Q&A: Electric Six and Volk
By August Edwards
If you're wondering what's at the intersection of cowpunk, stadium rock grandeur, bar venue doggedness, and David Mamet's The Edge (1997), the answer is the Electric Six and Volk tour. The two bands hit the road on April 7th and will soon be ending their time together on May 7th. I had the chance to catch them over zoom while they were in the middle of their journey.
The tenacious, maybe downright aggressive, approach with which Electric Six took to touring has gained them the beloved status. After nearly thirty years as a band, they've shared their music across the world and instilled fun in the hearts of many. With this tour, they've touted, "We're back, bitches." They're back, bitches, with the same outlook, same effect, just maybe a different approach.
The Nashville based band Volk, a charged two-piece, is a thunderbolt of glitzy country. In less than ten years, their accolades have come swiftly, a testament to their professional attitude and bang-up lyricism.
You should know Volk and Electric Six. You should experience the fun they can bring to your life. We hope you'll enjoy this mid-tour interview with both members of Volk, Chris Lowe and Eleot Reich, and two members of Electric Six, Chris Tait and Matt Tompkins.
ABQGR: You’re in the midst of tour as we speak. What’s the mindset? How would you describe the feeling right now?
Chris Tait: We’re eleven days in, with no days off. We went from Kalamazoo to Austin. It feels like a meatgrinder at the moment.
Chris Lowe: We’re the newbies, so we’re just happy to be hanging out with the awesome Electric Six.
Tait: The Volk folks bring a lot of positive energy. We’re more like the grandpa’s poker game of rock and roll.
You are touring together for one month. How do you complement each other on stage?
Matt Tompkins: I usually play Volk songs on the guitar when I’m on stage.
Lowe: It’s hilarious. It’s surreal, just knowing how much of a badass Matt is, you’re sitting here playing this bass riff, it’s like, it’s cool. I made it, I made it.
Tait: They definitely force us to raise the bar a little bit, because they come out with, you know, glowing cowboy hats, and their wardrobe is something to behold. And again, we’ve been doing this for a few thousand years, so it’s like, you get a little lazy sometimes. So, it’s good to have somebody with some showbiz in their pocket up on stage to kind of fan the flames and get you motivated again.
Matt and Chris—after so many years of touring, how does that excitement fizzle away?
Tompkins: It’s like a roller coaster ride. You have your ups and downs. Sometimes you just can’t stand anybody, sometimes you can’t stand yourself. Sometimes you don’t even want to look at a guitar. But then there are sometimes when it’s like, yeah! This is what I’m here to do. Thank God.
Tait: Yeah. It’s basically like having a midlife crisis on a stage in front of a ton of people, and in a tin can that’s on wheels going across—are we painting a good picture of rock and roll right now? Is this what people want to hear?
Eleot Reich: Yes, yes you are. That's what they want to hear.
Lowe: That’s exactly what it is. When anybody ever asks us and [we answer], it sounds like such horrible, existentialist dread. But, as Matt said, when it’s on, it’s on, and it feels great. It’s almost a feeling like, I don’t want to be doing this, I need to be doing this to be me.
Tompkins: For me, I don’t have any other choice. I’m not good at anything else. Counting numbers, I’m not good at talking to people, I’m not good at selling stuff. I found something where I could play bass guitar with other people, and I was like, yaaay.
Lowe: And Matt’s being very humble. They’re amazing musicians. It’s insane to watch them play.
Tait: Matt makes a good point. It’s a release, and an awesome outlet that a lot of people don’t get. Every day we’re fortunate to be out here doing something that we love. On a good day. On a bad day, it’s like being in a Black Mirror Waffle House at 4 AM. Stuck in a purgatory state that you’re not allowed to ever leave.
Lowe: You had a perfect description after a show in Ohio. You said it felt like glitter theater.
What are some of your individual performance philosophies?
Tompkins: Oh, Jesus, don’t ask me that. I play wrong notes on purpose just to make everybody laugh. Some people don’t enjoy that, but that’s my philosophy. Tait loves it. Sometimes.
Tait: I guess that’s probably number one. Entertaining each other on stage is the rising tide. It’s beneficial for everybody involved, because if we’re having fun, then the crowd will, by default, have fun. And we’re always screwing around on stage.
Lowe: I can’t stress enough how fun it is to watch these guys. They’re just masters of their craft.
Tompkins: Oh, get out of here.
