Watt the hell

Former Minuteman looks to the past in order to steam into the future

Just like James Joyce had his Dublin, Mike Watt has his San Pedro. The port town on the Los Angeles harbor has been the bass player's stomping ground since he was a kid, and he knows every inch of the place. His dad, a career Navy man, was stationed there. It's also where Watt met his best friend, D. Boon, and his longtime musical partner, drummer George Hurley. But perhaps most important, it's where Watt, Boon, and Hurley formed post-punk's most groundbreaking power trio, the Minutemen. San Pedro is a place Watt has celebrated in song for more than 20 years. And it's where the 40-year-old Watt still resides.

Lately, Watt has come to know San Pedro (or as he calls it, simply "Pee-dro") more intimately than ever. Knee problems often keep him off his feet, so Watt has taken up biking for low-impact exercise. Each day he pedals around Pedro--south to Point Fermin, west to Royal Palms beach, past the trailer park and along the cliffs overlooking Catalina, past marinas, shipyards, boathouses, and the longshoreman's hall, then back home. Biking has given Watt lots of time to think and to develop musical ideas. The end result is his latest CD, last year's criminally overlooked Contemplating the Engine Room, a semi-autobiographical song cycle he likes to call his "punk opera."

"The bike was so much a part of my last year, I wrote my whole opera on it," Watt says with an irrepressible enthusiasm and unassuming sincerity that make him seem familiar right away. "It's two hours by myself, without talking. The motions of the pedals, hearing the waves--all the tunes came from that. I recorded the spokes; you can hear the wheels and the bells and the parrots, the palms and the water. There's one song called 'Pedro Bound,' where, if you follow the words, it's my exact route--the whole 20 miles."

With his bike's path as Engine Room's vague thematic framework, Watt goes about appraising all the things he's experienced, both in Pedro and beyond. Soon after D. Boon's tragic death in a 1986 van accident--a death that brought the Minutemen to an abrupt halt--Watt and Hurley accepted an invitation from diehard Minutemen fan Ed Crawford (a.k.a. Ed fROMOHIO) to form fIREHOSE. Seven years later, fIREHOSE had run its course, and Watt assembled the star-studded solo effort Ball-Hog or Tugboat?. In recent years he's stayed as busy as possible, even touring as the bassist in Porno for Pyros, where fans too young to remember the Minutemen just figured him for "some old guy." Now, Watt is taking stock of what has evolved into an enduring career.

"I'm 40, and all this stuff has added up," he says. "I'm trying to integrate everything. The bike, my history, being a Minuteman, D. Boon, Pedro..."

By calling Engine Room a punk opera, Watt knows he's setting himself up for charges of pretension. Still, he says, "I didn't want it to be known as a concept record. That sounds so '70s. I would never want to hear something like that. I call it a punk opera so people will wonder what the fuck I mean by it."

As it turns out, Watt's latest outing is nothing if not conceptual. On the most literal level, it's a raging response to what Watt views as the misdirected scrutiny bestowed upon Ball-Hog. That CD--on which Watt jammed with members of the Pixies, Screaming Trees, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Beastie Boys, and Sonic Youth, among others--was widely branded as little more than an all-star alt-rock bull session.

"I made some mistakes there," Watt admits. "That record got hyped to fucking hell; I don't think [the critics] ever thought about the music. I was trying to redefine Watt. I didn't want to use one band because of what I did to fIREHOSE, which was make it just like the band I was in before. So I made all these little bands. In a way, the opera was a reaction to the way [Ball-Hog] was accepted: I wanted to have something that was so much me--all Watt, Watt's story, Watt's everything."

On a metaphorical level, the "engine room" is Watt's mind, and the tracks on the CD follow a day in his inner life. "The whole piece covers 24 hours, and each song is a piece of the day," Watt says. "It starts right before dawn and ends around that time, like in Joyce's Ulysses--that's where I got the idea. As it gets more into the night and you go to sleep, it gets more unconscious, less linear."

To help realize his rather oblique concepts, Watt recruited two of Los Angeles' finest: Steve Hodges, a blues drummer who's played with Tom Waits, and Geraldine Fibbers guitarist Nels Cline. The musicians came to the studio each day without knowing what they'd be working on, and each day they'd end up with a completed tune.

"I really wanted to let Nels and Hodges paint, so I tried to inspire them," Watt says. "I would give a little spiel for the song--tell the story, give the color, the time of day--and then we'd go for it. I really wanted to grow each tune out of the story, instead of laying down the basic tracks and overdubbing like some rock and roll assembly line."

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