"Contemplating The Engine Room"
From the first ominous bass notes of Mike
Watt's Contemplating The Engine Room, the listener is held captive
on a fascinating and soul-searching journey into the heart of
one of popular music's most original thinkers. A concept album
tracing 24 hours in the lives of three men in the engine room
of a large naval vessel, the 15-track song cycle was inspired
by Watt's own adventures in a punk band and his father's similarly
rolling life as a 20-year enlisted man in the U.S. Navy. Emotionally
charged, Contemplating The Engine Room is a probing, intensely
musical allegory of the complexities of life.
The album perfectly distills Watt's 17-year
tenure as a genuine musical maverick. As bass player for the
genre-blending punk band the Minutemen, Watt inspired an entire
generation of flannel-wearing alternative rockers. Cut short
in its prime with the untimely death in 1985 of its lead singer
and guitarist D. Boon, The Minutemen - - as well as Watt's subsequent
trio fIREHOSE - - have continued to influence legions of musicians.
A master of the do-it-yourself approach, Watt has ventured where
few of his reputation would dare by always pushing artistic boundaries.
As a result he continues to be celebrated by both critics and
peers as one of the most vital and influential artists to have
emerged from the early eighties punk music scene.
Contemplating The Engine Room is the first
time Watt has invited listeners into his own private world, delving
deep into his own personal and musical cache. "I've been
making records since 1980 and this album is the first time I've
ever used my life as manure," Watt says, noting that elements
of Richard McKenna's naval novel, "The Sand Pebbles"
(Steve McQueen starred in the 1966 movie version) and "some
of the ghost stories that my dad used to tell when he came back
from being at sea -- 'fish stories,' my mom used to call 'em"
also figure into the album's storyline. "Each song is a
piece of the day, starting just before dawn and ending 24 hours
later," Watt explains. While the album begins and ends with
the same bass figure, the musical mood swings from industrial-strength
grooves ("In The Engine Room," "Wrapped Around
The Screw") to hard-boiled funk ("Black Gang Coffee,"
"Liberty Calls!") to raging full-on rockers ("The
Bluejackets' Manual," "Topsiders"); the musical
and lyrical symbolism reflecting the incidents depicted in each
While Watt's first solo album -- "Ball-Hog
Or Tugboat?" (Columbia, 1995) -- featured guest appearances
by no less than 48 folks, Contemplating The Engine Room marks
Watt's return to the three-man lineups of his previous outfits.
"What I really wanted to do was make one whole piece that
celebrates three people playing together." To this end,
Watt enlisted the talents of off-beat drummer Stephen Hodges
(noted for his previous stickwork with the unclassifiable Tom
Waits and L.A. bluesman James Harman) and avant-jazz guitarist
Nels Cline (who toured with Watt in support of the "Ball-Hog
Or Tugboat?" LP -- including a string of Lollapalooza second-stage
performances -- and is now with the Geraldine Fibbers).
"These guys are very intuitive and
they weren't afraid to experiment," Watt elaborates. Witness
the atmospheric alternating patterns of darkness and light on
"In The Bunk Room/Navy Wife" and "Crossing The
Equator," the westernmost-in-flavor "Red Bluff,"
the airy "Shore Duty," and the dull, throbbing undertow
of "No One Ever Says Old Man (To The Old Man)."
clockwise from upper left: Mike Watt - standup
bass / Jerry Trebotic - percussion / Ljiljana - vocals / Pete
Mazich - accordion
unlike every other record I've ever made," Watt continues,
"I wanted to do some things that you can't do during a gig.
At one point, we were rollin' marbles around on a bass drumhead
and beatin' on it with our hands to get the sound of thunder."
Indeed, the songs are linked with such nautical noises as crashing
waves, foghorns, and ship's bells. "I also played the whole
album with the top bass string detuned from E to D, because I
wanted to force myself to do things differently."
Produced by Watt and engineered by Bobby
Seifert, Contemplating The Engine Room is also the first album
where Watt has sung every song. "Yeah, it's all my spiel.
It's about three guys in the engine room of a boat, but it's
also a metaphor for what's flying through my head. It's about
the Minutemen, my pop in the Navy, [San] Pedro -- my hometown
-- and how I got to where I am now.
"I mean, somebody who knows the names
of all the old SST [the Minutemen's first indie label, owned
by Greg Ginn] guys will notice they appear in 'Topsiders' --
but if you don't, they're just names -- and all those streets
and places in 'Pedro Bound!' are real -- but, again, if you don't
know that, it's just a story."
Watt attributes many of these changes to
his recent stint as the tour bassist with Porno For Pyros: "Being
a sidemouse, having to do what they told me -- I mean they had
me wearin' pajamas onstage and shit -- really helped me be a
better leader. Not just listening to how Perry [Farrell] would
explain what he wanted us to do -- he talks about food a lot
--but spending all that time riding in the bus instead of driving
my own van gave me a lot of time to think about how I wanted
to do my next record."
Contemplating The Engine Room is intrically
woven and structured to reflect the story's trio of protagonists,
in several musical groups of threes. The slow triplets of "Breaking
The Chokehold" and the title track are but two examples.
The three-legged musical focus that introduces the trio of main
characters -- the percolating, give-the-drummer-some percussion
of "Fireman Hurley," the cycling psychedelic guitar
of "The Boilerman," and the jazzy, walking bass of
"Pedro Bound!" -- is another.
As for the album's ultimate message, look
no further than the last lines of the closing "Shore Duty":
"Seems like there's always more duty/Maybe that's the beauty."