Mike Watt talks about his latest collaborative project, Spirit Of Hamlet

Spirit Of Hamlet is a new collaboration between Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, The Stooges), Kawabata Makoto (Acid Mothers Temple), Scotty Irving (Clang Quartet) and Grammy nominee, musician and producer Benjy Johnson. It was sparked by Irving appearing on Watt’s “The Watt From Pedro Show” and the idea of starting off songwriting with the drum tracks. Their debut album, Northwest of Hamuretto, recently came out on Broken Sound Tapes.

Watt is no stranger to long-distance collaborations, having been doing them since it entailed sending 4-track cassettes through the mail. For Spirit Of Hamlet, he would work off of Irving’s drum tracks and then pass them along for Makoto’s guitar contributions. Over a Skype call, Watt discussed the making of Northwest of Hamuretto, his own creative process, and other interesting topics.

Could you talk about how Spirit of Hamlet came together? I know you met Scotty through your The Watt From Pedro Show. What was the collaborative process like? How did the rest of the lineup come together?

Mike Watt: Do you remember a project of mine, it’s just two basses, called Dos? With the lady from Black Flag [Kira Roessler]? We started the project right when she ended [her time with] Flag and she just finished getting a mechanical engineering degree at UCLA. She got an internship across the country in Connecticut, at Yale. So, we are going to be apart 2,400 miles, and this project just started. So what we did was we got these four-tracks, TEAC four-tracks with the cassettes. And started fucking sending these through the mail.

So I’d come up with my songs, ideas, put them on the four-track with the bass, and send them to Kira. She’d send me her compositions. Likewise, we could play on each other’s tracks, and send them back. Using the US mail, sort of like… a conspiracy, Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49”, remember the postage stamp and shit? He’s making a joke out of that. It’s probably lampooning the Discordians, about those sixties people.

But the same idea, doing things remotely. Sometimes, it’s a means to an end, but it’s got its advantages, and of course, limitations. So, anyway, that’s how I actually got into this, what we call file trading now. I started with cassette trading. These four-tracks with Kira. Now starting around when the internet got broader bandwidth in the early 2000s, I could start sending WAV files and start collaborating with people that way. And I made whole albums with people I’d never even fucking met and shit.

And it kind of went hand-in-hand, because the early 2000s is when I moved my show from low-power FM, because the FCC shut down the station in Silver Lake, to a web server of friends of mine in Portland, Oregon. And so this idea of using the internet for doing more than just spreading lies and hate, you can actually collab artistically. So yeah, I’m doing my show. This is how I met Scotty. I actually met Scotty through a guy, Evan Lipton, a bass man, through Mike Baggetta, who was helping with the Main Steam Stop Valve project. I mean, people ask me about the old days and I say, well, a lot of it had to do with people, and I still think it’s about people.

So this is how it kind of came together. It was technology going through different technologies, the basic idea of moving your music through mediums. And then the idea of connections with people. That’s how the Spirit of Hamlet happened. So one thing that’s different is I started doing five shows a week of The Watt From Pedro Show. I’ve been doing it for 21 years, years, 10 months now. Usually, it was just once a week, except when I was on tour, of course. Sometimes I did some on tour. But because of the [Covid-19] situation, music became my lifeline, so I was doing five shows a week. I had almost 300 guests in 14 months.

Scotty was one of them, and we got done talking, doing our spiel, and I said, “Scotty man, you’re an interesting cat”. This one-man band, Clang Quartet, and all this, because it really fascinated me. I remember reading that shit about Chico Hamilton years ago, not being able to get songwriting credits. I got to play in a band with George Hurley, in fact, two bands. And the idea of drummers not being composers is insane. So the notes are too short, okay, that’s the listener’s fault. I was really curious about Scotty, and what he could bring. So I said, “Scotty, why don’t you give me an album with the tunes and see what I could do on the bass with it?” The guy in the rear with all the gear is usually last. No, you be first.

