In June of last year, the British radio remix duo that calls itself 2 Many DJs released its long-awaited debut mash-up album, which consisted of several dozen fairly famous songs by people as diverse as Lou Reed, Salt’n’Pepa and Dolly Parton laid end-to-end and on top of each other for a full hour of postmodern party music. Amid the mayhem was a catchy little ditty called “Danger! High Voltage” by the Wildbunch, a group that, until 2 Many DJs got ahold of their single, no one outside of Detroit had ever heard of.
The Wildbunch is no more. They are now Electric Six. The band changed its name when “Danger” was rerecorded for XL, one of England’s premier indie labels, who brought the band across the pond and signed them. Assisted on backup vocals by another Detroit-London commuter, Jack White of The White Stripes, the song eventually went to number 2 on the British charts.
For a group of 30-year-old musicians who’d been confined to the Detroit toilet circuit in one form or another since 1996, this chart success should have been a supreme rush, but the rush turned out to be of a different sort. After E6 released their debut album, “Fire,” last spring, half the band up and quit.
“The three people who left and the three people who stayed had different visions of what they wanted the band to be,” says lead singer Dick Valentine over the phone from his home in Pittsburgh. “For years we didn’t do a lot of touring, and now suddenly we became a touring band. It turned out to be completely opposite of what they thought it would be.”
Though “Fire” does a good job of selling E6’s peculiar charms, it doesn’t come close to approximating the crazy energy of their concerts. Last summer, they played two sets at the Fuji Rock Festival that left the audience in a state of sodden ecstasy. Dressed in bad-quality suits with wide lapels and bearing down on the audience with a kind of ominous professionalism — like punks who had grown up into Vegas habitues — the band was at once ridiculous and threatening. E6 is an MC5-like garage band who has, over the years, incorporated classic disco patterns in their songs to distinguish themselves from all the other garage bands. Despite having to go to England to earn respect, the band now finds itself one of the standard bearers for the current Amerindie rock movement back to the dance floor.
They’re uniquely suited to the task. E6’s dancing-is-sex themes are couched in military metaphors: “I’m the Bomb,” “Dance Commander,” “Nuclear War (On the Dance Floor).” The title “I Invented the Night” sounds like a Barry White come-on, but delivered in Valentine’s classic rock rant (three parts Tom Jones to two parts Leslie West) it’s smarmy, conceited, stupid and pretty funny. “Girl, I want to take you to a gay bar,” is probably Valentine’s most famous line. Like his tendency to break into calisthenics on stage, the lyrics defy exegesis.
“The disco thing wasn’t planned,” he explains. “It just evolved naturally out of playing together for years.” In other words, it’s not a gimmick, and the singer won’t pinpoint the source of the group’s image. He claims he wasn’t directly influenced by the ’70s dance and hard-rock acts that seem to inform E6’s sound. “My influences were Devo, Talking Heads, Wall of Voodoo, The Pixies . . . ” he says. “You know: white, suburban, sexually frustrated rock.”
He theorizes that the songs on the record “are basically a product of my car listening,” which makes perfect sense. The Wildbunch itself was a Detroit fixture, but the members didn’t necessarily live there. And Pittsburgh is a four-hour drive from the Motor City. “For a long time, I didn’t have a tape or CD player in my car, so I was forced to listen to the radio, and the state of rock radio is so bad in the U.S. that I always listened to the urban stations. They’re much better.”
Valentine accepts the “new indie dance-rock” label but adds, “Bands like us and Radio 4, we’re not commercial successes. We’re out there and we’re making a living, but we don’t scratch the surface of the mainstream.”
At least, not in the United States. “There’s a freer market over there in England,” he says. “In America you basically have to get on the good side of [radio conglomerate] Clear Channel, and that means spending a million dollars for promotion. Over there you can get on the BBC. They’re good at giving people a crack at a wide audience, and leave it up to the listeners to decide what they like.” The band hopes to sell 50,000 copies of “Fire” worldwide, which is respectable for an indie release, and, according to Valentine, “we seem to be on pace to hit that.”
But the only way they’re going to hit it is by touring, unless other means of promotion emerge. “There’s a Gap advertisement right now featuring Missy Elliot and Madonna. I want to do the same thing with Tom Jones. We could all use the money, and maybe get some free clothing in the bargain.”
It’s difficult to imagine E6 having the same impact in polo shirts and khakis. Despite the group’s sartorial consistency, they don’t employ a stylist. “The reason we dress that way is because we don’t have a stylist. If we could afford your higher-caliber names in men’s clothing, we might go for it, but we don’t have that kind of money so we buy secondhand suits.”
The suits and the outre stage names — guitarists Surge Joebot and The Rock ‘n’ Roll Indian were replaced last spring by Johnny Na$hinal and The Colonel — all tend to indicate a theatrical rather than an expressive approach to rock. “Yes,” Valentine admits, “I suppose it’s all sort of a facade to hide behind. We’re all terribly [long pause] insecure people.”
And what about Tyler Spencer, a name that appears in the CD booklet as E6’s main songwriter? Is there such a person? “It’s me,” he says with a laugh. “In a million years I would never make a name like that up.”