The Dirtbombs
Venturing into Deep Space
by Stephen Slaybaugh

While lately Detroit has become the subject of fascination as a city in ruins, musically the Motor City has been always associated with two sounds: the rough hewed strains of garage and punk as manifested in the Stooges and MC5 and the techno strain of electronic dance music that came into being during the mid-80s. Few have probably ever confused the two.

For more than three decades, since his days as one-third of the Gories, Detroit native Mick Collins has always been associated with the garage punk variety, even when venturing to do projects like funk band the Voltaire Brothers. Indeed, the Gories set the blueprint by which later bands like the White Stripes would earn riches and set high expectations for all of Collins’ future work. The Dirtbombs, the band he has fronted since the mid-90s and which has become his primary outlet, has met those expectations, with its ever-rotating dual-drum, dual-bass line-up creating a ruckus as weighty as that of the Gories, who re-united for the first time for shows in 2009 and 2010, was sparse.

Yet, one thing few probably expected of Collins and the Dirtbombs was to make a techno record. Party Store, a three-LP collection of covers of Detroit electronic classics, shows the idea not to be so odd as it might seem. In fact, the album is a perfect melding of the two styles, the Dirtbombs recreating the electronic elements of each song using their own means while retaining the eternal groove. Cuts like A Number of Names’ “Sharevari” and Rhythim Is Rhythim’s “Strings of Life” adapt particularly well to the Dirtbomb palette, either replicating the sound of the original, as with the former, or becoming something else entirely, as with the latter.

I caught up with Collins, who moved to Brooklyn a couple years ago, on the phone to discuss the new record and his future plans.

I read somewhere that you made a list in 1996 of everything you wanted to do with the Dirtbombs...

Mick Collins: Yeah, it was around 1992 actually.

Was making this kind of techno record on the list?

MC: No, this whole thing has strayed from the list entirely. This one was absolutely off the rails. It was actually supposed to be a trilogy of singles to come out last summer—one in June, one in July and one in August—just to have something out so people knew we were still around. It got held up somewhere after I was done making the record, and then Scion really liked it and wanted to help promote it as part of whatever it is Scion does with music. It became a full-length. While I’m really happy with the packaging—I think the packaging is great—this was not supposed to be the new record. The new record was supposed to come out this summer.

So you had recorded three singles and then you recorded more?

MC: They were done. They were recorded in February of last year. They were supposed to be three 12-inch singles, with no sleeves. There was just going to be stock In the Red 12-inch sleeves, and they’d come out over the summer.

But did those three singles cover the entirety of everything that ended up being on the record or did you end up doing more songs?

MC: Yeah that’s everything, and actually the order the songs are in, that’s how they were supposed to come out too—just not all at one time.

So was there something specific, since this wasn’t on the list, that spurred you to do this stuff?

MC: No, it was just an idea to do some singles. I mean, they weren’t on the list. It was an idea that had been talked about between me and In the Red for years, doing a couple 12-inch dance singles with the Dirtbombs. It was more for personal jollies than anything else really, because I like dance music and the Dirtbombs can play dance music and In the Red thought it would be funny to put out a 12-inch of the Dirtbombs. In 2009, the ideas collided.

When did you decide that instead of doing singles, they were gong to be an album?

MC: I don't really have a memory of when that exactly happened—it just sort of did. The end package is how it was supposed to be. The packaging as you see it was supposed to be the last thing you bought. The third 12-inch was to come in the package that the other two would go into.

In the Red and I go through a lot of high concept bullshit talking. Some stuff happens and other stuff that sounds like a great idea never ends up happening.

So what else is on the list that you originally made that you still have yet to do?

MC: The next one—the one that was supposed to be out this year—is the bubblegum record. I started tracking that two weeks ago.

Now that you are in New York, are the Dirtbombs operating in a different manner? Were you the type of band that practiced a lot?

