Paul Collins,
The 2017 TVD Interview

Judging by his recent activities, an unending stream of tour dates in particular, one would be forgiven for mistaking a certain Paul Collins’ song for reality. By any reasonable measure, the resident King of Power Pop is working as hard and often as ever.

As a member of seminal rock and roll trio the Nerves, Collins, along with bandmates Peter Case and Jack Lee, devised a framework for future acts with tastes for both tireless guitar work and compelling melodies to follow, and the resulting magnetism has held sway over acts as disparate and unlikely as Blondie and Def Leppard. More precisely, it led to power pop, and with power pop came the Beat.

Compared to the lean swagger of Nerves’ compositions, perhaps the most prominent example being Collins’ own “Working Too Hard,” his work with the Beat more closely resembles ’60s British Invasion rock at its most ecstatic, merged with hooks that just won’t quit. Equal parts sparse and unswerving, the accompanying lyrics captured the intoxicating highs and discouraging lows of teenage romance in a manner similar to the Beach Boys in their straight-ahead pop days. Songs like “Don’t Wait Up For Me” and “Rock N Roll Girl” are nothing short of quintessential in the grand, if still rather unheralded, canon of power pop.

These days, whether it be a new live record which he pressed himself or the recently announced Go West California Tour, Collins is still going wherever the wind(s), not least of which being the Beat Army and all its young denizens, takes him (e.g. a weekend of short-notice gigs in Spain just hours following our chat).

So it’s back to California for you. How long has it been?

It’s been about two years but let me backtrack a second. I’ve been doing this thing forever, and when I moved back to the States, I started out regionally doing DIY tours and basically what I did was I would hook up with a band and we would travel together like a band that wanted to tour. They’d have the transportation and we would all go together, and it was really cool. I was always working with young, up-and-coming bands, and it was a win-win situation. It was great for them and it was great for me, and I got to watch them grow out on the road. There’s nothing like touring to turn a band into a band.

The first time I did it was when I met this band from Atlanta called Gentleman Jesse and His Men at SXSW. This was back in 2008. So I ran into Jesse at SXSW, and I was playing with my Spanish band at the time. He came up to me and said, “Listen, man, if you ever want to tour in America, we’re your band.” I eventually took them up on it and that was my first DIY tour back in the States after living abroad for many years. And he just opened my eyes. We did a massive tour. It was hugely successful. We sold out a bunch of shows so the money was really good, and it was all handshake deals, y’know, the whole DIY thing. So I saw it firsthand and said, “Alright, this is the way I want to go.”

When I moved back to the States in 2008 to New York, I started touring like that and became a master at it. I started doing regional tours of the Midwest, the South, the West Coast, the East Coast, and then I said, “Hell, I’m just gonna connect the dots.” Then, I went from booking regional tours to national tours, and we would go out for three or four weeks and tour the entire country. We’d hook up with all these different bands, and it was really fun. It was also my way of reconnecting with my audience, and the audience now for what I do is a lot of young kids who are second and third generation power pop fans. Every now and then I would do bigger shows and I saw how the real rock and roll experience is at the club. That’s the real rock and roll experience. You can’t get it anywhere else.

Nope.

I mean sure, everybody wants to play stadiums and all that shit, or big shows where you have to remain seated and there’s security all over the place, where you can’t do this and you can’t do that. If you want that in-your-face, inside-the-sound, the fans and the bands totally together, the club is the only place to do it. So I got really into that and the whole trick about living, touring, and being a DIY person, it’s all about keeping your overhead down. If you keep that down, then you’re fine. You can do it, and we became experts at that. We hardly ever brought our own backline. We didn’t do any of the things that make touring so expensive. We wound up having a network of friends across the country with whom we could stay when we toured. So our tours became like going out and visiting family, and playing gigs.

That’s the backstory to what I’m doing now. I had a band in Milwaukie that I worked with for a number of years, a band in Spain. I think I had around four bands at one time, in Spain, the Midwest, New York, and even in Australia.

Wow.

And that was all cool but I started going, “I don’t know.” Bands are problematic. It’s three other people, their personalities, what everybody wants, and being responsible for them as the bandleader. You go on the road and you’re responsible for the lives of three other people. You gotta make sure they get home safe.

About three years ago, I did one tour in Europe with this young Irish band and it was great. Then I decided to go to Europe with an American band because that’s what people want to see. They want to see me play my music with American musicians. So I did that with a band from New Jersey called Low Doses, and it had pretty similar results to the previous tour with the Irish band. I realized that it didn’t really matter what I did or who I did it with to a certain extent. There was a ceiling to what was going to happen.

On that last tour, I kept all the contacts. Usually the tours in Europe were done by agents, but last time out I took real careful notes. So this past year, I said, “I’m just going to do all this myself.” A solo acoustic tour to Europe, which I had done in different parts of my career. There was one point when I was living in Spain where I did two or three years of just solo work, but only in Spain where I had a really good following. So I decided to do this. I reached out to all the club owners and, basically, the money just wasn’t there. You get these gigs for five hundred bucks to bring a band from America? With the logistic overhead that’s involved, it’s crazy. Most of the revenue we generated from our last tour ended up going to airline tickets, bands, drivers, gas, tolls, the whole nine yards.

That’s a tricky proposition to say the least.

So I decided I was just gonna go out and see what happens. Long story short, I did the tour by myself. Thirty-one in thirty-one cities in eight countries. I did the whole thing pretty much by train, and it was incredible. It had one of the best turnouts and the shows went great. What I didn’t want to do was just go out there and bang out my songs. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, so I decided to do what I had never done before: tell the stories behind the songs. Then, it turned into a real show. What really blew my mind was, when I started to do the shows, I didn’t know what was going to happen. My first five shows were in France. Some people spoke English, some people didn’t. But what happened was, the stories drew people into the music, people who had no idea what power pop was, so I saw it as a vehicle. I’d tell the story behind “I Don’t Fit In” and then play the song. That was a real turning point for me.

When I got home to the states, I did a few shows like that to the same effect and same result. I’d just show up to a bar in the Catskills where people couldn’t give a flying whatever about this guy Paul Collins, but I did it and they got into it. So now, that’s what I do.

I have a record I’m releasing of a live show that I did in London. After about the sixth or seventh show, I did a radio broadcast for this guy in Harlow, and they recorded it. When they sent me the copy, I listened to it, and it was the whole shebang. It was one of those lucky nights where the playing was great, the singing was great, and I didn’t make any mistakes, so I’m releasing it.

When it comes to these younger bands, not all the ones involved in the Beat Army are necessarily power pop, are they?

Y’know the Beat Army was a way to kind of make a page that was open to everybody, other bands and other artists, so it wasn’t just me promoting myself. After awhile, it gets old hustling your own shit. You get tired of it. And that’s also when I started touring with younger bands. It was really nice to start developing a reputation as someone who endorses a younger generation of musicians and is passing the torch, which had been done to me. When I was a younger musician, I got a lot of great stuff from older musicians who were generous with their time, talent, and advice. I wanted to be known for that. I took many, many leaps of faith with these guys, and they got it. I found out that, more often than not, if you give people a chance and believe in them, then they’ll rise to the occasion.

Another thing—what I personally think about someone else’s music is irrelevant. I don’t buy a lot of records and I don’t want to be a tastemaker. Their success or lack thereof is something that will happen on its own. I don’t need to get involved on that level. The thing I do like about getting involved is just encouraging them to follow their dreams, and the rest takes care of itself.

On the subject of power pop, I know you weren’t entirely on board with the label for a time, but when did you start to embrace it?

Basically when I started working again in the mid-2000s. Initially, it worked against all those bands. It kept us off the radio. Back in ’79 and ’80, if you were a power pop band, radio was not going to play you. Period. They barely played new wave, they didn’t play punk, and the programmers were not into power pop. In the beginning, it was almost like a nerdy label, “Oh, you play power pop? It’s kinda wimpy.” People thought it wasn’t heavy enough, and we were like, “Screw you.” There was nothing wimpy or nerdy about the Nerves. We were a balls-to-the-wall rock and roll band, but it definitely had an aesthetic that involved pop.

