When Mike Watt speaks, he screws his face upward, darts his eyes away, and raises his forearm to his face, as if he's about to close a flannel cloak around him. We see him do this throughout We Jam Econo, the 2005 documentary about his first band, '80s art-core legends the Minutemen. But he isn't hiding. Far from it. He's inviting us into a world of his own making. It's this place — his fertile imagination — that has fostered some of the most fascinating punk rock ever pressed to vinyl.
Startling mental connections abound in Watt, a 53-year-old from San Pedro. In his world, a Sammy Hagar record can inspire a punk rock koan (the title of the record Watt calls his best, Double Nickels on the Dime, which he recorded with the Minutemen in 1984); a burst perineal abscess can summon the spirit of Dante (as it did on Watt's 2004 album, The Secondman's Middle Stand); and people don't talk, they "spiel" instead.
The Minutemen ended more than 25 years ago, tragically, when Watt's best friend and songwriting partner, D. Boon, died in an automobile accident. Since then, Watt has continued writing in the densely conceptual style he struck upon his band's early seven-inch singles. His profile was never higher than in the mid-'90s, when his solo debut, Ballhog or Tugboat? (1994), established him as an indie elder statesman. Since then, the DIY set has spoken his name in the same hushed tones reserved for the Stooges and Sonic Youth (both of whom he has worked with extensively). And lucky is the music scribe who checks his phone and sees Watt's San Pedro area code ringing through.
"Watt!" he says, by way of a winsomely gruff greeting, on a blustery Sunday. "Hey, if you want, this PDF I'm e-mailing you should help you explore the album a little more. It's all there." He's talking about his latest release, Hyphenated-Man, inspired by the 16th-century Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch — and The Wizard of Oz. We wonder what the file holds. But for fear of missing a beat in his dazzling spiel, we decide to save the PDF until after the interview.
The beguiling range of references that make up your typical encounter with Watt (whether on vinyl or over the phone) began to stir in the early 1960s. At home in upstate New York, the 5-year-old Watt pulled the World Book Encyclopedia, volume A, from his mom's bookshelf and proceeded to read through to the last book in the set. "It wasn't the most thorough read, obviously," he says. "But there were certain things that caught my attention and stuck with me — dinosaurs and astronauts. That type of stuff."
It was in the World Book that Watt discovered Bosch's work. "His paintings seemed out of this world," he says. "I don't really know why I was drawn to them. I was just a boy, you know." More than 40 years later, Watt was in Madrid while on tour with the reunited Stooges. The band's hotel was just down the street from the Museo del Prado, which houses one of the world's largest collections of Bosch paintings. When Watt visited the museum, he was staggered by Bosch's wood panels, which teemed with characters evoking, in his mind, what it was like to be middle-aged. The paintings sparked an idea for a punk opera, his third after Contemplating the Engine Room (1997) and The Secondman's Middle Stand.
In itself, a concept album inspired by Bosch paintings is a relatively straightforward proposition. Where Hyphenated-Man bears Watt's indelible stamp is in an additional level he applied several years later after watching The Wizard of Oz with his family in San Pedro. "The story's about what it takes to be a man," Watt says. "The Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man were all the hands on the farm. They all needed something in order to become men — courage, a brain, a heart. And there's something in there that seemed to say a lot about what happens when you get older and begin to learn a few things."
After Watt hangs up, we rush to the PDF he sent our way midspiel. It contains an extraordinary six-page document headed by the track list to Hyphenated-Man (including titles like "Arrow-Pierced-Egg-Man" and "Man-Shitting-Man"). On the remaining five pages are reproductions of several Bosch paintings: The Temptation of St. Anthony, The Last Judgment, and others. Watt has meticulously annotated them with his song titles. In a way, he's completing a task begun when he was 5. As we study the way Watt's words mingle with Bosch's figures, it becomes clear: If ever there was a map to Watt's world, this is it.