Mike Watt, bassist, vocalist, provocateur, formerly a member of punk revolutionaries the Minutemen, post-punk trio fIREHOSE, and solo artist whose latest release is Contemplating the Engine Room.
Mike and I are the same age and both grew up in San Pedro, CA, though we didn’t know each other in school. Our commenting Most Righteous Bud Bricklayer mentioned running into Mike on this post (see comment #1), so dammit, it’s time to put up my Mike Watt interview from late-1992.
EO – Going back to the beginning, how did the Minutemen get hooked up with SST?
MW – Our first gig as The Minutemen was May 22, 1980. No that was our second gig. Our first one was in April. But Greg Ginn of SST was at both of those gigs. Even at the first gig he asked if we wanted to be on the label, and in July we made our first record. It was just Greg seeing us and liking us that got us on the label. We were very excited about it.
EO – What was the band like at that time?
MW – We had another drummer at those first two gigs. We didn’t have George Hurley. After two gigs the first drummer got scared. He thought it was too violent or something, and quit. So we got George, like four weeks before we made the record, and he had to learn the songs in that time. The band was pretty uncompromised. We kind of knew rock and roll from playing in our bedrooms in the 70’s. So when we got our own band together, we were kind of scared of people knowing that we knew rock. In order to avoid them knowing this, we did some very extreme things. We played real short songs, and really stripped them down with no choruses. We played them all together like it was one big song. Very extreme!
EO – Why did you choose that route? Why so extreme?
MW – We thought that it was the only chance we had at getting our own identity, our own voice. We thought it was the only way to get a shot. We didn’t think we were good enough to copy other people. We thought if we went this way, no matter what style we played, people would know that it was the Minutemen.
That’s what we went for, and I think that’s why Greg liked us. We had a conservative lineup of guitar, bass and drums like everyone else, but there was something about us that didn’t make us sound like anybody else, or even look like anybody else. I think it was those things: being extreme, being ourselves.
EO – Were you trying to convey a message?
MW – That was 1980. That’s when Reagan got in, so the Minutemen were always under Reagan. In a way, we might have been a little reactive, reactive in our emotions. There were changes in the country, changes in music, and in a lot of ways we were responsive to that. We never had a chance to develop our own ideas so much as just to react to the onslaught. It would be a lot different now for the Minutemen if we were just coming up, or if we would have come up in any other time. The times had a lot to do with the way we were.
EO – How would it be different now?
MW – I think a lot of the protest we had, and a lot of the anger would be more with the scene now. We would probably be pissed off with other bands more than with the political climate now. It would have been more weathered on us after years of it, you know?
That was a big change when Reagan was just coming in. We were also coming of age: early-20s is a lot different from middle-30s. So that’s why it would have been different if it was any earlier or later. I thought our messages were pretty clear. No mystery there. Even our musical style, we were trying to cut everything down and get rid of all of the filler.
EO – How did your stripped down musical approach coincide with your world view?
MW – We thought we could give personality to what we thought were really stale forms. We never even thought about what we were doing if for. When we listened to music as kids, lyrics were like lead guitar. So in a way, we tried to use the voice like a lead guitar, but embellish it. The same thing with the words. If you’d talked to us after the show, you could tell that what we were creating was an extension of our personalities.
We wanted to make this stuff vital and real again. When we saw pictures of the punkers we thought that it was going to be vital and new, but when we heard the music it was just old guitar stuff, which was kind of good because we could participate in it, but we also knew that the only thing new about it was people finding out about it and doing it.
EO – Did you think of yourselves as punks?
MW – Ah, yeah. Especially among outside people. Not among the other punk rockers as much, but certainly among straight people. They sure as fuck made it clear that they thought of us that way. You know the people were so red-necky about that. With us it was more of a musical utopia, we never did the punk thing socially. We never moved up to Hollywood to live in a communal apartment. When it turned hard core, it got very, very social, and it wasn’t about the utopian musical kind of things. We thought it was about writing your own songs and doing things yourself, but it ended up being a whole different thing kind of a lifestyle. We weren’t as much a part of that.
EO – Were the records or the gigs more important?
MW – In those days, and still in these days its pretty true: you put out records to promote the gigs. You didn’t really do tours to promote the records. Distribution was kind of limited for one thing. Even more limited was awareness of bands: the only way you could know about them was their little record or tape; so we recorded as much as we could. Also, the turnover with college radio is so great, after a few months they’re bored. They have to move on to another record, which is good, so you always have to be putting out another record to be in that pipeline. Making the records was really part of trying to build a following. We put them out all of the time. It kept your name in the zines. It kept you on the college stations, and got some attention for your band.
