He is best-known for co-founding the rock bands The Minutemen and fIREHOSE; as of 2003, he is also the bassist for the reunited Iggy Pop & The Stooges and a member of the art rock/jazz/punk/improv group Banyan as well as many other post-Minutemen projects.
Though Watt has not had much mainstream success or visibility, he is often cited as a key figure in the development of American alternative rock: the Red Hot Chili Peppers dedicated their hugely successful Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) to him.
Watt and Boon were initially rather ignorant of music; they didn't know bass guitars were different from guitars, and Watt simply removed two strings from a guitar to emulate a bass. When he acquired a bass guitar, he lamented that the instrument was rarely prominent in rock music, but has cited John Entwistle, Jack Bruce, James Jamerson, Geezer Butler, Richard Hell, Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, Joe Bouchard, Dennis Dunaway, and Gene Simmons as influences. When he first saw a real bass at 15, he commented that it looked liked a guitar with bridge cables.
Years later, Watt would say that the lack of role models left him free to develop his own approach to playing bass guitar.
In 1984, Watt met Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler during a Black Flag/Minutemen tour. They soon became romantically involved, and subsequently began collaborating on songs, including material on the Minutemen's final album 3-Way Tie (For Last). They also formed a two-bass duo, Dos, and have since recorded and released three records.
The Minutemen ended tragically on December 22, 1985, when Boon was killed in an automobile accident while driving to Arizona with a girlfriend. Their fifth full-length album, 3-Way Tie (For Last) had already been scheduled for release at the time of the accident. In the documentary film We Jam Econo, Watt mentioned that the last time he saw Boon, he had received lyrics for 10 songs from critic and songwriter Richard Meltzer for a planned collaboration with the Minutemen. The Minutemen were also planning to record a triple album with the working title 3 Dudes, 6 Sides, 3 Studio, 3 Live as way to counteract bootleggers.
Subsequently, Ed Crawford, a Minutemen fan who drove to San Pedro from Ohio, persuaded the Watt/Hurley rhythm section to continue playing music. fIREHOSE was formed soon after. After three releases on SST, fIREHOSE signed with Columbia Records. Shortly after the release of 1993's Mr. Machinery Operator, the band decided to call it quits.
Watt and Kira married in 1987, but their marriage fell apart not long after fIREHOSE's break-up. However, both their friendship and Dos have remained intact; they even recorded their third album, Justamente Tres, not long after their divorce.
In 1996, Watt contributed bass lines to two songs on Porno for Pyros' second album, Good God's Urge. He subsequently ended up being the bassist for the tour that followed the release of the album, sparking a friendship with lead singer Perry Farrell in the process. (The band's drummer, Stephen Perkins, had already worked with and befriended Watt during the Ball-Hog Or Tugboat? sessions.) In November of that year, he created and established his own official homepage, Mike Watt's Hoot Page, initially using his personal Internet Service Provider's free web space until bandwidth demands spurred him to move the site to its own domain name and server.
In 1997, Watt released Contemplating the Engine Room, a punk rock song cycle using naval life as an extended metaphor for both Watt's family history (the album has a picture of his father in his Navy uniform on the cover) and the Minutemen. The album, which was critically well received, features a trio of musicians including Nels Cline on guitar, and Watt as the only singer.
Watt went on to play in such groups as Banyan (with Stephen Perkins and Nels Cline) and Hellride, a sometime live outfit that plays cover versions of Stooges songs. He also played in The Wylde Rattz with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and The Stooges' Ron Asheton, recording a song for the film Velvet Goldmine.
In 2000, Mascis asked Watt to participate in a world tour behind Mascis' first post-Dinosaur Jr. release, J Mascis and the Fog's More Light. At several of the shows, Asheton joined Mascis and Watt onstage, wherein the group would play entire sets of Stooges songs. Watt and Mascis later joined Asheton and his brother, Stooges drummer Scott Asheton, for a one-time-only performance at a Belgian festival under the name Asheton, Asheton, Mascis & Watt. In 2001, Watt was one of several bassists invited to participate in the sessions for Gov't Mule's The Deep End, partly on the recommendation of Primus' Les Claypool. Watt and Gov't Mule recorded a cover version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Effigy" for the album. The sessions were immortalized in the documentary feature film Rising Low.
