Mike Watt and The Missingmen
The Harley, Sheffield
17 April 2014
What is the definitive measure of success in the music business? Fame? Fortune? Devoted fans?
The answer, seemingly, is distance. Once a record contract is signed, the proximity of the audience decreases; on the rare occasions that you play live, it is your fans that travel miles and miles, only to watch you on the big-screen from their seats on the far side of the universe. Space is highly-prized, a reward for all those years of struggle.
For some, however, gigging is the Holy Grail. Their music is about the up close and personal, the tangible connection with the crowd. And such a man returns to The Harley on 17 April: Mike Watt.
Mike who, I hear you ask. Don’t worry – your question is, to my eternal disappointment, not an uncommon one.
Mike Watt is a punk philosopher and a bass guitarist without equal on this mortal coil. If you’ve ever watched MTV’s Jackass, then you’ve heard Mike Watt. The show’s theme tune is the intro to ‘Corona’, a song (yes, there are lyrics!) written by his close friend D. Boon about the poverty he witnessed on a day trip with his band mates to Mexico. It features on Minutemen’s seminal 1984 album, Double Nickels on the Dime.
Who were Minutemen? Wow. Ok, so now I’m a little surprised. Haven’t you read Mike Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life (and if not, why not)? Minutemen were a truly righteous punk trio hailing from San Pedro. Forget Marquee Moon, Revolver, Blonde on Blonde, and even OK Computer; in Double Nickels, Minutemen produced THE greatest album of all time. Period. Bold and daring, it is a pioneering belter that has never been bettered. That first listening is a truly mind-blowing experience. The joy of discovering that record stays with you. It changes the possibilities, and you’ll never listen to music the same way again.
Yeah, that was a long time ago. Has Mike Watt done much since? Well, it depends what you mean by ‘much’. He’s played, recorded and toured with twelve bands. He’s an Internet DJ, documentary maker, and writer. In the mid ‘90s, Foo Fighters broke their early material supporting Watt on tour, with Dave Grohl and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder forming members of Watt’s band. Oh, and currently he’s the bass guitarist for The Stooges. You’ve heard of them, right?
In April, Mike Watt brings his band The Missingmen to the UK as they finish a two-month, 56-date European tour. A firm proponent of DIY – touring without an entourage, lugging your own equipment, sleeping where you can and trusting in the dedication and generosity of your fans – Watt’s bands jam econo, seeking out intimate and authentic venues to share their music and physical space with their audience.
I was fortunate enough to see Watt with Il Sogno Del Marinaio at The Harley last year. At first, I simply couldn’t believe that it was THE Mike Watt, nor that he’d chosen to play a gig in a pub in Sheffield, though in retrospect the latter was clear evidence of the former. What the crowd experienced that night was intense, a flawlessly tight avant-garde spectacle. Like a tapestry of musical influences woven intricately together, drums and lead guitar picked their way around Watt’s bass – the booming funk-infused weft thread. In nautical terms, Watt is the anchor; the band surf the waves above him in widening gyres, but he dictates the rise and the fall. As an encore, the band smashed out a raucous cover of ‘Fun House’ with Watt as frontman. Iggy who?
My biggest surprise was at quite how accessible Mike Watt is. Before the gig, a hopeful tweet sent to his account asking if a friend could interview him received a warm invitation: Prof Mike spent the afternoon with the band during set-up and sound-check, and then les deux Mikes parlayed for a couple of hours. On the night, Watt watched the support act from the floor and, after the physical exertions of the set, he plonked himself down at the bar to e-ink his tour diary (see 7 March 2013 entry), enthusiastically engaging with anyone who approached him. We finally left at 2am having quaffed copious shots of bourbon plus beer chasers with the band, Watt filling our heads with his musings on Kierkegaard, Reagan, and the Social Contract. Far from seeking separation from them, Watt thrives among his people.
This isn’t a review. It’s a recommendation. Though to be honest, whilst I’ve seen bits and pieces of The Missingmen on YouTube, I need the arrival of the merch table to plug The Missingmen-shaped hole in my CD collection, so who am I to recommend them? Well, I trust wholeheartedly in Mike Watt. This is a plea. Sheffield’s musical cognoscenti packed Queen’s Social Club when Low came a callin’, and it was standing room only at The Greystones for Johnny Dowd. Can we do the same for the visit of Mike Watt and his Missingmen?
Go on, buy a ticket, and be within touching distance of the greatest show in town – for one night only.
P.S. Fellow northerners, there are Manchester and Leeds gigs too – git some!
Words: Brother Gorillaman