Monday, October 6, 2014

INTERVIEW: Mike Watt and Stefano Pilia (il Sogno del Marinaio)

The new il Sogno del Marinaio record, “Canto Secondo”, is really beautiful.  How did you get hooked up with (guitarist) Stefano Pilia and (drummer) Andrea Belfi?

Stefano I know from the 2nd opera tour of Europe. I went over there in 2005 to do “The Secondman’s Middle Stand” and 6 of the gigs were in Italy.  Claudio, the promoter man, stuck this young man in the boat with us…it was Stefano Pilia.  Four years later I got an email from him…he told me he was a musician and he was invited to play this festival and he had a drummer buddy, Andrea, and he wanted to know if I would come and do this festival.  It was out of nowhere and I said sure.  I said, maybe we should do more than one gig if I’m gonna come all the way out there.  So he put together six gigs.  I’m 56 now, and I have this thing, “If you gotta chance, record”, so I said if we’re gonna work up this shit for the gigs, why don’t we fucking record it then!  So in the middle of the gigs, we recorded this album, “La Busta Gialla”.  We didn't put it out for a while, right – we put it together in December of 2009 but we were so busy, both me and them as musicians, different projects.  We had to coordinate a time when we could play this for people too, not just put it out.  When we had a chance last year to do a Europe tour, that’s when we put it out.  I think it’s really a happening record, but it was three years later, right.  What happened was I got invited to the last All Tomorrow’s Parties in England – Barry Hogan, great festival.  I said, “Would you guys play with me here and from there I will go to Italy with you and we will make a second record.”  There’s a lot of guests on that first record, and this one is all us – “Canto Secondo” means “the second song” – this might be a different perspective of the band and I think it’s legitimate.  The gig was on the 1st of December and I went over to Bologna where Stefano lives in his farmhouse and next door is a barn where the studio is, and 8 days we laid it down.  We only had two days to make the first one – we overdubbed stuff later, of course, and the way you make records now you don’t have to be in the same room.  There’s not as much on this one.  We didn't do any of the spiel (vocals) in December – the spiel comes later.  Andrea’s from Verona, but he’s moved in the last couple of years to Berlin with his wife, so we’re all in different towns.  It’s something that is important because everyone thinks it’s a bad new day, but there are things you can do today that you couldn’t do in the old days.  So there are some interesting things that the old days didn't have at all. 

You can connect electronically with those guys.

Yeah, you can trade files. You couldn't do that in the old days so easy.  You had to fly tapes around.  Oh my god.  I never even hardly tried it.  It was either you play with the guys you are with or there ain’t any recording getting done (laughs).  I hear a lot of bad about the modern days, but I think every contemporary time had people who said the old days were better.  Sometimes technology can help with ways of connecting – it doesn't solve any creativity problems.  The whole il Sogno del Marinaio thing is kind of a manifestation of these kind of things, where you can operate in a way you couldn’t operate before.  I can’t reinvent my past with D. Boon (deceased Minuteman singer/guitarist)…actually nobody can.  They can try, I guess, but it’s only tries.  The past is the past.

You’re only chasing something then.

I’ll tell you something what’s similar between Minutemen days and il Sogno del Marinaio: it is me going back to collaboration.  You look at “Secondman” (2004’s “The Secondman’s Middle Stand”), you look at The Missingmen, these are bands I put together to take my direction and to help me realize a proj, same with Nels Cline and the first opera. These were all bands I put together.  Kinda like how I fit in with the Stooges, like “Here, Watt, will you do this for us?”  Stefano and Andrea, it’s a little different – they’re both composers.  If you look  at the total amount of compositions, I’m in the minority. It’s more collaboration.  So, in some ways I went back to the old days, but not the old ways of doing things.  I didn’t have to grow up with these guys, they’re 21 years younger. They come from the avant garde – they went to music school and stuff. They’re from another land, not just another state or another town.  It’s very interesting for me, but still a lot of common ground.  Still a trio, just guitar, bass and drums. It just shows you how much you can do with that.  It doesn’t have be just one kind of sound.  I thought in the old days it all had to sound like Cream.  It doesn’t have to be like the Police either (laughs). A lot of my bands are trios, but they don’t sound the same.  I do that on purpose. Even though we’re from different backgrounds and generations, I still feel in a trippy way like it’s a kind of classroom where I get to learn stuff. What I’ve tried to do more and more, coming into middle years, is to put myself and my bass in situations where people have stuff they can teach me.  That’s really important.  Just because you’ve been around a little bit doesn’t mean you know everything.   It’s one of the reasons I keep busy with different kinds of projects.  To your question, this band came together by accident, but once it came together, why not fucking rally around it?

So what are you continuing to learn about yourself?

That I don’t even need to move to the 5-string bass to learn more shit.  The bass is really about who you are playing with.  I don’t know how much sense it makes on its own.  Dos (his band with bassist Kira Roessler) kinda gets into that, but a lot of my bass has relevance depending upon the people I’m with.  It’s part of the politics of that machine, you know. I really respect and owe a lot to James Jamerson, who is on all of those Motown records. He never made a solo bass thing, but he very much has an identity, established by him playing with other people.   He and John Coltrane are really role models.  Coltrane wasn’t a bass player, but from what I understand felt that all musicians were in search of some kind of truth.  So I like that idea, mixed with James Jamerson’s idea of serving the tune and serving the people you are playing with. But I still have an identity.  What middle years has done has made that more clear. In the old days, when I thought about music, it was just about D. Boon. That’s why I was playing.  I wasn’t really a musician, it was just a way that I could be with him. He passed almost 30 years ago now. I don’t have that paradigm anymore, and try not to be too sentimental anymore.   Where I am really relevant is what I do with the bass in my middle years. And maybe I can look good helping other people look good (laughs).

