Dick Valentine - 2008

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Dick Valentine (or "Tyler Spencer," if you prefer actual given names) is the manly-voiced lead singer/songwriter of top-selling bombastic rock band Electric Six. Upon the release of their typically excellent fifth album Flashy (featuring such hits as "Formula 409" and "Dirty Ball"), he was kind enough to grant me a telephone chit-chat at 3:20 Eastern time on a delightful October afternoon. My questions are in bold, his answers are in manly plain text.





Hey, this is Mark Prindle.

Oh, hey man! That's right, you were calling me today.

Is that okay?

Nah, it's fine. This is a great time. I remember now we said 'any time Saturday' and you 'were likely to call me at 3:20 Eastern time.'

(confused pause) Yeah!

That's great. It's 4:20 in Newfoundland!

Is that where you are?

No, but that's the time in Newfoundland right now. It's 4:20 there.

Oh, that's great!

Yeah. No, I'm in Madison, Wisconsin.

Oh really? What are you doing there?

Playing a show.



(whistle, as if to say 'wow!')

We're on tour.

I know. Yeah, I saw on your web site.


I didn't know you were living in Brooklyn.

I live in Brooklyn. Do you live in Brooklyn?

I live in Manhattan.

Ooooo! Aren't you somethin'.

We could've been hanging out all these years!

I know!

We blew it.

I've got a Brooklyn inferiority complex so I might snap at you every now and then.

Oh. That's okay.


I think Brooklyn's probably cooler.

Yeah yeah, but you've got the better real estate and the Illuminati. And we've just got Adrien Grenier.

Who is Adrien Grenier?

He's in Entourage.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. The show that's produced by Marky Mark Wahlberg?

I think so, right. Yeah yeah yeah, that's the one, yeah. So we've got him and you've got everybody else.

We've got the financial crisis. We're responsible for that. We did that.

You've got the Rockettes and you have Mayor Bloomberg.

And the financial crisis. Are you enjoying the financial meltdown?

I am, actually. I pulled all my retirement funds out of the market and put them in cash, and also I think that we're seeing more people want to forget about the financial crisis by coming to our shows and buying t-shirts that make them feel better about themselves. So we're actually seeing an uptake in sales because of the financial crisis, because our music and our t-shirts help people feel better.

Oh good!


Do you have health insurance?

I do.

I guess you have to pay for it on your own. That must be ridiculously expensive, I would imagine.

Well, I'm married. My wife has a job, so I'm on her plan.

Ahh, very good. I'm on my wife's plan too. It's the best!

That's the way to do it. The good old days in the '50s when the wives stayed home -- a lot of people think that's the way it should be. And you and I disagree.


Yeah. I think the men should stay home.

Absolutely. Taking care of the dog.

That's right. I concur. Do you have a dog? You live in Manhattan and you have a dog?


That's great. And you take him to Washington Square, or where do you take him?

Well, I'm on 91st Street so I take him to Central Park and to the Carl Schurz Dog Run.

Oh I love the dog runs, where they're penned in with all those other dogs? There's nothing like that.

I know.

I don't own a dog, but I go and hang out at those things just because it's complete chaos, you know what I mean? I just love watching it.

Animals being animals, and people trying to stop them from being animals.

I get it. But it's cool! I'm glad to hear that you're a dog owner. Where do you live? 91st and what?

Between 3rd and Lex.

Oh, the other side. Okay, because I have a really good friend who lives on 91st between Amsterdam and Columbus.

Oh, okay. Does the rest of the band still live in Detroit?


How do you manage that?

Well, we're on tour so much that we do a lot of our rehearsing at soundcheck. Like for instance for this tour, I flew back the day before the tour started, we had one practice, learned some new songs off the new record, and went and did them. These songs are pretty simple and everyone in the band is a very accomplished musician, so it adds up to not really needing to rehearse that much.

Oh, okay. Did you write most of these new songs yourself? It looks like on the credits, you got most of the credit.