We would open for anyone in those days, too. That helped. We’d play any kind of gig from hard-core to whatever. I remember our first paid gig. Our first paid gig was about our thirty-fifth gig. It was at the Starwood. Kids were spitting on us pretty heavy. We were laughing because it was so intense. Our first time over in Europe in 1982 they were spitting pretty big, and throwing rubbers, bottles of piss, cups of piss – shit like that. Literally bags of shit. It got to be kind of a lifestyle-thing with people. You just rode along with it. It was a living joke. We were laughing. We thought it was great that we had a chance to go play over in Europe. We couldn’t have ever seen it any other way. Black Flag took us on our first tour, and they paved a lot of the way. The network these bands played, the little circuit, they opened it all up.
There was a lot of negativity: this thing that the punks were doing, that was more of a little ritual, but there was a lot of belligerence at the club end, the record stores, the industry. All these rock and roll people really felt threatened, and thought punks were a bunch of shitheads. That was pretty bad, until they saw they could make some money at it. There was a lot of negative stuff. Even In our own town.
I remember opening for X at the Roxy, and then that same night we had a chance to play some high school thing in our home town, San Pedro. They egged us. They threw eggs at us and ran us off. We thought, “Hey, we’re finally getting to play our town, direct from the Roxy.”, and they chased us off. There’s another time that we were playing, we were just doing a sound-check at this place in Orange County, and they guy goes, “You sound like that?”, and we said, “Yeah!” And he said, “Just pack it up, men.” We got booted off before we even got to play.
EO – Did you ever doubt yourselves in the face of all of this adversity?
MW – No we didn’t. D. Boon and I had a really strong relationship, a real friendship, and we thought that as long as we wanted to do it, it didn’t matter what anyone else thought. That, and the confidence of the SST guys. They would put our records no matter what, and there was a small group of people who liked to do it. We just looked at that and weighed the alternatives. Would we rather not do it? Would we rather give in? Let these peckerwoods stop us? We just tried to keep going.
EO – When were you able to headline and draw a crowd that was there to see you?
MW – 1984, when we did our first US tour by ourselves. Because that’s sink or swim right there. People are either going to come, or they’re not, and you’re not opening up for anyone. We started headlining in LA in 1983, doing little clubs maybe on Tuesdays. No weekends. We all worked during this time, too. We didn’t have weekends off. I remember D. Boon and I didn’t have weekends off until we were, like, 27. I was doing paralegal work. D. Boon was doing construction. George was a machinist. So that had a big impact, too.
The music was a release for us. In a way, it was a hobby to us. It was serious in a way that only a hobby could be. You don’t question why you do a hobby, and you don’t let people talk you out of it. You do it for yourself, just to get it out. We were kind of insulated from resting on the whims of the public. At the bottom level it was therapy for us, and so we thought we were getting away with something by just getting to do the gigs. We thought it was some fuck-up in the system that we were getting to do this stuff. We did think it was kind of incredible, and we weren’t going to squander it.
EO – How did the 1984 tour go?
MW – It was the first time we went out by ourselves, and people came, you know. It wasn’t thousands, but it wasn’t what we call a “cave” either. This was by our sixth record. We were paranoid to go out by ourselves. But the records had been getting around, and people came out to the gigs. From then on we’ve toured every spring and every fall. This is the first fall in eight years that I’ve taken off.
We toured in July and August that year, and besides the weather being super lame that time of year in Florida, and anywhere east of the Rockies, all of the kids were out of school. It was kind of a double-barrel dumb move. So that’s the only summer tour we ever took. It was intense. The whole time we were thinking, “Hey these people are here to see us!” It blew our minds.
And that was another thing: we played every day, never took days off. We still don’t. It was, like, 60 gigs in a row, and we thought it was like steady work. Because back home, when you play in town, you never play that much. It’s a whole different kind of reality. It was like vaudeville or something. It felt worth it, for sure. It was sweaty, oh man!
In those days a lot of the clubs were econo. A lot of them were store fronts and these places had no ventilation. Salt Lake City was like 110 degrees and no open windows because it was a storefront and, literally, I almost died playing. These places were incredible. But there were people at them, so the network was already getting around.
