For 36 righteous years, punk rock godhead Mike Watt has worn his heart on his flannel sleeve and through his radical bass pluckin’, devoted to the ethos he and best pal D. Boon lived by in their hugely influential band the Minutemen: “punk is whatever we made it out to be.”
That hardcore DIY belief was manifested on the Minutemen’s mind-blowing masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime, a double album’s-worth of jazz-bending punk and funk perfection that’s forever cemented—alongside seminal records by Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, the Replacements, R.E.M. and Black Flag—as a classic in the annals of 1980s independent rock.
But after D. Boon died in a tragic accident in 1985, perennial nice guy and proud San Pedro, Calif., resident Watt, galvanized by his friends in Sonic Youth, continued to “jam econo” in the face of the death of his best friend. Ultimately, that stretch—chalk it up to the Minutemen’s trailblazing greatness, and later on, Watt’s longtime stint with the revived Iggy and the Stooges—produced an overlooked period in the bassist’s punk rock-defining path.
From 1986 through 1994, Watt, Minutemen drummer George Hurley and guitarist/singer Ed “fROMOHIO” Crawford piloted fIREHOSE through five excellent albums that carried on the jazz/punk/funk tradition of the Minutemen.
After fIREHOSE called it quits, it didn’t take Watt long to rebound.
Ballhog or Tugboat?, Watt’s 1995 solo debut, was what he nicknamed his “wrestling record” and is arguably Watt’s greatest batch of songs and unequivocally a ’90s alt-rock touchstone. The challenge of “stepping into the ring with Watt” was accepted by dozens of Watt’s peers, a punk rock, alt-rock and everything in between hall-of-fame-caliber cast who served as the bassist’s band: 17 songs, 17 different bands.
That dream lineup included, but was incredibly not limited to, Henry Rollins, Kathleen Hanna, Carla Bozulich, Nels Cline and members of Sonic Youth, Meat Puppets, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Lemonheads, Soul Asylum and a bunch of his SST Records-era and SoCal punk buds.
A stalwart road warrior, Watt was resigned to the fact a tour with the 48 cats who appeared on Ballhog or Tugboat?—or even a smaller iteration—was all but a pipe dream.
That is until two world-famous, yet reluctant rock stars who also cameoed on Ballhog or Tugboat? intervened.
Dave Grohl—just a year removed from the death of Kurt Cobain and the end of Nirvana—and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam threw a wrench of an offer at Watt he couldn’t refuse: they’d pull double duty on a tour supporting Ballhog or Tugboat? They’d open up for him with their own bands (Grohl leading the then-complete unknowns Foo Fighters and in Vedder’s case, the drummer in his then-wife’s experimental outfit, Hovercraft) then the two would play in Watt’s backing band. With Germs legend Pat Smear (also of Nirvana and Foo Fighters) and then-Foos drummer William Goldsmith also on board, that improbable tour became reality.
Now an official document of that legendary 19-gig tour has been released.
“Ring spiel” tour ’95 is Watt at his most jovial, gracious, punk rock-inspired best. Sure, there’s the heavy duty star-power of Grohl and Vedder but “ring spiel” tour ’95 is Mike Watt in all his glory, its righteously stacked 16 song set list a testament to his incredible 15-year career arc up to that point.
The Minutemen, fIREHOSE, dOS (his two-bass duo band with Black Flag’s Kira) and cuts off Ballhog (many never played live ever again) are all represented in this stunningly tight and hard-charger of a set complete with liner notes by Our Band Could Your Life scribe Michael Azerrad.
When the Observer phoned Watt up in his beloved San Pedro, Calif., the tireless bassist was in a reflective mood but always steaming ahead with a full plate of projects in an already-booked 2017.
Watt just completed an overseas tour with il sogno del marinaio, a collaborative trio he shares with Italians Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi who’ll be recording a new piece early next year; in March he’ll be touring China with his Missingmen (guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales); and in May he’ll be hitting the East Coast with his Secondmen (Pete Mazich and Jerry Trebotic) for a run of dates with the Meat Puppets. He may even make the time to release that Black Gang album he recorded eight long years ago with Nels Cline and drummer Bob Lee.
