Mike Watt doesn’t look like a punk. With his fondness for plaid shirts and bushy mustaches, he looks, actually, more like a regular working-class guy — a steel worker, or a sailor like his father.
He shares the same work ethic too. Watt, who plays in 15 different groups, has just finished his 66th tour. At 50, he is one of the grand old men of punk rock.
“The punk I come from wasn’t really a style of music, it was just weird people,” says Watt by telephone from his home in San Pedro, California ahead of his forthcoming 14-date tour of Japan.
“The way punk (is conceived of now) is young people playing guitar really fast, the paradigm of hardcore, but that actually came in the early 1980s. The first punk was not (made up of) teenagers. It was people from the glam or glitter (scenes), and it was really whatever you could get away with. Some of these bands didn’t even have guitars. The idea of the Warped Tour or Green Day or something on MTV — for me, it never was about that.”
The Minutemen — Watt’s first band with his boyhood-friend D. Boon — was arguably the most innovative group to come out of Southern California’s ’80s punk movement. That scene, which also spawned X and Black Flag, was unheralded beyond the indie underground of the day, but its influence can be heard in the music of other SoCal groups that later made it big, such as Red Hot Chili Peppers (who dedicated their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” album to Watt) and Jane’s Addiction.
With Watt on bass, Boon on guitar and George Hurley on drums, the group brought elements of funk and jazz into their sharp, jagged rhythms. Their songs were notoriously short, a simple, DIY economy that characterized the group’s whole approach.
“We are from working people so there wasn’t a lot of money, but we found out if we worked it right, you could still get things going. You just had to be pragmatic and thrifty. In some ways that is why we made the songs so short; we tried to cut out all the filler and distill it down to the bare thing.”
Their lyrics, in particular on their best album, 1984′s “Double Nickels on a Dime,” reflected the anomie of working-class suburban life during the Reagan Era.
“We were basically thinking out loud in front of people,” says Watt. “We tried to make songs that would tell you about us. It was the year Ronald Reagan got elected (for his second term). The country was in a trippy place. And we were some of the byproduct.”
Though The Minutemen ended suddenly in 1985 with Boon’s death in a car crash, the recent release in 2006 of “We Jam Econo,” a documentary about the group, has found them a new audience.
“The two reasons (I let the movie be made) was I wanted D. Boon to be able to play for people but I (also) thought if people saw us make a band, (then they would know) anyone could make a band,” says Watt.
“You get with your buddy and you try to find your inner voice and let your freak flag fly. Maybe (the film will give) people enough confidence to try a band or a write poem or make a film. We were just guys trying hard, being awkward about it, f**king with the ideas of what it should be.”
Watt’s musical adventures since The Minutemen disbanded have included Dos, his ongoing bass duo with ex-Black Flag member Kira; Funabori, his long-distance project with Go! Team multi- instrumentalist Kaori Tsuchida; working with first “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson on her last album “My December”; and backing up the oldest and wildest punk of all, Iggy Pop and his re-formed Stooges.
“With The Stooges, I just look at Iggy the whole time,” says Watt. “(The crowd is so big) it’s like a f**king Nuremberg Rally. It is probably the worst way to experience music.”
Though Watt played at Fuji Rock Festival with The Stooges last summer, he is more used to “jamming econo,” packing up the van and crisscrossing the country playing at small clubs. “I got into this shit to be with my friend (Boon) and he got killed and I just kept going,” says Watt. This month’s tour of Japan, which will take him to such rock ‘n’ roll outposts as Yamagata, Niigata and Kanazawa, will give him just that opportunity.
He will be touring with an underground supergroup of sorts, dubbed Brother’s, Sister’s, Daughter. Kramer, another iconic figure of American 1980s indie rock as a producer of, among others, The Butthole Surfers, will also be playing bass; Samm Bennett, a veteran of New York’s lower East Side improvisational music scene, will play drums (on the last two dates he will be replaced by Cornelius drummer Yuko Araki, aka Migu).
The idiom — improvisation — is not Watt’s usual forte.
“I personally really like improvised music,” he says. “A big inspiration is John Coltrane, that whole school of trying to get beyond stiff sh*t formulas.
“A lot of people thought all The Minutemen songs were improvised,” he says. “We would turn three or four places in the set into a little jam just to confuse people. Because the songs were so short it was hard for people to know what was a song and what was a jam.”
It goes back, again, to work ethic. “People work hard all week,” says Watt. “They are putting up this money to come see you. We have a responsibility.”
If punk is a rejection of an established formula, however, then improvisation is as punk as it gets.
Brother’s, Sister’s, Daughter play Feb. 8 at Super-Deluxe, Tokyo; 9, Sunset Studio, Yamagata; 10, Junk Box, Sendai; 11, Van Van V4, Kanazawa; 12, Junk Box Mini, Niigata; 13, O-Nest, Tokyo; 14, Alex, Nagano; 15, Blueforest, Saitama; 16, Highti, Chiba; 17, Rinky Dinky Studio, Hachioji; 18, Urbanguild, Kyoto; 19, Bears, Osaka; 20, Tokuzo, Nagoya; 21 Marz, Tokyo. For more information, visit www.myspace.com/brotherssistersdaughter