You see Lollapalooza now, it sure wasn’t like that in them days. Our biggest date was at the 9:30 club in DC, which I still play now. We probably drew 300 people to that one. We did Cleveland, Columbus too. The guy from School Kids set up Stash’s that afternoon because the real booker, the guy from Magnolia Thunderpussy, pretended like we didn’t have a gig. He lied. That’s another thing. You would come into town and some of these promoters would try to pretend that you never had a gig set up with them. Sometimes we made $50 or $60. Sometimes more. A lot of times we took the door.
EO – How did people become aware of you? You mentioned a network?
MW – College radio, the independent record stores, the little club owner. They’re all tied together. That’s how everybody heard about what’s going on, and how they got to play in that town, and how they got their records stocked. A lot of it was because of SST and Black Flag touring. They would do these massive three-or-four month tours, and play places that nobody ever played, and that would help get the kids, and build a scene Get the kids to support a little store. The little store is where the kids at the college station get the records.
EO – What press coverage did you get?
MW – 90% fanzines. We wouldn’t do interviews for a couple of years. Our first interview was with Flipside. Craig Lee got us in the LA Times in like 1981 or 1982. That was the first commercial press we got. Then we started getting lots of press. We were putting out the records, playing the gigs. That would force them to put you in the media.
EO – How long did the Minutemen last?
MW – D. Boon was killed 12/22/85, so fIREHOSE has been six years now. It’s amazing. It seems like fIREHOSE started last week sometime. But with The Minutemen, every record sold a little more; every tour, a few more people. We were returning more to our older days. We had fun with the second to the last album, it was called Project Mersh. We were having fun with other people’s ideas of music with fadeouts and choruses. But the record after that, 3-Way Tie, was getting back to the old thing: intense songs, plus we did some cover songs on there.
That was one of the good things about recording a lot: you could try things and experiment. It was a low risk thing because you were recording all the time. It wasn’t like a lot of weight was riding one every release. If you waited every two-or-three years, it was like a big final exam. Ours wasn’t the Springsteen approach, it was more like the shotgun approach. Like I said, you always wanted one out for the tour, then people would have things to write about and play. A lot of your recording was based around getting promo for the gigs.
EO – How did you form fIREHOSE after D. Boon’s death?
MW – Well, Ed [“from Ohio” Crawford] just came by my house in Pedro. I was kind of impressed by his audacity, so I said, “OK, I’ll do it.” I thought the Minutemen were pretty successful, so basically I just stuck to the same plan almost exactly, with Edward singing and playing guitar. Then we recorded and toured in almost the exact same kind of way. It didn’t change much at all. Then we started writing songs as fIREHOSE, and that was different because Edward is a much different guy from D. Boon. Edward was new to the game, so we couldn’t record as quickly as before. The records came much slower. But as far as touring and the way we recorded, it was about the same way.
Ed came from a little town called Toronto, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border, and he had a trumpet scholarship to Ohio State. He was going to school there, then he dropped out and was washing dishes. He’d known the Double Nickels album. One of his roommates had had it. He went to a Camper Van Beethoven gig, and their bass player told him that Mike Watt was auditioning people for a band, which I wasn’t. But this guy told Edward that. Ed found my number in the phone book, or from information, and called me up and said, “I’ll send you a tape” – no, that’s wrong – he just wanted to come and play for me. I said, “Send a tape.”
But he didn’t. He just came out here, and he had an acoustic guitar, and we played something from Quadrophenia or something. He was playing the “I’m the One,” the Townshend one he sings on there, and I was laughing. I couldn’t believe this guy would come out here. He didn’t even have an amp or anything. He’d never been in a band. I just said, “Why not?” and went for it. You know, its a weird thing. You think rock and roll, you think a guitar player/singer – he’s the main part of the band, but the way me and George do it – no. Especially the way we had it set up with the Minutemen.
D. Boon didn’t want me and George as back-up guys. I don’t know if Ed showed us anything: he showed us some nerve just to come out, but musically, we didn’t care. In fact he was into stuff that we didn’t even know about like REM and U2. We knew R.E.M. because they took us on our last tour as the Minutemen, and we got to know them – nice guys – but the music was pretty foreign. You know, we came from a more intense kind of punk rock. Edward is from another era, a little later. You know, new wave and college rock. So, we didn’t really care. We just did what we had been doing. We were like a steamroller for Edward. He just hung-on and rode it.
EO – You guys must have been a tight rhythm section by then.
