Becoming a Stooge: an Interview with Mike Watt

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To a lot of people Mike Watt is a legend—the source one can turn to for punk rock inspiration, and a living example of old punk. It is easy to see why. In the early 80s he played bass in the San Pedro band the Minutemen with his childhood friend D. Boon. This lasted until December of 1985, when Boon was killed in a car crash. Later, Watt and Minutemen drummer George Hurley resurfaced with the band fIREHOSE—a collaboration with Ed Crawford that would last until ‘93. In the time since then he’s worked on several different solo projects, including Banyan, the Missing Men and Dos and has donated his bass-playing skills to Sonic Youth, Porno for Pyros and a J Mascis project called the Fog. Most recently, Watt has reemerged again—this time as the bassist for the newly reignited Stooges. He was kind enough to talk to SLUG about his life, his work with the Stooges, and the opportunity he’s had to play music with people he’s always admired.

At first glance, it would appear that Watt is the Shemp character in the reformed Stooges. Playing alongside original members Iggy Pop and the Asheton brothers, it would seem that Watt is just one more hired hand in a long line of rock band reunifications. But scratch the surface a little and you’ll find that Watt has a long history of playing Stooges songs (sometimes with Stooges members)—a history that predates any talks of a reunion.

The details of how Watt ended up working with the Stooges are long and hard to keep straight. The bulk of our conversation was spent trying to sort them all out. It seems that his first professional experience playing Stooges songs started with a project called The Wylde Rattz. This was a studio band that contributed a song to the film Velvet Goldmine, and that featured Watt on bass and original Stooge Ron Asheton on guitar. This was a positive experience for Watt that allowed him to work with a rock and roll legend—someone that he has always seen as an inspiration. “I can’t imagine a punk scene without the Stooges,” Watt said, “and Ronnie was a big part of that.”

Watt’s Stooges work continued as he recovered from an illness in 2000. “I got real sick and almost died,” he said. “I couldn’t play bass for months. It was the first time I had to stop playing since D. Boon’s mom put me on it. When I could play again, I had a hard time. I started to play Stooges songs that I learned as a teenager. There’s not a lot of chord changes—it was more about feel.” After several months of what he called wood shedding, Watt was ready to play for real. “I needed to get back on the horse,” he quipped. And this he did.

Watt put together a couple of Stooges cover bands, so that he could play in front of crowds again. He played gigs on the West Coast with Porno for Pyros members Stephen Perkins and Peter DiStefano. He did the same back east with Dinosaur Jr.’s J Mascis and Murph. This second collaboration led to Watt being drafted into Mascis’s band the Fog. During this tour, Mascis pitched the idea of doing some Stooges songs during the set. Watt remembered, “J was getting worn out singing on every song, so he asked me to do a few Stooges songs . . . to give him a break.” When the band went through Michigan, Mascis encouraged him to look up original Stooge Ron Asheton. “He said ‘you know Ronnie, call him up.’ So we started doing gigs with Ronnie on board.” During the rest of the tour they did shows with Ron playing on the Stooges songs. The Mascis/Watt/Asheton collaboration got even more interesting at a show at UCLA where they were joined by original Stooges drummer Scott Asheton. This was a big deal, since as Watt pointed out, “Scotty was living in his camper at the time. They even had to rent him a drum set.” This show led to more gigs with the Asheton brothers, and eventually peaked Iggy Pop’s interest. Iggy enlisted the help of the well-rehearsed Ashetons on his album Skull Ring—a huge deal considering that, by some reports, he hadn’t talked to either of them for over 25 years. Not long after, Watt got the call asking him to do a full-blown Stooges reunion show. Just as anyone else would, Watt gave them the thumbs up.

Though Watt’s role in reuniting the Stooges can seems huge, he insists that it was the result of a bunch of happy coincidences. When I asked him if he was pushing for full reunion by getting the Asheton brothers to play with him he responded, “not in an intentional way, just that I wanted to play Stooges songs to get me over my sickness hell.” Whether or not he influenced their reunion, it is plain to see that his own proactive approach at self-healing led to him being the right man for the job when Iggy and company came looking for a bassist. He was “humbled and honored” to take his place on stage—to “learn right from the source of punk rock.”

Watt’s role in the Stooges is different from what he traditionally does—it is one of the rare times that he’s not a songwriter or principle member of the band. Watt seems genuinely happy with this role, as it is a way for him to experience another side of music. He said, “A lot of the Stooges for me is being a learner. I get my way in my other bands. Just because I didn’t write the songs doesn’t mean it wasn’t rewarding for me. I’m there to learn—it’s a very lucky opportunity for me. I’m trying to suck it all in.” This ties in well with Watt’s philosophy on life. He explained to me, “in life, if you’re always the boss, you’re going to miss out on a lot of shit.” He added, “real life is about taking turns. Sometimes you’re asking people to do things, and sometimes you’re being asked to do things. If you’re always getting in your own way, then you’re going to miss out on learning a lot of shit.”