Musician Mike Watt has written a new book, "On and Off Bass." (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
Punk mainstay Mike Watt was out late playing a show at the local ballet school the night before, but early on a Saturday, the bassist best known for his work with seminal indie acts fIREHOSE and the Minutemen is in San Pedro's port waters, in his kayak, a palm-sized digital camera strapped around his neck.
He got a late start today — 8 a.m., not 6. So he paddles hard for the harbor entrance, barely stopping for the sea lions that dive and bob.
He does, however, pause to consider the pelicans. They glide by, almost skimming the waves, in search of fish and thermals. Pelicans are recurring subjects in "On and Off Bass," a monograph of Watt's Pedro photographs released this month by Three Rooms Press. There's also an autobiographical character named Pelicanman in "The Secondman's Middle Stand," the second of three operas Watt has composed and recorded.
"Pelicans have no song," Watt says, the recently restored Angel's Gate lighthouse rising like a black-and-white sentinel behind him. "Except when they're young, they're mostly silent. Sometimes, you don't need words."
In notable contrast to the stereotype of the silent bassist, Watt is not a man of few words. In fact, he's a bit of a monologist, a fount of opinions and information — he points out the local landmarks, recounts their history, pontificates about their future. "Spiel" is one of his favorite words.
While he hasn't exactly fronted the bands for which he's most famous, he hasn't been the sideman either. Only in the Stooges, the re-formed punk pioneers with whom he's played nine years, does Watt hang out in the wings — after all, they're Iggy Pop's show.
And yet there's something in Watt, 54, that's looking for moments of stillness. He's tried to record the sound of the waves from his kayak. But at Angel's Gate, the deep blue becomes the nation's busiest container port; nature washes into industry.
"You would not believe the noise that's coming off the island: the trucks, the cans [shipping containers] slamming down, motorboats, helicopters," he says after a two-hour kayak, over the din of breakfast at the Pacific Diner. "I had to go out way by Royal Palms to find just ocean sounds. Your mind masks it out, you don't notice. I wanted water, waves. I couldn't get anything; it was being masked by the man-made."
Watt turned to a shutter to stop the world. He began snapping pictures when digital technology put editing and processing into regular folks' hands. Around the same time, he also began riding a bike around the town he'd always known by car, and then kayaking. New modes of transport changed the way he saw Pedro (which he always pronounces like a local, "Pee-drow").
He calls the shots "eye gifts." The photos in "On and Off Bass" (he plays a book release party Saturday at Beyond Baroque) capture Pedro's juxtaposition of wildness and civilization. The lighthouse reflection distorts in a wave as if in a funhouse mirror. The sun rises fuzzy and bright behind a black, geometric crane. A pelican's wings span rows of houses on a hill. The photos are coupled with snippets from Watt's Stooges tour diaries and free-verse poems that are surprisingly gentle and evocative.
Watt is the son of a Navy chief who landed in San Pedro at age 10. Tired of constantly relocating, his mother decided she and Mike would stay there; his parents divorced. Watt's relationship with the legacy of his deceased father is mixed: He hates the war machine, loves the seafaring. His first opera, "Contemplating the Engine Room," is about the parallels between the traveling life of his "pop" and Watt's Minutemen days.
"I'm a sailor's son," says Watt, who wears a silver anchor necklace. "My pop being the chief, he gave me a lot of layers of his life."
It was the mothers, though, who shaped the Minutemen, the band Watt formed in 1980 with his Pedro friends D. Boon and George Hurley. In fact, it was Boon's mom who suggested they start a group. Out of all the bands associated with the 1980s South Bay label SST, the Minutemen seemed the most serious, the most destined for artistic glory, as evidenced by their ferocious live shows and the complex, jazz-influenced arrangements and agitprop lyrics of their four albums and eight EPs. Then Boon was killed in a traffic accident in 1985.
The Minutemen's story was told in the 2005 documentary "We Jam Econo," the title referring to the group's anti-luxury, DIY aesthetic and Watt's infamous van with the Brahma bull decal on its side.
Watt and Hurley formed fIREHOSE, a band that developed a larger following than Minutemen, yet never earned the critical acclaim. Having broken up in '94, fIREHOSE reunited this spring for a brief tour and Coachella shows. While Watt was happy to play with his old friends, he disliked the feeling of nostalgia at the shows — the "old guys wearing tour shirts with their guts hanging out.... Stooges' shows aren't like that."