Mike Watt made indie rock history in the '80s with provocative San Pedro, Calif., art-punk minimalists the Minutemen, going on to form alt-rock band Firehose after Minutemen leader D. Boon's death. For the last 15 years, Watt has crafted ambitious, eccentric solo albums, and since 2003 he's been plugged into the raw power of Iggy Pop as bassist for the Stooges. Watt's new solo outing, "Hyphenated-Man," is a 30-song "rock opera" inspired by the 53-year-old iconoclast's ruminations on middle age.
What do the 30 character sketches -- "Funnel-Capped Man," "Mouse-Headed Man" -- on "Hyphenated-Man" represent?
If you took a mirror and broke it up into 30 pieces and put it in my head... that's really where this thing is supposed to be taking place. The 30 different men are actually inspired by the creatures of this old Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch. They were starting points for me to talk about different perspectives. The big trip about middle age, I kind of got this from "The Wizard of Oz," that Dorothy is looking at guys and seeing what they do to be guys-Tin Man and Lion and Scarecrow... that's what middle age is all about-trying to size things up.
An album of 30 short tracks seems somewhat Minutemen-esque. Was that intentional?
I was kind of intrigued with the Minutemen way of making little songs; I listened again when they were making that "We Jam Econo" documentary [about the group]. After D. Boon got killed [Boon died in a van accident in 1985], it was hard for me to listen to that music. Hearing it again, it was like, "This idea of boiling down songs into little things was really interesting. Why not try that again -- without copying the Minutemen, but use that format to tell this big story?" I also wrote the whole thing on D. Boon's guitar. It was kind of an emotional thing. I kind of wish he was in these middle years with me.
How do you view the Minutemen's place in southern California punk history?
We were part of a scene in a weird way. I can't even envision the Minutemen without that punk movement, because before that, me and D. Boon were in the bedroom copying Creedence [Clearwater Revival] and Blue Oyster Cult. We never even thought of music as expression. It was more like building models that kind of looked like the real thing. We didn't know about clubs yet. We never thought you could play for people; we never thought we might want to say something through music. It was that movement -- I thought, "These cats are doing it," and it infected us.
Do you still embrace the indie DIY philosophy?
The whole idea of not having middlemen in the way of your expression... I've always tried to live that way. Like if I wanted to talk to you on a pay phone, AT&T's not the most indie of companies, but they don't jump on the line and start telling us what to say. There's always going to be lame systems, so the doers have got to take it on themselves a little bit, instead of just blaming the systems. That "Leaves of Grass" thing [Walt] Whitman did-he published that thing himself, and that's 160 years ago. Somebody once told me, "The only thing new is you finding out about it."
How does it feel playing behind Iggy Pop?
He works very hard at a gig. And I get so caught up in it -- if a big garbage disposal opened up onstage and he jumped in, I'd probably jump in after him. It's like Captain Ahab or something, getting you all whooped up in the trip of it. Once he told me, "Mike, it's like I'm a short-order cook and I've got to go out to everybody out there and get their order -- 'You want fries? You want a milkshake?' "
After making a middle-age-themed album, what's your outlook on this phase of life?
You made it that far, so you're a little bit wiser, maybe. You actually know how little you know, that's what you learn. Everybody's got something to teach me, if I'm open-minded enough, instead of taking the cynical route and saying you've already been around enough. I ain't been around enough.