Mike Watt is an archetype. Now 65, he remains a living legend of the bass whose totally original approach and bold, untethered sound has inspired generations of low-enders through his work with Minutemen, Firehose, The Stooges, Porno For Pyros, Big Walnuts Yonder, The Missingmen, Dos, and his solo releases. Watt is all heart when it comes to music or anything, for that matter. His prolific body of work has embodied and influenced punk, rock and roll, hardcore, surf rock, alternative, art rock, and pop—even though he has no regard for the concept of genres or any specific classification. Watt’s relentless touring schedule finds him on the road for long stretches at a time, but when he’s at home in San Pedro, California, he keeps busy with his podcast, The Watt From Pedro Show, and collaborations with musicians from all over the world.
When it comes to gear, Watt has enlisted a revolving selection of basses and amps over his 45-year career—from road-worn Gibsons, Fenders, Rickenbackers, and Moon Guitars to mismatched Eden, Peavey, Acoustic, Laney, and TC Electronic amps—never quite finding a combination that can endure his high energy performances and aggressive playing style, while maintaining his booming and cutting tone. At long last, he has found the solutions to his sonic search with the introduction of his Reverend Guitars Wattplower Signature Basses, and his newfound love of Bergantino amps. After discovering the Bergantino forté HP2 head while on tour in Chicago, he was blown away by the 1200-watts of power and the amazing clarity that it provided. He immediately took it on the road to give it the proper “Watt test.” With expectations exceeded, he added a Bergantino NXT212 cabinet and the Bergantino Super Pre Bass Preamp Pedal to his arsenal, and hasn’t looked back since.
We caught up with Watt at his San Pedro home to discuss his new rig, his latest projects, his philosophy on bass, and whatever else happened to be on his mind in the moment. Like his music, talking with Mike Watt is always an adventure. And much like his live performances, the man never disappoints.
As someone who is always either on tour or working on a new album, what’s been keeping you busy of late?
I’m getting ready to hit the road with [guitarist] Mike Baggetta and [drummer] Stephen Hodges for our mssv “aki tour 2023,” so that’s gonna be a whole lot of fun. I was off the road for a while because of my knee, but I got a Pro Tools Omni HD setup here in my pad, so I can record everything but live drums. I’ve made albums with people I’ve never even met. Part of it is just to prove that the Internet doesn’t have to be used to spread lies and hate, it can actually be used to collaborate and get creative and shit.
What’s your writing process like, whether you’re collaborating or writing on your own?
There are a few different situations I’ve found: First there’s the man alone. If you see a project with my name like Mike Watt + the Missingmen or Mike Watt and the Second Men, I put my name right there up front on purpose so you know who to blame. In that kind of situation, I’m the shot caller. I’m coming up with the other guys’ parts, I’m coming up with the big demo, the big picture, and I’m giving direction. Another way is, for example, helping Porno for Pyros or J Mascis or Stooges or Flipper. A lot of times in that case, you’re taking the place of the dead guy or the gone guy, right? You’re learning the old songs and you’re not telling these guys how to play their own music, so you’re taking direction. The music consists timeless songs that you’re helping to bring to the moment. You’re there trying to aid and abet, sort of like an actor who’s handed a script. Then there’s a third way, where I’m playing with these guys from Italy called Il Sogno del Marinaio [The Sailor’s Dream], where we collaborated in the sense that there was three dudes, and each of us brought a third of the material. That was the beginning point. It’s actually more of an honest collaboration because you’re taking turns. Lastly, there’s the improv session where you’re actually recording it as it goes down. So those are the four ways I’ve written or collaborated and each one is different.
Do you write exclusively on bass?
I play a little guitar, with those tiny ass strings, but I’ve intentionally written 90% of the music in my life on bass. Bass is great for rhythm, starts and stops, and outlining parts. But harmonically the arc is kind of a narrow frequency range. However, I use that to my advantage, as far as bringing on collaborators, because now you’re letting them voice the chords and add to all of it. That way, even though I’m writing the songs —all the verses, choruses, bridges, and outros—I still don’t really have the big picture painted, even though I’m the instigator. I’m more of a launchpad or springboard. The rest of it is in the other player’s hands.
You have a unique and personal sound and style.
There’s actually one player who I always fall back on and that’s James Jamerson. I mean, everybody who plays bass does. The stuff he brought to Motown songs, I mean, geeze, he could just make you move. If I ever get stuck, I always think, what would Jamerson do? And sometimes the answer is just one note, like “My Girl.” How can he do that with one damn note? I’ll tell you how, it’s how you play that one note. I’m never going to copy Jamerson, but maybe I can use his inspiration like a crowbar to pry open some rusted-ass hatch that I’m having problems getting open.
As someone who has covered may genres, do you write with a style in mind or is it simply what you’re feeling at the time?
Well, music’s music, right? That genre shit is a bunch of Gulag and Berlin Wall. My guess is that genres came from some marketing guy trying to make his job easier. Music is music. I’ve always just written whatever came to me or motivated me when I put my bass on. And here’s the thing about bass: the physics punishes it. If we try to put too many notes in there we get little. It’s always a search for the right notes, the notes that are going to aid and abet—not having the most notes. That’s true no matter what kind of music you’re playing.
You’re known for putting on intense, exhaustive performances. What’s a show like from your perspective?
