photo by Will Ragozzino
“One Reporters Opinion” from the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime asks the listener an unusual question: “what can be romantic to mike watt?”
How should I know?
The question is never answered in any satisfying way; we’re just given a list of reasons why perhaps nothing is romantic to Mike Watt.
“he’s only a skeleton”
“his body’s a series of points with no height, length, or width”
At nearly two minutes long, “One Reporters Opinion” might as well be “Cygnus X-1” books one and two, as far as Minutemen songs are concerned. By the 1:04 mark, it’s hard to say for certain if Mike Watt exists, except that it says inside the album gatefold he plays bass. Well, okay then. Mike Watt plays bass. That much is clear. But how?
Lyrical ambiguities aside, the arrangement of “One Reporter’s Opinion” is a bit of fractured, free associative, stream-of-consciousness musical telepathy that’s neither rock nor jazz, and it definitely ain’t punk. Except it’s on SST Records, so it is punk. Right?
Only what punk band would open a song with thirty seconds of free jazz drumming before pulling anchor to lurch full steam ahead into a lumpy, lopsided groove that’s more Funkadelic-meets-Beefheart than it is “Nervous Breakdown?” And the bass playing is certifiably insane. Like, just all kinds of syncopated, string-skipping, octave-jumping, logic-defying nuts. It’s beautiful.
As a teenager listening to Double Nickels… for the first time, it was baffling to me how music like this could exist, first of all. Second, it sounded nothing like the punk rock I’d been introduced to by Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. And finally, how the hell did they pull this off live?
Akron-based author and musician David Giffels recalls seeing the Minutemen perform in 1984 at Mother’s Junction in Kent, Ohio: “I remember how intensely Watt played,” he says.
You could see he was completely bonded with playing his instrument. Really intense and not putting on a show, just really playing. Whenever I see videos of them, especially now, he seems [a] self-taught, organic person who is completely bonded with his instrument the way I think of jazz musicians who would just play the same instrument - one single instrument their whole life . . .
Mike Watt plays bass. Thirty years and countless tours and records later, that’s all we know for sure. Watt’s music raises more questions than it answers, but it’s never difficult or obtuse. To get an answer, all you need to do is ask a question. Fortunately, I was able to do just that. But I had to wait.
In 2008, I first heard the news that Watt formed a “supergroup” with Nels Cline, Tera Melos guitarist Nick Reinhart, and Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier on drums. In 2014, the group, now called Big Walnuts Yonder, recorded an album. On May 5, 2017, Big Walnuts Yonder was released, and once again I had more questions than answers.
Big Walnuts Yonder swiftly avoids the typical supergroup missteps. It is not a “musician’s” album. There is no jamming. Even at its hairiest it’s clear that this recording is the result of four musicians coming together to make songs. It’s a document of musical conversations taking place over three days at Brooklyn’s Studio G. In Watt-speak, “a pure music connect.”
Eight of the ten songs were composed on bass by Watt, who sent his ideas, or “launchpads,” as he calls them, to the rest of the group via email. The remaining songs, Nels Cline’s instrumental “Flare Star Phantom” and Greg Saunier’s “All Against All” were learned by the band on the spot in the studio. Nick Reinhart plays guitar throughout and sings on all but three songs: the aforementioned instrumental, and the one-two gut punch of “I Got Marty Feldman Eyes” and “Raise the Drawbridges?” which feature spiel from Watt.
Shortly after the release of Big Walnuts Yonder, I met up with Watt at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom, where before and after soundcheck with his band the Jom & Terry Show, we talked about gear, collaboration in the internet age, and the making of Big Walnuts Yonder.
Mike Watt: Okay, now [I got] those pedals right before I left [for China], but I had a couple days to use ‘em - I even recorded something for a guy in Macedonia named Vasko. Great cat. He gave me this track, said “put a bass solo on.” So that’s where I’ve used ‘em. And it really worked. It was happenin’. I used both the envelope filter and the fuzz.
