Since his days in the bluesy and boozy punk-rock band Mercy Mercy Me and it’s rambling roots-rock offshoot Say Brother, Mike Collins Jr. has seen and done some things, including pseudo-settling in New Orleans as a full-time musician and trekking across the world on the cheap, banjo in hand. He’s also got a new record, Tryin to Stay Ahead, coming out via Columbia’s own Fork & Spoon Records later this year. Free Times caught up with Collins via email before his Saturday performance at The Whig to get a handle on his increasingly busy life. He also handed over an advance cut from that new record, streaming below.
Free Times: What have you been up to since you left Columbia?
Mike Collins Jr.: I left Columbia for Charleston, my hometown, in December 2011 and moved to San Francisco with my buddy Patrick [Jeffords], who plays with Toro y Moi, in May 2012. I lived there for about seven months, but during that time I was focusing more on radical activism than music. I learned a lot and felt really gratified in what I was doing, but I didn’t really enjoy the city. I went on a couple of trips riding freight trains up and down the West Coast, spent a lot of time in Santa Cruz, and eventually moved to New Orleans when my friend Matt [Bracken] from the band Yes Ma’am came traveling through and convinced me I’d be better off getting back into music and living in the South again.
What: Mike Collins Jr.
Where: The Whig, 1200 Main St.
When: Saturday, June 7, 9 p.m.
More Info: 931-8852
I lived there for eight months or so and got back into music, big time. I started focusing more on my banjo playing and my harmonica playing. A good chunk of the work I got when I first moved to New Orleans was playing cross-style harmonica. During this time I was hardly focusing on my original music and instead trying to learn more about roots/delta blues and early jazz. I started playing on the street regularly accompanying other bands and learned how to make a decent living doing it. I haven’t worked a job since April 2013. My bread and butter comes from playing music on the street.
In May of 2013 I packed up my banjo and suitcase drum and traveled to Europe with just my instruments and $200. Alone, I hitchhiked all over, visiting seven countries altogether — France, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. I made great friends, great money, fell in love with a Czech woman, played a huge street performance festival called Pflasterspektakel, and decided for good to commit to music. I also wrote a lot of new songs for the forthcoming record that is coming out in July.
When I returned from Europe after three months, I kept traveling in New England and French Canada for two more months. Just before Halloween I returned to New Orleans and decided to make it my new home, for real. I have been living there and doing some short trips around the Southeast and Texas, playing music all the way. This summer I will be staying based in New Orleans and going on trips focused around having my music heard! I am in NYC now, busking, heading to Maine tomorrow, going down the coast and back to the Carolinas in time for these shows and a short tour back to New Orleans. When the record comes out I plan on doing a Southeast tour, a Northeast tour, and some dates on the
What made you decide to start gigging under your own name rather than your old Outdoor Protestant Blues Band moniker?
Outdoor Protestant Blues Band was a vague George Carlin reference! I love him, and I liked using the moniker, but it didn’t make any sense. I’m not at all religious, for one, and that was confusing some folks on the street. Also, I don’t have a band! I’m going to go by my name, and if I ever decide to make a record with a band I’ll title it Mike Collins Jr. and the So-and-Sos — ya know, keep it simple.
Although you play original songs, you pay far more than lip service to the sound of old country, folk and blues artists. What draws you to that? Why make this kind of music?
I feel a real connection to this kind of music. I like to think that I am, in some way, keeping alive a tradition of music which I consider to be one of the greatest things the USA, particularly the South, has ever contributed to the world. I love playing banjo, guitar and harmonica. I love singing with a drawl and yodeling. I love writing plain-style songs that common people can relate to, and I like writing about my life experiences and struggles.
That being said, if you ever talk to anyone who actually knows and plays traditional American music — blues, old-time, etc. — they will tell you there is hardly anything traditional about my style and technique. Back in the day, I played loud, fast music on electric instruments and beat the hell out of drums. Those were formative years of my music making, and they’ve stuck with me. I dunno, it’s my music, my story, so I am expressing myself the way I want. That’s what folk music is to me.
You were an integral part of Say Brother and Mercy Mercy Me for a long time. What sort of relationship do you see between your solo material and those bands?
The important thing to understand is that every one of those songs were written by [Say Brother singer Tripp LaFrance]. Tripp, Zach [Morrison] and I were a creative unit for five years, through Mercy Mercy Me and Say Brother. We influenced each other in various ways, and to some extent, crafted the songs together, but at the end of the day, Say Brother is Tripp’s baby. Part of the reason I left (other than having family issues to tend to and a desire to leave South Carolina) is because I was always writing songs, too, that we would never play as a band. I really miss playing with them, but I had to go do my own thing.
Moving back to Columbia?
Sorry folks, New Orleans is home for now. I love it there and have so much opportunity to learn — learn how to be a better musician and learn how to be a professional musician. I’ll be there for a long time. I’ll never forget about ya’ll. As long as you keep coming to shows, I’ll keep playing them for you! Columbia will always have a special place in my heart.