I’m not a born entertainer, so I started off as a pant shitter on stage. But man, when you’re playing next to a guy like [Minutemen guitarist] D Boon, anyone would have confidence being on stage with him because he was such a player and performer. Same with Iggy Pop and Perry Farrell, these guys, they play for keeps. When it comes to the fans, the gate goers, they’ve worked all week to come see you play. Are you gonna bring it? Are you going to just punch the clock and wade through the whole thing? Or are you going to service the lifestyle of a performer and really try to bring what they worked all week to come and see? I feel a big responsibility to my guys, of course, that I’m sharing the stage with, but also with the gig goers who I’m sharing music with. It’s a big, big responsibility and there ain’t no fooling them. You’re not there to act like the jukebox or a karaoke machine, and recreate a record. You’re there to make something that’s singular as an experience. It’s kind of a tall order, but if you’re going to do this thing you have to either reach it or die trying. And I know I’m going to reach it.
How has your bass playing evolved over the years?
I’ve learned that you have to play to the situation. And it seemed like the situations that were coming my way showed me that less is more because I was getting a greater sense of the big picture. As bass players, because our frequencies are so low, we get littler and littler. It’s always this quest for the right notes, the notes that fit, but not the most notes. The other thing is the way I play in counterpoint to people, and use more space. I call it “working the holes.” It’s just as important as working the notes.
How and when did you first play through a Bergantino amp?
I’ve gone through a lot of basses and a lot of amps in my day, and all of my gear needs to be able to take a beating and take some floods, you know? What I was using at the time just wasn’t cutting it for me. I had read about Jim Bergantino’s forté HP 1200-watt amp and I grabbed it, rolling the dice on the numbers. Amps didn’t used to give you 1200-watts of power, so I had to get my hands on this thing. I ended up getting one from John Fox Bass and I just took it right out on tour with me. And man, I was right, it really turned out. I love it, absolutely love it, man. Soon after, I got to talking with Jim, and he’s the boss! He’s the guy that made this thing. He’s the owner, and he’s there working his butt off on these amps himself. I love that.
What was your first impression of how they sound?
My first thought was, This is it. I bought it right away and took it straight on tour with me. I didn’t sit around and test it. I didn’t take a lot of time to make decisions, and I didn’t let it sit in a petri dish to investigate it. I just put the damn thing to work right away. And you know what, it exceeded all of my expectations. All the soundmen at the venues were tripping out about it. They couldn’t believe the sound I was getting out of the damn thing. Now Bergantino amps are all that I play through. Jim is onto a good design. If it can survive Watt, it can survive anything. It’s called the Watt test. First of all, I do a lot of gigs in row. I’ll go out on the road and play 50-60 nights straight. Secondly, I don’t play gently. If gear can go through all of that and come out working on the other side, then it’s something, man.
How do you dial in your forté HP head?
Let’s start with the gain. Some notes when they hit hard, they’ll blink on that OD light. I never turn on the clip. With the compressor, I put it at eight o’clock, at the most. I use one pedal in front and it’s a Keely Bassist Compressor, which I have in limiter mode. I put the threshold so high that it only engages if I really slam it. It adds a little character to your sound. Jim’s compressor is parallel, so I give it a little bit there, as well. When I get over to the drive, I keep it around one o’clock. I love the Big Fat Tube [BFT] feature, which is the deep ball. With Flipper, I was using the other setting, which was very distorted, and I didn’t even have to use a fuzz pedal. I was blown away. We like it dirty in Flipper and this amp is dirty enough! I didn’t even have to bring a distortion box. With the filters, it depends on the room, which changes every night. Usually, I start out at 30hz for the high pass. If it’s booming, like in a bowling alley or roller rink, I might go up to 90hz. For the low pass, I’m usually around 4-4.5k, so that I don’t get any fret noise. That’s the neat thing about the filters: they put the power where you need it and it doesn’t get squandered. Because I have the high pass, I can boost the bottom end and not have to worry about a reggae sound because it still cuts. You get the 100hz bump without getting too round.
You just recently started using the NXT212 cabinet. What do you think of it so far?
The NXT212 has been really happening for the gigs, like really happening! I don’t use the horn much but love the punch of the drivers. I get such great compliments from the gig-goers regarding how they’re experiencing it. Other bass players spiel with me about it and are amazed with the sounds coming from it. Every single soundperson has been going crazy for it too. It seems “rock” people don’t know about this speakerbox, which to me is crazy. Night after night this stuff has really brought it for me, the band, and the gig-goers.
You’ve also been using the new Super Pre Bass Preamp Pedal.
It’s hard for me to find anything wrong with the Super Pre. It just slams. The filters are so big on it, and none of the sounds fart out. Everything is very functional on it, and you can get any damn sound you want out of it. I didn’t even touch the manual that they sent me. I was able to figure it out on my own and dive right in. The real use of this thing for Watt is being able to dial in the perfect sounds for different basses I use. Then when I need them, Bingo! I can recall them with the push of a button. Instead of going through compression settings and EQ settings separately with each different bass, I just plug them in and there they are, all ready to go. Every bass sounds different, which is why we want different basses in the first place. Instead of making every bass sound the same, this box plays up the quality of the instrument and what makes it unique. I use the Super Pre every day. I’m building profiles for every bass I have that fits the qualities of each one.
What has it been like working with Jim Bergantino?
It’s been nothing but beautiful. He doesn’t tell you how it is, Jim’s more interested in how I’m using Bergantino stuff and what I like. Jim wants to know how I make the low flow and how I make the gear work like a jack knife for me. Jim’s all ears. I just need to learn a little about some of the technology, the switching supplies and how they make class D happen. Jim’s good people all around.
About Bergantino Audio Systems: Bergantino Audio Systems has been dedicated to developing and building the highest quality audio products and bass guitar amplification systems since 2001. Founder Jim Bergantino has worked in a number of fields in his career, from high-tech electrical engineering to the high-end professional audio world. After designing custom bass cabinets for many other leading brands, he started his own Bergantino Audio Systems. BAS has received numerous accolades within the musical instrument industry and continues to look forward via their designs and unique approach to developing products. https://bergantino.com
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Additional Interview Excerpts by Matthew Denis