And that’s not all from the nearly 60-years-young bass legend.
In September of next year, he’ll tour Europe again with il sogno del marinaio plus he’s recording albums with both his Missingmen and Secondmen with a chunk of those songs collected from his Minutemen days.
“I’m making albums for those guys that are just for them—a Missingmen album, a Secondmen album. Kinda cleanse the palette,” Watt explains. “I taught’em a bunch of songs that I wrote for Georgie and D. Boon 35, 36 years ago—some of’em never even got recorded, some of’em ended up on albums and some we did live.”
When we caught up with Watt he took a break to look back on “ring spiel” tour ’95 and offer his recollections.
How did the release of “ring spiel” tour ’95 come about? It seems like this record has come out of nowhere.
I knew about this [ring spiel] but there’s a guy at Legacy/Columbia/Sony. His name is Tim Smith. See, at the Metro in Chicago, these people taped a lot of the bands that came through. I knew there was a thing floating around but I didn’t know it was really this good a quality. I for sure didn’t know I played that good.
When I look back on this record, it was a turning point in my life—I wasn’t afraid to play with other people. I started getting more brave to try other projects. I had a trio, Minutemen, then I was in another trio, fIREHOSE and I did this one side project called dOS, but that’s it. I was pretty sheltered. It goes back to this album called Ballhog or Tugboat? but that was something you could only do on a record in a way. It’s supposed to be a solo record but there’s 48 dudes on it and some ladies. Seventeen different bands.
After fIREHOSE broke up, did you go on a songwriting tear and those tunes wound up comprising most of that Ballhog record?
I wouldn’t say I was on a big tear because I was writing songs for guys where I was like, “Hey. This guy might show up.”
Did you have certain cats in mind to sing the tunes on Ballhog, like having Henry Rollins on “Sexual Military Dynamics?”
Yeah, of course. But some dudes weren’t there, some dudes weren’t available and some dudes were there that I didn’t know like Bernie Worrell. He just happened to be in the hallway. A lot of it was accidents, a lot of it was coincidence.
“Max and Wells” isn’t on ring speil but that’s an old tune you did with fIREHOSE that wound up on Ballhog.
“Max & Wells” was actually for a movie soundtrack [A Matter of Degrees]. I had Mark Lanegan do it on the Ballhog or Tugboat? thing. But actually fIREHOSE did it for this weird soundtrack about two guys at a radio station. I was writing something for the movie and I think that’s the name of the two characters in the movie: Max and Wells. Of course the club in Hoboken was Maxwell’s. That’s probably where they got the fuckin’ names from [laughing]. I don’t even remember fIREHOSE playin’ that one at gigs. That was a real trippy song for us.
How did you actually hatch the idea for Ballhog?
I called up friends and said, “Hey. The metaphor is the studio is a wrestling ring. Do you wanna get in the ring with Watt?”
I practiced with Nels Cline and his drummer Michael Preussner so I would have some backbone. But most of it was just like Petri dish, just to see what happened. But you know where the title comes from? It’s the bass player knew the songs and anybody could come play guitar and sing and drum, whatever. And this [ring spiel] was putting that theory to test.
With Grohl still reeling from Kurt Cobain’s tragic death and the end of Nirvana and Vedder a big time rock star, how did the ring spiel tour go down?
It [Ballhog or Tugboat?] comes out in spring of ’95, I get a call from Dave Grohl and Ed [Vedder]. They’re in Australia—maybe Pearl Jam was touring or something. But Dave said he had a new album and he’s on a couple of tracks on Ballhog or Tugboat?, so is Ed and so is Pat. Pat’s the real trip in a way because he’s from the Germs. Me and D. Boon saw this guy before we ever had a Minutemen.
They come out with this balls-out plan: “Hey. We’ll have our bands open up and we’ll be in your band. We’ll come over, we’ll have a couple days of practice and we’ll do this.”
