They might not follow any obvious plot, and they definitely aren’t symphonic in anything other than their scope. But Mike Watt’s albums Contemplating the Engine Room, The Secondman’s Middle Stand, and Hyphenated-Man are exactly what he says they are: operas.
The first uses his dad’s U.S. Navy career as a metaphor for life in a rock band—and, more specifically, life in the Minutemen, the short-lived but influential trio that began in 1980 and ended in 1985, after guitarist D. Boon’s death in an automobile crash. The second tackles the life-and-death issues that arose during Watt’s 2000 bout with a near-fatal infection. And the third uses imagery drawn from Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch to paint a wildly prismatic self-portrait of its 53-year-old maker.
All three use Watt’s preferred format, the three-piece rock band. And Hyphenated-Man in particular focuses on short, sharp songs; it contains 30 of them, none more than two minutes and four seconds long. But these electric arias are highly compressed bursts of information, delivered in Watt’s characteristically allusive, elliptical, and often poetic syntax.
As he explains on the line from his home in San Pedro, California, Watt got his rock-opera inspiration from the Who, whose John Entwistle also had a major impact on his busy, propulsive bass style.
“We were first turned on to that by ”˜A Quick One’, this idea of having one song made of different songs,” he says, referring to the medley “A Quick One, While He’s Away” from the British band’s second LP. “They did it later with that Tommy thing, but we liked ”˜A Quick One’. There was something about that that intrigued me—but I never, ever thought I’d be getting into this kind of stuff. We were from the school of Wire: the little things. So it was a very strange turn of events—and I guess this third one is kind of a blend of my old days with the opera format.”
Hyphenated-Man songs such as “Bell-Rung-Man” and “Hell-Building-Man” add up to a kind of state-of-the-Watt address, but they were written with Boon’s ghost looking over the bassist’s shoulder, and on the late musician’s guitar.
“It was a challenge for me, but I wanted this to be kind of challenging,” says Watt. Given that his other bands include the re-formed Stooges and the improv-oriented Floored by Four, with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline, he’s not afraid of physically or intellectually demanding music. But, as he explains, this project was an especially emotional undertaking. “Because of that We Jam Econo documentary, I had to listen to Minutemen again. I hadn’t for a while, because it was kind of heavy. Still, the way we squeezed things down was like ”˜Whoa, no filler here.’ I wanted to try that again.”
Making things even more challenging was that Watt asked guitarist Tom Watson to learn his splintery, rhythmically complex parts note for note, then insisted that Watson and drummer Raul Morales record their Hyphenated-Man contributions without hearing their leader’s bass lines or vocal melodies.
“It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done,” Watt admits of the sessions, adding that memorizing his new songs for live performance has been just as taxing. Still, by the time he and the Missingmen take the stage in Vancouver, they should have all 30 down, having done 47 shows in 48 days.
“If you’re not playing, you’re paying,” says the hard-working musician. And when you jam econo, that’s no option at all.