Motor City Madness

Dirtbombs' frontman Mick Collins keeps getting off track, but you'd never be able to tell

Few cities have as deep and as eccentric a musical heritage as Detroit. Along with Chicago, it was the birthplace of the electric blues, and it produced the Motown roster, the MC5, and the Amboy Dukes during the late 1960s. The idiosyncratic rock magazine Creem was based in Detroit and helped introduce artists as different as Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, and Funkadelic to national audiences in the early '70s. Kiss played up a largely imaginary connection to the city with its 1976 single "Detroit Rock City." Detroit DJs pioneered techno music in the '80s, and the city's current electronic noise scene was recently profiled in the British magazine The Wire. As recently as the late '90s and early '00s, three unlikely acts, each of them adding a particular twist to the city's legacy of musical miscegenation—Kid Rock, Eminem, and the White Stripes, all white artists performing some variation on black music—have emerged as worldwide superstars.

Mick Collins, the singer and guitarist for the Dirtbombs, has plenty of perspective on the city's complicated legacy of race and music. As a black performer in Detroit's largely white punk community for more than 20 years, the 42-year-old has blurred many of the distinctions among punk, garage rock, soul, blues, and pop, first with the cult band the Gories and now the Dirtbombs.

"Living in Detroit, it's all the same stuff," Collins says. "It always astonishes us as Detroiters, and it astonishes people who aren't from here. It's the same thing to us. There's no difference. The same people who buy rock records are the same people who buy soul records, the same people who buy techno records, the same people who buy jazz records. They're not separate here the way they are everywhere else.... Somebody once said you could go see three different bands on a weekend in Detroit—a rock band on Friday night, a reggae band on Saturday night, and a Dixieland jazz group on Sunday—and it'd all be the same guys."

Collins formed the Dirtbombs in 1992, right around the time the Gories were breaking up. The Gories had an unusual line-up—two guitars, drums, no bass—and Collins went in an entirely different direction with the Dirtbombs. He recruited two bassists and two drummers to complement his own voice and guitar, and has stuck with that set-up through 21 roster changes.

"It was just an idea I had," Collins says of the Dirtbombs' format. "I just thought I wanted to know what it sounded like. I get that question a lot. People have asked me, ‘What were you thinking?' I wasn't thinking. I just thought it'd be cool."

With a bottom-heavy sound topped off by Collins' razor-sharp guitar and his gritty, impassioned voice, the group's originals run from straight three-chord punk to glam rock. Collins' catholic selection of covers for the band reflects his own wide-ranging taste—songs by Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Brian Eno, the Rolling Stones, Elliot Smith, Lou Rawls, Flipper, the Ohio Players, Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, and, on this year's We Have You Surrounded, Hollywood new-wavers Sparks.

Collins never expected the band to last as long as it has. "The Dirtbombs were supposed to be over by 1997," he says. The original plan was for the Dirtbombs to record 15 four-song vinyl singles, release them as a box set, and quit. The group never got around to that project—they released five singles in the mid-'90s, but Collins was persuaded by the band's label, In the Red, to make a full-length record, Horndog Fest, in '98.

"This was originally supposed to be a singles band," says Collins, who described his preference for the immediate impact of singles at length in the liner notes to the 2005 compilation If You Don't Already Have a Look.

"You have a maximum of 12 minutes on a seven-inch single to get the job done, and there's no room for filler," he wrote. "Singles are straight to the point. I think of them as being like candy bars, or trading cards. They let you know everything you need to know, at a glance. Two songs—bam. On to another single."

But Collins keeps getting sidetracked. After Horndog Fest, he adjusted his goals and made a list of the LPs he wanted to record with the group. He says he's almost made it through the list, but it hasn't been a straight line. The 2001 album of R&B covers Ultraglide in Black was supposed to come fourth, but was released second after Collins heard Lynott's "Ode to a Black Man," decided to record it immediately, and then had to construct an album around it. The latest album was supposed to be a highly anticipated disc of '60s bubblegum pop songs, but We Have You Surrounded grew out of sessions for a five-song EP into a (by Dirtbombs' standards) dark and sprawling album.

As for that box of 15 vinyl singles Collins put the group together to make? Will it ever see the light of day?

"Nah, we never even started on it," Collins says. "And after 17 years, the hell with it."