The Dirtbombs/ Mick Collins
Interview by Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
The Dirtbombs’ star seems to be rising these days, but they’ve been around for a few years, making 45s through a chunk of the ‘90s and finally releasing an LP, Horndog Fest, in 1997. They’ve followed that up with a covers album in 2001, Ultraglide in Black, and cut an extremely catchy and accessible hard-rocking album, Dangerous Magical Noise in 2003. The band continues to release a steady stream of 45s, and a compilation of these is available on In The Red Records.
Lead vocalist/ guitarist/ songwriter Mick Collins is a veteran of numerous noted killer rock bands, such as the legendary Gories. He’s also spearheaded and produced many side-projects, such as the funky Voltaire Brothers, and two great comeback albums for fellow Detroit legend (and unfortunate coke casualty) Andre Williams. I managed to interview the busy man in November, 2003 and July, 2004 before packed Dirtbombs shows in Montreal.
FP: What strikes me with your albums is that, after what seemed like a lot of subdividing and subdividing of music styles in the early 90s, bands like yours are mixing styles and things together that you wouldn’t expect, and it sounds great.
Mick Collins: Well, it largely came about as just trying to do something different with the music to begin with. Also, the original idea with the Dirtbombs was that we would just do 7-inch singles. And you know, a 7-inch single, you can do anything you want to with it. You’ve only got, what, 6 minutes between the two sides, 8 minutes maybe, to get an idea across. You can constantly experiment and do different things, you don’t have to hold the same idea for 40 minutes over the course of an album. And all of us in the band are people who were teenagers around the beginning of punk rock (except for Ben– he was born like in 1982, the rest of us are twice his age), and the eventual balkanization of rock music was just kind of a drag to us all.
We all liked different stuff–on a personal level, I really wanted to get away from that balkanization, I wanted people to constantly be on their toes with the Dirtbombs, never really knowing what we were going to do next and be really hard to categorize–and I despise categorization. I wanted to make a band that was as hard to categorize as possible.
FP: Man, I think you did it. When I first heard your take of “Kung-Fu,” I was like, “Whoa, Bauhaus!” and then I was like, “Wait, no– Curtis Mayfield!”
FP: I would never, ever have imagined those two things together. And we’re not talking using a sampler here; you really take both grooves and mesh them and make them work together. I was mighty impressed. And some of the covers–like Underdog, I wasn’t even sure if it was a cover. I listened to the original and thought, “Was that the same song?”
Mick: Well, there is another version of Underdog that came out before the one that we’re covering. He recorded one in ‘66, and then the version we cover came out about a year and a half later.
FP: The one that’s on his album, the first Sly Stone I think, A Whole New Thing?
Mick: Yeah, that’s the one we cover.
FP: Have you picked out any new old classics to invigorate?
Mick: Actually, the new album is all originals. See, Ultraglide in Black was sort of my version of Pinups, really [David Bowie’s cover album]. These are songs that I thought would make either a good rock song, or it was a song that I thought contributed to my delinquency in one form or another. And that’s why those songs are there, that was really the only concept behind it–“breathing new life” into them was never really the goal [laughter.]
FP: I assume you’ve been a record collector for a long time?
Mick: Yeah, all of us actually. The joke is that you can’t be in the Dirtbombs unless you’ve got at least 1000 LPs. It’s a long-running gag– it isn’t true necessarily, but it just so happens that the people who turn up in the band are huge record geeks. Because they have to know what we’re doing, and more to the point, they have to know what I’m doing. [laughter]
FP: But you don’t count their records before they join, say “Sorry, you’ve only got nine-hundred something”–
Mick: No, no it’s not that strict. But Simon’s got two or three thousand, Ben’s got well over a thousand now, Pat traded a whole bunch of his for a house, so…
FP: Well he must have had a lot…
Mick: Yeah. I’ve got like 7000, but it’s not just rock– that’s the part most people don’t realize, we all have really wide, varying tastes in music. I mean, mostly what I listen to when I’m at home is a lot of jazz and reggae and classical, really. For reggae, I listen to a lot of dub, like the Blood and Fire reissues, that stuff’s great. For classical I’m a real romantic– Brahms and Beethoven and stuff like that.
FP: Do you ever play any classical guitar?
Mick: Nah, I can’t play guitar at all, man. What you’re hearing when I’m on stage is an illusion, completely.
FP: Well, you’re pretty convincing.
FP: So what’s the oldest music you listen to?
Mick: That’s funny you mention that, because I just got a collection of 78s, somebody I know inherited them and didn’t know what to do with them so they were like, “Here, you can take them.” And they go back to the 20s, the most recent one is from 1928. It’s all stuff I have to play to know what it is, but it looks like there’s some marches in there, a bunch of piano concertos and some light opera, some Yiddish comedy, there’s some old blues, field holler kind of stuff in there. I’m looking forward to hearing it, but I’m between turntables right now.
FP: Do you listen to those on a phonograph usually? A crank-up type?
