Us in Their Land: An Interview with Mike Watt

Mike Watt has been in so many iconic bands that it's sometimes easy to lose count, but now, with a stripped-down Italian trio called il sogno del marinaio, Watt is doing his most daring work yet ...
il sogno del marinaio
Canto Secondo
ORG Music

When you ask a question for Mike Watt, be prepared to get a dam burst of an answer. It’s an expected response from an artist who has composed operas, played bass for a legendary punk band (The Stooges), and founded two legendary bands of his own with the Minutemen and fIREHOSE. For downtime, he hosts a radio show and plays in more bands.

Watt’s most recent project is the second album with il Sogno del Marinaio (“the sailor’s dream” in Italian). The band’s sophomore album, Canto Secondo is an expansive, atmospheric mix of spaghetti western-style riffs, jazzy bass lines, and sparse percussion. Speaking from his apartment in San Pedro, Calif., Watt said the album’s title was a nod to Dante’s Divine Comedy.

“He [Dante] split the little poems into contos,” Watt said.

il Sogno del Marinaio, which also includes guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi, formed almost five years ago when an Italian promoter assigned Pilia to help Watt with his European tour. Watt was supporting his second opera (The Secondman’s Middle Stand). After the tour, Pilia emailed Watt, inviting him to play a music festival with himself and Belfi in Cesana, Italy. Watt accepted.

“I had an opening,” Watt tells us. “It was an opportunity — it was a spur of the moment. Most of the times when I say ‘No, I can’t do it’, it’s because there’s too much shit going on. But I try to seize every opportunity I can.”

Watt suggested the band record an actual album to coincide with the festival performance. The band’s debut album, La Busta Gialla, was only recorded in a few days. il Sogno del Marinaio’s experimental leanings are a departure from some of Watt’s more rock/punk output.

“They’re 21 years younger than me, but in some ways way more advanced than me. They graduated from the university in art and music. They’re kind of more from the avant-garde,” Watt notes. “These guys ain’t just players, they’re also composers. A lot of ways, I’m the student in this band.”

Although their debut album was recorded only in a few days, it took nearly three years before it was officially released in 2013. Watt said the time lapse was due primarily to each band member’s hectic schedule.

Their follow-up album, Canto Secondo was recorded in eight days last December. The band recorded in a studio inside a barn while staying in a farmhouse that was located near a prison outside Bologna, Italy. They are now embarking on a whirlwind 53-gig tour in 53 days to promote the new album.

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What’s your own connection with Italy?

My mom’s people came from there. Her daddy was from Sicily. They (the band) came from the punk scene — and I share that with them.

How was it like recording in Italy?

I never left the barn. They cooked for me. Stefano and Andrea are very good cooks.

There’s a interesting YouTube video where you are playing bass while Stefano is making pasta

That was their idea … I don’t understand what that was about [laughs]. The main focus was him making from scratch, pasta.

You met Stefano while you were touring in support of your second opera. What inspired you to compose an opera?

I got the idea from The Who. There’s a song called “A Quick One, While He’s Away” that’s got all these parts. That’s where I got the idea.

The first one was Contemplating the Engine Room. It seemed like what I was trying to talk about, I couldn’t fit it one tune, or if I was going to make it one tune, it was going to have to be a big one. And I was trying to deal with losing D. Boon, losing my pop. That album was really about talking about things I was afraid to for many years. I just couldn’t do it in one little tune like I was used to. I’m a guy who comes from a tradition of very little songs. Minutemen got this idea from an England band called Wire, where you had really little songs. I really like that idea. In fact, I used it again a little bit in the third opera (Hyphenated-Man). It’s strange how that came up. I never planned that. I didn’t really like Tommy and the other stuff he did later, his rock operas, but I did like “A Quick One” — and that really had a big influence on me.

Your press release stated you wanted the band to bring compositions based on the time you spent together. What did you bring to the recording sessions?

The first album, we didn’t really know each other. Now, we have the experience of playing 23 gigs together. I asked them to use that experience to form the second album. One of the reasons the first album was called La Busta Gilla … we didn’t have enough tunes, so we grabbed one out of Andrea’s composition folders. This time, I wanted new tunes formed by our experience together. That’s what I asked of those guys. And I did likewise.

What songs did you bring to the session?

