1995: The Year Mike Watt Broke Grunge
The year marked a turning point that thrust a modest grunge forefather into the forefront of the proverbial rock pantheon.
When Mike Watt appeared as the musical guest on The Jon Stewart Show in 1995, it might not even have registered for viewers that his backing band comprised half of Nirvana and the singer from Pearl Jam.
By this point in the San Pedro, California denizen's life, he'd earned his stars as a veteran with the seminal punk trio Minutemen and its spiritual indie rock successor fIREHOSE, along with roles or stints on the bass in other 80s/90s projects like Ciccone Youth, Dos, and Saccharine Trust. But apart from the coolest, or rather, the nerdiest consumers of the then-future Daily Show host's soon-to-be-canceled MTV program, most of those watching probably had no clue who in the holy hell this gruff-voiced and rough fella in the flannel playing bass was.
Of course, Dave Grohl, Pat Smear, and Eddie Vedder all knew damn well who Mike Watt was well before they'd played a single note together.
"It's such a trip how this came together," Watt tells me over the phone.
A lot of his friends, 48 by his own count, had come through for 1995's Ball-Hog Or Tugboat?, the first ever Watt album released under his own name. "The theory was, I thought if the bass player knew the song, anybody could come in and play drums, guitar, or sing," he says. With each of the record's 17 tracks utilizing a different lineup permutation, Watt likens the studio experience to a wrestling ring, as exciting as it was intimidating. "I was kinda musically a little sheltered," he says of himself prior to making the record. "I didn't really play with a lot of people."
After a combined 13-and-a-half years of jamming econo with Minutemen and fIREHOSE, Ball-Hog showcased Watt's songwriting and playing both with and against arguably the most formidable set of collaborators in rock history ever assembled for one album. The list of players warrants dropped jaws—instrumentalists like J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Jane's Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, and Parliament-Funkadelic's Bernie Worrell, as well as the aforementioned Grohl, Smear, and Vedder. The assembled vocalists were no slouches either, folks like Frank Black of the Pixies, Henry Rollins of Black Flag, and Mike D of the Beastie Boys. "Managers weren't involved," he says. "I just called up people."
"Even if it's your band and you're writing all the stuff, because of the physics, you're still backing your dudes up," Watt says. "The bass is that kind of instrument." That sort of rhythm section conditioned humility carries through the diverse, robust offerings of Ball-Hog, a strange, loose record coming from a guy who'd already put out so many strange, loose records. Though the album never rose above number 130 on the Billboard 200 chart, it carried some big time alt-rock with "Against The '70s" and "Piss Bottle Man," the latter featuring Lemonheads' Evan Dando.
Released via Columbia, the same company behind the last two fIREHOSE albums, Ball-Hog marked a new beginning for a musician who'd otherwise have been perfectly content to play with his childhood friend D. Boon for the rest of his life. "Actually, I am still his bass player; it's just I'm not playing with him," Watt clarifies, a gulping reference to the Minutemen frontman's untimely and tragic passing in 1985.
Yet Ball-Hog also posed a bit of a conundrum for the seasoned road dog, one who grew his bands with a relentless touring ethic going back to his time on SST Records with other notable acts like Hüsker Dü and the Meat Puppets. "Try to get 48 dudes in a van," he says. Fortunately, circumstances were in Watt's favor.
Attempting to move forward after the 1994 death of Kurt Cobain, Grohl had assembled a live band—including Sunny Day Real Estate drummer William Goldsmith—to play the material from his then-forthcoming album under the name Foo Fighters. At the same time, increasingly unsettled by the tremendous success of his main band, Vedder craved the lower profile of performing in wife Beth Liebling's experimental group Hovercraft. Their proposition couldn't have been simpler or more appealing to Watt: they'd serve as his backing band on tour as well as the shows' openers with their respective projects.
"They were really, whaddayacall, encouraging, supportive," Watt says. For him, it provided a way to make a gigging version of the album. "Although we didn't have all the different dudes, but it's still the idea of dudes who haven't played together just doin' it."
Taken from a gig at The Metro in Chicago, the just-released "Ring Spiel" Tour '95 captures the Goldsmith-Grohl-Smear-Vedder-Watt supergroup in action, a spirited 16-song romp through most of Ball-Hog along with earlier originals and inventive covers. Recorded midway through the tour, the set opens with a rendition of Daniel Johnston's "Walking The Cow," an established favorite of several band members that Watt had previously covered on fIREHOSE's Flyin The Flannel and with the Lucky Sperms, a side project with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. "I just thought he was the most sublime songwriter," he says of Johnston. "To me, it's like a Roky Erickson song, something about it."
From there, the band vacillated between punk rock attitude and introspective experimentation. They plow and pound through the twang squall of "Big Train" and the Minutemen classic "Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing," slowing down for the hypnotic "Chinese Firedrill" and "Drove Up From Pedro." Pearl Jam fans will assuredly recognize the raw version of "Habit" here that precedes its inclusion on 1996's No Code, while Watt die-hards ought to nod knowingly at the Raymond Pettibon-penned closer "Powerful Hankerin'."
Fully sanctioned and sanctified by the band, "Ring Spiel" Tour '95 highlights this short-lived group's impressive knack for adapting to Watt's playful sensibilities as well as kicking out the motherfuckin' jams when needed. "At that point I was so fucking scared that I didn't know what to do, so I took these guys' advice almost on everything," he says. There's a respectful, reverent awe that Watt exudes when talking about how vital the support of Grohl, Smear, and Vedder was to him at this uncertain time in his career. "It wasn't just any old tour; it was kinda like a mindblow."
About a week prior to the Chicago gig on "Ring Spiel" Tour '95, Watt hosted MTV's late night Sunday alt-rock program 120 Minutes in New York. At the time of that taping, he was 37 and visibly uncomfortable on camera, not unlike many of those who guested on the seminal show over the years. In the proverbial spotlight for the first time in his musical career, he joked awkwardly about going to bed at nine o'clock, mused about missing Patti Smith and protesting alongside Krist Novoselic, occasionally scratching his beard or picking at his fingers.
Being centerstage literally and figuratively was still so new to Watt, then unaware that he'd later go on to form new bands like the Secondmen and il sogno del marinaio, tour with Porno For Pyros and J. Mascis & The Fog, independently write and record rock operas, and even formally join his proto-punk heroes in The Stooges. So much of the historical discussion of Watt's work fixates on the 80s, but 1995 marked a fundamental turning point that thrust this modest grunge forefather into the forefront of the proverbial rock pantheon.
"After this, I ended up playing with all kinds of people. So in a weird way this is like the start of that new kind of Watt life."
Mike Watt's "Ring Spiel" Tour '95 is now available on CD, vinyl, and digitally via Legacy Recordings / Sony Music Entertainment.
Gary Suarez is on Twitter - @noyokono