A Dirtbombs Family Tree
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It's been nearly three decades since Dirtbombs leader Mick Collins first picked up a guitar with the sole intention of "murdering the Eagles." It's been precisely four decades since Collins heard, at age 3, his very first favorite song — Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" — on a hand-me-down 78 RPM record. Since then, the tall, bespectacled, deep-voiced rock 'n' roller from Detroit has been scorned, worshipped, categorized and just plain misunderstood — sometimes simultaneously — by a music world often more interested in labeling than listening.
But Collins is now considered in many corners of the globe a musical trailblazer, an iconoclast who puts his stamp on everything from slick disco to the most archaic country blues. And, like any oddball black trailblazer from, say, Ike Turner to Phil Lynott, misinterpretation is part of the deal. It's also the curse.
There's hardly a genre or style that Collins hasn't touched in his career. There's the deconstructionalist R&B of the Gories, the gritty urban funk of the Voltaire Brothers, the straight-up punk rock of the Screws and Blacktop, the art rock of the Yeti Sanction, the mood music of the King Sound Quartet, various forthcoming techno 12-inchers, and his latest project, Man Ray Man Ray, whose ambient soundscapes recall those of the Cocteau Twins.
Front and center, however, is his longest-running, most prolific combo to date, the Dirtbombs, a genre-defying rock 'n' roll band that seizes everything — from glam rock to soul — for its explosive ouvre. Featuring the dual drumming of Ben Blackwell and Pat Pantano (disclaimer: Blackwell and Pantano are MT contributors) and the twin electric bass attack of Ko Melina and Troy Gregory, Collins considers their fourth official full-length album, We Have You Surrounded — which hits the streets Feb. 11 — to be the band's very best to date.
That's saying a lot, since the Dirtbombs — a band with an ever-revolving lineup — has had more than its fair share of brilliant moments over the years. Hell, the 2001 album Ultraglide in Black includes "Chains of Love," which you can hear on the soundtrack of Julian Schnabel's recent film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The band's 2005 singles collection, If You Don't Already Have a Look, is crammed with rumbling pop chaos — "Cedar Point '76," "Encrypted," "Tina Louise" and the eerily infectious "Here Comes That Sound Again," a song that, upon first listen, you'd swear had been engrained in your psyche years before it was ever written.
These are songs that should be on the radio — and chances are if they were, the Dirtbombs would be a household name.
"We used to say, in Detroit, if you only played one kind of music, you weren't serious," Mick Collins says. "Because everybody in town played in three different bands and each band played a different kind of music. That's just the way it was done in Detroit; for years and years everybody just played everything. So somebody who just played in one band wasn't serious about it. He was a hobbyist."
Collins, whose knee-slap humor fills conversations with fits of laughter, is dead serious about all kinds of music — he always has been. He has created a life in music, and that music supports him. It's his job. Collins has a real work ethic in his approach to it — and a bit of urban paranoia too, which is a vague theme that runs through many of his songs. And all of this makes sense, considering Collins grew up in Detroit.
"Detroit has pretty much always done everything by its own rules," he says, noting that the auto plant and factory assembly lines helped make the city an incredible incubator for the arts. "When Detroit was a car town, it was like, 'As long as you stamp that fender out for eight hours, whatever you do on your own time is yours.' Back in the '60s, that meant music. So everybody was cutting records. Now everybody's an artist but it's the same thing, really. There's so much going on artwise here, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that there's nothing else to do here. You just get bored and start throwing paint on walls. And we've got a lot of walls to throw paint on in Detroit!"
Collins has done more than his share of paint-throwing over the years, not all of it musical, from starring in the feature film Wayne County Ramblin' (alongside Iggy Pop) to publishing his own short stories in the regarded anthologies Best in Show and Shadows in Snow. His interests range from science fiction to comic books to movies to visual arts, but Collins is clearly a musical renaissance man.
The youngest of five children, Mick Collins was born in Detroit in December 1965. The Mumford High grad, who now lives in the East Belmont neighborhood on Detroit's west side, has been obsessed with sound ever since he can remember.
