Dick Valentine admits he was beginning to feel like a shark — that if he stopped moving he might die. After releasing eight albums in just nine years, each an elegantly agitated exploration of some nook or cranny in the craggy caves of "synth-rock," the Brooklyn-based (Detroit-bred) singer-songwriter and his band, the Electric Six, were finally able to "take a year off without freaking out about it."
Not only did they not freak out, or die a shark's death of sudden inaction, but for frontman Valentine there's a bit of equanimity, with solo gigging, a solo disc and impending fatherhood.
"At this point," Valentine wrote to MT last week, after a solo-acoustic show performed in Washington, D.C., "I can safely say that most people coming to Electric Six shows are very much aware that we've put out more than one album." He's alluding to their 2003 album Fire, and the fact that it's been nearly 10 years since their breakout singles were released, including the freaky funk lasher "Danger! High Voltage" and the keyed-up post-garage anthem "Gay Bar."
Valentine (born Tyler Spencer) is going to be a father for the first time this autumn, and last month he released his first solo album Destroy the Children. (That title, considering his new-dad circumstances, "was intentional," but more on that later.)
Back to the aquatic parallels, he and the band have been swimming along for seven years straight, hitting an impressive album-per-year stride from 2005's Senor Smoke onward. They've toured extensively, particularly throughout Europe. ("Danger! High Voltage" hit No. 2 on the U.K. singles charts.)
Valentine noted that, with six songwriters in the band — guitarists Zach Shipps and John Nash, bassist Keith Thompson, drummer Mike Alonso, keyboardist Christopher Tait — they've never had a problem with new material. (The others, by the way, remain in the Detroit area, unlike the transplanted Valentine.)
Album to album, they've grown considerably away from their best-known singles of a decade ago, into darker, more atmospheric, yet still rousing rock terrain. Through nine albums, they've cultivated a canon of groove-hungry, disco-distorting, new-wave-abominating, synth-inflected jams, spurred on by growling crooner Valentine.
And though there are no near-term plans to release "new" songs, in October they'll put out a compilation of live recordings.
Valentine said that taking this last winter off was "definitely needed." That said, "I'm really happy with the whole experiment of doing this acoustic record," referring to Destroy the Children.
"I just thought it would be fun," he said. "I have a really short attention span, so the 10-12 hours it took to record this album was perfect for me."
Maybe he doesn't sweat as much on stage when it's just him and his guitar, but Valentine's still pouring all his heart into his solo acoustic tour through the UK and East Coast, featuring, inevitably, E6 covers like "Dance Commander" — but then, sometimes, surprises like Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise."
Last May he kicked off the tour in the UK, metaphorically flying solo, literally "hopping trains." Traveling from venue to venue throughout England, "with guitar in hand," Valentine said, "is the musical equivalent of four days in Palm Springs."
Acoustic songs invite suggestions of quiet reflection, poetic and poignant portraits of the artist's true feelings. But Destroy the Children is still very much in an E6-esque mood.
"I've gotten through a big chunk of my life without having a kid," said Valentine of the impending life-change for him and wife Kate Muth. "It's a big deal. The album title is just a way of keeping it loose, though. I'm not big on making my songs personal, so none of this is directly related to impending parenthood."
Valentine admits, though, that if you closely examined his newest lyrics you could definitely find a "'growing older' vibe."
He's come a long way since wiggling around his bedroom with nunchucks and short-shorts for manic music videos as in the early E6 single "Dance Commander." "Growing older" or not, it's still refreshing to hear Valentine take his usual gesticulating, punk-rock-carnival-barker persona down a notch, his breathy baritone complementing stately violin saws and jangly acoustic cascades.
Lyrically, the signature sneering charm remains: "Destroy the children," he sings on its title-track, "before they destroy each other / and imprison Lindsay Lohan before she becomes a mother ..." Later comes this witty couplet: "Destroy the children before they have the answers / and replace the singer-songwriters with Auto-Tune dancers."
After 10 years of recording and touring "at some level of semi-success," Valentine says that his songs "are no longer written with an urgency or desperation."
He notes some of his earliest lyrics back as singer for the Wildbunch — as E6 was known in its original incarnation through the mid- to late '90s — "'I'm on Acid" or 'I Know Karate' ... I think if you compared those simple, repetitive lyrics to songs like 'The Termite Queen' [on Destroy the Children] it would be almost unrecognizable as the same person."
Most articles about Valentine and the E6 practically start out by name-dropping those hit singles from the group's 2003 album Fire — and this article is no exception — but actually, Valentine says it's "the songs from Albums 4-8 where I go 'Holy shit!' a lot more than the first three." (In 2007, E6 released I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master. But Valentine simply calls that one "Album 4.")
"It was around 'Album 4' where [bassist, Keith] Thompson [aka Smorgasbord] joined, and [drummer, Mike] Alonso [aka Percussion World] was on full time and [guitarist] Zach Shipps [aka the Colonel] was recording us basically at his house; that was when it became more of an 'anything-goes' vibe. [Shipps] did four albums in a row while [guitarist] John Nash honed his chops with home recording."
Around 2010, Valentine felt "it was just the right time to see what a change of pace would sound like."
Nash produced last year's Heartbeats & Brainwaves, suggesting they try doing a full-on synth album, something Valentine said he'd been ready to do for a while. "So, yeah, Heartbeats very much felt like a culmination and that, at least for the short term, there was nothing more to do."
"I'm really happy with the records this group of people has done, and I know when it's time to do another one, next year, we'll come up with something equally as interesting."
After 10 years — or, as Valentine puts it, "at the end of the day" — he still sees E6 as "really small potatoes." Those breakout hits name-dropped above were never "big, from an American standpoint. So, if I've learned anything, it's that it's a big world. And it's a nice spot to be in. It's a comfortable situation with a whole lot of room to go up."
"It took a while to get to that point. But whatever, ... we'll take it."
The Electric Six perform at 8 p.m. July 15, as part of the Pig and Whiskey Festival, which runs July 13-15 at Troy Street and Woodward Avenue in Ferndale. A modest East Coast tour follows. Full P&W details at metrotimes.com.
Jeff Milo writes about music.Send comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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