By James Preston Allen, Publisher of Random Lengths News
It was First Thursday. The workday had ended and the nightlife at San Pedro’s artwalk was just beginning. Lumbering down South Pacific Avenue to Random Lengths in his white econo-van, Mike Watt, at 56, looks more like an old sailor than punk legend and frontman of the Minutemen. His van has probably tallied more road years touring than younger bands have been alive.
Watt was dropping by to talk about his upcoming 53–stop tour, his new album and collaboration with Italian duo, il Sogno del Marinaio (The Sailor’s Dream). However, after 35 years on the music scene, Watt is still Watt with his signature plaid shirt.
As his latest album, Canto Secondo, shows, the past is never far from Watt’s mind. For Watt, the past forever rides with him in his econo-van (or “the boat” as he calls it) or hangs like his silver anchor around his neck. Canto Secondo (second song) is an exploratory expression of this boat of memories recorded with music collaborators Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilla in Bologna, Italy in December 2013. Their 53–stop tour starts Sept. 10 at the Casbah in San Diego and the next night at the Echo, in Los Angeles.
Canto Secondo is an assemblage of influences both musical and artistic that references improvisational jazz, 1970s rock and John Cage with a dash of Charles Bukowski. The Vinyl District’s, Joseph Neff described Canto Secondo as “a fresh yet familiar aural breeze combining progressive rock’s instrumental adeptness and expansionist possibilities with a lean punk-derived lack of malarkey.”
Still, Canto Secondo, is a boat of memories that references the early days of punk music. Black Flagg was a big part of that movement. Black Flagg had an almost magical influence in the local music scene in the 1980s and they had wide recognition that was started here. This was where Mike Watt entered the music world with his first band the Minutemen.
The following is a partial transcription of our interview with Watt:
Random Lengths: You’ve made this amazing array of friends in various styles of music throughout your career but you like to put these influences into a blender and out comes an album like this one Canto Segundo.
Mike Watt: I got into music to be with my friends. The influence of punk wasn’t a style. It was a state of mind.
RLn: The influences on this album almost seems like they’re taken from Berthold Brecht, or Dadaist art. Where is this coming from?
MW: The influences of the latest album and some of the other ones like the Minutemen, in a way, I’m coming back to my beginning. This is collaboration and I compose on the base. I work in a semi-scripted way at the beginning and then build upon that. I like to leave plenty of room for this trio to invent around the baseline and words.
RLn: What kind of rules are you breaking musically with this album?
MW: My fundamentals are from rock ’n’ roll. I’ve been around too long and you know you can’t learn anything by being the boss. I want to learn from everything, — the dream of the bard or Dante’s Inferno. I need the title to start before I write the songs. Bass is the greatest thing in the band. It’s still mysterious. The baseline in the music is the heart, the glue, something to stick to.
RLn: Tell me about some of the other influences on this current work.
MW: When I first heard John Coltrane I thought he was a punk rocker, I didn’t even know he was dead. Most of what I’ve learned has come from acutely listening to the music and playing with a bunch of people… and learning from everyone.
RLn: How do you stay a creative as a musician?
MW: I’ve never had to submit a demo; never took tour-money. You have to have core beliefs. I did 11 years at SST records and had complete autonomy. I don’t have any nightmare big label stories.
RLn: Some of the new album has a kind of Tom Waits voicing, the cynic’s prayer.
MW: I’m always going to hope for something better. I wonder if music is for transcending.
RLn: How much of your work is autobiographical and how much is fiction?
MW:The Engine Room is a metaphor from my father. I use his life in the Navy. I like to use writers and painters for inspiration rather than taking riffs from other musicians. One album I used the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, his painting the World of Earthly Delights for my inspiration.
When I was a kid I liked astronauts, dinosaurs and Bosch. Friends are like actors in the little plays of my life. I don’t want to be too social. I need people to inspire and encourage me, but I need to have my own space and San Pedro has been as much an influence as the people. It has allowed me to have certain autonomy.
RLn: You’ve read the works of Charles Bukowski, you are kind of like him except with a plaid shirt with an anchor around your neck.
MW: Yeah, I’ve read a bunch of Bukowski’s work and even met him one time. Bukowski was a punch-drunk to some, other people say his poetry was depressing, but he once told me that ‘writing is for pretending.’
We continued our conversation into the night onto the streets of downtown San Pedro. He blended in easily amongst the throngs of people enjoying the cool evening, who only occasionally recognized Watt for the notorious musician he is. That’s likely a testament to his innate humility. At age 56, he still has the curious eye of a child.
An email blast from Mike Watts arrived before we went to press:
“In 13 days, Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia will sally forth with me as our il Sogno del Marinaio band does its first ever U.S. tour.”
Location: 2501 Kettner Blvd. San Diego
Venue: The Echo
Location: 1822 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles