Dick Valentine: I want to be your mayor

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photo courtesy Electric Six Electric Six 

Dick Valentine, front man of Electric Six, has always had a way with words. His verbal adroitness was recognized early on in his life by his parents, his teachers, and even the local literati. Recognizing his own talent and not quite knowing what to do with his life, Valentine enrolled in The University of Michigan’s English program. “In retrospect, I wish I would have majored in engineering or computer science or something really, really boring but career-oriented,” says Valentine. But then Electric Six might not have ever been formed; I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being The Master, their excellent fourth album, would never have been recorded; and they wouldn’t be performing at Emo’s on November 29. Luckily, Dick didn’t go that route and left U of M with an English degree. And the rest, as they say, is history.

That Other Paper Having traveled all around the world, what do you find to be non-Americans’ impression of America?

Dick Valentine I don’t think it really comes up much. I think everybody’s on the same page about Bush. The question they always ask is, “I’ve never met an American who voted for Bush. I don’t understand why he’s your president. Every American I meet says they didn’t vote for him.” You just explain to them that people without passports are the ones that voted for him. People get that the government may have some flaws at this point, but generally the populace is as exceptional as it always has been.

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photo courtesy Electric Six Dick Valentine 

TOP I’ve been told on several occasions that non-Americans talk about how in America, we ask, “How’s it going?” and people tend to answer, “Good,” even if that’s not how they’re feeling and that that reflects a kind of a phony aspect of our culture. Is that something that people have mentioned to you outside of America?

DV I’m moving right now, and I just met the super. I said, “Hey, how’s it going?” He says, “Fucking terrible. My mom’s going to die.” So I think that refutes that theory right there.

TOP If someone tells you their mother is about to die, how do you respond to that?

DV I told him that I actually lost a parent myself, and that he should hang in there and get some sleep.

TOP Was it difficult to lose a parent?

DV It was strange. I wouldn’t say it was difficult. I was able to get on with my life pretty quickly. But it was definitely strange.

TOP Has your family been supportive of your musicianship since the beginning?

DV Yes and no. My mom didn’t like the lyrics, per se. But once I started making money, everything was okay.

TOP How did your father feel about it?

DV He enjoyed it. He enjoyed the witty banter and the camaraderie.

TOP Outside of music, do you have any aspirations to perhaps write a novel or make some sort of film?

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photo courtesy Electric Six Electric Six 

DV Sure, sure I do. The former, yeah. Actually I go to a lot of my girlfriend’s writing groups, and I’ve dabbled in writing stories. That’s why songwriting’s so perfect for me – because you can wrap songs up pretty quick, whereas I don’t have the attention span for writing an entire novel or doing an entire film. I need to become, I guess, less comfortable than I am in order to get it done.

TOP What do you mean by “become less comfortable”?

DV I’m too comfortable in the realm of music, and I’m a comfort creature. I’m having too much fun doing music. It’s easy for me, and I don’t have to work as hard.

TOP But being a former English major, is that something you’ve often thought about – writing of some sort?

DV Not really, no. In fact, I think that was the first path I was wanting to go down, and so it was sort of expected of me that I’d get into writing, and once I became a late bloomer in music, then it was sort of like that was my rebellion to what I was expected to do. And I’ve stuck with it.

TOP Why is it that people were expecting you to go into writing?

DV Because I have a way with words.

TOP When you were in high school and middle school, were you writing stories?

DV I was. I was able to write pretty early on. When I was a little kid, I would plagiarize a lot. I don’t know if you saw the movie The Squid and the Whale, where the guy rips off a Pink Floyd song and sings it at the talent show as his own. I was like that with stories. And of course I was better read than most of my teachers, so I could get away with it. I could take a chapter from a Norman Mailer book and turn it in and get an A+.

TOP And when did your fixation with highbrow literature begin?

DV I think early on. I did a lot of reading when I was younger and into junior high, and that’s when I read a lot, and high school, and then I read in college just because it was at gunpoint, because I was supposed to. And in my adult years I read a lot less. Same thing with the Beatles. When I was five years old, all I would do was listen to the Beatles. I knew every Beatles song, every Beatles lyric. By the time I was eight, I was burnt out on the Beatles. I never listened to the Beatles again.

TOP When it came to the fiction of Dick Valentine, what was it like?

DV A lot of high action; a lot of space stories. “Captain Stardust was in the auxiliary shaft. In one hand, he held a phaser. In his other hand, he held a laser.” And then it would go from there. A lot of stories about science fiction and aliens and so forth. I won an award for a story about a Holocaust survivor, and that was like my one foray into an actual topic of some worth. Then I stopped writing.

TOP What was the award that you won?

DV It was just some local Northwest Ohio fiction award.

TOP What made you stop writing?

DV Soccer practice.

TOP So you were an athlete growing up?

DV I tried to play soccer just ’cause they wouldn’t cut you from the team. They needed players so bad that anyone who showed up was on the team.

TOP What were some other extracurricular activities that you participated in?

DV I was vice president of student council, but I also ran unopposed. I came home a lot and made microwave burritos and drank like two liters of pop. My diet was so bad back then.

TOP What sort of physical shape were you in with that diet?

DV I was pasty. I could also run. I’ve always been a very gifted long distance runner.

TOP Have you ever run a marathon?

DV No, I’m not that gifted.

TOP How about a half marathon, then?

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photo / cheesebikini 

DV That I could do.

