Photography by John Kazaklis
For over 20 years, Lakeland native and musician Eric Collins has greatly contributed toward and impacted our local music scene.
Eric Collins spent a lot of time at Carpenter’s Home Church as a teenager, hanging out with his surfer friends, starting his first band … and having a genuine UFO experience.
“I took my 11th-grade girlfriend out there and we were sitting in my Jeep Wrangler. She liked to talk a lot, and she was talking and I look out over the lake that was behind Evangel, and I see a light come down, and then three lights come out of it and start coming across the lake toward us. I’m like, ‘STOP TALKING. DO YOU SEE THIS?’ So, I turned on my Jeep, because we had to get out of there, and as we’re driving away, these lights were above us at the height of a light pole. No sound. Just lights. It was insane.”
This story isn’t the point of Eric Collins’ article, but it’s a great example of the time we spent together talking one Friday afternoon. Honest, open, and relaxed, Collins’ home fits the style as well. A big window in the room we’re in bathes us in natural light and is full of musical instruments. We’ve known each other for a while, and interviewing him is far more sitting and talking with a friend than an actual interview.
Any longtime Lakelander is familiar with the setting of Collins’ UFO story. Carpenter’s Home Church provided the backdrop for many an older Christian millennial’s or Generation X’s first music experience — an experience that shaped a lot of Collins’ future. But Carpenter’s Home wasn’t the only piece of Lakeland’s music history he frequented.
“Lakeland’s had a music scene forever,” Collins reminisces fondly. “If you haven’t been to the Mad Hatter in one of its forms, you can’t talk about Lakeland music.”
The Mad Hatter was a Lakeland venue that moved multiple times and was a staple of Lakeland teenage life between 1995 and the mid-2000s. It hosted everything from local musical acts to larger touring bands like the Christian hardcore band, Zao, that played at the Mad Hatter when it occupied space off of Combee Road, just one of its many locations all over Lakeland.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, places like Carpenter’s Home, the Mad Hatter, and the Belfry were all music venues that have come and gone, and fostered the music scene for Collins and other prominent Lakeland musicians like Aaron Marsh. It also saw the rise of bands such as Anberlin and Copeland, as well as Collins’ first and most ambitious band, Denison Marrs.
Growing up in Central Florida, Collins’ parents encouraged music as much as possible. His father was a Southern Baptist music minister who bought him guitar chord charts. But his mother took an entirely different approach.
“I had this little drum set, and before naptime, my mom and I would play music together, her playing guitar and me banging on the drums. When I got interested in guitar, she said, ‘Pick a song and I’ll teach you how to play it.’ So I decided I wanted to learn ‘Cherub Rock’ by the Smashing Pumpkins, and she taught me on that guitar.”
As he talks, Collins points to a well-loved guitar hanging on the wall in the room. He now owns his mother’s guitar from his childhood and hopes to teach his kids how to play on the exact same one. “Almost every song I’ve ever written I wrote on that guitar,” he says.
“We were tired of leaving our families, so we brought them with us. My three-year-old daughter went on tour with us and she loved it. She still asks when we can go on tour again.”
Growing up, Collins wasn’t influenced by just his parent’s music. On Friday nights he would go to friends’ houses to play video games. He remembers listening to the radio and being blown away by what he heard. Popular radio stations would live stream DJs, and Collins couldn’t get over the way they would mix popular songs together seamlessly. It was around this time that he also started listening to rap and hip hop. He would listen to Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy albums in his backyard and hope his dad wouldn’t find him.
“I was the surfer kid in high school who listened to hip hop and played basketball. I just kind of did whatever, but it was high school and it worked,” Collins says.
His surfer friends were the ones who eventually invited him to hang out with them at Carpenter’s Home Church, and it was there that they decided to form their own band. Collins was friends with Kyle Griner (who would later go on to manage bands such as Anberlin and Copeland). Griner is the one who suggested Collins connect with Joe and John Bucklew. John played drums and Joe had just started playing bass. Collins himself reached out to another friend to play guitar, and the band Denison Marrs was born.
“We were young and we played everywhere. Church lock-ins, crappy bars, and we gave it 110 percent. We wanted people to leave our shows and go tell their friends that they missed out,” Collins says. Much like his time at Carpenter’s Home, being in Denison Marrs brought plenty of its own interesting stories and events.
One time, the band drove to West Palm Beach to play a show, in an old U-Haul truck that they had converted part of in order to provide more sitting area for the band. There was no AC in the back of the truck, so they ran air vents from the front AC to cool the truck down. The long, sweaty ride was topped off by arriving in West Palm to a hurricane, which they weathered out sleeping in the U-Haul.
