He is best known for co-founding the rock bands Minutemen, Dos, and Firehose; as of 2003, he is also the bassist for the reunited Stooges and a member of the art rock/jazz/punk/improv group Banyan as well as many other post-Minutemen projects.
CMJ New Music called Watt a “seminal post-punk bass player.” In November 2008, Watt received the Bass Player Magazine lifetime achievement award, presented by Flea.
Watt was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. When he was young, Watt’s family moved to San Pedro, California, where he became good friends with D. Boon. Watt and Boon picked up bass and guitar, respectively. Watt was a fan of T Rex and Blue Öyster Cult, while Boon’s exposure to rock music was limited to Creedence Clearwater Revival, another Watt favorite.
In 1978, Watt and Boon formed a band called The Reactionaries with drummer George Hurley and vocalist Martin Tamburovich. The band later became Minutemen with another drummer named Frank Tonche, who only lasted two shows with the group; Hurley, who had been in the short-lived new wave group Hey Taxi! at the time Minutemen first formed, rejoined Watt and Boon. After signing with SST Records in 1980, Minutemen began touring constantly, releasing a number of albums along the way. Their music was based on the speed, brevity and intensity of punk, but included elements of jazz, folk, and funk.
In 1984, Watt met Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler during a Black Flag/Minutemen tour. They soon became romantically involved, and subsequently began collaborating on songs, including material on Minutemen’s final album 3-Way Tie (For Last). They also formed a two-bass duo, Dos, and have since recorded and released three records.
Minutemen ended tragically on December 22, 1985, when Boon was killed in an automobile crash while driving to Arizona with his girlfriend. Their fifth full-length album, 3-Way Tie (For Last) had already been scheduled for release at the time of the accident. In the documentary film We Jam Econo, Watt mentioned that the last time he saw Boon, he had received lyrics for 10 songs from critic and songwriter Richard Meltzer for a planned collaboration with Minutemen. Minutemen were also planning to record a triple album with the working title 3 Dudes, 6 Sides, 3 Studio, 3 Live as way to counteract bootleggers.
After Boon’s death, Watt was profoundly depressed; he and Hurley initially intended to quit music altogether. Sonic Youth invited Watt to hang out with them in New York City in 1986; they recorded a cover of Madonna’s “Burnin’ Up” (with additional guitars by Greg Ginn) on the first Ciccone Youth EP, and Watt played bass for two songs on the Sonic Youth album Evol. Watt cites this period as critical in inspiring his post-Minutemen career saying, “The first thing I did was Thurston asked me to play bass on Evol. That was a big highlight, man. Like, ‘What, you want me to play without D. Boon?'”
Subsequently, Ed Crawford, a Minutemen fan who drove to San Pedro from Ohio, persuaded the Watt/Hurley rhythm section to continue playing music. Firehose was formed soon after. After three releases on SST, Firehose was signed to Columbia Records by A&R man Jim Dunbar. Shortly after the release of 1993’s Mr. Machinery Operator, the band decided to call it quits.
Watt and Kira married in 1987, but their marriage ended not long after Firehose’s break-up. However, both their friendship and Dos have remained intact; they even recorded their third album, Justamente Tres, not long after their divorce.
After working with Firehose, Watt began a solo career. His first album, Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, featured appearances from dozens of musicians (many were Watt’s peers from the 1980s SST era), including Henry Rollins, Eddie Vedder, J Mascis, Carla Bozulich, Evan Dando, members of Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Frank Black, Nirvana, Soul Asylum, Jane’s Addiction, the Beastie Boys and the Screaming Trees. The album and its supporting tour were Watt’s first taste of mainstream fame, when Vedder and Dave Grohl of Nirvana were part of his touring group. After Vedder returned to his Pearl Jam commitments and Grohl began working with his new band Foo Fighters, Watt formed his only four-piece touring group to date, The Crew Of The Flying Saucer, featuring guitarist Nels Cline and two drummers.