MW – Yeah. In a way we weren’t even a rhythm section – more of a competition, me and George. We don’t really make a groove. We kind of compete. It must have been something else for Edward. I can imagine. But, see, that’s the way me and George learned, and we didn’t have another way of playing. We didn’t really adapt to him. He had to adapt to us. We’re not that good in our hackdom.
Poor Ed didn’t have strong enough will to oppose. I don’t know; we were older than him. We were of this band, this kind of legend, I guess. Of course in our minds, me and George are just dudes, and here we are playing without D. Boon, which was really hard for us, scariness-wise.
But back to the reacting thing again, just reacting to the situation. We hunkered down and drove straight ahead. I thought that was the best way out of it. The dwelling thing was just destroying me. D. Boon died in December, and Ed didn’t come to my house until May or June. So I’d gone six months. But even that long didn’t seem long enough.
I just didn’t want to face it. I hadn’t played much in all of that time. I did a little thing with the Sonics, they had me play on their record Evil. They brought me to New York and had me play a little. I did this Madonna single with them, but that’s all. People ask me, “Why’d you pick Ed?”, and all this. But, I didn’t really take a lot of time to think, or decide, or pick anybody. I was just ready to go, and he was there.
EO – What led to the decision to go to Sony?
MW – Basically, it was distribution kind of thing. When we did the third album, From Ohio, it actually sold a little less than If’n, the second album. Me and Greg had a little talk over this – that we had plateaued out at like 50,000 – which was pretty good for a band like us. But, we thought we had plateaued out, and thought, “Well, maybe we need a company with a little bigger distribution.”
But there’s trade-offs and stuff, so I really didn’t go looking for people. I wanted them to come to me, so that I could have a little clout in making the deal. I wanted to make sure I could make a deal like I had with SST, where I didn’t have to give up creative control, and stuff like that. I didn’t want to do that just to get a little better distribution.
An old college DJ, Jim Dunbar was working for Sony. He was a Minutemen fan from way back. He knew all about what I was doing. I never even made any demos. But in a way, all these years of being in the Minutemen and fIREHOSE, and doing all of those tours: that was a track record. That was like my demo. Maybe that made it different than if we were just a new band starting out looking for a major label deal. My indie label career put me in the position to make a deal like I did with a major.
So Dunbar had just gone to work at Sony, and was checking out bands. I put him off for a couple of years until I thought it was right. We got creative control, just like at SST. We didn’t give up anything.
EO – How have you liked Sony?
MW – We’ve done one album and one EP. The live EP was kind of a test that I sprung on them to see if they would do it, and they went for it. They’re very surprised that we can make things as cheaply as we can. They’re so out of touch. The way things have been done, it’s just incredibly wasteful. A lot of these bands that make records for the big labels came in to check us out, and here we are doing things kind of econo, very econo, recording style. It blew their minds. We did it cheap for their world.
The Minutemen did Double Nickels for $1100, and that was 45 songs. That’s one of my biggest sellers. That one’s sold 70,000 or so. It’s a double album, too. And it’s probably the best one I ever played on.
As far as Sony goes, the main difference is context: At SST you’re the big fish in the little pond. Over at the big label, it’s way the other way around. We’re the tiny little thing in the gigantic ocean. You know, I can call Greg Ginn anytime and talk to the boss of the company. It’s a little different with the Sony people. I can’t call Japan, and if I did, I don’t think the president of Sony would know what department I am with anyway. It’s just a whole different reality. Things move slower, and they’re not as in-touch with the real world.
I had to do some pushing to get cassette versions of the live EP, it was CD only. Then finally, about a month after the CD came out, I got them to do a cassette version. SST would know that there would be sales there. Not everyone has CD players. So those are some differences.
EO – How have they done promoting you?
MW – See, that’s another thing that’s strange. I’ve been told, “They should promote you more.” But I feel that I have a responsibility to the people who have been supporting me for a lot of years. If they came out with the big major label hype, I think that it would disappoint a lot of people who have supported me.
So I don’t really worry about the promotion that much. Just be sure my records are available, and stuff like that. As far as them trying to blow us up into something were not, I’m really against that. So I haven’t had that much of a problem with that. My deal is that every two records they can decide “yes” or “no.” The EP didn’t count. Sales have been good for us, but not quantum leaps over what SST did.
I’m curious about label thinking. They sign bands to make money, but I think sometimes they sign bands for credibility too. I wonder if we’re that. It’s like a club owner who hires you for a gig: you can’t really care about what his musical tastes are.
Distribution is the main positive of a major label because it’s their own. They don’t have to go through all of these third parties and middlemen who do strange things for politics and money. The indie labels are more a captive of that situation. But then the good thing at the indie is creative control.
There’s the credibility factor too, with the kids. Some kids will hate you for going to the major label, just for that. I haven’t seen much of that because I’ve tried to show the kids that there wasn’t much difference. If you look at the fIREHOSE record on Sony and the ones on SST, I even tried to make the artwork look real similar. I even recorded the first album with my own money because I didn’t trust what could be done. I think the credibility with the kids is important, especially after they have supported you all these years. I never had enough confidence to gamble and go after a whole new audience. It’s been a steady building thing. I suppose we’ve reached 75,000 or so for the first Sony album, so I don’t think they’re disappointed. I think they’re into it . We’ve just finished recording the second one.
EO – How is the second record different?
MW – We spent a little more time on it. We also used a producer, J. Mascis, a good friend of mine from Dinosaur. That’s a new thing for me. I’ve never really done the producer thing. He’s a really nice, smart guy. We don’t sound that different, but it was a little more fun to record. A lot of our records are just like gigs in front of the mikes and this one, yeah, he had some different ideas. He wanted me to sing this one that Edward usually did, or he wanted George to play the snare drum.
That’s something strange: this guy is quite a few years younger than us. He told us that when he was a kid he was a drummer, and he learned all of the songs on What Makes a Man Start Fires? It was a strange thing that way. It was like he was playing with his older brothers or something. He’s a confident, smart guy, but shy too. He had a kind of reverence for us, but he had ideas. It was safe. I felt very secure about it. I’ve always felt insecure about some guy coming in and telling us what to do. That record will be out at the first week of January . I don’t have a name for it yet.
EO – How do you feel about networking?
MW – It’s very important. That’s how my whole career has evolved. It was through a network of peers. It wasn’t through the established thing until much later. There was a lot of chauvinism and arrogance, so you had to make your own network out of necessity. All kinds of fields that are new are like that.
We were able to maintain that network by working it like a business. Not such a profit motivated thing, but by going out and doing it. Keep making the records; keep doing the gigs; keep writing the songs; keep going; keep producing.
I’ve forced myself to keep my hands on the whole operation by not having a manager. I’m forced to deal with things myself, my way. I don’t know if I’d ever have a manager. I used to book the gigs myself too but I changed there. It could get out of hand and get too busy. A lot of punk bands have gone legit and wound up way in the hole, and losing that whole audience that they had built up in a gamble for the mersh audience. I’m just scared of that stuff. It happened to Bob Mould really bad with Virgin.
That’s a bad situation there. You can’t let these people run your situation away because they are not aware of those realities. I think he’s taken a step in the right direction with Sugar because he has gone back to his old things, what he learned through Husker, and was very successful at. Success on some terms can be failure on other terms. But the other way around is even worse: to try to act like one of those bands and your not like that at all. That can end up breaking you, and cleaning you out of the whole business. It’s a different deal, man. You have to earn a lot of money just to break even, and you lose your roots, and get caught in the deficit trap.
You need to maintain control of your image, which means how you come across too. Always keep total control of that, and don’t be put in a bubble pack on the rack. You have everything to lose, and very little to gain from something like that. It would be better for someone to wait until a deal did come around that offered more control, especially over how the money is spent, and how you come across. Image is important. I talk to a lot of kids who say: “I like you because you don’t look like one of those phony bands.” When they say something to you like that, it makes you stop and think.
I also get tired of reading interviews with guys who whine about how bad a deal they got. If they would have just taken the time before they went ahead and jumped, then they could have saved themselves the pain of that interview. I think the longer you wait, the more power you have; especially in this mood now where they’ll sign anybody. That’s something I’ve found out about the major labels: they’ll give you money, but they want something in return, and that is control. If you don’t take as much money from them, they’ll be more liberal with you.
They’re not giving you money anyway, they’re lending it to you. If you don’t make their money back for them, they’ll dump you like yesterday’s fish. Then your stuck with that stigma. It’s a big loss. It’s a big gamble with your future. You should really weigh it seriously, and not see it as the end of the struggle. Really in a lot of ways, its the beginning of the struggle.
A thing like a hit single can really mess you up. I’d rather be out in the arena doing the vaudeville. There’s mass marketing and niche marketing, and I’d rather be into the niche marketing. I still can’t believe that I’m able to do this. That I even have a shot is bizarre. I don’t have any ego problems with it. I think I’m really lucky to be able to do this.