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He's Getting By With a Little Help From His Friends : Pop music: Punk staple Mike Watt calls on a cast of stars, including Eddie Vedder and members of Soul Asylum and Nirvana, to help out with his solo debut album, 'Ball-hog or Tugboat?'

March 09, 1995|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mike Watt doesn't wait for a question. He just plops down on the lentil-colored sofa in his San Pedro apartment and gets going on a rapid stream-of-consciousness spiel, recounting his life as a humble kingpin of L.A. punk.

"Scary thing, talking about myself," he begins, flashing a cockeyed, nervous grin. "When you have a band, you can talk about that."

After 15 years as a do-it-yourself punk mainstay--with the Minutemen and its successor Firehose--Watt is bandless for the first time in his musical life. Following Firehose's tour last winter (71 shows in 73 days), he "pulled the plug" on the group and launched an ambitious solo project--if that's what you can call something that involved more than 50 musicians.

Even without a band, though, Watt has plenty to talk about. A bundle of energy, he's glowing as he talks about his role in late-'70s/early-'80s L.A. punk, sad when remembering his Minutemen co-founder D. Boon, who died in a 1985 car crash, cynical when considering the current, corporate-endorsed punk revival.

"It wasn't musicians--it was ideas," Watt, 37, says of the old days. "We didn't do interviews at first because it was bourgeois. Then we thought that \o7 not\f7 doing interviews was bourgeois. But it was about empowerment. You just paid the guy at the pressing plant and made whatever records you wanted to make."

While Watt's new album, "Ball-hog or Tugboat?," was released Feb. 28 by corporate Columbia Records, Watt says it's not that different. It's still the record he wanted to make, it just involves a much bigger cast and musical scope and some more famous names, including Eddie Vedder, Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, Evan Dando, Henry Rollins and Nirvana's Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear.

The album--mostly recorded in Los Angeles, Seattle and New York--reflects Watt's persona, careening between styles and approaches: There's straight-ahead rock, experimental jazz and loose funk jams.

The unifying elements: Watt's powerful, nimble bass playing and, more important, engaging manner. He's a gregarious, working-class icon--he still lives in the blue-collar neighborhood where he was raised--who was sporting Everyman flannel long before \o7 grunge\f7 was a music and fashion term. It's that ethic that brought all the musicians together for "Ball-hog."

"I guess it's a tribute album to Mike Watt," he allows, sheepishly.

"Everyone's always pulling for Watt," says Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, who appears on the album with his bandmates.

But Moore says it would be wrong to view this as a high-profile all-star move.

"I don't think he went out of the way to surround himself with celebrity," Moore says. "He's not really that tuned in to what is top of the pops here. These are just the guys he crosses paths with and guys who were in the pit at old shows."

*

In any case, the timing certainly seems good. The recent resurgence of punk, via the likes of Offspring and Green Day, has brought new interest in the Minutemen.

"It's a really good time for Mike Watt," says Columbia senior vice president Missy Worth, who helped squire the project at the record company. "And it's not because of who is on the record, but because of the songs and who Watt is."

In some ways, Watt would almost rather it had been an anonymous venture. He says his original title for it was "The Wrestling Album," to convey the idea of all these disparate musicians and musical elements "getting into the ring" with him to see what happens.

But Watt realizes that having big names on the album helps draw attention to the lesser-known musicians he employed. For every Eddie Vedder, there's also someone such as Nels Cline, a distinctive L.A. guitarist whose aggressive, jazz-informed fretboard flights mark six of the album's tracks.

Radio programmers have already embraced the Vedder number, "Against the Seventies," a Watt-penned anti-nostalgia polemic, as well as "Big Train," a track featuring Watt's own gruff vocals. (The latter's accompanying video is by auteur-of-the-moment Spike Jonze.)

Another track worth noting is one that never made it past the drawing board: "Her Project," a song that Watt wrote for Kurt Cobain to sing but left unrecorded after Cobain's suicide last April.

Watt uses another memory of Cobain to illustrate that the Minutemen's values of community and integrity have remained strong.

"(Firehose) played in Seattle, and Kurt came backstage and said, 'Mike, it's really good to see you,' " says Watt, who thought Cobain was merely engaging in pleasantries. "I said, 'Good to see you too.' He said, 'No, I mean it's \o7 really\f7 good to see you!' "

Watt takes a rare pause.

"Music is just notes," he says in somber reflection. "But this is about people."

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