Yeah. Yeah, for whatever reason. We do have six songwriters in the band, and I encourage people to come up with stuff, and I was hoping that we would've had more, you know. It just depends on what I can write lyrics to, I guess. So people write good musical compositions and sometimes I just completely blank on adding lyrics to them and don't know which way to go. And obviously songs that I write are easier for me to write lyrics to, so that's what happened with this album. I'm hoping the next album will be a bit more representative of these other people.

Do you play the guitar? Is that what you write on?

Guitar and synth.

Did you just have no interest in playing those in the band? You wanted to be lead singer?

Oh yeah - I mean, I'm not a very good musician. I'm a good songwriter, but I'm a pretty below average musician. I can play rhythm chords and such. But when we started the band, I don't know, I just wanted to be the frontman. I guess I could've played the guitar, but I thought it would be more fun to dance around a bit and move around.

When did you realize that you were a good songwriter? I know that's an odd thing to ask, but the albums are just so consistently full of clever - the lyrics obviously, but the music is what I'm talking about. One would think that a band like Electric Six - some people would be willing to just write it off as the same old schtick or whatever, but it never is! The songs are always so clever and hooky!

Well, I appreciate that. Like I said, we have good people in the band right now, and I just kinda throw out the rudimentary skeletons of rhythm chords and bar chords, and everybody else adds all the bells and whistles which make it add up to an aural pleasure. As far as lyric writing, I just really try to (a) be true to myself and (b) not make the song be boring or cliche'. I don't know. I went through a period around the Y2K time that I actually tried to stop writing music. I took a job out in L.A. because I didn't think the band was going anywhere and I wanted to get away from it. And ironically that year I was out there I ended up writing more songs than I ever wrote. Sooner or later they end up writing themselves, and I've just learned to not stand in the way of it.

I became aware of the band when a friend of mine emailed me shortly after Senor Smoke came out. And he said, "You gotta hear these guys. Fire is fantastic. And Senor Smoke isn't as good, but Fire is fantastic." So I got them and I thought the opposite. I thought Fire - the lyrics were great, it was a good album. But man, I thought Senor Smoke was awesome!

Oh, thank you very much.

And every one since then! So I don't know if it's because the band members have all been replaced, or you've just branched out more in your songwriting or what. But like the first album - it really did seem kinda like 'oh, they have this bombastic rock-meets-dance schtick and some of these songs are really great and some just kinda fit the mold,' but since then, you've hit so many different styles, and -

Well, that's been intentional. I mean, it's true. With us, our band existed as a local Detroit band for six years before we got our first record deal, so we are one of those bands where the first record is basically the 'greatest hits' of everything you've done. And then you're stuck with - you have to write a second record. Every record since then, we've never really mapped it out or really had much of a game plan. We'd just do the 13 or 14 songs that are laying around at that time. I guess we do constantly try to do different sounds, different genres just so we don't get pigeonholed as a disco band.

Your new album does seem a lot more straightforward loud rock than the last one - the last one seemed really diverse - but the mix! There are so many different guitar and synthesizer tones in there. I mean, there are times when I can't even tell what the instruments are! Like in "Face Cuts," I hear something that's either an Indian instrument or a toy guitar - I can't even tell what it is!

That's a good example of - a lot of those tracks I actually just did on GarageBand, and we just threw the tracks into the main computer for recording and then added a bunch of stuff on top of it. With this album, at least a lot of my songs were written on cheap synthesizers that I had in Brooklyn on GarageBand, and then we added all the guitars on top of them. And took songs that were originally written in a synth mode and made them much more rock.

Was that an important aspect? Were you purposely trying to make sure that the mix was as interesting as the songs themselves? Because all these songs seem to have a lot of different things to listen to. There's like reverbed pianos in some and acoustic guitars and bells and all kinds of things coming in to the mix.

