mssv: A Tale of Two Mikes

Alongside drummer Stephen Hodges, guitarist Mike Baggetta and bass great Mike Watt go massive with their new trio, mssv

mssv / photo by Tina Mead

Jazz-centric guitarist Mike Baggetta is as prolific with the strings-bending virtuosity and effects pedal hopping insanity as they come. Both a meditative and shredding soundscapist in the vein of Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, David Torn and J Mascis, Baggetta’s style is a mind-meld of spaced-out jazz, gripping free-improv explorations and punk rock-inspired fury.

All of those components are in full throttle on two stellar Baggetta albums released this year alone with two disparate bands. First out of the gate was Wall Of Flowers (dropped earlier this year via the BIG EGO label) which found the Knoxville, Tennessee-based guitarist joining forces with Minutemen/fIREHOSE/Stooges bass godhead Mike Watt and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner (Traveling Wilburys, Bob Dylan). Wall Of Flowers’ compositional technique—meets—improvised sonics is seriously next-level.

Hot on the heels of that record comes the forthcoming Live Flowers by mssv (main steam stop valve), very fittingly self-described as a “post-genre power trio” that sees Baggetta and Watt welcoming drums titan Stephen Hodges (known for his work with Mavis Staples, Tom Waits and other luminaries) into the fold. For Watt, teaming with Hodges marks a major reunion: the drummer played on the punk rock icon’s 1997 touchtone and his first opera, Contemplating The Engine Room

Recorded live at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, Live Flowers shows a band putting the “power” in power trio as Baggetta, Watt and Hodges reinvent tunes in the noisiest and heaviest ways possible from Wall Of Flowers and cover a song by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (“The Pink Room,” a track Hodges originally played on) plus they offer a scorched-earth take on a Stooges classic (“Funhouse”) with special guest, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. 

Live Flowers by mssv

Also included on Live Flowers are two songs from Watt’s Contemplating The Engine Room: “Liberty Calls!” and “No One Says Old Man (To the Old Man).” Today, in advance of the release of Live Flowers (due 12/1), The Globe is proud to present the premiere of the econo videos for both of those songs captured live in March of this year at Ars Nova Workshop at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia.

Pre-order Live Flowers here and catch mssv on tour, including an appearance at Big Ears Festival in March, 2020.  


On the Wall Of Flowers mini-tour that the new record, Live Flowers is taken from, you, Watt and Hodges covered two songs (hence, the videos we are premiering here) from Watt’s 1997 record, Contemplating The Engine Room. Being that’s a heavy and very personal record of Watt’s and one he hasn’t played anything from in a couple of decades, how did it come about that these two specific songs would be played? 

MIKE BAGGETTA: My original plan was for us to just improvise songs live at the shows like some of the studio pieces on Wall of Flowers (the live tracks that appear as “Dirty Smell” and “Data Point”). But after talking it through we agreed that it would be a better mix to have a few more traditional type songs mixed in for a good set. Watt knew that Engine Room was big album for me for a long time so I think he was very gracious to suggest we try to do versions of a couple of those tunes.


Watt, how was it playing those two tunes from Engine Room after all these years? That’s a super-heavy record for you. 

MIKE WATT: I look at my operas as them each bein’ one big tune then there’s parts and I did play two parts. We’d never played together before and we needed material for this tour. So the link is Hodge, right, ‘cuz Hodge does the recording with me and I thought that and I also asked to do a Stooges tune. But I just was looking for some common ground that Mike could get on board with. The two parts I picked, one was “Liberty Calls!” and one was “No One Says Old Man (To the Old Man).” I was thinking of, in terms of this gig, it’s more of like one was a hill and one was a valley ‘cuz when I think about it in terms of the opera, there the parts before the real sad parts. It would be hard for me to do the sad parts again. 

I did four of’em (Engine Room tours)—three with Joe Baiza and one with Nels Cline. Joe Baiza had had a very interesting way of interpreting it. He’s kinda like one of these guys like Nels Cline. They’re not the Guitar Center lickmeister guys. They don’t take photographs. They do finger paintins.’ They get their own persona all filled up in it. They got some technique, believe me. But that’s not what it’s all about. It’s sorta like Ron Ashton and even James Williamson, Greg Ginn—these guys, they learn by themself. They don’t copy it, yeah. You could tell they start developing their own style and so they become very organic players. That’s why I’ve got to really thank Nels Cline in the scene, what he’s done for the guitar scene. It’s really made it safe to go crazy. 


VIDEO: mssv “No One Says Old Man (To The Old Man) performed  live


Knowing Nels Cline originally played on Engine Room, what approach, if any, did you take on the two songs to give them your own voice?

MB: Yea, I mean, Nels is a really important musician for me, as well as being a friend, but I never want to be in a position where there is a strong expectation that I have to try and mimic something from someone else. I mean, we have to serve the song of course, but there’s a difference between playing the song and copying a different player. Watt immediately from the get-go of suggesting these tunes made it very clear that I should take my own approach to them and not try to be anybody else. That really meant a lot to me for him to say that… So, I did!


Can you recall the first time you heard Engine Room and what effect it had on your own writing/compositions/aesthetic? 

