The RNR Globe’s third Mike Watt interview of 2019 focuses on the most Pedro of his current projs
Punk rock titan Mike Watt has beloved San Pedro, California pride—a place he’s called home for five decades—coursing through his veins. The legendary bassist of Minutemen, fIREHOSE and Stooges fame proudly wears both the “jam econo” ethos and his proud deep-seated Pedro roots on his flannel sleeve.
With his fellow Pedroites, the late great D Boon and George Hurley in the Minutemen and fIREHOSE to his shit-tons of what he famously calls “projs,” the perennial punk rocker has forever partnered with like-minded folks from around his ‘hood whose blue-collar, working-class DIY punk ethos is their lifeblood.
Of all of Watt’s recent projs, from Unknown Instructors, Fitted, mssv, Wish Granters to Big Walnuts Yonder, just to spout off a few, it’s Jumpstarted Plowhards who fit the bill of a Pedro supergroup of sorts.
As the core duo behind Jumpstarted Plowhards, Watt and guitarist/singer Todd Congelliere (Toys That Kill, F.Y.P. Recess Records) are both dedicated Pedro lifers, transplants from Virginia and Torrance, respectively, who’ve never left. A union years in the making (F.Y.P. opened for Watt and Kira’s dOS back in in the 90’s), Round One (Recess Records) manifests true collaboration. From the ingeniously whacked mind of Watt came this concept: he’d lay down bass on a CD-R and hand it off to Congelliere to write songs around. The catch was Watt wanted different drummers on each track. Enter a bunch of Pedro dudes and regular Watt cohorts in Hurley, Missingmen members Nick Aguilar, Raul Morales and Secondmen’s Jerry Trebotic plus Fartbarf’s Brian Brunac, Trevor Rounseville of Clown Sounds, Jimmy Felix of Toys That Kills and Hole’s Patty Schemel for a set of fist-pumping anthemic and hooks-crazed punk fury. Think Double Nickels meets The Clash meets Wire and you get the idea. The tunes are Minutemen-esque short and in your face, minimalist like Pink Flag and jam-packed with the catchiest of licks with a vintage U.K. punk flavor.
The Globe caught Watt and Congelliere during busy stretches. Watt, alongside guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Aguilar, had just completed the “Dick Watt” U.S. tour and Congelliere and Isaac Thotz (The Arrivals) have been occupied with opening up their own music venue in Pedro called Sardine. They are also plotting the Plowhards’ Round Two with special guest drummers like Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill.
Let’s start with how you guys first met.
TODD CONGELLIERE: When he was doing dOS with Kira, my band F.Y.P. would play with them, this was like early-to-late 90’s. That was our first encounter and then we started doing a lot of shows in Pedro. I don’t even know how many times we played together.
MIKE WATT: If you want to know the history of this one, I went on tour with my Missingmen, an “I-5,” so like a West coast tour in February of 2017 with Toys That Kill for maybe two weeks of gigs. That’s where I got the notion that I wanted to write songs for Todd. He’s not really Pedro—he’s like me, a guy who moved here. I moved here from Virginia when I was nine and I think he was in his early twenties from Torrance, which is very close but it still ain’t Pedro. And he also had another life. He was a skater, so he kinda traded in skatin’ for music.
I can’t really say he was part of the Pedro scene; our scene was so small. That’s why I was surprised when I found out about it. I started tourin’ so much I didn’t even know that was going on, in the 90’s. They got a pad on Gaffey—Gaffey’s our main street and 4th Street. A coupla pads next to each other and they called it “porch-core” and, actually, they were puttin’ on gigs and shit. They were having gigs in the livin’ room. We’re talkin’ 20, 25 years ago and I didn’t even know that. Goin’ back to Minutemen days, late 70’s, early 80’s, and I didn’t really know something like this was happening. In fact, I plucked one of the drummers from that scene, a band called The Leeches for my Missingmen—Raul Morales for my third opera ‘cuz I wanted somebody from the scene. Now, I’m actually in a proj with one of the guys, architects, builders, pioneers, I guess, (who) moved from Torrance to Pedro to start porch-core and Recess Records.
Todd, what do you remember about those shows playing with dOS? It must have been a thrill to play shows with Watt and Kira.
