Mike Watt is talking about the van: the van as metaphor for the bassist's
entire life, his day-to-day existence on the road and his new album,
"Contemplating the Engine Room." The gear is unloaded
from his Ford Econoline and ready to go for the San Francisco performance of the "punk rock opera," the second date of a seven-week tour. But right now, Watt is sitting in
the dressing room talking -- "spieling," as he puts it. To his mind, his road experience puts him in a long line of real and literary passengers, from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to Dante's
"Inferno" to his own father, who served in the Navy. "When I was reading about Jim and Huck on that raft, that was the van. My father was in the van. Dante with Virgil in that boat with Charon, he was in the van. We're all in the van. The only thing new is you, finding out
"Contemplating the Engine Room" is, among other things, the story of what he
discovered, a document of his experiences with the Minutemen, the
band he formed with his best friend, guitarist D. Boon, and drummer George Hurley. Part of a vibrant punk scene on the deeply influential SST label,
the Minutemen helped define American independent rock in the 1980s. But
six years after the Minutemen began a series of brilliant albums that limned the middle
ground between jazz and punk, the van exacted its revenge, with Boon dying
in a wreck on an Arizona highway in 1985.
Watt says he was frightened to make a record so personal, but to his mind he had no choice. "I just had to get it out. I owed it to D. Boon, the Minutemen, Georgie, all the SST cats. Because it's sad what happened to the Minutemen. Fucking fucked up. But
the work we did is why I get to make these records. I wanted to make a big
valentine to that, to say, 'Thank you.'"
The results are jaw-dropping. Recruiting Nels Cline guitarist of the Geraldine
Fibbers and drummer Steve Hodges ("In order to celebrate the Minutemen, it had
to be three guys," Watt says), Watt has recorded a post-punk "Ulysses." From
the fist-pumping hardcore of "The Bluejackets' Manual" to the twisted pop
of "Fireman Hurley" to the avant-funk of "Black Gang Coffee" and "Liberty
Calls!" "Engine Room" spills over with a spirit of invention that's
invigorating, easily the finest work he's done since the Minutemen (he'd
since marked time in the disappointing Firehose and recorded "Ball-Hog or
Tugboat?" with a slew of alternarockers, an album that suffered from
too-many-cooks syndrome). As the titles suggest, nautical themes abound,
befitting a man who grew up in the Navy town of San Pedro, Calif.
While the album's inspiration is Watt's past, the album is hardly a
nostalgia trip, musically or spiritually. "I'm not building tract
homes," says Watt. "I'm not hiding in the past. Though I'm using parts of
my past, I'm in real time, dealing with real problems." The method Watt used
to make the record was one he learned during a stint touring
with Perry Farrell's band Porno for Pyros. "The way Perry talks about
music, he speaks in stories," Watt recalls. "Perry would say to me, 'You're
in a field, it's green, it's waving, you're a bird.'" Watt used a similar
method to get the songs across to Cline and Hodges. He describes how it worked with "In the Engine Room," which opens the album: "Here we are. It's right before
dawn. This song is purple. And it's like right when you're waking up from a
dreamy state, unconscious, subconscious. Here's the lick, now what're you
gonna do? OK, let's go to tape."
Talking about the unusual recording method, Watt celebrates its spirit.
"Perry hit on something. It's like punk rock. In the early days, we
didn't know how to play, we had to get above that. Getting over the notes,
getting over the technique." That in many ways describes the
spirit behind the dazzling and diverse roster of bands on SST as well, which he
name-checks on "Topsiders": Black Flag, Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets,
Husker D| and even the artist Raymond Pettibon, whose iconoclastic
drawings, flyers and album covers defined the SST era as much as Henry
Rollins' growl or Bob Mould's guitar. "The weird thing about SST, we didn't
really have a 'sound,'" Watt says. "I liked that. It was autonomous.
That's what I try to talk about in 'Topsiders.' We're all in the same boat,
but in different rooms."
Watt bemoans the fact that many have forgotten the work that SST did in
building the underground scene and paving the way for the "alternative"
acts of today. "It's funny how for a lot of writers, it's the Sex
Pistols" -- Watt draws a straight line in the air with his finger -- "Nirvana.
You got little kids doing Buzzcocks songs, they don't even know what the
Buzzcocks are. In fact, if the Buzzcocks come to play, they don't even go
to the gig. They go to the Green Day gig." But Watt isn't just some
grumpy old punk whining about how much better the good old days were:
"There was the Knack and the Cars and shit like that in them days too," he
notes. Watt is still a fervent supporter of the music and bands of today, a
proud evangelist of the riot grrrl scene, as well as the possibilities of
the Internet, which he likens to fanzines. He proudly notes that he keeps
his own "Mike Watt's Hoot Page" updated regularly. "Why should Spin broker us? Why don't we just reach each other and cut out the middleman?"
Even if he believes that today's alternative scene is "co-opted and part of
a Gap ad," he's rightfully proud of the work that he did, and which he
still continues to do. Whether the demi-Buzzcocks bands of today know it or
not, Watt helped blaze the trail that the vans of today's punk and
underground bands get to drive on. "I think the ideas really did get around. The
guy in the Town Car doesn't really know what's going on in the van. But,"
he adds pointedly, "I think there's more vans now."