Mine was “The Dream of the Barn”, “il Sogno del Fienile”, and “Nanos’ Waltz”. Nanos is what you’d call a small person in Italy. There’s a phenomena where you can look larger, just moving closer to the camera.

One (song) called “Stucazz?!!”, which is something I heard from my grandfather when I was a boy, and didn’t realize it. Hanging around with these guys, some of those words would come out, and they actually would be cuss words, like a “What the fuck?” kind of expression.

“Us In Their Land” I actually wrote that for Brother’s Sister’s Daughter, which was a project from Japan — with Japanese musicians. That’s the one anomaly of the album, “Us In Their Land” — it’s not contemporary, it’s from 2008. We did it for the tour, and they wanted to record it for the album. I said “OK.” I didn’t hoist it on them. The other ones, I wrote in mind of those guys, their playing style, and also the experiences we had on the road doing gigs.

The vocals were added later?

I flew those in from San Pedro.

Is it hard for you to record vocals separately, instead of doing it all in one take?

It’s harder. You have to practice a lot to do that. You have to literally teach yourself to become ambidextrous. You gotta commit it to your muscle memory. You can’t be thinking about that shit, or it’s all herky-jerky and shit. And that comes from practice.

The first song, “Animal Farm Tango” — sounds like a cross between Animal Farm and the soundtrack of a Sergio Leone western.

Andrea said he was inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm. He’s got that style. Both these guys have different styles of composing. Stefano — when he plays for you — he sees how you reacted, and then he changes where it’s going. It’s kind of the way I developed the drum parts for the third opera. When “Animal Farm Tango” came, I thought it was cinematic. Both of the guys kind of write cinematic — their music is kind of like mind movies. Even when they use words, they put the words on after. They come from a different place than me. I try to make little movies to, but they really do it.

There’s a lot of use of space in the album, especially on the track “il Sogno del Fienile”

We call that “playing the holes,” which I like. I think it’s a good antidote from getting too much like fusion [laughs]. There’s a problem sometimes with instrumental music. There’s a band that’s pretty cinematic from Scotland called Mogwai. They got that kind of feeling — well, I get that feeling listening to their music. There’s some stuff from when I was younger, the ’70s fusion, kind of funky, I’m really not interested in that stuff.

These guys, they root the music in a deeper vision than just technique. They’re trying to create an aesthetic. Stefano and Andrea really are artists. They’re really interesting guys. I’m glad it’s a collaboration kind of band. Nothing against the other guys I’ve played with, I love those guys, but they’re more like machinery operators like me.

Your upcoming tour will have you doing 53 gigs in 53 days

I said to them, “I’d like to show you the US, in fact, I’d like the US to see you too.” You say “Italian musicians,” maybe they think of opera. It’s hard for US people to think of Italian rock-and-rollers or avant-garde musicians.

You’re using the van?

Well, how else? Until Scotty gets the transporter room fixed. We ain’t going to fly. I said I want to show them the country … we got a lot of different parts. It’s going to take some time. If you know my history, this ain’t unusual. I do big tours all the time. It’s a tradition I come from, from Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppet days. Before that, it goes back to vaudeville. I asked them “you want to do 53 gigs in 53 days?” And they said “no problem.” It wasn’t like I forced this thing on them.

Have they done this before?

They got four or five bands each also. But Europe tours [sighs] … that shit’s the product of US punk. Black Flag did four month tours. It was an SST thing, I think. I just did a 53 gigs tour in 56 days tour over there in Europe. People were tripping on that over there, they don’t usually do that. US either. People think touring is hard.

It is, isn’t it?

So is working in a salt mine. Everything’s hard, isn’t it [laughs]. If you sit and think about it, it does seem overwhelming, but what happens is you get into the day to day, and that’s all you’re thinking about. That’s why I have nightmares the first week [laughs]. But then after a while, you get used to the day-to-day, and it becomes a routine. You gotta drive to the place, do the soundcheck. In my case, I konk after the soundcheck, they wake me up for the gig, I play my brains out. Konk. Repeat [laughs].I think just looking at the numbers and the amount of towns is more wild than the actual experience once you start doing it.

Black Flag. They did like hundreds in a row. They were the big daddies. They built the circuit that I’m still touring on. That band, they should get a lot more credit than they did. It’s weird how people forgot about them. I know there’s drama and stuff these days, but they actually did a lot to get that touring scene going. In the Hollywood punk scene, only the Dils had a van. I don’t think people ever thought about touring in the punk scene. It was Greg Ginn — he did HAM radio as a younger guy. He’s the one who had the vision where you had to take this to other places.

