Mike Watt

Mike Watt Finds Bountiful Inspiration with Il Sogno Del Marinaio
by Joshua Miller
September 2014

Il Sogno Del Marinaio

Il Sogno Del Marinaio

Legendary spiel speaking bass guitar player Mike Watt has spent the last few decades tinkering with musical innovation.  His desire has been to keep learning, sailing the musical waterways from San Pedro, California, to spots around the world. Basically wherever his tour van would carry him. With singer D Boon, Watt helped usher in “Econo Punk” with The Minutemen and helped fuel their quick and direct songs that often dabbled in politics and social issues. After D Boon’s tragic death, he continued making his mark with bands like Firehose and Dos. He’s also spent much of the past decade playing with legendary band The Stooges, who reformed in 2003.

These days Watt keeps a busy schedule of music activities, including new band Il Sogno Del Marinaio. Joining him for that band are Italian musicians Stefano Pilia and Andrea Belfi.  The band is currently celebrating release last month of their second album, Canto Secondo, which follows their debut from 2013, La Busta Gialla. The band found its footing in 2009 after they were invited to be part of the Italy-based All Tomorrow’s Parties festival and found success in the resulting tour. Despite his past achievements, Watt remains humble, not one to hog all the credit all the time. Instead he’s always seeking to find new ways to make music.

“When you’re always the boss you can’t learn everything,” he says during a recent interview prior to Il Sogno Del Marinaio setting off on their first US tour, a 53 show tour that includes a stop at the High Noon Saloon Monday Sept. 29th. “Life is about taking turns. But if you’re always getting your way it’s hard to get surprised and get put in situations where you have to be creative on another level.”

In that vain, he’s quick to mention that his bandmates Pilia and Belfi deserve just as much or more credit to the band’s sound.  “I think what’s weird for me is when I see Mike Watt’s project, I think Andrea and Stefano should get more credit,” he says. “I asked them to name the band in Italian, because I’m actually the minority in the band….I’m not really the capo, I’m not the boss.”

Il Sogno Del Marinaio marks new territory for Watt, both in the international aspect and working with Avant-garde minded musicians in Pilia and Belfi. But Watt says it works partly because they share one thing: punk. “We both share punk rock, even though we’re 21 years apart, that’s how long the punk movement has been going,” he says.

Prior to the band’s performance in Madison, I talked with Watt by phone about his new world/sonic-spanning adventure.

You met the others while touring your album Secondman’s Middle Stand in Italy. What was that like?

It was my Second Opera in 2005, Secondman’s Middle Stand. Six of the gigs were in Italy and the promoter put this young man in the band with us. It turned out to be Stefano Pilia. A few years later he invited me to perform with him at a festival in Cesena with his buddy Andrea on drums. He lives in Bologna and Andrea lives in Verona. And it was kind of an accident, just a chance thing. But I really liked playing with them.

What was your first indication that there was something special there with this band?

Well, actually, playing that gig, that festival. Actually, we did two days of practice before that, and I got the feeling right there that these guys are going be interesting to play with. I mean they’re 21 years younger but they come from Avant-garde, abstract, interesting stuff. I thought I could learn more stuff on the bass playing with them.

You seem to involved in new projects all the time. What convinced you to put emphasis on this over your many other ongoing projects?

For one thing, it’s not one of my projects. It’s a band I belong to. More Secondman, Missingman, yeah, that’s one of my projects. I asked these guys, “Hey will you come with me and realize the vision, like my operas.” These guys are composers, like the new album there’s ten songs and only four of them are mine. The other six are from them. I can’t really consider it my project. It’s more like a band I joined.

Let’s put it this way, it’s more like Dos or Minutemen than Secondman or Missingman. Bands are more collaborative and projects are more things that you’re trying to do that’s your own vision and you’re asking people to help you. I mean, when it comes down to it, you’re right. It’s basically all guys playing together, people playing together. But there is kind of a difference. One is a more collaborative thing where people bring in songs and the other one is “Hey I’ve got this thing, can you guys help make me realize it?” I don’t know if that’s splitting hairs, but to me there is a difference.

You had mentioned in another interview that the band’s tight chemistry is reminiscent of that which you had in The Minutemen.

Yeah, where D Boon brought me songs and Georgie would write words and I would give D Boon things. It was more like collaboration. Dos is like that too with Kira [Roessler], the band I had with two bass I have. She writes songs, I write songs. Different than Secondman, Missingman, those things I’m asking guys “Here’s my big piece, will you help me?” Sort of like I do with the Stooges. I don’t write Stooges songs. I just try to help them out on bass and take direction.  With Secondman, Missingman, I give direction. For this it was more collaborative. Everything is valid, they’re just a little different.

