Contemplating the Engine Room
|Contemplating the Engine Room|
|Studio album by Mike Watt|
|Mike Watt chronology|
Contemplating the Engine Room is a punk rock opera by Minutemen veteran Mike Watt. Released in 1997, the album is a punk rock song cycle that uses navy life as an extended metaphor for both Watt's family history and his first band, the Minutemen. The album was critically well-received, though not universally. The cover art features a picture of Watt's father in his Navy uniform.
In July 1997, Watt posted on his personal website, "I'm gonna call the band mike watt and the black gang crew in honor of engine room folk - the black gang is boat talk for engine room crew.". The album features Watt as the singer, Nels Cline on guitar and drummer Steve Hodges. It was produced by Watt and engineered by Bobby Seifert.
Watt's father joined the navy when he was 17 and retired when he was 37. He served aboard nuclear vessels, and died from cancer when he was 51. Watt was originally from Virginia, but his parents divorced during the Viet Nam War, and Watt and his mother remained in California.
Watt formed the Minutemen with his best friend, guitarist D. Boon, and drummer George Hurley, and they toured until Boon's death in a car wreck in Arizona in 1985.
Contemplating The Engine Room is structured in several musical groups of threes to reflect the story's trio of protagonists.  Each of the 15 tracks represents part of a day in the lives of the three men in the engine room of a large naval vessel. According to Watt, the boilerman is D. Boon. The fireman is George Hurley and Watt is the machinist.
The opening track, "In the Engine Room," starts just before dawn and it ends 24 hours later with "Shore Duty". It is essentially the story of a guy who has run away from a farm town, joined the Navy, and found a crew that has built a routine together. When their ship pulls into a port for shore leave, they get drunk, and the boilerman sleepwalks, falls in the water, and drowns.
The collection is a bass-driven opera which begins and ends with the same bass figure. The lyrics and music contain countless nautical references, and elements of Richard McKenna's naval novel, The Sand Pebbles as well as stories that Watt's dad would tell when he came back from being at sea. “The Bluejacket’s Manual” compares punk rock to boot camp. Watt has compared his father's experience of leaving a farm town to the Minutemen bursting open and getting away from arena rock.
Watt experimented with sounds that could not normally be achieved with a live three-piece band, at one point "rollin' marbles around on a bass drumhead and beatin' on it with our hands to get the sound of thunder." The songs are separated with nautical noises such as crashing waves, foghorns, and ship's bells. Watt also played the whole album with the top bass string detuned from E to D to push himself out of his comfort zone.
All tracks composed by Mike Watt
- "In The Engine Room"
- "Red Bluff"
- "The Bluejackets' Manual"
- "Pedro Bound!"
- "The Boilerman"
- "Black Gang Coffee"
- "No One Says Old Man"
- "Fireman Hurley"
- "Liberty Calls!"
- "In The Bunk Room/Navy Wife"
- "Crossing The Equator"
- "Breaking The Choke Hold"
- "Wrapped Around The Screw"
- "Shore Duty"
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