Dick Valentine of Electric Six

by Carl Wiser

Detroit, 2000. There are Insane Clowns, a white rapper, a white trash rap-rocker, and a divorced duo who claim to be brother and sister.1 And also the Electric Six, known at the time as the Wildbunch.

They're ridiculous and excellent at the same time, with a frontman from the Freddie Mercury school of "never boring." In 2003 they land a record deal with the UK label XL, which introduces the band with the single "Danger! High Voltage," featuring guest vocals from Jack White of that aforementioned duo. The video, showing the singer in unbridled electric passion with a 72-year-old woman, goes viral as well as a video can in the days before YouTube. The song is a hit in the UK, as is their next one, "Gay Bar," with a video filled with gay Abraham Lincolns.

The lead singer is Dick Valentine, whose real name is Tyler Spencer. Every band member uses assumed names, like "Surge Joebot" and "The Rock-N-Roll Indian." As they make the rounds, playing Jools Holland, Top Of The Pops and other UK musical rites of passage, internecine strife ensues, and three members leave the band, peeved that they're not in the videos. Dropped by XL before they can properly fail, they form a new lineup and keep making music, releasing an album of some sort (studio, live, compilation) about once a year.

That brings us to the present day, where the Electric Six nurture a loyal cult following, a remarkably stable way to maintain a career in music with unbounded creative freedom. Here, we speak with Dick Valentine to get the stories behind some of their most popular songs.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): You've talked about how in Detroit, what you were doing was very different from most of what was happening there. Can you elaborate on that?

Dick Valentine: I never had a record collection and I never sought to be cataloged or was worried about how I was going to look in books or histories. I just wanted to have a good time.

I think a lot of musicians who start bands don't look at it that way, so they rank Top 10 albums, who's good and who's bad, and my motivation was just to have a few beers and let loose because I had a shitty day job and I wanted something fun to do on the weekends.

Songfacts: I was surprised to learn that when you made "Danger! High Voltage," your band wasn't called the Electric Six.

Valentine: We were started as the Wildbunch when we first came together and started playing out. But then when we got our record deal with XL in 2002, they informed us that the UK already had a Wildbunch, so in order for the deal to work, we needed to change the name.

Songfacts: Is there a theme with electricity, high voltage, like AC/DC?

Valentine: No. We ended up with the band name because Electric Six was the first name we agreed on that nobody would quit the band. Nobody liked it, but nobody hated it.

Songfacts: Is there any AC/DC influence?

Valentine: Probably. The original guitar players, that's what they brought to the table. I like Duran Duran and Talking Heads and more synth-ier, new wave, poppy stuff, and the original guitar players brought more of AC/DC and Kiss to the table.

Songfacts: But AC/DC has their song called "High Voltage" and that's their motif with electricity.

Valentine: I don't remember at all what I was thinking about when the lyrics were written. I remember being proud of the Taco Bell line. That was about it.

Songfacts: Why did you put Taco Bell in there?

Valentine: I thought it would be fun and funny and I like Taco Bell. I'm probably gonna have Taco Bell tonight for dinner.

Songfacts: Why did you keep Jack White's name off of the credits?

Valentine: It was kind of a gentleman's agreement to do that. I'm not sure he necessarily wanted to be associated with us hardcore, and we didn't want to look like we were riding his coattails.

Songfacts: When I first heard you guys I thought you were a British band because that's where you were most popular.

Valentine: I don't know if it was just having Jack on the song, but that song was used by a couple of DJs that were doing very well in Europe, so people thought they could monetize us and break us big over there. So we got a deal with XL, and they're a huge record company and the ones who pumped the juice into us. At the time, they thought we might be as big as Scissor Sisters or The Darkness, so they saw that potential there.

Songfacts: Were Scissor Sisters and The Darkness an influence on the Electric Six?

Valentine: I didn't know about those bands - they got signed around the same time we did.

There's a hotel in London called the Columbia where a lot of bands stayed at that time, and I remember meeting the drummer for the Scissor Sisters in the bar and having no idea who they were, so that was my introduction.

Our band started in the mid-'90s and at that time shoegaze was very popular and Oasis vs. Blur and that kind of thing. I wanted to be counter to that - I wanted to wear suits and just have a good time.

