I can change the world with my own two hands is inked across the underside of Sai Collins’ arms, between the elbow and wrist. With Sai I firmly believe it. Seeing this on someone else’s arm I might not think much of it. But knowing Sai it is concrete. It just may happen if he’s got a hand in it. If there’s anyone I’ve ever known to be passionate about changing the world it’s him. In all this time as friends many conversations come to the subject of the world and how people tend to interact, both positively and negatively. And with Sai I’ve never known a harsh moment. He’s completely positive. Completely dedicated to making a difference where he can. Always volunteering his time, his talents and his energy. There are probably more like him but this story isn’t just about a musician but a person confounded by the world and their desire to make a difference.
“I got these tattoos two Tuesdays ago,” he says. As a kid, he used to draw a lot and would tattoo sleeves on his arms, usually before going to church in which his mom would yell to wash it off.
“She’d yell, ‘what are you doing, we’re about to go!” he says with a big laugh.
For his current tattoo he wanted something he’d still connect with at sixty. What would he want at 28 and still be happy with at 60? He remembered something from the bible as a kid and how god communicated with the Israelites. The statement was, “What I give you, what I tell you, wear it upon your forearms, your head, and write it in a visible location so you remember what you’re supposed to be doing.”
“And (pointing to the tattooed words) this is a line that comes from a Ben Harper song. It goes deeper than liking a song. That I can make this world a better place with my own two hands,” he says.
The mentality is that we’re a community and we get together and work towards the good of others. He brings up a statement made by Gandhi, be the change you want to see or expect.
“Change is a word I’m so fond of. We’re constantly changing even though we don’t want to. There’s so much change that is needed. Change will never come if no one takes initiative. It states so many things that I want to be as a person.”
Would you take the time to see what its like for me
As people pass me by would you wonder what they see
It looks like I’ve become a monster in some bad dream
Little children stare and parents won’t say nothing
Sai uses the word ‘door’ a lot. You hear it frequently during a conversation with him. Much of what he says pertains to making change or creating opportunity. The meeting of two people from different walks of life can create opportunity, open doors. Volunteer work that helps others can open doors.
Sai is hoping to do a music art show where music, art and even film covers lifestyles, surfing, vegans, vegetarianism, to get all types of people together to experience different things in one gathering.
He’s interested in a benefit show and mixing up different things. “I wanna keep changing things; change the scenery where we do benefit shows in diverse locations.”
Another idea is to start a beach walk where people meet and pick up trash. On a Sunday people meet and walk and pick up trash. It’s a simple situation where people meet new people then meet back somewhere and play music.
“I recently came up with the title of a show I want to start called, we all live here. All the songs on Through My Eyes are related to social or government issues. These issues touch all of us. The song ‘Through My Eyes’ is about a homeless man that he created based on an encounter with a real homeless man in New York and imagined what his life is like.
“When you walk by someone don’t just give them a weird glare” Sai says. “Stop and talk with them.”
Through My Eyes is an album that covers homelessness, vegetarianism, emotional displacement, things that most people can relate to. It is a direct extension of Sai, a collection of songs that emulate his philosophies and daily life. But it brings a certain duality that echoes his humbleness.
“Sometimes I feel weird just promoting music,” he says. “But music gives me a platform to talk about other things, to promote something else.”
Creating and playing music is also a healing process. Although talking with Sai one might think he’s gregarious but he claims to be something of the introvert. He’s very open and engaging once he starts talking. He’s energetic in his speech, talks with his hands, his head always moving and shuffling his frame.
“The music thing is helping me to overcome fears, to understand more about my life,” he says. Sai performs in front of people several shows a week all year long, and for the last two years.
“I get afraid to talk to people in groups. I go to parties and feel I’m not a party person,” he says. Sai confesses he’s reserved and deals with a small amount of social anxiety. At shows he doesn’t talk as much as he feels he should. He’d like to do more speaking at shows depending on the venue but time will tell.
So he gets a lot of practice. For the last year he’s played solo or with his band The Getaway Drivers, encompassing Eric Vithalani on bass and percussion, Bret Ekstrom on guitar and Dan Maggio on drums.
I’m looking for someone that I love
Can you tell me more about the one I speak of?
Cause they’ve been missing for sometime and
I’m never sleeping cause they’re on my mind
In 2004 a friend who worked at Tidal Creek, Emily, entered a singer songwriting contest at the Soapbox. She asked him to do it but he did it more out of supporting the friend. He played ‘Scarlet Butterfly.’ Monica Caison from the non-profit organization Missing Persons NC.org approached Sai about a contributing a song for the organization. She gave him a DVD that explained the mission of the organization. Sai went home and tried filling his head with what it would be like to lose someone, the emotional side. And he came up with the song ‘Missing Faces’ playing at River fest where the song was sold to raise money. Sai didn’t want to play alone so he asked Dan to play drums and then the idea of a band fell together. “Well, we could get a bass player. A three man band at least.” So they put up a flyer.
“I didn’t have a goal or a strong desire to pursue a career in music,” he says.
Dan was a vegetarian. Eric came to the band by way of the flyer at Tidal Creek. Coincidentally he was also a vegetarian. It wasn’t purposely done that way.
“We all laughed, it was ironic, off a flyer we got another vegetarian,” Sai says.
Within a year of playing with the band and as solo, Sai Collins and the Getaway Drivers performed a hundred and twenty plus shows in 2005. The band played House of Blues after Sai asked about performing after eating in the restaurant. He dropped off a cd with the manager and got a call back a few weeks later. Playing inside the restaurant is how HOB screens bands that will open for bands on their main stage.
“A year after our very first show we played at House of Blues for their Bluesapolooza,” he says. “It felt like a privilege. It was packed out which was a good feeling too.”
Sai plays more solo shows out of simplicity, even playing a My Space house party in New Jersey. He was contacted by a girl via the web site and bought a cd. Her parents liked the cd and invited him up to play at a party.
“I couldn’t promote music without My Space. I don’t know how bands did it without it. Putting music on there I’ve sold music as far away as Japan,” he says. “I got contacted from someone in the Philippines.”
He’s been able to share not only music but poetry. My Space lets him communicate with people much better.
“These are just cool people who like music,” he says.
You may have caught him play at the Black Horn Bar down at Carolina Beach or a performance at Sweet and Savory Café. But he’s been focusing more on the Myrtle Beach area recently. Being out of town so late doesn’t afford the opportunity to play early in the morning at Dixie Grill, a place he played many weekends last summer. It was a place where he met a lot of people from varied walks of life. He cites meeting a man who would bring his two daughters every Saturday.
“Playing there is a great sense of community,” he says. ‘The Dixie is very cool. The people there are cool. It has a more natural, grassroots feel to it.”
Playing at places like the Dixie Grill are important to him. He prefers the smaller venues, coffee house and the like. It is more personable and allows time to practice his music.
“I’m more partial to coffee house and smaller venues when playing solo versus bars.”
Sai grew up in public speaking training school in Los Angeles. His parents being very religious, Christian oriented, they taught him the importance of discipline and giving back to society.
“They were two hippies that found a new way of Christianity,” he says. Fueled with all this energy the family moved to an area in Bladen County, uprooting them and embarked on a five day road trip to North Carolina.
His father played trumpet and my mother played classical guitar. Sai’s interest in guitar came from a friend who was into heavy metal and played electric guitar. He was a year or two older than Sai, and into skateboarding which led to them becoming fast friends.
“I asked for a guitar, hoping for an electric and I got this classical guitar that my mom had been playing for years,” he says with a deep laugh. But Sai worked and saved enough money and purchased the whole rig. He started learning to play Metallica and Guns ‘N Roses.
“It’s funny when I tell people that, that I used to listen to Sepultura and Pantera,” he says.
But that was who he used to be and has no regrets or anything negative to say about that type of music. It’s just not who he is today.
“That was my interest then and there’s reasons why but I’m more into a peaceful existence now,” he says.
He played music but never was open with others. “It was something did in my room,” he says. “When I mention New York to people they assume I was playing there but that’s not the case.”
‘Worth the Drive’ is a song about growing up near Fayetteville and having to drive to get good waves. At sixteen, Sai and a friend would drive after work to the Outer Banks just to surf on the weekend. He doesn’t remember the germination of the song, but recalls possibly sitting in front of a surf video on the television, picking at the guitar and having images of being tired driving back .
“I don’t know if that’s exactly what happened but that’s how songs come about,” he says. “Just sitting around and playing.”
With Through My Eyes he wants to do more shows in conjunction with art and promoting causes.”
“I’m interested in getting with other artists like Mike Blair and creating more shows that open the door for us to invite people who are interested in our music and talk about other issues as well.”
Much of this stems from his upbringing. “I just grew up in an environment where my parents were doing work that helped people. That’s what my parents were always doing.”
He offers that he’s not a proponent of organized religion, that he severed himself from organized religion, but at the same time hasn’t lost respect for people who choose that for themselves.
“I try to find a balance within myself and produce something that’s good, positive. I get excited meeting new people and doing something positive together. It really comes from my parents.”
He mentions as an afterthought that his parents are currently learning sign language so they can missionary or preach to those that are deaf as a way to open up a door to communicate with others.
When not working or playing shows Sai does volunteer work. Every time we speak he seems to be involved in something, playing a benefit, such as Band Together in Maryland in June. But mostly it’s local. One such place is DREAMS. It came about after he overheard a conversation. Somebody said that there’s a non profit organization that gets involved with kids that are underprivileged, for art and music, dance and theatre.
“I went up and knocked and their door and asked how I could help out,” he says. But there have been rewarding moments and those of consternation. One afternoon the teacher who normally instructs the class was called away and Sai was left to conduct. The class was going crazy, bickering. Something had happened and he wasn’t sure what to do but felt that if he got the kids to talk about it, instead of fighting, then perhaps progress could be made.
