“The punk movement for us was not a style of music, it was a state of mind. It was about taking things into your own hands.”
Interview & Photographs by Theo Constantinou
Introduction by Zach Bove
You think you’re a punk. Shave your head, buy a flannel, and tell your friends you love Minor Threat. Anyone can play the part in this day and age, but the reality is, trendy hollow nostalgia isn‘t punk. Punk comes shorter, faster, louder–with no synthetic veneer, its raw congenial truth. Mike Watt, bassist of the 1980s punk band Minutemen, has lived and helped create the definitive history of the punk movement in America. Watt has experienced both the glory and tragedy of punk rock. Take a lesson from Watt, close your mouth, open your heart, and stop living life by the script.
So, Tom Watson, there’s one solo on the second part that’s his but everything else he followed from my ballsy ass demos. D. Boon showed me some stuff when we were young on the guitar and I wrote the whole thing on one of his Telecasters. I wrote it in order. I did change two things at the end. I put the middle song at the end ‘cause I thought if I used that end song people thought that would be my summation. Actually, all 30 parts are supposed to happen, it’s not 30 songs actually—it’s 1 song and it’s 30 parts—and in a perfect world, they all happen at the same time but the piece, number one, the piece would be very short and then it’d be kinda hard for a trio to do. So we gotta play one after another. There’s no other way to kinda do it, y’know? And it’s supposed to be like a wheel. All we did was beginning, middle, end. One was happy, one was very sad. I wanted this one to be almost all mill. Actually, I wanted to do “Minute Man” again. Y’know that documentary. Yeah, I had to help those guys, y’know. You were too young to see it so the documentary, in a way, was them findin’ out about us. And so I had to listen again. And I hadn’t listened since he got killed, it made me too sad. So, when I heard it again, I was like wow, I wanna do this. But I didn’t wanna do a hoppy dazed, not strategy thing so I thought well, write about what’s happening with you now being a middle-aged punk rocker. I’d never wrote about that then. We use these weird forms but respect to Georgie, I don’t rip off my old band. Actually, we didn’t make it up; we got the idea from WIRED. We’ve been doing trios. But we do really know it now. It’s seven parts and each part got like 5 or 6 parts so you’re talkin’ over 200 parts. So we had to beat ‘em in. I mean practice all you want but we’ll practice when we have to, like a real practice is playing it for people. It’s not just stitched together parts, you have to make a thing out of it … Bass players are trippy. I like the politics. Even if it’s your trick, you’re gonna look good making your guys look good. It’s interesting. And D. Boon’s mom got me in when we were 13. She said you’re gonna be in a band—I didn’t even know what it was, I had never been to a club. It was weird. So the bass, y’know, guys weren’t as big, a guitar thing it had risks. I didn’t know the strings were bigger. Actually the first four years I played fuckin’ guitar, with four strings, I thought they just had skinnier necks. Yeah, music’s a lot different now. I’m 13 in 1970 so it was a little different. It’s way more accessible now. There’s more knowledge. There’s more open minds. A kid, a younger man, will listen to a 40-year-old like Black Sabbath, no problem. My day, you wouldn’t listen to something 5 years old! 40 years? What was that—like Frank Sinatra? Yeah, it was weird. People are way more open minded now. Actually, those days that’s probably what punk had become so maybe they had to be weird like that. Dudes were like—y’know, playing with the Stooges, I know there was a club scene in the 60s. It just had gone away by that time.
