Mike Watt (Il Sogno Del Marinaio)
by Interviews

Mike Watt, the legendary bass player who created helped create a new form of spontaneous, twisting, hyper-short punk rock with The Minutemen, the man who challenged the format of music itself with the bass duo Dos, the man who held his own on stage with the punk godafathers The Stooges for almost 10 years, is currently in the role of a student.

In the group Il Sogno Del Marinaio, Watt is joined by drummer Andrea Belfi and guitarist Stefano Pillia where they snap out raw, organic and sometimes improvisational tunes in Italian and English. They’re about to release their second album, Canto Secondo which was recorded in eight days. The rapid nature of the project is clear on the recording -- the band zigs when you expect them to zag and surprisingly, at times, Watt, despite being a punk rock legend, steps out of the spotlight to support his two band mates.

Because the new album is out soon, features editor John Gentile spoke to all three members about the new album, what the ocean means to them and the Minutemen.

So Mike, I believe that you just got back from kayaking a few minutes ago. Watt: Yeah, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday is when I do kayak.

Where do you kayak? Watt: It’s called Cabrillo Beach! We actually share the harbor with Long beach. San Pedro and Wilmington makes up the Los Angeles side. I start off at Cabrillo beach and paddle through outer harbor to a hole in the breakwater called the Angel Gate into the sea. Paddle around and come back. It takes about two hours.

So, for you, is kayaking like a thrill ride or is it a calming zen-type place? Watt: Anything that has to do with the ocean has to do with the ocean, so it’s not going to be calm. It’s not calm. When I do is I kayak at the crack of dawn. It’s usually very dark. There’s hardly anybody out. The waves are calm. The wind is calm. Anything after 10 or 11 gets rougher. I’ve done it for 10 or 11 years and I’ve learned to have a big respect for the sea. It’s a lot easier for it to have an effect on you than you have an effect on it.

And that’s why I bring it up. The new album, and your previous work, too, has themes that deal with the sea. Watt: Il Sogno del Marinao… it’s Italian for "The Sailor’s Dream." I came up with that name for that project. I think that I have a connection with the ocean -- well, definitely a connection to the kayak. I started the kayak in my early 40s. I had started bicycling again in my late 30s, but it was hurling my knees. With kayak, you use only the waist up.

Your father was a sailor, too, I believe. Watt: The reason I came to Pedro was because my father was in the Navy. I was born in Virginia and came here because I was closer to Vietnam. So, the oceans figure big in my life. I chose to stay in Pedro. Some of it is my own choice and some of it is luck. My pop told me not to be sailor. The Navy is too rough.

But, being in a band and constantly touring has parallels to being a sailor? Watt: This was the basis of my first opera, Contemplating the Engine Room. Riding around in a van is sort of like being in a boat, sort of like a sailor life.

Do you think that thirst for adventure is genetic or learned? Watt: Well, the government gave my father orders. He joined the Navy. He was from a small town from near Sactown called Red Bluff. There was nothing for him. So, at 17 he ran away and joined the Navy. I mean, they didn’t have punk bands yet. It was the middle '50s. I am kind of that way, though we are kind of different. In some ways we are similar.

Watt: I would send him postcards from tour. He didn’t really know about music. He didn’t have music people in his family. He just thought music was something that I did with D. Boon -- which was true. It’s why I did what I did. But he didn’t understand why I kept playing after D. Boon got killed. He didn’t really realize that I was kind of like a sailor like him, until these postcards -- then he hit the parallel.

When you were little, did you think that your dad was going off on exciting adventures, or did you just miss him? Watt: It was the Vietnam War. It was kind of an adventure. He worked in the engine room. One of them was a cruiser so he had to push the boat -- it had rockets. The other was an aircraft carrier -- the USS Long Beach, the USS Enterprise. He had to push the boat close enough to drop the bombs. He was eight or nine decks down so he couldn’t see much. When they went into ports they had this thing called "liberty" so he got to see things. I get to ride around and play gigs. His time was a little different.

Watt: My pop, going on these adventures, they called them tours, they were influential on me because I got to hear about the world. I wanted to do that. I think that was one of the contributing things besides just lucky opportunity of getting into touring.

Now, on the new project, you’re working with two Italian fellows. Watt: The drummer is Verona, the guitar man is Bologna, but the drummer man moved to Germany.

Watt: I met these guys by accident. One guy was put in the van next to me when I was going through Italy. The promoter put him in the van to help. I didn’t know he was a musician. Years later I got a message from him, "Do you want to do this festival, I’ve got a buddy that plays drums?"

Watt: I say, "Sure, but if we going to do something, we need to get to some material together." But if we’re going to do one gig, how about doing six? Especially at middle age, whenever I get the chance to record, I record, so why not if we’re going to do this, why not record? So, let’s record.