Lowe: You got Matt twirling around with his bass. Tait looks so cool, he’s just dancing and grooving to everything and making cool noises.
Reich: My favorite part, too, is when Tyler [stage name Dick Valentine, front man of Electric Six] does something, says some lyric weird, and it cracks you guys up, still to this day.
Tait: That’s another thing for us. Our singer is like, he’s a game show host more than an actual frontperson. But he also has a photographic memory. So we go through any town, and he’s rolling off local politics and sports stats and stuff between songs. It kind of makes every show unique in some way. What about you guys, Volk people? On stage philosophies.
Lowe: I guess we have a lot of superstition things that we’ve recently added to. I’ll still get super nervous, especially the first couple of shows with Electric Six. One thing we want is them to be happy. I’m a Libra so I’m always hungry for affirmation. I want Electric Six to be happy, even more so than the crowd. We want to impress them. But I’ll get super anxious before shows, so we have our little rituals, like meditating. But on stage, we’ll always have to fist pump. I recently showed Eleot the movie The Edge, I don’t know if you guys remember that film, with Anthony Hopkins. ‘Cause like, we were both really nervous—
Reich: What? I was not nervous. Chris gets way more nervous than me. I’m I theater major, so the stage is my life. But yeah, we keep quoting this moment from The Edge, when they’re sitting around this campfire, and they’re like, “We have to kill the bear.”
Lowe: “We’re gonna kill the bear!”
Tait: “I’m a-gonna kill the motherfucker!”
Reich: Exactly. So, Anthony Hopkins goes, “I'm gonna kill the motherfucker.”
Lowe: So that’s our little rev-up for the show. Once I can get out of my head—even if like, stage monitors are screwed up, or I’m nervous about not having a sound check, like, if I start seeing two or three people dancing, I can get myself out of my head, and alright, let’s have fun.
Tompkins: The Electric Six favorite quote from The Edge is, “I don't really feel quite one-hundred percent, Charles.”
Lowe: I think that was some amazing acting on Alec Baldwin’s part, right there.
Reich: It’s a giant metaphor for being a touring musician.
Tait: I think we just summed up the entire tour experience based on quotes from The Edge. The Volk people come in with Anthony Hopkins like, go-for-the-gusto, we’re-gonna-do-this quote, and we come in with the Alec Baldwin, total defeatist quote, we’re just gonna roll over, if that’s okay.
So, you guys have a really good rapport, both of your bands. How did you guys build that relationship with each other? Was it just your humor keyed in with each other?
Tompkins: I think so, yeah.
Lowe: I think when Matt was playing a riff of mine on stage before a show, I was like, I think they like us.
Tompkins: Well, I remember the first show was somewhere in Green Bay or something, and I saw your pedal board, and I was like, “Alright, we got a pedal nerd here, so we’re gonna be friends.”
Lowe: Matt has become my go-to guy of like, “How do I make this noise? If I wanted my guitar to not sound like a guitar, what pedal do I use?” And Matt will just rattle off fifty things that I could possibly buy. It's awesome.
Reich: I feel like it’s a twofer. You have to have a great sense of humor to survive on the road—it’s just mandatory as far as I’m concerned. And then, two, we both just love good songs. And we truly love the songs of Electric Six, they’re fucking catchy as hell. Chris plays them on the highway. But showmanship and all the extra smoke and mirrors aside, a good song is a good song. Tait and I, we’ve had great conversations about our songs, and that’s what it’s about to me.
Lowe: I think we have similar influences. We [Volk] call ourselves cowpunk, and we started out as this folk band, but we also love Queen and just stadium rock things. And you can definitely tell the influence in Electric Six—we all had an awesome conversation about the Cars at the start of tour, and just appreciating, like the perfect band is really a five- or six-piece, and appreciating the synth too—you can just take it to whole different realms. It’s just cool conversations, cool people.
Tait: The way we’ve gotten by is, the more you throw into the kitchen sink—I can’t say this works for everybody, but for this band—the more influences you put in, the weirder-slash-better product you’re gonna get. So, we’ve had a lot of discussions about that, just how bands evolve. The Cars is a great example, too, of just, you know, subtlety with hooks. As I’m saying “don’t overdo it, just let it happen,” I’m thinking back to the way we’ve written songs, which is about twenty-five layers of shit, and then trying to dial it back and figure out what works, but a lot of times we do overdo it. But for us it’s the more the merrier. The weirder it is, the better. The more diversified.
