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Mike Watt Tries to Make Some Sense of Middle Age

Apr. 13, 2011
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I'll admit that I always get a bit nervous when interviewing someone like Mike Watt. As a huge fan of the Minutemen, the seminal punk band that featured Watt on bass, I found myself with a list of questions involving songs that are now more than 20 years old. Yet at the same time I'm also enthralled with Watt's latest solo album, Hyphenated-Man, a collection of 30 songs that finds Watt returning to the no-filler approach to songwriting that marked his early punk days. Throw into the mix that Watt continues to play bass in the 21st-century version of The Stooges and the line between past and present within his work is further blurred.

And, after speaking with Watt, this may be the point. For Watt, the creation of Hyphenated-Man became a way for the musician to "confront myself about some things," namely the fact that, at 53 years old, he is now solidly middle-aged. "Middle age," Watt relays, "is a fucked-up place," and Watt is quick to point out that he's currently "playing some weird shit." Songs like "Confused-Parts-Man" ("Mangled-up parts together twisted/ Didn't realize most existed/ Bafflin' how they're connected") and "Beak-Holding-Letter-Man" ("Fumblin' for footin' on fuckin' ice skates") speak to the instability and outright angst that getting older often brings.

Yet if Watt sees middle age as a less-than-perfect life stage, he is also quick to point out that "it doesn't have to be this way." In light of such an admission, Hyphenated-Man can be heard as less a lament over lost youth and more as a call to embrace the best parts of what Minor Threat once called the "adult crash."

"Middle age," Watt continues, "can be all about reconciling," and this latest record seems to have given him the chance to come to terms with pieces of his own past.

Speaking to this process, much has been made of the fact that Watt used the guitar of former Minutemen band mate D. Boon to write the material on Hyphenated-Man. After Boon's tragic death in a 1985 van accident, Watt had trouble revisiting the music that he had once made with his close friend. Asked why he decided to return to this traumatic point in his life, Watt answers in a way that is both humble and touching: "I suppose I was just looking for courage."

The act of allowing himself to reconnect with this important component of his past has proved liberating to Watt. The music on Hyphenated-Man harkens back to the punk aesthetic of the Minutemen in a way that seems far from anything resembling mindless nostalgia. And in coming full circle, Watt suggests that punk may in fact be the best soundtrack for middle age. When confronted with our own mortality, many of us, like Watt himself, quickly grow to hate wasted time. In light of such a development, the economy of punk grows even more appealing.

But Watt is not simply barreling through life with his head down and nose to the grindstone. Instead, he is using his ability to play music and tour to continue to evolve, as both a person and an artist. From a van heading to a show in Baltimore and in a tone that sounds less grizzled road veteran and more wide-eyed newcomer, Watt says, "Everybody's got something to teach me. You're never out of school, and I'm here to learn."

Getting older never seemed so cool.

Mike Watt and his band, the Missingmen, play Shank Hall on Saturday, April 16, at 8 p.m. with Couch Flambeau.


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