30 years ago, Minutemen bassist Mike Watt famously wrote “Our band could be your life” as the first line in the song “History Lesson—Part II.” That line would years later become the title of Michael Azerrad’s essential book on the ‘80s rock underground, so perfectly and succinctly did it capture the essence of how that decade’s punks flew in the face of notions that artists were delicately constituted monastics who’d gift us with dewdrops of beauty if we’d but wait at their feet. Watt and his contemporaries’ conception of the artist was much more radically workmanlike—he refers to it as “Jamming Econo”—you do what you have to do to get your art made, period. Gigs are why you exist, so you don’t decline or cancel them lightly. Oops, the next one’s a 15 hour drive? Better get the van loaded and grab some bottles to pee in, then, ‘cuz we’re going all night.
To his enduring credit, Watt has spent the last three decades fully living up to the example he set as a young man. Though a van accident tragically took the life of Minutemen guitarist D. Boon in 1985, Watt soldiered on in the bands fIREHOSE and Dos. He did guest turns with Saccharine Trust, Sonic/Ciccone Youth, Porno For Pyros, and countless others, and he launched a heavy-friends solo career in 1995 with the LP Ball-Hog or Tugboat?. He survived an alarming health crisis to stay active in the 21st Century, and was the lucky bastard who got tapped to fill the Dave Alexander slot when the Stooges reunited in 2003. He’s had an enviable career, because he just never stops.
In between all the bigger projects, Watt seems to be constantly forming and/or joining bands of various lifespans, a notable example of which is Il Sogno Del Marinaio (“The Sailor’s Dream”—nautical themes abound in Watt’s oeuvre) with Italian musicians Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia. The band formed in 2009 and recorded its debut album La Busta Gialla a mere three days later, but the album didn’t see release until 2013. In that long downtime, Belfi and Pilia invited guest musicians to fill out the LP, resulting in a collection of songs that are more constructed than performed. The forthcoming Canto Secondo remedies that—it’s clearly a band’s album, and it may surprise older Watt fans who haven’t kept up with him, as it often pushes into post-rock territory. There are strong notes of Gastr Del Sol, and some passages even recall The Sea and Cake or Red-era King Crimson. It’s really good stuff. Unfortunately, questions we emailed to Belfi and Pilia remain unanswered as of publication time, but Watt was kind enough to spare the time to speak with us about the band:
Watt: Stefano was in the boat with me in 2005 [Stefano Pilia was Watt’s road manager for part of a 2005 European tour. In keeping with Watt’s marine obsession, he refers to his tour van as “the boat.”—DM] and I didn’t even know he played. Then in 2009 I got an invite to come and play a festival with him and his drummer buddy Andrea. I said “OK, I’ll come over there, but why don’t we do five or six gigs, if we’re gonna get the stuff up?” I remember him, riding around with me for the Italian gigs, and he was really a neat cat, and I didn’t know he played, but he had the cojones to just call me up to start a band!
I try, getting into middle age, to record now as much as possible. I’m way into gigs, I’m still way about being in the moment, but I’m starting to think about leaving stuff behind a little more. So I say to him, “Look, we’re going to learn this stuff, we’re going to play a few gigs? In the middle of it, let’s record an album!” And they were into it, so we did it. It cooks, too, man—it cooks for me, everybody over there cooks for me. So that’s how that was made. We didn’t have it come out until we could tour. Different continents, three different schedules, so there was a three, four year lag between its being made and its coming out. So in the meantime, those cats had a bunch of guests play on it, and I sent some files from San Pedro. It was more like that, whereas the second one Canto Secondo, it was just the three of us in a farmhouse—actually the studio’s in a barn, we stayed in the farmhouse next to it—for eight days. Also, we had a tour under our belt, so the band’s got more of a voice of its own, more of an identity than on the first one that we made after three days! But you can only do your first album once, you know? We didn’t want a rerun of the first one, so this is more of an organic step.
You know, this band, I gotta tell ya, it feels a lot like going back to the Minutemen or Dos, there’s more collaboration. With these other bands, I’m asking my bandmates in the Secondmen, Missingmen, to take direction. In the Stooges, obviously they’re giving me direction. So this is like a revival of collaboration for me. These guys aren’t just players, they’re also composers. They’re 21 years younger, they went to music school, in a way I’m the student, which is all right, my middle aged philosophy is everybody’s got something to teach you! And Stefano and Andrea are pretty deep about music, they can do weird meters…
DM: Yeah, I’d be interested to know what they’re into. On Canto Secondo I hear a lot of post-rock influences in the guitar playing, like Pell Mell and Gastr Del Sol…
Watt: Do you know, those two guys play with [Gastr Del Sol honcho] David Grubbs! Weirdest coincidence—I was playing with Jim O’Rourke [also of GDS, among many, many other wonderful projects], and I end up in a band with the people playing with the other guy in Gastr Del Sol! They’re in a trio called Belfi/Grubbs/Pilia. So yeah, both guys are in Grubbs’ trio as well as playing with me. And I know Andrea’s way into Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt, too, and that’s from way before he was born. The young people these days are deep, they know a lot. Maybe because of the internet, but there’s also less prejudice. People are more open-minded. They don’t care what time it was from. When I was a teenager there was a lot of prejudice about when something came from. Like if it was older people wouldn’t want to hear it.
DM: Yeah, punk and hardcore had that whole “year zero” thing. I remember from the ‘80s—I’m younger than you, but I still remember that, like, tribalism. I think the internet helped some of that go away. Now that everything can be had all at once, things don’t have to be so tribal because those distinctions disappear. If you like something, cool, it doesn’t have to be the entire basis of your identity.
Watt: Yeah, and in the ‘70s it was narcissistic. No one wanted to hear anything five years old. I saw that Woodstock movie [unintelligible] and people were booing! “This is my DAD’S music!” People don’t do that anymore. That was a hung up generation. They weren’t really the movers and shakers of the ‘60s, but they were still pretty full of themselves ‘cuz they were still young and beautiful. Tribes, they can be kind of inbred. When I think about the old days of punk in the U.S., it was small, you could really circle the wagons! We were kind of tight that way, but on the other hand, all that branding, that idea that punk was a sound, a style of music instead of a state of mind—I thought yeah, that could improve. And it DID.
Il Sogno Del Marinaio’s Canto Secondo is due out in late August, 2014. The record will be supported by a tour of 53 shows in as many days. The new video from the album is called “Il Songo Del Fienile” (“Dream of the Barn,” I think), and we at DM are proud to debut it here.
Previously on Dangerous Minds
Sonic Youth and Mike Watt vs Madonna
Mike Watt stars in new Sweet Apple video