Bass god Mike Watt wrestles with A Love Supreme and Meditations on the Henry Kaiser-initiated A Love Supreme Electric
Mike Watt—the econo-jamming, Wattplower-slinging, flannel-flyin’ punk rock godhead and living legend—has been carrying the torch of John Coltrane for decades, helping spread the righteous gospel of jazz’s OG pioneer.
One of my initial introductions to Coltrane’s unrivaled wizardry was hearing “Spiritual” blare through the speakers after a Watt and Pair of Pliers (guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Vince Meghrouni) gig at New York City’s Mercury Lounge back in the 1990’s. That covers-filled gig included a glorious scorched-earth medley of Pere Ubu’s “Life Stinks” that segued into a take on “My Favorite Things” with Meghrouni skronking on sax and Watson behind the kit. During his fIREHOSE days and his solo concerts, Coltrane tunes would fill the club pre- and post-gig and as everyone who’s been witness to a Watt live show, a beloved staple is the bassist barreling offstage after shouting a call to the audience to “Listen to John Coltrane!” And, as Watt tells it, he’s played a deep Coltrane cut that opens his Watt From Pedro Show for “nineteen years, eight months now.” There’s no denying Watt as staunch champion of everything Coltrane, singing his praises ad infinitum.
But besides that cover of a cover of a cover of “My Favorite Things,” Watt hasn’t dabbled too much in actually playing Coltrane’s music. That is, until his pal, avant-guitar virtuoso, improviser and archeological deep-diver Henry Kaiser, asked him to join a formidable ensemble well-versed in delving into the Coltrane canon. With Kaiser and drummer John Hanrahan at the helm and with Watt, Vinny Golia (on tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones) and Wayne Peet (on Hammond B3 & Yamaha YC-45D organs) on board, the quintet set forth on an improbable musical journey: a reimagining of Coltrane’s sacred touchstones: A Love Supreme and Meditations.
This collaboration of west coast luminaries spawned one of the best records of 2020 in the jazz realm: A Love Supreme Electric: A Love Supreme and Meditations (Cuneiform Records). It ostensibly didn’t make the best-of lists due to its release late in the year.
Traversing a similar sonic plane as another Kaiser venture (the guitarist and Wadada Leo Smith’s Miles Davis homage project, Yo Miles!), A Love Supreme Electric is pure spiritual fire. Kaiser, Watt, Hanrahan, Golia and Peet channel Coltrane’s compositional mastery, free-form spirit and force-of-nature energy with electrifying 21st century abandon. Of the Coltrane-centric reimaginings, A Love Supreme Electric: A Love Supreme and Meditations and 1999’s Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane by Nels Cline and Gregg Bendian are must-haves for Coltranephiles, recordings that pay the ultimate respect to this giant of jazz without desecrating those holy grails.
The Globe caught up with Watt on Skype (his favorite communication medium) to talk the “pants-shitter” that A Love Supreme Electric was and how he almost didn’t do it, how Raymond Pettibon introduced him to Coltrane’s music and jazz plus his pile of new projs, as he’s known to call them in his trademark Pedro-speak. Forthcoming records include Watt joining forces with the heavenly vocalist Petra Haden in a violin/mandolin/bass trio performing a libretto written by Charles Plymell, a new Fitted album with members of Wire and drummer Bob Lee and the much-anticipated debut of Three-Layer Cake, a trio made up of Watt and New York wild-eyed punk-jazzers, drummer Mike Pride and guitarist Brandon Seabrook. Three-Layer Cake’s Stovetop was recorded during quarantine and is set to drop on March 30th via RareNoise Records.
That’s just a smattering of what to expect from Watt in 2021. Sadly, don’t expect any more operas from him anytime soon; Watt says he may not have a fourth opera in him.
Do you recall how you first met Henry Kaiser? Was it during the SST days?
Mike Watt: I don’t know if it was back then. He came in and did “The Red and The Black,” a Blue Oyster Cult song with us at the Berkeley Square. Then I never played with him again for a while. Henry’s a friend of Nels Cline, that’s the connec’ with me. Nels Cline did somethin’ with him that’s kind of related to this record called Yo! Miles. That’s about Henry going into Miles Davis’ music and reimaginin’ it with electric rock or free jazz—like Nels Cline. Well, Nels Cline’s everything! Shit.
That’s what Henry did with this proj. I know Henry a little more through the organ-man and the guy who mixed it and recorded it: Wayne Peet. He’s real good friends with Nels Cline.
VIDEO: Henry Kaiser “Meditations”
So it was Kaiser who spearheaded this record, A Love Supreme Electric: A Love Supreme and Meditations?