"There was no start," Collins says, talking about his fascination with music. "It just was. And I just kept at it. No one else in my family was musical. But my dad worked at a garage down the street from Angott, the state's largest record distributor. He used to work on Mr. Angott's car, and when Mr. Angott found out that my dad had five kids, every Friday he'd give him a box of records. 'Here's some of that new rock 'n' roll stuff for the kiddies.' By the time I came along, we had stacks and stacks and stacks of 45s and 78s — thousands of records. We had a complete run of Specialty, a complete run of Vee-Jay, a complete run of Chess, just everything, sitting in the basement. And my brothers and sisters didn't care, because this was 1968, '69. So they were listening to the Impressions and Sly Stone. They weren't having 'Good Golly Miss Molly.' So that was all mine.
"And that was the first song I remember loving. Then I wore out a copy of 'Money' by Barrett Strong and won a new one on WDET's R&B show, which was done by these two old Polish record collectors from Hamtramck. Meanwhile, I was listening to CKLW and WJLB. At the same time, '70s funk and soul were taking off. So I was in a unique position, temporally speaking. When it comes to post-dawn of rock 'n' roll music, it was all happening for me at that period in my life."
His first rock concert? Bo Diddley at the Michigan State Fair in 1972.
"When I saw Bo Diddley — I have never heard an amplifier before, or since, make those sounds," he remembers. "I was only 7, but I never forgot it. In fact, in later years, I began to think that maybe watching him make those sounds is what inspired me to play guitar in the long run."
More importantly, old Diddley had something that Collins has never seen — or heard — since. "He had this effects box," Collins says. "It looked like a rough-hewn wood box with a hole in it, and whatever the effect was, this big wooden box did it. It was a box about 2 or 3 feet long and maybe 8 or 9 inches square. And I never saw him use it again. So whatever it did, it only did the one time."
Though he was overwhelmed with the sounds erupting from Diddley's guitar amp, the driving tribal rhythms blew the boy's mind as well.
"I like a lot of drums, as you may have noticed," Collins says, "So when disco happened, I was into it. And then punk happened."
He pauses. Then he adds, "And at some point I realized I had to pick up a guitar in order to kill the Eagles."
So then there is at least one form of modern music that Collins cannot tolerate?
"Yes. What we now call 'Classic Rock,' I was determined to kill. One day, I had just reached my breaking point and I realized, 'This has to die.' It was probably Boston or Kansas or Asia or Europe — one of those single-name rock bands. But I heard it and it was just the last straw. That was 1979 or '80."
So Collins put together then what he loosely refers to as his first band, a basement combo called the U-Boats, with some running buddies from the neighborhood.
"All the black nerd guys sort of gravitated toward each other in that neighborhood," says guitarist Dan Kroha, whom Collins would meet and begin playing with in the Gories a few years later. "They were into science fiction and Star Trek and punk rock. It was the nerd gang."
"I'd have to say that's a pretty apt description," Collins says about his first bandmates. "We had more adenoids than talent. When it gets down to it, the U-Boats was really just an excuse to make noise. We got our song lyrics out of a comic book, The Crazy Magazine Summer Special, which had a feature called 'Everything You Need to Form Your Own Rock 'n' Roll Band and Make Millions of Bucks Even Though You Have Absolutely No Talent Whatsoever.' That was the actual name of the comic! I played organ in that band but then I picked up a guitar one day and thought, 'This is amazing. This is way better for working off aggression than the organ. It screams!'"
Inching ever closer to the inevitable step up out of the basement, Collins soon formed a new band with a childhood pal — and future Voltaire Brother — Jerome "Fuzzy" Gray. That band lasted two years.
"At first, we changed our name every day," Collins says, "But we finally settled on the Floortasters. There are enough recordings of the Floortasters that I'm probably going to put out a record someday, just to do it.
The band's chief musical inspiration was a white band that rose out of UK punk, Wire. "Not that that's what we sounded like but that's what we thought we were sounding like," Collins says.
"One day we went down to Hart Plaza to see King Sunny Adé and the place was packed," he continues. "It was the most people I'd ever seen down there. And there was this guy wearing an English Beat T-shirt; a design that I'd never seen before — a tour shirt as it turned out. I said, 'Man, I have got to find out where he got that T-shirt.' My friends were like, 'Don't scare the white people, man.' 'But I've got to find out! I've just got to!' So I went up and asked him where he got it. And that happened to be Tom Lynch, who, years later, became a member of the Dirtbombs. But shortly after I met him, he introduced me to Dan Kroha."
"I was friends with Tom, and I had a big crush on his sister," Kroha says, "so I would go over and visit them in Rochester at their parents' house. I was over at Tom's one day, and Mick called. They were talking and Tom said, 'I'm hanging out with this guy here who lives in Detroit and he probably doesn't live very far away from you. You should talk to him.' He handed me the phone and I talked to Mick and found out he only lived a couple of miles away from me. So we arranged to meet and he rode his bike over to my parents' house with a bunch of records and we just started hanging out."
Kroha and Collins bonded instantly over a love of Motown, old soul and mod.
"I didn't know anybody else that knew what a mod was," Kroha says. "But Mick sure did and he was kind of identifying with that, just like I was. I'd discovered Them and the Velvet Underground and a lot of old blues and soul when I went away to college the year before. And so we just started turning each other onto music. When I played him the Small Faces' 'Watcha Gonna Do About It,' he totally flipped. Then he played me 'I'm a King Bee' by Slim Harpo and I totally flipped."
Kroha says he'd never met anybody like Collins. "I didn't know anybody, aside from myself, who had that kind of passion for music. He really wanted to discover all this stuff. He was also totally into all the low-budget movies that they would show on late-night TV. Nowadays, there are books and guides and magazines and Web sites about all that stuff. But back then, there really weren't. And yet Mick knew all about these movies."
Most of all, Kroha remembers, Collins would talk about the bands he wanted to form. "He had all these ideas. There were like five different bands going on in his head at any given time. He had album covers for 'em, he knew what the lineup was going to be, he knew what instruments they were going to consist of, what music they were playing, what the video was going to look like. It was just amazing. His imagination was incredible, and he had tons of it. I just thought, 'I've got to get this guy in a band!'"
And that's what happened.
When Danny Kroha met future drummer Peggy O'Neill shortly thereafter, the Gories — a band that would completely change the course of Detroit rock 'n' roll — was born.
"When I first saw Peg," Kroha says, "she was with a friend of hers and I was with two friends of mine. She was dressed real cool, really '60s, and back then there were no girls that looked like that. I said, 'We have got to talk to these girls 'cause we might never see 'em again!'
"So we started talking and I found out that Peg lived real close to me too. So I started hanging out with her and then we all started hanging out together. Mick and Peg and I would sit in my room at my parents' house and listen to records."
Among the trio's favorites were the various volumes of Crypt Records' Back From the Grave garage comps, which, Kroha says, they were listening to one day. "And Mick's going, 'You know, there's only three chords to these songs. They're really easy to play. We could play these songs.' And I'm going, 'Well, let's do it. We'll play guitars and Peg can play drums.' She was real shy about it, but I said, 'We'll just make it real simple — the whole drum kit will be tom-toms; no snare, no cymbal, not even a kick drum. Just tom-toms and that's it, total jungle beat ... we'll just break it down to the simplest thing and just do it."
Collins, Kroha and O'Neill were inspired to play the music that they collectively heard in their heads. The trio was dissatisfied by the fact most garage bands then were merely reviving the old records — often with more polish than passion.
"There were all these bands that would throw a harmonica solo and a double-time rave-up in at the end of a song and call it 'wild R&B,'" Kroha says. "And we were like, 'Man, we're gonna show you what wild, raw, primitive R&B really means.
"So we went to the practice space where my other band, the Onset, practiced. Peg sat behind the drums. I brought a guitar and Mick brought a guitar and we just plugged into the amps. Mick had a couple of two-chord songs, 'Thunderbird E.S.Q.' and 'You Make It Move,' which he'd already thought up. So we just broke it down to the most basic components and started doing it."
Taking their name from an episode of Sally Fields' '60s TV show Gidget, the Gories played their first show at St. Andrew's Church on the Wayne State University campus in October 1986. At the time, few were ready for the kind of primal mayhem that this three-piece Motor City destruction squad would lay down.
But there were a few people who were more than ready. One of them was Dan Rose, an aspiring filmmaker from Wyandotte.
"I went to see a band called the Sapphires that I was curious about," Rose says, "and the Gories were opening up for them. Typical me, I thought, 'Let me just get there in time to catch half of the opening band's set — I don't need to see the whole thing but I want to check them out.' So I walked into the place, having missed the first couple of songs, and I was just flabbergasted. I don't know how many shows they'd done, maybe a handful. But I was just in total shock. Looking at them and hearing them, I couldn't believe my eyes or my ears."
Rose stood front and center while "other people kept leaving. They were really loud — I thought, 'This is clearly the most important and vital band that I've ever seen.' I genuinely believe that people will be writing about and referencing the Gories long after I die or they die. They're just that important. Something about them was complete magic.