In 1996, Watt contributed bass lines to two songs on Porno for Pyros’ second album, Good God’s Urge. He subsequently ended up being the bassist for the tour that followed the release of the album.
He made an appearance in an episode of Cartoon Network’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
In 1997, Watt released Contemplating the Engine Room, a punk rock song cycle using naval life as an extended metaphor for both Watt’s family history (the album has a picture of his father in his Navy uniform on the cover) and the Minutemen. The album, which was critically well received, features a trio of musicians including Nels Cline on guitar, and Watt as the only singer.
Watt went on to play in such groups as Banyan (with Stephen Perkins and Nels Cline) and Hellride, a sometime live outfit that plays cover versions of Stooges songs. He also played in The Wylde Ratttz with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and The Stooges’ Ron Asheton, recording a song for the film Velvet Goldmine. Watt also recorded a bass line to send to the Pennsylvania space-folk band The Clubber Lang Gang for their record Now Here This, on the track “For the Broken People”. Starting in mid-2011, Watt began playing bass for a psychedelic/progressive rock band called Anywhere with the Mars Volta’s Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Christian Eric Beaulieu of Triclops! In 2015 Mike Watt joined the Waywords and Meansigns project, a collaborative project setting James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to music.
Illness, recovery and The Stooges
In January 2000, Watt fell ill with an infection of his perineum, forcing him into emergency surgery and nine weeks of bedrest in his San Pedro apartment. Initially unable to play his bass, he rebuilt his strength with intense practice as well as live club gigs where he performed sets of Stooges covers with Hellride in California and with J Mascis and Dinosaur Jr. drummer Murph in New York City under the name Hellride East.
In 2000, Mascis asked Watt to participate in a world tour behind Mascis’ first post-Dinosaur Jr. release, J Mascis and the Fog’s More Light. At several of the shows, Ron Asheton formerly of The Stooges joined Mascis and Watt onstage, wherein the group would play entire sets of Stooges songs. Watt and Mascis later joined Asheton and his brother, Stooges drummer Scott Asheton, for a one-time-only performance at a Belgian festival under the name Asheton, Asheton, Mascis & Watt. In 2001, Watt was one of several bassists invited to participate in the sessions for Gov’t Mule’s The Deep End, partly on the recommendation of Primus’ Les Claypool. Watt and Gov’t Mule recorded a cover version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Effigy” for the album. The sessions were immortalized in the documentary feature film Rising Low.
In 2002, Watt, along with Pete Yorn and members of The Hives, backed Iggy Pop for a short set of Stooges songs at that year’s Shortlist Music Prize ceremony, after which Watt was asked to play bass in the reunited Stooges lineup in 2003. The reunited Stooges played their first show in almost 20 years at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in May 2003.
In 2003, Watt’s first book, Spiels Of A Minuteman, was released by the Quebec book publisher L’Oie De Cravan. The book, printed in both English and French, contains all of Watt’s song lyrics from the Minutemen era as well as the tour journal he wrote during the Minutemen’s only European tour with Black Flag, essays by former SST co-owner Joe Carducci, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and Blue Öyster Cult lyricist and longtime Watt hero Richard Meltzer, and illustrations by Raymond Pettibon that had been used in all of the Minutemen’s album artwork.
The Secondman’s Middle Stand
Watt’s third solo album The Secondman’s Middle Stand, inspired by both his 2000 illness and one of his favorite books, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, was released in 2004; one reviewer writes that the album is a “harrowing, funny, and genuinely moving stuff from a true American original.”. For the first time since the Minutemen, Watt recorded the album with an “all-Pedro band”, Mike Watt & The Secondmen, consisting of organist Pete Mazich and drummer Jerry Trebotic, along with former that dog. vocalist Petra Haden.
While promoting and touring behind The Secondman’s Middle Stand, Watt announced plans for future recordings, stating that he intended to record as frequently as he did in the Minutemen days for as long as he could.
Watt would part amicably with Columbia/Sony BMG in 2005, after 14 years as both a solo artist and as one-third of Firehose.
