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Mike Watt: 'Music Is Like A Big Classroom'

Howlin' Wuelf Media

When bass legend Mike Watt took to the road earlier this year with his band the Missingmen, the touring lineup differed in one critical way: Watt regular Raul Morales, became a new father in 2019 and was replaced on the road by Nick Aqular. “Nick’s father went to high school with me,” Watt says. “He’s a few months shy of 40 years younger than me.” He adds that the age difference doesn’t bother him. “Music is just music; you can play with anyone you want to and nobody will think you’re a pervert. I never had children so this is a way of handing it down.”

There is, of course, a tradition of elder statesmen gigging with up-and-comers, particularly in the jazz world. “Raymond Pettibon would take me to see these old be-boppers and they’d always have young guys in their band,” Watt says. “I saw Max Roach with John Coltrane’s son Ravi. It seemed like a natural thing.”

Watt is also teaming up with guitarist Mike Bagetta for a second album that saw the string duo recording the album Wall of Flowers with legendary drummer Jim Keltner, a man who has played with three of the four Beatles as well having formed the band Little Village with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Ry Cooder.

“We did that first album in one afternoon,” the bassist says. “I was afraid to even listen to it at first. I was scared at the session but Jim is the sweetest guy in the world. He pointed at the upper frets on my bass, the high strings. He said, ‘Upper register.’ Then he pointed down by the nut, the big, fat strings and said, ‘Cash register.’”

He adds, “The bass is a composition tool. It can outline the starts and the stops and the dynamics. Rhythms. Tempos. Harmonically, it leaves a lot out. It’s kind of a launch pad. The people I’m playing with will add more to it.”

Among the man irons Watt has in the fire is a recent album Round One, the first in a series of projected series from Jumpstarted Plowhards. At its core, the unit is Watt and guitarist Todd Congelliere (Toys That Kill, F.Y.P, Underground Railroad to Candyland). The pair worked with a series of drummers, including the bassist’s longtime pal George Hurley (Minutemen, fIREHOSE), Patty Schemel (Hole), as well as Jerry Trebotic and others. Released 45RPM 12" vinyl by Congelliere's Recess Records October 4, the collection is deeply conceptual.

“Todd used the bass tracks I gave him. The only thing I said was, ‘Use a different drummer on each track.’ Maybe that’s the future of bass, not more strings but more composition.” The always reflective Watt adds, “I remember reading this thing about Chico Hamilton, this bebop drummer, who couldn’t get songwriting credits on drums. I’m into the uppity attitudes that rhythm sections have.”

There is a long tradition of studio musicians adding deeply important touches to hit songs. Take, for instance, David Hood’s four-string hook on The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” “That’s a bad line,” Watt enthuses. “It probably started with that. But then take James Jamerson coming into a session for [Marvin Gaye’s] ‘What’s Going On.’ He improvised, thumped along. There’s something [great] about that too. I’ve read a lot about Charles Mingus. But he never wrote on bass. He wrote on piano. I like the idea of being unorthodox.”

Talk then turns again to Watt’s relationship with Congelliere. “I got to do a tour with him 2017,” the bassist recalls. “I was thinking, ‘What would he do if he were d. boon or Ed From Ohio [Ed Crawford] or Nils Cline and he got these songs that were just bass?’ He said, ‘Bring it.’ You know how jumpstart is slang for your battery being dead and you have somebody else’s car battery that you have to get a charge from? Plow hard is somebody you point in the right direction and they’ll do what you want. Todd took on the challenge of what I said.”

Watt provided the guitarist with 15 songs total initially. “We’re gonna do 40. If we get that many songs we’ll have enough identity and maybe play live,” says Watt. “Music is like a big classroom and I get to sign up for different classes.”

The San Pedro, California resident’s love of his instrument remains intact, no matter the multiple projects he finds himself attached to. He still picks up the instrument every day at home. “I’ve got a Beatle bass, a Chinese Hofner. You can hear it, even if you don’t have an amplifier. I pick it up and play ideas. I don’t like long practices, about an hour-and-a-half. But doing it every day keeps your hands limber and your timing good. I think it’s really healthy.”

Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.