Paul Collins shows no signs of slowing down. The current king of power pop got his start in the iconic combo The Nerves — with Peter Case and Jack Lee — a band that grew out of the late-’70s Los Angeles power pop scene. From there came The Breakaways and, finally, The Beat — one of the most beloved original American power pop bands.
After years of on-and-off touring and recording with The Beat and as a solo artist, Paul is gearing up for multiple dates with Paul Collins’ Beat and The English Beat through November, and is putting together the Power Pop-A-Licious II festival November 16-17 in Asbury Park, New Jersey as a showcase for bands from all over the power pop spectrum to show their stuff.
A relentless promoter and champion of power pop, Paul not only wants to keep playing the music he loves, but he also wants to make playing music viable for all other bands that fall under his gaze. He creates concerts and networks that help artists and small venues earn a living, which is the next “F-you” to record labels — right along with free album downloads, direct-to-fans ticketing, and self-producing records. When I spoke with Paul, his enthusiasm for music and supporting independent bands and record stores was obvious. Paul Collins is a man possessed by music.
Hello, Jennifer with The Vinyl District. How are you?
I’m great! Is this still a good time?
It’s still a good time. It’s a gorgeous day here in New York. Where are you calling from?
I’m calling from sunny San Diego.
I love San Diego! It’s my favorite part of California. You know, back in the day, we played San Diego maybe three or four times. It’s just not… I don’t know. For some reason, it just wasn’t one of our stops. And then in the last, I would say, four or five years I’ve been [going to] San Diego. I’ve been playing at the Soda Bar. Do you know the Soda Bar?
I don’t, unfortunately, but I already feel like I should.
Well, it’s a great – I don’t know where it is, but we now have a real following in San Diego. Last time I played there, I played at a bar called Pink’s, which I did not like at all.
A venue that I love and that I’ve heard is always good to bands is The Casbah.
You know, they’ve been around forever and I’ve never played there! I don’t know – it’s just never worked out.
It seems like it would be your kind of place.
I’ve made friends with the owners of the Til-Two Club, and they have another bar called the Tower Bar. It’s an Australian guy and his wife called Nick and Daniella and we stay with them, actually. They have a really nice house and a couple of kids and we’re, like, family with them. They’re so sweet, but I’ve never played their club! I’ve got to get that together.
Well, it seems like people sort of avoid San Diego because LA is so close.
I know, and I hate LA and I love San Diego! LA a nightmare and it’s a police state. I just think San Diego is so mellow and cool and it’s architecturally pretty and people are laid back and it’s easy to get around.
You’ve put together the Power Pop-A-Licious Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Why Asbury Park and why not in the city?
Well, I’ll tell you why. I played there a few years back – I did an acoustic show with some good friends of mine, a band from Sweden called Stupidity. I know, it’s a funny name. There was a band out of Philly called the Frigs – it was an all-girl band – back in the ‘90s. And [the lead singer] told me to come out to play in Asbury Park – and she’s a New Yorker. I went out there and I played [Asbury Lanes] and I loved the place. It’s just a great venue and it’s absolutely perfect for the festival. First of all, you open the doors and you’re looking at the ocean. We got a deal and a sponsorship with the hotel that’s basically a block away. So the bands and the fans can come, park their car, and just leave it. You know how Jersey is really heavy-duty with the DUI stuff. So, people can drink and have fun and walk around, and not worry about having an unpleasant ending.
And the venue’s great! It has a restaurant, it’s the bowling thing, and it’s got all these little nooks and crannies… there’s a side bar, and it’s got a sort of ‘50s kitsch to it. It’s just so comfortable and, logistically-speaking, it would just be impossible to do something like this in New York. The parking alone would make it so difficult for everybody – you wouldn’t be able to get a deal at a hotel. And the venues just aren’t as set up for this. There’s tons of parking, the place is big, and they’re really nice people.
And you’ve got the boardwalk right there.
Literally! In two minutes you’re on the boardwalk, so it’s really great.
You’ve got a ton of bands playing – do you have any surprises in store?