Our guitar player Zach has a home studio. He's done the last two albums. We don't really have a deadline when we record so we have plenty of time to throw things in there and mess around. So he's responsible for a lot of that. Like I said, that's the way it works. We just kinda present rudimentary skeletons to him and then we've got plenty of time to add things and mix things around from there.

And why the sudden influx of horns? There's lots of horns on there.

Yeah, I'm a big fan of horns. I wish all the albums had that many horns. Go back to "Vengeance And Fashion" on Fire; I remember a lot of the guys from the original line-up were real anti-horns for that song, and I wanted a full horn section on there. I figure with this record we finally got around to doing more hornwork.

And were these guys that did the horns people that you knew already?

Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, they're friends of the band.

Oh, okay. And your lyrics are so funny in so many different ways, with the overblown 'Rock' language and the absurd non-sequitors and things like "I met you on a Monday, it was Friday night/You were doing alright, 'cause it was Saturday night." Do you do any other writing besides lyrics? Like, were you doing strange writing before the band started?

I've always gravitated towards creative writing, I guess. But no, I've never really, I don't have the.... That's why writing lyrics for music comes so well; I've got ideas for longer writing projects, novels and such, but I just don't have the attention span to finish them, whereas writing a three-minute song - verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/verse/chorus - I do have the attention span for that. So I think Hollywood's loss is Metropolis Records' gain.

Ha! Your singing style and your lyrics - the real over-the-top type thing and the over-the-top rock - are there particular bands that you were thinking of when you developed this sound? I mean, I like a lot of '70s rock, but you even seem more exciting and exuberant than those.

I don't know, I could just tell you what I like. I've always said that this band was kind of a marriage of on one end Kiss or Black Sabbath, and then marry that with like Talking Heads or Devo, and that's our band, you know? And I was a big Pixies fan back in the day, and Captain Beefheart and such. To more specifically answer your question, like on Flashy, the song "Lovers Beware" was like 'we're going to write a Guided By Voices song.' We sat down and said that. In that respect, there are a few songs like that, where we say 'let's do a song that sounds like this band or that band,' but not all the time. We try to do a good job of not pigeonholing ourselves or even compartmentalizing things. Once a song is done, it's done, and we don't worry about how people are going to perceive it.

Because there's humor in it, some people could see it as kind of a parody or take-off of this gigantic bombastic '70s-type music. Do you think that the kind of music that you play would be possible to do with a straight face at this point, without tongue sort of in cheek? Or would the audience need to know that you're kind of 'in on the joke' or would they -

Oh, I don't know that we, I mean -

I know it's not a novelty band.

No no no, I get that. I've always been so far on the outside of how people perceive music. Like in Detroit, there's a whole contingency of people who would say that the Dirtbombs count and the Detroit Cobras count, but Electric Six doesn't count. I've never been on that side of the fence; I think everybody should count.

Because you're not 'genuine'?

Yeah, exactly right. I think there's so many people out there who take music seriously, and they have a good time with it, but it's a very important part of their lives. And when they see a band like us, maybe they want to take it more seriously but they're just so afraid of having the joke be on them that we're just easily dismissed like that. It is important to have kind of a wit, and I think it's a very dry wit that we have. And it's nice to be funny and also not be like the Barenaked Ladies kinda funny, you know? I hate that band. They're a horrible band.

That's a good way of putting it, as 'dry wit.' Because there's never a sense that you're laughing at yourself. It's never like "Look at this joke! Look at this great joke!" It's always like you read the lyrics and go, "What the hell is he talking about!?"

To bring it down to its simplest form, this band is not contrived in any way. From where I'm sitting, it's very true to who I am. It's a natural form of expression to me.

And the music never sounds like a joke. The music always sounds like you could sing actual lyrics to it. Sometimes it sounds like it would have to come from the '70s to be taken seriously, but -

I think we put the right amount of time and effort into it and don't overthink it, and go from there. We never set out to make the perfect album, and if there's a dud on the album, it doesn't keep us up at night. We just move on and make another one.

