Arising from Detroit’s ever-fertile musical climate in the 90s & early 2000s, Electric Six emerged with a style that could only be summarised as the culmination of all the music that came 40 years prior, topped off with an irreverent sense of humour that seems to blend sexually perverse innuendos with Douglas Adams-style surreal yet strangely coherent genius. Each member is a respective virtuoso, and together they’ve echoed and combined the sounds of hard rock, disco, punk, pop and metal to underpin hit songs about gay bars, synthesisers, vampires, girls and hoodlums partying at McDonald’s (much to the staff’s distress).
The band, now comprised of Dick Valentine, Johnny Na$hinal aka The White Wolf, Dr. J, Herb S. Flavorings and SMORGASBORD are still touring as frequently as ever, gracing venues large and small with their exuberantly eccentric live shows, rife with razor sharp performance and Valentine’s deadpan stream-of-consciousness banter directed at the audience and the rest of the band alike.
Amid their Australian tour, we sat down with the frontman to discuss the band’s history, their approach to writing and his recent self-produced 9th solo album This is Hell!
Detroit is world renowned for its contributions to music, both in electronic music and beyond. What impact did it have on the band in its early days?
It’s a city that’s incredibly supportive of music. Everything was just so cheap to rent, so people would just come together with hardly any money, and musicians would be able to support each other, and music just becomes that much more important when nobody has anything else to do. Early on as a local band, we’d just get around playing tonnes of shows around the city. We’d just set up and play every Saturday night and it really felt like we were doing something, and the live shows kept us going for years before we got a record deal. I think if we were in any other city we would have lost interest pretty quickly. Going back to Detroit now, it’s changed quite a bit. There’s more development going on, the rent is much higher, but there are still so many venues that are still alive and so much music there. I don’t think it’ll ever change.
What was it like touring in the early days?
For us back then it was just a weekend gig type deal. We’d play local shows around Detroit or go interstate to places like Chicago or Cleveland. Before the band, we were all working 9-5 jobs and music was something we did because we enjoyed it, so we weren’t able to tour all around the world and the US like we do now. There were so many places to play particularly in Detroit, because there were so many refurbished buildings lying around that became music venues.
What’s the background of Electric Six? What made you want to become a musician earlier on?
When I was a kid, around the age of 8-10 or whatever, I really wanted to be a rock drummer. At the time, I was into stuff like The Police, and Duran Duran were pretty big too. They’d be playing stadium shows, appearing on MTV and everything like that. In high school I played drums in a lot of school bands, then in college I started to get into writing lyrics for my own songs, and began to get a feel for how to write lyrics to music. I had no idea where my career was going at the time or what I was going to do, and I was just gonna work on odd jobs for a while.
I reconnected with [Percussion World] our drummer at the time, who I went to high school with. With that original lineup, he was the guy I had the most in common with musically. We started recording demos one summer, and the other three guys that ended up joining the band heard the demos and asked if they could cover Gay Bar for their band, and we were like, “well we need guitarists, so why don’t you just be in our band?”, and basically the band formed. The guitarists came from a background of being into stuff like AC/DC, KISS, Black Sabbath – that kind of music, whereas me and the drummer came from more of a new wave-y sort of background, so that became a marriage of those two concepts. We played around Detroit as The Wildbunch for about 5-6 years, and in 2002 we got our record deal and it became a career at that point.
You had to change your name because of Massive Attack’s old collective right?
Yeah, and it took us about 2-3 months to brainstorm a new name. I forgot when we came up with the name ‘Electric Six’ or who came up with it, and we just liked it because it didn’t rub anyone the wrong way in the band. We didn’t want anyone in the band to be like “if that’s gonna be the name of the band, I’m quitting” [laughs]. I mean, nobody knew what the name even meant, but nobody threatened to quit, so we stuck with that.
The music on the other hand isn’t as reverent. The music seems to operate by it’s own rules and the listener is just along for the ride.
We’ve never approached a song like “it has to sound like this”. John Nash (Johnny Na$hinal) is a great guitarist and he’s been with us for 20 years, and he’s got the things he likes. On the new [Electric Six] album that he recorded himself, you can hear the songs where he just really wanted to play guitar on them, and just shine as a guitarist. From there, you just throw in like a country song, or this or that, and then that’s the album, which is just a smorgasbord of sounds.
It’s fascinating how the band ended up signing to XL Recordings, because that label signed quite a lot of early UK rave music.
When we got our deal, XL at the time had already signed The White Stripes, and now they have Adele. So that’s the progression there. It’s like going from The Prodigy to the White Stripes to Adele. You see where that’s going – they wanna expand and get bigger continuously. In the early 00’s they were trying to get more rock acts, because rock was still very much the thing at that time, as well as the connection to Jack White who knew us at the time, and we just went with XL because it seemed like the best offer.
Electric Six seems like almost the polar opposite of The White Stripes, as far as the approach is concerned.
In our local scene we were pretty much the exception, whereas The White Stripes were a lot closer to the rule. There was a whole bunch of garage rock bands who had that same ethos as the Stripes, and I think we were able to exist outside of that. I don’t think Jack [White] himself was like this, but a lot of those other bands really didn’t like us. They thought we were a joke, they thought we didn’t take it seriously and so on. I never knew what that meant, but for me it’s always been fun, it’s a fun band to be in. I mean, not many bands are like “I wanna be like Electric Six”, so we’ve got the Electric Six market cornered, which is good for us. [laughs]
My favourite music personally is stuff that isn’t totally serious, and lets you loosen up and have some fun. Being too austere with music can get kind of fatiguing after a while.
That’s the way I always approached it. I never wanted to be an over-thinker or over-analyser. I’ve never looked at music and been like “this has to be better in this way”, I’ve always just been like “this has to be entertaining”.
With every Electric Six album, it seems as though every track is a different genre, yet they still manage to feel coherent as LPs. Is this a conscious effort while recording or is it just finding the right tracks?
For us it’s a listening party of trying to figure out what works best, but we don’t think that much about which songs go together or anything like that. This next album is very much a grab bag. That said, there are two or three of the poppiest songs we’ve ever done, which we’re excited about. The first track on the album is one of the catchiest things we’ve done. It’s always fun to look at how these songs are gonna sound live and how they’re going to fit into the set. We’ve all got kids now. It used to be that John had a kid and now Tait [Nucleus?] has got a kid, and it’s just not stopping, so we’re definitely past the point of putting out an album a year, which we were doing for a long time.
How does the writing and production process take place?
We all write songs, we all make demos like most people would do in Logic and GarageBand or whatever, and then I just try to throw lyrics on it. Generally, if I try to write music it’s usually a lot more rudimentary than the other guys, so then I’ll fly to Detroit with my riff and they’ll spice it up or something like that. It’s a collaborative process and always has been.
In the age of the smartphone you can record anything whenever, and write stuff in notes and come back to it. With the lyrics, I’m just sewing together a phrase with a phrase that I’ve seen. I’m in the process of writing for my next solo album, and if I’m stuck I’ll just look at my notes and find something to put in a place.
Every song seems to have a different persona or a different narrator. Do you put yourself in the shoes of other people or is it an exaggerated version of yourself?
I mean, when I think of a track like Evil When I Get Good from the new solo record, I just think of some douchebag with $1500 and a bag full of cocaine, that’s all I’m picturing there – like a 3 minute look into the world of a terrible person. In the song Three Ferraris Ago from the last record I was just in Fort Lauderdale thinking about what it would be like to live that kind of crazy lifestyle with Ferraris and big houses and stuff.
With Electric Six, when we did the first album Fire, the great ruse we pulled on people early on is that we made people think we were a bunch of disco sleaze lords who just wanted to fuck and snort copious amounts of coke, and I burst so many bubbles around that time doing interviews. People were just so let down. They’d see the videos, and then they’d come see me backstage and I was just sat there playing internet scrabble. I’ve never had a problem with impulse control or had the problems that the characters in my songs do.
One of the songs on your new solo record made me burst out laughing, Goodnight (Juana’s Gift). It begins as quite a heartfelt ballad but the lyrics get quite bizarre very quickly.
I do like to do that in my tender songs. It’s like, you’re writing a beautiful song and then you’re not afraid to put something there which most people wouldn’t even think of. That particular song was about our early days in Detroit, and about an amalgamation of several parties we went to in Detroit, so I was just thinking about it one day.
That blend of comedy and sincerity is really effective because it blurs the line between the biographical and the fictional.
It’s kind of a hybrid of both, yeah. I very rarely write a song about an actual person or event. There are a few, but a lot of times I’ll write a song inspired by someone or something but it’s not really about it. You’re kind of off the hook in that way, and no-one can slander you for it. It’s not like the Alanis Morisette song about Dave Coulier, you know? [laughs]. I’m stretching while I’m talking to you if that’s ok, gotta get the stretches in.
Stretch away. I wanna talk about the recording process of This is Hell! It’s got a much more raw approach than the past solo records.
I just went in and multitracked all the instruments myself. I didn’t really think about how it was going to be perceived or anything like that. I just did the 11 songs I had in my head at the time. The last record [Coma Watching] seemed more reserved whereas this album has a few more belters on it. I’m already working on songs for the next one, and whatever 10 to 13 songs I have at the time of recording just becomes the album. With the music I generally just started with recording an acoustic rhythm guitar part to a track, and then built around that. I work pretty quickly, I’m not looking to spend a year making a record, I’m looking to spend like a week.
What songs are you playing on your Australia and New Zealand tour this time?
We’re playing Fire in its entirety, and then the second half of the set is crowd favourites, so you’re gonna hear I Buy the Drugs, Down at McDonnelzzz and stuff like that. There’s just so much Electric Six material to get through as well, so that’s what we’re gonna be hearing.
Electric Six are currently on tour in Australia and New Zealand.