Mike Watt calls his bass the thud staff. When he sings or talks, it’s spiel. He still jams econo, living and touring frugally with his attention on the music, not the trappings. A seminal punk bassist and songwriter, Watt has embodied a particularly inventive and influential strain of the D.I.Y. ethos for three decades, first as a founding member of the Minutemen with his friend D. Boon, whose death in a 1985 van wreck while on tour was and is a defining experience, and then with fIREHOSE and dos, a string of solo albums, and a slew of bands and collaborations, including his current gig as one of Iggy’s Stooges. Last year Watt, who’s 53, released his third opera, Hyphenated-Man, a 30-track rumination on middle age. He called from his home in San Pedro, California, where he’s lived since he was a boy.
Q: Why did you want to make an album dealing explicitly with midlife?
A: Because I’m immersed in it. It’s on me. Mechanically, in terms of my other two operas, there’s a kind of arc or a thread that binds them, but in the other ones I was kind of retelling something that had happened to me, and on this one I was trying to be more right there in the moment. What is happening with me. I wanted that challenge because it’s hard to do. It becomes past the next minute after you’ve done it.
Q: Is it harder to be immediate than to reframe things in hindsight?
A: Well, yeah. There’s two other ways of doing it. I could have been a younger man and guessed what it was going to be like. They would have been very far-off guesses. I could have waited until I got past middle age, into senility, when you probably forget everything. There’s no way to really know about this place for me except by living it.
Q: What is it like?
A: You have experience that you didn’t have as a younger person, but your body ain’t as good. You have a different, I think, overall picture of things. The glass half empty, half full thing is big-time when you’re young. That finitism, the awareness of it, isn’t as strong as now. Because you can feel it, you can feel it in your body that you’re breaking down, the body parts, maybe even the mind parts. But the mind parts have the things that the younger mind doesn’t have, with the experiences. You just can’t create those, you know. You have to live them. So what’s it like in this thing? It’s kind of a journeyman’s, a journeyperson’s, place. You’ve actually put time in, you know.
Q: It sounds like a mixed bag for you, with the breadth of experience and the experience of decay.
A: You know, I almost died when I was 22 from pneumonia. And I didn’t even write a song about that. At 42, it was a whole opera [Watt was gravely ill in 2000]. Because I guess I was coming into middle age then. The biggest fear was I was going to die without getting all this work done. I still had things to do, you know. After that I was very aware that I had to get a lot of shit done, because I didn’t know how much time I had.
Q: Yeah, mortality will do that to you.
A: Yeah. Yeah. Whereas with the 22-year-old scare, you know, we played, I didn’t even think about it again. Because we’re more resilient. In the middle part, you’re not Superman with the body, but I think you can get kind of Superman with the mind. Like, “Oh, I’ve been everywhere.” You can get jaded. Just because you do have some experiences, you can get overconfident, and hubris, and full of yourself. There is a danger to it. There’s dangers all during the journey of life, but they’re different kinds of dangers. They kind of change.
Q: What’s the most dangerous part of midlife?
A: I think the danger of middle life is, “I’ve done everything. You guys can’t teach me anything. Don’t tell me. I’ve been here. I’ve been there.” And to a point, that’s a little true. But in the big scope of things, that’s bullshit.
Q: So how do you maintain your perspective?
A: For me the healthier way is to try to be like a young person, in a way, where you’re a student. You know, you can’t pretend you’re young, that you haven’t had experiences, that your body ain’t lamer. But this role as a student, I don’t think that ever gets old-fashioned. I think that can apply to a younger person, middle person, older person. And it’s kind of a healthy place to be.
Q: They call it Beginner’s Mind in Zen Buddhism.
A: Yeah? Somebody once told me, “Stop learning, stop living.”
Q: In Zen study they say, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind, there are few.
A: See, that’s the danger of being around a little bit. It ain’t just a body problem, it’s a head problem, too, because you got to confront these kind of things. And I try to do that in the opera.
Q: Let’s talk about Hieronymus Bosch. The songs are based on characters in his paintings.
A: Well, I used them as a springboard, as a metaphor.
Q: What are you drawn to in Bosch’s work?
A: Oh, when I was a boy I was into dinosaurs and astronauts, and maybe it was something like that. I remember seeing him in the encyclopedia as a boy that my mom got these from the guy at the door. World Book. And yeah, you just started at A and go to Z. And we got in the B’s, there was this painter, you know. And it was like, “Jesus Christ, what’s this shit?” It was very strange. These creatures, I think it was the way they were amalgamations or combinations of things. I remember seeing taxidermists do the same thing. They put different parts of animals on each other. That’s what attracted me. I didn’t see much religion in it. I didn’t really see morality or stuff in those things. It was just the strangeness of the different parts. And I thought that was perfect for metaphor, because that’s what it is. You stuck your meaning to some outside meaning, and make a weird-ass half-ass in the meantime, a weird creature, a golem, little golems.
Q: Are you the creatures in Hyphenated-Man? Is this a fractured portrait of the artist?
A: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s like if somebody put a mirror in my head and it all cracked up into 30 pieces. So they’re me, speaking of me. And maybe they’re mirrors like funhouse mirrors, distorted and stuff. The other thing I tried to get away from was I didn’t want beginning, middle, end. Which is impossible to do, really.
Q: I would think so.