The Secondman’s Middle Stand celebrates solo effort number three for the legendary Mike Watt. Indeed, this forthcoming 9-song work exemplifies how this cornerstone of the punk rock canon remains a vibrant artist for over twenty years running. Ever zealous to push the fold, Watt’s latest artistic event trades 6 strings for 88 keys in his first bass-drum-organ line-up. Likewise, his first outing in support of the new project, the Our Oars Became Wings tour (launched April 15), takes a novel approach in its untraditional said purpose. This 61-shows-in-62-days road trip, his 49th career outing overall, is in fact a teaser tour previewing the new release before he actually enters the studio to record it. What is wildly progressive in theory is simply another day for punk rock’s elder statesman.
Raised in the L.A. county port town of San Pedro, the Virginia-born Watt first met his musical soulmate, singer/guitarist D. Boon, as students attending Dodson Junior High. After a few short-lived band attempts, the pair finally connected with drummer George Hurley and formed the legendary punk trio the Minutemen in February of 1980. Becoming the second act ever released on the pivotal SST record label (Black Flag, Husker Du, Soundgarden, Bad Brains), the Minutemen powered out 11 albums in six years backed with incessant touring that earned them the respect of all who loved everything original and independent about rock ‘n’ roll. With utter disregard for the rules of rock, the Minutemen engaged in boundless genre bending that would influence many greats to come, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Among the group’s other trail-blazing endeavors, the proto-punk pioneers also defined the Econo-Tour, a road warrior-style approach seeking the most performances in the fewest days with the littlest overhead. Sharing a van with labelmates Black Flag, the two groups unknowingly forged the national club routes that a budding punk nation would soon adopt. Finally, after four years of constantly flipping the tour bus odometer, the group came to an end December 23, 1985 when a tragic van accident took D. Boon’s life.
Watt retreated from music after the loss, though not for long. An avid Ohio-based Minutemen fan named Ed Crawford found Watt’s number in the phone book (“I didn’t know you had to pay to be unlisted,” laughs Watt). The young Crawford, who didn’t even own an amp, said he was moving to San Pedro to start a new band with Watt and Hurley. Ever the enthusiast of the path less traveled, Watt conceded, and the trio launched fIREHOSE in June 1986 in route to five studio albums, a live EP, and 7 1/2 years of non-stop econo-touring (without ever taking label tour support). The group even signed to Columbia Records, who released their final two albums before their break-up January 12, 1994. Watt recalls, “We broke up simply because the band had run its course over so many years. We did about as much as we could do.”
As Watt’s musical legacy grew, the restless visionary pushed for even loftier creative heights, a move that necessitated going solo. He explains, “I did bands for almost 14 years. You have all these ideas for songs, and with a band, you filter them all through the same guys. I reached a point in which I wanted to use different bands for all my music ideas.”
In 1995, Watt issued his first solo effort, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, enlisting no less than 48 different participants including members of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Beastie Boys, Soul Asylum, the Lemonheads, and the Screaming Trees. In fact, the tour line-up for Watt’s first solo outing included Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on vocals, The Germ’s Pat Smear on guitar, and Nirvana’s David Grohl on drums, with Grohl’s new group the Foo Fighters delivering their very first live performances in the support slot. After two years of touring, Watt trimmed his caravan back to a three-man team and recorded his 1997 follow-up, the punk opera Contemplating the Engine Room. The thematic effort revolved around three seamen in the engine room of a naval vessel, in sum creating a powerful metaphor for the Minutemen and their road lives in the Boat (their name for the tour van).
For his forthcoming new album, The Secondman’s Middle Stand, Watt chose to write his first album centered in the present, a change from all his previous work that reflected life events already passed. He initially wrote the album about The Man, the name he affectionately gives to his feline companion of 17 years, but the present turned tragic when his cat suffered a fatal case of brain cancer. In searching out another topic, Watt himself became critically ill with a fever that lasted 38 days climaxing with a burst abscess in his perineum. Watt’s life would hang in the balance as a med student performed an emergency operation at the county hospital. Deeming no topic more current that this, Watt re-wrote the album about his illness structured loosely on Dante’s literary classic, The Divine Comedy. Watt parallels the book’s stages of hell, purgatory, and heaven with his own trio of fever, healing, and paradise.
In addition to his primary efforts, Watt’s yearnings for creative output has necessitated endless side projects starting with the double bass duo Dos with ex-Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler. In the time since Contemplating the Engine Room, Watt played bass for Perry Farrell’s Porno for Pyros and recorded three albums with Banyan, an experimental alt-jazz project with Pyro member Steve Perkins. Watt also formed Wylde Rattz with the Stooges’ Ron Asheton, Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley to cover the Stooges’ classic “TV Eye” for the “Velvet Goldmine” soundtrack (the group’s own debut album is also finished and set for release). Another old SST labelmate, Dinosaur Jr.‘s J Mascis, also recruited Watt to perform with his new solo project. The list goes on and on with side bands like Li’l Pit, Hellride, his Material Girl tribute the Madonnabes, Pair of Pliers, and the original Punk Rock Karaoke with Greg Hetson of Bad Religion and Eric Melvin of NOFX. Watt also stays busy with a weekly web radio program, The Watt From Pedro Show (twfps.com), and his own site, hootpage.com, both of which provide outlets for his many political interests, including the fight against FFC regulations on low power FM stations and web radio channels.
For an artist addicted to change, in some ways he’s remained very much the same. Watt concludes, “I never grew out of those things that D. Boon and I talked about all those years ago. Those weren’t just for the old days. I still fiercely believe in such ideals as self-reliance, taking responsibility, putting your hands on the wheel, cutting out the middle men, bridging the gap between the work and the worker, and finding out where the wall is by pushing against it. Those weren’t just childhood blatherings.” These pillar ideals are still alive and well in Mike Watt.