MC: Historically, we’ve never practiced much. Before our 2008 tour, we practiced once a week for a couple months, or not even once a week, but once every 10 days over the course of 90 days. And that was the most rehearsing we ever did. Actually, I take that back. We rehearsed a lot right when Ko (Molina) got in the band. We practiced twice a week for three weeks before her first tour on fuzz. She had guested on bass earlier for a tour, but later when she joined on fuzz, we did a lot of rehearsing in 2003.

Is the band still the same line-up?

MC: No, the bass player Zach Weedon (who played on Party Store) has been replaced by Chris Sutton. Chris will be playing the live shows, but he’s not on the record.

Have you done any of this stuff live yet?

MC: We did play “Tear the Club Up” at our last show, but nothing else made it into the set. We had another song that we cut for a compilation for Norton Records that made it into the set that night, but I think those were the only two things we were premiering. The next show that we play is the Detroit Electronic Music Festival and we’re doing the whole record, probably not front to back, but we will be doing everything on it. But we won’t be doing track nine.

Track nine... is that the 20-minute long song?

MC: No, we’re doing that one!

I don’t have the tracklisting in front of me. Oh, is that the one with the Japanese symbols?

MC: Yes.

Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that. Does that mean something?

MC: Oh, yes...

Are you going to tell me?

MC: No! (laughs) Every so often I want something deliberately obfuscated, and that’s going to be it this time around. Every record has something on it that’s a deliberate obfuscation. I decided that I was going to be a little more blatant about the obscuring this time.

Is the music going to sound like on the record? I mean, how do you think this is going to work doing this live?

MC: That’s a good question because “Jaguar” and “Strings of Life” were extremely difficult to record, so those will probably fare less well than “Alleys of Your Mind” and “Cosmic Cars.” “Cosmic Cars” is going into the current set. It’s a great song to play. I love the song, I love playing it, and we sound really good playing it so we’ll be playing that one for awhile. Everybody likes “Good Life,” though, which I’m really happy about since I worked hard on making it good.

In the press release, it says that you took direction from an Oblique Strategies card. Is that a method you’ve used a lot in the past or was it something new?

MC: No, they happened to be lying around in the studio, and I’ve always wanted to do that. I hadn’t actually planned to do that, and it really didn’t inspire what we did. It was a coincidence because the card said, “Humanize something that is free from error,” and I thought, “Well, that’s pretty much what we’re about to do!” But it literally was the first card I pulled on the first day of recording.

In general, is techno music something that you’ve listened to a lot over the years or is it a more recent...

MC: No, there’s nothing recent about it. The first recording I made that ever got played on the radio was a house track I cut in 1988. The record itself never came out, but there was a DJ in Detroit who, if you sent him a demo recording and he liked it, would play it. I took the tape over to him, and he totally flipped out and played both sides.

If that was one of the first things you recorded, why did you end up going in a different direction?

MC: It wasn’t so much a different direction... well, I guess it was.

Yeah, I don’t think anyone is going to categorize the Gories as a techno band.

MC: No, not at all. They were going concurrently and both things were ongoing concerns, but the Gories were able to play live. The other project was totally in the studio and I had none of the gear that I used to record it with. I went around to a few people I knew who had labels, and they didn’t seem interested in putting it out. So I put it on hold until I figured out what to do with it and I never got back around to it. I still liked making electronic music and in fact my first electronic dance music 12-inch came out the same week as We Have You Surrounded.

That was under a different name, right?

MC: No, it was under “Mick Collins.”

You collaborated with Carl Craig on “Bug in the Bassbin.” Did you attempt to get in touch with the other musicians?

MC: Yeah, we tried. Carl was really positive about it, so we decided to see if anybody else would want to come down. I really wanted Mike Banks (of Underground Resistance) to come play guitar on “Jaguar.” I thought that really would have made the song. But when we were recording, he was just getting back from some overseas gig and didn’t feel like coming by. Juan Atkins (of Cybotron) came by, and he listened to most of the record before it was mixed, but I don’t know what he thought of it. I never did track down Derrick May (of Rhythim Is Rhythim), and Kevin Saunderson’s (of Inner City) management stonewalled us. But by the time we started hearing back from people, even to say “no,” we were pretty much done with the record.

