Aaron Collins on life after MGB and the punk-jazz-blues of A. Tom Collins
Music is not my religion," declares Aaron Collins. "It isn't my fucking life. I have a life. I have a wife that I love more than anything in the whole world...I have friends. I have family...I have a life that I live, and music represents that life. It isn't everything for me. All my music is just fucking fun. It's supposed to be fun. I don't take it seriously. I don't take myself seriously."
Odd words coming from a guy who used to pour so much of himself into his music and performances with Machine Gun Blues that it wasn't unusual to see him pulling shards of glass from his bare feet after shows.
"I don't take music that seriously — not that it's not a huge giant part of who I am in my life," he clarifies. "If all you do is listen to music, though, then you have a problem. Especially as a songwriter, if all you do is listen to music, then you're a shitty fucking songwriter. You need to go out there and you need to get laid, you need to get drunk and you need to make a lot of mistakes, because that's the interesting part of life."
While Collins says he's really happy now in this part of his life, don't expect to hear him singing about flowers and kittens on Oh No!, the six-song debut from his current band, A. Tom Collins. "Songs about fucking shit up really horribly," he says. "Those are the songs I like. I don't like songs about things going well and having a happy ending and everything working out."
Luckily, A. Tom Collins is a band and not a song. Since getting its start nearly two years ago as Collins's post-Machine Gun Blues solo project, things have been going pretty well for the group. Inspired by the fact that Collins didn't want to just be a singer-songwriter with a guitar and didn't want to do something that he had done previously, he started writing songs on the piano, an instrument he'd been playing since he was six years old.
Collins grew up in an evangelical household around lots of classical, sacred and church music. His father made sure that he, his two sisters and brother all studied piano. Collins says he wasn't allowed to listen to rock until he was a teenager, and that's when he started listening to Christian punk bands. "That," he explains, "was the excuse for Christians to go to a show."
After listening to Christian ska/punk band Squad Five-O, he got into NOFX (Collins rates So Long and Thanks for All the Shoes as his favorite album of all time) before moving on to the Clash and eventually Iggy and the Stooges — an outfit that was clearly a huge touchstone for the music and raucous stage show of Collins's last band. To an extent, the influence of Iggy has even crept into his current outfit. After gradually bringing horn players Andy Wild and Robert Cole Sackett, upright bassist Franco Valentino and drummer Alex Hebert into the fold, A. Tom Collins has gotten jazzier, though there's still an underlying punk outlook in the music and the live shows.
"We were calling it punk jazz when we first started, when we were recruiting people," Collins recalls. "It's punk in the sense of...I don't want to say attitude — that sounds too cliché. It's more about the vibe of the song than it is making things perfect."
Collins says if you listen to Oh No! with any one of the members, they'll point out the mistakes. But the songs, which were skillfully recorded and mixed by Wild, have a sense of immediacy.
"The thing that excites me the most about this EP," Collins offers, "is that I think this band has finally hit a stride where we sound like us and we don't sound like someone else. And I've been in a lot of bands that have tried to sound like other people and tried to play it off like they don't. I think that this band — I think it's partly the instrumentation, and that we took a lot of people who are used to playing music out of their comfort zones, and we're writing songs that are of a different instrumentation."
Since Collins added the other musicians, the songwriting process has been more of a collaborative effort. Half of the songs on Oh No! were older ones that Collins used to play solo, while the other songs are new ones the band helped write.
"What changed is that it went from me writing songs to being like, 'Here's my full, completed song,' which was the first group of songs, to now it being a lot more collaborative," Collins notes. "Now I'll bring a piece of a song, and I'll sit down with Al and Franco, and we'll work rhythm stuff out for pieces and then work out horn lines. Everyone chimes in and has their say about what they think works."
While the sound the band has settled on resembles jazz and has even invited comparisons to Dixieland, the references are purely incidental. Collins himself says jazz is not an influence — not that he doesn't like it or doesn't listen. Whatever strains of jazz people are hearing are being filtered through Tom Waits, who, on the other hand, is a huge influence. Explaining the band's overall approach, Collins puts it in a way that Waits would appreciate.
"I want to have a band that if Satan was throwing a cocktail party — like throwing a mixer at his place — we would be the band that played that cocktail party," he enthuses, before clarifying, "Not like a rager, but just like a mixer — like Satan is having some friends over for martinis. That's the kind of band I want to sound like."
If A. Tom Collins is the house band for Satan's mixer, then Machine Gun Blues could have been the house band for El Diablo's rager, no question. In MGB, Collins says, the show was always more important than the music. As the singer for that band, he was one of the most insane and compelling frontmen, perhaps, in the history of local music. But that was MGB's ultimate downfall. Collins became known merely as "that crazy guy from Machine Gun Blues," and he didn't want to be defined as that anymore.
"If you only see a guy two times a month, and the times you see him, he's running around in his underwear, you'd be like, 'That guy's a crazy person,'" Collins says. "And you know what? Sometimes I'm a crazy person. I don't mind being a crazy person. But there's a lot more."
With his new band, Collins is free to move beyond the antics, to establish a new persona. "I don't think Machine Gun Blues allowed me to do that," he muses. "I think if I wrote a ballad in Machine Gun Blues and tried to sing a sweet song in my underwear, it would have been laughable."
Now approaching his thirties, Collins says that while he's not embarrassed about anything he did with MGB, the music is more important now. "It's about putting on a good show," he stresses, "and making something actually musically good. It has a lot more emphasis on it.
"But I still do stupid shit," he concludes. "I still stand on top of my piano."
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