TOP You mentioned the student council. What sort of campaign did you run?

DV All I did was stand up. I’m dead serious. I said, “Roses are red. Violets are blue. I’m running unopposed. Thank you.” That was it. I was basically president by default, because this was my senior year, and the president had big time senioritis. He didn’t even come to school like four out of the five days of the week. I was de facto president.

TOP Was that the extent of your political aspirations?

DV Yeah. I keep an address where my mom lives out in Whitmore Lake, Michigan. Livingston County’s like this conservative pocket surrounded by Ann Arbor and Detroit, which is very Democrat. So I wanted run for mayor of Whitmore Lake and just pass out flyers that say, “Liberal as fuck,” and see how that goes.

TOP Were you planning on being on some sort of town council?

DV I’d have to live there more often, but yeah, that would have been the whole idea. I tell people, “I actually live in New York City, but I want to be your mayor. And I’m going to socialize medicine,” that kind of stuff. Scare the bejeezus out of them. Tell them that I hang out with Chavez in Venezuela and Cindy Sheehan and all that, and also tell them that I live in New York City. And I’m going to be their mayor.

TOP So this was a little suburb sort of place that you grew up in?

DV I didn’t grow up there. My mom actually moved out there. She lives there now. Whitmore Late is way, way out there. It’s probably like 60 miles from Detroit. I grew up in the close suburbs of Detroit.

TOP A lot of times, living in the suburbs, there’s not that much to do, leading young people into becoming malcontents, and they start being mischievous. Was that the case for you as well?

DV No, I was really good. I got really good grades. I barely drank in high school. I think the first time I actually kissed a girl was senior year. I stayed out of trouble. The most trouble I got in was me and a couple of guys were doing two days in soccer practice, and we decided to let off some steam – we were going to egg every pizza place in Berkeley, Michigan. We got pulled over after four eggings. That was the worst thing I ever did.

TOP How many cartons of eggs did you have on you at the time?

DV That was the thing. I got pulled over for not having my lights on, and then we were totally busted, because we probably had seven cartons of eggs.

TOP What is it that you had against pizza places?

DV You know, like I said, you’re 17 years old and girls don’t like you. I think it was just a cry for help.

TOP Now speaking of pizza, where would you say, having traveled around the world, could you find the best pizza?

DV I’m not a huge pizza guy, but I would have to say Pizza Express in the UK. We all love it. It’s a really consistent pie.

TOP You had mentioned doing well in school but not quite knowing what to pursue in terms of a career after having gone to college. What was your plan?

DV My parents came from this sort of idea of, “All you need to do is go to the University of Michigan, and then you can write your own ticket.” So I went to the U of M, and they were just like, “Study whatever you want to study.” So initially I was going to study film. All you’ve got to do is watch movies and write about them. Then English seemed a bit more practical, but I had no idea that I was setting myself up for a harder road until pretty much four months after I graduated. I was like, “Where’s my ticket?” I was told my whole life if I just go to a top 10 school, then jobs will be looking for me. In retrospect, I wish I would have majored in engineering or computer science or something really, really boring but career-oriented.

TOP But then if you had done that, then you might not have ended up in Electric Six.

DV Right. But I’d be a chemical engineer.

TOP Is that something you often think about?

DV No, I didn’t even know what engineering was until I started dating a chemical engineer. My first girlfriend was a chemical engineering student. She looked like Cindy Crawford. That was the early ’90s, and I was dating this chemical engineer who looked like Cindy Crawford. I was the envy of the whole tri-state area.

TOP What sort of impression of chemical engineering did you have because of that?

DV I thought she was a lunatic. We were so mismatched at the time, but at the same time we had a couple things in common. And I was so, so desperate to have a girlfriend that looked like Cindy Crawford. Because you know Cindy Crawford was on the magazines at the time. So I would do anything. I took so much abuse at the time. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It made me who I am today.

TOP Right after college, was that when you had gotten involved with working at the ad agency?

DV No, not right after. I had so many jobs. I was pretty scatterbrained. I graduated in ’94, and I didn’t start the band until ’96. I got the job at the ad agency in late ’96. It took a couple years after graduating for me to finally kind of get on track.

TOP Were you writing copy at the ad agency?

DV If you can call it that. It was just more arranging words that they gave you. There was nothing creative to it. But it was a good dental plan.

TOP So you weren’t coming up with slogans then for different things?

DV Oh, hell no. We were making those mailing inserts that you get in newspapers for K-mart, those 24-page ads. I’d be writing like, “Scott towels, ninety-nine cents” – that sort of thing. You’d have certain adjectives that you could use. You’d decide if “fluffy” or “buoyant” or something like that was the word you wanted, then you’d run it by your creative director, who would either tell you that “fluffy” was right or “buoyant” was right, or you’d have to go back and use one of the other words that you could use.

TOP Were there any adjectives that were off limits?

DV Yeah. If they didn’t provide you with the adjective, you couldn’t use it. So it was up to you to pick what adjective from a pool of adjectives, and then once you picked it, that still might not be what they’re going to use.

TOP Did this give you any sort of insight into the realm of marketing that you’re able to use today with Electric Six?

DV No, not for our band at all. It’s why I continue doing this band. I mean our band, I don’t think anyone’s considered pulling the plug on it, but it’s jobs like that and situations like that that make me realize how lucky I am to be doing this

See Electric Six Electric Six play at Emo’s on Thursday, November 29.