It's a cloudless March day in Dallas, and with a few hours to kill before sound check, the Electric Six is doing what any red-blooded American band on tour would do in Dallas: They're eating hot dogs on the grassy knoll. An hour spins on as the band runs around like giddy tourists, listening to conspiracy theorists, aping Secret Service agents in their mirrored shades and re-enacting Kennedy's last parade. Onstage that night, dressed in his typically extravagant rock regalia (slicked-back hair, "Rich & Sexy" T-shirt, single leather glove), singer Dick Valentine leads the audience in the wave and announces that they are considering becoming a "conspiracy theory band."
Add "conspiracy theory band" to the long list of confounding classifications that have been pinned on the Electric Six: "novelty act," "porn rock," "Kiss without the makeup." As unlikely as it may seem for a troupe of pale-skinned Midwestern garage-rockers, some people even think of them as a dance band.
"I guess we do play dance music, but we're certainly not a dance band. I mean, look at us," concedes Valentine. Looking at Valentine (born Tyler Spencer) with his wiry frame and abundance of nervous energy, it's true that he doesn't give the impression of a dance-floor superstar. "We get called a novelty act all the time. I guess I can understand, but it sorta bothers me. It seems like novelty is something premeditated. I don't think our band has ever been like that. I write these songs 'cause I like this kind of music, and I grew up with the Talking Heads, Pere Ubu, Camper Van Beethoven--bands with a cynical sense of humor."
Dance novelty band or not, the group's sense of humor is hard to miss, even if it is just as hard to fully grasp. After all, the band itself was widely regarded as something of a joke for almost a decade in its hometown of Detroit. A group of longtime buddies who performed under dopey monikers, they gained local infamy under their original name, The Wildbunch, for playing dive-bar gigs with tongue-in-cheek grandeur. The highlight of their fledgling performances came when they would field repeated requests for their metrosexual mock-rock anthem "Gay Bar." Eventually the punch lines started to wear thin for Valentine.
"For me personally there was a lot of frustration," Valentine says of the band's early days. "We were a local band that was doing new material and still trying to make the shows as interesting as possible. When you get done playing the Magic Bag or the fucking Gold Dollar for the billionth time that month it gets old. You look out and you're there playing 'Gay Bar' to the same 10 people again and again. Cut to, like, a year ago and things now are a lot different. This weekend we're being flown to Mexico City on a one-off. Back then it was a pain in the ass to do a shitty one-off in Columbus."
Just when shitty Columbus one-offs had them on the verge of calling it quits, things turned around. A media infatuation with Detroit rock initiated by the popularity of the White Stripes had brought Detroit under the microscope of the British press. When the Electric Six released "Danger! High Voltage," a single that featured a guest vocal by candy-striped darling Jack White, the timing was perfect. "Danger!" instantly became a huge U.K. club hit and went to No. 2 on the British pop charts. They followed up the single by quickly pasting together Fire, greatest hits of old and new material that paired dance-y rock beats with a Beavis and Butt-head-inspired fire obsession and a sense of irreverence that was similar to the scene on the grassy knoll: tasteless, but entertaining nonetheless. And though critics were quick to nail them for their lowbrow antics, Valentine's sense of humor had enough commercial appeal to make him an international star.
"In my case I never had an older brother who was really seriously into music, you know?" Valentine explains. "I never grew up romanticizing music or thinking it was the most important part of my life. I liked it. I thought it was kind of important and I was interested in it, but you're not splitting the atom. It's fun to me. That's it. It's never been life or death."
It's a notably grounded philosophy for a guy who sings about "Naked Pictures of Your Mom," but when a hit single brings in a pile of publishing dough and your bar band starts globetrotting, things get a little tricky. The trappings of fame had changed the Electric Six from a crew of longtime friends with a penchant for musical dick jokes into a bona fide, money-making pop sensation. After the raging success of "Danger! High Voltage," they had transatlantic bling behind the operation, and it became difficult for some band members to deal with the increasing number of outsiders who wanted a piece of the pie. Eventually inner-band squabbles about the direction of things became irresolvable; most of the founding members walked, leaving an Electric two of front man Valentine and drummer M. (Corey Martin).
"To make it real simple, after playing with those guys for a long time, we never left Detroit, never left and toured once," Valentine explains. "And then, all of a sudden, we're doing five shows a week all over the world. Like it or not, you're going to have all these different people involved in the band. It's not a small thing anymore. There are marketing people and merch people and management and all that. They didn't like that, and it's unfortunate, but that's just the way it works. You want everybody to get along. But if it's not in the cards, it's not in the cards."
So, adopting a show-must-go-on callousness, Valentine left his old pals by the side of the road and got top-notch guns-for-hire. It was a decision that didn't bode well within Detroit's tight musical sewing circles, and even today, if you find yourself parked on a bar stool next to former E6ers Disco (Steve Newara) and Surge Joebot (Joe Frezza), you're in for an earful about rock-and-roll martyrdom. But that probably won't happen to Valentine.
"Quite honestly, I don't go to the stomping grounds in Detroit anymore," he says. "I'm not avoiding people, but the last thing I want to do when I get home is spend more time in a bar. It may be kind of tired to say this, but you know who your true friends are when you get home."
If that's the case, he won't know who his friends are for a long time. The band is locked into touring until December 19, in which time they'll be spreading the "Gay Bar" gospel across the United States, Japan and Western Europe. After the holidays, the new band goes into the studio to pare down an alleged 60 or 70 songs into a follow-up to Fire.
"We're in good shape for the new record," Valentine says with an edge of excitement in his voice. "But it's not going to be taking place on the dance floor this time. It's going to have some pop that's real poppy and some rock that's real rocky. It's going to be filled with themes of the future and the devil. If you have an idea, you don't have to just write one stupid song about it; you can write 10. It's like the resurrection. Those dudes didn't put one story about it in the Bible; they wrote that same story a bunch of times."
You can tell by the sound of his voice that he is only partly joking. The question is: Can he get an amen?
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