Michael David Watt was born just before Christmas, 1957, and is widely regarded as one of the most important punk and post-punk bassists ever to have lived. His first band, Minutemen, blended punk with jazz and funk, but ended with the death of its frontman D. Boon in a car accident in 1985.
Watt went on to play with Firehose, release several solo albums, and guest with Iggy Pop and the Stooges. In the 2000s, he continued his musical explorations with a series of collaborations, culminating in his new album, Stove Top.
Having started his bass career on a cheap Kay, he went on to use a 1956 Fender Precision Bass, and then a Gibson Thunderbird which he hacked to install a Bartolini preamp. Watt underwent surgery in 2000 and, following his recovery, switched to lighter, short-scale basses, including a Gibson EB-3.
These days, he plays his Reverend signature Wattplower bass, which he co-designed alongside Ken Haas and Joe Naylor over seven years and nine prototypes. His preferred bass amp is a DNA-1350, pushing sound through a Barefaced Generation 2 Super Compact 1x12 and a Super Twin 2x12. We caught up with the ever-entertaining musician to talk punk, jazz and cross-discipline creativity.
Must-have album: Three-Layer Cake – Stove Top (2021)
Watt’s new album is a tour through countless styles: punk, jazz, dub, funk, doom metal and more. Its experimental nature is built into the process, in fact. Mike Pride, the percussionist, appeared – remotely – on Watt’s radio show, and the two decided to work together.
“I’ve never met him in person,” Watt explains. “But he was talking to me about the saxophonist Jack Wright, the avant-garde composer Bob Marsh, as well as all this kind of improvising and shit.” Pride then sent some drum tracks across to Watt, who responded by adding bass lines.
The cloud-based collaboration needed something else, though – a third member to complete the developing project. Enter Brandon Seabrook, a guitarist and banjo player who had previously impressed Watt at a gig in San Pedro. It turned out that Pride already had Seabrook in mind, and so the line-up was complete.
“I asked him, ‘Do you want to try this?’, and the result is that he brings a third layer – another layer to the cake. He brings a secret. To me this was a total validation of what music can be. Not all this making excuses why things are bumming you out, instead of trying to look for the old word: opportunity. We ask ourselves how we can get over some of these obstacles.”
The result is an album that has no limits – of genre or expectation.
Worthy Contender: Mike Watt – Hyphenated Man (2011)
The bassist’s fourth solo album was a blast of 30 songs, each under two minutes long, inspired by the work of the 16th-century artist, Hieronymous Bosch. “I was a middle-aged punk rocker, and that was unusual because I never thought I’d make it to this age, so I wanted to write about that in a creative way,” says Watt.
The album was created on the back of a documentary about Watt’s legendary band with the late D. Boon, the Minutemen. Losing his singer had been a very raw experience, he says.
“I couldn’t listen to the Minutemen records after D. Boon got killed. It was too emotional. But I had to, for this documentary, and I thought, ‘I’d like to do this again, but it belongs to D. Boon, [drummer] George Hurley and myself. At the same time, I was playing in the Stooges and we were right next to Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.
“I looked at the painting The Garden Of Earthly Delights in real life, and I knew that was how I could do it: use Bosch as a parallel, use the creatures in that painting. That’s what the arts are for – transcendent realities. I can still do Minutemen kind of music through these filters of some Christian propaganda from Holland that’s 400 years old. There’s some heaven and hell issues, for sure, and I liked the dynamics in the idea of being less young.”'
Cool Grooves: Big Walnuts Yonder – Big Walnuts Yonder (2017)
This LP was recorded in New York City in 2014, with a line-up including Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier and Nick Reinhart of Tera Melos on guitar and vocals. It is, says Watt, inspired by the way that jazz sessions would be constructed.
“Raymond Pettibone introduced me to John Coltrane’s music, and I went to see people from that scene like Elvin Jones, Ray Brown, Max Roach, all these guys. Incredible cats. They’d come together to play in recording sessions and document the situation. Tony Maimone produced the album. We came together and it was beautiful.
“It’s what music is all about – being generous to each other. It is so special to be part of that, and I try to facilitate it by writing the songs. Composing on a bass leaves a lot more room compared to a piano or guitar, which have way more harmonic content and chord voicings.
“It was really genuine and organic, the way these cats could see two different time periods coming together. You've got to find out where the law is by pushing against it. You’re really pushing these things in your head by artistically exploring. The punk movement got turned into just a lot of beats per minute and playing your guitar really fast, but that’s only one way to do it – there are boatloads of ways.”
Wild Card: Mike Watt – Contemplating the Engine Room (1997)
Watt’s punk opera is based around three workers in the engine room of a navy ship. His father was in the US Navy for 20 years, and the LP has many references to the stories that Watt Senior would tell when he got back to the shore.
The protagonists in the songs for the most part are D. Boon, Hurley and Watt, enabling the bassist to consider the work of Minutemen while also paying tribute. Its storytelling spirit is inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Watt has a colorful analogy for his approach: “It’s a kind of humility. The way mortar is with bricks, or grout is with tiles. Most people look at the tiles. I look at the grout. The album is talking about me losing my best buddy.
“We did 15 days, each day a different part. I wouldn’t reveal anything to the guys – Steve Hodges on drums and Nels Cline on guitar. It is basically a conversation between us three which instantly tells the story. It’s not spending time with my friend or working the room, I specifically made the piece so it was only a recording situation.
“It wasn’t about starting a band, doing a gig – that situation is so particular and cellular. Music is music. You can borrow from all kinds of traditions, because they’re all related. The idea of genre is poison. Shortcuts. Fraud.”
Could have been tidier: Minutemen – Double Nickels On the Dime (1984)
The great trio’s third album is considered by many to be the band’s apogee, a 45-song double album that regularly appears in all-time great lists, but Watt reckons it has a patchiness about it that wasn’t necessary.
“It was never intended to be a double album – until we heard Hüsker Dü were doing [their acclaimed 1984 album] Zen Arcade. We’d already recorded a bunch of songs the previous November, so like four months later, we recorded a second batch. It was epic, but was it ready for primetime?
“As always, shame the fuck out of me: Mr. Robot’s Holy Orders was part of that second batch in March, and I could have done it way better. I just wasn’t ready – I was only 25 years old, so not a lot of experience under my belt. I was still a greenhorn in the studio and we rarely got involved with the recording process.
“It was almost like playing a gig in front of microphones for the producer, Ethan James. On that track I soiled myself in front of the world. It was six sessions, six days, one night to mix it all. It was basically bare-bones stuff, trying to capture the essence of Minutemen with the least amount of pollutants in the way.
“Ethan got the idea from R&B bands where guitar players would leave room for the bass and the drums. Not like that arena-rock shit where the guitar dominates.”'
- Stove Top is out now via Rarenoise.