Paul Collins Addresses the "Killer Inside" Ahead of New Album, 'Out of My Head' (premiere + interview)
Power pop master Paul Collins finds a new creative foil for masterful collection that celebrates his signature sound while sounding thoroughly contemporary.
Paul Collins returns with Out of My Head, a predictably impactful collection of songs cut from the power pop cloth Collins has been working with since the late 1970s. As a member of the Nerves, he was one-third of a magnificent outfit that also housed Jack Lee and Peter Case, themselves among pop songwriting's elite. Launching his solo career in 1979, Collins has gone on to release a series of memorable recordings under the name Paul Collins or, sometimes, Paul Collins' Beat.
For his latest, he plays all the drums, most of the guitars and, of course, sings. He is joined by fellow writer and musician, Paul Stingo throughout. Additionally, Stingo wrote a number of tracks which wound up on the record, which serves as a masterclass in the art of the catchy, to-the-point, affecting pop song. Out of My Head arrives on limited edition vinyl, CD, digital and streaming formats on 28 September via Alive Naturalsound Records. (Find out more about purchasing the album, including the limited edition vinyl.)
Collins has also just issued a new video for "Killer Inside", culled from Out of My Head. With a perfectly melodic bassline, ace drum cracks and a lyric that's unforgettable, the tune is a perfect precursor to a record that seems destined to go down as one of Collins' best.
Collins' will also release his memoirs in early 2019.
Collins recently spoke to PopMatters about songwriting, collaboration and the painful moments when songs seem in short supply.
When did you know you were going to make this record?
A friend of mine, Tony Leventhal, built his own studio, a really high-end one. He said, "I need somebody to figure out how to use this stuff. Do you want to do it?" I said yes.
What happened from there?
I like working with at least one musical partner who I can bounce Ideas off. That's why the relationship between me and Steve Huff back in the early days was so great. I had a foil who could take an idea of mine and add to it so that the two things together are better than the one idea by itself. With Jack Lee and Peter Case in the Nerves, I was really more of a student of theirs. They really knew what they were doing. I was just there to learn. By the time I worked with Steve I was a better writer, but if I couldn't get something past him, I figured it wasn't good enough. He kept me honest.
It had been a long time since I found somebody I could work with in that way where I was comfortable enough and trusted their musical taste enough to put myself on the line with them. Then I met Paul Stingo. I was initially working with him at a time when I was working with a lot of different musicians. I was touring a lot, and the first job at hand for anyone coming into the band was to learn all my material. That wasn't a creative process. That was just copying what had been done.
I wanted to work with somebody and be able to say to them, "Here's a new song. There are no parts written for this. What're we going to do?" That's usually where things would fall apart. I was really looking for someone who had the same kind of creative influences I did and who could come up with parts. The songs I play really depend on cool parts.
Paul writes songs as well.
I was trepidatious about that because I'm so picky. I wasn't going to do a song just out of obligation. When he presented me with his songs, it took me a minute to digest them, but I said, "Wow, this is really good stuff." From there, we'd get together, weed out the songs that weren't up to snuff. We want to end up with 10-12 really good songs. They can all be ballads. Twelve great ballads are better than 12 lousy rockers.
Is there something on the record that you think best spotlights your working relationship?
The last track, "Beautiful Eyes", which is a song that's been kicking around since the '90s. It was written by a friend of my family, Neal Grossman, who was a poet. I've done a few things where he supplied the lyrics, and I wrote the music. When Paul and I recorded it we put strings on it; we put other guitars on it, we really layered things. Then we'd go to mix it, and I'd think, "There's something wrong. It's too big, too pretentious." In the end, I said, "Just put up the guitar, the bass and the vocal." What you don't use is almost as important as what you do use.
You have a considerable body of work behind you at this point. How careful are you about not repeating yourself?
I don't have a formula. I only know how to write a good song. That's a very elusive thing. Sometimes, when I sit down with a guitar, my fingers will feel like baseball mitts. I wind up saying, "I've written tons of songs, but I don't know anything I can play." If I had a formula it would be way too tempting to knock out "Rock 'N Roll Girl" and "Don't Wait Up" ad infinitum. Or ad nauseum. Those are great songs but impossible for me to duplicate. I still work with the same five, seven, eight chords that I've worked with since I first started learning how to play. The combinations are endless, the melodies you can put on top of them are endless, the quest of writing a great song is so alluring to me and so great and so satisfying.
You can get into a zone where you think everything you do is genius. Eventually, you have to step back and say, "About 90 percent of that stuff stinks." That's the hardest thing for me to do, which is why I like having a collaborator.
Do you go through things on a micro level?
It's the hardest thing for people I work with and people I live with when I'm going at it. I go over every detail while I'm making a record. When I'm done, I don't listen to it for a long time. It'll take a couple of years to listen to it and go, "Wow! It's great!" I can listen to Feel The Noise now. When it came out it was painful to listen to so I put it away. We're playing the song "Only Girl" from that record in the live show now, and when I hear it, I think, "Wow! This is even better than I thought it was!"
"Go," on the new record, is a great example of this. Not many people can sit down and write a minute-and-a-half balls-to-the-wall rocker with three chords like that. It's tricky. I compare myself to other songwriters all the time. Sometimes I feel like I come up short, sometimes I feel like I can hold my own.
You must go through periods where you don't have songs coming. You know they'll be back, but you're not sure when.
That period is torture. That period is, "I'm done. I'm spent. I'm washed up." If you think you know the difference between a good and a bad song there's nothing worse than writing a bad song. [Laughs.] I never know where or when the next song is coming from. I always have my antenna up.
I joke about a place called the Island of Misfit Lines. Sometimes I wake up with things in my head, and they go in a notebook or into a computer file, and they wait and wait for the right home. Sometimes they never find it.
I have bits like that. When I get together now with Paul, I haul them all out and say, "What do you think we could do with this? What do you think about that?" Sometimes stuff happens, and sometimes it doesn't. I think the thing you really have to do is not kid yourself, to say something's really good when you know it isn't. At the end of the day, you want to say, "I did it good. I did it as good as the people who inspired me to do what I do." That's something I learned from working with Jack Lee. You couldn't put the bar high enough for that guy. Good was what you threw out.
Can you talk about the importance of interacting with your peers?
If you can surround yourself with people who are better than you, you're going to come out a winner. There's nothing worse than thinking, "I've got nothing to learn. No one can show me anything." In my current situation, I'm in a great position. I never thought I could handle or even pull off lead guitar and now in this quartet, I found out I could. I'm practicing every day. I have to be up to speed to pull it off. But it's also not whether you're better or worse, it's what's the good fit for what you're doing?