by Tom Taylor
Bass legend Mike Watt talks Iggy and the Stooges, Minutemen and his new band Cuz as he embarks on a tour across the UK.
I am not stalking Mike Watt.
The legendary Minutemen and their prolific bass player and songwriter Mike Watt have been a huge influence on me, from their punk DIY ethos right down to Watt’s plaid shirt dress sense.
Still, I don’t think I’m stalking Mike Watt. I saw his post-Minutemen band fIREHOSE bring the house down at Leeds’ Duchess of York in in 1991 and last year I saw Watt play his opera Hyphenated-man at the Brudenell Social Club also in Leeds. I think 23 years between these two events constitutes restraint where stalking is concerned, but I learned a few days ago that, aside from festivals, these are the only two occasions Watt has visited the city and doubt crept into my mind.
I shook his hand at the Brudenell and he signed a copy of Double nickels on the dime for me (the CD; I didn’t really want to cart my vinyl around on the off-chance. Yes I have both, plus MP3, not that I’m a completist or anything), but I was too star-struck to say any more than ‘thank you.’ And last week I spoke to Watt over Skype, but only because FCK LDN asked me to interview him about Cuz, his collaboration with The Go! Team wunderkind Sam Dook.
Cuz are playing their new album Tamatebako from 26th of August, starting in Ramsgate (at Ramsgate Music Hall), across England, Wales, Scotland, Netherlands and Belgium.
So, this is not stalking, right? I was asked to do it.
Mike is making some of the best music of his life right now, but for many he will always be the bass man from Minutemen and fIREHOSE – two 80s jazz-punk power trios among the most influential names in alternative rock. Think Pixies, Joy Division and Gang of Four – they’re in the same list. All of them architects of new sounds that still echo through the alternative music scene even now.
After fIREHOSE Watt worked widely with some of the industry’s most credible names, from Sonic Youth to The Stooges, by the way of solo work and other collaborations.
And so to Cuz – a new band that Mike has formed with an English dude from Brighton. After we get over the initial hellos and the traditional Skype time delay (plus a little fawning on my part) I learn that Mike met his conspirator in Cuz Sam Dook at Australia’s Big Day Out festival in 2006.
During time off from playing bass with the Stooges, Watt saw Sam and The Go! Team play their mix of indie garage and old skool hip hop. He was intrigued by their use of samples.
‘I was kind of naïve or something, I wasn’t familiar with that technology, right? I actually didn’t know, I thought they were playing all that stuff. To me, tape recorders—you play music and the tape recorder captures it. But this whole idea of samples…it’s a pretty creative tool and, you know, I wanted to explore it.’
Watt has been playing, recording and touring for more than 30 years and speaking to him, you get a sense of continued excitement about the possibilities of music.
‘There’s one bad thing about being around [this long]; you think you know it all. That’s a real dangerous place to be. ’ So learning all the time is important? ‘Yeah, but you can’t learn everything being the boss. That’s a big lesson.’ And he is very keen to stress that Cuz is not Mike Watt plus some other guys, but an equal partnership, a unit in itself. ‘It’s funny how my name keeps being… You know, it’s Mike Watt with Cuz, or Cuz Mike Watt. If you’ve heard the record, that’s ridiculous.’
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The Cuz album, Tamatebako—is an eclectic and exuberant bundle of J-pop, folktronica and sly psychedelia. Varied as Watt’s output has been over the years, the album sounds very little like any of it and there is delight in his voice at this as he talks about the project.
‘People should be very proud of Sam. I didn’t give any instructions. For me Cuz was always about surprise and then me having comments about it after and sometimes he would change stuff and sometimes he’d hold the course and I’d fucking grow a pair [laughs]. But really there was so much surprise in Cuz. For example, that album cover, a lot of the instrumentation, all that stuff. But they were fucking righteous surprises.’
FCK LDN founder Karl thought that “Cuz” was an abbreviation of “cousin”. It would fit this music – a transatlantic collaboration between musical pioneers from different generations. The real origin of the name is far more simple – it was borrowed from a fanzine put out by Richard Hell of Richard Hell and the Voidoids fame. But there is another meaning.
‘We have a joke in the US that goes; why does a dog lick it’s balls?’ Because it can. ‘And why are we doing this Cuz proj? Cuz we can.’
