Whether in a group or solo, Watt stands apart


"It was our conspiracy against the world," says bassist Mike Watt. An excitable boy still at 37, he is reflecting upon the seven years he spent as a member of the Minutemen, an uncompromising hard-core punk-jazz trio from San Pedro, Calif., that influenced many musicians but sold few albums in its day.

"We never had to worry about being famous, or selling it, really," he says. "We were, like, very proud of getting our point across. And our personality. In fact, we wanted our thumbprint across [the mainstream's] forehead."

That thumbprint was a sound that embraced punk rock -- its anger, wit and leftist launching pad as well as its structural brevity -- but allowed for "uncool" arena rock anthems and jazzy excursions, too. No orthodoxy at all. Mr. Watt even sported a beard. The heart and soul of the Minutemen was singer-guitarist D. Boon, who died in a 1985 van crash.

After that, Mr. Watt and drummer George Hurley retrenched. Eventually, they chose to soldier on when Minutemen fan Ed (from Ohio) Crawford showed up and helped them mutate into fIREHOSE.

"Nine hundred gigs, six good records, a good vocation," Mr. Watt says of fIREHOSE. "I owe Ed a lot for getting me out of my house. On the other hand, there was a lot of business I didn't deal with." Mr. Watt feels fIREHOSE sank into a formula. Thus there was a severance from the band and an embrace of an anything-anyone goes format for his solo debut, "Ball-Hog or Tugboat?"

Mr. Watt is, to borrow a song title from the Kinks and strip it of the sarcasm, a well-respected man. "Ball-Hog or Tugboat?" features a plethora of today's alternative-rock stars, among them Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, Meat Puppets' Curt and Cris Kirkwood, Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, Frank Black, Henry Rollins, Lemonheads' Evan Dando, the Beastie Boys' Mike D. and Adam Horovitz, Nirvana/Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl, Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley.

Detractors see Mr. Watt's album as an alterna-rock celebrity super-session slugfest, a less-than-honorable, catch-as-catch-can jam packed with famous names. "I agree to that kind of skepticism," he says readily during a phone interview, "because so many hustles have been run on people. Like tribute records . . . [But] the things they've crucified me for, the celebrity-itis . . ."

Mr. Watt says he assembled the players by phone and shunned record company input. He says with a laugh: "Do you think a big label could have put together a record like this?"

He provides the mainline -- the bass and most of the lyrics -- but he's written tricky, difficult songs and assembled a diverse crew that plays music that veers far from the alterna-rock norm. Dissonant, spacey, jazzy, free-form. It's no angst 'n' noise parade.

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