I was turned on to The Dirtbombs more than a few years back, thanks to some good friends. My favorite record of theirs quickly became “We Have You Surrounded.” (The Sparks cover is amazing!) So, in keeping things strong in support of the bass, I was super excited to connect with Ko Melina. She spoke to me as she walked her dog through a Detroit summer thunderstorm. She had me missing the Midwest and laughing non-stop.
Cordtangler: Tell me how you got into playing music.
Ko: In a really weird, roundabout way.
CT: Perfect. Say more.
K: I was bartending at the Garden Bowl in Detroit. Steve Shaw (Detroit Cobras) was starting a new project called The Breakdowns and asked me if I wanted to play bass. I had only played piano as a kid and keyboards in the Come-Ons with Pat (Pantano, The Dirtbombs), but I said, “Why not?”
I then told Steve that I didn’t play the bass.
He said, “Well why don’t you just get one and see if you can do it.”
My friend Steve Nawara showed me the basic layout of the bass but I mostly learned how to play it by myself. Being from Detroit, I grew up on Motown and always thought that the bass lines were really easy. Then when I sat down to figure them out, I was like “Holy shit.”
So, after I learned to play the bass with The Breakdowns and continued with The Come-ons. In both bands, there were personality clashes so they both broke down. At that point, I said to myself, “I don’t want to play in a band, this is kind of ridiculous. I’m going back to bartending.”
Two days after I quit playing music, I got a call from Long Gone John from Sympathy (for the music industry). He said, “Hey, I’m putting out this thing called the Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit that Jack White is putting together. How do you feel about doing a song for that record?”
I was like “Okay, I guess.”
I didn’t really have any songs, I didn’t have a band, I didn’t have anything, it was just me. So I had to hurry up because Jack had finished recording everybody else and was waiting on me.
I pretty much finishing writing the song “Black and Blue” (while we were recording!) and had to do different parts on the fly. That recording was the start of Ko and the Knock-outs.
CT: How did you end up in the Dirtbombs?
K: Before I was in the band Tom Potter played “fuzz” bass and Jim Diamond “bass” bass. I had come off tour with Ko and the Knock-outs. The band had some shows booked. Jim had booked some studio time with a band that he couldn’t get out of it so he asked me to fill-in. (I had done back-up vocals for the Dirtbombs before so I knew all the songs.)
After the tour, Tom quit the band so I learned different parts of the songs and played “fuzz” bass. After I did that for a couple of years, Mick (Collins) said, “I just wrote this whole album and I want you play it on the baritone.” So, basically I had to learn all the Dirtbombs songs like 3 times. (laughs)
CT: I love your Bass and that Fender VI. What’s the story behind those?
K: My first bass, which I still have, is a Fender Musicmaster. I’ve always liked that bass. It’s a short scale bass and I’m little. Long scale basses are harder for me to play. I also got a Mustang in Japan and another Musicmaster in England at some point. As mentioned, I started playing the Fender VI with The Dirtbombs. People are always like “What is this? Is it a guitar, it’s not a guitar?”
It does make it difficult to be on tour and find strings. I learned very quickly that I needed to bring tons of back-up strings and try not to break strings because there is a 99.9999% chance that no one is going to have a pair of back-up baritone stings I can borrow.
CT: By the way, you play really, really hard.
K: I don’t know why I play so hard. I guess I feel like if I don’t put that much energy in, it doesn’t feel right. All the guys in the band are like, “You don’t have to play that hard.” I guess I don’t know how to play any other way. Maybe it’s my own inability to do things right. (laughs)
We did a show in NY at The Knitting Factory, when it was still in Manhattan. About half way through the show I remember getting angry because I thought someone had spilled beer all over the stage and it was really slippery and I couldn’t figure it out. I looked over at Troy (former Dirtbombs bass player) and he had this terrified look on his face. I was wondering, “Why are you looking at me like that, what’s wrong?”
And then I realized I had cut my hand open really badly and I was bleeding everywhere. And then I went into shock! I ended up going to the emergency room halfway through the show. They kept playing through the show and I got back on the last song. I ended having to get 11 stitches across my fingers. So, yeah, that was fun.
