Mike Watt vs. Raymond Pettibon

Intro by Max Maslansky
originally published, issue #6, 2005

No Title ( I Was Just) 2004. Ink on paper 30'' x 22.25 ''

When swingset decided to approach Raymond Pettibon for an interview, it was agreed that it’s better to hear old friends yuk it up than two strangers grope in the dark for commonality. Enter Mike Watt. He’s known Pettibon since the early ‘80s, the salad days of L.A.’s punk scene. While Watt was spreading the overpowering gospel with the Minutemen, Pettibon was drawing cover art and posters for his brother Greg Ginn’s band, Black Flag. Watt and Pettibon have since gone on to new creative frontiers, but they still live where the scene started: the beach. The two got together for a conversation about art, politics, history, and everything under the California sun. Raymond Pettibon lives and works in Hermosa Beach, California. He recently had a solo show at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York and is slated for a retrospective at the Whitney Museum in late 2005. Mike Watt lives and works in San Pedro, California. His new solo album is fashioned as a “rock opera” entitled The Secondman’s Middle Stand, and is out now. Our recordings were a little spotty, but please bear with us as we join this conversation already in progress…

MIKE WATT: Would you call him an artist?


MW: Yeah.

RP: (sighs) You mean in the grand manner of Churchill or Eisenhower or the other Sunday painters, an artist? Why?

MW: You know…

RP: Like people say con artist or—?

MW: You would say Hitler had some art skills, right?

RP: Well, he aspired to be a painter.

MW: Hitler had some vaudeville skills.

RP: You can call him artist, but why use that word in particular? There’s an expression for things like “con artist,” and that’s one thing, but paintings, sculptures, you know, whatever you want to call “art?” I don’t think Bush has any interest in [that]. I know his wife, she’s into literature and the arts and reading things without actually having any other call to do it except charity functions here and there. But the First Lady typically has [her] pet cause. Nancy Reagan’s was drugs, because usually you’re recovered and Nancy Reagan was a hardcore drug addict, period. I don’t know how much she got into later, but every day of her life, powerful amphetamines and then powerful downers to, you know, manage that. And then, uh, theorizing, that’s where that asinine First Lady smile comes from, the grinding your teeth, being able at functions to stand there or sit there…

MW: Well, this is what I’m trying to get at. Like, is there an “art” to politics?

RP: Well, there’s an art to anything, but…

MW: Yeah, something in particular, like making a good drag motor, right?

RP: Yeah, but that’s natural, too, though, because you can be the kind of artist, musician you are without some of the skills. It would be hard to put that many miles on your band because I can’t do it, I mean, I can change a tire when I have a jack or I could…I can’t change the oil. I could put oil in, gasoline in, wash the windows, that’s about it. Politics was to Clinton, I’m convinced, that it’s something that he aspired to very consciously from a young age, and the same thing with Kerry. I think even his Vietnam era, right, because there’s some truth in the way the radical right portrays him… His war record becomes an issue of the atrocities he committed. The My Lai massacre-level crimes, war crimes… This myth about the right-wing news media is pathetic. I mean, Kerry should be put on trial today or whatever, he should be in Guantanamo Bay or in Arlington, if they could find room for anyone else to put there, it’s tough now, you know. But maybe he would have the credentials to qualify… There was enough of an anti-Vietnam war sentiment when he got back that he rode back as much as he could, and then, when the sentiment changed, he was taking back his war medals with his best [inaudible] politically.

MW: Yeah, so that’s the art of politics—the way the sentiment…

RP: He didn’t for a while. Maybe it’s gone back to that, although I don’t think it’s as much as before, but you had maybe when I was a very small kid, you still had it come up: “Well, do you want to be president one day?”

MW: Bill Clinton said yeah, right at eight years old…

RP: I don’t think that Nixon… The times changed to where you didn’t have that anymore. It was like, do you want to grow up to be Henry Lucas, you know, serial killer? And now, maybe unfortunately, it’s gone back to, because it really is…

MW: Do you want to be a serial killer president? (laughing)

RP: It’s a sociopath kind of personality.

MW: You crave a certain kind of… You won’t just stop at, like, having a band, telling the rhythm section what to do. You must have whole regions.

RP: It’s like playing for an audience. It’s way beyond that. It’s this comparison between a serial killer and the president. One is a mass murderer on an aggregate level to where he just calls the shots; he doesn’t have to get down into the trenches.

MW: This comparison has been made a lot: rock star and politician.

RP: There’s rock stars who dive in to some degree at least as a model—Bowie and Jagger. I mean, I guess anyone who works a job—but look at Bush as an extreme example. Or look at Reagan, where he was called “the great communicator.” This is a three by five par. Card rambler who would…what are they? Suppressed memories of rescuing the survivors of the holocaust in the belly of the beast. This is the great communicator, and Kerry and all the obnoxious, with their spin doctors; you don’t have the order that was a much bigger part of politics before.

No Title (The Artist Having), 2003.Watercolor on paper 18'' x 20 3/4 ''

No Title (The Artist Having), 2003.Watercolor on paper 18'' x 20 3/4 ''

MW: Now, a lot of times when you go back into the history of the Church, these are the guys who put fine artists to work.

RP: The Church did, yeah, that’s that system of patronage.

MW: And kind of as the merchant class came up and you had self-made popes, they became patrons, Medicis.

RP: Popes of the merchant, the industries, corporations and foundations. It’s to give a public face, a kind of leavening of your business practice type thing. And you raise the public-spirited profile of your company, which is, in my opinion, much worse. It’s a symptom of something that to me is a major problem when you have companies doing that, because they’re doing it for reasons that are a cover for what they’re really doing.

MW: Yeah.

RP: The Catholic church, that’s a large part of what it’s about—the worship of the relics and the saints. And any visual manifestations of sainthood could be an apparition on the mirror in your bathroom, its body would start dripping, and the Protestant declamation had a lot to do with—the Gutenberg Bible, the printing press had a lot to do with that. As religions promoted the text, reading… They’re usually in the opposite with the visual images. The Bible is supposed to be this austere black cover, and the dress of the clergy, you know, everything in the church, it wasn’t to call attention aesthetically or as a spectacle, flamboyant, thought-inspiring.

No Title (Behind the big-top), 2004. Gouache, ink on paper 30.125'' x 22.25''

No Title (Behind the big-top), 2004. Gouache, ink on paper 30.125'' x 22.25''

MW: The people love a parade? (laughing) I was talking about this before. But then you have a guy like Bosch on his own…Under so much direction, but he seems pretty possessed with a hankering to get some expression going.

RP: Yeah, well, when the textbook image that you’re taught at an early age of the dark ages, you’re talking about how many hundreds of years, how many different situations and cultures, and there were some pretty hip things going on. I mean Bosch was—could have been tripping on all, basically, the equivalent, plus wasn’t there speculation that he belonged to this cult of public nudism, and free love, and, you know… ?

MW: Could those things be turned on them? Sort of like what Bosch was doing with his own private vision and, like you say, his own private weirdness?

RP: Well, in music, you have this critical anti-establishment thing going and then it becomes absorbed by the same people you’re criticizing, appropriated into the—

MW: Army commercials. You got your new wave song in an Army commercial.

RP: Yeah, you look at Iraq and there are soldiers who live in black back bars and men have to have their separate [inaudible] and American flag and their motherhood… No critics especially emerged officially, but a lot of the soldiers have swastikas, for instance, or tattoos of the Nazis.

MW: Are you influenced by music in your work? I know you like literature.

RP: I don’t ever listen to music while I’m working.

No Title (I Have Drawn), 2004. Ink on paper 30'' x 22.25''

No Title (I Have Drawn), 2004. Ink on paper 30'' x 22.25''

MW: I’ve been developing this crude theory that there’s kind of two basic artists. There’s one that closes off the world except how it’s going to work for them, and they get a technique developed on how to run that hustle. Then there’s another kind of artist that’s open and ready to accept almost anything, and it comes on them and just fires them up.

RP: Yeah, definitely.

MW: You know what I mean? There’s like two points of view. One guy already has his goal in mind, so everything becomes a means to that end. Then there’s the other cat, who’s way open and just waiting for things to come and resonate in him and then the work will be, like, then it’s made apparent what he wants to get done, what’s going to happen.

RP: Well, I’m on that screen, I think; being open to any influence, any information. But art is for—it’s much more common still—it becomes a kind of unwitting parity of the signs. There’s this problem with scientism, with thinking that, well, this is some silly flippant activity, otherwise, unless I come off as looking grounded, give it some gravitas with these, give it some rigor and discipline and form and formalism…

MW: Process.

RP: Process, right. For a long time, there were letters, they were written with it in mind that they would be saved and published, whether during their lifetime or not, for instance. And they were writing letters not to address the wider audience, and so you were writing to your Annie, who’s, maybe she knits scarves and sweaters all day and maybe she likes to gamble or play or whatever, and you’re writing all these defenses of what you’re working on, your poetry, or…

MW: Your opus. (laughing)

RP: Yeah, you just include that…

‘Keep it real,’ I get told this all the time… I try to remind them that John Fogerty was not born on the bayou.— Mike Watt

MW: Yeah, that book you gave me, Joyce’s and Pound’s interactions. Interesting, like a sense of history in some ways, but in other ways they’re in the moment. He was going top, get Joyce a job as a government censor, it’s incredible. (laughing)

RP: Yeah, well, Pound was very involved in the day to day. I was going to get you a subscription to a journal dedicated to Joyce. Do you want that?

