple and I said, sure bring it and we did it all remotely. When he did those drums, it felt like he was in the room with me. I got a little Pro Tools HD setup here and pretended he was there playing! He had a friend called Benjy Johnson in North Carolina who he was cool with, so he gave the stuff over to him and he put his stuff on it. It came about together pretty coincidentally, it want planned out. The closest thing I can compare it too is the old days, the bebop guys where they would just have jam sessions but this way we just captured that vibe, and transcended the distances over the internet, and the reason the name of the project is Spirit Of Hamlet is John Coltrane was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, that was my suggestion. On tour in 2014, I stopped in Hamlet to see where he was born. Scotty came up with the name of the album Northwest of Hamuretto and that refers to wherever am are, it’s kind of a long distance thing, but in a way, we’re very much kindred spirits.
E&D: Since the album was created, have you had a chance to meet up at all?
Mike: I haven’t actually met anybody in person yet apart from Benjy, he brought his son, he was doing a little trip with his boy to Las Vegas, so he came down to SoCal and I gave him a tour of Pedro but I haven’t met the other two yet.
E&D: Have you got plans to and maybe do something again in the future?
Mike: I’d love to do some fucking gigs! You know how it is when you get done with an album, you want to play! I’m ready to do another one.
E&D: Have you talked to the guys about doing another one?
Mike: I did and I want to do it the same way. Scotty goes first. I love this idea of drummers and their spirit.
E&D: What would you say is the biggest inspiration for the sound of the album and the music you make?
Mike: The idea of connecting in a situation where there’s obstacles. You’ve got to transcend and overcome them We’re using the internet with the distances but there was also the problem of that situation when people could not go out, but like I said, I’ve been doing this before and we can play like we are in the same room. Some people think that the arts are a luxury or something frivolous, but actually I think it’s a real fucking solid connect between humans.
E&D: Was the process of improvisation important for the album?
Mike: I think a big part of improvisation is learning to listen. Sure, you got to come up with something but you got to understand what that dude’s bringing, and if not understanding then at least listen to him, and give him your honest reaction. I think that’s really important. That’s why going first is a big political decision, because all the guys are gonna react off of that, and how else would you do it, all at the same time.
E&D: Even though you’ve been playing for so long, do you still feel as if you’re learning all the time?
Mike: Absolutely. For me, it’s not the search for the most notes. In fact, the more notes you play, the smaller you get, so you always search for which ones are going to be the best way. I think that search can never be solved because every situation, you have to put yourself in studio mode because you have to learn how it’s going to work. It’s a weird thing. I’m so glad D.Boon hooked me up with a bass! I was 13 years old.
E&D: Which bass players are your biggest influences from back when you started playing?
Mike: Jack Bruce. When he died, I got bourboned up and watched videos of him and cried so much. D.Boons mom wanted me to play with her boy so I learned from him. I bow down to the guys who played on the Motown records. James Jamerson, that was bass guitar he was playing! He was a huge influence. Third, probably Geezer Butler, I learned so much off him and Black Sabbath. I read somewhere that he learned off Jack Bruce, ain’t that a trip?!, and Jack Bruce learned off of James Jamerson so it’s all connected. A lot of the guys in Britain playing bass in the 60s were a big influence on me because the producers they would put it loud in the mix. I’m the US, expect fro maybe the Stooges, a lot of bass was blurry.
E&D: You just mentioned the Stooges there, how was it playing with them in the band? That must have been a dream come true!
Mike: Oh fuck! 125 months with those guys, I got to go right to the well! I was like a fucking sponge, I soaked up everything! I was the youngest guy in the group! I loved being around those guys, they were like the older brothers I never had. They were really beautiful cats, Ron, Scotty and everyone. I don’t think we would have a movement without that band, they were doing this music when it didn’t have a name yet.
E&D: What were some of the highlights with with playing with the band both live and in the studio? You did albums with them which must have been amazing.
Mike: Well yeah, but a lot of pressure too! I didn’t want my headstone to have, fucked up a Stooges record on it! A highlight I remember was playing the Hammersmith Odeon, we played the whole Fun House record with Ronny and Scotty, the Asheton brothers and that was mind blowing! A couple of years later, we do all of Raw Power! Those gigs seems to last for only about 5 seconds, it was such a blur! A lot of the Stooges gigs were the same, we only stopped to clear the stage after the stage invasions! Ig always called it a working man’s set! There’s something about Stooges music that so focussed and to the point.
E&D: I saw you with the Stooges at a festival, it was amazing and I’m so glad I got to see the band live with that lineup as I didn’t think I ever would!
Mike: Thank you!
E&D: Have you got any other new music coming out, like a new solo album?
Mike: Yeah, I’m working on doing another Missingmen album. Another Secondmen album. Those are the Mike Watt bands. I’ve been working on some collaborations. The best way is to go to my website MikeWatt.com and there’s a news link and you can see all the projects. I’ve got stuff going every week! So many projects I’ve been collaborating on over the internet. I make whole albums or even just 45s or single songs. I’m always working on something. I’ve got stuff coming up with J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr. That’s what’s good about the bass, I can got it in anywhere! James Jamerson was on 200 top 10 singles and he’s on only on the cover of What’s Goin’ On, Marvin Gaye made sure of that when Berry Gordy wouldn’t!
E&D: So you’re just constantly making music!
Mike: Yeah. I got into music, Gavin, to be with D.Boon when I was 13 years old then I lost him in a van wreck, so music, to me wasn’t about music, it was about friends but it was a lifeline for me, it gave focus to my life. The experience is to share music. I got to make an album with Graham Lewis from Wire. Wire are a huge influence on me. I got to play bass on a single from Mark Stewart. The Pop Group are a huge influence on me. I got to play with the Stooges! Shit I would never have imagined! I just wanted to play with my friends.
E&D: Do you ever stop and look back and think. Wow, I’ve done a lot of amazing stuff?
Mike: Absolutely. I’m very grateful. I’ve been really lucky, so I don’t take it for granted.
E&D: Can you tell me some of the best times you had with the Minutemen?
Mike: I remember the first time we played England, we played the 100 Club and hey told us the Sex Pistols were there earlier. That was kind of neat, right? It’s our first time playing and people just kind of rubbed the wrong way but we were still happy to be there. It was worse when we played West Germany, as it was back then, cups of piss thrown at the first bite of the first song, but hey, we finally got to play in Europe. Music has really afforded us a lot of opportunities and to play in Europe, which D.Boon loved and I agreed with him. Our relationship and the Minutemen extended to all other kinds of things.
E&D: Has that what’s it been about for you since then, the experience of playing to different people and travelling the world?
Mike: Always. Yeah, and don’t get jaded from it, that’s why I do it.
E&D: Thank you Mike, it’s been a pleasure talking with you about your music.
Mike: Thanks man and I can’t wait to get back over there to play!