March 9 2011 10:12 AM

In his latest ‘opera,’ Mike Watt mines the works of Hieronymus Bosch

Mike Watt (center) thinks of life as a journey not unlike Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz.
Photo by Mike Watt

When you hear the name Mike Watt, you probably think of the Minutemen, the experimental ’80s hardcore band. You’d think of the bass, his main instrument. And of San Pedro, the port city of Los Angeles that Watt has long called his home. But with the release of his new album, Hyphenated-Man, you might also think of The Wizard of Oz and Hieronymus Bosch, the 16thcentury Flemish painter.

Hyphenated-Man completes the trilogy of rock operas Watt began in 1997 with Contemplating the Engine Room, a song cycle about his seafaring father. In 2004, he followed-up with The Secondman’s Middle Stand, an album modeled on Dante’s The Divine Comedy that delves into his battle with an infection in his perineum that almost took his life. But Watt’s latest effort is his least straightforward yet.

“It’s one song made of many parts put together,” Watt says. “I don’t have the talent to do everything I want to do in one song, so I have make do with a bunch of little ones. In this case, like, 30.”

That’s right, 30 tracks. Each one is modeled on a different detail in Bosch paintings like The Garden of Earthly Delights, a classic triptych crammed with hundreds of figures in bizarre and gruesome situations. Titles like “Pinned-to-the-Table-Man” and “Confused-Parts-Man” are both literal translations of images in the paintings and metaphors for man’s fragmented condition—something Watt has been thinking about a lot lately.

Watt, 53, sees things differently than the rest of us. He talks about himself in the third person. When he answers the phone, he shouts “Watt!” In Watt’s world, records are “operas,” song lyrics are “spiels” and life is a long, strange trip—not unlike the one Dorothy takes in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy depends on the Lion, the Tin Man and The Scarecrow to get her home, but at a critical point in the journey, they start questioning the very thing that makes them them (smart, brave, etc.).

In effect, Dorothy’s “tripping on what dudes do to be dudes,” he says. “I see a lot of that in the midlife quote crisis unquote.”

If this sounds over-the-top or unduly avant-garde, don’t be alarmed. Hyphenated-Man might have many textures, but it’s remarkably smooth. Most tracks aren’t much longer than a minute. Many have a light, almost jazzy feel, but with plenty of feedback in the guitars and clank in the drum kit. But don’t call it improvisational punk: This record was painstakingly recorded.

First, Watt wrote the guitar parts using the guitar of the late, great D. Boon, his childhood friend and fellow Minuteman, who died in a car accident in 1985. Then, Watt taught the songs to guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales, who perform with him onstage as the Missingmen. But they learned the songs without ever hearing Watt’s bass tracks. He didn’t want Hyphenated-Man to sound like a Minutemen record, he says, “so I took the only Minutemen out of it.”

The result is a pure, almost spooky sound. The tracks are rangy yet tied together with various leitmotifs.

Watt was reluctant to revisit Minutemen songs in the years after Boon’s death—“It made me too sad,” he says—but he listened to them again during the making of the 2005 documentary We Jam Econo. He liked the shortness of the songs and “the idea of boiling songs down to just their smallest part,” he says. “I really like that. I wanted to try that form again.”

That’s the rub: For all his experimentation and adventurousness, Watt is as old school as they come.

His current tour with the Missingmen—Watt’s 65th—stretches from March 15 to April 30 and has just one scheduled night off. Most musicians his age (53) would bitch about the rigors of playing under those conditions. Not Watt. He bemoans the stops he isn’t going to make, because at the end of the day, it’s about playing his music for as many people as possible.

“Just get in the van. Conk at people’s pads. Play every night,” he says. “If I’m gonna go out, I’m gonna do as much as I can with the time I got.”

Mike Watt and the Missingmen play with The Bellrays and Firethoat The Casbah on Saturday, March 12.