In 2002 Watt, along with Pete Yorn and members of The Hives, backed Iggy Pop for a short set of Stooges songs at that year's Shortlist Music Prize ceremony. The performance, along with Watt's past performance history with the Asheton brothers and a successful recording session for Pop's Skull Ring album, led to Watt's being enlisted to fill the bass slot in the reunited Stooges lineup in 2003. The reunited Stooges played their first show in almost 20 years at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in May 2003. In 2002, Watt was invited by pop punk band Good Charlotte to make a cameo appearance in their music video for "Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous". He portrays a jury foreman in the video and even has a short speaking part.
In 2003 Watt's first book, Spiels Of A Minuteman, was released by the Quebec, Canada book publisher L'Oie De Cravan The book, printed in both English and French, contains all of Watt's song lyrics from the Minutemen era as well as the tour journal he wrote during the Minutemen's only European tour with Black Flag, essays by former SST co-owner Joe Carducci, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, and Blue Öyster Cult lyricist and longtime Watt hero Richard Meltzer, and illustrations by Raymond Pettibon that had been used in all of the Minutemen's album artwork.
Also in 2003, Watt made his second music video appearance in as many years, appearing in the video for Cobra Verde's song "Riot Industry" (along with Rudy Ray Moore and George Wendt). Watt himself would describe his part in the video as such:
I play an "Idle American" and end up doing a "Fred Sanford" when I can't get what I want on the television - I collapse to the deck with a heart attack!
Watt's third solo album The Secondman's Middle Stand, inspired by both his 2000 illness and one of his favorite books, Dante's The Divine Comedy, was released in 2004; one reviewer writes that the album is a "harrowing, funny, and genuinely moving stuff from a true American original." . For the first time since the Minutemen, Watt recorded the album with an "all-Pedro band", Mike Watt & The Secondmen, consisting of organist Pete Mazich and drummer Jerry Trebotic, along with former That Dog vocalist Petra Haden.
While promoting and touring behind The Secondman's Middle Stand, Watt announced plans for his next two solo albums, stating that he intended to record as frequently as he did in the Minutemen days for as long as he could. The first album, which will be recorded with his new project band The Missingmen — guitarist Tom Watson and drummer Raul Morales — will contain 39 short songs, said by Watt to be inspired by the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. The second album will be similar in execution to Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, only with Watt recording with unknown and lesser-known musicians in various locales.
Watt would part amicably with Columbia/Sony-BMG in 2005, after 14 years as both a solo artist and as one-third of fIREHOSE.
On December 14, 2005, the McNally-Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota announced the formation of the Mike Watt Bass Guitar Scholarship, which is to be awarded annually to a bass major starting in the Fall of 2006.
In October 2006, Watt joined the rest of The Stooges at producer Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Studio in Chicago, Illinois to record The Weirdness, the first Stooges studio album since 1973's Raw Power. The album was released on March 6, 2007, and much of Watt's 2007 was devoted to Stooges duties, including the band's first full-length U.S. tour since the band's reformation.
In November 2006, Watt revealed to Pitchfork Media that he contributed his bass skills to six tracks on My December, the third album by American Idol singer Kelly Clarkson, a studio assignment that he took at the invitation of his "old friend", producer/engineer David Kahne.
Watt also worked on two other projects during this time period: Funanori, a musical collaboration with Kaori Tsuchida, guitarist of The Go! Team, on shamisen and other instruments, and Pelicanman (named after the closing track on The Secondman's Middle Stand) with Petra Haden. The first three songs recorded by Watt and Tsuchida as Funanori were released on a split EP with Tokyo band LITE in the summer of 2007 by Transduction Records. Watt also contributed a cover of Blue Öyster Cult's "Burning For You", recorded with Haden, Nels Cline, Money Mark Nishita, and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, to the all-star compilation album Guilt by Association, released in August by the independent label Engine Room Recordings.
Watt is currently working on his first post-Columbia solo recordings, furthering his oft-stated desire to return to a more prolific release schedule than his association with Columbia allowed him. A new album with the Nels Cline/Bob Lee lineup of The Black Gang will be recorded in the first week of February 2008, and a new album with The Secondmen as well as the long-delayed Missingmen album are also planned.
Watt has vaulted primarily between Gibson and Fender basses for most of his career. He does not do compensated endorsements for any particular guitar brand as of November 2005, usually preferring to buy used basses that he discovers in instrument stores, pawn shops or via classified ads. Watt frequently modifies his basses by adding active electronics, and for luck and inspiration he likes to put pictures of favorite people and/or things on his basses.