Well, the whole thing is kind of a surprise! The first year I did it, the reason why I did it was because I’d been doing all this DIY touring, which I still do, all over the country. And I was playing primarily with new, up-and-coming bands, which I still do. And I was really, like, knocked out by all these great bands!
Now, when I talk to you, I’ll be all over the place…
Power pop, for me, today is not the same as it was when I started. When I started, the whole power pop/new wave genre was much stricter. And that in a way worked against it. We were considered nerdy music and nerdy guys and it was never going to go anywhere. It was light, pop-y fluff, and it didn’t have any balls – know what I’m saying? That was the general consensus, even though some of the bands were not like that at all, we got pigeonholed.
And then power pop in the ‘90s, with the advent of grunge, literally fell off the map. It just ceased to exist. And then, with the advent of the internet and the new millennium, I started seeing – primarily on MySpace, because that was the first thing that musicians were working with for social media – I started seeing all these new bands that listed “power pop” in the description of their music. So, I was like… wow! This is awesome! And so it slowly came back with a whole new generation of kids.
The most important thing about that, which is what I work at all the time – which is what my Beat Army page on Facebook is all about – is that it’s still a very, very underground genre. It’s still a genre that needs a lot of help. Punk doesn’t need help, indie doesn’t need help – they’re very successful genres, they attract a lot of people, the bands that play that music can tour incessantly. The indie bands make a lot of money, they can do it as a living – a very good living – and power pop doesn’t have any of those attributes yet. It’s still very much underground, it’s still very much a labor of love. Five, six years ago, playing that kind of music meant that there’d be ten people at the show, and the most common thing we’d hear was, “That was so great! I don’t know why people don’t come!” Thankfully, that’s all starting to change dramatically.
So, anyway, the new bands – and this is the way all cultural cycles are, it’s very healthy – it’s not so strict. It’s left, right, and center. Some of these bands [performing at Power Pop-alicious] are punkier some are more garage, some are straight-up power pop bands. And I think that’s really good. To me, power pop today means guitar-driven, melodic rock and roll. As long as the bands write songs that have melodies and there’s harmonies – to me, it fits. Now, I’ve gotten flack from the purists [for that stance]. It’s like… screw that! It’s much hipper for power pop to be an elastic genre – like all rock and roll genres are, like rock and roll in itself is. Rock and roll is anything from Chuck Berry to the Sex Pistols – they’re all rock and roll bands! They may be different, they may package it differently, they may sound sonically different, but they’re still rock and roll bands, and power pop is also a rock and roll genre.
The thing about power pop, the most underestimated and unknown thing to me, is that power pop embraces all the best elements of rock – of great rock and roll: good songs, great melodies, great harmonies, and killer guitar hooks. You can find those ingredients in every great rock song as far as I’m concerned – from The Beatles to Chuck Berry to the Stones to the Sex Pistols to The Clash – whatever bands you want to talk about, whatever era, whatever genre. For me, the music that knocks me out all have those elements.
So, getting back to the fest! The first [Power Pop-A-Licious] fest was all these bands that I played with. I had such a great time with them that I said, let’s have a big festival and get all these guys come and play! And I talked to them and they were like, yeah, yeah we’ll come, we’ll come, we’ll come! Because there’s no money… we have bands from Canada, from Alabama, from Chicago – it’s a long way to go for a party! It was great and it was very successful on the level that a lot of bands… part of the idea of the fest is that these bands meet each other, they can connect with each other, and subsequently bands have gone on tour together and it’s kind of like a meeting point. It wasn’t an enormous turnout, but the people who came had a blast – and we all had a blast! It was a two-day party and it was just fantastic. Obviously, with that many bands we had a lot of people just with band members and their girlfriends and stuff.
It was a mountain of work, so when it was done it was like… I can’t think about this for a while. But as time went by and I really didn’t think about it, well… I’d like to do it again, but I can’t really use the same bands because that would be just kind of stupid and it would seem like, you know, nothing’s going on. Then about four months ago I said, okay – it’s time. It’s time to really start thinking about doing this. I did it the first time and if I don’t do it again it’ll lose gas. And if I wait two years, it won’t be relevant and so, I figured out how to do it again.
