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Mike Watt Captures A Pivotal Career Moment On ‘Ring Spiel Tour ’95’

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Photo: Mike Watt
Mike Watt

Bassist Mike Watt has made influential music for over 30 years. His work and D.I.Y. mentality in bands like Minutemen and Firehose inspired countless underground bands.

But on his latest release, the bassist does something he’s always avoided: He looks to the past.

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“Ring Spiel Tour '95” is a live album that captures a night on Watt’s first solo tour in 1995. His backing band was an all-star cast of rock musicians who had played on his debut solo album "Ball-Hog Or Tugboat." It included Dave Grohl and Pat Smear of Nirvana and Foo Fighters, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.

Watt knew the audio from a Chicago concert existed, but he never took the time to listen to it. And he certainly never thought of releasing it. He says he was too wary of nostalgia.

"Sentimentalism, nostalgia is very dangerous," Watt says. "I’m thinking 'Happy Days,' Fonzie, Potsie. When that show came on, my pop said: 'Boy, those were not happy days!'"

Watt’s label asked to officially release the music this year. His band members showed their support, so he gave the OK.

He says listening back showed him just how important that tour was for his career. Because it was the first time he truly got out of his comfort zone. He’d only played in bands with close friends.

"I kinda had a sheltered life musically. Not a lot of variety," he says.

The tour in 1995 was really his first time playing with musicians outside his social circle. And it opened up the floodgates for new projects.

"It really is a sea change for me," he says. "Because after that tour, I start doing all these projects. I tried two drummers. I'm wearing a mouse suit interpreting Madonna works. I helped J Mascis out. I ended up doing 125 months with The Stooges!"

Watt also went on to write rock operas inspired by Dante’s "Inferno" and "The Wizard of Oz." He says he might not have had the courage to experiment musically if it weren’t for experience of the tour in 1995.

"It was so scary, when I think about those days," he says. "After that, all those scary projects, they were still scary but I had a little something. A little spine, a little backbone from that tour."

That tour also made him more comfortable playing with younger musicians. He’s since played bass for pop star Kelly Clarkson and currently works with Il Sogno del Marinaio -- a European trio half his age.

That wasn’t something he saw happening when he was starting out with Minutemen in the 1980s.

"There was such a divide between the ages," he says. "And I’m glad that went away. 'Cause that was kinda weird. It’s circumstance, right? No one picks when they’re born."

While Watt’s early work is considered legendary, he’s found new and exciting paths in the second half of his music career. And it all started with the tour captured on “Ring Spiel Tour '95.”

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