Since 1997, Mike Watt has become one of the punk world’s biggest proponents of a not-so-typically punk rock format — the rock opera.
This might be surprising to some fans considering the San Pedro, Calif., bassist is best known as a founding member of ’80s underground trailblazers Minutemen, a band that reveled in short, to-the-point songwriting. But even that band had larger thematic concerns tying the smaller pieces together — the group’s classic “Double Nickels on the Dime” was a double album featuring 45 songs in its original release.
For his third punk opera, 2010’s “Hyphenated-Man,” Watt revisited the short song structures and rapid-fire playing of his Minutemen years, utilizing a trio dubbed, appropriately enough, the Missingmen. The album follows 1997’s “Contemplating the Engine Room,” which dealt with Watt’s father’s experience in the Navy, and 2004’s “The Secondman’s Middle Stand,” about a near-fatal infection Watt overcame in 2000.
Mike Watt + the Missingmen
with The Last Conspirators
When: 8 tonight
Where: Valentine’s, 17 New Scotland Ave., Albany
How Much: $12
More Info: 432-6572, www.valentinesalbany.com
Need for bigger format
“I’ve done three operas only cuz I had to,” Watt said via email, in the midst of his fourth tour behind “Hyphenated-Man” with his trio The Missingmen. “I wasn’t good enough to get what I wanted across in a more traditional ‘tune’ and had to use a bigger format. I got the idea by ‘A Quick One’ from Pete Townshend — ‘Tommy’ is really not an influence.”
The current tour, Watt’s second of the U.S. playing “Hyphenated-Man,” heads to Valentine’s in Albany tonight. All the touring behind this album has helped Watt and the Missingmen — guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales — solidify the material in a live setting.
“It was tough to learn and seemed the only way to get it down was doing [it] over and over in front of people. It has many parts!” Watt said. “The piece is one big song with 30 main parts — you hear it live as you do on the record, but we work as a more unified ‘entity’ cuz of pounding into our muscle memory, and the actual living performance makes it in a sense ‘more living’ I think.”
All three of Watt’s punk operas have been wildly different from each other. “Contemplating the Engine Room” found him working with Nels Cline, now lead guitarist in Wilco, while “The Secondman’s Middle Stand” was built around an organ trio, a first for Watt.
With “Hyphenated-Man,” Watt decided to eschew the standard story structure found on his first two operas, instead creating a piece that flows very much like short diary entries.
“The first two had a beginning/middle/end, and this one is supposed to be all middle,” he said. “In a perfect world they would all come at the same time and not one after another, but that’s only the intent and it might be hard for a trio to do that. I wanted it to be about me in the moment, and not about something that happened, cuz [sic] that’s what was up with the other two. I didn’t want a rerun. The first one ended sad, the second one ended happy — this one actually ain’t supposed to end!”
The album draws influence from unlikely sources, including Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch and “The Wizard of Oz” film. The Minutemen influence was inspired in part by the 2006 documentary on the band, “We Jam Econo,” that Watt was closely involved in — he even performed some duo gigs with Minutemen drummer George Hurley around that time.
“[The album] was a way I could work with Minutemen form, without it being a corny ‘Happy Days’ nostalgic sentimental thing,” Watt said.
He remains as busy as ever with multiple projects — he’s been a part of proto-punk band The Stooges since the 2003 reunion, and has more touring and recording dates coming up with them. In January, he’ll release an album with an Italian band, Il Sogno Del Marinaio, and tour Europe behind that. He has recording dates with his Hand to Man Band, featuring John Dieterich of Deerhoof and classical pianist Thollem McDonas, and is planning to work with Cline again in the future.
On top of this, Watt is set to begin working on his fourth punk opera with the organ trio featured on “The Secondman’s Middle Stand,” this one focusing on work songs.
For now, he is focused on “Hyphenated-Man.” Although audience reaction over the past two years has been overall positive, he still seems to have some reservations about the record’s personal nature.
“It’s about being a middle-aged punk rocker, so maybe some can relate to that — but maybe the metaphors might be too personal?” he said.
“Many told me they dig what they see, but I have to qualify it in my mind as a [expletive]-up work and would not blame them if it was hard ‘to get,’ and am just grateful for them hearing us out. It’s something I really had to do, just had to.”
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