Cool & Cocky
If you head over to the venerable All Music Guide online database and enter the name Electric Six, you'll find the following "themes" attributed to the Detroit sextet: "Cool & Cocky," "Guys Night Out," "TGIF," and, of course, "Party Time." Those are fitting topics for a group that blends cock rock, disco, and new wave with hilariously absurd lyrics.
"Wait, what was that third one again?" asks E6 frontman Dick Valentine, returning to his cell phone after helping whoever's driving the tour van find the right way to Hoboken, New Jersey, the site of the band's next gig.
"Oh... yeah," he says. "I can see that, because, you know, I live for Friday, but 'Guys Night Out,' yeah, that sums it up. Our crowd is skewing more and more to, like, aggro-meathead dude, and I love it when those guys wanna bro down with us after the show and then they realize that we're just these scrawny guys in our 30s with sinus problems that don't want anything to do with their lifestyle. They're always a bit taken aback. It's pretty funny that people roll up and they think it's a 25/7 party with us. But I really enjoy it when people are let down."
Paying too much attention to the six men behind the curtain singer Valentine, guitarists Johnny Na$hinal and the Colonel, keyboardist Tait Nucleus?, bassist John R. Dequindre, and drummer Percussion World might shatter the myths of mayhem and depravity. But such classics as "Gay Bar," "Vibrator," and "Danger! High Voltage" in E6's high-volume live show can always be depended upon to rock you to the depths of debauchery... and crack you the hell up too. Valentine's tongue is so firmly planted in his cheek that it's a wonder he can sing at all; though, it probably explains the fieeee-yahhs, deh-yah-VILLs, and hayyy-ILLs that bellow from his maw. Still, these guys are no stooges or pure novelty act. Their great songs, solid musicianship, and the ability to toe the line between parody and sincerity make them, in spirit, more like Kiss or the Supersuckers than Spinal Tap or Tenacious D.
"Yeah, it's not some big joke, but we also don't sit around in the van and go, 'Hey, read me those lyrics to 'Gay Bar' again. What do you guys think about them?'" Valentine notes. "I don't know if any band sits around and thinks about what they do too much. I mean, we hung out with one of the guys from Radiohead one night, and he was smoking hash out of a Pepsi can. So basically, the important thing in life is to have a good time and to make it to the show in a timely manner."
Valentine's also known as the Best Frontman in Rock 'n' Roll a guy who will nail a rock falsetto normally achieved only with the help of leather pants three sizes too small and who won't hesitate to drop and give you 20 pushups during a guitar solo in tribute to the MC5's Rob Tyner. But before that, he was simply Tyler Spencer, a typical suburban kid who spent his high school years listening to R.E.M.
"I was waaaay too into R.E.M. in the '80s, but I worked my way outta that after they released Out of Time," Valentine chuckles. "You know 'Radio Song,' the first song off that record? That's the worst song ever. That's when I finally realized my time with them was over."
From there, he got into the likes of Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, and especially Devo which at least partially explains his irreverent musical approach. And in 1996, while cubicle-jockeying as an advertising copywriter ("Real glitz and glamour stuff, like print ads for Kmart," he laughs), Valentine formed the Wildbunch and gigged around Detroit's bar circuit for the next few years. Eventually changing its name to Electric Six, the band benefited both from the attention paid to the Motor City during the early '00s garage-rock explosion and the fact that pal Jack White sang backing vocals on "Danger! High Voltage," E6's breakout 2001 single that wound up on their 2003 debut full-length, Fire (which also featured hits "Gay Bar" and "Dance Commander").
Lineup changes followed, as did 2005's Señor Smoke the sophomore (and slightly less sophomoric) album that hit stores in the U.K. (where E6 is huge) but didn't arrive in the U.S. until earlier this year because of label problems. Now they're back with a third album, Switzerland. That title, Valentine claims, refers to the fact that "we're fence-sitters we have no opinions." Shockingly, there are no songs with the word dance in the title, but the slick, chugging guitars, cheesy synth wobbles, and bombastic sleaze are still present. "Night Vision" brings together Foreigner, the Cars, and Loverboy like that killer 1981 stadium festival you wish you'd attended. "I Buy the Drugs" rides a bouncy piano melody and power chords aplenty to a breakdown, where Valentine offers advice on how to score: Submit your request to "P.O. Box 900, Los Angeles, California, 90212." It's an invitation that could raise the same kind of hell as Tommy Tutone's "867-5309/Jenny."
"I made up the address, but I guess it's like one ZIP code digit away from the Fox Broadcasting Co.'s address, so it was kind of a happy accident," Valentine laughs. "I don't think I'll suffer any consequences as a result. I think Fox at this point, it'd be like... well, like when I go to bed at night in some of these hotels we Priceline and I wake up with bedbug bites. I don't sue the hotel; I just roll with it. I deal with it. I think Fox will do the same thing."
But while the good times continue to roll, Switzerland also acknowledges the "dark side of the party." Groupies signal danger on the filthy synth grinder "Infected Girls" ("I gave you my heart, I gave you my soul/Now I'm just another number at the Center for Disease Control"). Evil policemen and merciless birds bent on world domination inhabit "I Wish This Song Was Louder." E6 even threatens to pull the plug on the party on, well, "Pulling the Plug on the Party."
"I think it's kind of a half-and-half record half dark, half light," Valentine says. "You get a little of both, which is how life goes. The duality, the yin and the yang... all that Eastern shit. I mean, Fire is basically an Andrew W.K. record, and so I guess we're moving away from that. But we intend to be in this band for the next 20 to 30 years, and we're gonna put out a record every year, so we just look at this as a record, and then the next record could go in one direction or the other, more dark or less dark. But we're gonna do it all. At some point, we're gonna do a record that's completely dark. One hundred-percent dark."
Is Valentine afraid of what might happen to his soul when he visits those dark places? "Nahhh," he replies. "I don't know that our music takes us to any places other than Cracker Barrel."
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