T.C.: Totally, because it was Minutemen and Black Flag members, playing with them. To us, we grew up on that and were inspired by that more than most music and just having Watt being down to earth person; he’s not, you know, Adam Ant or anything like that. That was my other childhood hero who was unapproachable (laughing). That made a huge impression. I already started to realize that’s what the punk folk were: they were working-class people that did this as their livelihood and didn’t see themselves as rock stars or someone unapproachable. That was always good and I think I even took it for granted back then. The Minutemen catalog, especially Double Nickels really sunk in after that. I was always a fan of the Paranoid Time E.P. and What Makes a Man Start Fires but once Double Nickels set in, it was just kind of like, “Wow! We know this dude.” It’s just brilliant.
Mike, Todd lives right in your Pedro ‘hood, right?
M.W.: I’m only a couple of miles from him. He’s right by my Secondmen organ-man, Pete (Mazich) so he’s within blocks of him. We got a studio there that we’ve been workin’ the last few years. I don’t have to go to Hollywood anymore; I can record in Pedro for free (laughing). I mean all these years having to drive miles and miles and pay somebody all this money. It’s not all bad news these days, especially with the price of stuff to make music, which is lot more econo than the old days. Using ‘puter stuff, it’s a lot more econo than tape and all that. You can have a studio in your own pad now! You gotta mike up instruments and shit but you can do it in a pad! It’s nothin’ like the old days.
Many of the people involved in the Plowhards have connections to or roots in Pedro.
M.W.: Here’s the thing: Let’s go back to how I put the proj together. I’m doin’ these gigs with Missingmen and Toys That Kill and I’m thinkin, man, Todd’s got a lot of projs and they all kinda sound the same. So, I thought, “Man, how can I get him out of that?” Well, bass don’t have to be last. Let’s have the bass be first! Then he’ll write words and guitar parts to these songs that were written on bass, just to shake up the deck, for him and also for me because I think he’s an interesting songwriter guy and stuff.
Look at even the name, “jumpstarted,” like your battery went dead so you used another guy’s battery, right? You got you going, you plow hard! Exactly what fuckin’ Todd did, man. I give him these tunes, the way I’ve done this since D Boon days; I never had to teach D Boon. I would just play for him my songs and because we grew up together, he just played along to it. Then I was lucky to get involved with guys like Nels Cline, who are great improvisers. Ya know, I never had to teach! Even with Tom Watson, if I made the demo good enough, even though I’m palsy-assed-crazy with guitar, I’m not very good, they still get their own shot at it and bring themselves to it. When I write songs on bass, I’m looking at not so much as a finished dealio, it’s more like springboard, more like a launch pad. That’s what I was thinking here, ya know? I throw these bass lines at Toddski and see what comes out.
Todd, the Minutemen are a huge influence on your bands and the guitar on Round One sounds very D Boon-like, especially on that first song.
T.C.: Oh, yeah. I don’t even know if that was intentional. That’s the thing, I wasn’t even thinking channeling any sort of D Boon stuff. It’s probably just ingrained from years of it. His thing was he wanted one drummer per song for the whole thing. I told him after he gave me all the bass lines, “I hate to be nostalgic but George Hurley sounds like he’d fit on a few of these.” So, Watt’s like, “Okay. Georgie gets multiple but everybody else gets one.” That was kind of the thing: how could you not think George Hurley with these bass lines and then the guitar line is maybe reminiscent of “The Glory of Man,” or something like that. It’s just one of those things where it’s a natural thing without trying to jack anybody else’s stuff.
There’s the legendary punk rock rhythm section right there.
T.C.: Yeah, and the song that George plays on was totally different when he tracked it and I changed it based
on what he did on the drums. In a weird way, George helped write it, too, but accidentally because he did certain fills and he had a certain beat where I was just like, “This song is not working in the way I thought originally.” Then I rearranged it a little bit and it just came out better and it was all because of what he plays. That, to me, was like the funnest thing about it. George changed the song and he didn’t try. He just kept saying, “Let me know what you want me to play. I’m not going to get offended if you tell me I’m doing the wrong thing.” He’s a super-nice guy and wanted to play what I wanted him to play. It was really refreshing.
Mike, Round One just dropped. What was the thought process and concept to the way you approached the concept?
M.W.: I’m just about to give him some more tunes. It’s going to end up being five eight-song 12-inchers. I already gave him fifteen so I’m about to give him nine more. So, I thought the band really could get its own identity maybe after that much. I asked him to try to use different drummers if we could, because I think that’s kind of interesting doing something like that, especially this is rhythm music and so you would think the drummer would be very key. Especially, me and Toddski, we’re the consistent thing and so the thing that really changes is the guy we got on drums. I thought that might be interesting. Unless you’re really an egomaniac, I think these projs should have lives of their own.
