21 years ago, after a decade and a half as the bassist in legendary underground trios the Minutemen and fIREHOSE, Mike Watt released his first album under his own name, and it was a very big deal. Ball-Hog or Tugboat? saw Watt without a band for the first time ever, and so to compensate, Watt made the album with basically everyone. Almost 50 musicians guested on the LP, including members of Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets, Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Nirvana… Like I said, it was a very big deal.
With an all-star roster of players and a major label releasing it, the album got hyped to the moon and back, and the tour that followed attracted similar attention, as Watt’s backing band was made up of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl and Pat Smear, less than a year after that band’s premature end in the wake of singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain’s suicide. And as if having backing musicians from two of the biggest bands in the world weren’t enough, those musicians’ new bands were Watt’s opening acts. Vedder was giving a guitar assist to the superb band Hovercraft, who were led by Beth Liebling, Vedder’s wife at the time. The other opener was a brand new concern featuring Grohl, Smear, and members of Sunny Day Real Estate, who went on to do quite well despite adopting the preposterous name “Foo Fighters.”
While video of the tour can be found if you dig long enough, there was, inexplicably, no live album ever made of that touring lineup. That’s about to be rectified at long last with the release of Ring Spiel Tour ‘95. The album is a document of the tour’s stop at the Metro in Chicago, and is scheduled for release on November 11.
One of the album’s tracks is a song that Watt has been playing since his childhood—“The Red and the Black” by Blue Öyster Cult. The lineup is Watt on bass and vocals, Vedder and Grohl on guitar, and SunnyDay/Foo’s William Goldsmith on drums. It’s DM’s pleasure to preview that cut for you today, and we got an earful from Watt about Ball-Hog or Tugboat?, the Ring Spiel tour, and “The Red and the Black.”
The whole idea of Ball Hog or Tugboat was OK, I was gonna make this record using my own name so you know who to blame. The idea was “what does the bass player do?” Is it like right field in little league? There’s something about the bass—are you trying to be fake lead guitar or are you the tugboat?
All these guys on the record, I didn’t practice with them, really. The metaphor was kinda the wrestling ring—that’s why the live record is called Ring Spiel. The only guy I really practiced with was Nels Cline. I just had cats come in. My theory was if the bass player knew the song, anybody could come play drums, or sing, or play guitar, you know what I mean? If the bass line drops out the whole tune falls apart, it’s that fundamental. But it can lead to a lot of openness in collaboration because it has limitations the leave a lot of room for other cats, and once you get them on board with their parts then you can feel it. The whole thing is you set things in motion. I get my part together, but I don’t realize the song, I want it kinda unfinished so the collaborators come in. That’s what I was testing out 21 years ago making Ball Hog or Tugboat.
“The Red and the Black” is very intense, very emotional to me. Basically it’s the older Blue Oyster Cult song “I’m On The Lamb But I Ain’t No Sheep” from the first album, but just the last riff, and some A&R guy told them just to do that lick for a whole song! It’s about a guy running from the Canadian Mounties, their uniforms are red and black. So me and d. boon knew it from Tyranny and Mutation, that second album, we played it as boys, 13 years old. We learned to play on that song, it was our primer. Almost every band I did played it. I got to play it with Bloom and Buck Dharma a couple years ago!
Continues after the jump…