The main part of the album was created during a mammoth 3 day jam in Sam Dook’s home-town of Brighton. After that, Sam worked on cutting up and creating tunes, the results emailed back and forth between the pair making changes and comments each time. It’s a 21st Century project.
‘Yeah, me and D Boon , we had to be in the same room to play. You couldn’t trade files like nowadays.’
This fits right in with Watt’s ‘econo’ philosophy too (to do things simply and cheaply, with economy).
‘This is the plus side of technology. It’s much more econo now to take risks. In the old days, me and D Boon, we had to record in order. We had to use used tape. We had to record in downtime, midnight to six you know, because econo, right? But what happened was a lot of the technology got econo.’
The technology caught up with him. ‘Ah yeah, but it does have to be kept in it’s place. Look, when I was a younger man I got into carburettors and exhaust manifolds, but at the end of the day, yeah, put it in D[rive], point it and push on the power. So that’s the way I look at it; if all of a sudden [the technology] becomes the gig, you’re going to lose the expression, which is I think the most important part about music.’
It’s all about the way you use the tool. ‘Like anything else, you know, you can stab people with a knife or you can cut your hot dog with it.’
It’s done with a light touch, but the Cuz album has a lot of overdubs and post-production. I suggest that playing it live as a three-piece is going to be a challenge. ‘This whole Cuz thing was a proj of recording, you know? Now it’s turned into gigs where you play in front of people. It’s a little bit different. It’s a great challenge. I still wanted it be Cuz and so that’s why we’re going to do every song off the record. The thing is, yeah, probably it’ll be more of a power trio manifestation, but to me I think that’s better than just playing a tape of the record and mime it, you know? That wouldn’t drive, right?’
I ask about the line-up for the gigs. Sam and Mike were the core musicians on Tamatebako, but a dozen others contributed. The press release for the tour lists only three on stage; Mike, Sam and drummer E-Da Kazuhisa.
‘I’m a bass player and kinda that’s where I am. I do some spiel. Both Sam and the drummer man have samplers, so they can actually take little snatches. Remember we’re not going to play you a tape of the album, but there are some snatches that they can bring in. Basically the way I look at these things they’re kind of tape recorders with play buttons, right? You just hit the play button, but you’re also playing drums, guitar and bass. So it’s kind of an interesting… I’ve never worked a trio like this before. And I’ve got some experience of trios. So that makes it interesting also. The interpretation of the Cuz album, the Cuz music and then the idea of performing it, they’re new challenges for me.’
There is a strong folk element in the album. ‘He gave those [tunes] to me only as demos. I felt a very genuine air, so I played some sympathetic kind of bass to it. Just thought it would bring out a side of bass in me that other kind of stuff doesn’t. And I got that exactly what you’re talking about, that England folk feel and I just loved it. It just seemed genuine to me. There was no put on. That’s what folk means to me. It’s not a genre, it just comes out, you know.’
‘There’s some guys in a band called Chumbawamba and I got to play with them, and they turned me onto this stuff that was like rebel songs from England, like 400 years ago. That’s got some folk tradition, stuff they were playing me. There was even a dude named Watt down here that led some rebellion. It’s a tradition of that in England, yeah, so I’m into it, know what I mean? I didn’t pick where I was born, but I am here to learn.’
Tamatebako is full of cleverly constructed, highly produced songs – but they all sound of a piece. There are no jarring transitions or jump cuts. It’s music that can be played. The track ‘Slipstream,’seems to epitomise the Cuz project; several disparate elements brought into a harmonious whole. Watt tells me how it was put together.
‘Obviously the jam, the lick, came from the three days of jamming we did here in Brighton and he [Sam] lifted and started layering up on it. So it was sort of like meeting me, already a work in progress, right? And then he starts fitting music around it. In a way, he’s not just an operator of instruments, he’s also kind of a conductor.
‘Now I had a chorus for that song… Usually what I do is always start with the title and he called that thing Slipstream. And, see, slipstream; the big problem was in the old days you jumped out the aeroplane and you hit the tail. The slipstream would put you into the tail and break your neck, so that’s why I was thinking already it’s a tragedy. Yeah, maybe a self-inflicted tragedy. It’s a fucking folly, it’s a fool. Foolhardy guy. So that’s where I was coming from. So it’s about a guy who’s kind of fucking stupid. Just because when you’re close to water it feels soft, this idiot thinks from 1300 ft you can jump into the ocean and it ain’t going to be like sea, man. So it’s kind of a delusional dude.’
And that chorus? ‘Yeah, well I got some double meaning words, right? “Out of the slipstream and into the wet dream,” like the wet dream is soft water and also wet dream is like, you know. Yeah, it’s spunking it up like, and he didn’t dig that so it got scissored. And instead this other part comes in with the drum, you know, nick nack paddy whack and this shit. That’s something I’d never ever thought of. You see, that’s the magic in collaboration. You know, Nels Cline is a big guy in improvisation? I think this is what improvisers are looking for, always looking for the unexpected but I think that shit can come, too, in composing and stuff, if you take chances like we did with Cuz.’
As a journeyman musician, living life econo for three decades, Watt has seen more than his fair share of the road.
‘This is going to be my 68th tour if you call a tour more than a month,’ he tells me, ‘ I think the longest one I did was 71 gigs in 73 days. I did all 48 states and three Canada provinces.’
Has he had to make sacrifices to work such a hard schedule? Watt pauses.
‘Ok. First I want to address the thing about it being hard. I think working in a salt mine is pretty hard or a fishing boat for three months at a time. I mean, everything is kind of hard, I think. But the other thing is you’re right, exactly. You have to make sacrifices about this life. My Pop was a sailor and I hardly saw him as a boy and now I know…It’s kind of probably why I never had kids. My sisters never had children either, but they’re teachers so not totally separated from children.’
He draws a philosophical parallel with the music industry. ‘I think not everybody can be on bass. There’s different jobs—drums, guitar, writing poems. There’s all kinds of different things. I don’t think a touring guy is good with family because you’re not there. That was fucked up for my Ma, you know. My Pop was away doing his thing. So there are those kind of sacrifices. There’s certain kind of trade-offs and I think one of them is having a family.’
But he was married once? ‘I tried to be married for a while to the lady in Black Flag [Kira Roessler]. We were married for five years, almost six and tried, but… just too hard. Actually we’re better now. We have this band called Dos. It’s two basses. We’re going on 30 years.’
We agree that 30 years in a band together is a successful marriage and I suggest that he seems happy with the choices he’s made. ‘I think you’re right. I did make a choice. And regrets, well, no. I got into music to be with D Boon, you know, then he gets killed!
‘Honestly, I didn’t think anybody wanted to hear me play without him, so I did think it was over then. But then I kept going and actually I feel kind of lucky, very lucky, very grateful and that’s why I try to give it all I’ve got.’
Watt and D Boon were encouraged to play music by Boon’s mother as a way of keeping the two off the streets of their working class neighbourhood in San Pedro, California.
‘D Boon’s Ma put me on the bass, and we had this weird kind of glue, you know. Me and D Boon, after school in the bedroom copying The Credence and Blue Oyster Cult.’
How does he feel about being given the bass? ‘We look good making the other guys look good. I like that politics. I’m never going to give up on the bass guitar. It just seems there’s so much… I’m not even going to go to five strings. There’s just so much to still learn. The first gig we went to together, we were 14 years old, was T-Rex. It was arena rock, although it was a smaller one, maybe only 3000 seats.’
But then came punk and, ‘it really blew our minds,’ says Watt, ‘This idea of the gig. And you could do them. People took turns at these things, playing for each other, so that was a whole other dynamic. You know, the punk scene in the US was very small and so you had to learn to play and not care about what people thought. I’m talking a lot of abuse and stuff. “Okay, we have to put up with this and we will.” Nowadays people are not as abusive, but it’s still scary to check why they’re there, so what you do is you try to give them the best you can give.’
I wonder who his audience is these days. ‘Not a lot of fifty seven year olds,’ he says.
Maybe a few forty six year olds, like me? I ask.
‘Yeah, you know what though? Younger people are kind of open minded and I don’t think everybody comes to see Mike Watt wants to think about old days. So, people around my own age, younger people, sometimes older people. I think art is an equal opportunity employer and I got the same idea about genre. Generation, genre, all that stuff, they’re just marketing devices. I think there’s too much conflict with reality. Yeah, the human spirit.’
I ask if he still believes in the Minutemen philosophy of dividing the world into gigs and flyers. Anything that wasn’t a gig was a flyer—a way of getting people to the gig, the main event. Is genre a useful flyer?