The new album differs in that now you know each other, whereas before, you were only vaguely acquainted. Watt: The second one was after we had done a whole tour. But on the first one, we had only known each other a few days. We did the whole thing quickly. Some of the vocals got sent in later because I was only there for eight days. The other one was only put together in less than three days, but there was overdubbing. This one, not so much. The recording engineer, his approach is very organic, like Steve Albini.

Belfi: When you have created music with a limited amount of time sometimes you have to switch off your brain, feel the structure of the songs, and play. That’s what’s at the core of the music that I love, when the brain works until the point you should let it turn off and let the music go. There is a level of spontaneity on this record that I love, that comes from the fact the three of us shared almost the whole creative process together, except from writing the basic themes and structures.

I’ve found that people in different parts of the world process information different. It’s an understanding and communication that goes beyond there mere language barrier. Did you experience that? Pillia: The processing is different because of the different backgrounds, different countries, different age and time. But, at the same time the goal, or better, the desire of a sharing experience is the same. In my opinion "differences" can be a very rich value cause they give the possibility of a more large point of views and critiques and analysis.

Belfi: When you live one particular environment and culture you absorb it and you approach life and creative material as well in a very specific way. So, if Mike would have been Italian or if we would have been American, we would perhaps have made different musical choices. But the three of us share a common adventurous attitude to the music material, so the differences are not that big in our case, I think.

Watt: I played in Europe with Black Flag and Minutemen some 30 years ago. But after the EU formed, English speaking with young people rose. They all can speak it. Some better than others. These guys speak very well. But their expression is different.

Watt: But, I learned music from playing off records and playing with D. Boon. These guys are schooled! So they can write music -- I can read, but very slow. Their way of communicating is in some ways, very academic. But, we work pretty good. Music is a great kind of thing. A meeting point -- painting, poems, music, they’re meeting points. Humans come together from all points to communicate. Like threads making good flannel.

Watt: This band I gotta say, when compared to other bands, even trios -- I’ve done many of them -- there’s a lot of different reasons for this. For example, the Stooges are "Mike Watt will you play this?" The Secondmen, I say "Will you help me realize these operas that I’ve written?"

Watt: This band is more like Dos, with K. A year from this October will be 30 years. Like Minutemen with D. Boon, where I’m not taking direction, and I’m not asking my guys to take direction.

Watt: They bring in the pieces. This band is kind of how I started with D. Boon or what I keep doing nowadays with K. and Dos. That’s interesting. Especially with a power trio. I haven’t done collaboration in awhile. These guys are not just guitar man and drummer man, they’re composers.

I believe you reference Animal Farm on this album, which is a theme in your work. Pillia: The themes of the animals often appeared in our titles and in our immaginarios -- there are references through dreams and interests. This appears in my work in a kind of casually spontaneous way. I have to say that it’s not so much a deliberate or voluntary thing. So when Animal Farm appeared to me as I was writing, I thought that I had to encapsulate it in a powerful, righteous way.

Blefi: When I wrote the lyrics for "Animal Farm Tango," I was reading that book for the second time -- besides in the whole Canto Secondo album there were already a lot of animals involved, so I wanted to create a sort of a grotesque scenario, where animals are dancing dressed in red and black. The meaning of that book is really important to me. It’s about how people deal with power. Periods of big economical crisis, like the one we are living now, are tough to deal with, and it is important to bring back strong experiences from the past like, for example, the ones of George Orwell.

The cover of the new album has a picture of a barn on it and one song references that same barn. Do you think the barn influenced the recording? Pillia: Not directly. Maybe subconsciously a little bit. In general, the album sounds spontaneous and authentic to me. Sometimes when you rehearse too much, you get too confident and there can start a tendency to overthink the music you are doing and you can lose something. There is the risk of suppressing some other elements that you cannot see in that moment. It’s a fragile line.

Watt: The album was recorded in that barn. I wrote a song about it. "The Dream of the Barn." I had been to this farmhouse before. It’s where Stefano lives. Bruno Germano took the studio from when he moved and moved it into the barn and he moved into the farmhouse. It’s like a 150-year-old barn. The studio stuff is inside. The aesthetic of the barn is very Earthy.

Belfi: I think the barn affected the recording. Vacuum Studio has an old-time vibe, not only because it is an old building -- in Italy everything is damn old! But also because it is surrounded by farmlands.

The album sounds very Earthy to me, almost like jazz music. Watt: Andrea and Stefano’s music is pretty deep. They are 21 years younger than me. It’s amazing how much music they know. Drummer man is way into Robert Wyatt and Soft Machine. I can hear that influence when he plays, kind of progressive.

Watt: That’s one of the reasons that attracted me to continue this after we toured. I didn’t let that record out til last year until we had a chance to tour. Last year we had a big Europe tour. "Now that we’ve played together a bunch of gigs, why don’t we let this inform the second album, and then do a US tour?"

