Watt, Mike

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Mike Watt

Bassist, vocalist, songwriter, producer

Influenced Independent Music Scene

Went Solo

Connected Literary and Musical Influences

Forever the Econoclast

Selected discography


During the early 1980s, Mike Watt became an important influence on the development of the independent music scene in the United States. Beginning in 1980, Watt served as bassist, vocalist, and producer for the Minutemen. Five years later, after the accidental death of fellow Minute manand longtime friend, D. Boon, the group disbanded. Shortly thereafter, a new trio would emerge containing Watt and Minutemen drummer George Hurley, along with singer and guitarist, Ed Crawford. The new band christened themselves flREHOSE and released six albums before going their seperate ways in 1993. The flannel shirt-clad Watt is highly esteemed in alternative music circles and his work with the Minutemen and fIREHOSE helped open doors to newer bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and helped make indie rock popular on MTV. Since the break up of fIREHOSE, Watt has released two solo albums, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, in 1995, and 1997s Contemplating The Engine Room. Although very different in style, both were well received, with the latter validating Watts decision to take an ambitious artistic risk.

Michael Watt was born in San Pedro, California on December 20, 1957, to James Richard, a 20-year Navy chief, and Jean V. Watt. At the age of 12, Watt began playing the bass when he and Boon started their first band. Watt considered Boon a major influence on his style of bass playing, telling Mark Rowland of Musician, I didnt think I was supposed to play backup at all, and neither did D. Boon. He played really trebly and let me have all the midrange and lowend. When people ask me what kind of a bass player I am, I say Im D. Boons bass player, because he had such an impact on me.

Influenced Independent Music Scene

The Minutemen was an avant-punk trio whose politics were libertarian flavored, spiced with heavy disdain for the music industrys methods of creating pop icons. In their five years together, the Minutemen released over ten albums, many on the SST record label. Double Nickels On The Dime, originally released in 1984 and reissued in 1989, is considered their signature album. The trio took their name from an early decision by the group to play songs that were of 60-second duration. Tragedy struckthe band in 1985, however, when guitarist D. Boon was killed in a car crash, and the group subsequently disbanded.

Soon after Boons unfortunate and untimely death, a new incarnation of the Minutemen evolved. The two remaining Minutemen, Watt and Hurley, joined forces with singer and guitarist Ed Crawford to form a new trio called

For the Record

Born December 20, 1957 and raised in San Pedro, California; parents are James Richard (a Navy officer) and Jean V. Watt; married to Kira Roessler from 1987-94.

Watt was an important influence in the development of independent music in the United States during the 1980s; former bassist and vocalist for the Minutemen, 1980-85; created new trio, fIREHOSE, with Minute-men drummer George Hurley and singer/guitarist Ed Crawford, 1985-93; first solo release, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, released 1995, featured over 40 other artists including Pearl Jams Eddie Vedder, Bikini Kills Kathleen Hanna, and a long list of others; released Contemplating the Engine Room, 1997.

Addresses: Home San Pedro, California. Record companies Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211; SST Records, (Minute-men/flREHOSE), P.O. Box One, Lawndale, CA 90260. Fan club Mike Watt Hoot Line, P.O. Box 1821, San Pedro, CA 90733. Website www.wattage.com, www.columbiarecords.com.

fIREHOSE. From 1985 to 1993, Watt remained with fIREHOSE, as bassist, vocalist, and producer. The new punk group recorded six which were mostly well received and reviewed. Spin recommended Flyin The Flannel, released in 1991, although noted Crawfords voice tends toward chirpy [but] he can now hold his own and even push his bandmates a little. fIREHOSEs 1993 release, Mr. Machinery Operator, was given a very good rating by New Musical Express, as well as positive comments by other critics.

Went Solo

In 1995, Watt released his first solo album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, which featured over forty other musicians. Watt deliberately kept a low profile, playing bass throughout, but using his vocals only on the first cut, Big Train. Among the featured musicians were Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Nirvanas Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic, Adam Horovitz and Mike D. from the Beastie Boys, Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, J. Mascisfrom Dinosaur Jr., Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, and a wealth of additional talent. The album was recorded in various studios in New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles over a four month period. Watts bass became the glue as he rotated the combinations of musicians from song to song.

The featured musicians on his solo debut all hail from the alternative music world, and are those who have been inspired or affected by Watt with the Minutemen and fIREHOSE. The albums title, Ball-Hog Or Tugboat? ties the basketball scene to the nautical, and begged the question about the appropriate function of the bass guitar. Is it best used in a supporting role, more behind the scenes like a tugboat, or should it be showcased, commanding a more obvious presence a la Michael Jordan? The album received high marks by critics including a review by Musician noting one of the highlights of the album is hearing other singers attempt to duplicate the Watt rumble. Option gave it a B+, and said the album was, consistently superb.

