In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, Electric Six frontman Dick Valentine ahead of Thursday's First Avenue show.
On the Lou Reed/John Cale song about Andy Warhol called, "Images," Lou sings: "I'm no sphinx no mystery enigma, what I paint is very ordinary."
He sees Warhol as a walking contradiction, an ever-unfolding mystery. The deeper you go into the catalog of Electric Six, the harder it is to see your way out of trickster Dick Valentine's weird labyrinth as well. Luckily, I caught him on a good day for songwriting talk, and made it out alive.
Mark Mallman: Your songs take rock cliches and turn them on their heads. It's not parody, yet it is genre critical. That's a fine line. Does a lyric have a better chance of making it into an Electric Six song if it has a strong cultural context?
Dick Valentine: Take a lyric like, "It's about to blow." Now think about how many times you've walked down the street past something explosive like a fertilizer plant. Have you ever seen anything actually blow up? Nothing blows up in your life. But you can write five songs about things blowing up, and that's valid. It's an idea you're trying to convey. The whole idea of rock 'n' roll is trying to make everything more exciting than it actually is. The same is true with every tour I do. People think I'm a mobile Studio 54, but I just want to get back to the hotel and watch SportsCenter.
So, would you ever sit down and say, "I'm going to write a song about SportsCenter?"
No. I don't think sports have any place in music. It bums me out. I always hate seeing musicians sitting courtside. Adam Levine does that a lot. I'm not a big Smashing Pumpkins fan, but once I saw Billy Corgan going to Bulls' games and it kind of devalued him to me.
What about the infamous Electric Six/Franz Ferdinand basketball game?
That's fine. Playing sports is part of a healthy lifestyle. I'm talking about professional sports, if you are in the public eye. I've been guilty of it a couple of times myself in interviews, rooting for this team or that team. But I make mistakes. I'm a human being. I know that that's wrong.
There are some amazing songs written about sports, though.
Yeah? Well I don't want to hear about them. To me it's the glamorizing and endorsement of professional sports. I enjoy watching those things, but I want them separated. A song like "Pressure," by Billy Joel, where he sings "There you are two men out" or whatever, that's a metaphor. That's fine. But I don't want to hear Kid Rock rapping about Steve Yzerman. There's no call for that. The Detroit Red Wings bring in so much money on their own they don't need songs written about them. Let's write songs about fertilizer plants blowing up. To me, that's where the focus should be.
What about exploding fertilizer plants?
It could be a song with Bruce Springsteen angle about how it's the only plant in the town. It could talk about the actual explosion, or the searing flesh. It could have the government involved. It could have aliens involved. There's five different approaches right there. What I'm saying is that I don't think there should be a marriage or relationship between rock 'n' roll music and professional sports, and I do think there should be one between rock 'n' roll and fertilizer plants exploding.
In looking back at your catalog, what songs do you think are the most unique in that way?
A song like "Trans Atlantic Flight" is one of my few songs that tells a story. It's about a guy who is hitting on a woman while on a plane that's doomed. Then they crash into the ocean and die. So he's going to be hitting on her for all of eternity now. It's like a Tales From the Crypt episode where even though the flesh peels off, the skeleton still lives to do all the thing it once did as a human.[page]
Speaking of horror shows, you once had to write ten songs for a zombie show. How did those come about?
The idea was that the songs had to be loosely based around zombies and monsters. It didn't have to be direct like "Highway to the Danger Zone." I think you might actually hear the names Maverick and Goose in that song, heh. The zombie songs were looser than that.
It's Giorgio Moroder and Tom Whitlock, who wrote a ton of hits in the '80s. The lyric "To the danger zone," was a popular thing to sing about in '80s songs, then it disappeared. Well, I suppose modern artists like Britney and Kanye have just shortened it to simply "my zone" or "the zone."
The great thing about rock 'n' roll is that it doesn't even have to be grammatically correct. Things don't have to make sense as far as the actual English goes.
If a person has terrible grammar, it helps to write rock songs instead of presidential speeches.
If you can figure out how to do it, it can be a lot of fun.
This element of culture criticism, maybe even post modernism in an Electric Six song, it's not necessarily a recipe for what charts on Billboard. This criticism is at a fever pitch on your song "Adam Levine" from the newest Electric Six record, Mustangs. The chorus goes "Burn in hell, rot in hell" but it's about a songwriter who's written a bunch of hit songs.
Has he? I'm willing to entertain that he did, but I know for a fact that "Moves Like Jagger" was written in part by Benny Blanco. I don't think Adam Levine is that untalented. But it's not surprising that other people write for him too.
You have written a couple hit songs yourself though, "Gay Bar" and "High Voltage."
Well, they were hits in Europe. They were hits in a country. But there's more to making a hit, obviously, than it just going out. For a song to be a hit you need radio and video pluggers. You need a mechanism to make it a hit. There's no such thing as a song going out and selling 10 million copies based on it's merits, or whatever. That's why you can have a hit in the U.K. and not the U.S. We have a cult following of people who are still very much interested in what we do. In order to sustain that, you have to put out good albums. On the last eight albums we've done, we're not trying to write hits. We have a much better time doing that. "Gay Bar" was written in 1996 and it became a hit in 2003. It was sitting there for seven years. The greatest thing for me is that we have these hit records and we weren't trying to do it.
So, now you write songs that are hits among your fans.
There's a ton of people from the scene we came from in Detroit that are like, "Dude, how are you still doing this? Your album is eleven years old now!" Actually we've put out nine or ten, but they don't count those. It's amazing to me that they think eleven years later people are coming just to hear "Gay Bar." Sure, they want to hear that, but they also want to here song number seven off of Flashy too. It's always gratifying to me when a critic says "I wrote this band off, but it turns out their eighth album is actually really good." Those are small victories for us too.
Electric Six. With Yip Deceiver and Gramma's Boyfriend. 18+, 7 p.m., Thursday, March 20, First Avenue. Tickets.GIMME NOISE'S GREATEST HITS
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