My first gig was T-Rex. Maybe 35 other dudes there. And that was considered a small gig! I never knew about a club ‘til punk and I liked it. You could actually talk to people. You didn’t sit in the dark, shit, you could talk to the bands. Yeah, and the people—they were trippy. They were characters. They all had fake names. Galleries were all split up, 150 towns. I came here in 1967 from Virginia; my pop was a sailor so I’m in a harbor. But I don’t know the Valley, I don’t know Orange County, I don’t know Eggland Empire. I don’t know the beaches. But they all had some weirdos. Maybe 200 total, that met up in Hollywood. That’s where Nick Petty wrote. Incredible influences these people had on us. It was a trippy little scene. So maybe things happened cause that’s why they happened. But it was weird. One thing that really weirded me out was nobody wrote their own songs. Yeah, 70s stuff was about copying records. You can imagine the gigs. What kid thinks I’m gonna play The Forum or the Longbeach Arena, y’know? Maybe some big dreamers but not your average dude like me and D. Boon. We got music just hangin’ around. Know how this is. Mom didn’t want us to leave the base so we’d stay in the house after school. There wasn’t a lotta guns yet but kind of a rough neighborhood. It was projects after mid-housing. You never thought of music as special. And then there’s this scene comes and guys are just laying around and playing, they don’t care. They’re not hatin’. The best guy isn’t just the dude who can play black bomb the best. There is no best dude; everybody’s startin’. Also, the bass player is just as important as the guitar player. The whole thing changed for us. Few years later, hardcore comes. I think it’s a little different cause there’s young men, they’re not really reactive to old music. They’re rock ‘n roll. I think we were kinda reactionary, we were reactive against whatever it was—arena rock. A lot of those people, those artists, you could tell that they were not musicians at all. They just wanted to be provocative. Also comin’ out of the hippy thing, with demonstrations against the war and it was kinda a wild thing. It was all gettin’ commercialized … I think that was a reaction to arena rock, too. Yeah, instead of everybody likin’ the one guy, yeah, we’re beautiful. Now us, we were ugly. I think in a weird way, punk and disco were connected. Maybe we were fringe things, in reaction to this mainstream thing that was happening. So yeah, I end up with free punk rock coppers. I mean, I came from the school where rules, it is a strange bag, believe me. Y’know for awhile, I never thought I was gonna make music without D. Boon. So it’s all trippy and in December I’m 55 so I know I only got so much time so I gotta try as hard as I can at whatever I can and put my bass in situations you know, where I can stay the student. I seriously believe—if I’ve learned anything—that everyone’s got somethin to teach me. I think one of the dangers of gettin’ older is thinkin’ you know it all, seeing it all; you gotta resist that shit. So that’s kinda where I’m at. The next thing I do is not an opera; it’s actual work songs. I got a band for my second opera that I’m rolling solo, got a little bass, and I’m gonna write that for ‘em. I got some other projects too but that’s like, I’m always gonna have a love for the trios. Y’know, I’ve done 9 and 1/2 years with Iggy. I do, because of the internet, I can do projects with people and never even meet ‘em, which is great. Pure music: you don’t even know the dudes, but you’re playin’ on their stuff, you’re reacting. But I always have 3 guys in the boat workin’ the towns. I love it. So that’s my next thing probably.
Alright, so question one, I’ve been listening to the Clash a lot lately … There was that one lyric in the beginning of “Death or Glory”, where Strummer says…
What’s “Death or Glory”? A song?
It’s a song on the album London Calling.
See, we only know the grainy one. What was it? What does it say?
“Now every cheap road strikes a bargain with the world and ends up making payments on a sofa or a girl. ‘Love’ and ‘hate’ tattooed across the knuckles of his hands. Hands that slap his kids around cause they don’t understand how death or glory just becomes just another story.” So what do you take that lyric to mean?
You end up a cock. That’s not real. You got no expression, like I was talking about writing copper sounds. You’re livin’ from a script, that’s what some other cat wrote. Or he doesn’t even know he wrote it cause it came. No, he’s talking about music as human essence. We look at our thumb print and we’re all different. But in music, because of all these games we get caught in. That cat was deep. That was Joe Strummer, right? That cat was deep. I like that…Yeah, that’s intense. The lyric he loved most, D.Boon, was “All the powers in the hand are the people rich enough to buy ‘em. Still we walk the streets, too chicken to even try it.” Yeah, he liked Strummer a lot, so did I. Wow. The punk movement for us was not a style of music, it was a state of mind. It was about taking things into your own hands. I think that’s what Joe is saying there. Don’t become a car wreck. You start acting out things in reaction to fuckin’ things you can’t reconcile, things of frustrations. Like Tennessee Williams’ book A Street Car Named Desire. They get caught up in things and gotta bring the human out and that’s why the punk had to come. He was deep. He died too young. He died on the same day as D.Boon 17 years later. The 22nd of December. Wow.
I watched this documentary about Ayrton Senna. He was the Formula 1 driver. He lived his life very aware of death and God, I’ve read about you and your relationship with D.Boon and his death and the impact that it’s had on you. Do you think that God takes some people early in order for the rest of us to be inspired by that tremendous loss and lead better lives? While continually mourning and memorializing them as well?
