A hard-working rock 'n' roll band from Detroit, after nearly 15 years of recording and gigging all over the world, gets its best-known song placed in an Oscar-nominated movie last year. Breakthrough time, right?
"We played a show in Arkansas — our first time in Arkansas," says Ben Blackwell, a drummer in The Dirtbombs. "There was a Bible study group that had gone to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. They'd noticed ["Chains of Love," from the band's 2001 record Ultraglide in Black] and they liked it. There was maybe five or seven of them in that group. Which was good, because total paid attendance was about 20 people. So, in that regard, the movie did help us."
Blackwell tells that story without a hint of irony. Just as The Dirtbombs — with its unlikely lineup of two drummers, two bass players, and 42-year-old, comic book-obsessed, black singer/guitarist Mick Collins — continue to approach the business of rock 'n' roll.
The Dirtbombs, Dan Sartain, and the Terrible Twos are scheduled to perform Monday, May 19.
After three full-length records and countless singles of garage-soul party music, Collins and company altered their course with We Have You Surrounded, released in February on In the Red. The song titles — "I Hear the Sirens," "They Have Us Surrounded," Race to the Bottom," "La Fin du Monde," "Fire in the Western World" — along with the record's stark cover (designed by Gary Panter, the "father of punk comics"), hint at a darker theme borne of the lyrics and music on the record.
Blackwell calls it "urban paranoia." To those of us in the Valley, it's a notion evolved in a region that's grown too quickly, and it may evoke images of suburbanites living in walled-in developments, Anglos who cast a wary eye toward immigrants, and a sheriff who cultivates fear. But to The Dirtbombs, the phrase describes an opposite kind of dread.
"Detroit is one of the worst cities as far as what it used to be and what it is now," Blackwell says. "Physically, you have a city that's contracting way [faster] than what it can handle. It's literally empty. What comes with that is a vibe of, 'Who's around the corner?' It's enough to cause urban paranoia."
But despite — or, perhaps, because of — the countless abandoned buildings and vacant lots in Detroit, The Dirtbombs' hometown always has been and still is an incredibly fertile rock 'n' roll city. But it's been nearly a decade since the city drew so much attention for the clamor created by bands such as The Dirtbombs, Detroit Cobras, The Go, The Paybacks, The Von Bondies, and White Stripes.
Blackwell indicates there's little profit to be made, at this point, from Detroit's early-'00s rock explosion. "It might not be the coolest thing to like The Dirtbombs now, whereas if you liked The Dirtbombs when Ultraglide in Black came out, you were on the cutting edge. You knew what was up."
And when Blackwell's uncle, Jack White of White Stripes, left Detroit for Nashville after a public fistfight with Jason Stollsteimer of The Von Bondies and a high-profile lawsuit filed by former White Stripes recording engineer (and former Dirtbombs member) Jim Diamond, the Dirtbombs lost an ally and the city's rock scene lost its biggest star.
"Jack didn't want to be considered the standard-bearer for Detroit rock 'n' roll," Blackwell says. "It might have adversely affected us somewhat, as far as not playing shows with [White Stripes] anymore. But he still listens to the records and he likes them. That's good enough for me. I don't need any more out of it, you know?"
And when the national spotlight was turned away from Detroit's garage-rock scene, The Dirtbombs used the opportunity to discreetly distance themselves from the "garage" label, one that Collins — dubbed the godfather of Detroit garage by Jack White for his role in the influential late-'80s/early-'90s band The Gories — has been trying to shed for years now.
"Being pigeonholed as playing garage rock is the only thing that has ever really rankled me," Collins told Michael Hurtt of Detroit's Metro Times earlier this year. "I don't have any problem being in any other ghetto, artistically speaking . . . I don't care. But quit calling me 'garage rock.' I'm sick to fucking death of being called garage rock!"
So, on We Have You Surrounded, Collins and his band — drummers Blackwell and Pat Pantano (also of The Come Ons) and bass players Ko Melina and Troy Gregory (Prong, Flotsam and Jetsam) — have their most genre-bending record to date. "A Dirtbombs record — no, a good record overall — should be like a record collection," says Blackwell, who, at 25 years old, is the youngest but most-tenured member (besides Collins) in a band known for its oft-changing lineup.
Indeed, the record sounds like no other in the band's catalog. Though "Ever Lovin' Man" and "I Hear the Sirens" sound like vintage Dirtbombs, "Indivisible" and the synth-meets-fuzztone "Wreck My Flow" are straight-up dance numbers, "They Have Us Surrounded" and "Race to the Bottom" are apocalyptic noise jams, and the French-language "La Fin du Monde" is the most sing-along end-of-the-world tune you'll hear this year.
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And it wouldn't be a Mick Collins record without the impeccable — and unconventional — choices in cover tunes: Sparks ("Sherlock Holmes"), Dead Moon ("Fire in the Western World"), and a song ("Leopardman at C&A") with lyrics written by British graphic novelist Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen), supposedly for '80s gloom-rockers Bauhaus. "Mick spent two years looking for a recorded version of the song but never found one," Blackwell says. "Mick finally just said, 'Fuck it, I'm just going to put my own music to it.' I half-expect to get an angry letter from Moore saying, 'Who the fuck told you that you could use this song?'"
After the band's cross-country tour through the end of this month, they will play more than a month in Europe. Then, as it is with most bands that sell records in the thousands rather than the millions, it's back to day jobs in Detroit and an uncertain future. Blackwell says there are no set plans for The Dirtbombs besides touring in support of We Have You Surrounded, but says that Collins has threatened to follow through on his longtime notion of creating a bubblegum-pop record.
"In this band, it's always uphill," says Blackwell, who also owns indie label Cass Records. "It seems like everyone needs the band more than the band needs them. Everyone's looking not to fuck up or get their ass kicked out . . . [But] I think we're making music that stands up to anything we've done before, and that probably even trumps it. And it's nice challenging people, because it's getting harder and harder to do that."