I gotta say the proj is Henry Kaiser-initiated but he wouldn’t say, “This is my thing” and shit. But he got the shit together. John Hanrahan, he’s done this for years. Maybe not Meditations so much but I know A Love Supreme. So, yeah, and this is important, especially fightin’ these stereotypes of drummers being idiots and not musical—it’s stupid bullshit. The biggest mistake the Minutemen ever did was to have George Hurley in the back, like (the) traditional rock ghetto for drummers. When it’s rhythm music, the guy should have been way up front (on the) stage like I’ve been doing for the last twenty years. Hanrahan is really important. For one thing he lives up there. I think Henry’s in Santa Cruz or near there and John Hanrahan is, too. I don’t think he’s in the city but it’s close, right, Pacifica, where brother Steve Mackay (was). So kind of neighbors with the rest, like Vinny Golia, who also is an old-time good friend of Nels Cline.
Were you on board right away with this proj?
I gotta tell ya: First time he invited me with this, I didn’t want to do it. It was funny when Henry was selling it to me, right, gettin’ me to come on board (laughing). Henry Kaiser says: “Don’t worry, Watt. They know the chord changes. They’ll do all the heavy liftin’! Somehow you’ll be able to hide!” (Laughing) A shortcut? There’s no shortcut on the truth. But it’s like there’s no way to hide that kind of stuff no matter who’s doing the fuckin’ liftin’…There’s nothin’ against Henry Kaiser but I think he might have been just saying this to get me on board and shit. But come on! There’s no mystery, no hiding. You gotta be there, you can’t hide behind these guys.
In fact, these guys are very beautiful about their playin’. They’re not bogarts at all or pass the baton kind of guys. The main point is Nels Cline, and this idea which is kind of a big, strong legacy of John Coltrane, I think, is what really legitimized it for me. Henry said: “Try playin’ this, playin’ to this, Mike. Let’s see what this ensemble can do with this.” That’s the kind of take, the perspective that let me not be so afraid to do it and say yes to Henry. Kaiser is a trailblazer. I gotta lot of respect for Henry.
Was it too imposing to take on Coltrane?
In a way, it’s like asking somebody to ask you to do a paint-by-number version of a van Eyck. Ya know what I mean, like, what the fuck? Like those horrible…restorations. Totally mangled it, destroyed it!
But then Henry is talking to me about John Coltrane. John Coltrane did a lot of reinterpretations of other people’s songs. In fact, that was a big tenant of bebop in a way, right? Reconstruct or deconstruct or whatever the fuck, turn it inside out, have some fun.
Because these guys, they couldn’t prac a lot together so they’d get together in jam sessions, using lingua franca or common ground, standards right, shit from fakebooks. They could go and make it their own in a way, even something as corny-ass as his fuckin’ “Favorite Things,” Sound of Music bullshit. But John Coltrane turns it into swinging 6/8. It’s fuckin’ happenin’ and just all that stuff he did with it. So, looking at it that way—as a launch pad or springboard. When Henry broke it down to that I said, “Okay.” What was the word you used? “Imposing?”
Yeah, especially if you love this cat and his music. You gonna shit all over it? My pop said, “Assume wasn’t spelled by accident, boy.” When you do that shit, you make an ass out of you and me (laughing). I don’t want people to think we wrote this fuckin’ thing!
An interesting idea, too, about Henry (saying) that the book ends. I really never thought of Meditations as his (Coltrane) other opera and it really is. And, actually, there’s two versions, right, a big band and a little band. I was figurin’ John Coltrane wouldn’t want you to do a fuckin’…I’m not taking advantage of this or anything or being self-righteous or self-justified. But he wouldn’t want a rubber stamp, xerox, cookie cutter. He didn’t do that with his own material. He always was reinventin.’ Not to justify anything like that. From my point of view, it is to pay respect to him, sayin’ music is music. If you can get your inspiration by a guy who said, I think, “All musicians are after some kind of truth…” I’ve got a lot of audio recorded of him, right, the last one with Frank Kofski, one of the early ones with August Blume right after he kicked the shit. So interesting to hear him and, in a way, that’s the way it is, like it’s his musical thing he can share with us, to inspire us, is the way I look at it.
How did the group together for A Love Supreme Electric: A Love Supreme and Meditations?
It was Nels Cline’s people: Wayne Peet, Vinny Golia. Very interesting. Then Henry, with this thing he already had with John Hanrahan, I hadn’t met him before either. But John invests a lot of time—and a drummer-man, right? Doin’ the Elvin thing. But actually, he was as much as…what do you want to call it? An MD? A music director guy. He knows this piece inside-out. But he wasn’t all anal like, “Aw, no. You were supposed to go there then. That’s the way they did it.” He wasn’t like that. He just knew the way somebody knows a map, like the ocean is big and you can sail all kinds of places where you can know where kind of continents are and islands. That’s where John is with these pieces. That’s the knowledge he has from playin’ it so many times. Hanrahan was the secret ingredient in a way. He was really neat. To have the drummer really understand the piece by having do it so much and having it part of his fabric. I’ve listened to it millions of times but I have never tried to play this stuff.