The Unknown Instructors
In 2005, another side project featuring Watt came to light with the announced September 20 release of The Way Things Work, an album of improvised music under the group name, the Unknown Instructors with George Hurley, Saccharine Trust’s Joe Baiza and Jack Brewer, and poet/saxophonist Dan McGuire. A month after the album’s release, the Unknown Instructors recorded a second album, The Master’s Voice, with Pere Ubu frontman David Thomas and artist Raymond Pettibon joining the core quartet of Watt, Hurley, McGuire and Baiza. A third album with the same lineup, Funland, was released in 2009 and features a semi-cover version (the original lyrics over new music) of Captain Beefheart’s “Frownland” (from the Trout Mask Replica album). Basic tracks have already been laid down for the fourth Unknown Instructors album at Secondmen organist Pete Mazich’s Casa Hanzo studio in San Pedro.
Watt would further his interest in improvised music by forming a trio, Los Pumpkinheads, with former Beastie Boys keyboardist Money Mark and Caroline Bermudez.
On December 14, 2005, the McNally-Smith College of Music in Saint Paul, Minnesota announced the formation of the Mike Watt Bass Guitar Scholarship, which is to be awarded annually to a bass major starting in the Fall of 2006.
In March 2006, Watt took part in the performance at Disney Hall, Los Angeles, of Glenn Branca’s “Hallucination City” Symphony #13.
In October 2006, Watt joined the rest of The Stooges at recording engineer Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio Studio in Chicago, Illinois to record The Weirdness, the first Stooges studio album since 1973’s Raw Power. The album was released on March 6, 2007, and much of Watt’s 2007 was devoted to Stooges duties, including the band’s first full-length U.S. tour since the band’s reformation.
In November 2006, Watt revealed to Pitchfork Media that he contributed his bass skills to six tracks on My December, the third album by American Idol singer Kelly Clarkson, a studio assignment that he took at the invitation of his “old friend”, producer/engineer David Kahne.
Watt also worked on two other projects during this time period: Funanori, a musical collaboration with Kaori Tsuchida, guitarist of The Go! Team, on shamisen and other instruments, and Pelicanman (named after the closing track on The Secondman’s Middle Stand) with Petra Haden. The first three songs recorded by Watt and Tsuchida as Funanori were released on a split EP with Tokyo band LITE in the summer of 2007 by Transduction Records. Watt also contributed a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Burning For You”, recorded with Haden, Nels Cline, Money Mark Nishita, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, to the all-star compilation album Guilt by Association, released in August by the independent label Engine Room Recordings.
On June 9, 2007, Watt was the live narrator for the silent movie Brand Upon the Brain! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, California.
Hyphenated-Man, clenchedwrench label, and Firehose reunion
Watt reunited with the final Black Gang lineup of Nels Cline and Bob Lee to record a new album, tentatively titled My Shibun No Hi, in 2008. No release date has yet been set for the album.
Continuing his exploration of both improvised music and the Japanese independent music scene, Watt, along with Nels Cline and producer Kramer, formed Brother’s Sister’s Daughter with mi-gu members Shimizu “Shimmy” Hirotaka and Yuko Araki to do a two-week tour of the country in late 2008 and record an album afterward. The album was mixed down by Hirotake but has not lined up a label or release date yet. Since then, two more albums by the band have been recorded but have yet
Watt and Cline teamed up in New York to form Floored by Four with ex-Cibo Matto keyboardist Yuka Honda and Lounge Lizards drummer Dougie Boune. The group debuted at Central Park Summerstage on August 1, and recorded their first self-titled album right afterward. The album was released in late September 2010 on Sean Lennon’s Chimera Music label. Honda would later rejoin Watt and Cline for a second Brother’s Sister’s Daughter tour and album session in Japan (Cline and Honda became romantically involved – and subsequently engaged to be married – during the course of these projects).
Watt is interviewed in the 2009 documentary film Live House, about the underground music scene in Japan.
