"Experience, in some ways, is a momentum ... especially when I get all doubted out and scared," says Mike Watt, veteran punk bass hero and songwriter, known for his work with the Minutemen, fIREHOSE, and, most recently, the Stooges. "That stuff does kick in and carry me through."
Experience and momentum — that's the theme at the Music Farm this Saturday. Watt and his current combo the Missingmen visit Charleston for an opening set with former SST Records labelmates Dinosaur Jr. The pairing of such acts is historic in a way. Watt's taking a look back at his Minutemen experience while taking another artistic step ahead with a new "rock opera." The original three Dino guys — guitarist/singer J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow, and drummer Murph — are back on the road after a totally unexpected reunion, along with a pile of new tunes.
Encouraged by the progressive and positive attitudes of the early punk era — and loaded on the deepest and heaviest riffs and roars of the classic rock world — both Dinosaur Jr. and Mike Watt's early bands helped transform the '80s rock underground. Highly influential for their musical styles and high work ethic, both inspired many of the grunge and indie-rock generations that followed.
"We've always kind of had a mix of Neil Young and Black Sabbath," says Murph (a.k.a. Emmett Murphy). "It's like a bit of punk rock, power-pop, and heavy rock. The new record is definitely on that mark."
Murph, Mascis, and Barlow came together in the college town of Amherst, Mass., in 1984. After turbulent times in the late '80s and early '90s (Barlow quit and Murph drifted away), the founding members reunited three years ago with their frighteningly loud wall-of-sound intact and a surprisingly functional level of interaction.
Dino's earliest albums — 1985's lo-fi Dinosaur, 1987's stonerific and dynamic You're Living All Over Me, and 1988's comparatively well-produced Bug — were among the band's most critically acclaimed. Merge Records re-released all three in 2005.
After the release of 1993's Where You Been, featuring "Start Choppin'," Mascis basically became the band, playing all the instruments on the albums and calling all the shots on tour. His recordings under the band name J Mascis and the Fog featured all the trademarks: fuzzed-out guitars, croaking vocals, twisting chord changes, and anxiety-ridden lyrics.
In 2006, the reunited trio served as the main curator of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in England. They recorded and released an album of new material titled Beyond, and recently signed with indie label Jagjaguwar (a new disc is due in June).
"I had no idea the reunion was going to take place," Murph remembers. "I had been practicing and rediscovering the drums. There were no rumors or stories — no warning or anything — so it's kind of interesting when I got the call and how it coincided at, like, the perfect time."
According to Jagjaguwar, fans who score tickets to the spring shows also receive either a limited edition, tour-only 7" or a digital download code with the purchase of a ticket.
"The formula has stayed the same," says Murph. "J does demos and hands them to me first, 'cause drums are always the most important things to him. Then Lou comes in. The only thing different now is life changes. I've noticed when people have families and start having kids, they definitely get inspired. When people have those big life experiences, they bring that positive energy to their music.
"I think it's more controlled on stage now," he adds. "I feel way more on top of my game. Back then it was just like a firestorm. It lit, it spread, and it was out. It was a blast. I enjoy playing the songs more now. I can control and harness the energy, and it's a good feeling."
Watt's feeling remarkably invigorated as well. He claims he's currently "on a tear" to record as much music as possible, recently collaborating with guitarist Nels Cline (of Wilco) and drummer Sam Nook in a duo called Cuz, in addition to the Missingmen.
"For me, life is to keep putting myself into challenging situations so that I can continue to learn," Watt says. "I can't ever remake the old days, but to go out and tour like this is kind of an echo of the old days, but its' with different people. Lots of the ethics I learned with the Minutemen resonate through and haven't changed [laughs]. If they're good enough for then, they're good enough for now."
The Missingmen's spring tour is Watt's longest road trip in four years. The trip is titled "Prac'n the 3rd Opera," featuring the repertoire of Watt's next studio album Ten and Twenty Don't Make Fifty. The lineup features one of his longtime collaborators, guitarist Tom Watson (Slovenly, Toxic Shock), and new drummer Raul Morales.
"I don't wanna be on auto-pilot or sleepwalking or anything, but because I've done it so much, it does carry me through and I don't totally freak out," says Watt. "That's the freaky thing about gigs; they're kind of like dice rolls. But one thing I've learned from experience and in recent years with the Stooges is you don't sleepwalk the gig. You kind of push it so it might fall. You kind of get into a state where you fly off the rail, you know. If you're too safe, there may not be enough passion. You need to risk blowing some fucking clams. In the moment of the gig, you gotta push it."
In 2005, director Tim Irwin and producer Keith Schieron released a documentary film titled We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen. The film chronicled the history of Watt, guitarist Dennes "D" Boon, and drummer George Hurley from their early days in the punk scene to their reign as underground heroes. Told by "those who were there," We Jam Econo bounced from interviews to old video footage of the band on stage.
Watt assembled the Missingmen shortly after the film's release in order to bring forth his third "punk rock opera," Hyphenated-Man — a follow-up to 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room and 2004's The Secondman's Middle Stand. The bassist describes the new 30-song piece as "quite different in that it has no standard narrative." He says it's the middle story of his life and career, and it's less morose or melancholic than the other previous efforts. He says that while it's weird that he's gone from playing super-brief rock songs to multiple-movement operas — another conceptual step ahead.
"I put the Missingmen together for my third opera, which has more influence from the Minutemen," Watt says. "A couple of years ago, when they put We Jam Econo together, I had to hear a lot of Minutemen, and people sent a lot of video of us at gigs which I'd never seen before. I'm checking out all these little songs without a lot of filler. I figured, for my third opera, I think I'll make it a little song format."
Watt and the band plan to record the new opera right in the middle of the spring tour in Brooklyn with Tony Maimone (of Pere Ubu, They Might Be Giants) at the board.
While laying down tracks is major goal for Watt and his guys, the art and effort of the live gigs are still top priority.
"The gig was very profound to us," Watt says of his early Minutemen years. "In the Minutemen years, those little songs are part the gigs, parts of something bigger. We decided to split the world into two categories — gigs and fliers. Everything that wasn't a gig was a flier. We saw our little pieces as parts of one gig. The gigs had the least amount of middle-men. Records, pictures, interviews, and stuff — those were like fliers.
"Later on, we found out that the recordings were actually works, not just fliers," he adds. "They had their own life. A gig leaves. It's for people in the moment to experience. But for people who weren't at that gig, they can't really know it, so you gotta have a balance. Albums were always the springboard. That's why I really take some chances on a concept level, more than a pragmatic, work-the-gig kind of level. In the old days, we thought they were important to get our name out for touring, and we'd take chances on some musical ideas in songs. We never saw them as means to themselves. I do now."