A year and a half ago, I did a tour with Andrea and Stefano — we did 23 gigs in 23 days, and it was in Europe. And those dudes handled it great. In fact, I got a bum knee — I was born with bad knees, but at a Stooges gig, I tore a ligament. I can’t really do 100 percent physical, and those guys, they took up the slack. There’s no bellyaching, no complaining. I do think this kind of life, it’s kind of a sailor’s life. I’m not saying everyone can do it. But if you’re into it, it’s very doable. It’s not rocket science.

Are you going to take a break from your radio show?

Sometimes you got no time, sometimes you do. It depends on the situation. Once you’re engaged (to the tour), you have to commit to that life. Sometimes I have to put The Watt From Pedro show on hold. I think I only did one show that whole two months, the last tour I did in March and April. Usually, I like to do one show a week when I’m home. I have done them on tour, especially with The Stooges. They would play not every night, so I would have some time. I wish I could do more.

The main thing when I go on a tour — number one priority and goal is to get my guys back home safe. Number two: Play as best as we can for the gig-goers whose worked all week to come and see you play. If the radio show’s gotta take a back seat, then that’s what I gotta do.

For someone who’s played a lot of immediate type of music like punk, was there any type of adjustment to learn more avant-garde structures?

“When you’re talking 5-4, 7-4, 9-4 time, that shit is hard for me. I just don’t have a lot of experience in it. That “Alain” song is in 5-4, that was a little tough, even though it was that simple little lick. The toughest challenge I have playing with those guys, and they’re very patient with me, is the meter of the song. I listened to Captain Beefheart a lot as a young man, but me and D. Boon never played it. It was too tough. I think we had too much Creedence, Blue Oyster Cult, and T-Rex [laughs]. I’m not proud of that limitation. Luckily Minutemen always used dynamics. D. Boon thought it was part of the vocabulary that would make us sound like us. The Minutemen was really strong on that — in starts and stops. The Stooges gigs were on 11 the whole time. Even in fIREHOSE we used dynamics.

I’m trying to think of someone with a serious punk background who’s listening to Canto Secondo for the first time, what their reaction would be like

Maybe you gotta understand what punk met to us. With the Minutemen, punk was not a style of music. It was the state of your mind. We thought the style of music was up to each band. For us punk meant meant if you find yourself not fitting in a certain kind of world, you try to create your own.

It’s hard for me, because I’m part of the band, but I hear punk stuff in it totally. Even though I’m 21 years different than these guys. Can you imagine in the old days in the ’70s as a teenager, me and D. Boon didn’t even know anyone 21 years older than us, yet alone play with them. The times have kind of changed. The younger people are way more open-minded than the old days.

In my days, we were very wrapped up in ourselves. We wouldn’t listen to music five years old. Very narcissistic generation. Very slacker, lazy. No one used music for expression. No one wrote their own songs that we knew. It took the punk movement to really get us going. I think that came out of a reaction to arena rock and the ’70s stuff.

We had this problem with Minutemen. “You guys aren’t punk, man”. We heard this from other punk rockers. That’s why I wrote that song “History Lesson — Part II”. That was supposed to be about community. It’s kind of hard for me to write about those things. But bands are very personable, they are expressions of a community.

Finally, something I always wanted to know. The song “Providence” on Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation had an answering machine message from you to Thurston Moore on it. Did you know they were going to use that recording when the album came out?

No, I didn’t know it was going to be a song. I didn’t know it was going to be a video. He made a videoout of it!

There was an apartment in Chinatown (in New York). There was no doorbell, you’d have to call up on the fucking pay phone. They were like the fourth or fifth floor up, and they’d put the keys in a sock and throw it down to you. One of the messages, I said “I’m on the punk telephone.” That means “throw the keys.”

The other message, I remembered what happened to the shit that Thurston bought before he came to the gig. He went and bought some cassettes and some cables and sat with us in the boat (van), it was during a fIREHOSE gig in Manhattan. I asked him to take out some trash that was in the boat, you know a clean boat is a happy boat. But he threw everything and his arms away. But I didn’t realize that until the next day when we were in Providence, Rhode Island.