I think what’s weird for me is when I see Mike Watt’s project, I think Andrea and Stefano should get more credit. I asked them to name the band in Italian, because I’m actually the minority in the band. The thing is, I understand I’ve been around a little longer and maybe have a shorter name, like it’s Mike Watt’s band. But you know, the idea came from Stefano. He’s the one that writes me and invites me to this festival to play. I’m not really the capo, I’m not the boss.

For me it’s interesting because, quite honest, when you’re always the boss you can’t learn everything. Life is about taking turns. But if you’re always getting your way it’s hard to get surprised and get put in situations where you have to be creative on another level.

Especially bass guitar, my instrument. The politics are very interesting. It’s like you look good making your guys look good, even if it’s my own music. It’s kind of a backup instrument, which I’ve always found interesting. Basically the politics of bass are you look good making your guys look good. [Laughs]

So that’s kind of neat. A lot of it has to do with the physics. I think in the old days there’s was a hierarchy and a role to play but I think there’s a lot more respect for bass guitar now. The closest note to me in the band is the kick drum. Even though I have strings and tuners like a guitar, in a lot of ways I’m more like a drum set. It’s a strange instrument, I like it. I’m glad D Boon’s mother put me on it. When I was a boy I had no idea what it was.

I’ve tried to put myself in situations, I’d rather say situations than projects because some are definitely projects but some are kind of bands. Sometimes it’s kind of a sideman thing. I mean, it’s hard to call the Stooges a project. I mean that thing is a legacy. Those guys are incredible musicians and innovators. And to call it a Mike Watt project. [Laughs] But nothing against projects. That’s why after Firehose I do all these different things and are projects.

To me this is a band, where we’re going to do a second tour and we’ve done our second album. It’s not even kind of a band, it’s a band. It brings out different things in me than other projects and bands that I’ve been in. And that’s because of the two musicians I play with. They come from Avant-garde and, you know me, I come from the rock and roll. We both share punk rock, even though we’re 21 years apart, that’s how long the punk movement has been going.

Guys that young, I was thinking back when D Boon and I were young and starting out as Minutemen. I don’t think we knew anyone 21 years older than us. It’s much different these days. People have really open minds so they’ll play with an older guy with no problem. With the 60s and 70s I think there was more identity politics with generations with the ages. I think the older people represented the establishment or something. I think those days are gone. You can’t be totally defined by your age. And if you think about it, it’s crazy anyway, right? Nobody chooses when they’re born. It wasn’t like this when we were younger. You never saw younger people play with older people. Well when I started getting brought to jazz gigs I would see this. I would see the older bebop guys playing with younger guys. But you never saw it in rock and roll. They used to market rock and roll just to young guys. But you know, you have 70-year-old Rolling Stone guys, Little Richard, these are all older men so it’s kind of insane.

So that shows you that punk wasn’t just a style of music, it was just a state of mind. I think that’s what helped. I think that’s what I have in common with these two guys. They’re from another generation and from another country. They’ve been to music and art schools and graduated with degrees from universities. I come from econo, jamming with my friends and 70s punk and what I learned from Hollywood. But we have much common ground.

I think that speaks something about the movement. To me that’s where the real success of the movement was. I think it was just about Nirvana selling a lot of records. Kurt hated that. That was silly. The idea that alternative was really going to make it because it was selling records. He wasn’t about that at all. But you know humans, they’re like this, some humans. Other people, they don’t use these things as boundaries and stuff, they use them to connect. And I think Il Sogno Del Marinaio is a product of that kind of scene, where you try stuff.

They say “Why does a dog lick his balls? Because he can.” You just try it because you want it. There’s these old established rules like when I was a teenager with arena rock and stuff. Punk brought in this thing where people took more chances. And in those days I would have never thought about playing in a band without D Boon but, you know, things happened in life and here I am. It’s not an exact copy of the old days, of course it’s dealing with today. But there are some things that a kind of similar. 

What’s it like being a bit of both the student and teacher for this band?

Yeah that’s a trippy thing. I wonder what I teach those guys. [Laughs] But you’re right, it is both. God, especially with the meters, those guys could play the meters much better than me, like 5 and 7 and 9, those are tough. So definitely I’m learning there. For me they’re learning…hmm…that’s hard for me to know…that’s an excellent question, I’ve never been asked that before. Yeah because it’s so hard for me to speak for them. What am I teaching them?

They really give you big focus. When you’re working with them they give you total focus. There’s no daydreaming. You know what they are? They’re very sincere. They really love music, they dig playing. You talk about projects, they’ve got all kinds of projects there too. Uh, I wonder what I teach them. Maybe some bad English slang. [Laughs] They speak pretty good English but there’s a lot of words they haven’t heard of, Pedro speak of something they don’t know what the fuck I’m saying. So maybe that’s what I teach them, slang.

What’s it like being the student?