MW: Yeah!

RP: There’s a guy, Darger. Henry Darger. He did volumes, tons of stuff, that were discovered after he died, only I don’t think anyone knew that he was a janitor, and he created this whole world of children in cut-outs, collages, comic books, and then watercolor, white writing, and beach ball music, and now they’ll do museum shows and stuff. But it was all an interior world. Then there’s artists that you could say don’t carry that quality? Stepping back from that in some cases can be really unnerving, a type of promotion.

MW: Yeah, absolutely.

RP: I’ve managed to avoid these niches as much as possible because I just can’t stand that. Well, in your case, you put so much into your work, there’s not so much left for—it’s the same with me.

MW: That’s where I got this weird faith in the sex of the muse, like, sometimes it’s possessed and you’re not being self-conscious about this crap, making it become crap; you pitch to the angels.

RP: Yeah, you know angels are up there and they’ve been reached and I think they’re on the other side now. (laughing) They’re too busy marketing themselves to bother. That’s why God and the Holy Ghost and all those fuckers, they’ve got their own gig going.

MW: Yeah, you know, you draw a pipe and you say this is not a pipe…

RP: Then you pass it around and the other person says, “Um, there’s nothing in here.” (laughing)

MW: This whole idea of “keeping it real.” “Keep it real,” I get told this all the time.

RP: Yeah? Why? You’re not doing it mathematically.

No Title (Only The Dead), 2004 Ink on paper 19.5'' x 25.5''

No Title (Only The Dead), 2004 Ink on paper 19.5'' x 25.5''

MW: Well, I try to remind them that John Fogerty was not born on the bayou.

RP: They say that, “keep it real,” don’t speak the language of…When you hear people like that, their idea of “keeping it real” is like STYX. They have more myth-making going on than…these bands write about fairies and unicorns and whatever. That is keeping it real, too.

MW: Yeah!

RP: “Keeping it real” to me is wiring in. Okay, this is my reality that I live with and work with, and it’s more real to me than what might be on their minds, you know? Like when rock’n roll and art get together, it’s where elitism comes up all the time. Doesn’t it?

MW: Yeah, always. In fact, it’s the rich.

RP: Elitism is to me doing the opposite. Because the elites are the George Bushes, these fuckers who would be totally dismissive. That’s the way he talks, that’s the way he thinks, if it’s not “keeping it real,” which is his Texas Rangers and is his next gram or whatever. Basically, it’s his way of, “I don’t want to hear these theories, I want body counts, okay,” is how he would put it. And those people are in charge, okay? He puts on this façade of being this Texas—I don’t know what he’s doing out there, I mean, oil or… Well, he’s never been successful. There’s never been any reason or explanation of why he’s pitching horseshoes. Like his daddy, maybe. I don’t know. But they’re the elite. Well, I’m not a New England pointy-headed intellectual, either. I didn’t go to prep school like he did, I didn’t go to fucking Yale, etc., etc. That affectation of “keeping it real,” which is…

It’s like playing for an audience. It’s way beyond that. It’s this comparison between a serial killer and the president…” —Raymond Pettibon

MW: You know, as long as I’ve known you, you’ve said that if you have any kind of persuasions, you have libertarian ones. Little “L.” I ask this because this David Horowitz guy claims he’s a libertarian, and I was just wondering what the connection was.

RP: That word means nothing to me. It works at one end, but even most people would call themselves that. It’s one thing to be on the side of someone being able to live in peace and harmony without having to answer to anyone, except for the fact that they’re more powerful. People who call themselves that, they make guns out of [it], they promote this positive conception of capitalism and captains of industry. These are heroes to them. I don’t have any of that. I’m not a utopian, or don’t have any delusions—basically I’m anti-government, but that doesn’t mean to use that cover. Well, they wanted to use that because it’s not politically useful for anyone. Some of the worst politics of the day is being presented as that, really. I don’t keep up, you know. Like I haven’t kept up with economics, for instance, until just recently, or….

MW: Yeah, do it for the art.

RP: Yeah, but also then you become engaged, well, whatever engagement you can get from the library or the computer, which is another thing that is just recent. So I’m seeing things that I haven’t for a long, long time.

MW: Still, it doesn’t seem like you reacted against your past. I hear a lot of these neo-cons claiming they were…

RP: No, I’m not. I’m just saying there’s a long tradition of ex-communists, I mean… I don’t know how far I could take this because I don’t know how much you’re willing to reveal, at least in print or on air, or whether you want to go into the hardcore Stalinist book or not (laughing), but I’m in favor of equity, and redistribution even. I don’t think there’s justification for the way this society is; the huge inequalities of wealth. It’s not like there’s a level playing field of some evolutionary thing through the families. What you have now is an extreme example of welfare for the rich. It goes beyond welfare because it’s not just like a transfer payment to take out to the liquor store or whatever place you cash your checks in whatever amount. It’s big, big institutional capital, and there isn’t any purity, it’s hard to defend. And if you wanted to sum it up in a relativist, a cultural relativist, and ethically—that’s not to say I don’t have my own ethics. I don’t have this rock star or politician urge to either promote my morality or to enforce it.

No Title (That which honor), 2004. Ink on paper 12.5'' x 30 ''

No Title (That which honor), 2004. Ink on paper 12.5'' x 30 ''

MW: What about this theory that history’s over?

RP: History’s over? History will be over when—if there are any remnants of dust for any civilizations coming from elsewhere, I mean, because we speak about history that way, with an archeological basis, or if you want to go back to even evolutionary history.

MW: Well, I could play out all the ideas to try to change the situation.

RP: You know, like Fukuyama. Where would the New York Times bestseller list be without jerk-offs like that? There’s always these total, they like to weigh in, you know, they’re just windbags with a typewriter—[inaudible] and Daniel Bell and Christopher Lash.

MW: They want to promote their ethics and advertise them.

RP: Yeah, they want to promote their books.

MW: Yeah, their books. (laughing)

RP: It’s just an excuse. You could fill the library of Alexandria with books that are about the end of this, the decline and fall; every generation, every time, every era, every block has someone going, “Well, this is too far. Now I’ve seen everything. We’re doomed. There’s nothing left to say.” And that’s what it basically becomes. It’s more than a joke or something that you expect to see, that’s been with us forever, because now you have this ideology or this human trait that I guess we’ve had forever, you know, you have it put in a position of power where it has the reins of history, so it’s self-fulfilling. The messianic, the tribulations, they’re actively working for them. Promoting their book, it’s always been used, preachers…we learn about the end of the world, that’s how you recruit.

No Title (Where Its At), 2004. Ink on paper 19.5'' x 17.5 ''

No Title (Where Its At), 2004. Ink on paper 19.5'' x 17.5 ''

MW: Right, but do you think we kind of crave the drama? Because we kind of allowed this to happen. People just said, “Whoa.” And, in some ways, they’re living their own lives in their worlds, going to their NASCAR races…

RP: Look at the dregs of society who are promoting this. Well, I can’t say this because Henry Kissinger I’m sure thinks he’s going to live forever, and if anyone does live forever, it probably will be him…

MW: Yeah. (laughing)

RP: …And the rest of them. It’s not like it’s a fatalistic kind of vision. It’s more like the preacher who has none of his own thoughts invested in it. It’s just a marketing thing, it’s a way to attract…

MW: Hustle.

RP: …Followers. The difference is that now you’re playing with real consequence because of the technology.


RP: Yeah.

MW: I gotta tell you something. I brought my van in to get the big maintenance, and it’s this cat named Phil at Robert Muffler, and in my mind I’m thinking, “Man, I hope this man is an artist about his craft.” I want him not just to get the gig done, but to put his whole thing in it.

RP: Yeah, but there’s only so much that word goes to. It can be used, like, artist is about craftsmanship, it’s about work…

MW: Passionate, right?

RP: Yeah, and see, that has affected the art industry, if you want to call it that, with the consequence of the opposite effect.

MW: Are you interested in the mechanics of the “art industry”? You know, like when you go to the track, you know the owners, the trainers, not personally, you know of them, or are you just scoping out the landscape?

RP: If I did work in the track, then it’s your job, then you don’t want to take it home with you. But yeah, as an industry, it has its own.

MW: Dynamic?

RP: The baby boomer generation. I think they’re worse. They made a religion out of it. Once they started getting old themselves, they got jealous. Also they started raising kids and started remembering back to their days of complete free love, and drugs, and streets, and that scared them. So by now the kids, they’re a mysterious undercurrent, you don’t see them, they’re in their rooms, sitting by their computers.;

All images courtesy of David Zwirner, New York and Regen Projects, Los Angeles

by Swingset Magazine on 6/28/2012 in Features, Interviews | Tags: ,