FIRE IN THE ENGINE ROOM

August 27, 2009 – 4:06 am

Former Minuteman Mike Watt hangs on to his flannel shirts and ‘econo’ lifestyle and gives Matthew Lewis a tour of his down-to-earth ways. This article was published in BigO #148 (April 1998).

Lots of musicians like to say that they take risks in pursuit of their visions, but Mike Watt actually seems to mean it. Despite being on a major label - Columbia - Watt remains defiantly “indie” - or to use his own favourite term, “econo.”

The burly bassist, who turned 40 in December, still tours in his battered Econoline van, and remains rooted in his less-than-fashionable hometown of San Pedro, California. While he could justifiably claim to being among the founding fathers of post-punk, grunge, or “alternative” music, Watt dislikes labels.

He is a funny, hyperactive conversationalist who would much rather drop names like painter Marcel Duchamp or philosopher Lugwig Wittgenstein than those of music-biz pals Eddie Vedder or Evan Dando.

Watt actually reads books - James Joyce is a favourite - but he comes across more as a blue-collar hipster than a tweedy intellectual. “Just because people don’t listen to the same music and dress like you and stuff, it doesn’t mean you don’t have stuff to learn from them,” Watt told me in an interview in late October 1997. “Life is a Petri dish, and I want to grow cultures.”

In true econo fashion, Watt spoke from a pay phone in Providence, Rhode Island, in the middle of a two-month tour of the United States and Canada. In conversation, he likes to refer to himself as simply “Watt.”

Watt is now well into his third career - as a solo artist, following his stints in influential ’80s American band the Minutemen, and then as the leader of flREHOSE, which broke up in 1993.

His second solo album, Contemplating The Engine Room, was released in October 1997. The 53-minute work is an ambitious, and highly personal, “concept album” - a term Watt loathes, preferring to describe it as a “punk rock opera.” The nautical-themed album was sparked by several autobiographical threads, including his father’s 20-year stint in the US Navy. (That’s Watt Senior, who died of cancer six years ago, on the album cover, from a 1968 photo taken in Vietnam.)

Watt and his father were never especially close, due partly to the old man’s constant sea wanderings. His father never understood Watt’s music. “My father used to say to me, ‘Are you contemplating your navel?” Watt said. “I kind of got back at him with the title. He was a sweet man.”

“The head is an engine room too, my brain,” Watt said. “I think everyone’s got an engine room, and there’s stuff in there, rattling around and steaming off, rotating and stuff.” The 15-song album is also Watt’s way of coming to grips with his career in the Minutemen, which ended in 1985 when guitarist D Boon, his best friend, was killed in a van crash.

“I wanted to somehow evoke the spirit of the Minutemen without copying the Minutemen,” Watt said. “I was just trying to make a valentine to my guys, or to my scene. Because my scene, my guys, they were the ones who put me in this place where I get to do a punk opera… Twelve years later, I’m still flying through the air on the momentum of our relationship.”

Engine Room is instrumentally sparse (guitar, bass, drums), but lyrically complex, with parallel, overlapping story lines. At first, it seems odd that Watt, of all people, would be caught making a “concept album,” a genre normally associated with the likes of Pink Floyd, Yes, and other art rockers.

“That’s the reason I call my (new album) a ‘punk rock opera’,” Watt said. “I wanted people to think, ‘Why would he call it something like that?’ Maybe they’d listen to it. Where if I’d called it a concept record, they’d dismiss it, they wouldn’t even listen to it.”

But aren’t concept albums intrinsically pretentious, in a way?

“Oh yeah, like where I come from, the ’70s,” Watt said.

“And we were totally reactionary, against those cats. That song (from his 1995 album Ball-Hog Or Tug Boat?) Against The ’70s, I was kind of making fun of myself… But I use my music for therapy, and I wanted to get rid of some schizophrenia, I wanted to put together a whole thing… You know, at the end of the day, you’re halfway through your life, you want to start getting it together, and get out of the a la carte thing.”

In other words, the thought of turning 40 was a big deal for Watt, and it served as a sort of artistic wake-up call. “Now, I have to take naps before I play - I’ve gotten to that point,” he laughed. This is another reason he cherishes his Ford Econoline E-250 van, with some 182,000 miles on it when we spoke. “I sleep in there an hour before the gig. It’s my world, I really love it, in a way,” he said.

Watt concedes that Engine Room is a “guy’s album,” and that women might have a hard time relating to it. He was worried that people would ask him about the album’s “homoerotic” overtones, he joked. “Yeah, I think it’s totally a guy’s album,” he said. “I grew up in such a guy’s world, it’s kind of like a Peter Pan thing, you don’t really grow up.”

Watt still wears flannel shirts and jeans, a look he adopted in the ’70s in emulation of one of his early idols - John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. (A decade or so later, post-punks would seize upon Watt’s flannel-and-jeans costume and make it the official uniform of grunge.)

“I’ve always been wearing flannel,” Watt said. “It was also a very funny punk rock outfit in the ’70s. You know, Levi’s with flannel and a beard is a total gay outfit. It’s not a rock ‘n’ roll outfit at all. It was my little thing… I was the only guy at the gigs looking like that.”

Watt likes to defy expectations, whether of punks or the music industry. “It was like beards,” he said. “When I wore a beard, do you know how heavy that was, in the punk days, because it was kind of like hippie? It was really like kind of belligerent.”

If “econo” is one of the highest forms of virtue in Watt’s vocabulary, then its evil opposite might be “arena rock” - that bloated, ’70s genre defined by the likes of Journey, Jefferson Starship, Styx and RE0 Speedwagon. But Watt admits that some of the bands that originally inspired him as a youth - The Who, Creedence, T Rex - might have inadvertently set the stage for the abuses of arena rock.

“I sure as hell don’t like the mentality of arena rock,” he said. “Putting people in places where they can’t hear any sound, they’re so far away, tickets are so overpriced, merchandising is out of this world… You know what I really used to hate about the thing was leaving the show and hearing people talk about the gig. The two best things you could say was, ‘Wow, they played three hours!’ The other thing was, ‘Wow, it sounded just like the record.’ It probably was the ****ing record! I’m really against those two things.

“If it only takes 20 minutes for you to get your thing across, then that’s great. And if it doesn’t sound like the record, more power to you, because that’s a different world all together.”

Watt remembers that the first record he ever bought was Electric Warrior by T Rex. And when he and D Boon formed their first band, the first guitar solo Boon ever learnt was American Woman by The Guess Who, he adds.

Asked to name a few records that changed his life, the normally heated Watt becomes even more passionate. “I’ll tell you, (The Who) Sell Out, for one. That was a big changer. Willy And The Poor Boys (by Creedence). Up Around The Bend, that song. He’s not even telling you what corner he wants to get up around. He’s got a four-syllable word in there, ‘perpetual.’ It was such a simple thing, with a voice like Little Richard, you know. That song for me was one of the biggest changers.

“Young Man Blues, The Who, Live At Leeds. Big thing, I could hear the bass loud and clear there, no mystery. And the Mose Allison words, you know, are so heavy. I took it to heart.”

Watt was also influenced by Columbia label-mate Bob Dylan. “Bobby Dylan, It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding, Bringing It All Back Home, or Another Side, that is a very, very heavy song for me,” he said.

“He’s a funny guy, in a way. My mother would play him all the time, so he was like this weird old man who lived next door to you. I was never, like, a disciple of his, but it was just trippy, hearing this guy talk about his world. That song really was heavy. Still I can hear that song almost like crying in a way, it was so intense. He was on amphetamines and stuff and it probably just came to him, but it was a big changer for me.

“That’s why I originally went with Columbia, because he was on that label. And I thought, wow, those guys stick with some people just because of… maybe not millions of sellers.”

Watt finds it funny that a guy like him is on Columbia. “I’m a very econo act for them, I’d say… I’m still glad I made this record (Engine Room). It’s my 24th one. I want to make 24 more.”

Note: In 2005, Mike Watt left Columbia/Sony-BMG, after a 14-year relationship. As of 2003, he has been a member of the (reunited) Stooges.

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