CT: Have you ever had any carpal tunnel issues?
K: Yeah, really, really bad. Right before I started working on my radio show for Little Steven, I had messed up my arm on a European tour and it was all wrapped up. I had never really done radio before so Little Steven wanted me to take a couple of weeks training. I was struggling and he needed to take a call so we decided to take a break. After I got back, he said, “Oh by the way, I was on the phone with Pete Townshend and he says that if you just raise or lower your strap by an inch that it will help a whole lot.” I was like, “What!? Wait a minute. You were talking to Pete Townshend about me!? Oh my god, I can’t believe this!”
CT: With Dirtbombs, what’s the approach in the studio?
K: We usually tour a whole bunch, then we get off tour and don’t talk to each other for a while. Then Mick we call and say, “Alright, I have these dates locked up, does everyone want to go into the studio?” So we’ll go into the studio and Mick directs the songs, and we record them. And it’s really the first time I’ve heard the song or played the song. After we go on tour they tend to change a lot.
CT: So, do you guys tend to record the instruments separately? Live?
K: We do a live track and then the overdubs. Most of the time I have to do overdubs. (Laughs) It makes more sense to do it live mainly because of the two drummers. The Dirtbombs are a live band. I can probably speak for everyone else in the band when I say playing live is really fun for us.
CT: Tell me about your own songwriting process.
K: It’s always different. Sometimes, I try to sit down and write songs by myself and that doesn’t usually work out very well. Most of the time, I’m driving around and I’ll come up with a part in my head. I’ll hum it out to myself and record it on my phone. Usually though, I really like to work with other people. I don’t trust myself to write a good song. (laughs) I’ve done a lot of writing with Eddie Baranek of the Sights. And Fred Thomas from Saturday Looks Good To Me. It’s always fun and I feel like it works better. It feels like all the best songs are written by songwriting teams, anyways. Although, every once in a while a song will come and it’s just me!
CT: You guys have played some really big shows.
K: I’ve played in the band for 10 or 12 years in different capacities and we would play our own shows but, after a while, we started to get these opening slots for these huge shows. We opened for the Hives, we opened up for TV on the Radio, or we opened for Spiritualized, which was amazing for us.
We did a month with TV on the Radio and only had half an hour, so we figured we had to do something as a band that people would remember.
We took inspiration from Jay Reatard (from when we opened for us in Australia earlier in the year) because the dude went non-stop. He would just play one song into another, into another and another. It was amazing to watch. He just hit you like a fucking bus. You don’t have time to take a breath and by the time you breathe, the show’s over.
So we decided to play non-stop, no matter what. Broken strings. Just keep playing.
We also realized that we could maximize our playing time if we could break down our equipment while we were still playing. We’d play our set without stopping. Ben and Nick would keep playing drums, Mick would leave the stage, and slowly, one by one, we’d leave the stage and carry the equipment off as we left. Like after Mick would leave the stage, he would come back up and help me get my stuff off. Then we’d help the bass player get his stuff off, and then we’d help the drummers get their stuff off until Pat was the only one left, playing the snare drum.
CT: That’s brilliant.
K: People were like, “What the hell is this?” ‘Cause nobody does that. It was super fun.
CT: Bass versus Baritone?
K: James Jamerson was the best bass player of all time! When I played “bass” bass, I played flat wound strings because Jamerson played flat wound strings. I always had the Kustom “Tuck-And-Roll” because he had one. I’m like bass 10, treble 0, mids 2. I like bass to be bass.
When my friend Steve gave me my first bass lesson, the one thing that he said that always made sense was that the bass is the voice of the drums, the notes of the drums. I always liked that idea: like the drums but with a bit of tone. So I like the idea of almost all bass with no treble (because that’s what the guitars do). With the Dirtbombs, it’s almost the complete opposite. It’s my Fender VI going through a Fender Deluxe.
CT: You seem to have a thing for Fenders?
