The DJ who brought grunge sound to the airwaves
Nicole Brodeur sits down with Marco Collins — one of the few DJs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — and talks about Seattle’s grunge years, “American Idol” and an upcoming documentary on the radio man’s life.
Seattle Times columnist
Few people are happier for the fresh start of this new year than Marco Collins.
“I feel like I am on the brink of a bunch of things happening,” the longtime Seattle DJ said over coffee the other day. “I feel like I am this close to a lot of exciting things happening.”
And, as always with Collins, there is a wry little twist.
“I can’t tell you what it’s going to be,” he said with a quick, almost nervous laugh. “But I enjoy the idea of doing several things in my life.”
Music has been his best friend since his childhood in San Diego, and it was the companion that landed him gigs at 91X radio in California, and first brought him to Seattle in 1991 to work as one of the first on-air talents at alternative rock radio station KNDD, “The End.”
There, Collins broke bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and played a large part in launching the career of Beck by playing “Loser,” so much he nearly wore out the vinyl.
But the most exciting venture of Collins’ life right now is “The Glamour & the Squalor,” a documentary that started out as the story of KNDD, and has turned into a study of Collins, his life and career. The film is expected to be released next year.
It makes sense to make Collins the focal point; he was at the center of the so-called “grunge” scene, allowed into the backstages and apartments of some of the city’s biggest bands.
The filmmakers behind the project have expanded their focus beyond Collins’ role as a ’90s musical tastemaker to include his work for gay rights, his struggle to come out and his battles with drugs and alcohol.
“The movie has evolved,” Collins said with a wry smile. “Initially, I was more comfortable with it than I am now.”
But he has been reassured by his friend, Michelle Quisenberry, the owner of Volterra restaurant and a producer of the film; and by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, who is scoring it.
“I just feel like I know you like I never have before,” McCready told Collins after he viewed a portion of the film. “Don’t worry, trust me. It’s a beautiful story.”
Said Collins: “Hearing that from him made me relax.”
This is no small feat, once you sit with Collins for just a little while. He is quick and fidgety, says whatever pops into his head and then backpedals like a circus performer. There are quick looks around the room, even quicker smiles, a glance at his phone. Collins is always thinking.
But talk about music, and he is suddenly calm. He is in his element. He just knows.
The music in the coffee shop? Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll,” which had a brightly-colored cover. He got a copy for Christmas.
The first record he ever bought with his own money? Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours.” (He became obsessed with Stevie Nicks).
“Everyone thinks of me as an underground, alternative guru,” he said. “But I’m a pop guy. I’m obsessed with ‘American Idol. ’”
He used to watch it with his mother while she battled cancer. She died eight years ago.
“There’s a scene in the film where I talk about her passing and I let it go, I let it fly,” Collins said. “I hope it wrecks the whole theater.”
He credits his father — who took him to see James Brown — for his love of music. He grew up glued to the radio, listening to Dr. Dan Rose on KFRC out of San Francisco. Def Leppard. Cheap Trick. KISS. When he was 15, he discovered a community radio station that had a punk show that started at midnight and was hosted by a woman named “Sydney Snide.” He taped her show on 8-track tapes. Siouxsie and the Banshees. The Germs.
“This was a revolution for me,” he said. He got his broadcast license at 16.
At San Diego State, he majored in telecommunications and worked on the student radio station, then interned and was hired on at 91X, where he was the first DJ to put Eddie Vedder on the air when he played his first band, Bad Radio. Once in Seattle, he was “thrown directly into the Capitol Hill scene.”
“It was crazy,” he said. “Sub Pop had blown up, and Seattle bands were buzzwords everywhere. One thing I remember thinking is, ‘This is all happening right now.’ I remember when things became larger than life.”
He remembers the raucous hometown party when Nirvana went to New York to play on “Saturday Night Live,” and how when their performance was over, the room fell silent.
“We just knew everything had changed,” Collins said. “These were the merrymakers of the ’90s, and everybody knew that it was way bigger than we ever imagined. At that moment, it was all going to be different, which was a chilling feeling. It was still fun. It was amazing. It was breathtaking. We were finally getting our day, the respect we deserved.”
His work at that time led to his becoming one of the first deejays to be inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame — a place he shares with Seattle radio legend Pat O’Day.
But don’t think that Collins is stuck in the past. He is excited about the current Seattle music scene, artists like Damien Jurado, but also the strength of hip-hop artists like IG88.
And, as always, Collins has something in the works. Right now, he is planning two live shows for Valentine’s Day — one of them an “anti-Valentine’s show.”
“I’m still working on a name,” he said. “ ‘Hearts versus Spades.’ Or ‘He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.’ ”
Mostly, he hopes it all comes together, that things will work out, that the film will be released and received well. That this new year will hold as much promise as the years behind him. That his voice will find a spot.
“I just have to believe it and bleed for it,” Collins said, “because that’s the only way it’s going to happen.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
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