Mike Watt is punk rock's Willie Nelson. He's a legendary character, well-known and beloved within the scene for his open heart, plainspoken wisdom, and free-ranging interests. Perhaps the most endearing thing beyond his humble, self-effacing, eminently approachable manner is his utter curiosity, which is how he wound up collaborating with Italian guitarist Stefano Pilia and drummer Andrea Belfi in Il Sogno Del Marinaio.
"I'm really into this idea of life as a classroom," says the 56-year-old Watt. "I get all these teachers — even though they're 21 years younger than me."
In his 34 years making music, Watt's been a member of the idiosyncratic, almost jazzy punk-rock outfit The Minutemen, college rock favorites fIREHOSE, and the latter-day Stooges. In addition to being a solo artist, he's also collaborated with members of Wilco, Black Flag, Saccharine Trust, and Sonic Youth and contributed bass to somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 albums, including discs by Kelly Clarkson, Zooey Deschanel, and Gov't Mule, among others.
Surely he has something to impart to his Italian mates? "I've got some practical knowledge," he chuckles. "The thing is, they have degrees in music and art. It's kind of a trippy situation."
A trippy situation — that's not a bad description of Il Sogno Del Marinaio's second album, Canto Secondo, either. Their arty, largely instrumental compositions have a squirrelly muscularity thanks to Watt, but they're equally informed by Pilia's mixture of screeching and meditative psych guitar, blending Neil Young and a restrained Sonic Youth. Though Pilia's playing can get heady, Watt and Belfi keep it earthy with a beguiling rhythmic complexity that anchors the pieces.
Watt's playing often displays a whimsical offhandedness, like an unintentional double entendre. The three-minute third track, "Nanos' Waltz," is a great example. It begins with an off-kilter melody before briefly turning decidedly funky during the last 45 seconds. As a whole, Canto Secondo is a marked improvement over Il Sogno Del Marinaio's 2012 debut, La Busta Gialla. For one thing, they'd only known each other a week when they recorded it.
"We didn't put it out for three years until we could find time to tour it," explains Watt. "That was a year and a half ago, and I did 23 gigs in Europe with them. So it's the first time I got to spend a lot of time, and I think that informed the second album big time."
They also took their time compared to the debut, spending eight days together instead of two-and-a-half on Canto Secondo. Watt flew to Bologna, Italy and stayed in the farmhouse, recording in the barn out back. He quips they were "between a prison and Europe's oldest university." They cooked for him, and during his time there he never left the farm. "It was very focused, and we got to really come together," he says.
One of the album's highlights is "Mountain Top," which trills in the upper register like a Celtic melody on a tightrope, unbalanced and twisting slightly in a delicate summer breeze. Another favorite is "Stucazz?!!," which has a dreamy, almost lounge-like sway, suggesting the slightly effervescent slink of an early-morning walk home from a bar.
"People call it a Mike Watt album, but of the 10 songs, I only brought in four of them," he says. "That's why I asked those guys if we could call the band an Italian name. I'm in the minority. They wanted my name, you know, because I've been around longer. But if you listen to it, you can tell it's different than [my solo albums]."
Watt's led an eventful life, which he traces back to the day his late Minutemen chum D. Boon dropped out of a tree and landed on top of him as a kid. They became fast friends and started the band in 1980 after driving up from San Pedro to Los Angeles for some punk rock shows, notably Black Flag. Before that, their heroes were arena rock stars, but the punk kids showed them that they could make music as well. Watt still proselytizes that old punk-rock spirit.
"That's why I hate to see it reduced to a genre. It was a mindset," Watt says. "Do something about it. Find your own voice. If you have to wear funny clothes and change your name to Joey Shithead, so be it."
Watt says it's all a matter of allowing things to happen and then capitalizing when they do.
"Most of the shit in my music life happened by accident, the way it comes together. But once it comes together, you start working at it," Watt says. "It seems to have followed me since D. Boon jumping out of that tree onto me, through The Stooges and Perry Farrell and Porno for Pyros."
Even Il Sogno's music has a deliciously spontaneous, organic vibe. Like life, it unspools in a variety of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions — nervy but dreamy, delicate yet prickly, majestic and understated — into something that feels very human. Watt's still surprised by the band's sound.
"It shows you can do almost anything you want with a trio. It doesn't have to always be Cream," Watt says. "I think younger people now are just more open-minded."
When asked about his hope or expectations for the project, Watt waxes poetic. Or more specifically, he invokes 19th-century poet Walt Whitman.
"When Whitman put out that first Leaves of Grass, he said he was doing it to help stop the oncoming Civil War," says Watt. "He thought people on the farms and at the workplace would have their Leaves of Grass in the front pocket, and at lunch time, take them out and read them to each other — get all good on the inside and decide not to fight each other."
Watt stops there and lets that lesson in ambitious hope sink in.
"Everybody's got a spark in this thing," Watt says. "Maybe it's a lucky situation. A guy jumps out of a tree on you. Something happens, and you get to act on it. You take an opportunity instead of trying to calculate, formulate, and scheme."
That, children, is how an old dog learns new tricks.