Doug Coombe: #RecordDET Interview

Carlton Gholz: This is the Detroit Sound Conservancy. I’m Carlton Gholz the Executive Director of the Detroit Sound Conservancy, and we are at Griswold and Grand River at Urban Bean.  Mikael is taking our orders downstairs. We are in Capitol Park. It is December the 15th, and we are here with Doug Coombe, not 

Coumba, a great photographer and a friend for, I’ve known him about 15 years about that. So, Doug, for anybody who wouldn’t know who you are, briefly describe who you are and what is your relationship to Detroit music?  

Detroit music in and of itself is amazing. Not only for just how indomitable it is and unstoppable it is, but the incredible breadth.

Doug Coombe: I’m a 20 year survivor of working in record stores and it was my working in record stores that literally turned me into a photographer. One day somebody just asked me, I was working at School Kids work there for a long time in Ann Arbor and somebody asked me, you know, what shows I’d been to or how many shows I’ve been to and I just rifled off all these shows and their jaw dropped and they’re like, what? Like you go to that many shows. Cause I would just get listed. So because of that I just decided to start bringing a camera because I thought, well I just get to a lot of cool shows. But also, you know, a lot of bands that I felt like weren’t being documented. So I really had no aspirations of anything. And then started photographing a band, Big Chief that was from Ann Arbor, who worked, a lot of them worked at Kinko’s, which was just down Liberty from me and they were recording their second record, ‘Mack Avenue Skull Game Up’ and they’re recording it a block from here.  I can see White Room Studios are where it used to be right over there. And so I’ve been doing some, I had taken some live photos. I went in, took some photos that wound up on their album cover. And, at that point I realized I didn’t really know what I was doing in terms of photography. So I had just graduated from the University of Michigan with a four year degree and I decided to go to Washington Community College and go to the two year college and study Photography at that point. So, and shortly thereafter, I happened to walk into the Metro Times one day. Greg Bayes had introduced me to Chris Handyside who was the Music Editor at the time. And, at the time Metro Times had a phenomenal photographer, Staff Photographer, Bruce Giffin, who I love, who just inspired me so much back then and is such a phenomenal photographer.  I happened to walk into the Metro Times the day Bruce Giffin quit and George Tish, the Arts Editor asked me if I wanted six assignments for the upcoming summer guide. And I said yes. And I walked out and I was just like, Jesus Christ, what the hell did you do? So I was still a little bit shy, like taking pictures of people and I’m like, well, I guess I’m going to have to get over this. So, yeah, just kind of got thrown into the deep end. But you know, it was around the time too. I remember, you know, Chris had just written about a band called the White Stripes that nobody really paid much attention to and actually, and I think actually I’m, I jumped ahead of myself. I think actually even before that too, I had photographed the first Metro Times Blow Out for them just to do it, which was in Hamtramck. And you know, again, that was kind of me just being introduced to all this amazing Detroit music from so many different genres that was going on. It was really thrilling because we’re all these bands that you felt like weren’t getting a lot of attention, but you know, were clearly phenomenal. I think it was the second Blow Out, if I remember correctly, where I walked in to see The Go playing at Motor and they had a young guitarist named Jack White and I walked in in the middle of a song and he’s just doing this. I mean, he was amazing. Then as he is now, and I just remember walking into this room and my jaw just dropped, like, who the fuck is playing guitar? And what was cool about The Go records is he would, I mean, these cellars just kind of came flying in out of nowhere and then they just stopped and then went back into the song. So you’re just kind of left wondering what the hell just happened [laugh], you know? So, yeah, that was my introduction to Detroit music was just, you know, photographing for a great paper. 

It was such a chaotic, energetic environment that was to me, a perfect school to learn how to photograph music because, you know, I mean you’re just shooting in the middle of a mosh. But if you could walk out with your camera in one piece, that was a victory, but then if you actually got cool shots, that was a whole other thing

Gholz: Yeah. 

Coombe: Back in the former golden age of journalism. So…

Gholz: Yeah. And, Chris Sandy said also gave me my start. So we share that in common. What was the first Detroit record you remember hearing? What was it? How did you hear it and what’d you think? 

Coombe: Yeah, I kind of agree with Kim. I kind of feel like I had a similar experience where it was just in the air around here. I just remember being a kid and I was a very much a passive enjoyer of music. And, you know, I’m sure we were just listening to CKLW all the time and just hearing all this amazing Motown music, but I didn’t really have an awareness of who was who. But then later when I was in high school, it’s like, Oh my God, I know like 20 Stevie Wonder songs. I know 15 Four Top songs. I know all these Marvin Gaye songs. And so I do feel like just growing up around here, like that kind of just became part of my DNA. I think when I finally was older and buying records and working at the record store, I would say that first band right around when I started taking photos was the Laughing Hyenas. And that to me it was just a phenomenal band. John Brandon to me is still one of the all time great vocalists. I have no idea why he still has the lyrics. But I mean to me part of the beauty of them was it was kind of terrifying too. I mean, he was just such a ferocious singer is kind of scary, some of the shows.  And there was definitely, you know, kind of a little bit of a dark edge. It kind of reminds me of some of Nick Cave’s music where there’s this, you know, this darkness and beauty like going on simultaneously. So that was when I started to, I mean literally when I bought my first camera with an income tax return, I went to the Heidelberg in Ann Arbor and took pictures of  Laughing Hyenas. So, that was the first band where, and again, to me that was my inspiration cause like I wanted, to me, this was like a phenomenal band. And to me it’s still is a phenomenal band that should be on the same level as the Stooges and the MC5. They’re just that incredible to me. And we’ve already jumped ahead of Negative Approach, another amazing band he was in that should also be at that level.  But to me I was just trying to document like some phenomenal music. And back then it was the days of film and not a lot of times I was the only guy with the camera there, you know, now and then it gets great, you know, but you go to a lot of shows and there’s lots of cameras, lots of iPhones and that’s great. But you know, back then I felt like the stuff wasn’t being documented. 


Gholz: You’ve jumped ahead to a couple of different questions here, it’s fine. It’s perfect. What was the first or best Detroit live music performance? It doesn’t have to be a Detroit man. Cause I know we’ve talked about Jesus Lizard shows, I know you’ve talked about in the past, but what was the first or best live music performance you remember hearing? Who was it? Where was it? Who’d you go with?  

My brother-in-law was the drummer of the Jesus Lizard. And when I first photographed them my sister had started dating the drummer, but I had no idea at the time

Coombe: Wow. All right. Not Laughing Hyenas. Well, yeah, I guess, you know, maybe we will go to the Jesus Lizard cause that’s kind of an important thing. My brother-in-law was the drummer of the Jesus Lizard. And when I first photographed them my sister had started dating the drummer, but I had no idea at the time. So this was probably the second show I photographed after I had photographed the Laughing Hyenas. And again, I’m still just kind of a shy kid with a camera. So I’m crouching down at the stage at the Heidelberg in Ann Arbor and David Yow, the singer, walks out, picks up a cinderblock and start swinging it over my head and kinda at me. And I had just dropped every dime I had to my name on this camera and I just kind of looked at him and I was like, I don’t know why, but I’m going to trust you.  And I did. And that was a good call. And, but you know, through the years I just photographed the Jesus Lizard so many times and it was such a chaotic, energetic environment that was to me, a perfect school to learn how to photograph music because, you know, I mean you’re just shooting in the middle of a mosh. But if you could walk out with your camera in one piece, that was a victory, but then if you actually got cool shots, that was a whole other thing and you couldn’t, there was no way you could compose shots. You kind of had to anticipate something happening cause someone was probably just gonna knock you over in a second. Anyways. So yeah, I mean to me that and everything compared to Jesus Lizard concert is a piece of cake. Like, yeah, it’s kinda hard to, you can throw me in the middle of chaos and I kinda get excited cause I know something, there’s some good energy to document their, yeah.  

Gholz: What a Motown is known the world over. It’s in our DNA for some of us, just in whether it’s Canadian radio stations playing it to us or playing it or CKLW playing for my parents, you know, when they were in Port Huron. But, Motown is known the world over. Describe one aspect of Detroit music history that you wish got more attention. You’ve already mentioned the Laughing Hyenas, Negative Approach. Is there any other things you’d want to throw in? There are things that maybe need a little more attention. 

Coombe: Yeah, I mean, I do kind of feel like that era from, I don’t even like the eighties to the two thousands. There was a lot of bands there that I think still deserve more love.  I mean, we have this amazing legacy of Cream Magazine here and I feel like a lot of those writers helped, you know, put the Stooges and the MC5 and kind of raise them to this icon status that they deserve. I still remember a friend of mine living in Ann Arbor in a rooming house that Ron Ashton lived in and this would have been I think like the nineties, maybe late nineties. So yeah, I mean to me there are still like a number of bands from that era that have just amazing records that should be up there, Negative Approach, Laughing Hyenas , First Waxwings Records. I mean there’s tons of great music that’s come out of here that still hasn’t kind of been raised to that level. Like it’s cool to see J Dilla and Donuts. Like it’s finally like people are like, all right, this is like madly influential classic record. But yeah, there’s still so many records from the last 20 or 30 years. 

Gholz: I hate to cut you off. Like we said earlier, Big Chief and I just got done reading Masquerade, which is not the crime fiction book that Mack Avenue Skull Game is based on.  And so, Mark Dancey is a supporter of the project and has been super lovely to us. Just see something about Big Chief for us. I feel like they don’t…


Coombe: Yeah, I feel like they don’t kind of get the attention and love they deserve. But you know what, what’s a funny story I can remember from, you know, those days. So yeah, we’re a block from where White Room Studios was. This is pre cell phone. I remember this was a lot rougher back then. And there was a payphone outside and I would call up to have someone let me in and pray to God they would come get me before the people looking at, for I got mugged, you know? And, but I also remember while they were recording, there was a guy just kind of living in the studio, just kinda doing odd jobs.  And his name was Kid Rock. And I remember he was playing me like these amazing tractor is sampling ACDC and Van Halen. And they sounded phenomenal, but you know, he couldn’t obviously afford to pay for those samples and you know, but then I feel like there were aspects of what Big Chief was doing with Barnetta Davis that he borrowed from and when he borrowed their bass player too. So to me it’s interesting. I feel like they don’t, they get maligned or not, definitely not respected as much as they should. And to me there was a clear excitement too because I felt like there was all this great music going on in this town but not a lot of major label attention. So then you know, I remember our, Outrageous Cherry got a record coming out and then there was Big Chief and then you know, the Goal got signed to Sub Pop. So I mean these were, you know, I felt people were starting to feel excited that, you know, they could break out of the city. But it is interesting cause I do feel for all the amazing music in Detroit, I feel most of the time it’s other cities that break our bands. And I think if there’s a real weakness in Detroit, we could really use an amazing PR agency because we have amazing music for days here. But I mean seriously, like White Stripes got broken in Europe. You know, most of our techno acts are overseas. You know, Danny Brown probably got broken by Brooklyn or Vice, I don’t know. But I feel like most of our artists don’t get big in Detroit. Yeah. At least in the last 20 or 30 years. So, yeah. 

Gholz:  How has photography, you’ve already said this, you’ve already alluded to this a little bit, but how has, what’s the difference between music photography and photography? That’s the first question I asked you. What’s the difference do you think? Do you sense that you’re just, when you’re taking photos of friends and whatever, and then music photography, what’s different? Or are they different types of photographers? Do you think of yourself a different species of photographer than maybe people who, I don’t know, wedding photographers or, I dunno, other, you know, people who do news for instance, like news photography or something like that? 

The beauty of Detroit is it’s a very physically large city, but in terms of people, it’s an incredibly small city and once you get to know a few people, it’s the way everybody’s interconnected here in the arts is phenomenal. 

Coombe: I dunno. I don’t think it’s that different. I think especially too, the beauty of Detroit is it’s a very physically large city, but in terms of people, it’s an incredibly small city and once you get to know a few people, it’s the way everybody’s interconnected here in the arts is phenomenal. And you know, after you document music for awhile, like you know, they know who I am and you know, I mentioned how I started out as a shy photographer and didn’t want to get in the way and didn’t want to block people. And I still am that way to a degree because I, I just feel like I’m a fan, like everybody else and I don’t want to be this jerk photographer blocking everybody’s view, but now people know me enough that like I can just get in their face for five minutes and they’ll, you know, put on a show or do something ridiculous or you know, or they’ll ignore me sometimes through those be like, oh yeah, that’s Doug or whatever. Like I’m just going to keep playing. So I don’t feel music is really that different. I mean like a lot of photography is about relationships that you build with people and you know, all the great people you do get to meet. I feel like your camera is a passport in a lot of interesting worlds that even go. 

