Photo: Johnny Gee

Get in the Ring: Mike Watt Talks ‘Ring Spiel ’95’

In 1995, Mike Watt released his first solo album and embarked on a tour with some talented, famous and supportive friends. He looks back on that time now with fondness but says that, at first, he wasn't sure what the future would bring.
Mike Watt
Ring Spiel '95
Columbia / Legacy

Ring Spiel 95 captures Mike Watt in the live at Chicago’s venerable club The Metro in May 1995, during a tour that made headlines and history in the same year that birthed Foo Fighters and saw Pearl Jam take on concert giant Ticketmaster. Watt had released Ball-Hog or Tugboat to wide critical acclaim earlier in February that year and though many refer to it as the former Minutemen and Firehose founder’s first solo LP, the longtime San Pedro, California resident chuckles at the notion. “There’s 48 people on that album,” he points out. “Seventeen different bands. My theory was that if the bass player knew the song then anybody could come and play the drums, guitar, or sing.”

Joining him on the record was a who’s who of rock from the age: Pals from his days on the SST label, including producer Spot, former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis, as well as members of Meat Puppets and Sonic Youth. Rachel and Petra Haden as well as Anna Waronker of That Dog joined in; so did ex-Nirvana men Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic; Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Flea all made appearances as well.

No matter who played on the album, it’s the topflight material that helped elevate the record to classic status. Songs such as “Drove Up From Pedro”, “Against The ’70’s” and “Piss-Bottle Man” rubbed elbows with a cover of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” and the Rollins co-write “Sexual Military Dynamics”. To support the record, Watt embarked on the tour that he refers to now as “a pants-shitter.”

Joining him in the endeavor were opening acts Hovercraft (featuring Vedder) and the freshly-minted Foo Fighters. Vedder, Grohl as well as Fighters’ Pat Smear and William Goldsmith joined together with Watt during his headlining set to tear through a healthy dose of Ball-Hog, a cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Walking The Cow” and Blue Öyster Cult’s “The Red and the Black”. Grohl’s group hadn’t yet released its self-titled debut album while Hovercraft, to this day, arguably remains one of the lesser-known branches on the Pearl Jam family tree.

The configuration for the tour came about when Grohl called Watt from Australia. The former Nirvana man was chatting with Vedder about the possibility of the three-way bill. “It was a trippy idea and I only had a little while to get it together,” Watt recalls, still sounding somewhat surprised at the turn of events more than 20 years later.

The tour, like the album it was launched in support of, was a success but there was no rush to release a commemorative album. Watt, himself, hadn’t given it much thought and when Columbia/Legacy approached him about the project, he deferred to his bandmates. Watt was approached by Columbia/Legacy and suggest that the label get in touch with the other players. “I didn’t want to embarrass anybody,” he says. “It turns out they weren’t embarrassed. They wanted it out.”

Smear, who Watt has known for decades, was especially enthusiastic. “Pat said, ‘It’s about time you put this out.’ I was surprised.” It was a turning point for the bassist and singer, the first time he’d been without a band since his teens, the first time he’d ventured on the road without either the Minutemen or Firehose moniker on tickets or the marquee. “The whole thing was so scary,” he says. “If I look back on it now, as part of my musical journey, that’s where I get brave enough to play with different people. After that I start doing all these different projects and start writing operas. Man up and grow a pair. But sometimes you’re scared to look. Like I just talked to Jim Jarmusch documentary on The Stooges [Gimme Danger]. I trust him but I’m kind of scared to see it. Hopefully I didn’t embarrass those guys.”

The 1995 Ball-Hog tour was a critical time for almost everyone involved: Pearl Jam was striving to be more than an MTV band and figure out how to find longevity; Nirvana’s unexpected end a year earlier had sent shockwaves through the larger musical community. The fact that both Vedder and Grohl were on the bill suggested a newfound unity between two Seattle camps that had sometimes been at odds in the years prior. Vedder was also showing that he wasn’t as interested in stardom as he was in making lasting art; Grohl and Smear were trying to reestablish themselves.

“I think Dave really wanted to get out and play with a band,” Watt says. “It was a proj, then a band. But, yeah, these guys all had stuff they were bringing with them but mainly I just wanted to play good enough for them.”

The reception the record received at the time remains another point of surprise for Watt today. “People were kind to me,” he says. “I come from the underground and it was small. You didn’t have to worry about jive. People were there because they wanted to be; it was small. So, when you put something like Ball-Hog out in the mersh world and you say, ‘I wonder what they’re going to think about this.'” He’s aware that some might see Ring Spiel as a bow to nostalgia.

“People might say, ‘What is this, Watt? Happy Days?’ But I also gotta be thankful for people being a little more open-minded these days,” he adds. “They want to check out stuff like this.” That the album contains “Against the ’70’s”, a song about avoiding an idealization of an imagined past. Watt points once more to the hit sitcom Happy Days and its celebration of life in the mid-1950s.