What I got was Bellows and Spatial Delivery, kind of a Bootsy thing, the envelope. It’s dynamic - how hard you play it. Mu-Tron. I had one of those, and they were okay. I like yours better. And I liked your fuzz thing, too. It gave a lot of character to the solo. The guy really dug it. With the Spatial, too, I could really get it in there with the beat of the song. It was trippy. Y’know what I’m talking about? I duuno what exactly it is - I know it’s got a sensitivity and it’s got a place where you want put the resonance up or down. . . the intensity is what I got. I could find a place that was in the beat of the song. It’s trippy. Wow-wow. [Emulates bass guitar through an envelope filter].
That was very hard to get with the Mu-Tron. I could get it really quick with yours. I’m gonna spend more time - I wanna do more groove things. Y’ know, I don’t only do bass solos. I wanna work it into tunes. I got a song I’m doin’ with a guy from Tokyo and I’m gonna use both. Not at the same time. I’m think I’ll use the envelope filter through the whole thing, then when it comes to certain parts [I’ll use the Bellows]. I really like the character of both boxes. I know they’re coming from very well-known territory, but they still got that thing. The Bellows thing I dug, ‘cuz the problem with a lot of fuzz is losing the low end. So people have dealt with that with bypasses and blends, but you guys don’t do that.
Aaron Rogers: Nope, the Bellows is more like an amp . . .
Watt: That’s right. Yeah. But there’s somethin’ organic about it that don’t sound, I dunno, make it all thin-ass and shit. The only place I heard it before, and he showed me, maybe it was a Vox Super Fuzz?
[Adam] Yauch used this thing in “Sabotage,” remember that Beasties song? It even had a spring loaded switch… That bass was bad! I think it was a Super Fuzz, a Vox Super Fuzz. He showed me the pedal once. I love that dude. So sad! He’s a good cat. You know, the Stooges’ shit got stolen in Montreal in 2008. The next day he sends me a bass. A Les Paul Professional, like ’69, weighed fifteen pounds. Low impedance pickups, it’s a trippy thing. But his heart - beautiful man.
AR: Do you do much home recording?
Watt: Now things are different than the old days when you had to get in a room with people. Mostly. Nowadays you can collaborate. Send a file through BigFileSend, or whatever the fuck. You can trade files, so you can collaborate. I’ve done whole albums with dudes I’ve never even met! It’s a pure music connect.
They just send you over the things, say Watt, this cat in Canada, he’s got the same name as the Yes guy, Steve Howe, but it ain’t that one. I don’t know that guy. I know this young man . . . I kinda don’t know him. All I know him is by his music, his songs. I just thought it was interesting. Why not do it?
I did a proj . . . found out later Cedric [Bixler-Zavala] did the drums! It was somethin’ called Anywhere. This drummer-man who went to 12-string guitar. So I play to this . . . and the drumming, I’m really into it. I find out later, Cedric - I thought he was just a singer - At The Drive-In. I didn’t even know!
So, I call the studio Thunderpants, and I got an HD Pro Tool thing. Mac silver tower. I don’t have the trash can. I heard they’re dumpin’ that anyway. That was a bad move. 2008 and the motherfucker’s still great!
I use [an Avid HD] OMNI. Then I use . . . a UA LA-610, which is a tube preamp, and it’s got an optical compressor that you can bypass, because in that rack I also got an 1176 by UA and I kinda use that one more. The other one’s a little soft, but there’s something about the character - you don’t even have to be compressin’ and there’s something about the 1176 that gives you more presence. It’s got a mid-thing. Then I don’t go right in.
I use the OMNI, actually, as a dongle. I SPDIF off a BURL B2 ADC. It’s happenin’. It’s got Iron, right. It can ‘satch. And with the bass, you get enough blur. I traded out the front end tube [in the LA-610] for a 12at7 so I can get into mush a little more. That’s about it.
Oh yeah, I do have a mic, too, because I do spiel. I found a Russian Oktava [MK-519] and I had it modded by Mike Joly. He’s happenin’. Different basket, the capsule, all that shit. So I’m set. I’ve been doin’ it this way for years. The one part that ain’t solved is the creative part, but maybe it should never be solved? You should always be strugglin’. Keep goin’ at it. Tool-wise, you find stuff that works and it sticks.
I don’t use a lot of other stuff. But I think I’m gonna be usin’ these pedals! The only pedal I really use is a tuner.