Lowe: I think, yeah, with like the eight of us, we’re all music lovers. We just love the art of it, and the exploration of finding new sounds. Also, they love that we’re a two piece and we get out of the way really quickly.
Tompkins: That definitely is a benefit.
Tait: It’s kind of been, with us, historically, kindness or vibe comes first. From the first show, we’ve gotten along with the Volk folks like gangbusters. And then, you know, that comes first because we’ve been doing this rinse, wash, repeat thing for so long, that it’s imperative to be working with good people. And they’re really, genuinely amazing, great people to work with. And they’re fantastic songwriters and they put on a great show. Working together, just making it efficient, and everybody being nice to each other, that’s the most important part, and everything else is a bonus, and they check every box—everybody hustling and making it as easy and as efficient for everybody involved. It’s a great package.
When I think of Electric Six and Volk, I think punk. I think that can be a subjective term to everybody, but what does punk mean to you in the context of your music?
Lowe: I think at the end of the day, because we’re a two-piece, there’s always gonna be a punk element.
Reich: Yeah, there's our setup musically, but also, we do try to—everything is political, as far as I’m concerned, and we do try to add that element to our songs and to our stage presence. Chris has got this outfit that says “Ted Cruz is a liar” on it, and—
Lowe: I just got called a scumbag online, by a fan! It was awesome.
Reich: Yeah, Chris got called a scumbag, it was real great. But it’s important. Ted Cruz is vermin. It’s important that we can say that. The amount of people that come up and thank us for saying that, because it resonates with them, and it maybe helps them feel hopeful, far surpasses the people who call us scumbags. In terms of punk, in that respect, we feel pretty strongly about that.
Tait: I’ve been sober for ten years. I’ve got a friend that’s like, “You know what’s punk rock these days? Going to bed at nine o’clock.” Nobody else in music does that. I’m like, I’ll take that. I guess the aesthetic for me now is doing things I would have never done in a previous life. There was a lot of debauchery for many years. Now it’s, for those about to rock, turn it down a little after ten o’clock. I’m trying to sleep over here.
Lowe: My friends at the show were like, we love this show because it ended early, we’re gonna get home before midnight. This is great!
Tait: We were talking about that, myself and the singer—somebody mentioned the fact that we used to go out for seven weeks at a time, many times a year, and we would go on at twelve-thirty at night, on a weekday, in Palatine, Illinois. It’s like, who wants that? Who wants to be out that late? And most people, if you’re going out to a stadium show, or anything else that’s a bigger venue, you preparty and postparty somewhere else. So why not for the little gigs? Or even, feel free to hang out in the venue afterwards, that’s fine, if the venue wants to make money and people want to hang out. But that doesn’t mean that the show has to go on in the witching hour.
Lowe: I like hanging out with my cats when I’m home, I don’t know. The road will kick your ass enough. You don’t need [drugs] basically.
Tait: Iggy Pop talks all the time about his cats all the time, right? And he’s the godfather of punk.
Electric Six, what kind of advice would you give to bands starting off looking to garner some longevity for themselves as artists?
Tompkins: Quit. Drinking. Right. Now. I’ve been sober for about four years now, and I’ve lived just destroying myself on the road for the past fifteen years. Twenty years, I’d say. It didn’t matter about the music, it didn’t matter. It just mattered about me. You gotta take care of everybody else, take care of yourself, and enjoy what you do. Because if you’re not having fun, you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, just don’t do it. There’s no point to do it. Nobody’s forcing you to do this. Make sure that you want to do it. In your heart and in your soul. Good luck, kids.
Tait: Matt, I feel like you were talking directly to me. But yeah, that’s kind of it. Take care of yourself. It’s weird—we come across younger musicians all the time now that are doing things that make sense. “Well, I’m gonna have a couple of drinks, then I’m gonna go to bed, then I’m gonna get up, and I’m gonna drive, and I’m gonna be refreshed, I might hit the gym.” I look at them, and I’m like, how do you have that kind of wherewithal in your twenties, or even early thirties? It was not part of the deal when we were coming up, but it sure as hell pays off.
Tompkins: Yeah, when I was growing up, it was, “How long are we gonna stay here? Keep the bar open. Give me the drugs. We’ll stay up until forty-eight hours from now. And then we’ll get up and try to play a show and just fall apart. It’s bullshit.
Tait: “Who’s gonna call a guy?” A couple hours later, “Where’s my wallet?” A couple hours later, “Where are we staying again?”
Tompkins: “Who are you? What the hell am I doing here.”