We spoke to Mikey Collins whilst sheltering from a rainy summer’s day about his new album, new creative processes and subsequent return to the limelight.
While the British summer heatwave had to come to an end at some point it feels more than a little cruel for it to happen over the Indietracks weekend, and to a degree where period deluges occur throughout the weekend. So it is that Mikey Collins and I find ourselves, in late July, sheltering from another climatic battering in a campsite cafe huddled over steaming cups of tea.
He smiles as he notices the Dictaphone on the table in front of him, remarking in his ever-present affable and easy-going style “Ah, I recognise that…” and he’s not wrong, he and it having crossed paths on several occasions during his tenure as Allo Darlin’s drummer. Collins’ stint behind the drumkit for the much-loved and much-missed Anglo-Australian quartet was akin to witnessing his own development on an instrument that wasn’t his usual tool of choice (ruminating on the band’s debut in a 2010 essay, Go-Between – and personal hero of Allo Darlin’s leader Elizabeth Morris – Robert Forster highlighted the quirks of Collins’ playing not from a point of criticism but as a refreshing dose of realism in a world of studio perfection), but prior to that he’d been a songwriter and guitarist in Hexicon. In a way, Hoick acts almost brings things full circle.
The genesis of the record started coming about during the twilight years of Allo Darlin’. Following an initial burst of activity following third (and final) album We Come From The Same Place the band gradually wound down prior to 2016’s eventual final dissolution and grand finales. For Collins, it was the first chance for reflection and to look at new avenues and projects at the end – or near the end – of what had been an intense, if enjoyable journey. “I was the first time there’d been a chance to pause for thought in about seven years, really,” he explains “we’d been touring and then we’d been at work when we got back, so there hadn’t been a lot of time for writing songs or any of that sort of stuff and suddenly when we stopped for a bit I found that songs starting arriving. There was a practice room near where I lived in Ramsgate that was dirt cheap – it was a fiver an hour or something ridiculous – so I just started going in on my own and rehearsing things with just one mic in the room and then listening to what I’d done. It didn’t happen instantly but it had been bubbling away for a while before I started giving serious thought to it.“
As a musician, Collins has been fortunate prior to making this record in that his experiences as both a songwriter and a drummer has allowed him to see the creative process in different ways, and given him an insight into how each musical part can influence a song. It’s something which isn’t lost on him, as he details how his experiences as Allo Darlin’s beat-keeper “really made me think a lot about rhythm and groove where prior to that I’d been thinking about lyrics and connection – all of those elements which focused on projecting outwards rather than things on which to build upon. I think the other thing that’s stuck with me from my time in that band is the positivity of all the people in it. It inspired me and made me want to make a positive-sounding record, whereas in the past I might have erred towards things that were perhaps a bit more reflective.”
“my focus was on my own love of creation”
It would be easy to assume that Collins would be feeling apprehensive about returning to the limelight after spending a considerable amount of time at the rear of stage, but – in part thanks to longtime friends such as former bandmate Paul Rains and Tigercats’ Laura Kovic – he’s instead relishing the challenge. He carefully explains how he feels lucky that Allo Darlin’ afforded him a modicum of success (and a wealth of memories) that has meant that this project has become something of a pressure-free endeavour. For him, it’s a project that comes from a place driven by the fact that “I enjoy the process of being creative, and I wasn’t thinking about the pressure of me being the frontman and instead of looking outwards at that sort of thing my focus was on my own love of creation.”
Hoick (a title which came from the involuntary sound he found himself making while lifting his infant daughter) was made at Collins’ own studio – Big Jelly, located in his current home of Ramsgate. He freely admits it was a decision partly driven by practical fiscal reasons in that it allowed him to make it without being lumbered with the not insignificant expense of having to fork out for another studio,. He’s similarly candid about how the experience wasn’t as easy as it might have looked on paper, explaining the travails of trying to motivate himself to rearrange the studio after a day of capturing someone else’s music, often with tired ears, was a challenge. Nonetheless, he’s ultimately happy with the results.
It’s the same space in which his former bandmate Bill Botting recorded his own solo album, Better Friends, with help from a crack squad of longtime, The Two Drink Minimums. It was a record which would go on to act as Botting’s parting shot to a country he’d called home for 11 years before moving back to his native Australia – Botting made the one-way flight the evening before it was released – and it didn’t go unnoticed by Collins, who describes it as an album “that acted as a reflection of his times as well and almost acts as a memoir for a particular period of his life”. It’s fitting that Collins’ own record has gone a similar way; ‘West Coast’ retraces Allo Darlin’s American adventures, while ‘Something To Lose’ details the thought processes involved in his eventual move from London to the Kent coast. It’s part of a wider thematic arch throughout the record that navigates Collins’ reminiscences of being in a band that he loved, the changes in his personal life and the changing nature of life as we grow older, via curveballs such as describing dealing with tinnitus on ‘Sound In Here’.
