March 11th, 2011 | Interviews

Ward Robinson

Mike Watt is a wise man. The Minutemen bassist rediscovered nature some time ago riding a bicycle around San Pedro. But there was a time in his life when his leg kept falling off. He’s full of facts about birds absorbed from Stooges drummer, Scotty Asheton, over the years—knowledge he relishes like a librarian. Watt recently released Hyphenated-Man, an existential opera and surreal expression of Watt’s head broken into 30 mirror pieces, each piece inhabited by a creature from a Hieronymus Bosch painting: 30 evil beings that reside in a man’s mind, rather than reality. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

You seem to know about a lot of things. Do you like to learn?
Well, the drummer of Stooges is way into nature—Scotty. He teaches me a lot. When I started riding bicycle again, maybe 38 years old, I started riding and listening. This guy moved to Atlanta and sold me a 10-speed for $5 and every morning early, hardly anybody out, I’d ride and I started hearing things that I didn’t really hear before, like birds, even the ocean. We got wild conures from Chile, and these parrots got free and started their own flocks. I got a car when I was 16 and I stopped riding bicycle. I said, ‘This is for little kids.’ I was an asshole. I figure myself to have been one. The car just separates you so much. Instead of the rhythm of the motor it’s your own rhythm pedaling, but it was rough on my knees—so about eight years ago I started kayaking every other day and that’s a listening thing too, when you’re at sea. You have to be kind of conscious but you’re part of this thing. You get out past the breakers and there’s dolphins, sea lions and pelicans. Pelicans have no song. They’re quiet. No song. Maybe as a baby they do, but not the adults, none. They’re the only bird I know like that. I saw an albatross once. They’re giant, wow. Some albatrosses don’t land for five or six years, the wandering albatross. Birds are interesting.
Is it important to commune with nature?
It is. We forget about that. We can’t even see the stars because of the lights. In the old days, the stars was everything.
What wisdom can you learn from the birds?
Well, shit—they can fly! So it’s kind of a transcending quality there. They have a weird spirit resonance—maybe cuz they can fly, maybe cuz they’re eye creatures. They’re really about looking. I just think they’re amazing. When I was young I was way into dinosaurs. And now they’re pretty convinced dinosaurs weren’t lizards—they were birds. So maybe that’s part of it, our little versions of dinosaurs.
What wisdom have you gained from seeing the world change?
There’s plenty to learn. Life’s about learning. You get it too figured out, you’re going to miss out on that. What’d Scotty tell me? He was talking about birds, and he said, ‘Mike, you got to keep the child’s eye of wonder.’ So being around a little bit, that’s what I’ve gained. There’s always someone around who has something to teach me. Younger people, older people, middle ones like me. Work against getting cynical and fed up with everything.
Any advice about falling in love?
I think getting into it is OK. Try to be genuine with it. There’s so many archetypes that are pushed on us about what it’s supposed to be. I think everyone has their own idea about that so you have to find that inner voice in you that’s genuine to those feelings. I don’t really understand it as being a planned-out thing. A lot of it is having compassion and helping somebody when they’re in a nightmare. I remember once my knee went out in high school in the field and everyone was laughing at me. This one guy went and scooped me up and ran with me in his arms to the locker room. His name was—we didn’t have first names, really—his name was Castaneda, I remember. He could hardly speak English. He was just the sweetest guy to do that for me. Beautiful. This was 35 years ago and I still think, ‘Where is he now?’ He didn’t have to do that and didn’t expect anything from it. He just wanted to—he had to, and that was very sweet, very loving.
That’s the grander kind of love. Is romantic love similar?
Yeah—he put himself out there. Everyone was laughing but he followed his own prerogative. It was brave and romantic love is brave in some ways. Willing to share with somebody and be honest about it—not have an agenda for some other shit, not using it Machiavelli, but just pure feelings. Both are similar. Do you mean also physical? A lot of times when people are physical, I don’t know if there’s a lot of love involved. It’s a personal thing. It’s interesting. It’s a big force in the world.
Aside from getting a job, it’s what you’re supposed to do.
Love is, yeah. The hermit thing is kind of frowned on.
How is being a musician related to love?
It’s weird in a way. It’s expression and almost like foisting yourself, which isn’t too generous. It’s like ‘the possibility.’ You fall in love with the idea of possibility. You do something and maybe it gives you an angle on trying something else out and you love the interest that can pull you into that. It feels like genuine expression of yourself and not doing the same-o trot-out-some-march. If you can engage something in real time and be what you think you are. But because of ‘possibility,’ it’s what you can become too. You can change, maybe even transcend. Sometimes that’s an idea of love—transcend some very brutal reality. You can do that with expression. John Fogerty wasn’t born on the bayou, but when you hear that song you think he’s on the bayou and he’s got all these images going that are very romantic and it’s OK. They become allegorical. ‘Proud Mary,’ I never thought it was about a river boat. He’s talking about the universe and the wheels turning. Things can end up like that. That’s how I do it and keep at it and don’t get all jaded or think this is just to service a lifestyle—which is what? Shit-hoarding objects? There’s something about creating the works, especially now. The gigs are important, too. I’ve done that a long time and still will, but the works—for someone like me who never had children—the closest thing is these works. In a way you make them, but then they have a life of their own. They’re a lot like children. They’re here after you. When you’re not here you can’t do gigs anymore. But if you do works … For example, Bosch’s paintings. If he just talked about those things, I wouldn’t be here getting help from him with my imagery. So I’m grateful he made some works.
What’s your allegory? What do you romanticize?
Being a middle-aged punk rocker, it’s this idea of being combatant in the culture—playing the stuff no one else will play, shit like this. It’s kinda still like from when I was first a punk rocker. I still have that romanticized idea. Not like you’re better than anybody but you’re going to get out there and play your songs. You’re going to make a gig. It’s like a little mission. If you look at it that way, it’s not “I Love Lucy”—this week mayonnaise, next week pizzas. You have an ensemble, you try to make an interesting conversation. You have to fight against expectations or then it just becomes shtick and people are sleepwalking. The whole idea of being awake. That’s why when we first got involved with the movement, it was like, ‘These guys can hardly play but they had this energy to be expressive.’ Actually we never thought of music as expression. We thought it was, ‘Oh, this is how we hang out.’ We never thought, ‘Oh, you might have some kind of feelings that you might need to get out.’
Is it about making noise?
It might be noise. It depends where you are, what people think is noise or what’s music. What’s that called? Aesthetic. Before the Minutemen, me and D Boon, after school, we would jam along to records. Then with punk it was like, we’re going to write some songs, we’re going to play in front of people. That was a whole different idea. I didn’t know about clubs until punk. I’m 13 in 1970 so my teen years is arena rock. You’re in the dark sitting very far away. We didn’t think we could be part of that, although I ended up playing big pads later. When you went to a punk club, you could imagine doing that. The first thing I said to D Boon was, ‘Man, we can do this!’ They’d be in the audience after they played. It was a whole different scene and this intense way of wanting to be individuals. I didn’t see that with arena rock. It was distant and far and a version of hearing the record. The band was an 1/8 of an inch high. I didn’t even know the bass had thicker strings, I was so far away. I never saw one up close. The first few years I just played a guitar with four strings. I just left two strings off. Music wasn’t as accessible to young people as it is now. It was probably worse in the 1950s and 60s. Although in the 60s there was a big garage scene and playing clubs, but it got lost in the 1970s when rock got so huge. After punk, counterculture never died. It goes down a little but it wasn’t like the 1970s—just only arena rock. You could play backyards and you had to play covers—‘Great White Buffalo’ by Ted Nugent for half an hour. You had to play stuff that people knew. Like the 1930s with the swing bands, the whole idea of singing your own song was not happening. That’s why the punk movement wasn’t a style of music. It was a way of thinking about it. 1970s punk in Hollywood was different from the hardcore of the 1980s. In the 70s it was more like artist people being experimental, kinda being anti-rock ‘n’ roll.
Is electronic music anti-rock ‘n’ roll?
These guys playing laptops and stuff? Trippy. At the end of the day, it’s all sounds. Just maybe the sound’s already made and they’re pushing the buttons. I hate to be too judgmental because so many places in life, people can’t pick. People have only so much control over their life, so when they go to a gig, they should be able to pick. I know they can only pick from what’s available but I try to be loose and not so heavy about the heavy shit-shit-shit.
Speaking of heavy shit—this opera, Hyphenated-Man, you kind of go through every kind of shit in a person.
Those little men—I used Bosch in creating those creatures but I was also thinking of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The scarecrow, the tin man and the lion, they’re the farm hands. ‘You were there! And you were there!’ And Dorothy is tripping out. I know a man wrote it, L. Frank Baum—and it seemed like she was tripping out on ‘Look what guys do to be guys?!’ That’s the big heavy thing on the ‘midlife crisis’—guys start worrying.
Is this your midlife crisis?
In a way, midlife is not that bad. The body is lamer but there’s some real good things. You have experiences you don’t have when you’re younger. A lot of guys are plugged into a situation a long time. I have been with music, but my dilemma comes up all the time. What’s the next thing I’m going to write? It’s not like I had to wait until midlife. Every time the last record got old, I have this crisis. How do I reinvent myself? Is it time to reinvent? What’s it about? My life half full, half empty? I think it’s important to think about these things, but to pretend you’re 20 again is a freak-out. That’s what some guys do, get the convertible.
Is your glass half full or half empty?
I’ve got a lot of projects right now because I’m fearful of half empty, or more than half.
When you get a really good idea and you know it’s good, are you ever worried that it’s your best?
I’m worried about dying before I get the good shit out. One of the best records I played on was 25 years ago with the Minutemen—Double Nickels on the Dime. 26 years now. 27? 26 and a 1/2. It was the summer of 1984. That shit is scary. Whether you get it together, whether people will like it. It’s like never leaving school—you have to get up in front of class and read your stupid report. Some people are born entertainers, like Ig, James Brown, John Coltrane—it seems they can plow into it and they don’t get scared.
Do you get scared?
Totally! But I’ve been doing it a while so there’s some momentum that pushes me through the doubt nightmare. Just saying something’s about middle age sounds gross. I remember being a kid. We knew old, we knew young, we didn’t really think about middle. As you get into the twenties, middle sounds really lame—then it’s there. The body part is lamer, but the experience part is not. I would not want to go through the young shit again. The twenties? No way! So stupid. It’s hard but you got to learn by making mistakes. That’s how you get experience for the other days, if it doesn’t kill you.
What’s going on with your knee? You were wobbling hardcore.
It’s fucking lame.
Can you tell me a really bad knee story?
Yeah, fuck, every time—
How about one of the worst?
Once it went out on stage and, of course, my whole body collapses. My bass is still strapped to me so when I go down to the deck, it follows me down and this peg hits me in the tooth and knocks it all the way back and I go into deep shock. I put my leg back together and no more pain, right, so I reach into the back of my mouth and pull my tooth forward and back in place. And it didn’t die.
You just put it back?
Yeah—I felt it under my eye. They’re long, your teeth. I pulled it back. [Since you can’t see Watt’s physical demonstration, imagine a loose fence post still attached at the top being yanked back then pushed back down so it’s vertical like the others again. The logic behind that game at the fair where you throw a ball at a big mouth is based on real teeth mechanics.]
Do you have to put your knee back in place often?
I did that time. This knee today is more ligaments.
Were you like Forrest Gump as a child?
It came more and more in my teens. Early twenties I had tO have surgeries. I have this disease where parts of your body grow at different speed so all the geometry gets fucked up. It’s a congenital gift.
Do you fear judgment? Do you believe in the afterlife?
Whenever you deal with another human being you should be aware of that idea, really. That would make for a better place, conscious of the moment and not waiting for the hereafter. If in the moment we could think, ‘Hey, am I treating this person OK?’ And hopefully they’re thinking the same thing, instead of putting it off. People get caught up in trends and what’s supposed to be and they can’t feel what’s right. A little humility. That’s what the afterlife judgment is supposed to be for—to make people a little more humble. Some use that philosophy as another stick to beat over people’s heads and say they’re better than others who don’t agree with them.
Isn’t the intention to help you navigate your life?
That gets taken to weird things. Humility: ‘Whoa, I might be wrong.’ People are afraid of doubt or collaboration. It’s tricky. There’s no easy way in it. But it seems like a lot of the ways we take are pretty fucking brutal with each other, which I don’t think is so cool.
Who is your favorite ‘man’ in the opera?
I like wheel-bound-man. In fact, there was a big change. I had him in the middle and I was going to end with man-shitting-man but I was thinking, ‘Man, thank you, Mr. Bosch for little creatures but I don’t want to get caught up in the big picture, reading left to right and so judgmental.’ I thought, ‘Let’s lay back here—people can be very bad to each other and you have to be conscious of that, but it’s too cynical of a thing for me.’ So in the studio with Tony I said I want to change the order and put wheel-bound last. In a wheel, maybe you get another shot. Like the kid on a skateboard, you fall off you can get back up—not forever off this gameboard. Some of that last judgment stuff is just too heavy.
Is there a man with the most of you in him?
All of them. They’re all different parts of me. I try to describe it as a mirror broke in my head in 30 pieces. So it’s kind of a funhouse mirror. Things are distorted and, obviously for the drama of the piece, I weirded out—but they’re all part of me. Even the lame things. I don’t want to be the man-shitting-man.
But isn’t that brave to admit it?
That’s the only way you can change—confronting certain shit. That’s the whole thing too about confronting myself. If there’s one message that comes out, I really think everybody has something to teach me. My life is for learning so it’s OK being where I’m at—this part of the classroom at this point in time.