Okay. Can you hang on just one second?


Okay, one second.

(at this point, I had to run upstairs and open the terrace gate for Henry The Dog. The wind had slammed it shut while he was outside barking at the kitty-cat next door, and he had been crying for about 10 minutes to be let in)

Okay, sorry about that. Why did all the original band members leave at various times? Was it because they didn't want to do this type of music? Or they didn't like touring?

Oh, you're talking about the guys who were on Fire?


It was a number of things. None of us really liked us each other, so you can start there. We also had different perceptions of what the band was. And also we'd done it for six years as a local Detroit band playing maybe one show a month and not really touring or being trapped on the road together, and then all of a sudden we're (a) making money and (b) playing six shows a week and having to share rooms and travel together. The way it worked for six years as a local band really didn't work once we started touring. So it just came to a point where some people felt they needed to leave the band and I didn't stand in their way.

Did you know the people that you replaced them with? Or did you have to put out ads?

Oh no no, all the people we have now I knew from when they played with other bands around Detroit. When the two guitar players left, the two people I wanted to play guitar were John Nash and Zach Shipps, and they're here. They're right in front of me right now, and that was five years ago.

Growing up in Detroit, were you into the old Detroit bands? I mean, I know you're not that age to have seen the old bands like the Stooges and that, but were you into them at all?

Not at all.

Really? What kind of stuff did you listen to?

In the '80s when I was a pre-teen, I listened to a lot of Duran Duran and Police and Men At Work and shit like that. And then in high school I got obsessed with REM. And then when I got to college, I started working with the college radio station and discovered - like from the '70s, I discovered bands like Can and Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart and stuff like that that I probably should've been listening to. I always chalk it up as that I never had an older brother who turned me on to Kiss or anything like that, and my parents weren't really dialed in to any sort of pop culture, so for me with the '80s I just took what MTV gave me.

So where did the Electric Six sound come from?

I think it came from a lot of our original members. They were the Kiss/Black Sabbath side of things and I was more like the Talking Heads side of things. Those guys really really were into their guitar tones, and that was a big part of the equation.

But are you still into this type of music that you're writing now?

Are you asking if I like the direction that the band is in right now? As opposed to -

Or do you feel trapped into playing the kind of music that those guys set as -

Oh no no no, not at all. Since they left the band, I think the sound of all four albums since then is much more diverse and is much more up my alley. I mean I like Fire, but of the five albums, I wouldn't put it in my top three.

Do you have a favorite of the five?

I don't know, the last three are all kinda tied for top spot. I just think our band is getting better.

Have you had to deal with people - in clubs or whatever - sort of like "Oh, ha ha ha, that's real funny" jerks in person?

No, not really. We do attract a large number of frat boys and meatheads at our shows though, and that was never the intent. Some of them are nice guys; some of them need to be taken out to a field and shot but we still accept their money.

Did you know that the band WASP has a song called "Dirty Balls"?

I'm sorry? WASP has a song called "Dirty Balls"?


That's great! Maybe we can go on a 'Dirty Ball Tour' with WASP.

Theirs isn't very good.

I'm excited to know that now.

Considering how hot and uncomfortable they must get, why do you continue to wear the suits? What do you feel they add to the show?

Oh, I don't know. It's something we did originally when we started the band in the '90s because there were a lot of guys wearing t-shirts and jeans and we wanted to stand out. And to this day, it just feels more natural to go out and put on a suit than just walk up in what you're wearing day to day.

Okay. I probably should have used this as a follow-up question a lot earlier, but do you still like REM? Do you still follow them?

To be quite honest, I haven't bought their last two albums. I don't want to say they should have stopped; they're making a good living doing what they're doing. But I think post-Monster, they just really -- I mean, there are some good songs and they've done a few good things, but it hasn't been the same since that.

Yeah. The new one is actually pretty good. The first couple singles stink; I don't know why they picked them as the singles. But the actual album is good.