In late November 2009, Watt traveled to Italy to tour and record at the invitation of Italian guitarist Stefano Pilia. The project band, Il Sogno Del Marinaio, did a short six-date tour, after which recording for an album (later entitled La Busta Gialla) took place.
Watt recorded his first post-Columbia solo album, Hyphenated-man, in two sessions 13 months apart, with The Missingmen at Studio G, the New York studio of former Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone. Hypnenated-man consists of 30 short songs inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. The first session for the album took place during a planned break in Watt’s Spring 2009 tour, during which, in a deliberate move, only the drum and guitar tracks were completed. Watt overdubbed his vocal and bass tracks with Maimone in June 2010. The album was released in Japan by Parabolic Records on October 6, 2010, and Watt undertook his first tour of the country as a solo artist in support of it (before his work with Brother’s Sister’s Daughter, he previously toured there as a sideman with J Mascis and as one-fifth of The Stooges). A release of the album for the rest of the world took place on Watt’s newly established clenchedwrench label on March 1, 2011, with an accompanying 51-date US/Canadian tour occurring between March 10 and April 30.
Watt is using his clenchedwrench label to put out some other long-awaited recording projects from the stockpile he has accumulated over the past few years, starting with the fourth Dos album (Dos y Dos, released July 16, 2011)), followed by the Spielgusher project with Richard Meltzer and mi-gu’s Shimizu “Shimmy” Hirotaka and Yuko Araki (Spielgusher, released January 17, 2012) and the Il Sogno Del Marinaio album (scheduled for release on May 29, 2012). Watt chose to start clenchedwrench after returning from his Japanese Hyphenated-man tour because “I’ve got so many proj[ect]s in the pipeline… and I want no hiccups with getting them out, so up goes my own freak flag flying.”
Firehose’s reunion was formally announced as part of the lineup of the 2012 Coachella Festival. The band underwent a short tour in April centered around both Coachella dates.
The Watt from Pedro Show
When he is not on tour, Watt hosts a regular internet radio show, The Watt from Pedro Show, a continuation of a program Watt had first done on a low-power FM station in the late 1990s. The program debuted on May 19, 2001, and became so popular with Watt’s fans that the website’s host, Sightworks, temporarily forced the show offline on weekdays until a sponsor or other solution could be found. On January 10, 2006, The Watt from Pedro Show became available as a podcast.
In 2014 he published in collaboration with Sam Dook of The Go! Team an album under the name CUZ.
Watt’s post-Firehose bands
In all of these groups, Watt is the band leader and handles vocals and bass.
- 1995: unnamed band with Eddie Vedder – guitar, vocals; Dave Grohl – guitar, drums, vocals; William Goldsmith – drums, Pat Smear – guitar (these shows were billed just as Mike Watt shows)
- 1995: The Crew of the Flying Saucer: Nels Cline – guitar, vocals; Vince Meghrouni – drums, sax, vocals; Michael Preussner – drums
- 1997–1999, 2008–present: The Black Gang: Joe Baiza or Nels Cline – guitar, vocals; Stephen Hodges or Bob Lee – drums; Steve Reed – sound mixing and backing vocals
- 1999–2000: The Pair of Pliers: Tom Watson – guitar, drums, vocals; Vince Meghrouni – drums, harmonica, flute, sax, vocals
- 2000–2001: The Jom and Terry Show: Tom Watson – guitar, percussion, vocals; Jerry Trebotic – drums
- 2001–present: George Hurley and Mike Watt: George Hurley – drums, vocals.
- 2002–present: The Real Oh My: Nels Cline – guitar, Kevin Fitzgerald – drums
- 2002–present: The Secondmen: Pete Mazich – Hammond B3 organ, vocals; Jerry Trebotic – drums; Petra Haden – vocals (studio only, 2004); Paul Roessler – organ, vocals (when Mazich is unavailable to tour)
- 2005–present: The Missingmen: Tom Watson – guitar, vocals; Raul Morales – drums.
