Rhythm and Bruise
"Noooooooo!!!!" Dirtbombs front man Mick Collins hasn't even heard the whole question, but he's heard enough: the words "Detroit," "garage rock" and "scene" in close enough proximity to each other to trigger this scream. "God, noooooooo!!!" Except, out of the mouth of the Dirtbombs' big-voiced, barrel-chested front man, it's more like a cross between a primal moan and the seismic rumbling of the earth. And over a phone line, a bit like El Niño happening in your ear.
OK, OK--next question. But as it happens, Collins is more game than he lets on, and by the time sensation comes a-tingling back into the interviewer's body, he's already responding.
"All right. So there are some bands, right?" he says.
Granted. White Stripes, Von Bondies, Detroit Cobras. To name a few. And, of course, the Dirtbombs--a one-time Collins side project (back when he was punking out with The Gories) turned mainstage phenom and arguably but probably the best live band in Detroit Rock City. And "scene" stalwarts, as it were.
"And, yeah," Collins continues," there are a few venues in the city we all play, or have played, and sometimes we've played the same bill, and sometimes we hang out at the same bars, right?"
Yup. In the Dirtbombs' case, since 1992--give or take several years of major lineup changes.
"So if that's a scene, well, fuck," Collins says, rounding out his little musical proof. "That's for someone else to decide. All I know is, it wasn't a 'scene' until people started paying attention--all these bands, and some other ones that maybe haven't gotten as much attention--they've all been around, y'know? But now people are watching, so it's a scene. And we'll be around after the news moves to--shit, I dunno--Omaha, Orlando, where the hell ever. And then there won't be a scene in Detroit anymore. Except nothing at all will have changed."
Wait a second. Bohr's Law (or, maybe it's someone else's law, but go with Bohr for now) holds that matter under observation behaves differently from when it's just, y'know, lolling around doing whatever it is matter does when scientists aren't looking (kind of like the diabolical cows in that old Far Side cartoon). And, in his typical style of jovial tirade, Collins pretty much cops to the musical equivalent of Bohr's (or whomever's) Law.
"Well, now that people are watching," he picks up at a later point in the conversation, when asked about the new Dirtbombs LP the band is recording, "I figured we might as well take advantage of it and do some pop songs. Make some money. Go radio."
Pressed for more detail about the new record, the Dirtbombs' first release since 2001's Ultraglide in Black--an album largely made up of soul covers--Collins demurs.
"I don't think our records are very representative of what we do," he explains. "I mean, basically, we're a live band, we like to throw a party, get a little rambunctious. This tour, just because we're visiting a bunch of places we've never played before, is the first one where the set list doesn't change every night; usually we just play whatever we feel like.
"Whereas, if you look at Ultraglide," he continues, at once describing and dismissing it, "that was, like, an intellectual idea carried to the extreme of recording an entire album."
(It should be noted for the record that Ultraglide in Black in no way sounds "intellectual." More like, it's precisely what you want to hear blaring out of a dive-bar jukebox at a quarter till four in the morning, as you and your friends suck down the dirty lasts of the night and pretend you aren't even tired. A perfectly legal second wind, in other words, and--Collins' refutation aside--a pretty fair introduction to the Dirtbombs' vibe, if not its sound.)
"Here's the thing: There's no two ways around it," he goes on, elaborating on the "intellectual" side of Ultraglide, gearing up for the fusillade. "I'm black. And I grew up in Detroit listening to all this music that I can't get out of me now--I'm not saying I want to get it out; I'm just saying, it's there, it's part of me. And I wanted to make a record to prove to people that Stevie, Smokey, hell, even Curtis Mayfield--they were writing rock songs. And what's funny is, frankly, black people hear the rock, and white people hear the soul. But it's all the same thing!"
At this point, the scientist might look up from his or her microscope or electromagnifier or what have you (and the matter convenes for a party, or the planning of a junta) to quibble: But haven't you forgotten to isolate the X factor?
Indeed, Watson, indeed he has. For the Dirtbombs--and Collins, its founder, songwriter and all-around presiding genius, in particular--could make just about anything rock. This is a band, after all, armed with one guy who plays baritone guitar exclusively through a fuzz pedal, and a front man who sounds like the demon hybrid of Isaac Hayes and Jimi Hendrix.
"Oh, fuck," Collins says, a hearty laugh not quite concealing his exasperation before he's off again. "I hate it when journalists pull that 'so-and-so meets so-and-so on a mountaintop while so-and-so other person stands around picking daisies.' The whole point of this band was to make it impossible for people to categorize. That's why there are two drum kits, that's why we keep changing up what we do--pop songs, soul covers, rock I guess you could call garage-y--so no one would sit around and go, 'Gosh, it's kind of like MC5, except blacker!' Or something. Fucking journalists, they love that shit. I wanted to stump them."
Which brings Collins back to the whole "scene" thing.
"I guess that's part of what bugs me--and I'm guessing bugs those other bands, too," he says, "is that you spend all this time and creativity trying to carve out something distinctive for yourself, the kind of music you want to hear, but don't, and so, you figure, 'Well, it's up to me. I better fill this void.' That's why there are two drummers, two bassists--I wanted to see how different we could be and still be rock.
"And then, because you're doing your thing in a town where some other bands are doing their thing," he continues, "you all get clumped together, like you're all sitting around having some kind of convention about how to make good music. I mean, honestly, do you think we sound like the White Stripes? I sure as hell don't. I don't even like to talk about what we sound like--you can tell, I keep avoiding the questions--but I know for damn sure we don't sound like anyone else. From Detroit, or anywhere."
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