"When they were done with their set," Rose continues, "I ran up and said, 'I've never seen anything like this before. You guys remind of a cross between Diana Ross & the Supremes, Suicide and John Lee Hooker!' It just turned me into a gabbing liquid idiot."
Like the Velvet Underground before, the Gories were scorned in their heyday by many local musicians and worshipped worldwide after their breakup. This primal, bass-free trio, fronted by this crazed black guy and featuring a girl drummer with no cymbals was too much, too soon, even for Detroit. Yet the band single-handedly ignited the Detroit's garage scene of the '90s and beyond. Its three albums, Houserockin', I Know You Fine (But How You Doin') and Outta Here, stand in complete opposition to almost everything that was going on at the time, particularly the so-called "Paisley Underground" garage revival in Los Angeles.
Although the Gories often spun their take on local '60s classics by the Keggs and Nick & the Jaguars, they never restricted themselves by genre, instead, they chose songs that could be stripped to the core and rebuilt from the first beat up.
Alongside such ear-bending original songs as "Feral," "Nitroglycerine," "Sister Ann" and "You Done Got Wrong," there were storming renditions of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun," Howlin' Wolf's "You'll Be Mine," Suicide's "Ghostrider," and even Machine's early disco classic "There But For the Grace of God Go I."
As Kroha rocked atop his Vox amp, blasting powerful chords from his Fender Jaguar and demolishing harmonicas like a back-alley Billy Boy Arnold, Collins, dressed in a dark suit, shades and black Converse Chuck Taylors, attacked his cheap Kent guitar like a man possessed. By the end of the show, his six-string would usually be in pieces (only to be painstakingly rebuilt by Kroha before the band's next gig), having been savagely smashed into his amp, or whatever happened to get in its way.
Calm, cool, collected (and in the words of late Detroit music journalist Tony Fusco, "Knockout gorgeous and all business"), O'Neill powered the ruckus with a primal drumming style that Jack White would later use as the basis for the White Stripes.
"Peg definitely brought an attitude to the Gories," Kroha says. "She brought that tough attitude that Mick and I don't really have. Without her, the band wouldn't have been so tough and menacing. Plus, she could really keep a beat; she really had a swing to her drumming that you can't buy. You can't teach someone how to swing. Mick taught her the basic beat, but he didn't teach her how to swing."
The combination was rock 'n' roll magic. But the band permanently broke up —— after a volatile European tour. After three albums and seven years together, enough was enough.
The band's international popularity has skyrocketed since its breakup. That's for good reason, notes Blackwell, who cites the Gories as his all-time favorite band. The Dirtbombs drummer was a grade-schooler during the Gories' run. He was a teenager when he first heard them — after his uncle Jack White handed him one of their albums. It began to dawn on Blackwell how crucial the Gories were to the city and its musical history.
"At a certain point, I realized how ingrained everything they were doing was to Detroit," Blackwell says. "And then I thought, 'OK, they formed in Detroit in 1986.' I'm sitting there thinking about my rudimentary knowledge of Detroit history and I know what Detroit was like in 1986. It was the last place on earth you wanted to be. Being 14 or 15 when I heard it, I'm thinking, 'How did something so amazing come from this city at that time?' And as I got older I realized that that's when things flourish: when conditions are at their worst."
Blackwell continues: "The older I get, I just keep thinking, 'This band was so brilliant and so perfect.' I honestly would have thought that belief would've changed when I joined the Dirtbombs — like, I'm going to discover that Mick's some record-collecting comic-book nerd and all that stuff, which he is — but I still love the Gories. That they were so young, doing something so far away from the norm, is just incredible.
After the Gories, Collins mapped out his next band's discography-to-be in a spiral notebook. It would be a singles band that only released 45s and EPs, he decided. And this time, there'd be two drummers and two bass guitarists to lay down a relentless, pile-driving rhythm behind Collins' fuzz-drenched guitar and caterwauling vocals.
Why the rather unorthodox lineup?
"I just thought it would be fun to do," Collins says. "There was no other reason for it. It wasn't a kind of a reverse thing from the Gories. I was thinking, 'Nobody has a rock band with two drummers and two bass guitarists; I'm gonna try that.'"
As for the notebook plans, they jumped from EPs to albums. Larry Hardy, a Gories fan who signed the Dirtbombs to his In the Red Records label, wanted full-length records.
The band's debut LP — originally planned as a set of vinyl EPs — on In the Red was 1998's punk-fueled Horndog Fest. The record captured the Dirtbombs bristling live set perfectly; Collins' subversive spirit was evident from the first song. "Vixens in Space" sports a kind of white-noise havoc that'd send many running for the hills, yet it was followed by "I Can't Stop Thinking About It," a well-crafted, hook-heavy pop song.
Was this some kind of test to see just how much the casual listener could take? Absolutely not, Collins says. "That's was just the order of the set."
After Horndog Fest, Collins decided that if this band was going to make albums rather than singles, as per the notebook plan, they were going to be albums in the truest sense of the word. Each would be a concept, whether defined by genre, theme or otherwise. He made a list, most of which has now been fulfilled, though a long-planned bubblegum album has yet to surface.
In his plan, Collins also had a predetermined lifespan for the Dirtbombs — four years. That didn't work out either, and the music world is better for it. But back to that list ...
"I had this idea that I'd take a bunch of songs by well-known R&B performers and do rock versions of them for the fourth Dirtbombs album," Collins says. "But when Greg Cartwright [of the Oblivions, Compulsive Gamblers and currently, Reigning Sound] played me Phil Lynott's 'Ode to a Black Man' [from the late Thin Lizzy frontman's solo album, Solo in Soho], I said, 'I have to record this song before somebody else beats me to it!' And in order to record that song, I had to do the entire rest of the album around it. So Ultraglide in Black came second, when it was supposed to be fourth."
Released in 2001, Ultraglide's timing was everything. That album hit the streets at the precise moment Detroit's latter-day garage revolution was exploding. This was a mixed blessing, Collins says, and it's where a complex man becomes even more complex.
You see, though he was an integral part of the Gories, a band that spearheaded a movement — and directly influenced a southwest Detroit guitarist named Jack White to become a musical spokesperson for millions — the one thing that irritates Collins to no end is being classified as "garage music." It's simple, he says. He hasn't been in a garage band since the Gories. The Dirtbombs have been around for a decade-and-a-half and don't play garage music. And that, in his opinion, should be that. But it isn't.
"The point is not whether I like or dislike garage music," Collins says. "The point is it was never the only thing I played. In Detroit, everybody's always understood that I play a lot of different stuff — they see my DJ thing, they see the electronic stuff. I've got all these things happening. But whenever anybody writes about me, all they write about is garage rock. Being pigeonholed as playing garage rock is the only thing that has ever really rankled me. I don't have any problem being in any other ghetto, artistically speaking. You can call my writing whatever you want to call it; you can call my art whatever you want to call it. I don't care. But quit calling me 'garage rock.'
"The ultimate irony of all this is that before the Gories, I was making electronic music," Collins continues. "The Gories was something to tide me over until I finally got a house 12-inch out. And the Gories record came out, I said, 'OK, I guess I'm doing this for a while.' But I never quit making electronic music. I'm still making electronic music. ... I'm sick to fucking death of being called garage rock!
"I cut an album of R&B covers right when everybody was looking at us," Collins says of Ultraglide, "which, in retrospect, was probably not the best idea. Ben [Blackwell] looks at me like I'm nuts. But I wish I hadn't done it. I am not unaware that most of the publicity we get now is mainly due to Ultraglide, but that's not the point. ... It was never intended to be a garage rock record. Some people think of it as a soul record, which it was not. It was a rock record.
"Black people understood immediately that it was a rock record," he says. "They knew all the songs but that didn't stop it from being a rock record. It was everybody else that didn't get the picture. Ultraglide was a great big garage rock signifier, little did I know. And we've spent years living that down."
Yet the pendulum swings both ways. When Collins released a funk album in 2004 by another one of his projects, the Voltaire Brothers (I Sing the Booty Electric on Fall of Rome Records), the response from many so-called fans was less than stellar.
"I got a lot of complaints because they were expecting more garage rock and were put out by the fact that it was an actual funk record. The whole time I'm saying, 'I was playing funk records long before I was playing punk or garage records. Funk will always win out over everything else. It's not my fault you motherfuckers weren't around. I wasn't making it for y'all anyway!'"
