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Interview: Electric Six


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Detroit-based six-piece band Electric Six are probably best remembered for their 2003 singles Gay Bar and Danger! High Voltage. Far from being a one-hit-wonder, however, the garage/disco/punk new-wavers have been touring and releasing their own distinctive and uncategorizable albums for over a decade.

Caught somewhere between fire, fantasy and flat-out parody, James Harle converses with lead singer Dick Valentine, on the road for his current solo-tour.

Wikipedia says that your songs are about ‘Macho flippancy, hypersexuality, fire and fast food’. You, on the other hand, have been quoted as saying ‘90% of our songs are about nothing at all’. What are the other 10% about?

The other 10% is just process of elimination… I don’t analyse what they’re about. This is how I figure it: I couldn’t write 100% about anything, even if it’s nothing, so that 10% is just a margin of error. I don’t know what that 10% is about, any more than the 90%. I don’t want to look at my work, I don’t want to analyse it, I’m just doing my best to shirk all the responsibility for that… shit.

Oh dear. And how’s that working out?

It is difficult, it follows you. You’ve got to work, and your job is playing those damn songs, they’re everywhere. You try to run, you try to hide… you can’t. It follows you.

You say that your lyrics don’t have any particular meaning, but what about all the references? I mean in Jimmy Carter you quote WB Yeats.

Yes sir.

… It’s still not about anything?

You’ve got to ask Yeats that, he wrote it. I just copied and pasted. I’m not gonna be on the hook over that, I can’t be held responsible… I just did control-c, control-v, and that’s as far as it went. Ask Yeats. Actually, I don’t know whether he’s still with us or not… but if he is, you could probably google him.

There are recurrent images in the music, though, persistent themes. The album Fire is named for the fact that most of the songs feature it in some way. What’s with the pyromania?

I think the concept of fire, fire burning, being on fire… all that is just a way to make you, the listener, think that we’re more exciting than we really are. It’s all about painting a picture which will make people believe that you’re something which you’re not. I’ve been letting people down for an entire decade- people come to our concerts, they meet the band, and then they actually talk to me. It’s always a big letdown.

You know, you say you’re not cool, that the six of you are very shy and looking to divert attention- but I don’t believe you. I do think you’re cool.

[Laughs] Yeah? I haven’t felt cool in a really long time. But I’m still here… so I guess it’s not really that important. And that’s the crux of music: the listeners, the culture even, want to believe that they’re cool. So when you’re making the music, and you start off knowing you’re not cool, and not close to being cool, and not caring that you’re not cool… I don’t know, I guess that’s where the politicians come in. To save us from ourselves.

It doesn’t sound like you enjoy being in a band very much at all. What do you like?

I like… animals. I enjoy animals, I’m a big animal person. I think that if I wasn’t in a band I’d probably be a veterinarian. Yeah.

Yeah? That’s a pretty serious undertaking, I have a cousin who wants to go into veterinary medicine- it’s taking her years.

Yeah, well, it’s never too late. Maybe I could go back to school and take some chemistry classes or… well, I’m not good at that. But probably, if I wasn’t in the band, I’d want to be a veterinarian or a navy seal, one of the two.

They are fairly similar career paths, as far as I know. You must have enjoyed working with animals in some of your videos then- there were a lot of poodles in Radio Gaga, if I remember.

It’s been a while, but yeah, I really enjoyed making that video. I thought it was good. In fact, it was the best part of doing that song- we never really wanted to actually release it, but we were under a lot of pressure from not just one but two record labels. We got to the point where we were so worn down by it that the only thing we could do was release the song and try and put it behind us. But the poodles, I thought, were the best part of the whole thing.

See, that’s a bit more positive. You’re pretty big on videos, as a band, aren’t you?

Yeah, we’re actually about to do a new video for one of the songs on the last album. We haven’t done video in a couple of years, actually, because, I think, we’d made so many. It was kind of like there was no point to prove any more- it’s like yes, we can make videos. So, we stopped for a while. But we actually have a really good idea for a song off the new album called Psychic Visions. When we feel like it we do it- we’re not part of any big marketing plan or anything like that.