And you had rules, too.
M.W.: The only stipulation I made was different drummer. So all them drummer choices you see in Round One, that’s him. I thought that he should have some latitude because here I was being kind of the shot caller with bringing those songs out first on the bass. So, I thought he should have some latitude with that in the creative process. It truly is a collaboration.
So, it was Watt’s idea for different drummers to play and you made some calls and made it happen?
T.C.: He came up with the idea of the concept, the band name and the different drummers then he just said, “Just finish it and you cast the drummer so you do this and you do that.” It’s heavy workload but it’s fun. It’s inspiring, for sure.
How did you go about picking and choosing the drummers who play on Round One? George Hurley, Jerry Trebotic and Raul Morales all have connections to Watt.
T.C.: Yeah, those ones were obvious just because they’re local and they’re just ready to go. They all live right down the street. They just come right over. Even Watt lives on my same street so everything’s super-close. Patty from Hole, she lives out in L.A so that’s kind of a drive. Raul, Jerry and George have all played with Watt and Nick, too. Nick’s on it and he just toured with Watt.
Todd, how did it all work with Watt giving you these bass lines that he wrote then you did your own thing with them?
T.C.: He just handed me a CD-R of the bass and the click track so I knew what rhythm it was on and then I took it from there. I thought, “Well, okay, I gotta come up with a melody, something to sing, guitars and who would play good once I finish that part…” It took me a while. Some of it was really daunting, just listening to it and going, “What am I supposed to do?” I don’t know! I’ve never done this before. I’ve never written a song to somebody’s bass, especially Watt’s, so there were moments where I got stuck and just didn’t know. But then I learned to just go, “Okay, we’ll just dump that one for today and come back to it.” I would always come back to it and something would happen. He gave me fifteen songs and I just thought it was too much. I asked him if we should maybe chop it in half and just do eight-song albums. I’m really glad we did because it would just be too much for everybody, us included. So, it just turned into this thing where I thought, “Maybe I’ll take all my favorites and we’ll put’em on the first one so we’re going to blow a load on the second one.” But then the second one, the songs just recently totally changed. This cycle of “Yeah, this is okay. It works. This is a song. I did it. We’re finished but I wasn’t totally happy with it.” Now for the second round, I’m happy with everything now. We just need to track the rest of the drummers.
Todd seems to have really taken your bass parts and ran away with the concept.
M.W.: Here’s another thing Todd was in control: he did all the mixin’ and I got to give him a lot of credit because he’d run each thing by me and want my input. He’s very cool about that. He also said something strange because whenever I think of a mix, I think of the big picture, what people are going to hear come out of the speaker, right? So he said I was the first one he ever worked with that said to turn me down!….because I thought, “This ain’t a reggae song, you know?” (laughing) Let’s turn the bass down here ‘cuz I’m always thinking of the big picture, you know what I mean? Maybe the bass has gotta be smaller here, maybe it’s gotta be bigger, whatever. It’s gotta serve the tune! I thought that was kind of interesting. That also tells me the stuff that maybe Toddski’s learning in this situation, he hasn’t learned in other ones. I learned this big- time, especially with Porno for Pyros J Mascis, the Stooges: you can’t learn everything being the boss. Sometimes when you’re taking direction you can learn a lot of shit, too.
I saw you and the Missingmen play “Over The Counter” here in New York on the recent “Dick Watt” tour.
M.W.: Yeah, and if you noticed, I changed it. Todd should have his own version and then we should reinterpret it. Doin’ a Top 40 cover of your own tune is pretty bad (laughing). I think that that would be only be right (to play the tune different) and I also wanted people to know about it coming out, you know, so by playing it, it’ll be like, “Wait, what’s that song?” ‘cuz I played like twenty songs I wrote in the old days for Georgie and D Boon. It’s really kind of different; it’s not from those days at all. I think in the big picture any music I’m involved in, people should have a shot at maybe hearing it at a gig. Why not?
T.C.: It’s funny because that’s the song that Nick played on and they do it so different, which was weird to me because we got the drummer that played on it. I think Watt wanted to change it up a little bit. I like their version, it’s cool. I love Tom’s (Watson) input on it all, too. He’s awesome. The other drummers were two guys, Jimmy and Trevor. They are in bands that I have and Brian Brunak, he’s in this called Fartbarf that’s local. He’s just been around forever and a super-technical drummer.