Definitely musically I’m a student in this band, yeah. Like I said, they come from an Avant-garde world and, God, I have to try really hard. But you know what, live, they’re really in the moment.  I’m really lucky to play with a lot of these guys I have been able to, you know? Secondman and Missingman, they play really close to you, really focused with you. And in that way they’ve become part of a tradition I’ve become part of. For me, it’s definitely playing with a different style. I wouldn’t want to call it a style like a genre, it’s a different approach from their technique. The technical aspects, there’s definitely things to be learned. Because you know, I’ve got to play with them. I can’t be on a parallel thing with them playing their version of the piece and I’m playing mine, we have to come together. I know that they focus hard and try to play with me and likewise I try to reciprocate and do right back. 

The band recorded the first album more digitally with trading files but this one was more of a live band recording. What was that transition like?

It started as an invitation to a festival in Italy. Of course I wanted to go there as they have grew chow and always like playing there. Even my mom’s people come from Italy so I have a little bit of a connection. But I said “Look, if I’m going to come over there, how about we do more than one gig?” And Stefano said “Ok, we’ll put together six gigs.” And I said “If we’re going to get enough material to play six gigs why don’t we record also?” Because I’d really be getting into this.

You mentioned the digital thing where you can trade files over the internet but this we have to practice and play these gigs so why not in the middle of this little mini tour we try to do an album. So that’s how the band started. Now, we do trade files. We’ve been trading some for the second one. But 95 percent of that was done in December in a studio outside of Bologna. I think I brought in some words from San Pedro, that’s what I did digitally. All the rest was like old days where all three of you are in the same room. A digital thing I did with the guy from England, Sam Cook, called CUZ. That was completely just trading files. We did some jams and got some licks together that he sampled out. I’ve doing a lot of that. But in my heart, I’m going to have this thing where I like playing with guys like D Boon where you’re doing gigs. It’s just a part of me that loves that. 

The songs are stuffed full of influences. What’s it like mixing these familiar and unfamiliar influences together?

The drummer Andrea is way into Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt. He’s a guy from the 60s. You see what I mean about young people these days? They’re deep with music. When I was younger nobody ever thought about older music. It’s really remarkable. Stefano, the guitar player, his influences are John Cage, Steve Reich, kind of abstract guys. My influences, Clearance Clearwater Revival, T Rex, Blue Oyster Cult and, you know, the whole punk movement, The Fall, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. It is pretty diverse influences. Actually their influences may be older than mine. [Laughs]

But it’s a trippy thing. I’ve been in certain situations like this but never a band. The closest I’ve been to this was a proj with Elliott Sharp called The Bootstrappers with me and George Hurley. He was Avant-garde. It makes me feel their age, makes me feel a lot younger. It’s trippy. It’s not a rerun. It’s not doing the Mike Watt thing, you know? Part of this band is experimental. I wouldn’t say Sonic Youth but something like that, where maybe my other bands were Chuck Berry. [Laughs] I remember when D Boon and I saw Sonic Youth and we thought we were doing wild stuff with Minutemen and when we saw them we were like “Maybe we’re just doing Chuck Berry.” Because they seemed so far ahead in the future. I think I have a little bit of that with these guys, or this situation. 

Did the fact that you played them live blend them more than the first album?

Yeah, I would agree with you. Because we didn’t know each other when we made the first album. Only a couple days. So touring together and spending eight days instead of two, I think that helped big time. And now they’ve never done a big tour of the U.S. so that’ll be very interesting. Also interesting for US people, when they think of people from Europe they think of somebody from England which is probably most but there’s some other lands over there too. So it’ll be trippy to check out musicians from Italy. I think people will really see they aren’t little helpers for a Mike Watt trip. [Laughs] They’re a big part of the band, which I like.

With the new album there seems to be more a rock influence compared to the first one. Do you think so?

Yeah, maybe you’re right about that. Maybe that comes from playing gigs. I think when you do gigs it brings out a little bit of the rock and roller out of you. Well maybe if people weren’t of that tradition, they come from a classical or jazz or Avant-garde, but there’s something about gigs. They get the beat going and I think that brings out the rock and roll on the second album more. 

How do feel about playing 53 dates in as many days?

Well I’ve been doing that for a long time there, Josh. I think it comes from the SST days with Husker Du and Black Flag and all these whopping ass tours because it’s a big country. If you’re going to play it, why just do the big towns? It’s just the way I did it from the old days and still like doing it. I know a lot of people say “Yeah, a lot of work.” But Jesus, working in a coal mine is a lot of work, you know? So I don’t worry about it too much. To me I look at as more of an opportunity.

Is it any different with a younger band like this?

I like touring period. It’s like an adventure, you know? But yeah that is another dimension touring with guys that have never been over here before. It’s just part of my life.

How do you think bass guitar fits in with in this new sound?

That’s kind of hard to…I would hope good. [Laughs] But it’s hard to talk about yourself without sounding self-important. But I would hope it would fit in there. I mean that’s my goal.

