Singular Focus

The Dirtbombs are prolific in terms of shows, songs and quality

You know you left your air guitar lying around somewhere, buried under tax returns and never-opened wedding presents.

You wouldn't think of throwing the thing out--it's just that you've been letting it gather dust since that last drunken midnight medley of "Radar Love," "The Boys Are Back in Town" and "I Wanna Be Sedated."

It's time to break it out for The Dirtbombs. It's time to shred some O2 while the Detroit punk 'n' soul band blows out your speakers. And we're not talking about intricate, extended-solo wanking--simply some rough 'n' ready old-school garage-punk and greasy rock 'n' roll that feels so illicitly good, especially when you're flailing along to it on your air axe.

"We play an average of 120 shows a year, I guess, and we really try to go all-out every night," says Ben Blackwell, one of the band's drummers. (The group boasts two drummers and two bass players, in addition to singer-guitarist-songwriter Mick Collins.)

"I mean, that's if everybody's healthy, which is usually the case, and if Mick's voice holds out, and if the crowd is with us. There's a kind of glass ceiling, you know? We can only get so intense if the crowd are all into it."

The audience at The Dirtbombs' performance at Plush in 2004 must've been way into it. Weekly music editor Stephen Seigel reports that it was one of the best concerts he's ever seen.

"I remember Tucson, and I remember playing Plush," Blackwell says. "But I could barely tell you anything about the show. I sang a song that our old bass player used to sing, and that's about all that comes back to me.

"It's amazing sometimes. For me, it might not be one of the most memorable shows, but people will tell me later, even years after, it just blew them away. So that's cool."

Blackwell spoke via telephone last week from his home in Detroit as the band prepared for the current tour, which will bring The Dirtbombs back to Tucson for a gig on Thursday, March 23, at Plush.

Blackwell, 23, calls himself "by far the youngest (member) of the band." He joined The Dirtbombs when he was in high school, and has been dedicated to the band ever since, at least when he's not writing freelance music criticism and running his own independent label, Cass Records.

Blackwell pretty much reveres bandleader Collins, 40, who founded The Dirtbombs around 1995 after stints with such well-received Detroit garage bands as The Gories and Blacktop.

"Mick will say the band started in 1992, but that's more in his pipe dreams," Blackwell says. "The band started playing together in 1994 or '95. I guess the concept for the band originally was to be a parody of a grunge band. But by the time he got to working that out, grunge was already a parody of itself, so Mick just decided to go full-on punk, as I understand it."

The style of music played by The Dirtbombs is constantly in question, although Collins has often gone on record saying the group is not a garage band.

Some of its songs are punk-rock in the culturally-stranded 1970s tradition, before hardcore changed everything. Other tunes sound like fully fleshed realizations of the ragged-around-the-edges, fuzzed-out psychedelic pop to which the Brian Jonestown Massacre aspires.

But there's a funky, urban soul undercurrent in the music's more aggressive rave-ups. In fact, The Dirtbombs' second full-length album, Ultraglide in Black (released in 2001) took on a classic R&B sound, evincing influences such as Sly and The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Parliament and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles by covering their songs.

The Dirtbombs' most recent album is If You Don't Already Have a Look, a double-CD set released last year. The first disc includes 29 power-packed originals--all penned by the incredibly prolific Collins--from throughout the band's career, most of them issued as 45-rpm vinyl singles or included in multi-band collections.

A handful of the Collins originals were previously unreleased rare tracks, Blackwell adds. "Those were supposed to serve as the new record, in a way. But it has been marketed and seen almost entirely as a reissue."

The second disc of If You Don't Already Have a Look consists of 23 cover tunes, songs originally written and recorded by artists as diverse as The Rolling Stones, Flipper, the Ohio Players, the Bee Gees, Elliott Smith, The Gun Club, Stevie Wonder, Yoko Ono, Soft Cell, the Romantics, Lou Rawls and fellow Detroit band Adult.

The Dirtbombs collectively worship the vinyl single and release much of its material in that format.

In the liner notes of the new CD, Collins writes, "The full-length album is doomed. If there's anything the last few years has taught us, it's that people are no longer willing to spend their hard-earned money on eight crap songs and two good ones. They'd rather just get the two good ones."

As a musician and a record-label owner, Blackwell agrees. In fact, his Cass Records is releasing a vinyl split single shared by The Dirtbombs and Black Lips, the band touring with them. It will be available only at the gigs, he says.

"My thing is about singles. All my favorite music, my favorite bands, my favorite songs, have all pretty much primarily been released on vinyl 7-inch singles," Blackwell says.

"If a band can't make a song good enough so they can hold your attention on a 45, there's no reason they can do it for a whole album. I wish the 45 were the preferred format in the industry, but these days, you give someone 70 minutes on a CD to just fart around."

About The Author

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment