An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
In the midst of the Punk and New Wave movements of the late ‘70s, Power Pop looked like it was going to take over the world. The guitar-fueled bands that made up the Power Pop scene took their musical cues from The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Badfinger, The Raspberries and many other melodically-inclined bands of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. The songs were short and sweet – usually three minutes and under – and were filled with hooks and harmonies that seemed to come directly from heaven. When The Knack scored major hits with “My Sharona” and their debut album Get The Knack, the gates opened up and all the labels started signing Power Pop bands in the hopes they would become “the next big thing” (or at least “the next big Knack”). Bands like 20/20, The Plimsouls, The Beat and many others were snapped up by these labels, and each of them released some astounding music as the ‘70s came to a close. Like Punk and New Wave only with better songs, Power Pop appealed to longtime music fans who had been searching for the “lost chord” since the mid ‘60s. Even young fans who were frightened by Punk, but not entirely enamored by Synthpop, fell for Power Pop. However, within a year or two, the public’s attention had moved on and Power Pop never achieved massive world domination like it should have. Thankfully, the Power Pop movement didn’t die – it merely went underground where it resides today. There are still new Power Pop bands arriving on the scene every year, much to the excitement of longtime fans who never stopped supporting the scene. Even some of the original Power Pop pioneers are still releasing new music and playing to adoring crowds everywhere they go. Paul Collins, who formerly led The Beat, is one of those artists.
Paul Collins first came to prominence in an L.A.-based trio called The Nerves. This talented trio – Collins, Jack Lee and Peter Case – released an indie seven inch EP that helped kick start the Power Pop movement. One of the EP’s tracks, “Hanging On The Telephone” (written by Lee), was covered by Blondie on their breakthrough album Parallel Lines. By the time Blondie fans figured out who had performed the original version, The Nerves had split up – Lee went solo (then AWOL), Case formed The Plimsouls and Collins put together The Beat. When The Beat’s self-titled debut hit the streets, it was discovered that there was a British band of the same name. Instead of spending years suing each other, the UK band became The English Beat outside of the British Isles, and Paul’s band became known as Paul Collins’ Beat. After two major label albums, Paul took his Beat the independent route and released more records in the U.S., UK, Spain and beyond. Eventually, he retired the Beat name and continued as a solo artist. Still waving the Power Pop flag, Paul has just released one of his finest albums to date with Feel The Noise. The album’s opening title track may be a little crunchier than Collins is known for, but the remainder of the album brings his hook-laden songs back down to earth in an energetic, almost primal way. The album’s melodies leap out on the first listen and are stuck inside your head by the third. There’s just enough reverb and compression to keep the classic Power Pop fans happy and more than enough youthful energy to remind us why he mattered in the first place. The album’s cover features a younger Paul from 30+ years ago, which works just fine since the songs on the album sound like they could have come from those golden years – they are truly timeless. Feel The Noise more than justifies his place in Power Pop history.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee, a self-confessed Power Pop geek, was able to chat with Paul Collins about the new album, his career and music in general…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: How are you feeling about this particular record and have you had any reaction to it so far?
PAUL COLLINS: Basically the only song that we’ve been sending out or that I can play for people is “I Need My Rock N’ Roll,” the song we made the video of, which I’m very happy about. So far, people are saying, “Oh wow, it sounds like it could’ve been on your first album,” which of course for me is a huge compliment. It doesn’t get much better than that.
SPAZ: You’ve continued to make records over the years, but it seems like only recently you’ve embraced the Power Pop scene wholeheartedly again.
PAUL: All the records I’ve made are important, and they’re important for different reasons. Making my previous record, King Of Power Pop, was important because I’d been off the scene. I’d been living in Europe. I finally moved back to America. I was starting to tour again and I needed to put out a record that represented the kind of work I was doing. I’d just began working with these young bands again, thanks to bands I met when I played South By Southwest. After not being here for many years, I became really tuned into the fact that there was this whole underground network of young bands that liked this kind of music, that were influenced by it and looked up to it. I saw it was this whole network of bands, clubs and fans. With King Of Power Pop, it was important for me to make a record that solidified that time, the kind of music I was doing, and the kind of crowd that I was playing to. It was basically connecting the dots from my past and getting a record that was a Rock and Roll, up-tempo, fun record. I’m not a ‘sad song’ writer – that’s not my area. I’m very sensitive to the bands that fit into the Power Pop vibe and the bands that don’t. And the vibe is very youth-oriented. It’s very rough and tumble. It’s not singing in the sense of this musical style. It’s all over the place. It can be kind of Punky hardcore-ish, very sweet Power Poppy, but there’s a definite scene. I think because of The Nerves, they all look at me like I’m some kind of Punk Rock grandfather, which is fine. I have no problem with that.
SPAZ: Was the energy from that scene the inspiration for Feel The Noise?
PAUL: This record was a challenging record because I’d been touring a lot, I had a lot of stress on my vocals, I was smoking and drinking, and I was not singing properly. So this record was recorded several times, and the first time it was aborted because the vocals were just so rough. I finally came to grips with that. I went to a vocal teacher, quit smoking, quit drinking, and I turned myself around. So, it was a physical challenge. I was really up against the wall because I was afraid that maybe I had blown my voice out and that I wouldn’t be able to sing anymore and that my heyday was over. So, I became a healthy man. Personally, that record is a huge accomplishment strictly from the vocal level. The vocals are clean and pure, which is so important. As a singer, it’s a huge thing. Now granted, people don’t go to my music because they think I’m Elvis Presley. They go to my music because they love my songs, but it sucks if the vocals are completely falling apart. And then the second thing was, I start out saying, “Okay, I’m gonna make this Rock and Roll record. The kids want a rockin’ record. Everybody wants a rockin’ record.” But at the end of the day, you start putting it together and you go, “Geez, I’ve got ten shitty Rock songs! Uh oh…this sucks.” There’s nothing worse than ten bad songs. So, at some point in the process, I go, “Okay, let’s stop fooling around here and let’s focus in and let’s get to the heart of the matter.” You need to put together a body of ten to twelve really good songs. Forget whether they’re rockin’ or not. Just concentrate on writing or putting together good music. And that’s what I feel I have accomplished on this record. Now, I’m at the very agonizing time where the record’s done – it’s been done for a while. When I make a record, I listen to it about four million times and then that’s it. Then I won’t listen to it for years. I just get sick of it. I’m already at that stage, so I’m just like waiting to see what the jury has to say. Are people gonna say that I still have the ability to write and sing and put out good songs… or am I an old has been?
SPAZ: The thing that I noticed about this record is that it has a more primitive, raw Rock and Roll feel to it. Was that intentional or is it just organic?
PAUL: Yeah, that’s organic and hopefully the next one will be even more so. I think that’s the most flattering and welcome thing that you said, that it’s getting more primitive because that’s what I’m trying to do. Basically, I think all of us, all of these artists that have been out there for a long time, are all trying to get back to where they started from because that’s when everybody loved them the most.
SPAZ: Did you have a bunch of songs already written for the album when you headed into the studio?
PAUL: Two days before I went to Detroit to record, I sat down with my guitar in my house. And this was after having gone over many definite options for songs. I picked up the guitar and I said, “Alright Collins, you know what the fuck you have to do…now do it!” And that’s what I did. And I just sat there with my guitar pretending like I was singing to a beautiful girl. Basically, with the exception of two songs, that’s what I ultimately recorded.
SPAZ: Today my favorite is “Only Girl.” Yesterday my favorite was “With A Girl Like You.” Two days from now, my favorite will probably be “Little Suzy”…
PAUL: …which features Paul Collins playing drums! That was hysterical because that was the last song of the album. It was really important to me that before we started anything, Jim Diamond (producer) understood it as I understood it, and that we both agreed we had an album – not just like, “Okay, these three songs are great and the rest of them are just okay.” What I did is I tracked the whole album myself before anything happened. Dave Shettler came in and cut the drums and then Jim cut the bass, and then Jim and Eddie Baranek cut the guitar, and then I cut stuff from the vocals. “Little Suzy” was the last song we put drums to. I said, “Look, let me just show you how I think this should go.” The drums were already set up. And so I’m out there pounding away and Dave comes and says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa… keep going!” So I did it.
SPAZ: Now, you have this legacy and you know inevitably every record you release is gonna be compared to the first two Beat albums. You really set the bar high with those… Is that frustrating?
PAUL: I would say especially to the first Beat album. I’m a lucky guy. I did something so good that it can be considered a bar of anything. So, no, it’s not frustrating. It’s healthy.
SPAZ: How do you feel you fit in with today’s Power Pop scene?
PAUL: There are so many bands out there that say, “Oh, I wanna make a record, get on a major label, and be Top 10 in Billboard.” I’ve always thought that way, and it’s never happened. But I think I’ve gotten a much better grip on what I can and can’t do, and I focus on what I can do. I found that what I can do is extremely rewarding and it’s a lot of fun. So that’s where I’m at. And for a guy my age, that’s not a bad place to be. I’m surrounded by young people, so I get their energy. I get their infectiousness. They treat me very nicely. So, I’m not the jaded rock star: “I need champagne in the dressing room.” You’re lucky if there is a dressing room. It keeps it very honest and it keeps it very real.
Thanks to Paul Collins