Songfacts: The "Radio Ga Ga" cover and the video you did really brings it into focus because you realize Queen was doing a lot of this stuff that was slightly silly but also so freaking good and so entertaining.

Valentine: Yeah. Doing that song was a happy accident. "Radio Ga Ga" wasn't a huge hit in the States, so it was kind of obscure. We went over to the UK and we were doing that song, not for any reason other than we liked it. And the first time we played in London,  everyone was doing the handclaps in the crowd, and it was so bizarre and so surreal to us to have that kind of reaction. Then XL, and then Warner - who we were on after them - they were like, "We really need to release this as a single."

We were resisting it for a while, but they were so insistent, we decided to just do it and be done with it. So it didn't have anything to do with liking or respecting Queen, which we very much do, but it was more that we had a song that the people saw potential for.

Songfacts: What's the significance of Abraham Lincoln in the "Gay Bar" video?

Valentine: The directors of all those videos - "Radio Ga Ga," "Danger! High Voltage" and "Gay Bar" - were done by a team called Kuntz and Maguire. They came up with the concepts, I just showed up and did the acting. But they had read a rumor that Lincoln may have been gay or bisexual. And so that was it - they were extrapolating gayness from Abraham Lincoln based on something they read.

Songfacts: Maybe it's significant to me because I worked at McDonald's when I was a teenager, but talk about the song "Down At McDonnelzzz."

Valentine: The inspiration for that was an Onion article. It was something like, "Downtown Oakland McDonald's Now A Purgatory On Earth." It was from like 20 years ago, and it was just a picture of a garbage can with a tray sticking out of it with wrappers and stuff, and then all these kind of hip-hop guys just mulling around, and there's a line out the door. We've all been to a McDonald's like that, and I was like, "That's awesome. I want the party to take place there."

Songfacts: The Onion sounds like a wonderful place for song ideas.

Valentine: I think so. We did a cover of "You're A Mean One Mr. Grinch" for The AV Club. We met some of the people at The Onion over time, like when we played Madison and stuff. I think they're phenomenal when you look at everything they've done.

Songfacts: You had to pull off that Thurl Ravenscroft2 "Mr. Grinch" sound, that's not easy to do.

Valentine: Fortunately, I was sick as a dog when we did that, so that lended to the performance of that song. I was gravelly because I was sick.

Songfacts: By the time you were doing "Down At McDonnelzzz" were you making your own videos?

Valentine: We've never directed our own videos, but we definitely had less of a budget for making videos once we left Warner. Ever since, we've been on Metropolis Records, and there's been a couple videos where they threw a bigger budget at us, but when you're talking XL and Warner, the budget could be $100,000 for a video.

Songfacts: How did you end up as a centaur in that video? 

Valentine: After the Kuntz and Maguire videos we were able to insert our ideas into them. So that was a couple guys in the band who at the time were obsessed with centaurs, so that was kind of the idea.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Dance Commander."

Valentine: Sure. I split from the band in 1999 and accepted a job in LA [as a press release editor for PR Newswire]. I didn't know that many people in LA at the time, and I was working weird shifts like 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. So I'd get off work and I was trying to stop doing music, but then I ended up writing more songs in that period than I ever did, just because I was so bored.

So I wrote "Dance Commander" as a fictional story about how I wanted to withdraw like $3,000 and go to a club, but I was in a studio apartment at I-10, Overland, just sitting there. I had nowhere to go and didn't have any friends and was just dreaming it.

Songfacts: Please talk about the song "I Buy The Drugs."

Valentine: It's a song about absolutely nothing. The main character in the song is being supported by his girlfriend. There's drugs and laziness. I think it's just an anthem of, "That's all it is." It's just a poppy, festive song about a drug-addled sloth.

Songfacts: Memories of making the video for that song?

Valentine: That was a great director, Anthony Garth. Up to that point, I was the only member of the band in the videos, so we really wanted to do a video where everyone was in it. It was sort of a fake live performance video at a frat house. It's a party at a frat house.

Songfacts: Do you remember where the frat house was?

Valentine: It was on the campus of Wayne State University.

Songfacts: Were the extras from Wayne State as well?