But while a lot of the subject matter might be reflective and contemplative, it’s mated to an upbeat musical direction (save for the heartbreaking, plaintive minimalism of closing track ‘Moving On’ – sample lyric “can’t keep a black dog at heel”) that’s reminiscent of the widescreen optimism of a soundtrack to a lost John Hughes film. That positive musical direction was something Collins had decided on early on – “It’s a reflection of how I feel a lot of the time these days, I feel positive and I wanted to let some of that shine through” he says – but he’s also aware that it’s possibly quite anachronistic to be releasing such a bright and upbeat record in today’s wider climate, going on to add that “I know that the world is a waterfall of shit at the moment and it’s hard to know what to do a lot of the time so I acknowledge it’s maybe a strange thing to do at present to make a pop record, but I guess I just wanted to try and shine a ray of light through that.“
Making Hoik and reflecting on its core themes has allowed Collins a chance to remember how lucky he’s been, with him describing the degree to which he continues to feel privbileged to have had the experiences he has both through his time in Allo Darlin’ but also in having his current life on the South coast with his wife and daughter. “Aside from processing or reflecting on things,” he continues “it’s been nice to take charge of a creative process and challenge myself and come up with a record that I’m proud of. That’s never happened to me before and I’d like to use it as a springboard to write more, having now gone through this process.”
“a record will forever be both a snapshot and a product of the time it was written and recorded and the personalities of the people who made it.”
Perhaps noticing the raised eyebrows now facing him across the table at his claim of Hoik being the first record he’s ever felt proud of post-completion, he swiftly explains how he often felt like the weak link in the band which coloured his judgement of the final products. He explains how “ I was too inward looking and I wasn’t looking at the whole and realising that we worked as a group and that it wasn’t about individual skill. I knew all about that deep down but it’s hard to think in those terms when you’re faced with what an amazing guitarist Paul is, or what an incredible performer Bill is, or what an incredible human Elizabeth is. I found myself wondering if I was letting the team down…” He goes on to describe how the band’s own touring schedule also impacted his relationship with their three records, and how his relationship with them “became sitting behind a merch desk with them, not sitting at home listening to them.” He wryly adds that “when I came back from a six week tour the thing I’d not be doing was putting on an Allo Darlin’ record..” and describes how he only ‘got’ 2012 album Europe in the last couple of years, a point that came a full six years after its release. As far as his relationship with Hoik goes, it’s different “ because I’ve listened to it in a far more intensive way while making it and mixing it and so I’ve been able to listen to it all the way through and say that it projects what I want it to.”
Collins has long held – and long vocalised – the view that a record will forever be both a snapshot and a product of the time it was written and recorded and the personalities of the people who made it. As a result it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s not one to dwell on the finished record and compare it with whatever expectations he might have had for it prior to making it. The closest he’ll come to contemplating the ifs and buts of Hoik is when he candidly says that “there are things that maybe I’d go back and change, sure, but as it’s evolving things have moved out of my grasp. Some things have come out better than I thought and maybe some other things have come out slightly worse, but more or less I’m there in terms of what I wanted.”
To emphasise his point he turns to an abstract simile, adding that “I can’t remember which theatre director said that when you embark on a creative project you look around at a 360-degree vista where everything’s possible and there’s a creative beast that’s almost like a boulder. But once you’ve picked a direction and pushed off that boulder, you’re going that way. It might get knocked slightly off course but you’re not getting it back to the top of the hill. Ultimately I pushed that boulder in the desired direction and as a ballpark I’ve ended up where I wanted.”
Collins is unsure what’s coming next. He discloses that he feels he has to work quickly owing to developing arthritis, and plans to tour Hoik properly either later this year or early next. The problem for him is one that doubtless affects musicians of a certain age working at a time when most have to have a day job to support themselves. “As we get older people have careers and families,” he explains “ and those that aren’t are in about a dozen bands, so this idea of being in a band is getting harder for me. I don’t want it to be Mikey Collins, but it has to be Mikey Collins because it has to become a rolling band based on other people’s commitments.”
“I’m in a point in my life where I don’t want to wait”
For the time being, he’s already laying foundations for his next batch of songs, recounting how he’s spending time in his studio with synthesisers to create rough drafts of songs that will be more sonically dense than what appeared on Hoik. In a comment that seems to straddle both his future plans, the constraints afforded the everyone’s modern-world commitment schedule, and his developing limitations he ends our time by admitting that “I’m in a point in my life where I don’t want to wait – I just need to be making and I need to be doing and I’m not in a position to be waiting around on the off chance I find the right band. I’ve got the studio and I’ll keep writing and hopefully there’ll be another record sooner rather than later. “
With that, we talk long after our interview has finished, trying to eke our our cups of tea to avoid having to brave the biblical rain that has hit Derbyshire. While we might have been talking in the midst of some torrid climatic conditions Collins – by accident or by design – has created a sun-drenched soundtrack to 2018’s summer heatwave, and much like the output of his old band Allo Darlin’, Hoik is a record ready and waiting to be fallen in love with.