Here's Mud in Your Ear

It's one o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, Detroit time, and Dirtbombs singer-guitarist Mick Collins has been awake, well, since his sister yelled for him to come to the phone. "I'm just getting up. We played a gig last night and had to load out. It was late," he says. "But I knew I had something to do today."

That something -- talking to journalists -- has taken up more and more time of Collins's schedule recently; his band's profile has increased thanks to famous fans (the White Stripes), a hot home base (Detroit) and a musical tag (garage rock). But the latter is a bandwagon that Collins wants to jump off -- regardless of the highway pavement burns.

"We're not a garage band, we're a rock band!" Collins laughs. "No matter how hard we rail against it, it's what people think based on something they've read -- until they see us play, and then it's too late. When [garage rock] fans see us, they hate us. People go, 'Oh, we thought you were cool. You suck!' "

Collins, of course, is being a bit facetious about the band he formed in 1992 as a side project. "We're trying like crazy not to get tossed out with the bathwater when this whole phase passes," he adds.

With his choppy but powerful guitar playing and soulful voice, Collins is clearly the band's engine, transmission and even windshield wiper. He also has a "shoegazer" project, Manray Manray, and could at any point resurrect previous outfits such as Blacktop, the King Sound Quartet, the Screws and -- the most influential of the bunch -- the Gories, the 11-years-defunct band that is today credited as godfather to today's crop of Detroit rockers.

While the Dirtbombs do possess many of the aesthetics of garage rock (the blasts of energy, fuzzy guitars, MC5/Stooges nods), their two records to date have shown they're anything but a one-trick pony. Hard-core punk dominated on their 1998 debut, Horndog Fest, and their 2001 follow-up, Ultraglide in Black, was made up almost entirely of soul and funk covers. All the while they released a fistful of across-the-board singles…Small wonder Collins has to grab some sleep whenever he can.

Though this tour is the Dirtbombs' first foray south of the Mason-Dixon Line, Collins has been to Houston before, with Blacktop. "All I remember is that the club had a big pool of stagnant water in the front, and people fell in," he says. "We also found out that Houston has no zoning laws!"

Still, Collins credits the state of Texas for the very existence of the Dirtbombs and his music career. In 1994, the part-time musician was faced with one of those momentous decisions. "I'm a hard-core computer geek, and got offered a really good job doing UNIX programming for a big company. Two days later, I got an offer to go to Texas to record with Blacktop," he recalls. "I thought, 'I've never been to Texas, and if I take the computer job, I'll never get there.' I wanted to see Texas, so that's how I chose."

As he was born and raised in Detroit, music was not something that gradually seeped into the life of Mick Collins; it was poured on him from the start. His mechanic father had a client who was a large record distributor. The man would pass along to the Collins family a copy of virtually every record that came his way.

"That was the history of rock in our basement," says Collins. "I listened to everything, every kind of music. Still do. The first record I ever bought was by Beethoven." But as flexible as his tastes are, he's rigid on one point: If you can't dance to it, then it's not rock and roll.

"That's what rock was when I grew up, it was dance music," he says. "I admit that it's purely a personal point of view, but it's one I hold dear." He does, however, admit a passing fondness for a genre that isn't exactly known for its groovability.

"I like prog rock in that it's so overblown and cartoony, but any attempt to put classical music in rock and roll is wasting your time," Collins says, before weighing the impact of his statement. "If this interview gets out on the West Coast, our credibility will be shot. Yes, I do own a King Crimson record, but only one!"

It will take more than an admitted zeal for a 20-minute keyboard solo to detonate the Dirtbombs today, though. After nearly a dozen lineup changes since the band's inception, Collins is confident about the potential of the current lineup, which includes bassists Jim Diamond and Tom Potter and drummers Pat Pantano and Ben Blackwell. That's right, two bassists and two drummers.

This unorthodox lineup and the refusal to stay in one genre isn't exactly a big selling point to the major labels -- not that the unsigned Collins cares. "I do try and make every record different," he says. "Look, not being on a major label worked for [Fugazi's] Ian MacKaye all these years, so it can't be that bad."

Still, most music fans outside of the Motor City area are first hearing about the Dirtbombs in articles about the White Stripes, two fans who mention the band at every possible turn. Collins has known Jack and Meg White for years, long before the Legos and unearthed marriage licenses.

"Jack was at the show last Friday night. He just finished filming this Civil War movie [Cold Mountain] in the Czech Republic, but I only talked to him for a couple of minutes." And something about Mr. White that we might not know from one of their bazillion interviews? "He has a large collection of animal heads," Collins says. "And his house is really white and red."

Collins is more eager to tell tales on another Detroit success story. "I used to work in this record store next to a used clothes shop, and every Saturday Kid Rock would come in and buy the stupidest hat they had and wear it around town. He still does, and they're horrible."

While the current tour is basically a stepping stone to the band's upcoming South By Southwest showcase, they're planning a more extensive one to support their upcoming Dangerous Magical Noise -- when it comes out, that is.

"It was supposed to come out in May, but now it looks like late August. We're still dicking around with it. But it's more garagey," laughs Collins. "We just cover a lot of White Stripes songs!" Seriously, though, he says the new CD will be more straightforward pop, dipping their toes into yet another sonic Jacuzzi. The Dirtbombs will also continue to release singles whenever they feel like it.

As for the current "return of rock" hype, Collins says he's more bemused by it than anything. "As far as I'm concerned, the bandwagon came and went without us getting on it. When all the A&R reps leave Detroit, we'll keep making the music that we've made," he says just before glancing out the window for the first time that day. "Shit, but it looks like they won't be able to leave town today, because all the roads are blocked with snow. We're screwed!"

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero