Lately I have been wondering about side-projects of notable musicians and bands. Why aren’t they typically not as good as the original band? Why do musicians always venture into side projects? I could not answer these questions alone, so I recruited my best friend Brad Austin to help me take this topic on. I think we had a good talk, and although there may be no definitive answers here, it is an entertaining discussion. Big thanks to Brad for taking the time to do this. He is a very funny guy and can be followed at Brad Austin Be Blogging
DEREK: So yesterday I read that the Mars Volta broke up. I can’t say that I really cared because the Mars Volta are hard to listen to AKA terrible. But I also read that they had six albums, which is pretty impressive because they were more productive and probably more popular (but less critically adored) than the band those two guys, Cedric and Omar came from, At the Drive In. But it’s not all that surprising as ATDI has one good album and it was their last. What was surprising to me was that the reason they broke up was so the guitarist Omar Rodriguez Lopez was focusing on a new band, the awfully named Bosnian Rainbows. Which besides being one of the worst band names ever, sounds like something I will never even listen to a 30 second sample of.
So now that you have the this fantastic history lesson, and feel free to debate ATDI’s popularity, legacy, or whatever. The real question I ask you is: Has there ever been a side project/post-breakup project from a successful band, or semi-successful, that has been better than the original band?
BRAD: Not a Mars Volta fan myself by any means. I saw them open for Red Hot Chili Peppers once. They played three songs, but it lasted about 45 minutes! During one of them, I felt like shouting, “This is truly one of THE longest songs out there!” but I didn’t want to be rude. I’m just glad they’re going away.
Bosnian Rainbows is definitely terrible, name-wise. Not even good enough to be an intentionally terrible made-up name in a movie where high school kids start a shitty band. But hey, good luck to them.
And now, to your question. I believe we can find at least one side project that is better than the members of that project’s original project. But first I’d like to propose that all solo projects (Thom Yorke’s Eraser, Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, Panda Bear, etc) be excluded. That should narrow down our search a bit. To get things rolling, I will provide the names of some side projects, and in parentheses I will give a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ referring to whether or not they were/are better than their original bands.
Good to have those out of the way. Let’s go ahead and just discount the entire grunge era from this discussion. I’m happy Seattle was such a collaborative, brotherly place in the early 90s, but those collaborations were not enjoyable much of the time. I know this conversation is going to be based on personal opinion, but I genuinely believe that every example I provided is just plain factually correct. I doubt anyone will disagree, and if they do, they are wrong.
I couldn’t resist googling “side projects” to see what the internet thinks about this, and there are some ballsy-ass claims out there. I read a ‘countdown’ of side projects that are supposedly better than the originals, and it included the Breeders, Tom Tom Club, and Sebadoh. Can’t agree with any of that. I thought of a few bands that I guess you could argue were better than the originals. You could ARGUE that the Grinderman albums are more enjoyable than Nick Cave’s work with the Bad Seeds, and you could ARGUE that most people probably like New Order more than Joy Division and you could ARGUE that Gorillaz were just as commercially viable and nearly as critically successful as Blur. I guess the question is, are any of these bands more IMPORTANT than the original bands? In fifty years from now, can you imagine New Order’s importance usurping that of Joy Division’s?
The case of Gorillaz vs. Blur is interesting, though. While Blur are infinitely more important to me, and their songs are better, I wouldn’t totally scoff at the notion that Gorillaz are more important in music history. While I prefer Blur, I can’t deny that the marketing savvy of the Gorillaz cartoon gimmick and fusion of disparate styles…Jesus, I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. I’d listen to someone else make this argument, but my heart’s not in doing it myself.
So! I’ve now written much more than I wanted to, and I still haven’t even mentioned the one band that is, on all fronts, better than the original: Fugazi. Fugazi beats Minor Threat. Okay, I’m done.
DEREK: Wow! I was not expecting such a thorough, voluminous response! But you have given me lot’s to consider here. First of all, 100 points for mentioning Talk Show and Army of Anyone (I’m not really assigning points, but if I did you’d surely be due 100). Hopefully one of 74 people who bought either of those two albums reads this post and says “Totally!” in agreement. Secondly, I agree with the no solo projects being included here. Thirdly, Bosnian Rainbows is such a bad name that I don’t even think high school kids would get behind it.
Now on to the real meat of this discussion! All your examples were correct. None of those bands are better than their predecessors, anyone who says The Breeders are better than the Pixies is dumb, and those Grinderman albums are probably more enjoyable than pre-Abbatoir Blues Nick Cave. I am unsure if I would consider New Order a side project though, as they only became a band because of Ian Curtis’ death. But if we are including them I’d say New Order may be more fun to listen to, but they don’t have that mystique. Actually come to think of it, if your super influential lead singer dies, the best you can hope to be in the end is New Order (or the Foo Fighters). It actually turned out pretty well for them. They pulled that whole thing off better than 99% of all bands whose lead singer hung themselves.
You are definitely onto something with your Gorillaz vs. Blur case. I think it’s the case of Blur being somewhat of “niche” music. Especially for American people. American people who have a deep appreciation of Brit-pop? All 127 of us should have a convention in Boston or something. Gorillaz did widen Damon Albarn’s reach and is an unprecedented concept. It’s like The Monkees but with cartoons! I’m sure though if we posed this question to a British person though, we’d be hung for treason as there is no doubt Blur was and still is very popular. I mean they played the Olympics! I am a bit confused as to why the Stone Roses are headlining over Blur at Coachella. But that’s for another argument.
I think you are correct with Fugazi. That’s a good one.
