Fun, But No Joke

Dick Valentine of Electric Six wants to put the fun back in rock 'n' roll.

As frontman and lyrical/musical force behind the deliciously
over-the-top Electric Six, Dick Valentine has been delighting those who
get it, and confusing the hell out of everyone else. Since first
catching the public’s attention with Danger! High Voltage, the
band has managed to offend Queen fans with a cover of “Radio Ga Ga,”
the video for which featured a backing band of poodles (a comment on
Brian May’s unfortunate hair?), spawn rumors as to whether Jack White
was doing some of their backing vocals, and lose all of their original
members other than Valentine. They’ve also earned a perhaps undeserved
reputation as being all about camp, which Valentine is a bit ambivalent
about.

Electric Six didn’t actually set out to be campy; it set out to be a
rock ‘n’ roll bar band, and it still is. In fact, Valentine isn’t
thrilled with being “pigeonholed as a campy novelty band,” which he
claims is something that happened more as a result of the kind of
videos they make than because of their musical style. Electric Six’s
actual band mantra is more along the lines of what Black Francis of the
Pixies used to say: “The only thing we’re trying to do is not be
phenomenally boring.”

The videos are a big part of what fans love about Electric Six,
however, and the band loves making them. It attempted to make a video
for every song on its third album, Switzerland, though budgetary
issues nixed that plan. Its latest video, released in October to
coincide with new album Kill, is a case in point. In the video,
Valentine plays an obnoxious porn director who treats his actresses
like meat, until the point where they turn the tables on him, “and we
enter a voodoo world and I’m impaled and my head is on a stake and
there’s fire.” Sounds just about perfect for a band that’s always
insisted that instead of plain performance videos you should try to
make something as unique and memorable as possible.

Coming out of the same Detroit scene that produced the White
Stripes, Electric Six seems to have benefited from being so far removed
from the musical centers of LA and New York, allowing them to focus on
creating its own sound. Valentine still seems a little surprised that
the band has turned into a long-term career for him, since in the
beginning he never expected it to go anywhere. He certainly never
expected his band to become the grizzled veterans that they are now,
educating younger touring partners in the ways of the road.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Electric Six is one of perception.
The release of “Radio Ga Ga” indelibly branded them in many people’s
minds as a gimmick band, and they’ve never entirely been able to shake
that label since. Valentine has mixed feelings about the whole thing.
“We did get some exposure and it was a great video and whatnot, but in
the UK, in particular, it was the final nail in the coffin in terms of
us being perceived as just a gimmick band.” And he has a point —
mention Electric Six to most people and they’ll think of “Radio Ga Ga”
first and “Gay Bar” (the band’s other hit) second. Many won’t even
realize that they’re already on their sixth album and have been touring
steadily the whole time.

Some reviewers have rather inexplicably described the band’s lyrics
as “angry”; they apparently just don’t get Valentine’s sense of humor.
“Oh yeah, of course I feel like that,” he said. “But it doesn’t really
matter — I think a lot of people do get it. I think there are
enough people out there who get it to keep us going.” Ironically,
Valentine notes that the band has a lot of “dumb guy” fans, and that
those people may not realize that videos set in frat houses are making
fun of them rather than celebrating them.

Though there’s a tendency for casual listeners to latch onto a few
big hits, Valentine says he never gets tired of the songs that made
them famous. Having had a history of boring jobs, he said, “if the
worse part of the job I currently have is that I have to play ‘Gay Bar’
every night, that’s not so bad.”

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