Debuted in 1974, it was part of a revival tradition that included Grease and American Graffiti as well as an interest in “oldies” music. With the damage of the war in Vietnam evident on American shores and domestic radicalism in the news, there was, perhaps, hope to be found in a time when hair was short and life was wholesome. No mistake, then, that the series, which starred Ron Howard, was set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the kind of place that seemed to epitomize these ideals.

While the lives of white suburbanites were on the incline, their black, urban counterparts were being subjected to public violence and segregation; the contribution women made to the larger culture was often undermined and young people, who would become a major force in the 1960s, were still largely under the thumb of the dad who knew best. Watt, who was in high school during the television show’s heyday, remembers its arrival well. “They were basically marketing that to my pop’s generation. I remember when it came on he said, ‘Boy, those weren’t happy days.’ This is why I saw a lot of war movies in the ’60s when I was a little boy, ’cause they were marketing to the World War II guys,” Watt says. “That’s what I was saying. I wasn’t really talkin’ as a ’90’s guy. But I thought I could still fit the role. It seems like it’s always the dilemma of humans.”

He adds, “You know in the ’70s we wouldn’t listen to old shit. Now, a kid has no problem liking Black Sabbath, a 45-year-old band. I think that’s a good thing. But now there’s this campaign about ‘Make America Great Again,’ sentimentalism, air brushing out all the bad parts. That’s what I was talking about”.

The 1970s, he continues, was not a time in which the underground thrived the way it would at the dawn of the 1980s. “There’s a line in there about garbage vendors and true defenders, indicting people making music like they’re making socks,” he says. “When I was a teenager people were very close-minded. Blue Öyster Cult was secret information. ‘What does that symbol mean?’ You had to send in for the lyrics and would get them back on computer paper. But we didn’t know about underground. I know now, from playing with Stooges, that there was underground: garage bands, regional labels and stuff. But that all kind of disappeared in the ’70s when arena rock came in. That was one of the reasons that we got involved in the movement. I always think of the farmer being asked, ‘How are you going to get a crop?’ and him saying, ‘We’ll use a lot of manure.’ Bring it on motherfuckers.”

As anti-establishment as Watt’s music has been, there have often been doses of the familiar, such as on the surprisingly tender “Piss-Bottle Man,” the tale of a father-son tradition set over a Who-ish musical storm. “That’s one of the things that led to Ball-Hog,” Watt reveals. “I remember showing it to Edward [Crawford] for potential Firehose. He said, ‘Michael, do you think this is a song this band should be playing?’ I don’t know. Maybe the subject matter was a little too personal.”

Watt’s love of Blue Öyster Cult remains alive on Ring Spiel via a cover of “The Red & The Black”, a song Watt has played consistently throughout his career, with one exception: J Mascis + The Fog. “I tried to show that to him at soundcheck and he wasn’t sure about the lyrics,” Watt says. The colors in question involve the colors of the uniforms worn by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “It’s about running away from the draft. So, when they sing, ‘You kill/you maim,’ it’s satire. Black humor. J Mascis took it on face value and didn’t want to be part of song with ‘You kill/you maim.’ He’s the only dude I’ve played with who won’t play it.”

There is a long list of people Watt is playing with these days. Among them, an improvisational project with Josh Haden of the band Spain. Their friendship spans back decades, with Haden becoming a fan of Minutemen early on. Watt produced Haden’s early SST-inked band Treacherous Jaywalkers on the 1987 effort Sunrise and Haden’s father, Charlie performed with the Minutemen at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in 1984.

“He brought down this 200-year-old bass and I got to talk with him a whole bunch,” Watt remembers. “He was a beautiful man. It’s through him that Nels Cline comes into my life because Nels was playing with [Haden’s] Liberation Music Orchestra. There’s a very big connection because of that,” he says. Cline appears on Ball-Hog and has recorded with Watt on many occasions and joined the second formation of the 1995 touring band. “I gotta say that Charlie playing with us was because of the movement: He didn’t have any preconceived notions about what people in the movement were supposed to be about. You know, I didn’t come out and say, ‘Why did you just do that with us?’ but I kind of knew that we weren’t that far off from him. We were just born at different times.”

The sense of eclecticism and risk, he saw in Charlie Haden may very well be the spirit that energized the Minutemen and Firehose. It may also be the thing that drives younger bands to venture into the unknown.

“Punk is not a style of music,” Watt says. “It’s a state of mind. That’s what the movement’s about. It wasn’t about branding the sound. I think some people were upset with that. Other people were grateful for it. In some ways, this is a way old tradition: Think about Walt Whitman: 1855 is the first edition of Leaves of Grass. He puts that out himself. He thinks he’s gonna stop the war. It’s amazing that he had the nerve. I think you need audacious stuff like that. That’s the tradition that I see myself in. And there’s still fires being lit.”