MB: I must have been 19 or 20, I was early in college, when I first heard that. Someone had given me a copy saying I had to check it out. That album for me was the first real instance where two big things clicked. First, the idea that you could do music that incorporates all different types of styles and sounds, but have it be one connected concept and band, and secondly, that one can really express a deep emotional concept through music. Those ideas are all intertwined in that album, the subject matter, how and why it was made, etc. These were ideas I sort of vaguely had in my mind as I was getting going with music, but any real definite long form work that made this crystal clear had eluded me until I heard that album.

Live Flowers is about to come out and you have a mini-tour coming up with mssv before recording a brand new record. What can you tell us about the new live record?

MB: I am excited we captured so many great nights of music from that tour. The show we did in Philly hub at Johnny Brenda’s, produced by Ars Nova Workshop, was such a highlight that we decided that whole set should be the album instead of cherrypicking tunes from different nights. Live Flowers is a great document of the beginning of this band and I love the way we open the album with Stephen Hodges, on solo drums and his effects, leading us into our version of “The Pink Room” – the song Hodges played on for David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti for the Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk With Me. I think it’s a good statement about who this band is and what we all contribute to this group. And, of course, a big huge thank you to J Mascis for joining us on guitar for our encore of The Stooges “Fun House” at Iron Horse Music Hall at our show in Northampton, MA. That version was so crazy and amazing we had to put that on as the encore for the album too.

I know mssv is a brand-new band but how is the dynamic different with Hodges vs. Keltner, who played on Wall Of Flowers?

MB: Some of this music that we originally did with Jim couldn’t have come about in any other way, and I am really honored that the music can continue to evolve in the hands of another legendary drummer with us.


Watt, you have so many projects going on right now: Fitted, Jumpstarted Plowhards, Wish Granters, Unknown Instructors and many more I am probably forgetting. Now you got mssv with Baggetta and Hodges. 

MW: In a way, it (Fitted) is like Jumpstarted Plowhards, I got these other projs’ where I put my name, like Secondmen and Missingmen. Well, I do that ‘cuz I want you to know who to blame. These other things I try not to control it, you know? I just try to be a part of it. Otherwise, it’s just fuckin’, it’s I Love Lucy show, you know? Next week, it’s pizza, next week it’s mayonnaise. You know what I mean? It’s the same ol’, same ol’. I found there’s four ways to do this kind of thing where you play with other people. One way is like, I grew up with D Boon, probably the truest sense of collaboration, right? Like I said, I didn’t have to teach him. Second way is you be the shot caller. For example, my operas, right? Those guys couldn’t tell what was in my head. I wrote the whole fuckin’ trip thing out so they took direction. Third way is for me to take direction: Porno for Pyros, J Mascis and The Fog, Stooges. I didn’t tell those guys what to play! A lot of time now you take the role of the dead guy, you play the old song. 

I find that there’s a new way to take direction. This thing I got goin’ with Mike Baggetta—he writes all the material. He’s kind of like a Nels Cline guitarist. He’s living in Knoxville, Tennessee. Me, and Steve Hodges did a little mini-tour with him this year. I got to record with Jim Keltner (and) with him a couple of years ago. 


VIDEO: mssv perform “Liberty Calls!” live


Do you look at Mike Baggetta as Nels Cline-like?

MW: Nels Cline has opened shit up for a lot of guys—they don’t have to play the clichés. They can be pretty bold. Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell, they’re into this stuff too. You can play whatever you want. Some ladies, too. Ava Mendoza. They’re just taking the guitar to places that I find quite interesting. The other way with all this technique and, say, you got a guy that’s kind of strange like Buckethead but he’s actually doing Steve Vai! Nothin’ against Steve Vai but Jesus Christ! We got enough of that, man. You know what I mean? We gotta blow it up a little bit.


mssv just came out with that first track off Live Flowers, the David Lynch tune, “The Pink Room.”

MW: That’s what Hodge brought in. You know, I go back with Hodge to my first opera and with Nels (Contemplating The Engine Room). But ain’t that strange? All this kind of fits together (laughing)! It’s just the way it fuckin’ happened. We were put together actually by this guy Chris Schlarb in North Long Beach. He’s got a studio called BIG EGO—he’s the one who put the proj together. I had never met Mike Baggetta before. The whole idea, without trying to repeat yourself, you know? The collaboration can bring out stuff that you would’ve never thought of. And that’s why in some of these things, I just leave it as a launch pad, springboard. Let’s see what they do with it. Other things, yeah, I’m asking’em how to dance, turn their head, focus their eyes, all this kind of stuff (laughing).  


Where does the name mssv come from?

MW: It’s called mssv, means “main steam stop valve.” Me and D Boon’s favorite movie when we were boys was called The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen, 1966, and we took it from that. It’s really interesting to have a guy writin’ the songs for you. In the summer, I helped Flipper out in Europe and I love those songs and stuff but you kinda take the place of the guy who’s gone. So, those are the four ways that I’ve learned to do music with other people. And I think it’s good to have them in kinda equal doses. Life, it’s about takin’ turns. 


VIDEO: mssv perform “Wall of Flowers” live


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Brad Cohan

Brad Cohan is a music journalist in Brooklyn, NY.

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