Watt: I figure I’ll give you stuff where I’m from -- 53 gigs in 53 days.

What will surprise people on the new album? Watt: One of the songs is in 7/4 time. I don’t usually do that. That’s the reason you have different bands, unless you’re all caught up in yourself and you want the rerun. I see the bands that I take on as little classrooms and Andrea and Stefano are really teaching me a lot of stuff. People will see me in student mode. They’ll see parts of Mike Watt in there, but it’s not the Mike Watt show. I think people will get reintroduced to the idea that I can play in a collaborative form.

I’m surprised that you are so willing to let go of the reigns. A lot of artists wouldn’t do that. Watt: Well, part of it comes from the politics of bass, the machine that D. Boon’s mom put me on -- making other people looking good. It’s always about others. That’s part of the physics of the machine. The other thing is that I’m 56 now, and I’ve been playing since I was 13, and I learned this from D. Boon.

Watt: You can’t learn by always being the boss. Life is about taking turns, you know. If I’m going to ask people to take turns. That was what was so great about 135 months with the Stooges. The knowing is in the doing. A lot of stuff is promoted as, "The pot at the end of the road is being the boss and knowing what to do." That’s not what I’ve learned. I’ve learned that’s just a role you play. Sometimes you’re the paddle man and sometimes you’re the rudder man. Like my pop in the engine room, he’s getting the motor going but somebody had to point that boat. I’m into team effort, not hierarchy. That’s why I’m lucky to be part of the punk movement. We got rid of hierarchy. There are parts, but as long as you’ve got movement and there’s not tyranny, that’s the way to do it. I’m lucky to have Stefano and Andrea to be my senseis.

Watt: I think this is why you make a band. You want to make a conversation. Everyone has their own reasons, that’s why I’m trying to do ensembles.

Just as this interview runs, it will be almost exactly the 30-year anniversary of the legendary Minutemen album, Double Nickels on the Dime. Watt: That’s probably the best album I’ve ever played on.

Did it achieve what you had hoped it would achieve? Watt: It was by accident. We had an album recorded in November of 1983, and the Huskers came and did Zen Arcade the next month, so we decided, "Fuck we should do a double!" It turned out to be our best and I don’t know why. Sometimes you just go for it and the dust settles and you go, "Wow!" In those days, we put out records to try to get people to go to the gigs. It was completely opposite of the status quo, where you tour to promote records. We did it the other way around. We didn’t think that these things would have a history. We came from arena rock, but in punk, the thing was about the now, so you didn’t really think about tomorrow. But, looking back, yeah it’s probably the best record I ever played on. Everything I do get measured against it, and it’s not a bad thing. Georgie and D. Boon -- maybe it was the high point of the Minutemen.

Watt: I know D. Boon and I talked about it later because Three Way was kind of a disappointment. There was going to be a triple album was our next album -- half live and half studio. But…

Everyone looks up to Mike Watt. They say, "Mike Watt, he is a legend." But, also, everyone looks up to the Stooges. What was it like when you got a call from the Stooges and found out that they looked up to you! Watt: I helped them with gigs and recorded on a couple of albums. You understand that Stooges are a band from the '60s from Ann Arbor. You’re right about the Stooges. I don’t think that we’d have punk without the Stooges. I was on tour for my second opera, there was a call and it was Ig. I picked up the phone after sound check. "Hey Mike, it’s Iggy." I had played a contest with him and two guys from the Hives. I didn’t have a lot of experience with him -- but I had a lot of experience listening and playing the Stooges. I had played with Ronnie Asheton for the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack.

Watt: Anyways, I get this call. It’s Ig and he says, "Hey Mike, Ronnie says you’re the man." I couldn’t believe that! I could never, never ever in my whole life guess that would happen and the first thing I thought was that D. Boon was laughing. I looked at the phone, and the voice came back, "Hey, Mike would you me a favor and wear a t-shirt instead of a flannel?" and I said "Fuck yeah!"

Watt: The flannel was John Fogerty’s idea anyway. I mean, I wore a dress for Perry! I said, "What a about Levi's and Converse?" and he said "That’s strong." Whew! It was a trippy thing. And then a couple weeks after I’m on an airplane from Memphis to go play Coachella. At the same time, I though I owed them my best notes. That’s the Stooges. That’s the legacy. That was pure luck, but it didn’t stop there. I wanted to work hard for them. Beautiful.

Now that both Ashetons have passed away, do you think that the Stooges have played their last show? Watt: I don’t know… [pauses] Both Asheton brothers are gone now… I can imagine what Ig feels like. [pauses] James Williamson came on for the second version of the reunion. He was always very kind to me. Iggy made me a better bass player. Thank you for bringing that up… My journey through life has been trippy.