By Daniel Kohn
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Electric Six front man Tyler Spencer, a.k.a. Dick Valentine, describes his conundrum: "People think we're multimillionaires, or some band from the middle of nowhere calls us up, like, 'Come out here and play with us, and we can get at least 50 people to show up,'" he says. "We're somewhere between the two—below Jack White, but more than 50 people show up, hopefully."
Spencer is standing outside a Holiday Inn in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the morning after a tour date, living proof his Detroit sextet is indeed not quite trumpin', but can still pull down enough loot to make a decent living. Spencer himself now calls Park Slope, Brooklyn, home, "with the other yuppies," the 35-year-old Rainn Wilson look-alike jokes, though he does admit he likes a decent glass of red now.
From E6's new-wave-disco-garage-punk discography (2003's Fire, 2005's Señor Smoke and last year's Switzerland), you'd think he'd prefer acid, sniffing glue and absinthe. Switzerland's single was, after all, "I Buy the Drugs": "I can be the jump-start for the car parked in your mind/'Cos you left the lights on all night long. We can drive for miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles away."
Times have changed since Fire, and Spencer is grateful that maniacs from Columbia to the Coach House (where E6 plays April 19) still care. Seven years ago, E6 was the biggest thing in Europe since, well, Jack and Meg. At one point, they had two singles—"Danger! High Voltage" and "Gay Bar"—in the U.K. Top 10.
E6 was signed to hipster U.K. label XL, but the band was just a little too far ahead of the whole Bloc Party/Franz Ferdinand electroclash disco-rock resurgence to hit big. That and the fact they were geeks from Detroit. "We sold 250,000 records. But XL were used to, like, the kinds of numbers the Darkness were doing," Spencer says.
"Bands don't need to figure out how to get signed," Spencer warns. "They need how to figure out how to get dropped." It's a miracle E6 is still around at all, even if "they" is now just Spencer, the lone original member.
"People just didn't realize how hard it was going to be once we did get signed, and then how much harder the work became after we got dropped," he says.
E6 started as a wild bunch of high-school friends from suburban Detroit. In fact, they dubbed themselves the Wildbunch but had to change their moniker when the prominent Bristol trip-hop crew that launched Massive Attack and Tricky threatened a lawsuit; Spencer eventually settled on Electric Six.
By then, E6 was already well on its way. Their sound was a free-for-all blend of punky, herky-jerky disco and irony so ironic that if they were in the German army, they'd be awarded the Ironic Cross. Spencer, who combines the chubby-chinned charm of Dwight from The Office with the abstract everygeek menace of David Byrne, sounded like Captain Beefheart's Don Van Vliet skidding into Bill Murray's lounge singer. Which made them anomalies in the Iggy-anderthal Detroit scene. (They once played a gig at a strip bar on seedy Michigan Avenue, a grinning Spencer doing push-ups between the grinding dancers.)
It was something Spencer was well aware of. "I always say Detroit's a place we're from geographically, but not spiritually," he relates. "Spiritually, we're more from late-'70s San Francisco with the Tubes and the Greg Kihn Band, or New York with Talking Heads and Blondie. It's the Midwestern thing, I think. Like Devo or Pere Ubu. And not being able to get girls in high school."
Now decamped to Brooklyn (the band writes new material during sound checks on tour), Spencer has some perspective on being the one band that made it out of Detroit post-White Stripes, and even the irony now goes both ways: they're signed to big bad industrial label Metropolis, home to KMFDM and other, grimmer acts.
"Detroit's one of the best music scenes in the country," Spencer admits. "You can play every weekend and pack people in and feel like you're doing something; it's also a place that took us seven years to get a record deal out of."
And now, as many years later, it's still a place where 300 to 400 people will show up to an E6 gig to get irony dripped on them a couplet and 4/4 kick drum at a time. So maybe "Danger! High Voltage" has had some tongue-to-a-9-volt nights; at least the power's still on. "Which," he reminds us, "is why I'm talking to you from a Holiday Inn parking lot in Chapel Hill right now."
ELECTRIC six perform WITH TEST YOUR REFLEX AND THE CUT THROATS AT THE COACH HOUSE, 33157 CAMINO CAPISTRANO, SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, (949) 496-8930; THECOACHHOUSE.COM. THURS., APRIL 19, 6 P.M. $13.50-$15.