VIDEO: Mike Watt + The Missingmen perform “On The Counter” by Jumpstarted Plowhards
So Round Two is already in the works?
T.C.: Yeah. Round Two is the leftovers from the original CD-R that Watt gave me with fifteen songs. Watt says he has one more that he’s going to give me just to make it eight for the second round. That one’s completely fresh. I don’t know what it’s going to sound like yet but the seven other ones that will be on Round Two are done as far as the song structure, lyrics and everything.
When do you think Round Two is going to come out?
T.C.: There’s no rush but we definitely try to work fast; there’s a persistent vibe to it. By the time Watt told me his idea to do it, took him almost like eight, nine months to get me the bass then after that it took me about six months to get everybody start tracking and everything. It’s definitely not like we are sitting around and twiddling our thumbs. We’re treating it like wine where it’s got to age and take its time. Don’t rush anything because with the mixing part, I got the first roughs going and I started sending them to Watt. I think, at first, his first reaction was, “Why are you sending it to me? I thought it was going to be done.” He didn’t really say that but he gave me that impression and I was like, “Well, you know what? I’m not really happy with these mixes so I just want to know your opinion. We could send it to somebody else.” So basically, me and him just finished it where he had mixing ideas that we just kept going back and forth with that. That was my favorite part about it because that was the real collaboration where it was like, “This mix sucks. man. Let’s do this and let’s try this.” It’s weird. I never panned bass before and that was his idea. I think it came out great, especially compared to the roughs. Everything (on the roughs) was bogarting each other and it was hard to mix different drummers. Nick’s song was really easy to mix and that was the first one we got where it was just like, “Let’s do everything like this” but it was impossible. You can’t really copy settings and make it sound exactly like another drummer.
Round One sounds really cohesive although a bunch of different drummers played on it.
T.C.: A lot of people have been saying that, which makes me happy because I didn’t think that would be the end result. I just thought, “Well, people would have to just sit back and understand.” But at the end of the day when you’re listening to a song nobody’s going to give you a mulligan and go, “Well, this is why it sounds un-cohesive is because this happens.” At the end of the day, you want the song to stick out on its own merit and not have any excuses of why it doesn’t sound right. For the drum tracking, each person took less than an hour. It was very loose, it was very, “That sounds great. That’s not exactly what I had in mind but that was great. Even Jerry’s track had some accident and he was fine with it and it’s actually good. It’s like this happy accident that happened. It wasn’t just pounding away at the drum recording over and over until it’s sounds cohesive. I think everybody came in and just kicked ass like really quick.
But it did turn out to be a daunting task?
T.C.: The daunting was it was so many songs. I don’t know if it’s like a lazy way of writing and recording but I have a thing where if I get sick of something, I don’t force it. I don’t really come in and say, “I’m going to work on ‘On The Counter’ today and I’m going to really nail it.” It’s one of those things where I have to be feeling everything so I was doing that for a few months, coming in and working on this for a couple minutes and then going to the next song and just trying to get little pieces here. They’re going based on inspiration at whatever given time. There were some that I just didn’t have an answer for. Eventually I did but I just kept them for the second round and waited for inspiration to come. It was really something new for me to write to a bass line.
Was it nerve-wracking to bring stuff to Watt and get his feedback?
T.C.: I wasn’t nervous but I definitely wanted him to like it. There’s no doubt about that. He came up with the idea of doing more and more after he heard the first few songs. That got me going because that meant he liked it and wants to do more. Even when we’re mixing, Watt was like, “We can’t hurry this process up because everything’s coming out really good and we don’t want to blow it.” When I heard that I was like, “Okay, this is great.” He’s really open-minded with interpretations of music. I don’t think there’s any sort of, like, “No, it has to be like this and you should have done this.” It is what it is and he happened to happen to like it. I was pretty happy about that.
Are there plans for the Plowhards to tour?
T.C.: Watt’s idea was to do five albums then play so we could have an identity. I’m fine with that idea but I would love to play live, I think about it a lot and how cool it would be, after people started hearing this album. It seems like a lot of people like it and keep asking us (to play). I’ve personally gotten about eight or nine show offers already, even though we’ve put it out there that were not playing until five albums come out. That means there’s people who just haven’t heard that and they’re just asking us to play shows. Every offer we get, I’m like, “That would have been a fun one. Dammit!”
AUDIO: Jumpstarted Plowhards Round One (full album stream)