Amp up the insanity

October 5, 2007


Given the unwieldy title "I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master" and the knowledge that it's taken from a 1921 drawing by German Dadaist George Grosz that he said depicted "a grotesque portrayal of a gloating capitalist with a porcine nozzle and cigar smoldering," you might expect the fourth album from Detroit rockers Electric Six was to be the epitome of pretentious heaviosity.

"When we went into the studio to make this album, we knew we wanted to make a longer record in terms of the number of songs -- we wound up with 16, but I think we recorded 18 -- but other than that, our only goal was that we knew that we wanted it to be a tad more ridiculous than the last record [last year's 'Switzerland']," says singer and bandleader Dick Valentine (or Tyler Spencer to his mom).

"We felt that was a bit too grown-up, a bit too subdued and a bit too 'good.' So we wanted to refocus our energy on being ridiculous."

To that end, "I Shall Exterminate ..." explodes with driving, seductive and supremely silly ditties such as "Sexy Trash" ("Show me your sexy trash / But don't go making moves that agitate my rash / I'm an American man!"), "I Don't Like You" ("Someone told me you were cool / But the more I think about it / That someone must have been you") and "Lenny Kravitz," a hysterically funny song that's essentially about ... well, how much the retro-rocker and poseurs like him stink.

"I was very lucky to live in Detroit when I did; I was there for about 10 years," explains Valentine, who now lives in Brooklyn. "There are a lot of negative points to Detroit, but one of the positive things is that a lot of the people there really mean it, and you don't run into people like Lenny Kravitz. The other great thing was that there weren't any granola-hippie bands or jam bands. You'd go out of town, to Boston or someplace, and you'd see all these Phish or Grateful Dead wannabes. We didn't have any of that in Detroit, and that was a good thing."

No one will ever mistake the members of Electric Six for hippies. The group -- which currently is completed by the pseudonymous Johnny Na$hinal and The Colonel on guitars, Smorgasbord! on bass, Tait Nucleus? on keyboards and Percussion World on drums -- formed in 1996 out of the ashes of a band called the Wildbunch, part of the same fertile garage-rock scene that spawned the White Stripes. Regrouping as Electric Six, they upped the danceability and the absurdity and first won a wide audience in Britain thanks to the hit single "Danger! High Voltage" from their 2003 debut, "Fire."

Several lineup changes followed, and the group has yet to score an equivalent hit in the United States. But its audience has been growing steadily nonetheless, thanks to notoriously out of control live shows and non-stop touring.

"I think we're down to about 200 shows a year now; we've managed to take an extra 50 days off for ourselves," Valentine jokes.

In a rock scene that continues to be dominated by bands that take themselves way too seriously, Electric Six stands out for holding nothing sacred, least of all itself.

"It doesn't matter if critics don't like us or don't really recognize us in the big picture; as long as people are buying T-shirts and buying records, that'll keep us going," Valentine says. "I don't want to name names, but there are bands we've been on tour with -- bands everyone knows -- and their guest lists are really long and filled with journalists who love them and all that, but they're opening for us. And we'll have nobody on our guest list, or nobody cool who wants to come and hang out with us!

"In fact, it's shaping up ... I'll never say according to plan, because we've never been contrived about what we do, we just do it. But we're at the point I've always hoped to reach, sort of like a Guided by Voices or the Fall, with a group of guys in their 30s who put out an album a year and tour relentlessly and build up a following in that way. It bodes well for our longevity, as opposed to always thinking about having a radio hit. ...

"It's like being an NFL punter," the singer concludes. "You don't get the limelight that the quarterback does, but you get to travel, you get a nice salary and every now and then, you're on television."