Seminal bassist Mike Watt doesn't avoid the big questions in his songwriting. In fact, he begins his most recent release, Hyphenated-Man (Clenchedwrench), with one: "Now what came first, the thought or the man?"
At 53, Watt is using his Ford Econoline 350 van, which he calls his "boat," to carve a counterclockwise ellipse through North America from Southern California to the East Coast, through Canada and back down the West Coast. Joined by the Missing Men, he's making 51 tour stops in 52 days--including one in Boise on Sunday, April 24--hobbling on a bad knee and nursing a sore throat, making daily entries in his online tour diary, practicing English with his Japanese friend Eiko-San via Skype, and displaying earnest good-naturedness in phone interviews--sometimes several in a day--along the way. Watt could be called the hardest working man in punk rock if it didn't seem like such an insincere cliche.
"Boise is really happening for touring because it's between Salt Lake City and the Northwest," Watt said, with the shrewdness of someone who has been touring for decades--he has an impressive punk rock resume and was awarded the Bass Player Magazine Liftetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Watt and his childhood friend D. Boon formed the Minutemen, an apropos name given that band was all about economy: fast songs, inexpensive recording, touring for short periods of time. The iconic, iconoclastic trio became one of the most influential punk bands of the '80s. After Boon died in an auto accident, Watt played with several other bands, including Firehose, Dos and Porno for Pyros. He's recently been providing bass for Iggy and the Stooges and will kick off another tour with them at the end of May.
Watt speaks--and writes in his tour diary--with a dialect and lexicon that seem all his own. Its myriad components include nautical terms gleaned as the son of a Navy sailor, as well as fragments of other languages.
"What I want to do [with the diary] is try and make things so it seems casual," he said.
Others sleep and wake up, but Watt konks and pops. Others arrive and leave, but he drops anchor and pulls up anchor. In Watt's universe, 8:30 is eight and a half bells. And if he feels ashamed of his behavior, he might call himself a baka (idiot).
Watt's diary entries typically begin with waking up and end with konking on a couch somewhere. In between, he's likely to mention driving the van, people he met, food he ate, local spots he enjoyed, how the concert went and whatever else may be rattling around in his head. A recent topic is concern for Japanese earthquake victims.
"What I'm trying to do with the diaries is get people interested in having first-hand experiences for themselves--not like mine are so special, but there's not one way to have them," Watt said. "Everybody's got their own way."
Watt's own way is through sprawling rock records that tell their own stories.
"I have stuff to say, and I can't do it in one song, so I have to make a big song," Watt said of Hyphenated-Man, his fourth solo release or what he calls his third opera.
His first opera, Contemplating the Engine Room, drew a parallel between the Navy life of his father and his own tenure as a member of the Minutemen. His second, The Secondman's Middle Stand, describes his struggle with an abscess that nearly killed him, and references Dante's Divine Comedy.
To Watt a concept album is "all this stuff around one idea."
"An opera is actually beginning, middle and end--a story," he said. And for the last couple decades, Watt's operas have been moving inward.
Hyphenated-Man is all about introspection. It's Watt trying to confront himself with what it's all about. He said it's what you'd see if you took a mirror, broke it into 30 pieces and stuck it right in his head. It's a fast moving, ferocious record, with only two of the songs breaking the two-minute mark. The titles of all 30 songs originated from "creatures" out of the works of 15th century painter Hieronymus Bosch. He first saw these paintings as a boy in a World Book Encyclopedia.
"They freaked me out," Watt said. "I was into dinosaurs and astronauts, too. They just seemed out of this world."
Many of the "men" featured in Watt's music came from The Garden of Earthly Delights, a busy painting with various surreal depictions of majesty, torment and human mutilation. Watt uses the men as metaphors that speak about, what he described as, being a middle-aged punk rocker--about bein' Mike Watt in his 50s.
Though he wants people to bring their own meanings to the songs, he did offer a few of his own. For instance "Thistle-Headed-Man" describes consequences of not being humble, while "Mouse-Headed-Man" speaks of the times when "you're a little too modest," Watt said.
A performance in a different city every day is ambitious to the point of absurdity.
"Well, Canada and the U.S. are big lands," Watt said. "I'm still missing some towns! But what could I do?"
It's all part of his "jam econo" philosophy, a word inspired by the model of his boat. Jamming econo is hard to pin down, but it has to do with good-natured practicality, moderation and staying true and focused on the music and the people. To Watt, jamming econo is carting four others and their equipment around the country in his well-maintained boat, taking care of himself, konking on friendly peoples' couches, and still finding time to enjoy the little things.