AR: That’s the only one you need! I mean, I work for a pedal company, but you know…
Watt: Okay, I tried. I didn’t wanna be some guy who talks about something without ever tryin’. So my second opera, The Secondman’s Middle Stand, about the sickness in 2000 that almost murdered me… Well, I used Dante’s Divine Comedy - the Inferno was gettin’ sick, Purgatory was healin’ up, and Paradise was workin’ the bass, and kayaking, and bicycling. I used pedals on the whole motherfuckin’ thing! I used a phase - usually Boss or whatever. One was a phase, one was an envelope, one was a fuzz, but I couldn’t turn ‘em on at the right time at the gigs! It was hard. I tried it. I did three tours with it, and I thought, “You know what, I’m goin’ back to just playin’ fingers.” But, this thing where you’re recording and you collaborate, it don’t matter where I turn it on. If I fuck up I just do it again!
AR: How did online collaboration come into play with Big Walnuts Yonder?
Watt: Nick Reinhart (Tera Melos) wants to talk to me about the first opera, Contemplating the Engine Room. “Who’s that guitar man?” Nels Cline. Which was a trippy-ass, almost déjà vu thing from a few years earlier with Mr. Shimmy in Tokyo. “Mr. Mike, who’s this guitar man on your first opera?” And I said to him then, “You wanna know him? Play with him!”
So I got a ticket and me and him went to Tokyo in three days and made the first Brother’s Sister’s Daughter album. And of course you know Nels’ background. He tried to bring free music to SoCal for years and years. Now he’s in New York City and there’s a whole scene there. He’s got a twin brother named Alex, too. They’re incredible cats.
“So, Nick, you want to know him? Play with him!” Nels said “bring it.”
Y’know I did my first opera - I got it all together, the libretto all the music . . . [Nels] never heard it.
You know that first take feel? You can really do that with Nels. He spent so many years doing improv - he just picks up on it. So I told Nels, and he says, “Yeah, bring this kid. But, look, have him pick a drummer.” “Hey Nick, what do you think?” “Well, what about Greg Saunier?”
Trip thing was, 17 years ago, Nels brings me to bring me to see my first Deerhoof gig. He’s old friends of his. And he had just moved to New York City. And who’s in New York City? Former Cleveland guy, big bass hero. When Pere Ubu played the Whisky in West Hollywood in ’77 [it] just blew me and D. Boon’s mind. Tony Maimone! And he’s got a studio in Brooklyn - Studio G.
So they’re both living there, only me and Nick have to fly there, and we do it in three days. I wrote eight songs, just on the bass. Nels is way into it. It’s like a launchpad or a springboard. Other dudes are like, “Whoa! Not enough information! It’s like writing on the kick drum or the cymbals.” But he likes it. Guitar? Piano? A little too much harmonic content. He wants to be free.
One time, Bass Player magazine asked me the future of bass. I was gonna say, “Twenty more strings,” but then I thought, “No, maybe composition. Maybe [bass] ain’t the last thing you put on. Maybe it could be the first thing.” And they’re not just lines, these are whole songs. And they’re meant to have holes. I build [them] in to see what’s gonna happen. What they’re gonna bring. . . I’m more like a composer. Just doing it on this trippy instrument. Even Charlie Mingus never composed on bass. Always piano. I think the future of bass is composition.
This is what we did. We did eight of ‘em. Nels brought in one. Greg brought in one. I never heard ‘em until the day in the studio. But Nick wanted to hear my eight. And what he did was, he went and wrote parts. He wrote parts to all eight of my tunes. So when it came time to do ‘em in New York City at Studio G, I got to use Tony’s bass, a ’66 Jazz with EMG pickups. Badass bridge, too.
Y’know, it’s all about people I’ve found in this movement. Or music, period. I’m not really into genres and all that shit. Music’s music. But people are so important. I also did the third opera with that bass. I also didn’t have to bring one on the plane! But it’s fuckin’ Tony Maimone’s. So he writes parts to all this stuff. But still, there’s Nels in the moment - hasn’t heard any of it. And the dynamic between the two...
I got the title [Big Walnuts Yonder] from a Richard Melzer poem. Big hero of me and D. Boon’s. He wrote lyrics for Blue Oyster Cult, but he also invented rock writing. In the 60s he wrote a book called The Aesthetics of Rock. Incredible cat. Lives in Portland now. Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, all that. He wrote a book about it later on called A Whore Just Like the Rest, because he got pretty [burnt out]. Anyway, not to get bummed out...