He brought me the tracks, and I did it sort of the way I did that Three-Layer Cake record, same kind of idea. Mike Pride was another drummer man. Because of Jack Wright, I had him on [the show]. I had a lot of these free music cats on too, which was a pretty interesting thing. And Jack Wright, he wrote this book, The Free Musics, the idea of jumping away from the pulse. And what I did was when I got the music, I pretended that dudes were in the room playing it, and I’d just be reacting to them. Suspended some reality.

I used my gut reaction to what Scotty was playing me. So if it was an improvised thing, either in front of microphones or in front of people at a gig, the shit had to count. And then from there, I knew Kawabata Makoto from Acid Mother Temple, but I never really met the man. So he sent it his way. Then from there, the guy Scotty recorded with, whose studio he used, was Benjy, another North Carolina guy, which by the way ties into the name of the project because Hamlet, North Carolina is where John Coltrane was born in 1926.

I got a band with two Italian guys that I took on a US tour in 2014. And finally, I see this plaque when I drive through there. And I knew he [John Coltrane] wasn’t born on the fucking side of the road. So I said, “You know what, I’m going to go and find…” Now they did tear down the building, but they built a building on top of it in the older days, and it in fact became the NAACP headquarters for that town. And I found a room on it called the Coltrane room, and the dude running a mechanic garage across the road saw me searching around and peeking in the window and shit… He had the keys to this thing. So that’s the connection there. You can see Coltrane’s room actually in the [album cover] photograph because I gave them pictures of that tour from 2014.

So, anyway, Benjy has got a studio in Greensboro, which ain’t that far. When Benjy heard it, he wanted to jump on. So he plays guitar, he gets his boy to play guitar in one of the songs. He’s the only guy I actually have met, because he came to Pedro during the summer, and I gave him a tour of the town.

I know it sounds all futuristic, this thing about trading files on the internet and all this shit. But actually, it reminds me of the old days of the movement with fanzines. With the dude with the fanzine, that’s how you knew how to get the gig there for the tour. His band was going to open up, you’re going to conk at his pad. It was all about people. Like I said, this fabric. And I swear to god, the fanzine is such a metaphor. I use it for websites, the whole thing. People passionately involved in becoming part of their own media.

That’s really what this is an extension of. Using those kind of ethics. I call them ethics, maybe that’s a little highfalutin… Because everybody’s complaining about shit getting diluted and stuff. This ain’t really dilution, because you’re trying to make an interesting conversation and ensemble. So you do get a consensus with the work. It’s not diluted. It’s actually some kind of trippy, organic way of coming together. Not some motherfucker having to have his boot on the other fuckhead’s throat, like the fascist way human beings as a species like to do things.

When you got the drum tracks, did you just go through them all from start finish and add your parts? Was there a point where you perhaps realized what you were going for and revised some of the earlier ones?

Mike Watt: So like I said, I’ve been doing this a long time. I got into music to be with D. Boon, with my friend. I was not really a musician. Then I lost him. So I had to be like, “Whoa, I’ve got to use this bass,” and not just to be with my friend, to make a living. So I tried different things. I found out there are different ways to work the bass with other people, to collaborate. You can be the shot-caller. Usually, I put my name in the name of the project, like Mike Watt + The Missingmen or Mike Watt and the Secondmen. So you know who to blame. I’m giving the direction; I’m asking the dudes what to do. Stuff where I helped the Stooges for 125 months, in those cases, usually I learn the parts of the dead guy or the dude that’s gone. I don’t really give the direction. I learn how they do it. T

Then with the Italian guys, Il Sogno del Marinaio, that’s every cat brings in their own thing. So that’s more like almost what you would call a true collab. Everybody … drummy brings in some songs, and guitar brings in songs. I bring in some songs, and we try to get it together. I’ve actually found a fourth way with this Mike Baggetta. It’s the first time I’ve had a dude write bass lines for me, and I’m not doing the dead guy’s parts. He’s actually writing parts for me. So I found a fourth way. But what I did was when Scotty brought me them drum tracks, I pretended he was there and just played to it, reacted to it. But then I had to let go and be like, “Watt, this is going to become something more than it is right now.”