Have you gotten any feedback from any of them since the record has come out?

MC: I’ve read a couple of quotes from Derrick May in the press that he thought it was a pretty brave move, not to say “daring” or “foolhardy,” anyway. But that’s been pretty much it. I know Carl’s heard it. He heard his piece when he came in and was happy with that. Anyone who’s heard it seem to have liked it. And if not, they appreciate the bravery involved in doing it. I’ll take that.

But no one has complained at all about what you did to their song?

MC: Well, while we were making it we got a big complaint from the second dude in Cybotron who was really bent out of shape that a rock band was doing covers of electronic records. He was really upset about it.

This was the guy who left after their first record? I can’t remember what his name was.

MC: Yeah, me neither, but he kept us from being able to do remixes of that song.

I saw your video for “Sharevari” and the original footage from the television show The Scene that inspired it. Was that something that was on TV for a long time?

MC Yeah, it was on forever. There were two actually. There was The Scene and then there was the show that came on afterwards, Roller Boogie, which was the same thing with rollerskates. It was a very highly rated show in the local market.

“Sharevari” is considered one of the first techno tracks. Was that unusual for the kind of music on that show?

MC: At the time, no one knew that it was going to be anything other than another local record, and one of the things The Scene did was play a lot of local artists. So it seemed like just another local artist, and there was no thought that it would go on to alter civilization.

The Dirtbombs have done plenty of covers in the past. Is there something about reinterpreting other people’s music that particularly attracts you?

MC: That’s a really good question actually, and the answer is “not necessarily.” The thing with the Dirtbombs, most of the covers start as jokes. There’s Bee Gees covers and Yoko Ono and we’ve played New Order live and the Eurythmics. There’s nothing really to it. For the Dirtbombs, it’s something to do live. As far as making the records go, Ultraglide was the only one that was supposed to happen anyhow. There was no plan to make a bunch of covers records or become some kind of weird, modern day NRBQ. But I will admit that I rather hear a good cover than a bad original, if that’s all the band is capable of.

What was it like for you going back and doing the Gories?

MC: It’s like riding a bike: you never really forget how.

Was there a reason that never happened before?

MC: Yeah, because we couldn’t stand each other.

I guess a better question would be is there a reason why it happened this time when it hadn’t happened before?

MC: I think everybody involved just felt, “Well, why not? Let’s see what happens.” For lack of a better answer, I think that’s what happened. “We'll do this the one time and see what happens.” And that worked out okay and then everybody was mad that we didn’t do America. So we did some U.S. shows and then at the end, we realized that was as far as it could go.

So that’s it for the Gories? No plans for anything else?

MC: No future plans, not for any live shows. At some point, I may finally dig out the only unreleased single since apparently I have the only master recording.

There’s been a lot of fascination with Detroit lately, with lots of pictures on the internet of these once majestic buildings falling apart. Seems like everybody is fascinated by it, but no one is doing anything about it.

MC: Nobody really has any idea of what to do. In the ’80s, somebody floated a plan to just roof over the entire downtown area and make a mall out of it. And they actually did do it to a portion of downtown Detroit. I know because I was on the workforce that helped build it. That was cool for a couple years and now it’s a casino, the Greektown Casino.

It’s just that there is so much of it, but a lot of times when they are showing you an area of burnt out houses and overgrown lots, they are really showing you the same six-block area. There’s an area called Brush Park that’s been devestated for decades and has been slowly falling apart ever since. That’s all they’re really showing you. The area where I grew up was all auto workers and was very well kept up and nice. No one ever shows you the Frank Lloyd Wright houses that are there and are in perfect shape. They never show you that. I’m not saying that there aren’t vacant lots and there aren’t parts of the city that are in extreme disrepair. That’s all true, but it’s not the whole city.