“I guess this kid was in a gang. He seemed so mature for twelve,” he says. “I sat them down and talk about what was going on. The courts had this one kid at DREAMS to serve some of his time. The kid said he was glad to be there because he knew that being around those other kids was bad.”
Sai’s mindset is that, who else is going to show the kids that they are interested in them as individuals and how else will these kids reach their dreams if no one is encouraging them. He believes DREAMS provides that outlet to kids coming from troubled homes.
“I feel very privileged to help out and help raise money,” he says. It is the contacts made with other people that have also benefited the non-profit organization. It helped them get six acoustic guitars to start a class.
“Just talking to people,” he says about the volunteer work. “You never know what someone might want to donate.”
Sai has lived as a vegetarian for nearly eight years. The choice to become one originated from an alternate route from what one might expect. His cousin was a vegetarian for reasons that he can’t remember. Sai was about 18 and thought it was the stupidest thing.
“Why would you give up meat,” he says. So he made himself a bet to see if I could do it. To see if he could go without meat. And he did. But becoming a vegetarian grew out of a challenge, out of personal discipline. But when people ask him about it they learn that it was for more than just healthy eating or animal rights.
“I don’t consider myself an activist for animal rights,” he says. “Sometimes people choose modes of a lifestyle.”
He merely appreciates the value of eating in a better way, not contributing to factory farming which is problematic.
“The person I want to be, I can only achieve that if I discipline myself. If I went and did just anything I wanted I don’t know who I would be.”
Discipline is something he grew up with and mental discipline. His home life was regimented. He went to New York as a young person to do volunteer work and it too was regimented.
“I’m not as regimented anymore but I respect that value of discipline,” he says. “It’s important to me to have it in my life.”
In April Sai traveled to California to play a school benefit. It was the biggest he’s ever performed at. It was a solo performance, no band mates to rely on. And for close to a thousand people.
“Curtis Freeman found out about me from doing all these benefit things and put together this show to raise money for kids,” he says. Humbled by the request, about being invited to play with other musicians for a cause on the other coast, he still wondered about the invite.
“Why bring me from North Carolina for this when there are all these people in California?”
But it isn’t just the humility of being invited to perform, it’s who he is. Sai considers himself not a musician but a musical artist that likes to express emotions through music.
“I don’t consider myself a good performer,” he says. “I’m more of a writer and I’m learning to be a performer and how to be the business person in the middle of all this. It can be stressful.”
In this process he’s also found that no one will put the energy into projects as he will, wearing thin sometimes trying to keep things moving. Other projects include wanting to start an underground music label and helping other artists get exposure and fulfill their goals.
“I’m open about where I book my shows when people ask how I got all these shows. I’ll give them the phone number,” he says, citing the idea of utilizing a newsletter through the web site that coordinates local musicians to help promote them.
When people ask why he doesn’t play other types of music because they think he can., or is asked to sing for other bands, he graciously says no thank you, not wanting to participate in something that isn’t his. Sai’s interested in his own projects, wants to have control over what he’s doing. It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate what others are doing or other types of music, he’s an avid Soundgarden fan actually, but doesn’t want to compromise. People also inquire as to why he doesn’t venture into other types of music.
“I want my energy to be complete in my project and not have to sing other people’s lyrics or sing songs about something I don’t agree with. So I decline.”
Sai’s talked with a label in South Carolina that is owned by Universal and the level of monetary input that’s invested in an artist was deterring. He felt he was green and wanted to learn more, so he entertained the business side briefly to grow. But the influence, the huge investment, told him that they wouldn’t relinquish control with an untested artist.
“People don’t invest that kind of money in an artist and relinquish control. So I can see why the labels dominate so much of what’s on the radio. As a mode to make money record labels will invite people in who can make them a lot of money. But I don’t agree with what that artist is saying because it’s contributing to something to bad in society.”
He’s also working with a company who submits music to established performers who don’t always create their own music.
“Which is how much of the industry is run anyway, you know, Avril Lavigne doesn’t write her own songs. But it’s how songwriters make extra money.”
His songs are inspired by people, the environment, or issues. And songs like that put an artist in a certain category in the minds of record labels. Someone like Jack Johnson has been able to break through that wall because of the musical nature of the songs yet still covers similar territory.
“My spirituality healing through music is what I want to share with people. Healing myself as a person. Two years ago I removed myself from organized religion and my life started over,” he says. “I had to start over, new friends, everything. I knew I had to find something outside the system of just paying bills”
"I promised myself I wouldn’t end it this way
But now my skies they fade to deep shades of gray
Nobles say I should want what I have
But my heart tells me that I should have what I want"
The meaning for the song ‘Scarlet Butterfly’ has increased over time. And the meaning has increased from being on MySpace. People send him e-mails about how the song has affected them personally.
“It kind of gives me chills,” he says. “I mean, I’m a nobody in Wilmington, N.C. and my music is having an effect on somebody…To get feedback like that on a serious level…” Sai pauses and then utters a deep laugh in amazement.
People have traveled from far away to see his shows. “It blows my mind,” he says simply. “You’re writing things that are on your mind. But the value of their meaning increases with each time you sit down with it.”