I do the same thing a lot when I’m composing on bass guitar. I’m setting people up. Instead of like, “Whoa, I see something that can be realized at the end of the road here.” No, no; springboard, launchpad. Now what can they do? That’s why I think bass is a great composition tool. So is drums, because it’s not so harmonic. The cats you’re collaborating with, they’re more free. When you write something on the piano or the guitar, you’re already boxing out all the harmonic material and stuff to kind of confine people. Now, if you want to be the shot-caller, I understand, but if you want a true collab … So that’s why I thought here, I knew that Makoto Kawabata was going to be on after me. So I didn’t want to give it anything more except what I suggested with how I racked on the bass to Scotty.

I didn’t even know about Benjy and shit and the singing and all that. But I dug it when I heard it. See, that’s the thing about it. By not having expectations like that, you can get pleasantly surprised. One of the dangers of already having it figured out is you end up doing the same fucking thing over and over again.

It’s like people who take three hours to order off a menu. They end up ordering the same fucking thing because as long as you sit with things, that fascist shit comes in. You want your way, which is the old way, which is fucking Fonzie and Potsie and Happy Days.

So some things you got to only give so much and then let it go, especially a machine like the bass, which is like grout. When you’re building with bricks, you got the shit in between. How dare the grout tell the bricks how they’re going to … or even the bricks. How dare they tell the grout how it’s going to end up? Just thinking of Antoni Gaudí. He’s using gravity, upside-down chains, to see how the weight’s going to get distributed. It’s like Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane. So that’s why I think sometimes you got to let go and you can only do so much.

Given that, I’m wondering if any particular songs surprised you in terms of how they ultimately ended up?

Mike Watt: Oh well, the whole Benjy dynamic, I didn’t even know. I thought it was just going to be a power trio. But you don’t know if people are going to like what you did for them, right? I’m not going to automatically assume; my pop hated that word. He said, “That’s not spelled that way by accident, boy. You make an ass out of you and me.” He thought that was fucking magic or some shit. But anyway, it makes a good point because you don’t know. So, Scotty digging it right away, I was like, ‘whew.’ A little relieved, but a little surprised. I loved what I heard from Kawabata Makoto, but then also the thing that Benjy brought. So, in a way, I hear the album as one piece. It’s sort of like myopic where they’re like one song. I hear it as one piece taking different directions before the bungee cord keeps snapping it back to Spirit of Hamlet Land.

Does it represent all the material you worked on, or were there any tracks that didn’t get fully developed and didn’t make it on?

Mike Watt: He gave me eight tracks. And the album is eight tracks. Everything we had. But we’re already talking about chapter two, done the same way. He’s going to start it off with the drum shit.

I know you said you wanted to leave room for the next musician to work on. Was there any back and forth? Once it got into Benjy’s hands, did he seek feedback on things? Was there any review and discussion of the music as the project progressed?

Mike Watt: Well, Benjy ended up being the mixer man too, which when you think about an album, that’s almost a band member. Frank Morgan, Wizard of Oz, ‘pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.’ That was the motherfucker behind the curtain. So I think there were a couple of remixes. But as far as the source material, nothing was edited. Which I thought was pretty bitchin’. I mean, some people would do that as a kind of philosophy thing, but I think it was just done because people dug it.

It’s interesting because it has a very spontaneous feel to it.

Mike Watt: I told you the device I used. I pretended Scotty was in the room with me. Remember, my only interaction is actually with one instrument. I’m not playing with a band. Later on I do. But that’s the ghost of Mike Watt’s past. The minute I stop recording, it’s in the past.

Where do you see this project going in the future?

Mike Watt: Chapter two, they’re already talking about it because they both live near each other in Western North Carolina. So they’re going to get chapter two started pretty soon.

And do you feel you want to continue with this collaborative process? Do you think you’d want to, at some point, all work in the studio together? Do you want to take it live?

Mike Watt: Sure, I’d love to do any of that. But Makoto’s in Japan. I’m over here on the port side of the United States. Those guys are starboard, so there are those kind of limitations, but who knows? Touring has come back, I’ve already done a few. And so maybe we can take this on the road or create in the studio. There are a lot of options out there. Once you get something like this done, I think it shows you that there are a lot of possibilities that can happen.

Purchase “Northwest of Hamuretto” at: https://spiritofhamlet.bandcamp.com/.