It’s a hypothetical question that every middle-aged punk rocker has to answer at some point: How do you transcend icon status and age gracefully while maintaining your street cred?
For Mike Watt, the answer is simple.
He packs up his battered bass, loads his 54-year-old body into a van, and embarks on a bruising tour that features 41 dates in 44 days, all to spread the word about his latest album, “Hyphenated-Man.” It’s the same do-it-yourself ethos he helped define in the ’70s with the much beloved San Pedro, Calif., band, the Minutemen.
So what if he’s 35 years down the line?
“I just didn’t change much on that level. It is kind of a weird thing if you pause to think about it,” he said in a phone interview from his home.
“How did I get lucky enough to do this? I better not be resting on any laurels. You just never know. The U.S., man, you can say a lot about it, but for sure it’s big. So if you’re going to go out there, try to get in as many gigs as you can.”
Watt sprinkles his conversation with a sort of beatnik patois that shortens certain words and he casually uses slang that’s decades old. Practice becomes “prac.” Sleeping is “conking.” He refers to his late father — a sailor — as his “pop” and his home as his “pad.”
And for all the mileage on his rock and roll tires, Watt — who still lives in San Pedro — actually likes visiting places like Toledo and Missoula, Mont., and Rehoboth Beach, Del., in a smelly van. He’s playing Mickey Finn’s Pub Tuesday night.
“If you’re going to sally forth, be Don Quixote or Pancho somebody,” he said, losing track of his analogy, but still making the point. “Be somebody that’s going to dream a little big for it to make it not just worth your while, but the gig goers’ too. Everybody can’t live in the same towns, you know. I’ve always dug that side benefit of touring because you get to go places.”
The Minutemen featured Watt, guitarist/singer D. Boon, and drummer George Hurley hammering through raw punk songs with an increasing level of sophistication as they matured musically. Boon and Watt met in high school in San Pedro and formed an instant bond. Their band was a classic example of a group that was critically acclaimed with a cult-like following that transcended mainstream popularity.
They stubbornly played songs that barely crested the two-minute mark and that explored their various political and cultural obsessions while managing to cram complex tempos, jagged, noisy guitar riffs, and Watt’s continually evolving bass work into these short bursts packed with ideas. Their contemporaries were groups like Black Flag, Husker Du, and Sonic Youth. The Minutemen cranked out five albums from 1981 to 1985, including the punk rock masterpiece “Double Nickles on the Dime” before Boon died in a van accident in 1985.
Watt and Hurley formed fIREHOSE out of the ashes of the band and went on to record six discs from 1986 to 1994 before the group broke up and Watt embarked on a solo career. He also is still on a long-running stint as the bass player for Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
When he’s not touring, Watt gets up early every day and either bicycles or kayaks. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday he’s on the water. The other days he pedals, much of the time thinking of music in a mind that is fertile with ideas.
“There’s rhythms involved with that stuff, the kayaking and bicycling, and basically a lot of music I do is about rhythm so it makes sense. I write over in my head a whole bunch of times. I have to record them right away or I forget this [stuff.]”
His solo work has been marked with big, overarching concepts that take the form of what he calls “operas.” His first album, “Ball Hog or Tug Boat” (1995) featured a Who’s Who of punk and alternative rock — Eddie Vedder, Dave Grohl, Thurston Moore, J. Mascis, Frank Black, Evan Dando, Dave Pirner, Henry Rollins, Flea, Lee Ranaldo, Mike D, and Pat Smear — as guest artists.
“Contemplating the Engine Room” in 1997 was the first of his “punk rock operas” and it explored his relationships with music and his personal history, most notably his thoughts about his father. The songs were much longer than in his Minutemen days as Watt expanded his musical palette.
In 2004 he followed with “The Secondman’s Middle Stand,” which tackled a life-threatening illness he suffered and the ensuing recovery. The tale is told in vivid first person as he recounts the medical emergency that nearly killed him.
Now he’s touring behind “Hyphenated-Man,” an ambitious, 2-year-old, 30-song effort that returns to the Minutemen days of two minute songs, each of which is based on a character in a Hieronymous Bosch painting. Song titles reflect the literal interpretation of the characters — “Arrow-Pierced-Egg-Man,” “Thistle-Headed Man,” “Bell-Rung-Man” — and each of the songs is a first person reflection on middle age.
“I thought it was a weird place I was in, you know? Middle-aged punk rocker and I couldn’t have written that earlier and hopefully I won’t write it later,” he said.
The songs were written for the most part on D. Boon’s old Fender Telecaster guitar, but the music doesn’t really sound like his old band, thanks to the work of Watt, whose playing is jazzy and sophisticated, and guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales. Also, it should be noted that in Watt’s ideal world, all 30 songs would be considered individual movements in one long piece.
“I did have some worries about going back to that old Minutemen style. I mean I appropriated some of that. I shouldn’t be ripping off my old band. So to keep it out of the Happy Days world too much, I thought as far as the libretto or the spiel I’m going to make it about right now and not be about nostalgia and not be sentimental.”
Aging... and rocking
The music is angular and crisp, spreading across a number of genres that include hard rock, jazz, prog (if you can do prog in two minutes), and punk. The lyrics are like a form of beat poetry, with Watt’s craggy voice conveying a high level of energy and sense of purpose without any preachiness.
“Just ’cause you been around a little longer hopefully doesn’t mean you’ve got more answers. It just means maybe you can make the questions a little more, I don’t know, trippy, interesting. You don’t have to worry about it when you’re in your 20s because you know everything,” he said, laughing.
Watt has a bemused attitude about aging and the apparent contradiction in a man who made his reputation playing a young person’s music now serving as an elder spokesman. And it is true that when he plays with the Stooges, he’s the youngest guy in that group.
He and his band play “Hyphenated-Man” in its entirety each show and it’s a complicated piece of work that after several years they finally can buzz through, playing as much on instinct and heart as intellect, something that Watt loves as much as he does climbing in a van and touring the country.
“In some ways I try all these different things, but in some ways I always go back to the trio like playing with D. Boon and Georgie, you know? There’s something about that that will never die in me,” he said.
“No matter what else I try, no matter what device or metaphor, I still like the idea of three guys in a van playing gigs. Maybe that’s part of the more younger part of me that digs that. I’m not that guy who was younger, but that spirit’s there.”
Doors at Mickey Finn’s, 602 Lagrange St., open at 8 p.m. Tuesday for Mike Watt and the Missingmen. Opening bands are Lite and Bikini Babes. Tickets are $15 in advance at Ramalama Records, Culture Clash, Shaking Street Records, and the Headliners box office and $17 at the door.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.