This time around it wasn’t a bunch of bands I was touring with, because I pretty much exhausted that whole angle. I needed to come up with a whole new roster. Initially I said, well, why don’t I try to get some of the bigger name power pop bands or bands associated with power pop that I know that might come, even though there’s no money, because they’re out there doing it and they would see it as a good promotional move for them. Because one thing I have established within our little circle is that people say, “This guy’s in touch, man, with what’s going on. He’s playing with all these young bands; he’s got his finger on the pulse.” So I wanted to play that card with some of these bands and say, “Look, there’s no money, but you get to play for a lot of young kids, you’re gonna expand your audience – it’ll be good for you to do this. It wouldn’t be bad.”
I started going down that road and got a handful of bands who said they might be interested. Then they started dropping out. “We can’t do it, it’s too far, call us next year…” I thought, okay, this is going way south. And then I wasn’t exactly sure how I should proceed. Then just one day, it flipped. I met some people – one of them was Tony LoFi who runs shows here in New York, and he turned me on to a bunch of bands. I have a handful of bands that wanted to do it and it just morphed into what it is now, and I’m so excited because it’s exactly where I think it should be.
It’s bands that are left, right, and center, they’re all serious bands, most of them tour. To me, that’s the defining element; if you tour, that means you’re serious about what you’re doing. You’re not just a band that plays once in a while and it’s a hobby. If you’re touring, you’re doing it because you’re serious about it and hope that down the road that things will turn around and it will become financially viable.
I’m also excited by it because it’s bands that are punkier, bands that are straight-up power pop, it’s bands that are more of a garage thing. There’s a couple of old, veteran-type bands like The Magnolias and The Jennifers, which are a band that I’ve known for many, many years and I’m so happy they’re involved with this. Each band to me, intrinsically, brings something to the table.
You know, you’re making this really easy for me. I think you’ve answered five or six of my questions already!
Well, as you can tell I’m excited about this! I love playing music, I love being involved with music, and I’m also very proud and happy that I can… see, this is a delicate spot. I’m curating this show. There are a lot of bands who wanted to play that I haven’t been able to put on. Since there’s no money, one of the things about no money is it gives you freedom. You can be more artistic. So, it’s not about money so I don’t really care. It’s about the art of it. That’s a fine line to walk because sometimes you can piss people off. Some bands, and this has always been the case since Day 1 – at least since I’ve been playing music – the ratio of really good bands to bad bands… well, you can imagine what the ratio is. And there were some bands that I was finding where I’d hear their recorded music and think, “These guys are great!” And then I’d see them live and go, “What the hell?!” It was just, like, such a night and day difference! And I said to myself, if I’m not doing this for the money, and I’m not personally into [a band], I’m not gonna do it.
So, the first band that’s playing – Psycho Hippies – I found them purely by accident. I was invited to The Cake Shop in New York to see another band and [Psycho Hippies] were opening up [for them]. And I’d never heard them and they are fantastic. There’s these two girls and three guys and they’re like a real, New Yawk, ‘70s kind of cover band. They do all covers – they do “I Like Candy” and “Be My Baby” and I was sitting there listening to them and thought, “These guys are great!” They don’t play any originals, but they’re like a human jukebox of the songs that you really want to hear, and they’re fun. And they’ve got this really cool New York attitude – they’re from Brooklyn – so they talk like that and probably chew bubblegum and stuff like that. [Laughs] They’re funny as hell and I said, “You guys wanna play my fest?” And they’re like, “Yeah!”.
And then there are bands like The Magnolias, who are from Minneapolis, who are the veteran bands that have been around for fifteen, twenty years now. And they’re really good. They’re very professional.
One of the things I wanted to stay away from is… none of the bands are slick. I’m not into slick music. In fact, there were a few bands that were really pushing to get on. I listened and thought they were just too damn slick for me. One of the nice things about the first power pop movement was that there was a lot of charm to it. It was innocent fun, which was another reason why it didn’t take off. It wasn’t dangerous, we weren’t asking you to kill your parents or bitch-slap somebody. We were like, yeah, this is fun! Cool girls, cars, work, travel! And unfortunately, it was so inoffensive that people wrote it off as being, you know, insignificant – which is so, so wrong. Some of that music, and some of the good stuff has stood the test of time, and is being constantly rediscovered by people. I defy anybody to say that writing some of those really good songs like “Shake Some Action” is easy. It’s not. It employs all the same skill and craftsmanship of any great song.
