Hanging On The Telephone With.........Mike Watt
My conversation with Mike about "Ring Spiel Tour, '95", politics, music and.......Happy Days?
© Kevin Mazur
DG: Hey Mike, I wanna thank you for sharing some of my work with the blueprint conspiracy (including the collaboration with Morphine's Dana Colley) on your podcast, The Watt From Pedro Show. I'm thrilled to be included with other eclectic artists on your playlists....
MW: Well, I dig the stuff you're doing, man. But I guess we should be talking about the Ring Spiel album right? I'm a little tight on interviews today. Whaddaya want to know?
DG: Correct me if I'm wrong, but the album captures a leg of your tour in 1995 in support of your solo debut, ballhog or tugboat?
MW: Yeah. That tour and album turned twenty-one last year. I guess that makes it legal now. But I mean, you can't call it a solo album.....not really. There's 48 musicians working with me on ball hog or tugboat?. Even if it's "your own band", there's still this sense of working with others, so it's not just about me, anyway. And I like that.
DG: That being the case, what was the impetus then to step out as "Mike Watt" instead of fIREHOSE or creating another band?
MW: After logging in about eight years with fIREHOSE, I thought it was time to put another project together, with a different group of guys. That evolved into working with 48 musicians from 17 different bands - that's the kind of thing you can make happen in the studio, not in real life. So what I did was set up sessions in Seattle, New York and L.A., and I used the metaphor of the 'wrestling ring' to say, "Come on down.......I got a song for you - show me what you got!" The way I see it, if the bass player brings the tune, then anyone can join in on guitar, drums, vocals, whatever. And that's always been the way I look at my role as a bass player - am I there to aid and abet the other musicians, or am I gonna just be a 'glory hog' and just mess everything up. It's sorta like a petri dish, where you put these elements together in the same environment, and see what it congeals into.
DG: And so how long did the entire recording process take?
MW: Well, we laid down tracks in New York, L.A. and Seattle - a couple of days in each. So I'd say about a week, give or take a day.
DG: Really? That quickly?
MW: I just wanted to 'hit and run' - being in that moment with these guys in studio, including Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, who had just gone solo with his band), Pat Smear (The Germs), and Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), whose side-project Hovercraft, opened for me during the '95 tour. Sometimes they would coax me onstage during their set - I'd be standing in the middle, listening to what they were laying down, and just jam on it.
© Kevin Mazur
DG: Speaking of Eddie, I just gotta say it's amazing what he brought to your tune, "Against the 70's." I mean, how someone can express so brilliantly the punk energy of a movement he was too young to take part in at the time just blows my mind...
MW: Eddie nailed it. That's Carla Bozulich singing the background harmonies with him on it. That's Dave Grohl on drums. Dave's an incredible rock'n'roll drummer, I think.
DG: Forgive me in advance for how I'm about to phrase this question.........but what was the broader message you were trying to convey on "Against The 70's"?
MW: Actually I was thinking back to my childhood, and to a much earlier decade......the one of Happy Days and American Graffiti. I remember once my Dad and I were watching that show with Fonzie and Potsie and the gang, and him leaning over to me and saying, "Boy....those were NOT happy days!" (laughter). That's sorta what I was relating to there - it's the marketing of sentimentalism (song lyric: "The kids of today should defend themselves against the 70's/It's not reality, just someone else's sentimentality/It wont work for you"). I wasn't really pointing at any one generation in particular - it's like the Credence (Clearwater Revival) song "Looking Out My Back Door" (Mike begins singing): "Tambourines and elephants are playing in the band/Wont you take a ride on the flying spoon?/Do do do.....Bother me tomorrow, today I'll buy no sorrows." Culture always gets co-opted to make it more palatable. Little Richard once said Pat Boone sang his tune "Tutti Fruitti" for the living room, but he sang it for the bedroom! But who sold more copies? Pat did.
DG: Some would say, judging from the current political/culture climate, we yearn to return to that sentimentality, whether it serves the greater good or not. Do you see within that a resurgence of DIY, anti-establishment ethos ushered in by the punk movement?
MW: Oh, it goes back much further than that. I was talking with a buddy of mine, and he reminded me that there is always a counterculture, an insurgency lurking beneath the surface of all societies - you saw it during the speakeasy days of Prohibition in the 20's.....heck, it goes back further than that. What about Walt Whitman? He was self-publishing back in the 1860's, railing against the civil war. I think he was even idealistic enough to believe his poems could put an end to the war, if folks would just listen.
DG: It seems to me, art affords us the opportunity to introduce subversive ideas and opinions in a manner that makes it more accessible, much more so than any other avenue of expression.
MW: I totally agree with you. A lot of times you have to 'code' your message. John Coltrane conveyed that in his tune, "Alabama." That tune is a powerful instrumental that grabs you by the heart, and there are no words. But as you listen, you have no doubt where the cat was coming from (editors note: Coltrane wrote "Alabama" in response to the infamous bombing of a black church in Birmingham in 1963). That's a perfect example of what you're talking about: it's a haunting melody that kinda forces folks to think about something heavy. How come I never hear guys talk about Walt Whitman and his DIY spirit? People wanna put everything in boxes.....it sells easier. You talk about 'letting your freak flag fly" man, and it's too scary.