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Mike Watt: "There’s something about using the bass as a composition tool. Why only compose on a piano or a guitar?"

Mike Watt: "I think there’s something about using the bass as a composition tool. Why only compose on a piano or a guitar?"
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson / Getty)

"Jumpstart is a slang we’ve got here: Your car’s battery is dead, you use a buddy’s car battery to jumpstart yours. And then Plowhard, a plow’s a thing you use to dig up the earth to get ready for planting, and it’s once you point it in the right direction, you go to work. That was the whole idea of this thing."

These are the words of the punk bass guitar titan Mike Watt, best known for ‘going to work’ with the Minutemen, Firehose, and about a dozen other bands and projects, when asked about his new band, Jumpstarted Plowhards. 

A bassist whose drive to create exceeds that of almost anyone you or I know, Watt put in a solid decade alongside Iggy Pop when the Stooges reunited from 2003 to 2013, as well as playing alongside his former wife Kira Roessler, sometime of Black Flag, in the two-bass duo Dos. Then there’s Banyan, with Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins; the supergroup Big Walnuts Yonder; and much more.

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The Minutemen remain his best-known artistic vehicle, though, a ferocious punk act which burned briefly but brightly from 1980, only ending five years later with the premature death in a car accident of the singer Dennes ‘D’ Boon. It’s noticeable, and sad, that Boon is still a prominent feature of any interview with Watt, even 34 years later—not that there’s anything that will stop Watt now.

What’s happening, Mike?

"Well, I’m busy. I just got done with a tour with Flipper in England, and when the tour ended, I recorded with these guys called Tripper. They had me write them eight songs on bass guitar. Their own bass player played the bass and they had me produce the thing. I’ve been doing a lot of that stuff."

Tell us about writing songs on bass.

"This goes way back with D. Boon. We were boys and we grew up together, writing our own songs. I didn’t have to teach him my songs. I’d play the song on the bass, and he’d immediately just start playing to it. When I lost him, I still used the same technique. You know, Charles Mingus, when he was writing songs, he used the piano. 

"I think there’s something about using the bass as a composition tool. A few years ago, Bass Player magazine were asking me about the future of the bass and I thought, well, the future is maybe composition. It reminded me of this thing I was reading about, Chico Hamilton the jazz drummer, in the 60s he was trying to get songwriting credit, but they said ‘Drummers? You guys don’t write songs’. Why? Same thing. Why is it you can only compose on a piano or a guitar?"

What are you using for recording gear these days? 

"I use a ’56 P-Bass to do a lot of my recording, it’s got a Thunderbird pickup. I bought it for $200 in the early 80s. Somebody had taken out the little pickup and it had a big hole, so I thought to myself, ‘You know what? I bet a Thunderbird pickup will cover that hole’. And it did. And then a couple of years ago I got [pickup maker] Curtis Novak to put a P-Bass pickup inside a Thunderbird case.

"I liked the way it sounded before, but it was even better when he did that for me. So that’s why I do a lot of my recording with this ’56. I got my own ProTools HD. I do a lot of collaborating with people. I’ve done whole albums with people I’ve never even met. The things you can do these days with the internet—it’s not all bad. There’s some good stuff."

You’ve got your own signature bass now, right?

"Oh yeah. Maybe 1999 was the last time I played gigs with big basses. Live, standing up, they were starting to hurt my fretting hand, so I started playing smaller-scale basses. I had a ’63 Gibson EB-3 but I didn’t like the pickups. They were really muddy and the bridges were terrible. At the start of 2003, I got asked to help the Stooges out, and that ended up being 125 months. 

"[Stooges guitarist] Ron Asheton started using these guitars made by these people in Toledo, Ohio, called Reverend Guitars, and around 2007, they came to my gigs and took measurements of that EB-3. When I’d come back through town they’d bring me a prototype, and I’d play it for the whole gig and then hand it back to them, like, ‘F*** you very much’ because the first ones were terrible. They just were not happening.

I can’t even imagine what kind of bass player I’d be without Jack Bruce

"They’d say, ‘What’s wrong? What could we change?’ So I wrote them a list and they’d have another one ready the next time. I thought these guys were going to go, ‘F*** this guy, he’s too picky’ but I got to tell you, your name’s going to be on it. You want it to be something you’d want to play, right?"

Of course

"By the seventh one, it was, ‘I could play one of these’. I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures of me playing with Flipper on this tour. There’s more than one pickup on it. This is the Mark II. I’ve been working on this a while. I wanted to keep everything exactly like the Mark I, but maybe expand some vocabulary. 

"I like one pickup at a time, so it’s got a Telecaster switch so it’s either the neck or it’s the middle. If you want it to be more mellow, you just have to flip the switch. If you want the tighter bottom-end kind of thing, just flip the switch. It’s basically like a Mark I that’s added some pickup vocabulary."

Have these basses sold well?