In a way, it was kind of an extension of the Ballhog or Tugboat? idea. The bass player has it together and maybe he can get up there and play with these guys! [Laughing]
That must have blown your mind to be playing with Pat Smear.
Totally! We thought he invented his own music! Played guitar, the Germs, I mean, Pat Smear! Incredible. When Tim Smith asked me about putting this out last March, I said, “Well, you ask everybody who played on it.” Everybody was into it.
In fact, Pat wrote me and he said, “Man, ’bout time you’re putting this out.” It was like, “Wow,” because literally, the Germs blew our minds. This was way before we had a Minutemen in the ’70s, ya’ know? Punk up in Hollywood. We just loved that band.
Pat Smear singing the Madonna cover of “Secret Garden” on ring spiel is a trip. You and Sonic Youth are Madonna obsessives. “Burnin’ Up.”
“Burnin’ Up” was Ciccone Youth. That was very important. That was the first thing I did on my own after D. Boon got killed. I’d stopped playin’ and Thurston [Moore] brought me in the studio when they [Sonic Youth] were doing that EVOL album. They had me jam with Steve Shelley and Lee read a poem about a car wreck.
Then I asked him, “Hey, would you do a proj with me?” and he said, “Yeah. Let’s call it Ciccone Youth and let’s interpret some of her work.”
I said, “O.K.” Now I just made a single with them, I’m not on that album. A lot of people get confused; they think I’m part of that album. He put my demo on. I made a demo for’em, one of the only demos I’ve made and he used that on the album! Watch out what you give Thurst because it’s gonna end up somewhere. [Laughing]
What jumped at you when you first heard ring spiel?
I was so afraid to even listen back to it. When I listen back to this—actually Tim Smith told me they found the master tape—this could have been remixed. I asked Ed Vedder and Ed says, “No, Watt, man. This is a document. This is how it went down.” And he’s exactly right. You know what it reminds me of? Remember in the old days, bootlegs? It was never was meant to be a live record; it just happened.
I’m thinking there was no way you could recreate an iteration of a Ballhog tour because of the tons of people who played on it.
This was the dilemma of the rec: I never had plans to tour Ballhog or Tugboat? Just how do you get all these dudes? It just wasn’t gonna happen. But when they brought up this idea, well we had to get material. I got some of them songs—maybe six or seven. I got a couple from Minutemen days, a couple I wrote with Raymond [Pettibon], he wrote the words, I wrote for dOS, it became fIREHOSE.
I think there’s one song I wrote for fIREHOSE on there, “Makin’ the Freeway” and covers I did with D. Boon, “The Red and the Black” by Blue Oyster Cult. So trippy to hear Dave Grohl put surf guitar on there. I’ve played that with so many different people and everybody has their own take on but it’s something I share from D. Boon. There’s a song for Pat to sing with the Madonna cover cuz I like the bass on it. I got Nels Cline to sing it later on.
Daniel Johnston! Those guys, they wanted to open up with it. I thought, “Wow. That’s interesting” because usually you want the slam-bam opener. But, no. They wanted to come on real soft. But I trusted these guys.
It was amazing. It was somethin’ for me. Even though I’d been touring for 15 years [laughs], I still felt kinda naïve. I hadn’t really done my own thing like this and so those guys…they helped me out.
How did you feel about going solo after all those years of being in a band with Minutemen and fIREHOSE?
Scared. Pretty pants-shitter. No Ed fROMOHIO to hide behind, no D. Boon, no Georgie. Georgie, 14 years! But especially D. Boon and Edward. Both Edward and D. Boon played like, “This might be the last gig.” Those guys, total hard chargers. You could not be afraid playin’ a gig with Ed fROMOHIO or D. Boon or Ig. They are just such strong cats.
And now…I’d never even stood in the middle before! The whole thing was a total pants-shitter! But I had to man up and grow a pair, as they say. In some ways, it doesn’t look like nostalgia but a chapter in my music thing.
Yes, you’re not one to look back and rest on your laurels.
