Paul Collins (The Nerves, The Breakaways, The Beat) Talks Archival Releases, Solo Work, Power Pop and More (INTERVIEW)

Paul Collins, founding member of The Nerves, The Breakaways and The Beat, is easily one of the most important architects of the American Power Pop genre. And yet, mainstream success was always just outside of reach. Along with Jack Lee and Peter Case, he helped bridge the LA punk and pop scene in the mid-to-late ‘70s before sputtering out with just an EP to their name. The Breakaways, with Collins, Case and a few others, was just as ill-fated. But it was with The Beat, eventually re-christen Paul Collins’ Beat to avoid confusion with the British Ska band, that became his most prolific vehicle.

As a solo artist, Collins has continued to release music, most recently just two years ago with the addictively catchy Out Of My Head. But Another World: The Best of The Archives, finds Collins digging in his past, pulling together 18 previously unreleased tracks from his personal collection of tapes that go back to 1978. Coincidentally, the album is coming out around the same time that HoZac Books is releasing his memoir, I Don’t Fit In: My Wild Ride Through The Punk & Power Pop Trenches with the Nerves & The Beat. 

Collins spoke with Glide recently about both releases, his worries about alienating old band members and discovering that people actually give a shit about Power Pop music. 

Did you always plan for the book and Another World to come out around the same time?

It’s pure coincidence that the book and this record came out around the same time. The book was started really quite some time ago and you know how these projects are; unfortunately they are not time sensitive, so they do their own thing and take some time. They stop and stall at times. The way the record came about was a whole different process. But they both have a lot to do with my archive collection that I’ve been carting around for 40 years – since The Nerves. I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles to New York to France to Spain, back to California, back to Spain back to New York and I’ve been holding onto this, what became a quite sizable archival collection, maybe 8 to 10 shoe boxes of cassettes. I live in a New York apartment and as anyone in New York will tell you, you need to downsize. 

I had to do something with all these boxes. I don’t have a cassette player and I couldn’t bear to throw cassettes that had The Nerve scrawled on the front of it. So, a couple years ago I started seeing advertisements for this thing that looks like a cassette player you plug it into your computer, and it will digitize this music into files. I’m a lazy person, but I said to myself, this I’ve gotta do. So, it took me about two years to go through the entire collection on and off. I would listen to each cassette as I transferred it from start to finish and I annotated it, which is the one smart thing I did from day one. I kept a running log of each cassette and each song that was on it and I highlighted the songs that were either unreleased new versions or had something special to them. And when I was done, I was looking at the computer and it had 156 hours of music and I said to myself, “What the hell am I gonna do with this? I’m going to do what I always wanted to do and make a record out of this.” It took me about 3 or 4 hours to cut and paste the music and that’s Another World. I sent it to my really good friend Justin Perkins who mastered it and ask him what he thought. he said it was awesome.

My original plan was to put it out myself because I didn’t know if Patrick (Boissel, founder of Alive Naturalsound Records) would be interested in it because of the nature of what it was. But he said, “Wow this is awesome,” so there we go. 

I’m surprised you didn’t think he would be interested in it 

To be honest, this is one of my all-time favorite records now. To me, every song is a winner and every song has the magic in the grooves. My first album is a very special album and it always will be, but other records, there’s good stuff there’s stuff that didn’t come out as good as you’d hoped it would. This one is filled with all the versions you’d hope the songs would have sounded like. For me it’s just so enjoyable. 

When you first went back and started listening to these songs did you remember all of these or were there some songs you had forgotten about? 

“No Faith And No Religion” I barely remembered. When I heard it again, I thought, “Wow this is great.” I hardly remembered “Let Me Into Your Life”. And “Another World” really almost brought tears to my eyes, because that is one of my all-time favorite songs and the officially recorded version doesn’t even come close to capturing the magic. This version has with my wife singing background and my brother playing on it. You could give me 50 grand and say, “Go play this song in the studio” and I got my choice of any musicians and it still wouldn’t sound like this. It’s just that special moment in time, the saturation of the tape, everything.   

Obviously Covid screwed up everyone’s plans, but did you initially plan on taking these songs out on the road when the record came out? 

I had a plan to do a combination book/record tour and maybe do a small solo acoustic tour of record stores, bookstores and small clubs. Just logistically speaking, I wasn’t thinking about doing a full band tour. It’s so hard to make those numbers work. It’s difficult. 

Have you been able to perform at all during the shutdowns? 

I’ve done about 10 or 15 online shows, which I loved doing at the very beginning, when the world was just really scared to death and everybody was just staying at home and not going out at all. I started by doing a couple of songs and then I graduated into doing a full 30-minute show. I would do it every Sunday, first on Facebook and then I go and do the same show again on Instagram. 

How was that? Was it weird not having the instant gratification from the audience? 

I enjoyed it. First of all, everyone was scared out of their mind and it was a horrible time. So that was the highlight of the week, to get ready for the show and to get the setlist together and promote it and then play it live. My fans seemed to love it and it was gratifying to get that connection and feedback from the comments. I didn’t really feel comfortable asking for money at the beginning. The quality on Facebook is iffy at best. On the last show I decided to put up a tip jar and my fans responded kindly. 