Psychic Visions is off the last album, isn’t it?

Yeah, the one that came out in 2011. Generally you’re supposed to have the video done when the album comes out, but we didn’t have time, or a good idea. So we’re doing it now. For fun.

Another well-known video is the one for Gay Bar featuring Abraham Lincoln. I think you’ve said before that the video was based on rumours that Lincoln may have been gay, is that right?

I don’t know why anyone would ask me, I’m not a Lincoln historian. I think the video was done because of the rumour, and the choice is, for the viewers, whether to pay attention to the video or the song. It’s up to you: video, song. Get on the internet and do your own research.

Jimmy Carter, Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan… What is it with you guys and presidents? They seem to crop up as often as fire.

Sure, part of American culture is that we put so much on this one person as a representation of our country. They’re expected to be almost superhuman, they’re responsible for everything that happens- but that’s not the reality. You here people argue about what Obama’s doing or what Bush did, but probably neither of them did any of it. Everyone in the country knows who they are though, so for us Americans it’s just a common reference point- for everyone else, it’s an obscure reference.

I take it you’re enjoying all the coverage for the upcoming election then? I gather it takes up a fair amount of time on US TV, that must be… Interesting.

Yeah, all the time, it goes on all the time, there’s never a break from it. So… sure, everybody loves it. It’s a lot of fun. Sure, it’s interesting… if that’s the word you’d like to use. I’d use… taxing. Taxing’s a good word. But it is what it is.

Anyway, enough politics. Electric Six became very successful relatively quickly- your rise to fame was pretty meteoric, as they say. How did that feel?

It was good. Getting the success that we had with our first album was incredible. We went downhill from there, becoming a do-it-yourself band. Of course we have a record label and everything, but we got a cult following based on the first two albums. You can argue, now, that our career arc has gone back up; we’ve managed to stick around for ten years, weathering the changes of the music industry, and that’s boded well for us.

And of course, you’ve achieved popularity in the US and the UK almost equally. Has that been important to you?

In the beginning, actually, we were much more successful over there in the UK. But then we got to 2005, 2006… and at that point we couldn’t get gigs. We couldn’t even play in the UK, because people were like: ‘Oh, Electric Six. They’re a joke- nobody talks about them anymore’. So, we spent a lot of time in the US, and then all of a sudden- I honestly don’t know what happened- we were back in the UK and we were playing the Shepherd’s Bush Empire again. But Holland is our place now really, Holland is where we’re really killing it. I honestly don’t know why. We didn’t play Holland until six years back, and now… they have room for us in the Hague, we get to make decisions on war crime tribunals, things like that. It’s a good situation for us over there.

It’s always nice to do something different when you’re abroad. What about Switzerland? Do you get special recognition there, since you named an album after them?

I don’t think so. We finally went there around 2008, 2009- the shows were okay, nothing to write home about. We name an album after their country, and no one says anything… It’s just one of those things. But it’s still a beautiful country and everyone wants to live there.

Some people take you seriously, some people see your songs as parody. What is the secret to the success of your music?

It’s very honest: we don’t set out to be anything other than what we’re not. I don’t secretly want to be in a garage rock band singing about girls and cars, you know? This is honestly what I consider to be the best music I can make, so in that regard it’s not parody- even when the lyrics are somewhat satirical, and don’t add up to what people expect from lyrics. We’ve always had that kind of press, and we used to wonder why- and our manager broke it down for me once. He said: certain elements of music culture just don’t want to get egg on their faces. They don’t want to be the joke: they don’t want their lives, or their tastes to be the joke. They see a band like us… and alarm bells go off.

Dick Valentine is currently touring solo in the UK, and Electric Six will commence another 15-date tour of the UK this November. The video mentioned by Valentine, Psychic Visions, has since been released:

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