He initially started with a mid-60's Gibson EB-3 bass; he switched to a Fender Precision Bass in 1982, feeling that the Gibson was causing him to play too many notes at the time; his first Fender P-Bass was purchased from former Fear bassist Derf Scratch; the bass, which Scratch used on Fear's classic debut album The Record, would also end up being heard on the second Minutemen album, What Makes a Man Start Fires?.
Around 1984 he found a Fender Telecaster bass, which became his main bass for the last two years of the Minutemen's existence as well as much of fIREHOSE's; the bass had pictures of Kira and of Watt's favorite singer, Madonna, on the instrument. Close to the end of fIREHOSE's collective life he started using a late 60's Gibson Thunderbird bass; this ended up being his main bass after the white Telecaster was stolen from his apartment sometime in 1995.
After his recovery from the emergency surgery on his perineum, Watt semi-retired the Thunderbird (he did use it again for his first ever gig with the Stooges at the 2003 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and in his sessions with Kelly Clarkson), and switched back to his 1965 Gibson EB-3 bass, citing the short scale as being easier on his hands after not touching a bass for the entire time he recovered from surgery; he decorated the bass with photographs of his deceased best friend and Minutemen bandmate D. Boon, jazz legend and longtime hero John Coltrane, a picture of a friend's compass tattoo, and a sticker from one of Watt's favorite current bands, Sistas in the Pit. This has been his primary bass for live performances but he has also used the bass to record his contributions with Gov't Mule and on J Mascis' December 2000 John Peel radio session, as well as all of his recordings as a member of the Stooges to date. Watt feared that he would have to temporarily shelve the bass in July 2005 when a crack was discovered in its headstock during a 2005 Stooges European tour; He was able to have the instrument repaired in time for the next leg of the tour. The instrument, along with the rest of the Stooges' equipment and the band's truck, were stolen outside their Montreal, Canada hotel on August 4, 2008..
In late 2004 he acquired a second EB-3 bass as an alternate instrument for live gigs. He initiated the bass during Dos' annual Christmas benefit show, and first used it extensively during a brief six-date spin on the 2005 Vans Warped Tour.
Over the past few years, he has also started to acquire some custom-made instruments, including basses made by guitar craftsmen Tim Thelen, Mark Garza and Darrin Huff. On The Secondman's Middle Stand Watt initially recorded the basic tracks with a Telecaster-style bass built by Tim Thelen, but later recut the basslines with a Moon Larry Graham model bass, which he also used on a 1998 European tour. A yellow Telecaster-style shortscale bass built by Garza and nicknamed "The Bananaplower" can be seen in the "Tied A Reed 'Round My Waist" video and heard on Banyan's Live At Perkins' Palace CD.
Two of his many basses feature autographs: a budget-line Alembic bass he acquired during the early fIREHOSE days and later had spraypainted green features the autograph of Los Angeles Lakers star basketball player James Worthy, and a mid-70's hollow body Gibson Les Paul Signature Bass features, appropriately, Les Paul's signature with the salutation, "Keep on pickin'".
Not much is known about what amplification Watt preferred in the Minutemen days. Pictures (including those in Double Nickels On The Dime's gatefold sleeve) have him using Ampeg SVT amps. In 1985 Watt switched to a Gallien-Krueger amplifier driving Cerwin-Vega speaker cabinets; a photo of this rig can be seen on the back cover of fIREHOSE's Ragin' Full-On.
During his time with J Mascis and The Fog, Watt played through Marshall amps at the direction of Mascis.
For his solo works, with Banyan, and on the current Stooges tour, Watt uses Eden amplification, for which he is an endorsing artist. When he performed with the Stooges in the past, he usually played through gear rented by the promoter according to the band's contract rider - usually two Ampeg SVT amplifiers and cabinets, although for one round of dates in 2006 Watt used Marshalls borrowed from Primal Scream bassist Gary 'Mani' Mounfield.
Watt rarely uses effect pedals in the studio (two notable instances pre-2004 were a Digitech Whammy pedal on Dos' "'Till The Blood Ran" (Justamente Tres) and an envelope filter on "Tell 'Em Boy" (Ball-Hog or Tugboat?), and until 2004 never used them in live performance. On The Secondman's Middle Stand he used the Whammy Pedal and a variety of distortion units and other stompbox effects to help illustrate the album's storyline. For the tours in 2004 and 2005 behind The Secondman's Middle Stand Watt used a Boss pedal board with four different effects and a Korg stompbox tuner.