K: I’ve always liked Fenders. They sound and feel good to me. Even when I went from a Mustang bass to a Jaguar (Fender Vl), everything still has that same shape and I like that shape. I learned how to tune with 6 in a row instead of 3 on each side. I can’t seem to think 3 on the side, and I can only think about 6 in a row. (laughs)
CT: Other musicians you were really excited to meet?
Crazy famous people are there, which I discovered when I got there, like Paul McCartney! I was like, “Oh my god, I’ve got to meet him. I mean, when are you ever going to meet a Beatle?”
Someone has this on video somewhere. Paul was right down the hall and there were a million people there for his autograph. So I pushed through all these people and got up to him. And he looks at me and I freeze. I’m like “Hi, uh, Mr. Sir, uh Paul McCartney, uh…” He says, “Yes?” And then I asked him for a hug.
He looked around, shrugged, and said, “I don’t see why not!” Then he gave me a big hug and everyone cheered. I got embarrassed right afterwards, and ran away! Ha ha.
Then it became a hunt for famous people. I tried to meet J.Lo, but she had too many security guards. But I met George Foreman! I told him I loved his grill. (There’s a video of that too.) And I met Herbie Hancock.
Otherwise, I’d say I was really excited to meet Jason, from Spiritualized and Spaceman 3. We once played on different stages at the same venue in Minnesota. Our shows overlapped so I couldn’t see their whole set and was sad to think that I would never have the chance to meet him. That night, he ended up checking us out and has been to every show of ours in England since then.
We were in England and Jason asked Mick and I if we would come down a sing on what became Songs in A&E. I felt bad because the night before recording we played a show in London and had a lot to drink. I ended up staying out way too late… and he calls me the next day asking, “So you ready to come to the studio?”
It was tough but I made it and he’s a pro and said, “I’ll give you credit because most of the people I know would’ve cancelled.” (There was no way I was going to cancel!)
I did my best to sing that day but we still had work to do, and he said he’d call me in a couple days and we’d figure it out, with me back in Detroit.
But a couple days turned into a week and I still hadn’t heard from him. And then I read on the Internet that Jason was close to death. He apparently went to the hospital right after we left, with a double pneumonia. To this day, whenever I see him, he’s like “Yeah, you almost killed me.”
So that made me happy, I never thought I’d meet him and almost kill him.
K: I have a ton. When I took over for “Fuzz” Bass from Tom Potter, in the Dirtbombs, I had no idea. I just played the bass. I thought pedals were for tuning or to help you play better! I hadn’t really thought about pedals as being something to enhance your playing. I started with a standard dod classic fuzz pedal and, after I played more and more, I got more into different pedals and tones.
For a long time I used the 70’s Shin-Ei Fuzzwah. They’re really great but very expensive now. I had 10 or 12 at one point, but once Radiohead started using them they shot up on eBay to $500 or more.
I really like the Zvex stuff. I think they are awesome. I’ve got pedals people have made for me, which is awesome. I have pedals that I’ve made from a kit that aren’t quite that awesome.
The one good thing about touring internationally is that we get to go to places like Japan. When we were there, we had one of the Guitar Wolf folks, Hijack, show us around one day and I asked him to take me to place that has fuzz pedals. He took us to this one place that was the size of a garage with floor to ceiling fuzz pedals. Only fuzz pedals, no other types of pedals.
What I do now is I loop different fuzz pedals. This way, nobody’s going to steal my sound. (laughs). I also have a pedals inside of pedals: I have one, built inside of a Heavy Metal pedal that sounds really great if I loop it through a Zvex Fuzz Factory and then loop it though another pedal.
CT: Thanks Ko. I really, really appreciate it. It was so great to finally meet you!
K: No problem. Happy Birthday!
Photo Credits: Top Photo: Doug Coombe, 4th image: Joseph Patel, 5th image: Marianne Spellman, 6th image: Zach Saginaw (Shigeto), the rest supplied by Ko (if we missed anyone, sorry! happy to add you). Go to Astro Coffee P.S. I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday! Until my dad and I got into a fight at dinner and got ejected from the restaurant.