‘That’s where I like to go with the marketing, the flyers. You let people know about the gig. You let them know that you’re going to come play and you don’t try and trick them into shit. You don’t try to fake a band. You have some kind of respect for them. You let them know so they can make a choice. They can’t make a choice if they don’t know. You’re right, absolutely. So I’m not an anti-marketing.’
But the gig is still the main thing? ‘There’s people watching you, right? Those are gig goers and they deserve you being honest with them. They’ve worked all week to come to the gig and no one wants to be taken for granted.’
Watt has had some awesome gigs. When Iggy Pop reformed his legendary band The Stooges, Mike Watt got the call to play bass. He knows exactly how many months he’s played with the Ig – it’s 125, for the record.
‘Ron Asheton that helped make it happen,’ says Watt, who was trying to get back into shape following major surgery in 2000 at the time. ‘That’s why I got a picture of him on my bass.’
And as always in this (and, you suspect, every) conversation he pays tribute to his old friend D Boon first. ‘D Boon had that work ethic when it came to a gig; this might be the last one, so play your hardest. And that’s the way Igg[y Pop] is. He is so serious about that. He doesn’t take any of it for granted. I love that ethic.
‘You know, you meet in this racket a lot of jive, a lot of people who won the Lotto, and Igg, he has this kind of… you’ve got to work for it. You don’t just decide you’re the anointed one.’
I confess that I have a bit of a crush on Iggy Pop. ‘Sheesh, yeah, I’ve got a kind of a crush too… I mean, the guy, he’s the bow of the boat and also he can work a room, you know, in the greatest Vaudeville tradition and still hear every note. Wow, it’s crazy and still, you know, as a music man, he’s very inspiring.’
Did he feel a responsibility towards the Stooges’ music? ‘Oh yeah, there’s a big danger of wrecking their legacy. I felt those guys…every moment deserved the best notes I could ever give them. Fuck, we wouldn’t even have a punk scene without that band. I mean, that band has everything and it was mind blowing to find myself in that. Can you believe that situation? I know D Boon’s laughing his head off. It’s trippy how life does that.’
His most recent recordings have been marked by creative collaboration. I wonder who’s on his wishlist. He says ‘Bob Mould’ without hesitation and I’m surprised they’ve never played together. Minutemen put out Hüsker Dü’s first record on their New Alliance label.
But, ‘there’s a lot of dudes, a lot of people out there. You know what? You can’t hurry love. You can’t push it. So I let things fall in my lap that I never thought of, like Cuz. So I don’t want to be too heavy about that but when you say the word ‘collaboration,’ yes, big time.’ And you know that this is what music is all about for Mike Watt.
Mike was generous with his time and his anecdotes, giving close to an hour. I think that I had got over being star-struck by the halfway point. By the end of the interview, we’re sympathising with one another about how hard it is to ride folding bicycles compared to ‘the other babies’ and he gave me tips on making chilli sauce (habanero chillies with vinegar, garlic and coriander but ‘sometimes a little ghost or serrano so it ain’t full-on habanero’).
I’ll be back in Leeds on September 6th to see Watt again, this time as one third of Cuz. But remember, I’m not stalking him, ok?
wednesday, august 26 in ramsgate, england at the ramsgate music hall
thurday, august 27 in oostende, belgium at de zwerver
friday, august 28 in deventer, netherlands at de hip
saturday, august 29 in hummelo, netherlands at the manana manana festival
sunday, august 30 in amsterdam, netherlands at paradiso
monday, august 31 in antwerp, belgium at het bos
tuesday, september 1 in london, england at corsica studios
wednesday, september 2 in leicester, england at the musician
thursday, september 3 in manchester, england at the ruby lounge
friday, september 4 in liverpool, england at the east village arts centre
saturday, september 5 in portmeirion, wales at the festival no 6
sunday, september 6 in leeds, england at the brudenell social club (games room)
monday, september 7 in glasgow, scotland at stereo
tuesday, september 8 in edinburgh, scotland at sneaky pete’s
wednesday, september 9 in newcastle, england at the cluny
thursday, september 10 in nottingham, england at the maze
friday, september 11 in exeter, england at the cavern
saturday, september 12 in brighton, england at sticky mike’s frog bar