Although Mike Watt’s legendary California punk band, the Minutemen, disintegrated after its singer and guitarist, D. Boon, died in a 1985 car accident, the trio’s lightning-fast delivery, jazzy overtones and heartfelt, hard-hitting lyricism still influence young punks today. Bassist Watt and drummer George Hurley played together in a second group, Firehose, before Watt went solo with 1995’s Ball-Hog or Tug-Boat? Unlike that infectiously anarchic album, with its all-star cast of contributors, Watt’s new CD, Contemplating the Engine Room, is a stylistically diverse, day-in-the-life punk opera chronicling his father’s life in the Navy and its parallels with Watt’s own experiences in the Minutemen. At 39, Watt remains Southern California punk’s uncontested elder statesman. He holds fast to its founding ideals, living in his old San Pedro apartment, touring in a battered van and forging his career with an autonomy that’s rare in rock & roll.
Your dad was a career Navy guy, right?
He joined when he was 17 and did 20 years. Retired when he was younger than I am now. But he was in nuclear boats, and he got cancer when he was 51 and died. That shit just raced right through him. He told me never to join up. He said the Navy was like a big mother. He told me, “Name any day of the week and I’ll know what we’re eatin’.” That was his biggest bitch – the chow. Now it’s a volunteer Navy, and they have Taco Bells on board the ships to get people to join.
Would you join the Navy for a taco?
No, ’cause I joined the punk-rock navy instead. Being in a band is kinda like being in the Navy, because any time you’ve got guys with guys, you don’t grow up. You’re like Peter Pan. You’re suspending part of the process of becoming a human being, which is finding a mate and raising a family. Instead, you’re travelin’ around, singin’ little songs. I’m not saying it’s illegitimate – it’s noble. Somebody’s gotta do it.
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How did the idea for Contemplating the Engine Room come to you?
Last year was weird for me. I was a deckhand. I played for Perry Farrell in Porno for Pyros, and I’d never played in another guy’s band – never not been boss. I felt ridiculous. Perry had me in outfits like pajamas or a Muslim doorman’s caftan. I learned a lot, but I also had a lot of time on my hands for just thinkin’. The last record I did had about 65 people on it. It was a hoot – very affirmin’, ’cause I didn’t know this alternative rock & roll was such a big scene. But when I started thinkin’, I realized that I wanted something that was just a whole bunch of Watt – not so many personalities. So then I thought, “Why not start with just one day? Why not put something that was very dramatic for me – the Minutemen – into a day, and make a valentine for them and D. Boon and my father?”
So you’ve invested a lot of personal history in this album.
Yeah. I wrote the rhythms and stuff on my bike. It took three months of bike ridin’ to write the opera. If you follow the words to “Pedro Bound!,” it’s my 20-mile bike route, all along the harbor and the docks and the cliffs. “Pedro Bound!” is important, because [San] Pedro is where I meet “The Boilerman,” D. Boon, in the next song. That was the big drama in my life; that was where I learned to become a bass player.
What is the metaphor between the engine room and the punk movement?
Here’s how it was: The metaphor is for the autonomous collective, our whole little scene. Black Flag, Husker Du, the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, the Big Boys, in Texas, DOA, in Vancouver – that’s the whole big boat. Then there were different parts of the boat, all these little cells, and under the cells were the bands. We were all in the same boat, but we were in different rooms. We were all trios, but we all had different sounds. I thought that was the most idealistic part of the movement. Somehow you got your personality and sound across.
Do you still tour in your own van?
Yup. I’ve been through three vans. I get asked by my record company all the time to give van seminars to the new bands – these kids think you fly to all your gigs. But I’m from another reality. I haven’t taken one penny of tour support. All my tours make money. That’s how I live. The blues guys have been doing that for years, and Woody Guthrie before them. It’s a long tradition. This arena-rock thing that happened in the ’70s was just a blip.
Do you find it ironic that a man known for cranking out a song a minute has written an opera?
Well, sometimes you gotta have some fun with your image. Sometimes when people categorize you, you become dead and stiff. So you try and reinvent yourself. I’ve been listenin’ to the opera show on Sundays, and I liked this idea of little dramas that I couldn’t even understand, because they were all in Italian. So I’ve been listenin’. I wanna cure my schizophrenia. I wanna make sense.
What do you consider your schizophrenia?
All the little shards, all the little songs, all the different performances and people – and the Minute-men, where we couldn’t play songs over a minute long. I turn on MTV and see all this fast editing, and it really bothers me. I want ’em to hold on a minute. So I want to temper that in a way. Maybe I’ve changed a bit, too; maybe I’ve gone down the road a couple of feet.
Where do you see things heading now? It’s a strange time for music.
It is, but then it’s always been strange. What if I was competin’ against cartoons – the Archies? Or what about the Banana Splits? How would you like to be in the van competin’ against them? They’re on the TV. They don’t even got real faces. God. At least now there’s a little more honesty.