In the mid-'80s, Collins founded the Gories, universally acknowledged as the godfathers of the latter-day Detroit garage scene. Raw, primitive rock, delivered by largely inexperienced musicians, the Gories' tough, ugly sound wasn't much appreciated during their time.
"There was a local magazine that made up a category -- 'Worst Band in Town' -- for their annual music awards and gave it to us two years in a row," Collins says, sitting in Detroit's Cass Café. "No one ever liked us. Plenty of people thought it was a gag."
Collins had never played guitar, and drummer Margaret Ann O'Neill couldn't play her instrument either. In fact, the only reason Collins ended up playing lead instead of bass was because the other guitarist, Dan Kroha, "stank on solos."
"I, for whatever reason, have a really good single-note style, but can't play chords to save my soul," says Collins. "So he played the chords, and I did all the single-note runs. Between the two of us, we made one guitar player."
Few mourned when the band broke up -- least of all Collins, who started putting together his next band, the Dirtbombs, while still on tour with the Gories. But the Gories' legend grew as more musicians began to cite them as an inspiration, particularly in Detroit. When NME anointed Jack White rock-and-roll savior, the town changed overnight.
"We went off on tour, came back, and everyone wanted to be in the hot tub with Kid Rock," he recalls. "We're like, what the fuck happened? Who are these people? People were doing label showcases for Sire. There were A&R guys from Universal prowling all the bars. It was absolutely ludicrous."
They were looking for garage-rock bands, something Collins claims he "stopped making in '92." While the Dirtbombs get loud and sweaty with the best of them, they're a lot more melodic and punchy than the standard distortion-drenched, riff-driven garage rock. Blending punk, glam, mod, and acid rock into a boisterous sing-along racket, they sound like a half-in-the-bag bar band letting it all hang out. USA Today called them "possibly America's best live band." But in today's MTV-driven industry, musical dexterity often isn't enough.
"People in town would say to label execs, 'Go see this band, go see this band, and if the Dirtbombs are playing, don't miss them, because they're amazing,'" Collins says. "They'd come, take one look at us, and go, 'Oh, no. We can't sell that to 14-year-old white girls.'"
The hype passed almost as quickly as it started, leaving a lot of disappointed would-be rockers. Collins wasn't among them.
"I laughed at all those yutzes," he says. "The hangover -- for the people that had it -- was probably pretty intense, but there were a large number of people in Detroit who did not care. Just because NME isn't paying us attention doesn't make one bit of difference. It's the same place it always was, we didn't care when they were here, and we don't care now that they're gone."
That no-bullshit attitude infuses everything Collins does. But don't mistake that for not caring. Collins can be surprisingly obsessive in approaching his craft. The Dirtbombs first came to life on a notebook page, where Collins went so far as to sketch out a rough idea of what the first five singles would sound like. "If I could find the notebook, I'd post it on the internet," he jokes.
Featuring dueling drummers and bassists, with Collins as the lone guitarist, the Dirtbombs underwent "three different entire lineup changes" before settling on a consistent crew. The booming rhythm section ensures that the 'Bombs live up to their name, and Collins' smooth, versatile vocals help guide the payload. With the gritty crush of tracks like "Don't Break My Heart" -- which sounds like Screaming Jay Hawkins on the end of a cruise missile -- it's understandable that Collins has a hard time escaping the "garage rock" tag.
And when he's not trying to live down his connection with the White Stripes, Collins struggles with other misperceptions, some harking back to 2001's Ultraglide in Black, which featured covers by artists such as Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield.
"If I had a time machine, I would put my foot down on Ultraglide. I actually would not have done it. It's been a big albatross," Collins says. "Everybody thinks we're a garage-rock band and/or a soul cover band. So when we get up onstage and we sound like Slade, people get a little mad."
Yet part of the Dirtbombs' allure is that the audience never knows what it's going to get. A recent performance in St. Louis featured, of all things, an impromptu cover of New Order's "Blue Monday."
"Some nights we're really loud, and some nights we're Sonic Youth," Collins jokes. "We used to get up onstage and just fuck off for an hour. Try as we might, there would still be seven people in the audience."
Collins says that he's thankful to be in such a great live band, bluntly acknowledging that selling your music is a dying game. He jokes that one day soon, bands will go on tour not with a new album, but new T-shirt designs and branded merchandise.
"Twenty years ago, you went on tour to support the record; now you put out records to support the tour," Collins says. "We probably make more on merch than we do on anything else. Our T-shirts sell better than our CDs."
Still, Collins believes that the changes in the music industry will benefit musicians with a blue-collar work ethic.
"As long as you're willing to put the hours in on the road, you will profit now," he says. "[But] if you've been basing your whole gig on cutting a great record and then making a gazillion dollars through your fantastic production, you are fucked. Because now you gotta get it on the stage, and if you suck live, everybody's going to know -- and they're going to text all their friends."