But Big Walnuts Yonder, I just thought, “I know something’s gonna happen between the dynamic of these two [Nick and Nels].” And I didn’t use any pedals. But they fuckin’ did! I think thirty-five each. It was like watching a dance. Sittin’ there, I’m watching this thing happen. And Nels is just so generous. I mean, I read stories about Robert Johnson turning around so dudes couldn’t see the licks. Nels ain’t like that. He’s like, “Look at this, look at this.” Nick’s just soakin’ it up like a sponge.
Greg’s over there - he’s a muso. I mean, he’s not just a drummer. He only had a kick, snare, and a hi-hat! Big hi-hats, like twenty inches or something. It’s amazing, the dialogue. I adjusted a little bit, but I kept to what I wrote. And then I had to learn theirs in the moment. Nels is great at giving direction. He’s visualizing it for you. Like Perry - in Porno for Pyros I did three tours, and he never gave you chords, he always told you the story of the song! “Got it, Mike?” And I’m like, “okay!” But it’s a neat way. There’s something about getting people in without them being puppets. Greg’s the same way. He’s got a laugh, man. I think it’s on the album. It’s what the old scene was about. It’s about individuals. Only one Darby, one Pat.
AR: A band like the Germs only comes around once . . .
Watt: Yeah. Remember, they tried with [Shane West?] But I should get to this part . . . We get done, and we think the record’s gonna be an instrumental album. All done. We get home, and Nick puts singin’ on everything but Nels’ song! And he writes me and asks, “Mike, tune “T” and “U,” I want you to put spiel on.” ‘Cuz I just named ‘em like tune” R,” “S,” “T,” “U,” “V.” I wanted names after they were realized. All of us were tripped out. They got all this singn’ and words.
AR: So you had no idea when you tracked the album that the songs would have lyrics?
Watt: No, I didn’t. That’s the young man, the new guy, the student, keepin’ us students! Because that’s what life’s about, I think - being a student. So in a lot of ways, the record is a collection of accidents and coincidences. It’s trippy. There’s a lot of intention, and we’re gonna do this . . . but in another way, we let the freak flag fly and let it float a little bit, and then it ends up being what it is, that no one imagined.
AR: What’s the story behind your two songs, “Raise the Drawbridges?” and “I Got Marty Feldman Eyes?”
Watt: . . . maybe I’m biased because I’m in the arts, but I think about the arts . . . okay, maybe some people aren’t professional talkers, but they still know how to talk. The idea that things get too uptight, it’s tough for me. The other one was me trying to explain to Greg a motif that was musical. I had just done some benefits for Strummerville, this organization in Joe Strummer’s name to help young bands. And I don’t really know [the] Clash except for the first record and the singles. I don’t really know “Rock The Casbah,” except it was on the radio. I only really like the first album. So we had to learn ‘em to do these benefits - all these old songs like “1977” and “Complete Control,” so I used some of that for one tune, just because it was current in my life.
So I tell Greg this, and he goes, “Oh, so you want an angry white young man vibe?” And I was like, “No, it’s really more about these chords.” It’s not like Ramones. It’s weird. It’s got kind of a Reggae, or Gilbert & Sullivan thing. The English punk was a little different, which was okay. Wire was a little different, too. And Pop Group, they put Funkadelic with Beefheart. You don’t have to all copy the Ramones. In fact, the Ramones did a pretty good job being the Ramones. So that was the thing, and of course Greg got it like that. I mean, guy went to Oberlin . . . and why not talk about things? My pop said, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” He thought it was destined.
AR: My mom used to say that, too.
Watt: It’s so clever. The most righteous coincidence for teaching that ethic. I remember explaining it to [Greg], and this guy’s lookin’ at me, and it’s like Marty Feldman eyes. Much respect to Marty Feldman. But you know what, [Greg] let it go, and that’s what music’s for. It was beautiful. So those were my two songs. I don’t know where [Nick’s] words are coming from, where his singing’s coming from. That’s all Nick Reinhart. But since he was the spark that got the whole thing going, I don’t think nobody had anything to say about it. It’s how it evolved. The whole thing was a happy accident in some ways. I wanted Nick to know Nels by playing with him.