- 2008–present: Big Walnuts Yonder: Nels Cline – guitar; Nick Reinhart – guitar, vocals; Greg Saunier – drums
- 2009–present: Il Sogno del Marinaio: Stefano Pilia – guitar; Andrea Belfi – drums, vocals.
- 2014–present: The Secondmissingmen: Pete Mazich – Hammond B3 organ, vocals; Tom Watson, guitar, vocals; Jerry Trebotic and Raul Morales, drums.
- Spiels of a minuteman by Mike Watt (Montreal: L’Oie de Cravan, 2003) ISBN 978-2-922399-20-2
- Mike Watt: On and Off Bass by Mike Watt (New York: Three Rooms Press, 2012) ISBN 978-0983581307
- The Minutemen
- 1986 Dos (New Alliance)
- 1989 Numero Dos (12″ EP) (New Alliance)
- 1989 Uno Con Dos (CD) (New Alliance)
- 1996 Justamente Tres (CD) (Kill Rock Stars)
- 2011 Dos y Dos (CD, LP) (Clenchedwrench)
- 1988 The Crimony EP (New Alliance)
- The Stooges
- 2004 Live In Detroit (DVD) (Creem/MVD)
- 2005 “You Better Run” on The Songs Of Junior Kimbrough (Fat Possum)
- 2005 Telluric Chaos (Skydog)
- 2007 The Weirdness (Virgin)
- 2013 Ready to Die (Fat Possum)
- Off With Their Heads
- 2011 Off With Their Heads/Discharge Split 7″ (Drunken Sailor Records)
- Steve Mackay
- 2011 Sometimes Like This I Talk
- 2011 North Beach Jazz
- The Hand to Man Band
- 2012 You Are Always on Our Minds (Post-Consumer)
- 2012 Anywhere (ATP Recordings)
- Mike Watt + the Missingmen
- 2013 Missing the Minutemen 10″
- 2015 Missing More of the Minutemen 10″
- Il Sogno Del Marinaio
- 2013 La Busta Gialla
- 2014 Canto Secondo
- 2014 CUZ – Tamatebako
- Brother’s Sister’s Daughter
- 2014 BSD
- Big Walnuts Yonder
- 2017 Big Walnuts Yonder
All solo albums were released on Columbia except where noted:
- 1995 Ball-Hog or Tugboat?
- 1997 Contemplating the Engine Room
- 2004 The Secondman’s Middle Stand
- 2010/2011 Hyphenated-man (Parabolica Records [Japan])/(clenchedwrench [elsewhere])
- The clenchwrench release uses a different cover artwork than the Japanese issue.
- 2015 Watt: On Bass limited edition 5″ vinyl
- As a solo artist
- 1995 “Big Train” – directed by Spike Jonze
- 1995 “Piss-Bottle Man” – directed by Roman Coppola
- 1997 “Liberty Calls” – directed by Spike Jonze
- 2004 “Tied A Reed ‘Round My Waist” – directed by Lance Bangs
- 2004 “Drove up from Pedro” – directed by Mike Muscarella
- 2004 “Beltsandedman” – directed by Mike Muscarella
- 2004 “Burstedman” – directed by Mike Muscarella
- 2004 “Pelicanman” – directed by Mike Muscarella
- with Sonic Youth
- 1990 “My Friend Goo” – cameo appearance
- 1991 “100%” – brief cameo appearance
- with Sublime
- 1996 “Wrong Way” – Watt portrays a convenience store clerk
- with The Jom and Terry Show
- 2001 “MIKE WATT & THE JOM and TERRY SHOW “EYEGIFTS FROM MINNESOTA”- documentary directed by Bill Draheim
- with Good Charlotte
- 2003 “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” – Watt portrays a jury foreman
- with Cobra Verde
- 2003 “Riot Industry” – Watt as “The Man In The Flannel Bathrobe”.
- 2012 “Thrash Lab” – Watt discusses Punk Rock Video