I guess I'd be interested in hearing that. But I've heard "Hollow Man" and uh....

That "Supernatural Superserious" or whatever?


Those are like the two worst songs on the album, and those are the ones they picked as the singles!

Yeah. Well, you know.

I know! Because those are the two that sound like audience pandering, like.... I don't know. The record is much better. If you can find a download, give it a listen.

Yeah, I've thought about that - of those two bands, U2 and REM, I think U2 has managed to keep it going at a good level, but REM has definitely taken a few steps out.

God, their last album was hideous.

I wouldn't mind going to see them live again. I saw them at Glastonbury in 2003 and it was pretty cool.

Oh yeah?


You said you tour all the time. Do you miss your wife when you're touring? I mean, is that rough to be away from home that much?

Oh yeah, of course I do, and it is. But she's been really really supportive of letting me go out and do this because she knows I love doing this too. We didn't move in together until the band was kinda going anyway, so it's not like we got used to being around each other all the time. Our relationship has kinda grown into this. It'll actually be strange if and when we ever stop touring. I had most of this year off actually and I was around a lot, and that seemed to work too so I think it's good.

You said you went to L.A. and took a job. What is your background? Did you go to college before you started the music?

I went to the University of Michigan and got an English degree and did various English degree-related jobs that pay you like $30,000 a year, like editing and copywriting and stuff.

Okay. Would you... ehh, I don't need to go back to that. Is your pronunciation - like when you pronounce 'devil' as 'de-VILLE' and things like that - how did you come up with that vocal approach? Is it based on listening to - I don't even know! Why did you choose to sing that way?

I don't know! I mean, I've just taken a lot of time to work on my approach and it just seemed kind of a - I don't know. One of our first songs was called "Are You Afraid Of The Devil?" and I sung it that way and it's always stuck, I guess!

I don't mean just that word, but you do -

No, I hear you.

It's great! I really love it. It's so different from what anybody else does.

Yeah, I don't know. I tried many different approaches, but this one just seemed to stick.

I read something last night that said you really didn't want "Radio Ga Ga" on that album?

Oh yeah. The first time we ever went to the UK, we were a big buzz band, you know what I mean? Like the newest, latest, biggest thing of 2002 or whatever. And our first London show was packed with all kinds of press and so forth, and we were covering "Radio Ga Ga" at the time and we had no idea that it was such a big deal in the UK. Like, obviously, in America it wasn't that big of a hit. And the entire audience that night was doing the handclaps from the video, and from then on it was just like "You guys gotta release 'Radio Ga Ga' as a single." Our first label XL, they were insisting on it and we didn't want to do it. And then we got dropped from XL and signed with Warner and then the first thing they said was, "We have to put out 'Radio Ga Ga'." And we had become worn down and we just figured it would never stop until we actually put it out, so it was kinda like "Let's just get it behind us and never have to worry about it again."

Did you even like Queen?

I don't mind them. I think at the time I'd never liked them or disliked them, but I've kinda grown to appreciate them.

So what is the Evil Cowards?

Oh. Like I said, I've spent a good amount of time in New York this year. I had pretty much the whole summer off; Flashy was already recorded. So my friend Will Bates and I - he has his own studio in Tribeca, and we said, "Let's go in and see what happens." And the first song we did was that "Love Pigs" song that we have on our MySpace now, and it became apparent that it was going to work really quickly. So we just did a whole album, and it's still kinda being mixed right now. But yeah, I had a summer off and he was in New York, I was in New York, so we did it.

And what's the style of the album? Does it sound at all like Electric Six?

Umm, it's, it's uh - I don't know, we have a MySpace page, which is just myspace/evilcowards. We've got three songs up now, so you can check it out. I wrote the songs for that band, I wrote the songs for this band, so.... But the production is different. It's much synthier and we're using drum machines. Guitars are not featured heavily in the Evil Cowards at all.