"No, no. We’re still in the prototype. They’re going to cut the upper bout a little lower, because I can’t get to the top frets, and then it’s going to go into production. That reminds me of a funny story. I was doing a session with Jim Keltner, incredible drummer and a beautiful person too. He points up at the high frets and the high strings and he goes, ‘Look, Mike, that’s the upper register’. I said, ‘Yeah’. And then he points down by the low strings and he goes, ‘Cash register’. The producer doesn’t want anybody playing way up there."

Who were your influences on bass?

"Well, Jack Bruce was incredible. I remember the day he died. I was in Mobile, Alabama, and I got the news about him dying right before we went onstage. Man, I played a terrible gig. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. And when it was over, I went to my buddy’s pad and got all bourboned up and did the thing where you go to YouTube and you start watching the videos—‘Brave Ulysses’ and ‘White Room’ and all that stuff, just listening to him and realizing the incredible influence he had on me. I can’t even imagine what kind of bass player I’d be without him."

A lot of the things that have made me a different bass player now are simply experiences I’ve had playing bass

Were you a Cream fan as a kid?

"Yes. When I started on bass at 12 years old, I didn’t even f****** know what it was. I thought it was a guitar with four strings. I had no idea until I got an eight-track cartridge with some anthology—it had Cream songs from all their records. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s what bass is’. I could hear bass on the Motown stuff, James Jamerson, but in rock and roll I didn’t really understand it until it was Jack Bruce. 

"It was Jack that made me understand rock and roll bass guitar. Later on, with a lot of the stuff coming out of England, I could hear the bass: John Entwistle with the Who, Geezer Butler with Black Sabbath, even Pete Quaife and Chas Chandler, with the Kinks and the Animals. The English producers were not afraid to put the bass up there."

Amazing players.

"Yeah, and a huge influence on me. The first gig me and D. Boon saw was T. Rex. There were like 3000 people there, and that was a small gig. We had never been to clubs. Everything was this big-ass arena rock. The hierarchy was all the guitar players ran everything, partly just because everything sounded really lame, the equipment, amps, they used the PA only for the singing, it was like amps from the stage and s*** in a place made for sports. It was just terrible s***."

You’ve done so much on the bass. Are you still the same bass player you used to be?

"Oh, well, nowadays I’m conscious of the big picture instead of just trying to blast out. My amplifiers have changed. I had to go to little amps, although I haven’t gone direct. With a more tight sound, you don’t have to fill up as much anymore. There’s these guys in Brighton, Barefaced, who make a 1200 watt speaker box that weighs 40 pounds. It has 12” speakers. 

"I never thought I’d be playing 12s. It’s trippy because that’s what Jack Bruce used in his Marshalls. Before that I was using 10s, and way back in the old days I was using 15s. There’s something about the 12s though. They go with my kind of playing."

Do you play differently these days?

"As time goes on more and more, my playing has gotten into trying to be in a dialogue with the drums. Both of our spaces are kind of narrow, but it’s a relationship that’s fundamental to a band. This has helped me to create a more tight sound, this idea of integrating myself. In all my bands now, I have all the drummers play right at the lip of the stage. Have him up front and making eye contact, big-time.

"That’s changed a lot. I learned that from playing with the Porno For Pyros guys and the Stooges. A lot of the things that have made me a different bass player now are simply experiences I’ve had playing bass. It’s like a big classroom, and I’ve still got other stuff to learn too... and I don’t know if it’s about adding a fifth string."

No, probably not. Did you ever play any slap bass?

"In the Minutemen days I was trying to be funky, you know. The Pop Group was a huge influence on us, and so was Wire, but in the Pop Group the bass guy would play really funky like Bootsy Collins and stuff, and so I tried to do that, but it started hurting my hand. 

"There’s another thing. As I move on through time, certain things start to hurt, so I change. I want to keep doing this as long as I can, and pain is the way the body’s telling you, ‘Whoa, something’s wrong’." 

You haven’t got any arthritis or any of that stuff?

"Well, that’s what I want to avoid. That’s why I switched techniques. The Reverend bass is about six pounds, but the biggest thing is that the scale is shorter and the strings are closer together. That’s a lot easier. I always record with big basses, but I’m always sitting down. 

"What I do to avoid this arthritis s*** is I change technique as soon as I feel pain.When I use a keyboard with a computer, I make sure it’s way down on the desk so that I don’t have to bend my fingers and they can stay straight.

Musician or not, that stuff happens when you hit a certain age.

"Yeah, but what’s amazing, Milt Jackson, you remember that guy? He was a vibes player. That guy was playing standing up when he was an old man. Ray Brown was an old man too. And some of those double basses, those motherf*****s, they’re 41” scales. The action is like, oh my God. 

"I tried to play standup. You’ve got to turn your hands sideways, and as time goes on it’s more of a challenge. But I say try to adapt, and just keep changing styles. You can’t do what you did like you did it in your younger days—but so be it.

  • Jumpstarted Plowhards' Round One is out now on Recess Records