Maybe Tim Smith bringin’ this opportunity to me at this time makes a lot of sense. It’s trippy how this all came together without it being some kind of Svengali manager-driven master plan. It’s actually a series of coincidences.
Yeah, I may be taking a little glance back but actually getting ready for the next jump forward. You know I’m mostly a forward-looking guy so it’s trippy. For me, the ’90s, I’m not saying they were lame or terrible, but I really didn’t pay attention to them. I was just trying to get it together where I could tour and play and be brave.
How was it going from playing in the fIREHOSE style to the ring spiel band and how they played?
George’s an incredible drummer but so is fuckin’ Dave Grohl! O.K., Dave Grohl may be a little more rock and roll but you know what? I bet that dude could play folk and stuff if he wanted to.
And Hurley does the punk-jazz thing.
Yeah, jazzy and funky. George is great. Also Georgie is very personal like, “I play it my way.” Dave Grohl is like that, too, man. Dave Grohl’s got a lot of personality. He just doesn’t do the do. He is a slammin’ drummer. I know he likes playin’ guitar and stuff. In fact, on the record, he only plays six or seven [songs] on the drums. He wanted to play guitar so he got his guy William Goldsmith to help out.
Of course Grohl can totally shred.
Yeah! But, actually, when Dave was on the drums we were a trio so Ed was covering guitar.
How did Vedder do on guitar on that tour?
I thought he did great, man. He was a guy, at that period, with a lot of tension on him. I think he dug the idea of being the drummer in his wife’s band and then the guitarist in this band Watt’s got goin.’ I actually didn’t get it goin’. They got it goin’. But I was happy to be there and was like, “O.K. I’ll stand in the front and do the spiel.” I think Ed dug that in a way.
At that time, the weight of the world must have been on Vedder’s shoulders with Pearl Jam so just being one of the guys in your band must have been a relief for him.
He also played drums in Hovercraft so he’s playing in two different bands that are nothing like the band he’s known for. I think Dave Grohl was into that, too. He was like, “Kurt is gone and I’m not gonna play you a bunch of Nirvana songs. I’m gonna try somethin’ new and I’m also gonna help Watt out with his music here.” Those guys were like that; they were very beautiful about it.
There’s a song, “Habit,” on ring spiel, of Ed’s that later wound up on a Pearl Jam record.
“Habit” is, yeah, Ed Vedder. He brought that song in and I really liked it—it was trippy. I asked him, “Can we do that?” I came up with the bass part just like that, just jamming it out with him in his practice pad. We didn’t have a lot of time to work on this stuff.
Kurt Cobain had passed away maybe a year or so before the ring spiel tour. What do you remember about Grohl and how his spirits were?
I remember him as “They’re not doing Nirvana songs” and “I got this new band, I’m trying out new stuff, I did this whole album by myself and down here is the band to play it. What do you guys think?” Of course, I know, yeah, there was a big sadness. But on the other side it was like, “What do you think of what I’m doing now?”
Both those guys had kind of heavy weights of hype put on them that I never had to deal with because I come from a different place. I didn’t enjoy having to see them go through that, though. Hype isn’t always jive, people yellin’ shit at you. Some of them weren’t my fans. It was very strange. Ed got a lot of shit from some people. But for what? There were guys who went to his Pearl Jam gigs and now at some places they were throwin’ money at him.
That actually happened on the ring spiel tour?
These were not Mike Watt fans; these were young kids. That’s what that world’s like. It’s full of crazy shit. That was the weird part. I just tried not to let too much of that get to me.
So did you Grohl, Vedder, Smear and Goldsmith all pile into the van and jam econo?
Kind of. We each had a van! That meant Watt was by himself! I’ve never done a tour like that before or since where I’m just rollin’ around. [Laughing]
It was just you alone in your van?
Yeah! Sometimes [I’d be in the van] with this cat Eric so I would see the guys at the gig. Sometimes we’d caravan but lot of times that’s where I saw’em. We’d do the sound check but we actually didn’t ride. It was econo: we’re in vans but we’re in different vans.