With the album coming out have you thought about reviving the shows and playing all these songs live? 

You know, I want people to buy the record. There’s no way I could do these songs live. To tell you the truth I want people to sit down and listen to the record while they’re reading the book. That to me would be awesome. I’m almost more interested in doing an audiobook with the book.

So that’s a good transition, let’s talk about the book, I Don’t Fit In. How difficult did you find the process of writing a book?

I always thought “How hard can it be?” I can write a pop song so why can’t I write a book. I found the process is not similar at all. It’s a completely different discipline and there were so many times in the course of writing this that I thought “Who the hell wants to read this shit?” You go over the process so many times and read the same things over and over again that you’re bored of it any realize what you’re up against. I would reference stuff and think “Oh God, that’s real writing, that’s what I’m up against.” It looks easy, but it’s not. I can’t take all the credit for it, Chuck Noland (co-author) helped me out a lot with this one. the genesis of the book comes from one madcap week in Madrid.

How long ago was that? 

That was maybe, 2006. And then it just kind of laid around, I tried to get it published and no one was interested. This was before Patti Smith’s book came out and before a bunch of other music books came out. The publishers would say “Music books are really tough to sell, even by people who are really famous.” One thing led to another, and I knew Todd (Novak, founder of HoZac Books) and I asked him if he was interested in seeing the first draft of the book. He said, “This is awesome. How would you feel about working with this guy I work with, Chuck Noland, and putting this manuscript into shape?” And that took about a year and a half, because Chuck had a regular job and life gets in the way and we would get bogged down and then we’d get back on track and then finally we got it done. 

It really hit me when I saw the finished copy and I saw the photos that were in it. The reaction has been good so far and people have said the things I wanted them to say about my book. This is sort of like my definitive coffee table book. It’s got everything in there, every song I ever worked on every band I was in, the pictures, the flyers, the whole nine yards. It’s a great souvenir for me to have.

Were there ever any parts of the book where you thought, I shouldn’t put this in, this will piss someone off? I think you even joke in the book, please don’t sue me. 

Yeah, I wanted to be careful not to say anything really mean or nasty about somebody that would make them feel bad. But I think the most prominent person in the book is Jack Lee, and he could take issue with one or two of the things in there. I think we have that love/hate kind of relationship and as good as he was for me, he was also bad. Parts of it were just horrific. It’s one of those relationships where you learn a lot, but it’s not always good. 

I had to go back and reread the section where you talk about the two of you trying to make a movie about the band. And was thinking to myself, this is crazy this couldn’t possibly have happened. 

Yeah and that’s only a light version of what happened. I come from the school of, if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it. I wasn’t going to write about that. But Chuck Nolan said “Come on man, you have to put that in there. Don’t fuck with me, this is going in the book.” 

I’m also glad you put in a chapter about that ill-fated tour you had with Peter Case in 2012. There were a lot of conflicting stories about why it ended early. Do you know if either Peter or Jack have read the book? 

I do know that Jack Lee’s daughter bought a copy of the book. I’m friends with her. When you’re writing the book you kind of think of yourself as this tough guy and then I got my certain amount of copies and I put it up on Facebook that I’m selling autographed copies. And then, oh shit, I get an order from Jack Lee’s daughter. What are they gonna say? This is going to be a nightmare. And then Peter got a free copy from Todd. So, they both have it. 

You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. I didn’t say anything really derogatory about anybody in that book and I was careful not to mention certain names just because they have children and husbands or whatever. I only named someone when it wouldn’t matter one way or another. All in all, I’m very happy with the whole thing. It’s entertainment that makes you laugh, makes you cry and gives you a tickle then it’s all good. And also, some of my fans have said this is answered a lot of questions, so that’s cool.   

One of the things I found fascinating about the book, you talk about when you first got a computer, I think it was the late 90s or early 2000s, and you went online and that’s when you realized that Power Pop was something that people really cared about. 

Yeah that was a real revelation. Bandcamp was one of the first thing that really coalesced music fans worldwide. What I liked about Bandcamp is that it was specifically for bands and then every band would put their picture up and list their three influences. I would see Heavy Metal, Blues and then I kept seeing Power Pop. These fucking kids are influenced by Power Pop? I thought no one in the world was interested in this music. But once you put an online store up, people start buying records from New Zealand and France and you realize wow this really is a thing. There’s a lot of people out there that really dig this shit. I think the Internet really revolutionized this cottage industry in connected people in so many ways. The offshoot was all these disconnected groups and artists and businesses we’re connected all around the world. 

Have you started working on any new music? 

No. Everything kind of happened at the same time, the pandemic, the book, this archive record. The book and the archive record really feel like a nice closure. I don’t know to what, but it feels like a closure. OK, now let’s do something new; let’s not keep doing what we’ve done before. Now. I’ve been working on a few things. I found a piano, so I’ve got that in my apartment now. I haven’t had a piano where I live since I was a kid and that completely changes things for me. I’m really happy with the book and I’m really happy with the record, and I feel like my previous body of work is complete now. 

Photo courtesy of Alive Naturalsound Records

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