That’s very true. I think that power pop has never gotten the respect it deserves in this country. It’s almost like comedy, which gets no respect either. To really make people laugh, that is an incredible feat. Same with writing melodic songs that capture a complete idea in a little pop piece of awesome. That’s talent.
But now, that’s cool. Everybody’s looking for some niche, unknown thing that’s really cool. So now, power pop is like this very cool, underground movement that’s hip. And it never was hip – it was underground, but it was never hip. Most people – the average person that’s not worried about being hip and cool – when they discover [power pop] they love it!
It’s definitely a genre that’s difficult for me to get tired of. I could listen to Radio City by Big Star over and over and never be sick of it.
Yeah, they’re one of the iconic bands – Big Star.
To me, I see the power in power pop as its authenticity…
That’s the title of your article – “The Power of Power Pop”!
Well, it’s like you were saying – there’s so much stuff now that’s so slick and over-produced. Maybe that’s part of why vinyl is seeing a revival, too, because people just want something that is real.
Oh, man – I sell so much vinyl it’s unreal. But the other nice thing about the power pop movement is that now it’s really free to move because it functions in the DIY world. And that’s just gives you so much freedom. Now it’s not chained to industry acceptance, it’s not chained to major label support, it’s not chained to managers and agents. There’s a whole network of clubs that love this music, run by music-loving guys who love to put these bands on… the numbers have gone up dramatically.
When I started The Beat Army two, three years ago – which is my Facebook page dedicated to this music – the mission statement was to try to get the numbers up to 100 paid customers at the clubs, which is where rock and roll lives and breathes and lives and dies – it’s all at the clubs – and to turn this into a viable thing. I wanted the page, which is why I constantly try to get people to “like” the page, I wanted to stand up, from an outsiders point of view, to show numbers. That [power pop] not just some nerdy thing that only a handful of people will like. Once it shows numbers, the industry will take notice – because it’s all about the bucks. And if bands can go out and tour… you know, if you get 100 paid people at a club, there’s not a club in America that won’t book you anytime you want to play, because 100 people is money.
But it’s very hard to do that. But at least with my shows, I’m getting that. On the average we get 75-100 people, paid. So, we bridge the gap of the ten to twenty-people crowds. It’s depressing to travel 1,000 miles to play for ten people. It would be depressing for anybody! We have bridged that gap, and I consider that a HUGE success and… fortunately, it’s not such an uphill battle anymore. I mean, it is a battle, but there’s enough positive feedback and accomplishments to really give you encouragement to keep going.
I keep hearing in different circles that the future of marketing and sales is going to be collaboration. You seem to be well ahead of that curve. And lots of musicians are beginning to realize that if they really want to have a go at success, they can’t rely on the dinosaur record companies because those companies are too far behind the times.
Well, also we’ve broken the business mold. We’ve broken the tour business mold. We go out on the road, we tour all over, we combine forces, we share backlines, we share vehicles, we stay at people’s houses… so we have broken the absolutely prohibitive expense of touring in the old business model. We can do shows now and everybody – and I mean everybody – involved walks out with money. Maybe the local band only gets $50, but it’s $50 as opposed to nothing.
You’re striving to make music viable again.
The thing is, it becomes a big family. When we tour in America, we’re always with friends. We stay with them, we play with them, the clubs are our friends – it’s like a happy environment. And I know this intimately because in the old days, if you went out on tour, it was like your band against the world. Now it’s your band, with a bunch of other people, and they’re all together. And it’s so much more fun, and it’s so much more relaxing, and it’s just so much more productive. So, it really isn’t competition anymore so much as collaboration.
Yeah, in the old days it was like “Which band is better?” “You guys are better than those guys!” That kind of shit really killed the type of music I do because we weren’t this huge, monster band that needed to annihilate the opener and then annihilate everybody else. We’re like a collective. The shows are shows, everybody shines. And when everybody shines, it’s a much better environment to be in.
