Michael Collins isn’t trying to be original. He isn’t trying to be innovative either. He’s just a guy from the Californian underground trying to turn some honest lyrics. His songs tell truths, the kind drawn from lived experience and happenings in the world around him.
The music? It’s just a vehicle for getting it across. As Drugdealer, Collins isn’t here to sell you anything. He’s here to tell you where it’s really at.
Before his new album Raw Honey drops this month, we talked shop with Michael Collins aka Drugdealer.
HAPPY: A few months ago, I was in New York and saw Drugdealer play at an event called A Decade Deeper which was celebrating the tenth anniversary of record label Mexican Summer. What I didn’t know at the time was that Drugdealer had an Australian connection…
MICHAEL: Well pretty much this band initially was just a recording project, the entirety of which was me and whoever it was I was working with at the time. It was never really a true band. But the last time I was making a record I was collaborating with Ariel Pink a little bit on it, just with the recording aspects and we wrote a song together and he helped me with some of my other songs. At the time he had just brought this Australian over from Melbourne to be in his band. And that, as you probably know, was Shags Chamberlain.
During this time, I became very close with Shags. I would consider him potentially my best friend. But furthermore, Ariel’s band at that point kind of disbanded – as it does at different times – and Shags was like, “Hey, why don’t you turn this thing you do into a real band?”
And to be quite honest with you, he’s now the head honcho of the band! I’m just the person who wrote the songs. So yeah, the band has got some heavy Australian artillery.
HAPPY: On the first single which came out for this new album, Fools there’s this great lyric. I think it goes something like, “Oh to light a candle for the underground”. I’ve been thinking whole a lot lately about this whole idea of ‘the underground’ and what this word really means to the people who identify as being part of it. How do you conceptualise – or see – this whole idea of the underground?
MICHAEL: And you’re talking about this because of that lyric from the first single we put out?
HAPPY: Yeah! It’s a cool lyric. I really dug it.
MICHAEL: Well yeah – you’re one of the first interviewers I’ve had so far for this album but you’re definitely the first one that’s asked about that. Good question! Usually when I make an album it’s not like a serious concept record but there are some central ideas that are floating around in it in kind of a more amorphous sense.
One of the things I was thinking about at the time I was writing this album was just the fact that I came into music pretty haphazardly. I taught myself how to play when I was 18. I didn’t play music when I was younger and the reason I was able to become a musician is really because of this underground music scene where you could do something that was weird, or novice and it would be cool. It would be heralded as being original you know what I mean?
Since the beginning of my relationship with music from my first album in 2009 until now – which is 10 years later – I’ve sort of watched ‘the scene’ come and go I feel. Even though I know it exists to some degree, back in 2009 until 2014-2015 the shows that everyone was going to go to on any given night in any given music city in America – the ones all the musicians wanted to go to – were shows that were donation-based in warehouses and at house parties. That was the scene. That was what people – music writers or whatever – would call ‘the underground’. It is what it is, a context for people to kind of be themselves and push their own ideas.
But then, of course, that’s all relative! You can always do what you want. But all I’m saying is that a lot of those venues that catered to home-grown subversive types of music have faded away in many places in America. Now the norm is different. The status quo has lifted.
I think that this [sort of thing] has happened in waves throughout the decades and decades and decades of music since the ‘60s. There will be a time in a certain city where people will get a certain synergy around the music scene. People will start opening up their own clubs and try to work against the capitalist forces – blah, blah, blah! Basically, I guess what I’m saying is that I think a lot about the different intentions and the different directions of whatever the current moment in music is and I have a heavy nostalgia for the times when things were simpler and it was just about, “Who in the 20-block radius of my house is going to come see me play tonight?”
And that, today, because of the internet and a lot of globalising forces of culture and money, I think is a less sought after and a less supported type of musical intention. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t know if that translates to what is happening in Australia.
HAPPY: I think you could make a good case that it does.
MICHAEL: The lyrics I wrote were like, “When they try to light a candle for the underground it’s not the same song they remember. You can try but it’s just plain wrong”. So basically, what I’m saying is kind of tongue-in-cheek. It’s a little bit of a caricature of how hard it is to try to start from scratch.
What I’m trying to say is I find myself in a position where people have heard of my music and there’s kind of a platform for me to put out my next record. But I guess that these lyrics are more of a nod to you if you’re trying to start a band right now. If everything is too saturated and it’s too hard for you to get your music out there, I hear you. I was there and I know how hard it can be. Right now, it’s harder than it ever has been.
That’s what [Fools is] about. It’s a cheeky but also maybe a depressing thing. And maybe it could also be a call to arms, for someone else to say, “Hey I just want to do this for my friends.”
HAPPY: Your music is from the underground and it is subversive in its own way, but at the same time there’s a lot of melody! There’s some honest lyrics and a good backbeat holding it all together.
HAPPY: Which kind of calls back to a more ‘60s or ‘70s style of pop. It’s interesting how you’ve repurposed it for 2019. It’s not what’s in the Top 40 but it’s still music that can appeal to people. How do you see yourself as fitting into all of that? Are you opposed to modern music?
MICHAEL: That’s a very good question, I wish all of my interviewers were like you.
HAPPY: I think about things way too much.
MICHAEL: No, it’s good! So basically, in a roundabout way to answer your question, I think it’s funny that a lot of people like music from the ‘60s or they like music from the ‘70s or they like music from the ‘80s or the ‘50s or whatever. They like a certain kind of aesthetic. Maybe they’re a band in LA trying to be like they’re from the ‘60s or maybe they live in Australia like Shags and want to pretend they’re from Japan in the ‘70s! [Laughs] I’m kidding.
But whatever it is there’s always a bunch of people in any given time and in any given place that are just trying to emulate something they’ve heard that really feels like it represents the way that they wish that it was right now. The difference with me is that I really try to think about it not like, “What is this one sound?” Or like, put this scene in my mind on a pedestal. I just try to say to myself, “Why do I like these songs?” And they always are songs, like you’ve said, from the ‘70s or the ‘60s that I’ve heard growing up. But I try to ask myself, “What is it about them that I like?”
I don’t want to be one of those people who the main thing I like about [songs like these] is when they’re from. I want to understand what it is. And I think what it is, is that back then the social intentions of making music were more about having something to say and being able to stand behind it.
So right there, first of all, number one: the lyrics are my main focus. I realised that when I first started to make music, but it took me a long time to – I think I’ve written a lot of lyrics that don’t mean anything – like everyone! But you know I’ve come to a point where I feel that when I write lyrics, I really try to talk about what is going on in my life and my perspectives on living today. I put an emphasis on that.
The other reason that people might think that [my music] reminds them of that older music or whatever they want to say is because the lyrics are focused from those eras and it’s also mixed in a certain way. A lot of bands today try and sound like a ‘60s band but for me, the real thing that makes music sound like it’s from the ‘60s is having an incredible vocal and having incredible lyrics. I don’t mean to ramble, I’m just saying I like to keep things simple, clear, concise and dry so there’s not a bunch of effects obscuring it.
I don’t know, I feel akin with a lot of those songwriters, but I don’t think it has to do with a decade thing. I just like writing poetry you know? My goal is not to make this incredible, sensational, trippy sort of aesthetic. I’d rather have the music functional and have it be a platform for the words to shine on top of.
I just think that the prerogative of music today, in terms of what is actually Top 10 radio, is to basically manipulate people’s minds into an escapist place so they don’t have to think about things that are actually happening. For me, music is more about, “Hey! Let me think about what is really going on in front of me and in our lives.”
I like to think that it’s therapeutic music, hopefully for people who like it but definitely for me. That’s a very roundabout answer! I could try to answer it again…
HAPPY: No, no, no, rambling is good. And I think that you are making sense. Hopefully the logic of what you’ve said still holds up in print.
MICHAEL: You can re-edit it if you want.
[Michael’s thoughts appear as originally presented.]
HAPPY: People often compare you to George Harrison…
MICHAEL: I think that any comparison that somebody hears is valid because of this one reason. It’s just the fact that when I make music, I don’t try to make it sound original. What I’m saying is George Harrison is one of my favourite artists. So that would be right.
Anything that you hear is probably just a fucking nail on the head because my whole thing – my ethos – and I’ve said this before in interviews and I’ll say it again, is that instead of worrying about being original or innovative I’m just worrying about being truthful with my songwriting. In order to focus more on my own truth, I focus less on things like trying to obscure my influences. I just wear them on my sleeve.
If anybody wants to criticise me and say that something is derivative or that it’s happened before? They would be completely right, and they don’t have to listen to it. That’s not my intention.
I think at this point in time culture is so supersaturated with so many amazing things that have come before making a pastiche of them is really just my truth. That’s just how I feel, as a cosmonaut and just a super absorber of culture since I was a child. And also, lastly, I think George Harrison was the same way!
HAPPY: Your favourite George Harrison song or album?
MICHAEL: My favourite George Harrison song is Here Comes The Sun. I don’t look to obscure things. I just look to the ones that hit me the hardest.
HAPPY: Do you have any plans on bringing Drugdealer to Australia?
MICHAEL: That’s the main place we want to go because of Shags and different connections that we have there. It’s in the works. The plan is to come right in the next new year, right after it becomes 2020.
Drugdealer’s new album Raw Honey is out April 19th via Mexican Summer. Pre-order your copy here.