“I know it’s weird. All these little creatures… It’s almost like a mirror in my head broke into 30 pieces." Minutemen and Stooges bassist Mike Watt talks with PopMatters about life as a middle aged punker and his new rock opera, Hyphenated Man
The Minutemen might be the most important band to have emerged from the Southern California punk scene of the early 1980s. Playing short, oddly-constructed songs with lyrics that showed a wit and intelligence beyond their years, the trio of D. Boon on guitar, Mike Watt on Bass, and George Hurley on drums mined a more experimental vein of punk than any of their beflanneled peers. While SST labelmates Black Flag typified the hardcore sound with searing, distorted guitars and anthems of alienation and delinquency, the Minutemen used hardcore as a launching pad to deploy a payload of chopped-up rock, jazz and funk rhythms in songs that were political, cerebral, and often catchy in spite of themselves. Just as important, they helped pioneer the DIY ethic of self-managed touring and recording, blazing a trail of artistic independence for millions of bands to follow.
While they never sought nor saw platinum, the musical influence of the Minutemen is potent and vast. Had D. Boon not been killed in a car wreck at the height of the band’s career in 1985, the Minutemen would surely have wreaked havoc on an unsuspecting record industry. Boon’s band members were devastated by his passing, especially Watt, who was Boon’s best friend and chief musical conspirator. Eventually, Watt and Hurley enlisted a new guitarist and soldiered on for a while as fIREHOSE, after which Watt went on to have a prolific career. He recorded dozens of albums and participated in a string of collaborations that culminated in his dream gig, playing bass for proto-punks the Stooges.
But Watt’s post-Minutemen success has always been colored by deep sadness at the loss of D. Boon, so much so that Watt was unable to even listen to the Minutemen for almost 20 years. When a documentary about the band (We Jam Econo) was produced in 2005, Watt was forced to go back and hear the songs that started him on his musical path. The result was a flood of mixed emotions and fractured remembrances, which Watt paired with imagery from Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch to create a 30-minisong opera called Hyphenated Man. Recorded in New York by former Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone, Hyphenated Man is Watt’s third rock opera, to be released March 1 on his new label, Clenchedwrench. Every track on the album is an operatic character, demons of Watt's own personality as refracted through the images of Bosch paintings.
“I know it’s weird. All these little creatures… It’s almost like a mirror in my head broke into 30 pieces." This is Watt confronting himself as a 53 year-old punk rocker, and so things are kind of mixed up, they’re not so literal.
A new Watt album is always good for Minutemen fans, but Hyphenated Man is especially so, as it revisits the sound of the band’s classic Double Nickels on the Dime album. Going back to that style wasn’t easy for Watt, who worried that somehow he would cheapen the Minutemen legacy. Not being able to reach out to his old friend D. Boon for advice, Watt did the next best thing he could think of. He put down his bass, dusted off one of Boon’s old telecasters and started writing songs. Subverting his usual process and reaching out to his roots allowed him to approach the material with a freshness and honesty that he doubts could have happened otherwise.
“I was a little afraid because when you talk about yourself, it’s scary, you don’t want to come off as self-important. But I thought this is such a weird part of my life. I never really thought about middle age, especially being a middle age punker. How do you write about it without being cornball? So yeah, I was looking for some help.”
Watt said he hears traces of Boon all over the album. But even though it has a distinct Minutemen feel, it doesn’t come off as a cynical replica. “I was feeling a little weird about copying the minutemen too much. So I kinda made it weird, besides writing it on the guitar which I hardly do, I had Tom (Watson, guitar) and Raul (Morales, drums) record it without them ever hearing the bass or the spiel. I brought that in a year later.”
Watson and Morales were hand-picked for the project, Watt said, partly for their chops but also because they were both influenced by the Minutemen and have a gut-level understanding of what the band was about. Dubbed the Missingmen, the trio will head out this Spring to play 50 gigs across North America in 51 days. It’s a tough tour, but Watt is less concerned about the van time than he is with remembering all the lyrics and chord-changes to the decidedly non-traditional songs the band is playing.
“You know I’ve taken this on tour already, we did it in Japan… It’s one of the most difficult fuckin’ things. So much to remember -- I’ve pretty much got the music down but there’s still some spiel I space on. Tom and Raul got it pretty good, much respect to them, but still, I got practice today with them. It’s trippy -- something I didn’t realize at the time, but one of the main things I’m trying to get through in this piece is that everyone’s got something to teach – life’s for learning. And I embody that. I am a lifelong student, totally still learning, still in student mode even though it’s my own fuckin’ thing.”
One of the things Watt’s learned in the past few years is that decades of touring takes a toll on the body. A 2000 infection of the pereneum almost took him out completely, and his knee is still recovering from a blow-out sustained during a Stooges show last year. But as long as Watt can still move his fingers, he’s likely to be out there playing.
“You know, I got into music to be with my buddy. I wasn’t really a musician, that was just how me and D. Boon hung out, then he got killed and, fuck… It’s weird, I didn’t even know if people wanted to see me without him. But I kept going and people helped me. Those days were tough, but I didn’t want to let go, didn’t want to give it up. If you think about it with the ethic you had at the beginning, it’s still interesting and fired-up stuff, not something to be bored and jaded and tired and wrung out on. I still think the scene, the movement I was part of, it offers me a whole lot of opportunities and I don’t ever want to give up on it.”