And even now I wonder where I'm goin' Ever since a long time ago I've tried to let my feelings show I'd like to think I'm bein' sincere, but I'll never know
– Judee Sill, “Phoenix”
Drugdealer is an apt moniker for Mike Collins. As his new project The End of Comedy (via Weird World) demonstrates: he is the middleman, the supplier, the curator of all your sensory needs.
I anticipated a brooding, sardonic, longhaired figure when arriving at our Chinatown rendezvous. Instead I found myself clinking glasses of IPA with a sincere, freewheelin’ soul eager to jump into theoretical discussions about where music comes from.
“When you listen to people’s music, you can glean a lot from their lives. I don’t think anyone can really escape themselves, and that’s what I love about music. It’s about me embracing myself.”
The dim speakeasy is Collins’ regular haunt, not far from where he lives. “I’ve been in L.A. for three years, and it’s first time I feel like I’m actually living in a city. I’m really psyched.”
His band Silk Rhodes, in collaboration with vocalist Sashe Desree, is what brought Collins to the West Coast. It was an R&B project wrought from turning their car into “an impromptu recording setup” while driving through the Southwestern desert.
“My studio is always very modular because I need to be able to bounce off of the world.” That same wayward M.O. is still in play. Collins prefers action over rumination.
The End of Comedy samples from a lot of different sounds; at once recognizable and completely new. To construe his sound as dime-a-dozen nostalgia would be a grave misread. “Being sincere in what you’re trying to do is what will naturally callback older sounds,” he told me, buzzed but pointedly, “rather than trying to contrive something old because it’s what you think people like.”
The sound isn’t gazing back on some romantic past, but is derived from within, and what arises from the ever-present, ever-moving now of existence. As Gertrude Stein stressed, “moving is existing.”
“I used to come from this world of transience—traveling and hitchhiking—a lot of people sneer at that, ‘Oh, you used to be this train-riding, middle class kid?’ But a lot of kids were. You’re sitting in the monotony of art school, where you’re making art about trying to make art. Traveling helped me get out of that. Even in Baltimore, I felt like I was floating.”
Before his L.A. arrival, Collins was toiling in Baltimore as a successful art school dropout, finding fulfillment in the immediacy of making music. “I first started out sampling music, and then became obsessed… I just went for it, shame-free. That was huge in me—learning how to play and compose.”
Though he draws on soulful sounds of the past (i.e. Madlib or anything off of Stones Throw Records), his favorite musicians are his contemporaries, his collaborators, his friends. For Collins, there is no demarcation.
Take Ariel Pink, the album’s co-conspirator. “He’s very expressive and into trying different things. [His music] is more to me than just tapping into this ‘80s or post-punk sound. I was inspired by the fearlessness in his songwriting and output.”
Another stirring variable is Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, whose vocals take the reins in two songs on the album. This includes the title track, “The End of Comedy,” which was their tribute to Judee Sill, an occult folk singer integral to the late 60s Laurel Canyon scene before vanishing into Rosicrucianism, Aleister Crowley’s magick, and ultimately heroin. “Doing tributes right, you just start making music and the tribute becomes an afterthought, like, ‘damn, thank you for inspiring me.’” Such genesis is not only telling of his and Mering’s more esoteric predilections, but of the timeless communion innate in California psych folk.
“This album is different. I didn’t want to make another one of just me singing songs, that’s not my vibe. I’m a songwriter, and to have other people sing feels really good. I’ve always loved [Mering’s] music, so when I sat down at the piano, I just thought of her and ended up coming up with something really sincere. Something inside me clicked. It felt right.”
The video for “Suddenly” was directed by Collins and former art school crony Samuel Shea (the man behind the mesmerizing melting laptop effect). Between panoramic desert shots Natalie Mering sings to the camera, strutting down a dirt trail, beautifully evoking eerie Mulholland Drive mythos (though it was shot in Elysian Park). The video’s striking minimalism reflects its music: pragmatic, natural, effortless.
“I love directness in artmaking… it creates a naked idea. If you listen to the album, there are no effects on the vocals. I wanted to keep it dry. I’m proud of the lyrics that Ariel and I worked on, and I wanted to make sure they were heard.”
The lyrics reflect his own present life (another negation of the purely retro). “The Real World” was written during the first time he ever took acid by himself, during a 24-hour period, “and it was the best decision I ever made. The fact that you’re alone going through this experience, you’re really talking to yourself, and that’s beautiful. That’s the real world. And that has nothing to do with drugs. Even though the experience of the acid was great (honestly, it was from the Silk Road and some of the best I’ve ever done), it didn’t hold a candle to what was happening within myself… I immediately wanted to record a song.”
He walked me through some of the lyrics, breaking them down like a Genius.com entry.
Every day I would wake up and fill my dreaming cup
“Every day we go through our struggles, getting filled up with our emotional gunk, and then we expunge it in our dreams. Also talking about the fact I was depressed.”
I knew I couldn’t hide from what the others were singing
“Others around me who were simply choosing happiness.”
Everywhere I look there’s more reason to be feeling free/ But still I have to keep myself from leaving
“When you’re an artist, you’re also an escapist, so get real with yourself every once in a while. What are you feeling? Forget this infatuation, forget this issue with your work, forget this drug that’s trying to make this table look like it’s wiggling…you haven’t been happy.”
Please don’t ever turn your face from the real world, such a psychedelic place, the real world
“That was me actually deciding to leave my depression that I was going through behind. I’m in California now. This place is beautiful. I’m going to stay here for a while. You might as well enjoy it. This trip is great—but what’s to come will be even better.”