The Dirtbombs: Not another stinking garage band
Debunking the fuzz
Singer and guitarist Mick Collins is cursed by his former glories. He is heralded by many as the godfather of the garage-rock revival that he kicked off in the late '80s when he fronted the Gories, a scratchy Detroit three-piece. Even though he's more than a decade removed from his former band – he now spearheads the noisy and off-center pop band the Dirtbombs – he just can't shake the garage-rock thing. It's hard to escape such a title when everyone from the White Stripes to the Black Lips follow the musical path that he carved out to create a dogmatic musical scene. But Collins is quick to point out that the Gories broke up a long time ago, and the Dirtbombs are not another stinking garage band.
Being recognized as the founder of a popular trend is something that many musicians would graciously accept, especially since the shoe fits, or at least once did. But Collins isn't happy being pigeonholed into such a limited genre. "It's annoying as shit!" he declares over the phone from his home in Detroit. He laughs it off, but there is an unmistakable air of irritation in his voice. "The two words in the English language that I would never use to describe the Dirtbombs are 'garage' and 'soul,' and those are the two words that get used whenever anyone talks about the Dirtbombs."
The semantics of the situation were exacerbated by the group's sophomore release, Ultraglide in Black, a barreling and exuberant collection of soul covers filtered through a lens of grimy rock 'n' roll. With each new record, Collins has distanced himself even further from the fuzz and primitivism that is so often tied to his name. But subtle shades of a garage-rock reverence remain, giving color to the Dirtbombs' albums. As much as he denies it, the fiery fingerprint of garage rock is a genetic marker in Collins' songwriting, albeit woven into a tapestry of other, more pronounced pop influences. Someone else might embrace it, but he never will. "It was never my intention to have another garage-rock band," Collins explains. "I already did that. I said what I had to say and I moved on."
When pressed for a more appropriate hyphenated rock term for the Dirtbombs, he coolly pulls the "power pop" card. "I used to say that the Dirtbombs were a 'new romantic' band," he says. "But then our audience got to be so young that no one knew what 'new romantic' meant anymore, so now I just say we're a power pop band."
The title fits to a degree. But the term power pop evokes the jangling guitars, harmonic vocals and the self-effacing lyrics of Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and the like, which doesn't describe the Dirtbombs' sound. Again, it's all about semantics. "The Gories were striving for authenticity that didn't exist," Collins explains. "With the Dirtbombs, I am trying to create something that is as contrived as possible."
The group crowds the stage with two drummers, Ben Blackwell and Pat Pantano, and two bass players, Ko Shih and Troy Gregory. With Collins front and center, the band becomes a force of nature live. Their latest release, We Have You Surrounded (In The Red), is a noisy affair that's obsessed with urban paranoia and social upheaval set to the sound of damaged pop tones. Songs such as "Ever Lovin' Man" and "I Hear the Sirens" are classic Dirtbombs rockers that kick around inside a haze of gut-bucket blues rock. A cover of Sparks' "Sherlock Holmes" and the Euro pop-infected "Indivisible" are awkwardly catchy pop experiments. Through it all, noise and distorted tones are still very much a part of Collins' M.O. No matter how far he pushes away from the garage-rock revival that he spearheaded, it is still deeply ingrained in his songs; call it what you will.