I know what you mean. Not to take it for granted. You never know when your last gig is, don’t do it half way. Don’t sleepwalk. Don’t connect the dots. Even if you’re fixing carburetors. Make it the best fucking job you did on a carburetor. That’s what happens. This working for the weekend. Everything is all by proxy. No! Accidently I wrote a song called ‘Life is A Rehearsal’ because it ain’t no rehearsal. You’re right about God settin’ some kind of example kind of shit like that. It’s cruel, I mean, it’s the heaviest lesson I’ve ever had to learn. Actually, I shouldn’t say cruel. It’s just strong, it’s heavy, it’s big weight. But I think it is not to take liberty or expression for granted. I love Halloween. One day a year we admit we wear costumes. Then we forget about that and we go back to wearing costumes without admitting it. I think that’s why because where is the justice in a young man’s death? It seems so cruel. That must be where the value of it is in. To teach us that are still on the Earth.
Chuck Klosterman wrote this book called, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story. The description of the book is:
“For 6,557 miles, Chuck Klosterman thought about dying. He drove a rental car from New York to Rhode Island to Georgia to Mississippi to Iowa to Minneapolis to Fargo to Seattle, and he chased death and rock ‘n’ roll all the way. Within the span of twenty-one days, Chuck had three relationships end — one by choice, one by chance, and one by exhaustion. He snorted cocaine in a graveyard. He walked a half-mile through a bean field. A man in Dickinson, North Dakota, explained to him why we have fewer windmills than we used to. He listened to the KISS solo albums and the Rod Stewart box set. At one point, poisonous snakes became involved. The road is hard. From the Chelsea Hotel to the swampland where Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down to the site where Kurt Cobain blew his head off, Chuck explored every brand of rock star demise. He wanted to know why the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing…and what this means for the rest of us.”
When I read that, it immediately made me think of your relationship with D.Boon and yet, how again, it goes back to this example—like you said, I’m 26 years old, and I have this sense of urgency. It scares the shit out of me, because I can only talk to so many people. I’m only one man. I can only push it so hard, but I wanna get as much information and learn as much from people who have done so much with their lives …
Some of us will shove around and … What I mean is, sometimes you have to get the shit under the belt. By looking for journeys. He’s trying to get the window. A window’s a mirror in a lot of ways. Maybe the internet’s a window instead of a connector, it’s a thing that means you don’t have to have first-hand experiences. I think that’s what this man was talkin’ about. First hand experiences. A window. It’s hard. Eventually … but in a lot of ways, it was the memories of stuff that was, it was the memories of what might be. The knowledge of not everything either. Except the reality. The other things aren’t that real. But they have barrings on us because we’re wondering when we’re happy. The other thing, that thing in the 50s with the Beats. I guess they were looking for kicks, but I also think they were looking for validation. And also, write questions, I think people got somethin’ in their gut tellin’ ‘em that the questions that we’re brought up will paint the whole story and that’s why the answer are so … Styrofoam! They don’t fill us. So that’s what I think a lot of it is, too, to develop something you can cut into a flesh and a spirit of a being and someone who’s alive and not these fuckin’ scripts. That’s an interesting book. I wanna read it now. Chuck…?
“… You never know when your last gig is, don’t do it half way. Don’t sleepwalk. Don’t connect the dots. Even if you’re fixing carburetors. Make it the best fucking job you did on a carburetor. That’s what happens. This working for the weekend. Everything is all by proxy. No! Accidently I wrote a song called ‘Life is A Rehearsal’ because it ain’t no rehearsal.”
Interview Edited by Zach Bove
Chuck Klosterman. Sounds like he’s on tour. And what’s a tour life? The first thing I thought about when I started doing it was a sailor’s life. My pop was a sailor and oh, I’m so much different than my pop. I mean, I joined the punk navy and not the US Navy and he said, thank god. Never again volunteer yourself. And he got me … when he’d tell me them stories, he’d come from his tours, he got me curious about everything. And that’s another good thing about the Navy: The Navy houses. You’d be organized by rank, not by ethnic, yeah, when I saw how civilians lived, it really tripped me out. I didn’t know any officers but I knew a lot of different cats. Well, I thought they were all millionaires cause they lived on the base—but we lived in a yeah, so I moved real young cause by the 60s, the wars were dirty and they wanted like ethnic guys to fill in. So my pop was a sergeant. So all the guys, all the pops. We were all equal. No one had a better pop, or a lower pop. That was a trippy experience. Only somethin’ as screwed up as the military could do that but I don’t think, a musician can’t sing but they lived a lot of the way I think about people. I have judgments on some kind of genetic makeup cause I lived in the situation, I knew! Part of the trick, too, was there’s the individual and then there’s the group. That’s a trippy dynamic. Especially a 20s man. You gotta look at yourself, and then you gotta work with all these other cats. Actually, you gotta do that in middle age, too. You kinda say, this is part of my opera, yeah, how do you do that? Start decidin’ some things for yourself. Like commanders are used to this. Where I come from, if you’re brave, you get a medal. If you’re smart, you get a diploma. What he’s saying is we actually validate ourselves and that’s what Mr. Klosterman seems like he’s doing. I’m gonna decide what’s important. Actually, there’s a lot of familiarity. It’s called existentialism. These things are so personal and important. I gotta make a decision. I can’t blame society. I don’t know if society develops a code where we can be distant to each other, y’know treat each other’s fuckin’ fellow cats, but I can’t really assign important things in my feelings. I gotta make up my mind about this shit but still be a student, still be willing to learn from others. That’s him too, he’s puttin’ himself in situations. It’s the classroom. It’s not just a civil classroom. If it had more existential foundation, I would go for it. But it’s not, it’s all these rules on how to march and shit, y’know what I mean? After a day, the mission has to become private, but actually that’s not the thing cause if it was private, you’d be all alone. You wouldn’t be bumping into these people, the 3 relationships you’re talkin’ about or listenin’ to some dude’s solo albums. There’s all people involved. Just like the whole punk scene. Even though there was 200 of ‘em, it’s still about people. But that’s the reality. Any farmer would tell you, if you want a good crop, use a lot of manures and you bring this on. If there’s no friction on the tire, it spins! I don’t know how to quantify it but cause like I said, I do hope for some kind of decency. I hate that word normal, I won’t say that, but just decently, you’re gonna let yourself do somethin’ to somebody that you wouldn’t want done to you. That caliber like, y’know. It is a tough thing and I think for everybody it’s probably a different path but all the paths are crisscrossing. Why do I like—well, I got it from Cream. I met D.Boon and he liked Cream, yknow, and I couldn’t hear the bass line so I thought of a lot of restraint and he still liked me. That’s kinda what the arts are for. Not just the bass guys or drummers like Raymond or the writers. One way we can share the fabric that joins us that ain’t tyranny. If you don’t like it, you can turn it off. If you do like it, you can connect. But down the road you change your mind. It’s autonomous but it still connects us. No tyranny, no booed on the fucking floor, either yours or theirs. Matt and Mike, they always put it that way: it’s either us or them. There’s other ways to connect. And that’s why I think that’s part of, when I read them, Fear and Trembling, Mr. Kierkegaard, but it’s insane. He even says it’s insane he’s using a fake name, he doesn’t say he’s a philosopher, because I know what he’s tryin’ to do. He’s tryin’ not to get in a trap that he’s tryin’ to free himself from. I think a lot of tradition of that in the human spirit. I don’t think it’s brand new. I think even maybe some cats from every civilization have been presented with this stuff and instead of just rollin’ over and sayin’ I can’t do anything, they’ve tried to make a real struggle. Lotta times it probably got squashed out. Somebody once told me that the only thing new is you finding out about it. So I think a lot of these things have always been there but what’s interesting is what’s to be done about it. If art is like a jackknife, work is to be carved with the knife. See, the art is in the knife in a weird way, it’s a potential! It ain’t a thing and we’re always lookin’ at the things to copy. No, no, you want an enabler, a thing that can make things happen. That’s why people get carried away with movements but right away they freeze it into an object, to whatever people measure other people up against. Get into power moves, don’t even believe the object anymore, they just know, you can get cynical real easily. I think what’s healthier is skepticism. But then you know the problem with skepticism: if you’re too skeptic, you have to be skeptical with skepticism! So all these kinds of things are developed in the person during the journey and if it’s a short one, like the race car man, goddamn. Maybe he burned down.
He was the last death in Formula 1, since 1984. And the people that he changed.
See that? Connecting.
An entire country of people.
Gives me the chills just thinkin’ about it, y’know?
I know. That means you’re sensitive. That means that’s special in you. That means it’s open. I think it’s little kid shit. Actually, there’s some little kid shit that should never go away, like the eye of wonder. Never go away. You lose that…
I read a portion of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. He said, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction. Jealous and proud of it, petty, unjust, unforgiving, control freak, vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, genocidal, megalomaniac, sodomistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” That was his statement. I’m not sure if you’ve read The Old Testament, but do you agree with Dawkins or more so, if God is all of those things stated here, then why do all these people believe in God?
Well, that was the trip in Fear and Trembling, Mr. Kierkegaard. It’s just the greatest, whatever, story, ever, race, but I can’t understand it. But I know I have to get into it and not just wear it as a pair of clothes; I gotta take it personal.
Are you spiritual?
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve asked God for help so many times. Specially as, with me now. I gotta go up in front of people with the bass, I wasn’t a born entertainer. I got in this to be with my friends. I’m askin’ for help a lot. The way it’s manifested, I read Harold Bloom’s, Book of J, where he thinks the Old Testament was written by a woman. That’s an interesting thing. Maybe she wasn’t even religious. She was like Shakespeare or Kafka right now, but I think we are talkin’ about real things. I don’t know if they’re get out of jail free cards. I think it’s somethin’ to take home in fuckin’ life as a real thing. Seems too much religion, organized religion, is about after you die. I think the real stuff, the literature, if you wanna consider the Old Testament literature, is about—all men created equal, yeah, that’s a high thing. He’s talkin’ a real drama, a real thing that can’t be figured out in a way, like born with a defect. We say equal not really in the bottle, cause you heard ‘em, but maybe a character, or say it’s some chemical imbalances that lead to behavior. I dunno. I think there are tips—a lot of tips—through the arts, through expression that try to deal with what is to be done as a living person. I think it’s organized in different sects, and rituals, so that is trippy but that’s part of the human existence. I don’t know if it goes back to the God thing so much.
It goes back to equality, right? How can I sit here and hate my friend or brother when he’s a Muslim or Jew or Christian …
I think there’s a lot of allegory and metaphor involved. Being cruel to the people, that’s not a metaphor, but humans like to do it ‘cause they’re so certain of the reality. I think that some of the writers, they make me think a lot about shit. It’s hard to understand but you become so passionate. For the longest time, I didn’t know what “Proud Man” was about. Then I figured it out; it was a steam boat, with big wheels and a bottom wheel. It took all these years and hearin’ that thousands of times. So I didn’t figure it out but I like the passion that it puts in me. For sure, I would use it as a club to beat another guy over the head with and I see it bein’ used like that a lot. I was just in Spain, in Seville, and it was Muslim this part called Al Kazar. And when the Christians got it, they didn’t tear it down, they conquistadores. They added to it. They even invited some Italians in later and got some Renaissance shit in there. They turned the minaret to a bell tower, so he’s got the power but at least he didn’t destroy. In a way, there was a weird hybrid of things. Tolerance, the tolerance thing is intense. That’s the real test. Gettin’ along with people who agree with you is tough. Why would a God do this? I hear that question a lot. Not just Richard Dawkins. You’ll hear science people talk about it, philosophers. Doubting, I don’t think, is a bad thing. Professional doubters, same thing as skepticism, you have to doubt doubters. See, logic only gets ya so far. But the magic, I don’t know about that. When you talk about Boots, he was trying to mix you know, it seems like a lotta guys were tryin’ to do that with the Christians. This whole thing that there was more to it, kinda goes back to the old days, even with our newer tools and science. You still have that question from the old days. What’s to it? I think it’s interesting. It is a very personal issue. This is where Watt gets worried cause it gets mixed with politics. That way I like Mr. Jefferson, keep ‘em separate. I hope I don’t sound too old fashioned. Don’t put ‘em in where the guns are cause you know, people grab for the sword and ideas mean nothing. And religion is such a personal issue. How can you fuckin’ say for everyone just cause you got the guns? And they’ve tried it so many times, and it never works. It never works. So when he said keep ‘em separate, and I’ve been there, I’ve taken a lot of my bands to Montecelo. The Obilisque, there’s a lot of crosses in this thing but he’s under Obilisque. He’s under some kinda thing. I just think it’s so personal that to mix it with politics…and even with politics, what’s that word mean? Is it really better ideas or I got more guns than you? I got a good beauty contest thing goin and you get a little skeptical about a lot of these kinds of things. I believe in short cuts. Talkin to guy on the tour. He had to do the miles, he couldn’t sit down and see it on the TV, he had to make it. There are no shortcuts! If you have to spend a lifetime reading the Old Testament, it’s trippy. It is trippy. The new one, too, has got some trippy shit. A lot of books got trippy. It’s hard for us to get perspective. Especially when you raise that and tell us that’s the only way. You either react against it or you strangle it. Like if I had enough information and I had perspective, I could just look at it. Our thing was so closed. I think what you’re asking is very valid and I’ll tell you, more important than that question, that’s serious.
Interview Edited by Zach Bove