If I may switch tracks for a bit and ask you, since we’re all about supporting indie bands…
You know, that’s the other thing that I wanted to touch on – what you guys do, the media that’s come to bat for us, and in general… it’s the family thing. It’s like we’re all in this together, the people who see that and act on that – it just makes the whole thing so much hipper.
Well, we feel that way, too. Being able to support great bands like yours is definitely one of the best things I get to do with my day.
Well, we’re both lucky to have jobs where we love doing what we do!
Since you grew up in New York, which has some of the best independent record stores in the world, could you tell me a bit about how those stores influenced your decision to make music yourself, if at all?
I remember the first records I bought, and this was probably before your time… there was a music store here called Crazy Eddie’s. I bought my first records there when I was a kid, and I remember what they were: it was Jimi Hendrix’ Are You Experienced? and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
We do have cool record stores! Rebel… I live near Bleecker Street, so there’s Bleecker Bob’s and Record Runner on Cornelius Street. What’s cool, and unfortunate, is that record stores today are like Fahrenheit 451 – they’re like the last bastions. And some of them have such a tough time holding on, and they’re usually guys who are die-hard music lovers and are not making a lot of money, and are doing it because it’s their way of life.
The great things about record stores – especially back in the day, and I kind of did more of it in California because that’s where I got my start, in San Francisco and in LA – is that they were the conduits. Your guy at the record store was the guy who told you about music. I’m sure it’s hard for young people to imagine today. There was no way to flip on and click a button and get access to this stuff. Fanzines and record stores were the only ways. Fanzines… you had to know about and you got them, basically, at record stores. If those [record store] guys weren’t around, you would have no way of hearing this stuff. It wasn’t on the radio, and you wouldn’t know where to look for it.
That’s why on Record Store Day it’s become tradition for me to play live in some record store, somewhere. I don’t care where it is or how small it is, it’s just to give back and thank these ladies and men who do this. Because the ones who are still surviving they’re, like, passing the torch. A lot of them are being totally squeezed out by high rents. Can you imagine hearing, “Nobody buys records! Nobody buys books!” all the time? What the hell is going on? [Laughs] It’s just point and click and download!
I think there’s a bit of a misnomer because the Baby Boomer crowd is still one of the largest segments in the world. And a lot of them, like me, are like, “Fuck that, man. I want to see it, I want to touch it, I wanna open the book and turn the page, I want to feel it in my hands, I don’t want the download – I want the CD or the album!” We’re more physically-oriented people. And I have nothing against the way the new generation is going – it has to. I mean, I’m not purporting that they should do exactly what I did – that would be insane. They have a whole new take on things. I’m happy I grew up when I did, I’m happy I know what a pencil is, I’m happy I know how to add, I’m happy I know how to spell. But I’m also happy there’s spell-check! [Laughs]
That’s their reality. I don’t understand it totally, but I try to embrace it as much as I can. Obviously as a performer and musician and “businessman”, because I manage myself, I don’t want to be left out of it. I try to keep myself “in it” as much as I can. No matter what happens technologically, the human brain is still gonna be at the source. You’re still gonna need your brain cells to write a song or write a book or make a movie. The creative aspect of art is still gonna be human.
With The English Beat
Oct. 11 – Asheville, NC
Oct. 12 – Falls Church, VA
Oct. 13 – Natick, MA
Oct. 14 – Philadelphia, PA
Oct. 16 – New York City, NY
Oct. 19 – Toronto, Canada
Oct. 20 – Detroit, MI
Oct. 23 – Evanston, IL
Oct. 24 – Pittsburgh, PA
Oct. 26 – Milwaukee, WI
Oct. 27 – Minneapolis, MN
The Paul Collins Beat (only)
Oct. 22 – Grand Rapids, MI
Oct. 25 – Columbus, OH
Oct. 31 – Lafayette, IN
Nov. 1 – Bloomington, IN
Nov. 2 – Atlanta, GA
Nov. 3 – Chattanooga, TN