Mick: No, I never had one of those. There’s a company online, where if you have a Technics 1200, your standard DJ turntable, they have a modification you can do to it that allows it to play 78s. And that’s gonna be one of the next things that I spend my dough on. That’s what I want more than anything right now, I want a Technics 1200 that plays 78s [laughter].
FP: Do you have any particularly favourite records where you still remember where you bought them and would never sell?
Mick: I can remember almost every record I bought, where I bought it at. I’m one of those weirdos who leaves the price tag on them, so when somebody pulls out my Bob Marley live show from 1971, it has like $3 on it. I kept the price on the Captain Beefheart EP, you know, the first two singles he did, I paid five bucks for it. Since the reissue came out [The A&M Sessions], you can’t find that record for less than $20, and I bought it new for five bucks.
FP: Do you do much record shopping when you’re on the road?
Mick: We actually tried to get here early so we could go record shopping. It’s a great city for records here, some great, great record stores in Montreal. We were in New York just a couple days ago, and there’s a public radio station there called WFMU, and every year they have this record convention that’s just the biggest record collector geek freak-out of the year. And I didn’t go this year, because I have to buy a car, and I knew that if I went in there with all of my money, I wouldn’t have any when I came out. So I didn’t go, but Ben went. But I can’t go into that kind of place without spending like $350.00. I didn’t go [laughter]. But last time I was here it was great– I bought some things I’d been looking for that I never thought I’d find.
FP: Do you have any thoughts on file-sharing and stuff like that?
Mick: I completely condone it. Because it’s the only way to really get to hear new music. You’re not going to hear anything new on the major labels, and you’re not going to hear anything new on the radio because they’re all controlled by the major labels! So the only way to hear new music is to go out there and look for music, you know, talk to people and stuff. And the bands make more money from live shows anyways, so I’m all for anything that helps more people come out to the shows. Some people say nobody’s going to buy the record if they can get it online, but chances are if they hear some songs they like off the record, they’ll go buy the record, so they can have the packaging and everything.
For us, the new album is entirely online right now, the whole record. It went out there a week before the record was release– we don’t quite know how that happened [laughter], but it’s out there.
FP: That hasn’t affected sales of records at your shows at all?
Mick: No, we’ve been doing really good. It also helps that both the CD and the LP have bonus tracks on them that aren’t on the other format. Somehow neither of them are online, either. So whoever put the album online had a promo copy, because the promo copy didn’t have any of the bonus stuff on it.
FP: Do you find that songs online kind of work the way 45s used to?
Mick: Oh yeah, 45s were often just about promoting the album anyway, but then they discovered that a lot of teenagers only wanted to hear a couple songs. And that hasn’t changed– kids still want just a couple songs. But now, you can’t get them to pay for it, now they wanna get it for free. But yeah, I think, for a fan club or whatever, you can just put out a couple new songs online every few months. People download it, some stations’ll play it, then next time you tour through town they’ll all come and see you play live. They’ve heard your music and after awhile they want to go and see what you look like.
FP: 45s are still a pretty thriving format out there, so many different bands in various styles still put them out. Personally I enjoy all of that as a record collector.
MC: Yeah, me too. And again, I like the 45 because you only have a limited amount of time, so you just concentrate on one idea. As a singles band– and I look at the Dirtbombs as a singles band, not as an album band, but nobody listens to me anyway –that’s why all the albums are different, because I decided I would treat every album like a single, I would hold one idea, one concept through the entire album. That’s why they all sound different, and it’s what makes it hard for people to categorize us.
FP: Do you find that putting out a 45 has changed a lot since the first one you made?
Mick: When I was starting out, we (as kids) had no idea how to go about putting out a record. As cheap as the process was, we still didn’t have the money. These days, the money’s there, but it’s so much easier to bung a couple tracks online. The difference being, of course, that it’s very difficult to make any money from tracks online.
FP: What was it like recording your recent single direct to acetate? [Pray For Pills/ My Love For You, Corduroy Records 118]
Mick: It wasn’t much different than the usual Dirtbombs recording session: Everyone waits for me to finish the song, we learn it and cut it in about a half-hour, then bugger off to the nearest bar. The only difference this time was that we couldn’t overdub anything, so we had to be happy with whatever got recorded the first time out.
FP: Have you noticed whether there are some cities or countries where you sell more vinyl than CDs at shows?
Mick: I think we still sell more vinyl in Germany than CDs.
FP: Do the Dirtbombs sell more CDs than vinyl versions of albums overall?
Mick: There was a time when we sold about six times more vinyl than CDs. Sometime during 2000 or 2001 our audience changed, and the numbers went about equal, then CDs started taking the lead.
FP: Do record sales at your shows account for a sizeable percentage of overall sales?
Mick: They did until, again, until about 2000 or 2001, when suddenly people started buying our records at Chapters.
FP: One last question– being from Detroit and all, born and raised, I was wondering if you had any local idols there that you might still run into sometimes?
MC: No, all of my idols are either dead or living in Florida. [laughter]