Dan Rose says Mick is a hard person to pin down. "Your average rock journalist who's going to write about him is going to say, 'Oh, so you're a punk rocker? Oh, so you're a garage guy? Are you a blues guy? Are you a funk guy? Are you a techno guy? What are you?' And Mick's just like, 'I'm everything and I'm nothing.' A lot of people want to be pigeonholed but Mick does not want to be pigeonholed."
"It's just the need to label everything," Collins says. "The Dirtbombs are sick of me complaining about it, but it's my one whipping post."
At the same time, Collins admits that the publicity — misinterpretations and all — that he won from Ultraglide and Detroit's garage explosion did have a silver lining.
"There were a lot of people who would turn up at our shows because we were from Detroit and because Jack White mentioned me. ... I've never made any secret of thanking Jack for that. I told Ben, 'The next time you talk to Jack, you tell him I said 'thanks.'"
What's funny is that type of musical profiling is what kept the Dirtbombs from gaining an audience in the first place.
"I always thought, rather than keep changing a band's style, why not just do a different band?" Collins says of the many musical hats he's worn. "I figured I'd just make a bunch of different records for different audiences and they'd all be OK with it. But I didn't realize that it didn't work that way. So by the time the Dirtbombs happened, all my existing fans were angry that it didn't sound like the Gories. And I didn't have any new fans."
Though the press won't stop calling the Dirtbombs "garage," a term that's as played-out as any classic rock song on radio, Collins stresses that most garage fans still resent the Dirtbombs. And so the friends that those fans dragged to the band's early shows — music aficionados who had no preconceived expectations — became their core audience. "Now we have an actual audience who are much more in tune with what we sound like and what I do rather than what I did 15 years ago."
In the end, because Ultraglide in Black hit when it did, and not now, as was planned — the timing was serendipitous. It's a stunning album so it's hardly surprising that when art world superstar-turned-film director Julian Schnabel heard it, he picked their volcanic take on the Melvin Davis and J.J. Barnes Detroit soul chestnut "Chains of Love" for a key scene in his latest film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Schnabel even flew the band to France's Cannes Film Festival — where he took the award for best director — to perform the song live last year.
"I was standing out front of Peoples Records," Collins says, "and our agent called and said, 'Well, this guy has a movie at the Cannes Film Festival and he wants you to play his premiere party.' I said, 'Let me think about that. OK, I thought about it — yes!' Three weeks later we were on the plane to Cannes."
He continues, "We knew we weren't gonna get much more than half an hour to play, so the question was, 'How many good songs can we get in before they throw us out of there?' We did a special set of songs that we thought they would be OK with until they threw us out. But then when they said, 'You guys have 10 minutes,' we just turned everything up to 10 and went for it. Then they threw us out.
"Afterwards, we were sitting backstage and [Schnabel] came back dressed in pajamas and carrying a tray of pastries. And he said, 'Let's do some pastries.' I said, 'Of all the things I've been asked to do backstage after a show, pastries has never been on the list.' So we did a tray of pastries. He was a really cool guy."
With the Dirtbombs' new album, serendipity plays in again. Originally planned as a five song EP, We Have You Surrounded — like Ultraglide — blossomed into a life of its own around a single song. Collins discovered the lyrics to "Leopard Man at C&A" in a comic book. The problem was he could never find the music.
"'Leopard Man at C&A' was written by Alan Moore who wrote The Watchman, one of the more famous comic books in recent years," Collins says. "He's also friends with David Jay from Bauhaus and they have a band together that plays every so often. Now, I had read somewhere that he had written the song for Bauhaus and that they had recorded it. I looked for a year and I never found it. Apparently Bauhaus never cut the song, even though it was allegedly written for them. So I finally decided, 'Well, I'm just going to write my own music to these lyrics.'"
That song, Collins says, has "such a fabulous take on the idea of urban paranoia that it became the original catalyst for doing a whole record about it. So there's this weird zeitgeist throughout We Have You Surrounded; every song — no matter how it started — became about urban paranoia, sometimes not even intentionally."
From the roar of impending doom in "Ever Lovin' Man" to the locked-in dance groove of "Wreck My Flow" — We Have You Surrounded rages with passion and humor, referencing enough genres, styles and eras that it manages to be unclassifiable.
Collins doesn't think it's anything out of the ordinary to do an album focused on urban paranoia. "Every hip-hop record, to an extent, is about urban paranoia — so why not a rock band?" he says. "And in Detroit, it's a constant undercurrent throughout all our music; you can't escape it. It's in all those Norman Whitfield productions at Motown, all those '70s rock records, all the techno stuff. Once social upheaval really started happening in the mid-to-late '60s, it really became part of how we made music here. You know, sooner or later somebody's going to throw something through a window or pull a switchblade on somebody in one of your songs; it's just what we write about in Detroit."
Collins may be too close to his own work to realize it, but if there's a singular thread that binds his disparate musical projects together to those fans that embrace them all, it's often that theme of urban paranoia. The Voltaire Brothers' "Trouble Man Everyday" sampled a street preacher in Hart Plaza whose sermon was the very essence of it. A dozen years before that, writer Robert Gordon noted it in a Gories review for SPIN Magazine when he wrote, "Though there's no explicit language on it, this may be the most frightening, harrowing album in a decade ... Hell never seemed closer than 'Six Cold Feet.'"
"That song's a great urban paranoia story, it's about running and hiding," says Dan Rose, who cast Collins as the West African spirit Ogun in his film Wayne County Ramblin'. Rose has coupled Collins with everyone from Iggy Pop and Chan Marshall to Eddie Kirkland and Lorette Velvette for recording collaborations. "I was so impressed with that song — the way Mick moans over the beginning like Nina Simone and the way Peggy hits the floor tom with the maraca. It's so simple that you can hear the rattle of the gourds on it ... it's totally mystical. "And 'There But for the Grace of God Go I' was a song steeped in urban paranoia.
"Mick's a shaman," Rose continues. "He's told me he is, and I believe him. I believe him because of how he's interacted with me, untold things he's done not in my presence that I've seen fruition with ... Bo Diddley claimed that the seven African Powers that are heralded in a lot of the African religions speak through his amplifier. And I believe that too."
Collins says some of his work is born of similar experiences. "I exclude everything else while I'm working on a song," he says. "I forget what time it is, how long I've been standing there, and things just get written. For instance, I have no memory of writing 'Granny's Little Chicken' (from Horndog Fest). I was standing there, pacing around, had a beer and when I came back to the paper, there were words on it, they were in my handwriting but I didn't remember writing any of it.
"Recently, I was watching something about schizophrenia and they were talking about hearing voices. I jokingly said to myself, 'I don't hear voices, I hear music.' But is that the same thing? You know, because I've been focused on music throughout my entire life, am I really hearing voices but I'm just interpreting them as music?
"I hear music all the time and if it's a song I've never heard before, I try and write it down because it's probably an original. That's how the originals come about. I'm just hearing the voices. When [the voices] stop singing Martha & the Vandellas or whatever it is they're singing and it's something I've never heard before then, yeah, it's probably going to be the next Dirtbombs single."
Currently preparing for an upcoming Australian tour, the Dirtbombs recently cut seven songs for forthcoming singles. But the band's future remains, as always, uncertain and unwritten. How long will they stay together?
Collins isn't exactly sure. "I really don't think that we could make a better record than We Have You Surrounded.
"I think it's the best record I could make with the Dirtbombs. The Dirtbombs were not supposed to last 17 years. I've said just about all the loud, fast things I have to say and this band does not do quiet. At the very least, I've got to take a hiatus."
A hiatus? The self-contradictory Collins considers the notion, and says, "But if I stop now, I'm not sure how willing I would be to pick the Dirtbombs up again. Because I just don't think I have that much more to say with the high-energy rock thing."
One thing's certain, Collins will always have songs, the best of which, perhaps, have yet to be written. Or perhaps they were written 30 years ago but nobody's heard them yet. His long-awaited debut techno 12-inch recording finally sees light of day soon on Mahogani Records, and he's currently working on more of them. You just never know what he's up to — and you wonder if he even knows — but chances are it'll be remarkable.
"It's kind of beautiful that Mick's fortysomething years old and he's just making music, that's what he does and he accepts that," Ben Blackwell says. "And if that means that he still lives with his dad and that he doesn't have a day job in the 'real world,' well, that's who he is. A hundred years from now people will still remember what he's done and people will appreciate it. But that doesn't say anything about where his next meal is coming from."
"I think at this point I'm unable to stop,' Collins says. "Whereas in years past, I've been unwilling to stop. There was a point — everybody goes though it — when I said, 'I can quit anytime I want to.' Well, now I can't quit."
The Dirtbombs CD release show is Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave. Detroit; 313-833-9700).
Michael Hurtt is a freelance writer. Send comments to email@example.com.