It's been, appropriately enough, six years since Detroit's Electric 6 released their Fire album, capturing worldwide attention with their combination of disco, garage rock and tongue-in-cheek comedy. (The disc was especially well received in this writer's native U.K., where the band's camp theatrics were welcomed with open arms and open wallets.) The singles, "Danger! High Voltage" and "Gay Bar," were international smashes and the E6 looked to be following their friends in the White Stripes to worldwide domination.
Except it didn't quite work out like that. ...
Señor Smoke, the group's 2005 follow-up, shifted only a fraction of the units that its predecessor had, and the four albums released since then (including last year's Sexy Trash rarities package) saw the band's popularity descend and plateau at "cult" status. Indeed, it may even come as a surprise to some casual fans that the Electric 6 have a mighty seven albums to their credit; that's how much the band has slipped off the radar in five years.
As a result, those same casual fans may expect little these days. And that the group's guitarist, Zach "The Colonel" Shipps produced the new album might suggest the E6 couldn't afford a "real" producer. The truth is, however, Shipps — who actually has previous production credits with the Meatmen and the Hard Lessons — has done a fantastic job with this set of songs, probably the band's best yet. It's certainly the most consistent album of their career (even Fire had its share of filler).
So one can't help wondering if front man Tyler Spencer (aka Dick Valentine) expects this record to transport him back into the big leagues. Turns out the affable singer is actually content.
"I think we reached our plateau a long time ago, especially in the States," he responds, quite matter-of-factly. "We've been selling out the shows that we're playing, and that's not a bad place to be at all. Even if you had given me this scenario at the beginning, I definitely would have taken it. It's good to work steadily and have the cult following that we do."
Valentine, it turns out, doesn't have any regrets at all. Sure, in an ideal world, he'd choose to have hit single after hit single. But the man is realistic and he appreciates that, for a short time, masses of people absolutely loved his band. And he certainly doesn't care that, at least at the start of this decade, the English seemed to care more about his band than the public in his homeland, even his hometown.
"We came from a situation where we didn't have any commercial sales in either country," he notes, "so there's really nothing about the trajectory, upwards or downwards, of the Electric 6 that ever really bothered me. There were definitely elements of the 'novelty band' curse in Britain. But we still have die-hard fans over there that have followed us through every album. Slowly but surely we're getting our fans back. It'll never be what it was because we no longer have a mechanism like [British record label] XL to help. They had radio pluggers and stuff like that.
"But the occasional writer from Kerrang! or Q magazine still comes to a show and we've seen some good reviews in the past couple of years. I could go on and on about that. There were some head scratchers back in the day, sure, and weird things were written about the band. Writers would see our videos" — with their wacky, novelty synth vibe — "and then come to a gig and see electric guitars and actual musicians, and they'd assume that we were trying to mimic the Datsuns or a band like that. But, no, this is what our band has been like all along. So I think we got an unfair rap based on our videos. But then again, those videos are also what put us on the map."
Valentine's job of reigniting the world with Kill has been a bit tougher because, for one thing, he now lives with his wife in Brooklyn, although his bandmates are still Detroit-based. Thanks to Grizzly Bear, Amazing Baby, the Vivian Girls and others, Brooklyn's indie rock scene is happening, although Valentine remains charmingly oblivious to it all.
"My wife went to grad school and then we moved to Brooklyn as a team," he says. "I spent my 20s in Detroit and had a great time but it was time to move. Had I grown up in New York, I'd probably be living in Detroit right now. The great thing about spending your 30s on the road and then living in a city that you didn't come up through the scene in is that it all really doesn't matter. I don't know any of those people and I don't know where they live. In fact, this is the first time I've even heard of Grizzly Bear — no, I'm kidding. After spending my 20s going to Detroit clubs and trying to fit in but not fitting in, I reached a critical mass and now I can spend my time just exploring New York City."
Valentine concedes that, because he returns to Detroit so often, he hasn't had time to get homesick, although on occasion he does get a hankering for a real rock 'n' roll show — for which Detroit is known.
"I'm there [in Detroit] enough and my mom is still there and my band is still there so I go back to record, rehearse and stuff like that," he says. "I get there four or five times a year, so I guess I've never been in a situation to miss it. There are certain restaurants that I miss. And I do miss seeing shows there. I'm surrounded by clubs in New York, but it's very rare that I go to see bands because they come and go and you never hear about them. In Detroit, you know ...."
So has Valentine been able to keep abreast of the current Detroit scene as an expat? "I'm not back enough," he readily admits. "I'll plug Millions of Brazilians, though. I do like them. In fact, they're going on tour with us. And Johnny Headband, of course. I just saw them the other night. Maybe I'll take a week next year, spend my vacation in Detroit and reconnect more."
Hey, there are far, far worse places in the world to take a vacation, even if there is a line in "Egyptian Cowboy" from the Kill album in which Valentine sings: "The Detroit River's not a good place to scuba." Seems like sound advice, but the front man explains the actual meaning behind that lyric: "I was just thinking back to when I was a debt collector a long time ago. A guy that I worked with claimed to go scuba diving in the Detroit River. I always wanted to go down there and see if he really did it. But I never got the chance, so I still like to think that he's telling the truth."
So, honestly, how far does Valentine think this album will take his band? His answer is humble, honest and probably completely correct: "It'll probably keep us where we're at and bridge us into the seventh studio album," he says. "Anything more than that would be a huge and welcome surprise. But we've always taken the approach that you can't control how you'll be perceived. All you can do is keep making one record a year and stay on the road as long as possible. That's the way to do it."Brett Callwood is a music critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org