Sailors and the sea have always held a fascination for Mike Watt. His family moved to San Pedro, Calif., in the 1960s when his father, a career Navy sailor, was transferred to the city's naval base.
Watt, co-founder of seminal rock band Minutemen, still lives in San Pedro and, in his own way, keeps the sea as a part of his life, telling punknews.org earlier this month that "riding around in a van" as a touring musician is "sort of like being in a boat, sort of like a sailor life."
Boise Weekly caught up with Watt as he was steering his "boat" through day three of his current two-month tour with Il Sogno del Marinaio (translated, it means "The Sailor's Dream"), a project he started in 2009 with Italian musicians Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia. For Watt's fans, the band's new album, Canto Secondo (ORG Music; Aug. 18, 2014) bridges old and new work: Pitchfork's Jason Heller praised its "effortless balance between Watt's formidable past and his still potent future."
Whatever connection Canto Secondo makes, Watt said ISDM came together accidentally. He met Pilia in 2005 while touring Italy behind his album The Secondman's Middle Stand (2004). Four years later, he received an email from Pilia asking if he'd like to play a festival with him and Belfi.
"And I thought, 'Well, yes, I would love to do it, but what about more than one?'" Watt told BW. "And so it turned into six. And I thought, 'Well, if we're gonna get the stuff up for six, why don't we record?' So in the middle of those six, we made [ISDM's first album] La Busta Gialla (ORG Music, 2012)."
It may seem unusual for a musician to make an album with people he doesn't know well and has barely played with, but for Watt--who said he knew from the first two days of rehearsal that "something should come of this"--it's standard operating procedure.
"A lot of stuff with bands [and] with music, it happens by accident," Watt said. "But once it happens, then I like to work on it."
Watt certainly knows about good things arising from accidents. A chance encounter in the '70s between a 14-year-old Watt and fellow teenager Dennes Boon led eventually to the formation of the Minutemen, one of the most respected groups to come out of the 1980s SoCal punk scene. The band is best known for its double-LP magnum opus Double Nickels on the Dime (SST Records, 1984), on which guitarist Boon, bassist Watt and drummer George Hurley combined punk, jazz, funk and folk with ruminations on politics and class.
In his book Our Band Could Be Your Life--whose title, incidentally, comes from a Mike Watt lyric--music journalist Michael Azerrad writes that, for all of the Minutemen's musical prowess, the band's true genius "lay not in their songwriting or chops but in their radical approach to their medium. ... Daringly incorporating such genres as funk and jazz, the Minutemen struck a blow for originality, a perennially endangered quality in punk rock."
From that first album, Watt continually proved his prowess. Over the course of his career, he has played with members of Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Sonic Youth, among many others. In 2003, Iggy Pop recruited him to play bass for reunited punk godfathers The Stooges. But even as accomplished as he is, Watt doesn't want to close off his mind or rest on his laurels.
"That's one of the dangers about being older--or less younger: You think you know it all, you've seen it all," Watt said. "That's a very dangerous place to be. And I do everything I can not to get like that."
That includes working with Pilia and Belfi, who are both accomplished musicians in their own right. In addition to being talented avant-garde composers, Belfi played in the Italian post-rock group Rosolina Mar, and Pilia plays guitar for acclaimed Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traore.
"I think it brings out stuff in me that [with] other situations I've been involved in aren't really there," Watt said.
The assured, responsive grooves on Canto Secondo bear out the truth of this statement. Shifting between tempos and genres, Watt's bass, Pilia's guitar and Belfi's drums weave and blend so deftly that it almost sounds as if the instruments are talking to each other. That rapport calls to mind Watt's achievements with the Minutemen and also bodes well for ISDM.
"I think that's exactly the idea with Il Sogno del Marinaio," Watt said. "We're trying to find our course by experiments, going for it. Trying to make an interesting conversation out of the three spirits."