Gholz: So how was it change then over time? So now we do have you go to a show and I’ve got, you know, my phone out or Instagram or all those causes. What’s been the biggest change, for you in that world? And then I want to ask you a question about your own archives, your own practice of archiving your own materials. So…

Coombe: How has it changed? Now there are a lot more photographers out. So I mean, I do think it’s really exciting. It can also be tricky though too. Sometimes. You know, there’s lots of people out with cell phones too. So sometimes, you know, I really respect people’s having the urge to photograph and document things obviously. But I mean, there’ve been more than a few times where I’m photographing with like my $3,000 camera with my $1,500 lens and I get somebody with an iPhone who will just crash and knock me over. And to get a shot. And I’m like, well, maybe you’ll get a photo, but you’re probably actually not going to get a very good photo. But, I don’t know. I mean, I think it’s great how it’s just been, photography has been opened up to so many people. I think before it was kind of, there was definitely an investment level of a lot of people couldn’t hit. And that’s what I love about Instagram. I’m a big fan of Instagram, how it’s just opened up people to document their lives because there’s so many great creative people in the city who are doing great things in the city, but also like traveling all over the world constantly as ambassadors for our city. So to me, it’s a great way to vicariously stay in touch with people or see what’s going on or, you know, and you can’t be everywhere at once. So like, you know, if you’re seeing a show in Ann Arbor and something that’s great in Detroit, you’re like, oh, I had just missed that awesome Ritual Howls show. I wish I’d been there or something. So I think it’s, yeah, I mean, and it’s a challenge as a photographer to kind of feel like what you’re doing is relevant or, but I think it’s great that, you know, lots of people are.  

Gholz: And then in term, in terms of archiving your own archival practice, going to I dream that everything you have is duplicated somewhere else and everything’s backed up in the cloud. But tell me, just tell me about your archival  regime.  

Detroit just has inspiring people for days.


Coombe: Well, we’ll start with the film, which is pretty disorganized and when I moved two years ago, put it all into a storage space and then as winter was approaching, I realized the storage space was unheated and in a bit of a panic I got it all out of there. So those are, I could probably use a month off to try to make sense of those. But they’re all there. I mean, I still have all the film negatives. It’s just they’re not very organized.

Gholz: If we could get you an intern for a month, Doug Coombe  

Coombe: I think it’s just more time off because like some of them are labeled but some of them aren’t. Like, so, I mean, are you going to know that was like the sub-pop group Pond at the Blind Pig? Are you going to know that was like, yeah, I mean, I’ll know what these things are. I will remember them, but I think a lot of them will be like- when was this? Where was it? Which one of the like 100 sites shows that Doug has photographed, which one is this? And then as for the digital stuff, I mean it’s challenging. I mean, I back that stuff up as much as I can, but I recently just had a lot of power outages and brown-outs where I live, which is really good at frying equipment.  And a dear friend of mine, Roger Devine, who has saved my digital files many times and is a very good soul. And his record really Tadd Mullinix I was basically trying to, he was like telling me, oh, you should get a solid state drive. You should back this up in the cloud. And I was telling them like, Roger, right now, I go through like a four terabyte drive every six months. And he was kinda like, Oh, I don’t know what to tell you. Like, and this guy does, this guy does IT for U of M. So it’s backed up as best as I can and yeah, I mean, most of it’s still there. So…

Gholz: There’s a grant proposal in our future, Doug Coombs. We’ve got to figure this out. I want to figure this out. This is important. You know, you’re sitting on a lot of legacy there. So let’s think about this. Last couple questions here. What do you think we lose if we do not preserve Detroit musical history? Even you were saying earlier, Bruce, is it Giffin or Griffin? 

Coombe:  Griffin. 

