Electric Six's Dick Valentine: "I wrote the best lyrics of my life when I had day jobs"
Electric Six (due Friday, March 7, at the Larimer Lounge) formed in Detroit in 1996. Not content to strictly follow any particular style of rock, the band has forged its own strange and surprisingly original path. Its greatest commercial and popular success came in 2003 with its debut, Fire, which contained the hit single "Gay Bar." Rather than milk the success of that album, however, Electric Six has continued to evolve into different directions with each of its nine successive releases, including 2013's Mustang.
We recently spoke with the group's frontman, Dick Valentine (born Tyler Spencer) about how he feels like Fee Waybill of the Tubes, why "Unnatural Beauty" isn't called "Monkey Hangers," and the hope that one day there will be more bands given the green light to appear on high-profile televised events than a single flavor of the moment.
Westword: Your band has been compared to all sorts of things over the past eleven years, but more than anything, you seem to have more in common, though not directly musically, with bands like Sparks and the Tubes, partly because the Tubes don't play a particular genre of rock and don't sound like anyone else. Were either band an inspiration to what you do?
Tyler Spencer: Thank you very much, I appreciate that. In a roundabout way, sure, those bands [were an influence]. I was aware of them, but I don't think I sat down and listened to their discography while smoking pot or anything like that. Certainly both of those bands and the style we picked up from them. Fee Waybill changes outfits, and I used to do that. Now that I'm 42 years old, I feel like Fee Waybill, you know what I mean? The prime age to be is 44, so it's kind of the same thing. I feel like being Fee Waybill is where I'm kind of at.
Have you been able to see Sparks or the Tubes live?
I've never seen The Tubes or Sparks. Sparks toured recently, but I missed them. If the opportunity ever arises, I would go. But I have to say that San Francisco around the late '70s is just a golden age and location for music between Journey, Huey Lewis, Greg Kinh Band and the Tubes and all of that. If I could go anywhere, that's where I would be. I don't know how often those bands played, but I'd take that over '90s Seattle any day.
Whose idea was it to have the decorated jean-jacket backs on the inside artwork of Mustang?
That was John Nash, the White Wolf, our guitar player and producer on that album. I don't know if you noticed, but the spelling of "electric" on the jean jacket is misspelled, and that was not intentional. It came back, and we were sitting there, and Da Ve, our other guitar player, said, "You know, I think it's missing an 'r' in this." "Yeah, you're right. That's awesome." It couldn't have gone better for us.
Your music sounds like you've mulched and freely associated cultural references and styles across time. What is it about that kind of diversity in styles that suits what you want to do?
It all has to do with being a different person than you were eight years ago. I always try to make pop-culture or political references whenever I can. Musically, I think we always try not to do the last album we just did. The album before Mustang was a synthesizer album, so we just wanted to make more of a guitar album. The next album, the way it's shaping up, will be a marriage of the two aesthetics, I think.
When you're driving across America during long stretches, you do a lot of your writing inspired in part by odd things that happen while on tour.
If you're in the back of a van and you're not driving and you don't have good cell-phone reception, there is nothing to do but write.
Are there places that are more fertile for strange happenings than others?
I can't say that. Actually, I wrote the best lyrics of my life when I had day jobs. It would just be a fountain, because you'd be sitting there and need an outlet really bad. As far as locations, no. We played a smaller town in Spain, and I wrote the totality of "We Use the Same Products" just walking around that town. I don't know why those lyrics came at that time, but it was a cool concept to be walking through old cobblestone streets and stuff. When I think of geography and where I wrote something, that one stands out.
What inspired "Escape From Ohio"?
Are you from Ohio?
No, I just went on tour there around ten years ago.
It's pretty self-explanatory. It's one of those places where you don't understand why people choose to live there. Obviously, coming from Michigan, I have an anti-Ohio bias. It was an amusing thing to do at the time.
Your song "Late Night Obama Food" mentioned a "late-night pizza clown." What might that be?
I don't know, I think you're using different fast-food ideas there. You usually associate a clown with burgers, obviously, but who's to say you can't have a pizza clown?
You talk about fast food in that song sarcastically -- which is understandable, but why so?
I haven't had a fast-food burger since 1997. I used to eat them all the time in high school, and I had a catcher's mitt for a gut back then. I remember when I did it, I was trying to cut back, and I was on a road trip to see my dad or something. I was starving and really didn't want to eat a burger, but the only thing around was a McDonald's, and felt awful after I ate it. It was just one of those moments when you're like, "Never again." Now it's seventeen years later.
It's probably difficult for anyone that hasn't done it to imagine what it must be like to be a band that has somehow written a hit song. You wrote "Gay Bar Part II" sort of in reaction to the popularity of "Gay Bar." Perhaps an allusion to Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2." When you perform "Gay Bar" lately, do you ever change the lyrics for your own amusement?
I don't know about that one. I know that there are other songs where I throw in different lyrics. If anything, with "Gay Bar," I sing the lyrics in a weird accent or something just to have fun. It's definitely a song I've played a billion times now, so some nights you have to have fun with it.
With "Iron Dragon" and "Miss Peaches Wears an Iron Dress," did you consider giving the album a title related to iron in any way, as you did with Fire?
That happens all the time. In Switzerland, I think there's two songs where I reference going bananas and shooting to kill. For whatever reason, that concept's in your head, and you don't think about it. In "Jessica Dresses Like a Dragon" and "Miss Peaches Wears an Iron Dress," there's a "dress" and "dragon." I have no idea. It wasn't intentional. I didn't notice it until I saw the track listing.
The song "Unnatural Beauty" has to have one of the most obscure historical references to appear in a song. In the lyrics, you mention the mythical incident from the Napoleonic Wars in which a monkey was executed in a town in England.
Yeah, the song is inspired by the town of Hartlepool, which is where that took place. The song was originally called "Monkey Hangers." Which I think would have gone over in the U.K., but a couple of guys in the band were thinking of how that would be perceived in the states, so I acquiesced to change the name of that for those reasons. So it became "Unnatural Beauty." I played a couple of acoustic gigs in Hartlepool. I love the town, a weird little seaside town in which I've been fortunate enough to play. You hear about that story and it seems so funny.
Did they tell you that story when you went there to play?
That's what they tell you about. Or if you're in Newcastle the night before, they say, "Oh, you're in Hartlepool the next night, let me tell you about the 'monkey hangers.'" I was there last year playing a show, and the liaison, the guy who picked me up at the hotel and drove me around, he had a buddy who was this oaf who was shitfaced at the end of the night. You could just tell that's how he spent every night. He had a tattoo of a dick on his nose, which led me to believe that somebody did it to him while he was passed out. He's just one of those kind of sad sacks who is the one guy in a thousand to whom that's going to happen.
The song "Adam Levine" isn't strictly about Adam Levine, but more about what he represents or stands for. What do you feel is the issue with that safer and sanitized so-called pop music?
I'm not angered by it. We have deeper pockets being a DIY band that plays to people who support us, and we have a cult following because we are who we are and we occupy this space. Maybe if we were on a major label, we would have been kind of washed out a long time ago. I look at it as kind of an opportunity for us.
That having been said, we live in a country where it's so hard for rock bands to "make it." You look at the bigger gigs like Super Bowl halftime shows and the Today show, and there was a period there where it was always Maroon 5. You turn on The Tonight Show and whatnot, and it's Maroon 5. That's the only band you get. Them and Nickelback. I know there's more bands, but you shake your head and wonder why the 1 percent always get those shows and get those cracks, but that's the way it is.
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