Did you play electric bass on the record?
I’ve tried to do standup (bass). Man, is it fuckin’ hard.
I usually record with big basses—not standups—but full- scale electrics. But Henry wanted me to use my Wattplower. Because the way we did it, right, was we did a gig at McCabes (Guitar Shop) then the next day we recorded. With a day of prac to get ready for the gig and then the gig. So the gig in a way was prac, which was maybe a smart way to do it instead of the other way around, where you record it then do the gig? It was kind of trippy in a way. Those guys…there’s no wrong answers. I mean, everybody’s thinkin’ of John Coltrane’s music and that’s the yardstick. But the spirit of the whole approach is no xerox machine. It’s almost like letting the stars light your way as you’re trying to find your way.
How did you first discover Coltrane?
My experience with Coltrane is kind of trippy. Raymond Pettibon’s the first time I hear him and I actually think he (Coltrane) is an older punk rocker—I didn’t know he was dead. You know, I grew up in Navy housing. I didn’t know about bebop and shit, I didn’t know flannels were lumberjack shit and farmer. I thought that was his (John Fogerty) rock ‘n’ roll shirts. This was late-70’s, right, and I didn’t know he (Coltrane) was dead for ten years. I knew it when I was a little older. But Raymond Pettibon played me Ascension and it was like bein’ at a Germs gig! Then he starts bringin’ me to see guys, obviously not Mr. Coltrane, but Elvin Jones, Ray Brown, Cecil McBee. Max Roach, Sam Rivers…I start seeing these cats and it just opens up my mind. I play Coltrane on every one of my Watt From Pedro Shows, nineteen years, eight months now.
How did you approach actually playing A Love Supreme Electric: A Love Supreme and Meditations?
See, I think John Coltrane wasn’t so much composition as versus performance. He wanted a spirit of performance and I think that’s what was important for him. I approached it like that. If I’m gonna sit here with these guys and do this kind of stuff, I gotta play with them and let go of that old recording. You know, the original big daddy, the real deal. I let that go and played with these guys. I take some cues from Jimmy Garrison, if you want to say that. It was a hard thing, It comes with a lot of baggage, a lot of front-end shit before you even play one note. This is Mr. Coltrane’s big daddy and Meditations, too. That’s a big daddy, too.
This proj sounds like it was a total collaboration.
John was really important about this, as much as Henry. I mean, Henry brought out the forge and the anvil and fired up the pit and shit. But John, he knew the stuff. He’s a true believer by doin.’ He was very important. And, of course, Vinny being the reed-man—look at all the weight hanging on him because that’s closest to Mr. Coltrane’s playin.’ Whew! I felt a very big burden for Vinny. Vinny is the guy who had to really watch out for the shadow. It’s like Ed fROMOHIO and D Boon. It’s just circumstances and situation but it’s there. What do they call it? It’s the 800-pound gorilla. It’s the obvious truth but how else do you deal with it? You can’t. Wayne was a different thing because he wasn’t trying to do McCoy. And the original doesn’t have organ. I’m almost like him and Henry, too. We bring in other instruments that aren’t part of the original thing: electric bass, electric guitar, organ.
There’s that kind of responsibility to those guys right there that I was playing with.
It sounds like you put in the same hardcore dedication for this proj as you do for everything you do.
D Boon’s ma put me on this. People ask me what kind of bass player I am: Hey, I’m D Boon’s bass player. But what I’ve learned since losing him is the politics are very interesting. You look good making the other guys look good. It’s really important. You’re kinda like glue and if you got nothing to stick to, you’re just a fuckin’ puddle, man. I know it (the bass) looks like a guitar but it’s actually the note is there with the kick drum and maybe some toms. You know Nels Cline with all the pedals? You ask him, “What’s your favorite one?” Oh, the volume pedal?” Yeah, because he’s thinking of the big sound, right? He’s thinking of the big picture. So, there’s that kind of responsibility, too, to those guys right there that I was playing with.
I was so scared to do it, so weirded out to do it. Man, the gig was a pants-shitter and so was the recording. But, man, both times I felt such a “let the air out,” like, fuck it. It’s like you went out, you took the sailboat out, you didn’t turn turtle, man. I still don’t know how exactly successful (it was) because I was just so caught up in in the moment—it was just like a rush. It was like the fuckin’ Stooges gigs. Same kind of trip in a way. The responsibility! You grow up on that stuff then havin’ to make it. I want to be buried at sea but I would have these nightmares where there would be a gravestone and all it said on it was, “Fucked up a Stooges gig.”
You don’t fuck with that, you don’t ruin that, you don’t take it for granted, you don’t party on it. That’s the trick or the dilemma of what is to be done: How do you pay it respect?
It’s a responsibility that I felt, cuz’ to me Stooges music is like Coltrane music—it’s from the heart.
AUDIO: A Love Supreme Electric “Acknowledgement Pt. 1”