Okay. Do you listen to a lot of new bands? Is there anybody really good that you've been listening to?

On the Brooklyn tip, I really love the new TV On The Radio, what I've heard. And the MGMT record is one of the few things that I've actually bought. I like those. I haven't really gone apeshit over a band, but those are pleasant bands to listen to.

And where are you, would you say - compared to how your career has gone so far, where is the band right now? Are you getting the largest audiences you've ever had? Or was there a really big jump with "Gay Bar" or something and then it's leveled out? Or -

On the European side, in 2003 we were playing some really big rooms and playing large crowds, and then it kinda went down for a while to the point where we were just playing 200-size rooms, and now we've kinda had a resurgence over there where we're back to playing to like 1500 people or something. In the United States, it's pretty much been at the same level for the last five years. We come to New York and we always play the Bowery Ballroom. And it's good, it's a nice level to be at. We just kinda have a workmanlike ethos and just do it. Go out and do it. Don't ask questions.

So like I said, I heard of the band just from a friend of mine. How do people hear of Electric Six? Do you get played on college radio? Or is it a word of mouth thing?

It's a lot of word of mouth. I always say this, but the biggest Electric Six fan in the world two years from now probably hasn't heard of us at this moment in time. There always seems to be this guy who pops up at like four or five shows in a row and is like, "I just heard of you guys six months ago, and you're my new favorite band!" That always seems to happen. Yeah, it's viral. We do get played at college radio, and we've had a few commercial placements and film placements and stuff. Like I can't believe that we had "Dance Commander" in that Stick It movie. We still get people who, like that's how they know the band, from that.

Did that come about through somebody involved with the movie being a fan? Or did somebody involved with the band propose it?

The first two albums, the songs are published through Sony, so I guess Sony just fields requests. We get requests sometimes that don't get used. There was a Hugh Grant movie that wanted to license "Danger! High Voltage!" and they didn't end up using it. I don't know entirely how it works. I just know that I could've been in a Hugh Grant movie.

Is there anything about the band or your songwriting style or any of the albums or anything really that people don't seem to get? Or that you wish people would get? Like is there something you're doing that people seem to be missing?

There's always gonna be the people out there who, just because it is what it is, they're not going to gravitate towards it. But for the most part, I like where we're at in that there are a lot of people out there who are looking for a band like us. And even after 5-6 years of having some sort of a following, I don't see a lot of ripoffs of Electric Six. So as long as we stay unique, I think we'll always have an audience.

I know I've taken up a lot of your time; I'll wind up here.

Oh yeah, we're actually pulling into the hotel, so -

Okay. Last question. Andrew WK, The Darkness: Do you see them as kinda mining a similar field? Or no?

At the time, in 2003, we were compared to The Darkness a lot, with good reason. And I remember the main guy in The Darkness picked some sort of fight with us. It wasn't any big deal; I just thought it was funny that he went to great lengths to say that we were the joke and not him and so forth. I just thought that was weird. I always loved his band.

Really? I find his singing unlistenable. His falsetto is so bad.

I don't know. It was just kind of unnecessary and ridiculous for him to do that. But I don't know, I think in a lot of ways those bands at the time probably would've got lumped into the same category.

Okay, is there anything else you want to say? I know you're finished up here. Anything you want to say about the new album, which I think is, again - every time a record comes out, I think "Okay, is this gonna be the one where it just seems like a schtick?" and it's so good! There's so much to enjoy on these records!

Oh! Well, thanks!

Between your singing style, and the lyrics, and the music, and the production - it's just perfect! So good.

Oh, I'll let everyone know you said that! I think the record speaks for itself. I'm really happy with it, and we're having a good time playing these songs.

Okay. Alright, well thank you very much and enjoy the rest of your tour.

Thanks a lot. I'll speak to you soon.

Okay, bye.

Bye bye.

Reader Comments

Just to be an ass, it would’ve been 4:50. Newfie time is half an hour later than Atlantic time.


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