If Mike Watt is the keeper of independent music's flame, his latest album could be considered punk's Homeric ode.
Having joined the "pump navy" way back when-he, D. Boon and drummer George Hurley formed the Minutemen, one of the legendary bands on the SST roster in the early '80s-Watt has continued for more than a decade to power ahead, trading in the four chords of punk for a quasi-jazzy sound which figured significantly in the establishment of the largely defunct grunge movement.
Currently on tour behind Contemplating the Engine Room, a rock opera, the seminal bassist has once again found that three is his lucky number. "It's more comfortable in the van with just three," Watt says. "And the economics make more sense. I've never had a manager, and my tours always make money."
Watt's on the phone with the Independent from Chicago, spewing as he is wont to do in interviews, gruffly describing the inspiration behind his latest work and his recent experience playing bass for Perry Farrell's band Porno for Pyros. "It was like being a deckhand," he says.
The Engine Room was recorded during May and June last year, and follows an engine room crew through the course of a single day in their life. In punk-rock fashion, the disc's 15 tracks take a mere 53 minutes to play out. "It's about the Minutemen, my pop in the Navy, Pedro (my town) and how I got to where I am now," Watt writes by way of an introduction to the album.
To this day, Watt's first serious trio, the Minutemen, is his most famous. He, Boon and Hurley played with intensity, sang about disempowerment, and rallied the first generation of flannel-garbed kids around the flag of alternative rock. They were joined in this endeavor by acts such as Black Flag, Husker Du, DOA and the Meat Puppets.
Before anybody had ever heard of Seattle, Nirvana or a double-tall non-fat latte, the 'Men were poised for great success. Then tragedy struck-and if this were a fable, it would have had a point. When D. Boon died in a car crash in 1985, things for Watt came to a standstill. Though the bassist went on to join the straight-ahead, hard-rocking fIREHOSE, much of the joy went out of the music, he says.
With Contemplating the Engine Room, Watt has found a release. It deals with Boon's death (as well as the death of his father in the early part of this decade) and, as Watt puts it, tries to tell the story of what it was like to be part of the Minutemen-and part of the "pump navy." That navy, he continues, forms his personal corollary for the U.S. Navy for which his father served 20 years. For Watt, loading up the van and gigging endlessly was a way to avoid the 9-to-5, workaday life and see the world.
As he recast his life according to this paradigm, he says, it was natural that he take on the part of machinist, the job his father held. Boon became the boilerman and Hurley-who lives down the street still in his hometown of San Pedro-the fireman. Watt explains that the Minutemen were in charge of the SST engine, keeping the fire stoked and the ship moving along.
As for the dozen years between his friend's death and the production of the album, Watt says simply: "I wanted to say something, but I always thought if I wrote about it too literally, it would be too Happy Days."
The album, meanwhile, hasn't totally shaken that mood-but it's a remarkably diverse work which recalls not just the Minutemen, but the Who's Quadrophenia and a host of earlier song cycles. The sea sounds on the disk were created in the studio, he explains, and the songs themselves were written and then improved upon by guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Stephen Hodges, who join him here. Watt says he couldn't have Hurley play because "I wanted to describe what it was like to be a Minuteman... and George knew what that was like."
On "The Boilerman," Watt steams through a number of references to D. Boon; "'Member you meeting me.... changed forever from that day.... Sang me some Creedence songs. I was your bassist from then on. I'm a lucky man to know that man, a hell of a man: the boilerman."
As for the idea that something might have passed him by while he was in the pump navy, driving in his van, seeing the world, Watt has little tolerance. Though the loss of his friend still lingers, he says that he still feels lucky. As an acknowledged-if-defensive elder statesman of punk-Iggy Pop is much older, Watt points out-Watt at 40 is doing what he wants.
"The stadium guys have to compromise a little," Watt says. "This is my 37th tour, and I'm not bumming out on it. I drive my own van, I sing on the album. It's not lame for me."
Mike Watt and the Black Gang-Joe Baiza, guitar, and Stephen Hodges, drums-perform Contemplating the Engine Room as well as a slew of Watt's hits at Jay's Upstairs, Monday, June 1 at 10 p.m. Tickets, $7 in advance, $9 at the door, available downstairs.