Y’know, all this stuff about Pete Townshend being the originator of the term—I don’t care where that word came from. Nobody called the Raspberries power pop back in the day, nor did they call The Beatles or The Who power pop. They were rock and roll bands. It was a term that somehow came into the collective consciousness mainly through journalists and it was applied to bands like the Beat, 20/20, and the Pez Band. The Knack was a rock and roll band that sold three million records. Nobody was going, “Oh the Knack, they’re a great power pop band.” The power pop community did, but no one knew what the power pop community thought because it was so marginalized.

I was in the elevator of my building today and I was wearing one of these t-shirts from a guy called the Ice Man who has a power pop radio show in Sweden. A person in the elevator read the words “power pop” on it and asked me what it meant. Now, this guy isn’t out of the loop. We live in an artists community. But he just didn’t know what it meant, and millions of people have never heard of power pop. People who know what rock and roll is, what punk is, what this or that is, they don’t know what power pop is, either.

And now there’s the issue of over-applying the term.

Sometimes you’ll get the Ramones thrown in as power pop, but when I heard the Ramones, power pop was the last thing on my mind. Also, saying the Ramones are or are not power pop doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not you like the band. To me, they were a punk rock band and they’ll always be a punk rock band, just as I’ll never think of the Beach Boys as a power pop band. Everybody who writes and loves power pop music loves the Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks, and The Who, but I wouldn’t call any of those bands power pop because they predated the term. The Renaissance is the Renaissance. You don’t call something from a different era a Renaissance painting even if it was influenced by it, because the Renaissance was a specific place in time.

People do the exact same thing with the New York Dolls by calling them a punk band.

They weren’t a punk band. I remember when Cheap Trick came out and their manager, Ken Adamany, was like a powerhouse record company type. They were not pushing power pop. Cheap Trick was trying to make it as a rock and roll band in a very difficult, competitive business because the American rock radio/record biz back in the ’70s was brutal. It was a cutthroat business. There was payola. There were mafia people involved. It was dog-eat-dog, claw-your-way-up. Power pop? Gimme a break! They would’ve shot you in the head.

Most power pop bands never got anywhere in the business, so it became a nice thing to collectively talk about bands like 20/20 and the Beat. We all got major label deals, and we all went nowhere. No one could sell. The only bands that did were the Romantics and the Knack, and they weren’t selling on power pop. They had hits. “What I Like About You” was a stone-cold, smash hit single that was played on rock radio. Later on, people said, “Oh, well the Romantics were kind of a power pop group,” but that’s not where their success came from. With 20/20, the Beat, the Plimsouls—well, I’m not even sure about them since Peter Case had such an R&B thrust to what he was doing, but they did have “A Million Miles Away” and that had success because it was in that movie. But, it wasn’t on the level of “My Sharona” or “What I Like About You.” If you’re getting the publishing on either of those, you could probably afford to not do anything else.

Jack Lee made millions off “Hanging on the Telephone,” but nobody really talks about Blondie’s version of it as being a power pop song. Power pop is just a very nice word for a subgenre group of people who hold this kind of music near and dear to their hearts. They all say to themselves, “Why isn’t it bigger? Why isn’t that song #1?” We all say the same thing. I don’t know, it just isn’t.

So you asked me when I started to embrace it, and I started to in the 2000s when I could go out and make a living because I was a part of power pop. The reason why I’m into power pop now is this new generation of kids because they are into power pop and have brought it forward into the present, and it’s more popular now than it was back in the day.

Collins kicks off his California tour on October 18th, with stops ranging from Sacramento all the way down to San Diego. Keep a close watch on his official website for news regarding dates as well as Collins’ latest, self-pressed live record.

Paul Collins Official | Facebook | Twitter

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