Connected Literary and Musical Influences

Watt attributes a wide range of influences to his style. His taste in music runs the gamut, from opera to John Coltrane. He started out as a big fan of T. Rex, the Who, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. His signature garb of flannel shirts actually began asatributetoCreedences John Fogerty. Many of his influences are literary, as well, and his 1997 release, Contemplating The Engine Room, was influenced by James Joyces Ulysses, Dantes Inferno, and Richard McKennas The Sand Pebbles, among others. Inspiration for Contemplating The Engine Room came while Watt was the guest bassist with Porno For Pyros in 1996. Watt told Neva Chonin of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, I thought, why not make a valentine for them [the Minutemen] and D. Boon and my father?

In addition to literary inspiration, Watt also found ideas by watching Italian opera on television and credited his Navy father for planting the seed of the idea. He explained how he would send his dad postcards from the differenttowns he performed in. He told Kieran Grant of the Toronto Sun at one point his dying father told him, Yknow, youre like a sailor, referring to the musicians life of frequent stops in various towns. The albums cover features the elder Watt in his Navy uniform.

With Contemplating The Engine Room, Watt created a reflective, loosely autobiographical work which he calls a punk-rock opera. Watt employs metaphorical language to create the 15 songs which borrows James Joyces device from Ulysses, by having each cut document a 24 hour period in the lives of three menbased on the Minutementoiling in the engine room aboard a Navy ship. He parallels life at sea, which his father experienced while on his tour of duty with the Navy during the 1950s, to his life on the road with the Minutemen and likens the sailorss ship to the Minute-mens van. In addition to being a tribute, it is also a vehicle for Watt to examine his own life, using the metaphor of life at sea to parallel his own navigation upon the oceans of life.

Watt for the first time does all the vocals and according to Matt Diehl of Rolling Stone, [Watts] warm rasp serves these abstract confessionals well. With drummer Steve Hodges and Géraldine Fibberss guitarist Nels Cline to lend support, Watt describes the CD in the liner notes as one whole piece that celebrates three people playing together. The CD itself is an enhanced version which includes multimedia computer files and an Intenet browser allowing connection to Watts web site. The files include excerpts of a film showing Watt riding his bike and driving through his hometown of San Pedro and talking about points of interest along the way. Diehl of Rolling Stone declared the album, [Watts] most personal, affecting work yet. [it] weds two unlikely ideas; the rock-opera concept album and punk irreverence.

Forever the Econoclast

In spite of currently recording under the auspices of a large record company, Watt still considers himself an econoclast. He explained the term to Matthew Lewis of Reuters/Variety, describing econo as a commend-ably no-frills style, as compared to arena rock which he called bloated commercialism and self-importance. Although recording with a major company, Watt continued extensive touring by driving his own Econoline van.

As he continues to take risks with his music, Watt admitted to Lewis there are times he cant believe hes on a major record label like Columbia. Im a very econo act for them, Id say. With Contemplating The Engine Room, the final cut Shore Duty, seems to point to Watts recognition that hes discovered his creative place in life and is content with himself. He told Rowland of Musician, Hey, I am what I amlike Popeye.

Selected discography

Ball-Hog Or Tugboat?, Columbia/Sony, 1995.

Contemplating The Engine Room, Columbia/Sony, 1997.

With the Minutemen

Double Nickels On The Dime, 1984, reissued, SST, 1989.

Politics Of Time, 1984, Alliance, reissued, SST, 1991.

Ballot Result, 1987, SST.


Ifn, SST, 1988.

Fromohio, SST, 1989.

Flyin The Flannel, Sony, 1991.

Mr. Machinery Operator, Sony, 1993.



Billboard, September 6, 1997.

Boston Phoenix, October 24, 1997.

Entertainment Weekly, October 17, 1997, p. 77.

Guitar World Online, January 1998.

Musician, May 1995, p. 87; December 1997, p. 12.

New Musical Express, March 13, 1993, p. 32.

Option, May/June 1995, p. 146.

Philadelphia Inquirer, October 19, 1997.

Reuters/Variety, November 1997.

Rolling Stone, March 23, 1995, p. 119-121; October 30, 1997, p. 67; November 27, 1997.

San Francisco Bay Guardian, October 8, 1997.

San Francisco Examiner-Chronicle, October 5, 1997.

Spin, June 1991, p. 74-76.

Time Out (New York), October 30-November 6, 1997.

Toronto Sun, February 28, 1995; October 24, 1997.





Additional information obtained from Columbia Records.

Debra Reilly