***Update: Watt’s new album finally has a domestic release date of March 1—on his new label, clenchedwrench. Buy one for yourself and one for your greasy granny!
To be familiar with punk rock veteran Mike Watt is to know and appreciate his idiosyncrasies, moreover, to have learned to expect him to make those left turns that light out for the territories and sometimes veer into the weeds. The thing about left turns, however, is if you make enough of them, you end up heading in the same direction that you started.
Ever since forming the seminal ’80s punk band, the Minutemen, with his boyhood chum and dueling partner D. Boon and surfer/rhythmatist George Hurley, Watt has consistently taken the road less traveled by. The Minutemen are famous for incorporating jazz, funk, hard core, Beat poetry, and the kitchen sink into their own personal strain of musical and philosophical expression. For a group that eschewed branding and easy cut-and-paste sloganeering, if it could be said that they had a motto, it was “Punk is whatever we made it to be.”
Watt and his various co-conspirators have always viewed punk rock as a big tent sort of affair. The whole reason this type of music and scene appealed to three dudes from San Pedro, California was the lack of inherent rules. In keeping with that spirit, Watt has released (in Japan at least, see right) his third concept album, or “opera;” the first, Contemplating the Engine Room, used his father’s experience on Navy submarines as a metaphor for his own life in an Econoline van, and the second, The Secondman’s Middle Stand, mapped his near-death sickness onto Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Both of these works were very personal in nature, and in the case of the last one, perhaps a little too personal at times—but, hey, who said punk is supposed to make you comfortable?
This time out, Watt enlisted guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales, collectively called the Missingmen, to help create a cycle of 30 “little songs” that were inspired in part by the proto-surrealist paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. On his website, hootpage.com, Watt writes that the new punchy, ultra-lean tunes owe much to the Minutemen’s econo credo of “no filler, right to point, and distilled down to the bare nada.” Specifically, it was the We Jam Econo documentary that finally got this restless artist to slow down and take a look back, allowing him to recognize something beautiful and utterly vital in the short form.
At the virtual needle drop, the album leaps out of your speakers/ear buds with arrow-pierced-egg-man. Clocking a mere 1:19, the song is a clarion call from the pit, a diseased chunk of meat thrown over the wall to help spread the cotangent. Watt’s bass is greased up and firing on all cylinders. After playing the conservative sideman with the Stooges for the past couple of years—as if anything Stooge-related could be called conservative—it’s great to hear him playing, if not more aggressively, then more dynamically.
Interestingly enough, the bass was the last piece of this particular puzzle to be added. This time out, Watt wrote on guitar, showed the Missingmen how the songs went, then retreated to later respond to what they had come up with. If he didn’t “chimp” (or write about in Pedro-speak) this unorthodox method, I would have never guessed that this music was anything but organically grown. It sounds like three guys jamming in a sweaty-ass shed and hollerin’ about … 16th century religious art from the Netherlands.
The tendency to play “spot the influenced influence” as is hard to resist as Watt’s music has touched so many fellow artists over the years, just as playing within an ever-widening sphere of musicians has continued to color his own work. On bird-in-the-helmet-man, I hear echoes of Albert Bouchard and early Patti Smith-infected BöC, while belly-stabbed-man’s “gut kicked – hard / truth hits – hard / emotions gush – but no word hole” is a Pop Group Amnesty Report from the depths of hell.
If I had to call a break-out single for “alternative” radio play (as if there were anything resembling a valid record and/or radio industry anymore) it would have to be the Trees Outside the Academy-era Thurston Mooresque hollowed-out-man with its pleasant droning melody, relentless drive, and totally fucked-up lyrics. “Now the hat that’s worn is like a horse track / pairs of peckers promenadin’ ’round a sack / a swollen bagpipe waitin’ for the ear-knife / castrate hack,” makes a perfect sonic flipside to Sister’s (and Watt’s own Ball-Hog or Tugboat’s) Tuff Gnarl.
The song that most evokes the spirit of Pedro for me is, appropriately enough, finger-pointing-man. Here, Watt’s lyrics sound like they could have been torn from his own Spiels Of A Minuteman folio. “Conviction’s like some affliction / without the clout of some doubt / it’s fuckin’ nonsense / ignorin’ content / and letting’ the mouth just spout.”
The sharp angularity of Tom Watson’s chording juxtaposed with the singsong delivery of funnel-capped-man, brings to mind San Francisco’s Deerhoof, in fact, the first time I saw Raul Morales play, I was reminded of the ’Hoof’s Greg Saunier—if not stylistically through their respective jazz-inflected approaches—in the giddy zeal that they both seem to take in playing drums.
Over the years, Watt’s vocal delivery has become more like his bass playing, a distinctive and singular expression of his muse. Printing out the hyphenated-man lyrics from the hootpage may help you find your way inside Watt’s vision, or you can just let the Missingmen’s churning accompaniment propel you headlong down their peculiar rabbit hole. Using one of Bosch’s less fantastical icons as an avatar, Watt lays out the impetus for the opera in own-horn-blowing-man, while keeping one eye out for any hint of lurking solipsism. “Go figure the trigger / to really holler, fuckin’ holler / and hoist yeah, foist / expression from repression / not badge-buffin’ or baggin’ wind / but to get out what’s stuck within.”