Gholz: You know, I don’t even,  I sure I know his photography. I must know his photography, but you know what do we lose if we don’t have somebody, you know, for instance, his archive, I don’t know, I’m just thinking about it right now, but what do you think we lose if we don’t have those kinds of things. And in terms of music preservation, I mean to me Detroit is just such an incredibly inspiring city. I mean  there’s been so many changes in, and I mean, in the age of my parents the arsenal of democracy and this amazing, huge city that then has gone through a lot of decline and starting to come back. But to me, I think music in and of itself, Detroit music in and of itself is amazing. Not only for just how indomitable it is and unstoppable it is, but, but the incredible breadth. I mean, seriously, we have every genre covered in the city. I mean, we just, we do it, we do it all, you know, R&B and hip hop and techno and jazz and noise music and yeah, I mean, you name it, we do it. But to me, especially in the hard years that Detroits been through, I feel like that the arts and the musicians have been the glue to the city.  I used to have a column for Metrotimes called Motor City Rides, Motor City Crips, which was documenting Detroit artists and you know, either the cars they drove or where they lived. And you know, a lot of times I would just ask people like what is it about Detroit? And you know, they just, well, I mean, one, they felt like that there weren’t as many distractions in the city. Like especially, you know, in the last few years, it was just like, you know, it was just, but also too, that, you know, we have this incredible work ethic from the great industrial age here, but I really do feel that it’s really easy to document, you know, run down buildings and Detroit and stuff like that. The thing that people do document, but I think it’s harder to convey in photos is just how many phenomenal people and talented and inspiring people there are in this city.  That’s what I have loved about what I’ve done for the Metrotimes and just documenting the music scene I have. I mean, I love documenting music, but to me the reward is just all the phenomenal people I get to meet. And I mean, Detroit just has inspiring people for days. It’s, you know, and East side of city, West side of town. I mean it’s, and it’s also full of surprises. This city, you know, all of us are know the city better than a lot of people, but it’s, you know, I just went to Grandmont Rosedale for the first time, which is embarrassing, last week. What a great neighborhood. I had no idea. For Metrotimes we did a music map of where the stars had lived and God, so many great old neighborhoods in the city or, I mean, I’m sure you’ve looked at Ben Blackwell’s map of where records have been made in the city and it’s everywhere.  Like every, I mean it’s just crazy. So I dunno. I mean I just feel like we lose inspiring stories as what we lose. This is such an inspiring city. I’ve never wanted to leave. I’ve had a lot of friends who complain about the area. They moved to New York, they moved to LA, they moved to Austin, they moved to New Orleans. But if they don’t, a lot of them end up coming back or if they don’t end up coming back, they still, they always just want to know what’s going on here. They’re still, I don’t, yeah. Yeah. What advise us, what should we be doing? And concentrating on most, do you think in sort of the near future? Give us some advice. 

Coombe: I really agree with Kim. There’s some generation, you know, there’s kind of an older generation of artist that, you know, sadly we’ll be losing over the few years, but, you know, I mean, so here’s a crazy idea of what you could do.  Why don’t you go to like, why don’t you do some of these at People’s Records or Hello Records, cause I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in there digging  through records and like, you know, like I’ll be pulling up some records, like my uncle played on that or like, you know, I mean there’s so many times when you’re in there where, you know, just random people stop in or, you know, I mean, I remember being in People’s Records and Rodriguez came in and he was just like, hanging out playing his, you know, like, pardon me, crappy Ovation guitar. And I just remember asking him, you know what he was up to and he’s like, yeah, you know, I’m just trying to write the next hit. But you know, when you’re trying to compete with Duran Duran and they’ve got five David Bowie’s, it’s kind of hard.  And I was just like, yeah, it’s kinda hard to compete with five. David Bowie’s. So, I mean, and that’s the beauty of the city though too. Cause, I mean, you can go to Bert’s, so you can go to, you know, Cliff Bells, you can go to Baker’s and you’ll just, you know, get these crazy stories. Like, you know, I remember, you know, John Coltrane hanging out here. I remember Miles Davis hanging out here. I mean, yeah. Or you know, Kevin Herron and I just did an interview that [inaudible, 21:58]  all these people. There are stories for days about, I guess for me personally, I’m very, very interested in sixties and seventies soul music here. And anytime you talk to anybody, I mean, it’s just, yeah, it’s stories for days. So. 


Gholz:  Well, Doug, thanks for being with us and thanks for shooting all these years and we’ll be in touch about that grant. 

Coombe: Awesome. 

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