Valentine: Some were, others were friends of ours from the Detroit scene. It was whoever wanted to be in the video and who was around.

Songfacts: So "I Buy The Drugs" isn't a metaphor. Is there an Electric Six song where there is a deeper meaning to it?

Valentine: Not really. When I write lyrics, I'll write down a phrase or a word, and then I'll have hundreds of those and I'll just compile them together to make a song. I try to make it make sense, but 99% of the time, it's not about anything or anyone.

Songfacts: How about that other 1% of the time?

Valentine: We have a song called "When I Get To The Green Building," which is loosely about death, so I guess it is about something. There's another song on that album [I Shall Exterminate..., 2007] that I wrote about an ex-member of the band that was driving me nuts.

Songfacts: What's the name of that song?

Valentine: "I Don't Like You."

Songfacts: Let's talk about a song you did in 2011 called "French Bacon."

Valentine: I started with the title. I just wanted to write a song called "French Bacon."

Our guitar player, John Nash, wrote the music to that song and it reminded me of a Stereolab song called "French Disco." I'm going through the lyrics right now and I have no idea what that song is about.

Songfacts: Another song from that album: "Psychic Visions."

Valentine: That's my favorite song. I love that song.

I was walking through Brooklyn and saw a neon sign that said "psychic visions," so I decided to write a song called "Psychic Visions." The same person in our band, John Nash, wrote the music to that as well. He sent me that demo and I just started laying it down. It's about a gypsy woman that is captivating, and the guy in the song is paying tribute to her awesomeness.

Songfacts: Your covers album Streets Of Gold is rather intriguing. Some interesting selections. Tell me why "Yah Mo Be There" drew you in?

Valentine: Well, every person in the band, plus our manager, selected two songs. We got approached by Cleopatra to do a covers record because we had done a cover of "Eye In The Sky" by The Alan Parsons Project for a yacht rock compilation they did, and they liked our "Eye In The Sky" so much they thought we should do a full-blown covers album. 

One of their specialties is, they have artists do covers and then they are able to place those versions of a famous song in movies and TV without paying for the original, so that's kind of their MO. So they didn't care what 12 covers we did. Our bass player picked "Yah Mo Be There."

If you look at the 12 songs, they're all over the map. I love it. It's just, "Hey, here's some music!"

Songfacts: What were the songs that you picked?

Valentine: I picked the love song, the one with the really, really long title ["Maybe The People Would Be The Times Or Between Clark And Hilldale"]. It's a really cool piece of songwriting and lyrics. Then I did "Hey" by the Pixies because that is a song I do at solo acoustic shows all the time. I've done it acoustic so many years, I wanted to do it with the band.

Songfacts: Where are most of the Electric Six fans located these days?

Valentine: North America and Europe. The two places we tour quite heavily. Australia as well. We were meant to go to Australia in 2022, but they've now postponed it until 2023.

The highest interest is in the UK, but we've now done two tours of the States since the pandemic eased up and there's definitely people out there for us.

Songfacts: After your first album, half the band quit and you lost your record deal, yet here you are still making music. Can you talk about making that transition and the longevity?

Valentine: I was lucky to get my big break, my big record deal, when I was 31 years old as opposed to 21 years old, so I had the perspective of 10 years of working shitty jobs to realize how great of a job this was. So if you tell me I can go play to 200 people a night and make three times as much money as I've ever made, and all I have to do is keep making albums, that's great.

Fire [their debut album] got our foot in the door and then from there we were able to get more of a cult following and become more of a DIY band and to stay on the road and keep doing it ourselves. For me the motivation is just that it's such an amazing job. I wouldn't want to do anything else.

Songfacts: It sounds like all those years in Detroit gave you a perspective.

Valentine: The first show we did in '96 was at The Old Miami in Detroit, which is a complete dive bar. If you'd have told me then that this is going to be my career, I'd still be doing cartwheels.

I never thought or had the ambition that I'm going to be a stadium performer. What we have now has always suited me just fine.

October 1, 2021

Tour dates at electricsix.com

Footnotes:

  • 1] Jack and Meg White of The White Stripes told the press they were brother and sister, a claim that was hard to disprove pre-internet. (back)
  • 2] Ravenscroft was also the voice of Tony The Tiger. (back)

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