“At the end of the night, the hurricane was gone and the kids from the event were banging on the side of the truck. So we got up, played basketball, played the show, and then went home. It’s amazing we’re still alive after all the things we did. Driving all night playing shows wherever we could.”
Their hard work paid off though, and Denison Marrs was signed to a record label and began participating in larger events such as Christian music weeks in Nashville, playing at large Christian festivals, and touring with larger bands. Some days they would play at shoddy bars and some days they would play for 3,000 people in a nice venue. They did whatever they could to make it work.
Throughout the years, different record labels came and went, and their time was limited because, according to Collins, Denison Marrs was known for making “all the wrong decisions.”
“Kyle [Griner] would suggest one thing and we would do the exact opposite,” Collins says. Denison Marrs eventually broke up and went their separate ways. Drummer John Bucklew would go on to play for Copeland for a little while, and Collins had other plans in mind for music.
(and some of the past)
Over the years, Denison Marrs made a lot of friends along the way. Members of famous bands from Tooth & Nail Records, Starflyer 59, and Ghoti Hook joined Collins in a band called The Party People for about a year, but Collins’ next big venture would be the band The Dark Romantics. His wife, Carla, and her sister joined the band on bass and keys, and Collins’ brother-in-law, Dean, joined as the drummer.
“Everything that we did wrong with Denison Marrs we made a point not to do with The Dark Romantics. We were tired of leaving our families, so we brought them with us. My three-year-old daughter went on tour with us and she loved it. She still asks when we can go on tour again,” Collins says. The Dark Romantics did two albums and an EP for Louisiana-based Lujo Records.
“It was so fun. Having Carla with me was so great. She barely played bass, but she would rip on our Dark Romantics’ songs. Guys would come up to her and ask about gear, and she would say, ‘I don’t know. Ask them.’ She wasn’t in it to be cool. She was there to have fun and that’s it.”
Carla getting pregnant with their son Eli would be the catalyst for the end of The Dark Romantics and the start of Eric’s next musical venture.
“We were young and we played everywhere. Church lock-ins, crappy bars, and we gave it 110 percent. We wanted people to leave our shows and go tell their friends that they missed out.”
A year after giving birth to their son, Carla told Eric she thought he needed to make music again. So, he decided to make music that combined all of the things that he loved, and MrENC (Pronounced Mr. E-N-C) got its start in 2009.
MrENC was an opportunity for Collins to get back to all of the things that made him love music in the first place. Pulling surf guitar and hip-hop beats, the first music he describes as “Gorillaz-style stuff.” However, it felt strange making it himself and for him to make it standing on stage by himself when he had been part of a band for so long.
Furthering his love for the past, bringing his brother-in-law, Dean, from The Dark Romantics back in, Collins started to add in his love for shoegaze and feedback that he credits directly to his early love for Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys as a young teenager.
“I feel like I’ve come full circle again,” Collins says. All of the music he loved as a teenager now directly influences his music in MrENC.
He’s also often joined by good friend and local artist Bump Galletta who does live drawing and painting at shows. And Collins’ other side project, The Ghost Beat, can be heard at the beginning of “The Lowdown with Bump,” Galletta’s podcast which highlights local voices. You can hear more about Collins’ musical past and their long standing friendship on the first episode of “The Lowdown with Bump” where Collins gives a more in-depth look into what inspires him.
With his long-standing Lakeland history, Collins’ ultimate hope for the local music scene is that the new entrepreneurial spirit can come along the Lakeland music scene as well. Hopefully this local support will also pull from different artists and different areas of Lakeland. “How do we engage other pockets of Lakeland artistically?” Collins asks. “What’s going on north of Memorial? We need more diversity. People on guitar, but also people rapping over tracks. Part of the scene is authenticity and history. Lakeland has both of those things, but we have to embrace it. I’ve been to so many places that have that, and I want to pull from those experiences and help Lakeland.”
Collins is constantly encouraged by the people who choose to stay in Lakeland to make art and better the community. One of his biggest encouragements comes from his friend Aaron Marsh. “I would get frustrated and just want to leave and go somewhere else where I feel supported. But Aaron is so pro-Lakeland and he wants to stay and support Lakeland, and he encouraged me to stick it out,” Collins says.
And he has stuck it out. Over the past 20 years, the Lakeland music scene has had a constant in his creation. While other bands have toured or recorded in other places, Collins has been here providing good music to Central Florida and making our music and art scene richer and broader. And, honestly, we couldn’t ask for a nicer, more talented guy to do it.