That’s a very humble way to approach it.

Well, that’s what I learned from Coltrane.  That motherfucker could play, well, like a motherfucker! (laughs) His last tour, he was going to play with a bunch of other people. A bunch of different teachers, you know.

On the American il Sogno tour, you are doing 51 dates in 51 days…how do you maintain that level of enthusiasm and endurance in your “middle years”? 

I did the math wrong…it’s actually 53 gigs in 53 days. Stefano and Andrea also played in David Grubbs’ band, so they played a couple of the big cities like New York and Chicago, but they’ve never done a big tour like this.  So that is something I can do for them.  If you’re going to go out and do, fucking DO IT! You know I’m a from a tradition of doing big tours anyway, so this isn’t really new for me.  But it’s new from them, and I get to give audiences a whole different side of me they haven’t seen.

Us Minutemen learned it from the Black Flag guys, Hüsker Dü was doing four month tours.  How do we prepare?  I’m having these guys from three days early to Pedro – I have the same prac pad for 29 years, and for a few days we are just going to practice the shit out of the set.  It is kinda trippy…it isn’t like with D. Boon, where we from the same town or Ed Fromohio (fIREHOSE singer/guitarist), who moved to my town.  These guys have to come and visit – kinda like what I had to do when I visited Europe. First gig is in San Diego, September 10th.  First gigs are kinda pants-shitters (laughter).  You gotta throw this together, and people have worked all week, you can’t play lame.  You have to give them all. The later gigs will probably be tighter…part of the knowin’ is in the doin’! And even when there are clams, there is something about the human spirits coming together to make something.  There’s worth in that.  And with Stefano and Andrea it’s not just parts, it’s about playing together.  When one cat is out in this other land, the other two can throw him a rope.

A lot of life is about stuff that is hard to do, and I don’t see why touring should be exempt from that.  It can be scary as well, but my pop was a sailor in the Navy and that’s how he got to see a lot of the world, so there is a lot of adventure as well.  I see a parallel for me with that as well. Most people take vacations – this is my vacation (laughs).

Via email from Italy, guitarist Stefano Pilia was also kind enough to talk a bit about how he and drummer Andrea Belfi got involved with Watt and the collaborative nature of il Sogno del Marinaio.

How did you both come to collaborate with Watt?

I met Mike in 2005. He was touring his second opera with Raul Morales and Paul Roessler. I helped them with the roads directions for the five Italian gigs they had. A nice time. We kept in touch. In 2009 a festival in Italy asked me to propose and present a collaboration project. So I asked Mike and Andrea to do a collaboration together. They did not know each other.

I met Andrea years before and we have been playing together in many several occasions since then and -we also play in a trio with D. Grubbs. With both of them I immediately felt a strong sense of familiarity even if we are all very different and come from different places and time.

Mike then proposed to make a mini tour and recordings in Italy and to call the project " Il Sogno Del Marinaio".That is how started. Every one of us came with a couple of ideas each to be worked together and to have pieces for the band and the gigs. In the beginning we were also playing some Minutemen and other Mike songs cause we did not had enough material for a gig! It has been all done in 10 days! Rehearsing, tour and recordings. It is all written in Mike’s hootpage ( ) Never done something so quick! I was scared but excited and I learned 

The group’s name translates to “The Sailor’s Dream”.  Musically, the new album sounds a lot like sailing (very placid expanses punctuated by choppy waters) - how did this theme influence your writing and the way the songs came out?  In what ways did you approach the material differently than on your debut?

There is a sense of adventure and of fairytale in the name of the band which I really like and that I find reflected in the different music scenarios that are part of il Sogno del Marinaio records as well. The sailor's dream meaning in my mind is more of a metaphor about adventure and discovery - a way which is narrative and figurative in a traditional sense but not necessarily linear and coherent ...exactly more like a dream where stuff happens in a more surprising and crazy way.

How collaborative was the songwriting process for the album?  Certain songs on the album seem very structured while others feel more improvised (particularly the guitar).

Like we did for the first record, everyone brought ideas or pieces to be worked together. But compared to the first record, the sense of the band is more solid and strong in this second one. More developed and coherent of what we are together and how we can play together. Our first European and real tour in 2013 has been a great experience and a great step for the project because we finally got the opportunities to really play and live together. We cannot meet often unfortunately. Also in this case we composed and record the album in 8 days ...not much but certainly we arrived in the studio with a stronger consciousness.

The pieces are all very structured. There is some space here and there for guitar improvised solos, yes, but not so much actually. There are also some drums improvised - part “Us In Their Land” for example has a pyrotechnic Mitchell drumming part from Andrea .A beautifull bass improvised solo at the end of “Skinny Cat” by Mike. “Stucazz?!!”, for example, has a lot of improvised windows for drums and guitar which take place on the solid Mike bass riff-parts. But the measures and ideas for the windows are all very structured. It is a funny and ironic piece.

What can we expect from the fall tour?  What’s next for the two of you after this?

I will be recording and touring with Rokia Traore',  a Malian artist and I will continue with my other projects in Zaire, cagna chiumante, massimo volume and my solo stuff as well. And I hope we can make a European tour of “Canto Secondo”. And “Canto Terzo” as well!

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