Mike Watt was part of a generation of future punk rockers inspired by defunct bands like the Velvet Underground, MC5 and Stooges. The music made by these then-obscure predecessors seemed somehow understandable and attainable, a doorway for young, eager musical neophytes to climb through. Here was a blueprint for forming a band, writing songs and making a big noise without the need for big record deals, larger-than-life stage shows, top-shelf gear and virtuoso musicianship.
Watt and two of his friends from San Pedro, Calif., went on to form the pioneering avant-punk band the Minutemen. Later, Watt continued to bring the rock in firehose and countless solo projects. In addition, he devoted considerable time and energy to Stooges cover bands with fellow acolytes such as Nels Cline and J Mascis. It was only fitting, then, that Watt ended up manning the bass for the reunited Stooges when the surviving original members — Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton and Scott Asheton — began touring again in 2003 and eventually released a new studio album, “The Weirdness.”
In the weeks before the album arrived in 2007, Watt sat down for an extended interview about his lifelong love affair with and eventual inclusion in the Stooges. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
By Mike Watt, Wikimedia Commons
Greg Kot: How big of an influence were the Stooges for you as a kid in San Pedro learning to play an instrument and write songs in the ‘70s?
Mike Watt: When I listen to [1970 Stooges album] “Fun House” it sounds like it could have been recorded next week. You hear a Grand Funk record and it sounds so dated. I think there’s a couple reasons for that. I think especially through the punk scene, you just leaned on them really heavy. We kind of made them contemporary in a weird way. We took them on. When I first became aware of punk, it was just pictures in magazines at first, and we thought it was going to sound like Martians or something. They looked so spacy to me. Then it was, oh, we know this music because there already had been people doing this years before — we realized that people like [Captain] Beefheart and the Stooges were actually doing punk. It’s been a reference point ever since. A lot of times people want me to come in and play a benefit or something and I haven’t played with them or had time to practice and I’ll just say let’s do Stooges songs. That’s one of the main reasons I put together a Stooges cover band after I took some time off when I was really sick [with an infection in 2000]. It was just to get back on the horse and ride. There’s not a lot of chord changes. It’s a lot about feel. It’s all so timeless.
Kot: What is unique about the Stooges sound compared to other garage bands of the time?
Watt: I could hear that Motown thing in the Stooges. I was also into glam and glitter rock at the time, and when we heard Alice Cooper we could tell that, “Ah, they must have heard the Stooges.” Then when punk came all those cats liked them. That was the big difference. Same thing with the New York Dolls and the MC5.
Kot: How did you see yourself fitting in with the Stooges when they asked you to join?
I had this huge nightmare before doing this album and there’s this gravestone and all it says is, ‘Fucked up the Stooges.’
Watt: I love [original Stooges bassist] Dave Alexander, but I heard [Cream’s] Jack Bruce and [The Who’s] John Entwistle first, and they were a lot busier in their playing styles. I can imagine what people were thinking when I was asked to play with the Stooges: “He’s gonna fuck it up.” I had this huge nightmare before doing this album and there’s this gravestone and all it says is, “Fucked up the Stooges.” I think [recording engineer Steve] Albini, too, was feeling the weight because we have such feelings for the band. In a way this is exactly what you always wanted, but then there’s dread too.
Kot: You also have to be aware that a lot of times reunions of great bands don’t always come off as intended, that the fans inevitably compare the current work with what the band accomplished in its earlier incarnation and it comes up short. Did that concern you at all?
Watt: I get all scared of a reunion thing just being some warmed-over shit to cash in and very little work ethic and cashing in for old stuff. But these guys actually work very hard in the moment. There’s something about Iggy, the charisma is there but also I think it is different than him playing with his solo thing. There’s a lot of Midwest about them, a plain-speaking thing about them that’s different than other cats. A work ethic thing.
Kot: How did you adapt to learning the new songs?
Watt: I was worried about fucking it up. But Iggy brought me to Miami and went over all of the bass parts, which relieved me. We went through every song and he had me play on pick for 13 of the 15 songs. It’s been awhile since I played with a pick — I’m used to playing in bands where the bass is a little more up front, a different hierarchy with the rhythm section more up front. With a pick, it’s a little more old-school, but I think he liked that it gave the songs more definition. It was pretty intense. I thought I should have been paying him for lessons.
Kot: Does the new stuff give you the same charge as “Fun House” once did?
Watt: I think it does big time. It’s a trip, because you grew up with the other songs. They approached the songs as they always did, like a live recording. Even when Ronnie did guitar overdubs it was right after we did the take so everything stays in the moment. They didn’t want to reinvent those old Stooges records. I was interested in how they would finesse it and work that dynamic out. There is a Stooges sound, but you are in 2006, and they made a record that’s different from anything they’ve done.
Kot: How are the guys relating to one another after all these years apart?
Watt: I don’t think Ronnie and Iggy talked for 20-something years. But now, it’ll be four years I’ve been playing with them. We’ve done 73 sets, gigs, and I’ve never seen a hissy fit, panty-bunch-up thing or them screaming at each other. You can tell Iggy is really into playing with these guys. Like brothers. A lot of these reunions are business arrangements, but they really like playing together. That’s what I’m seeing up close.