What song did the band create the quickest and which one took the longest to write?

They’re all about the same. We did about two a day, two and a half a day. And they were all about equal in difficulty. They’re all kind of hard for me. It wasn’t like sleepwalking. I had to try. I had to try really hard. The hardest…it’s hard to say. You stumped me, Josh. They’re all hard but also interesting and well worth it. Worth the effort. 

“Skinny Cat” ends with a bass solo. How did that happen?

Yeah that was Stefano’s idea. He was like “Fratello Mike, do a bass solo for us here.” I was like “Ok.” [Laughs]

The music video for Il Sogno Del Fienile” ended with a shots reminiscent of the Double Nickels on the Dime cover. Could you talk about that?

The man who made that, [Mike Muscarella], that was his idea. I gave him a picture as we were going to the airport there after recording in Bologna and in his mind I think he hooked it up with the Double Nickels on the Dime cover. So he transposed. His people are from Sicily. I thought it was good. That was a good idea.

It was a bit of a merging of past and present, in a way.

Yeah. Look, I understand there’s a part of my legacy in this proj. You can’t erase your past and especially Double Nickels on the Dime for Minutemen, it’s probably the best stuff I’ve ever played on. But at the same time here we are in 2014. So I don’t want to be a total nostalgia trip. It’s a weird mixture. It’s something I never thought about when I was younger, because we were too much in the moment. But you’re right, now that I’m here…I have this past but I also have this too with these guys. Actually I can’t ever have the past again because it’s only in memories and recordings. So this is more in touch with reality. 

It sounds like everyone in the band lives fairly close to the ocean and there seems a lot of interest in ocean and sea life.

When he was a boy, the guitar man Stefano lived by Genoa which is a harbor. And his daddy’s from Sardinia so he has a definite ocean connection. My pop was in the Navy for about twenty years, a chief and engine room guy. The drummer guy Andrea is in Verona and Verona is not by the sea. So for him maybe it’s a little more abstract.

Has there been any ways that you’ve bonded over this interest?

Well you just have to look at the name of the band. It’s “The Sailors Dream” in Italian. There’s a song off the first one called “Punkinhed Ahoy!” and the drummer man Andrea read about these old sea shanties out of Genoa from sailors from hundreds of years ago. And he used those for the little vocal lines. So yeah, we’ve used the ocean. 

What’s your favorite Italian food?

I love marinated artichokes. I like a lot of their chow. And these guys cooked for me. When we did this second album in Bologna, I never left the place. They took care of all my chow, all my meals. And they’re pretty good cooks themselves. Growing up, my mom her people are from there, I ate much spaghetti as a kid. [Laughs]

Actually the chow over there is different from ours. This is way more simple, lot of meat, lot of sauce. Their stuff is not as heavy. But I like both. I’m a fan of Italian cooking.

What’s your favorite activity to do in Italy in your downtime?

Well they’ve got an incredible amount of history. So to look at all the stuff from all the years from Rome in the Renaissance. When you go to Venice you can’t take a bad photo. It’s got so much shit going on. It’s an incredible living museum. There’s people living there so it’s not a total museum, people’s homes. It’s a great learning experience for me. 

What’s your favorite part of playing Madison?

I go way back with Madison. One guy that used to do all my gigs Tom Layton, he’s from the older days. He died of an heart attack a few years ago. But he would always bring me into town. Whenever I think of Madison I think of Tom Layton. There was a great band from the old days with a guy named Bucky and bass player Robin called The Tar Babies and they were an SST band. And Bucky I heard started a new band so that’s great news. That’s what I think of first when I think of Madison, Tom Layton and Bucky and Robin and the Tar Babies. Trippy situation with a lake on each side, it’s interesting, especially in wintertime. But it sure is a pretty town. I love playing there, almost every tour I play there. I know the people at the High Noon Saloon as the old place O’Cayz Corral burned down in a fire. It was very sad. Pretty open minded people, you can bring almost anything and people don’t get all up tight and go out and see what you’re doing.

It seems like some of the most rewarding musical feats in your life have come from unexpected places. Do you think some of the best connections and most interesting musical partnerships are found in the unlikeliest of places?

Yeah you could say that, big time. That’s an interesting observation. That’s one of the great times about the arts in general, paintings and poems, music, literature, all these things. All this expression. It’s not created like a product, it comes out of different things.

Though you probably have to find the time to do everything you want to do. 

Yeah that’s a big thing. There’s not a ton of time. You have to pick your fights. I wish there was more time in the day to devote to more situations. And that’s the main theme running through the Second Opera, when I was dying of that sickness and I was only 42 years old. The thing sticking in my mind was “Shit, I’ve got so much stuff I want to do.” it was very frustrating.

Well I’m glad you’re in better health now.

Yeah, thank you Josh.

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