It’s great to hear you do vocals on ring spiel like “Against the 70s,” “Drove Up from Pedro,” “E-Ticket Ride” and “Piss-Bottle Man,” tracks that Vedder, Carla Bozulich and Evan Dando originally sang on Ballhog.
Actually, “Piss-Bottle Man,” I brought to fIREHOSE. It was the kind of the thing that made me go toward the Ballhog or Tugboat? experiment. I showed it to Edward and he was like, “Michael, do you think this is the kind of song fIREHOSE should be playin’?” and I thought, “Ya’ know Edward, you’re probably right.” We played all this weird stuff, maybe I should have different projects around different musics.
You sing “Chinese Firedrill” on ring spiel also.
Of course, because Charlie [The Pixies’ Black Francis] did it on Ballhog or Tugboat?
Joe Carducci helped write that tune, right?
He wrote the words, I wrote the music.
Carducci co-wrote the Minutemen’s “Jesus and Tequila.” You go way back with him.
Joe’s good people and he wrote some good lyrics.
How did it come about that he wrote “Chinese Firedrill?”
I asked him to. I liked what he did with D. Boon because with “Jesus and Tequila,” D. Boon wrote the music so I wanted to try the same thing. “Now it’s my turn, Joe.” [Laughing] You know he’s been tryin’ to get into Hollywood writin’ scripts.
It’s a hard book to get through with all that movie stuff, wow!
That is a super-dense book.
[Laughing] All the names, all the people! Joe Carducci, he’s good at lyrics, he’s good at scripts and puttin’ words in people’s mouths.
What do remember about playing the Jon Stewart show on MTV back in ‘95?
He was a nice guy. I didn’t really know about him and he was very kind to me. I thought I was totally fuckin’ blowin’ it but listenin’ back, I did O.K.
There’s video of that.
I’ve seen it on YouTube. Dave Grohl. Pat Smear playin’ slide guitar [on “Big Train”]. It’s great. And the other tune is Blue Öyster Cult.
The ring spiel set list is killer. There’s Minutemen tunes on there.
There’s two Minutemen songs [on ring spiel]. There’s “Political Song for Michael Jackson…” and “Forever…One Reporter’s Opinion.” That’s a different version. What I did was I hooked on a dOS song. D. Boon picked it. I remember it’s on Double Nickels on the Dime. It’s the last song on his side, so that means he picked it last. I played it together with Nels Cline.
I brought it to these guys for this ring spiel with only a couple of days of prac, almost on a dare like, “Nels can play this. Can you play this?” And they fuckin’ did it. What’s trippy about that one [“Forever…One Reporter’s Opinion”] is there’s two drummers. And “E-Ticket Ride,” too. Dave and William are both playin’ drums. They had the drum set for Hovercraft and they had the drum set for Foo Fighters. The guitar player through the whole gig is Ed Vedder. The one who switches around a lot is Dave Grohl. For that song, like Ballhog or Tugboat?, Pat sang it.
It hits on all aspects of your career—Minutemen, fIREHOSE, dOS, tunes from Ballhog or Tugboat?, covers…
Blue Öyster Cult—going back to when I first played with D. Boon, I know. Basically it was from desperation. I just had to get something together in a couple of days then prac with these guys [laughing]. There was whole tradition of that with the be-bop jazz guys—they didn’t play together a lot but they’d come together for jam sessions.
In some trippy ways, ring spiel is out of that tradition. But then you’re right. In a way, it’s a retrospective of my music stuff up to that point. I’m telling ya, Brad, my perspective at that time was, “How do we work the gig? What can I do? How can I play a gig-worth of material with guys I’ve never played with?” Or barely played with, just in the studio for that Ballhog. Ring spiel was a trippy proj because we didn’t have much time to put the material together.
Ring spiel is a great listen because most of those songs you haven’t played in years. Do you have any plans to play any of those songs again?
I don’t know. I got new albums comin’ from all my bands. Like they say: they’re in the can. But you never know, never know.