Interview: Dick Valentine of Electric Six, Playing at the Firebird Tonight
Among the usual hard-partying social climbers and cocky but insecure sleazebags that populate Electric Six's new album, KILL, is a factory worker who complains of pain and ponders taking a day off, but ultimately decides that he's where he belongs. It's not hard to imagine that Electric Six frontman and sole original member Dick Valentine put a bit of himself into this character, given his tireless work ethic.
Since forming the '80s-rock-meets-Pure-Funk act in 1996, and scoring huge with 2003's Fire, Electric Six has maintained its album per year pace that began with 2005's Señor Smoke. The group also tours rigorously behind each release; Valentine counts 2009 and its 111 shows as one of the group's less active years on the road.
KILLcontinues in the sextet's tradition of uneven but mostly winning dance-rock records. Although the album is a bit heavier -- which darkens their sound -- the party vibe remains strong. Valentine's lyrics are once again absurd but subversively pointed, and all his polarizing vocal idiosyncrasies are present. The growth from Fire to KILL feels natural, and while the albums are easy to distinguish, the band's sound is still recognizable. The RFT caught up with Valentine to discuss the creative process behind this sound, the philosophy behind his busy schedule, his appearances on Fox News' "Red Eye" and more.
Bob McMahon: You guys tour more often than you don't, per year. Is that not correct?
Dick Valentine: Not so much any more. We actually counted how many shows we did in 2009 and I think it was 111, so we almost toured a third of the year.
That's still a lot more than most bands.
Yeah, it's because of where we're at. We treat it as our job cause it is, it's become our job. Because we are a little bit under the radar and not as big as some other bands, in order to make the money that we need to spread it around six ways, you gotta keep taking shows.
Along those lines, you guys have been doing an album a year since 2005. Do you do that for the same reason?
Yeah, in some regards. I mean, if the album is starting to suck then we probably take some time off. But yeah, in order to have a product to tour on and keep it going -- and just the fact that we have five/six songwriters in the band. Assuming everyone contributes two songs, then that's an album right there and it's not hard to write two songs in the course of the year. We never come from a situation where you over-think it. I know a lot of bands get tripped up in making the perfect album or "this album needs to be as good as it can be" and they obsess over it and it takes five years for them to put an album out and then nobody cares about them anymore. We've never really been the sort to be like that.
But you never worry about them being rushed. Well actually you just said that right now pretty much...
Yeah. Early on I worked with people like that and it just rubbed me the wrong way, and I then saw that it wasn't how I wanted to approach music. I first and foremost just wanted to enjoy myself and be in a fun band and realize that this isn't world hunger or making sure everybody has healthcare or anything like that. It's just pop music. If you look back at a song... Like I'm not a big fan of our song "Vibrator" but it doesn't keep me up at night that it's on our album, you know? You move on and make a better record next time if you don't like something.
For the record, I do like that song.
Oh no, I know a lot of people do. If I look back at the songs we've done and that's the one that always comes up and I don't necessarily mind it, so... that's how happy I am with this band.
You were talking about how "It's just pop music." What's your inspiration for your songs' lyrics? It gets debated. One quote reviewers like to use, is that they say somewhere you said 90% of your lyrics are irrelevant. But you still get guys like Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog.org, who will say stuff like: "Dick Valentine of the Electric Six is obsessed with deconstructing, satirizing, and critiquing modern masculinity." He will read a lot more into your lyrics than I think a lot of people, including myself, would.
I gotta say in a lot of ways, that's fair. I mean there's no real linear progression in a lot of the lyrics. I mean I do just throw a lot of things together and hope they add up to some sort of common theme. It is funny that a lot of songs, like "Dance Commander" and "I'm the Bomb" and things like that put us on the map with frat boys and that's why frat boys love us but a lot of that stuff is poking fun at those people and they don't know it, but they buy T-shirts anyway.
The old License to Ill effect.
Yeah, it kind of is. Lately, the way I write lyrics is when we're in a van on tour, if something comes to my mind, maybe a phrase or a sentence or something I write it down in my notebook and at the end of the tour I've got pages and pages and pages of like one-line things. And then basically all I do to write lyrics at that point is to jumble them all together and some of them add up to an actual song.
Going back to the music part of the songwriting, how do you guys come up with your songs? I guess on the songs you write, do you just do it on your own and bring it to the band and how do you write for other people's songs or collaborate with them?
Since GarageBand came into our lives, all the ideas are pretty much written on [that] and we just send them to each other. Ultimately, it comes down to, if I find it's easy to write lyrics to somebody's songs. Keith, our bass player is a prime example. He sends me tons and tons of shit and I really love a lot of it and then I spend days and days and days trying to come up with something that could work. And then the song "White Eyes," he sent me that and I had a song in five minutes. So that's pretty much how it works.
Is GarageBand a big help with you living in Brooklyn (the rest of the band stayed in Detroit)? Does your living situation change the dynamic and/or make it harder to write collaboratively anymore?
This band even in the original lineup days was never a jam band. Originally, I pretty much just wrote the songs and then we'd get together and learn them and they'd turn up the fuzz on the pedal and stuff and that would make the songs that I wrote a little bit harder than they normally would be. But yeah, it's really hardly ever been a situation where we all come together and play around for two hours and find out what happens together. I would say the closest thing that ever worked out like that is the song "Sexy Trash." Mostly, songs are generated from one person's idea and then some other changes are added along the way but there's a primary songwriter for each song.
Your press release on your MySpace page talks about how you're done trying not to sound like Fire for this record. How much of this is tongue-in-cheek and how much did you really want to go back to that album and why?
I don't necessarily think KILL sounds like Fire. I think I said it in another interview or another release or something but a lot of times I get a call from my manager saying the record company needs a bio like tomorrow and I have eight hours to say something so I just say something. You know I think people had said, "The guitars are louder on this album. The loudest guitars since your first record," So that was kind of it. I mean I don't actually believe KILL sounds like Fire. I was just writing a bio to turn in a bio.
I think every album... it's just a collection of songs we write at the time. I will say for KILL that a lot of the songs were originally written on synthesizer and guitars were intentionally added to them to give them a different feel. For the most part... we're not writing a concept album, we just write the songs that came up during that year.
So there's no deliberate aim like "This one we're going to go heavier" or "this one we're going to branch out into synths." Or anything like that?
Well, I do think KILL was intended to be heavier than [2008's] Flashy. I think that's pretty much the way it was produced. But yeah, in terms of the way we're writing the songs... we're finally off the tour and we're looking at doing album number seven and as I talk to you right now I have no idea what's going to be on it but it'll come together.
Your electro-pop side-project Evil Cowards came out with an album earlier this year. Was writing with partner Will Bates different or was there any reason you'd think, "This song is more of an Evil Cowards song than an Electric Six song."?
Nope. I had a surplus of songs this year. Will and I had been hanging out over the course of a couple years and then one day when we were hanging out, he had his own studio, and said, "Let's go in and see what happens." I played the bass and we laid it down and then we had "Love Pigs" in that afternoon and we decided to keep going with it. It's a different approach, it's all drum-machine, a lot more synth-heavy, there's very few guitars on it and it's just kind of a different approach. I think a lot of the songs could have been Electric Six songs and they would have sounded a little bit different. But yeah, I had a summer off basically and there was something to do and it worked out.
One of the things I noticed with Evil Cowards was the horns and other sounds. And over your last few Electric Six releases you've included more percussion with timbales and cowbells and all sorts of stuff. Is that something you've always wanted to do?
I would love to go on tour with as many people as I could. Backup singers, horn sections, strings and all that. I advocate throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what happens. I think it's cool that we brought a lot of percussion and stuff into it. There's not a lot of time to do all those things you want to do so we just try and throw little nuggets of what we want to do into each of these Electric Six songs and maybe one day when the band's not going anymore then you can do your musical layer or orchestra piece or whatever.
How did you hooked up with (late night talk-show) Red Eye on Fox News?
I just got a call one day that Greg (Gutfeld, host of Red Eye) was a fan of the band and that he actually goes out of his way to get lesser-known musicians on the show and it really is just what he likes. And ironically it's taken Fox News to get people like myself, Buzz from the Melvins and Andrew W.K. and stuff on national TV. It's worked out really well. I've had a great time every time I've been on it. It's interesting to go into the Newscorp building, that's for sure.
Do you think it's boosted your career at all with it being on so late?
Certainly after shows people come up and say "I saw you on Red Eye," but have I bought a second house because of it? Not yet.