Monday night at the Mill's weekly open-mic session, Mike Collins held a miniature revival of old-time mountain music with his one-man act, Outdoor Protestant Blues Band. Seated on a suitcase with a kick pedal and tambourine at his feet, he strummed and claw-hammered his way through a captivating set of banjo tunes, moaning like some train-hopping troubadour.
Afterward, when I complimented Collins on his songs, he said thank you, reached into his pocket, and handed me a CD-R in a paper sleeve with a Xeroxed image of a swamp scene on the front. Inexplicably, there was candle wax stuck to the cover. The next morning on the way into work, I played his album Knee Deep In Dirt (also available as a pay-what-you-want download on Bandcamp) and realized something I hadn't the night before: This is punk. In these obstinately DIY tracks — done in a single take on a friend's field recorder — I heard echoes of Columbia psychobilly legend Hick'ry Hawkins. Only in place of Hawkins' raunch and comedy, there were sober takes on God, alcohol, and earthly consequences.
The Outdoor Protestant Blues Band will play a set this Thursday at Tin Roof with Rachel Kate Gillon, Johnnie Matthews (of Elim Bolt), and Scott Dence. The show starts at 10, and the $5 cover charge will go toward the Girls Rock Charleston summer camp.
City Paper: What are the pros and cons of the one-man-band setup?
Mike Collins: Overall, I am really loving the one-man-band setup. The pros are mainly in the logistics of it all. Packing, moving, and setting up for shows is a breeze. When I am doing a banjo-only or guitar-only set, I can carry everything I need in one go. When I am travelling, I can carry everything I need to live and play a set at once. It's awesome. Booking shows and travelling is a whole lot easier too, not having to worry about 4 other people's schedules before confirming. I am also really enjoying having 100 percent creative control over a project.
The cons are obvious, to me at least. While banjos are loud and commanding instruments, they leave a lot of room for fleshing out the sound of the songs. I go back and forth on my feelings about that. I do tend to like bare-bones, ratty-sounding stuff, but sometimes I really miss that bottom end. If I brought on someone to play with me, it would be a bass player. I also like harmonizing, and it would be nice to have someone to sing with from time to time.
CP: What made you decide to pick up the banjo?
MC: I picked up the banjo about a year-and-a-half ago. A friend of mine from a New Orleans street band, Yes Ma'am (check them out on Youtube, they are fucking awesome), sold it to me for 100 bucks. I have been playing guitar for 11 years now, and I still love guitar, but I feel like the way banjos are set up provides a fresh perspective on writing licks and chord progressions. It's also really fun and easy to play rhythm and melody at the same time on a banjo, which is important for me, being a one-man-act. Banjos are really, really great for busking because of the volume and just not being an acoustic guitar ... I started off playing my five-string banjo as a plectrum banjo tuned to open G. I just took off the drone string, and I approach it just like a guitar. I want to start learning Scruggs-style banjo, though.
CP: What are the secrets of successful busking?
MC: I'm still sort of figuring that out. Command people's attention, keep them listening, smile, be polite, tell jokes. The real secrets are how to find the good spots. A good spot has a lot of foot traffic, friendly business owners, and is a pain for the cops to get to. If you want to start busking, respect the people that are already out there performing, and be polite to the business owners. The cops are on their side, and the cops write the tickets.
CP: It sounds (on the song "Waitin' on the Landlord") like you've had some run-ins with your landlord and the lawman. Is that autobiographical or just a story?
MC: This song is semi-autobiographical, I guess. I've had several run-ins with police and disputes with landlords for sure. I was evicted from my first apartment when I was 19. I have never been so caught up in an eviction process that the sheriff had to come and physically drag me out, but the point of that song is that that will happen to you. That really doesn't sit well with me. I am homeless now and have been for several months as I've been travelling. It's hard — it's hard for people to bust their asses for 8 bucks an hour, to give so much of their waking lives to a job that degrades them and strips them of their humanity just to be able to shelter themselves, to pay rent to a landlord that is using their rent to pay the mortgage on the building and profit from them, and in my experience do a shit job taking care of the buildings. This song is one of more to come on my critiques on our society as I see it: violent and in need of a complete overhaul.
CP: What do you do in Columbia, other than play music?
MC: I just moved back to Columbia a few weeks ago after being gone for about a year. I don't do much in Columbia but play music and go to the shows. Columbia has several really great bands, my favorites being Chemical Peel and People Person. The wealth of good bands there is, in my opinion, a product of cheap rent and big houses. We don't have to work too much, and we can practice in our houses without pissing people off. When I am back in Columbia, though, I am definitely working. I am a line cook, have been for 10 years.
CP: Have you been to Bill's Pickin' Parlor in West Columbia yet? What do you think of that place?
MC: Bill's is great! I've gone for their jams. At first it was a little uptight during the stage performances. I felt a little out of place sitting in the aisles with my stinking dark clothes and long hair. But after that, during the jam, people were super nice and seemed genuinely excited to see some fresh faces there. There were some killer musicians too, young and old. I didn't think to bring an instrument and participate, and to tell you the truth, I'm a little intimidated to. Bluegrass is real virtuoso music.