So why all these side projects? That’s my main question I want to get to here. It seems that every band of note today has multiple offshoots. Why is there the need for this? Why isn’t Britt Daniel using that songwriting energy on a new Spoon album instead of putting out a record with Divine Fits? Why does Josh Homme have a few projects? And those are two of the bigger (I use that word liberally) players in indie/pop/rock music. It just seems like everyone is working on 2-3 bands instead of focusing on one. And it’s not like the styles of the music between these side projects is often radically different. This wasn’t a thing in the “classic rock” era, y’know? Robert Plant didn’t put out an album with The Plant(ers) between Led Zeppelin III and IV. My best guess is that it is economics. Band A, while critically revered, makes an OK amount of money that is split between 4 guys. So guitarist “Jim” goes and starts Band B to increase his chances of making a living. I just figure if you can go write songs for another band, are you giving everything you have to your current band? Call me James Hetfield, but that’s just what I think.
BRAD: Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t think of the Foo Fighters. I guess we’d be fools (or maybe just interesting people) to say they’re better than Nirvana, but who could have predicted Dave Grohl’s longevity and myriad contributions to modern rock radio? His ascent is such a wonderful story, dulled only by the dullness of Foo Fighters songs that aren’t “Everlong” or “Generator.”
So why do a side project? I am reminded of something Marshall Stephens’s dad once said. I don’t know if you ever met Marshall’s dad. He is a cool dude. Anyway, I don’t how he and I got on the topic of side projects, but he said, “Musical adultery is great!” and then said something about why it’s great. I don’t really remember as it was about ten years ago, but I believe his main thesis for why it’s great was that musicians who go off and work with other musicians will inevitably learn something new that they can bring back to their main bands. Collaborating with someone you’re not used to will likely result in having to work in a way you aren’t used to. This will probably make you a stronger songwriter and a better bandmate, and it will reinvigorate you so that you can’t wait to get back to your original band and make it better. A band is like a marriage, but it’s not enough like a marriage to make it not okay to cheat.
Here’s an example, speaking of Foo Fighters. Did you ever see “Back and Forth,” the documentary on them? I watched it one night because I had to see how they could possibly create drama in that story beyond Cobain dying and Grohl deciding to show the world how funny music videos can be. There were some interesting parts, however. One source of tension within the band came after they had toured on There is Nothing Left to Lose and began recording the fourth Foos album. No one was happy with the recordings and Grohl, tired of carrying the band on his shoulders, decided to go play drums for Queens of the Stone Age, much to the frustration of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins (Hawkins would get over his Hetfieldian jealousy, evidenced by later starting his own rockin’ side project, Taylor Hawkins and the Coattail Riders, and, as you and I witnessed firsthand, having a fun shirtless hang on the sands of Laguna Beach with his bros a few summers ago!).
When Grohl came back to the Foo Fighters to play a festival gig, his bandmates noticed that he was a changed frontman, rocking harder than ever and engaging the crowd like a true god of rock. This recommitted, new and improved Grohl triumphantly led his Foo Fighting brethren back into the studio where they would record the definitive Foo Fighters album…umm…One by One. Goddamn, that documentary was boring. Okay, so Grohl’s stint with Queens wasn’t life-changing enough for him to turn out a classic. But “All My Life” still rocks pretty hard.
DEREK: I remember being terrifically excited for One by One. I thought it was going to be the definitive Foo Fighters album. I recall reading an interview with Dave Grohl where he said that he was “basically screaming his head off the whole album” or something to that effect. I remember reading this and thinking we were getting an album of all “Stacked Actors”, “Breakout”s, “Weenie Beenie”s, and the coda of “New Way Home”. Being 17 at that time and still kinda pissed at everything, I was super excited. Needless to say instead of all those songs crammed into a blender and poured out as some magical mixture, I got “Burn Away” instead. That song is 5 minutes and it feels like 24 minutes. Looking at the track list of One by One right now, any album where the shortest song is 4:23, could probably use some editing. My biggest issue with Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl) is that the albums are too long. Too many songs, too much filler. He is not talented enough as a songwriter to consistently churn on songs that are almost 5 minutes in length. But overall, I love Dave Grohl. He seems like one of the most sincere, genuine, humble, and funny people in rock music. I guess if you are going to have a side-project/post-traumatic event band it can’t really go any better than the Foo’s.
Marshall’s dad (who I always thought resembled George Wendt of Cheers fame) has a good point. I guess it is conceivable that your “musical adultery” could make you a better bandmate to your original band. It could also add new influences and outlooks. I guess more music isn’t always a bad thing, I just have to view it that way instead of, spreading talent too thin. Of all the side projects mentioned or discussed here, I enjoy most of them and own their albums.
I think what we established here was:
BRAD: Closing thoughts? Well, I didn’t know you loved Grohl so much. I always thought I was the bigger Grohl apologist. It’s nice to know it’s been you all along. I will walk away from this conversation with a slightly deeper appreciation of them. One by One may not be the definitive Foo Fighters album, but the Foo Fighters may truly be the definitive, quintessential post-breakup side project thing. Good for them.
Maybe we should end this by urging our readers to check out one side project that they may not have known about. The example I can think of that will make me seem the coolest I can possibly seem is the For Carnation, a band started by Brian McMahan of Slint fame (if you can call Slint famous). Well, it’s been a real cool time. Hope it’s the first of many of these types of talks.
DEREK: I love all those Seattle grunge scene guys, and despite their faults I would defend them to the death. It bothers me whenever I mention grunge, people recoil or roll their eyes like it is hair metal or something. But that argument is for another time (future topic alert!!!).
Slint is super famous to music nerds, and we’re kinda music nerds, so you can call them famous. I guess if we are recommending side-projects I’ll go current and say check out the new Ducktails album.
Thank you for tackling this pertinent topic.
Animal Collective just last week released their new album Centipede HZ. This album comes four years after their last, Merriweather Post Pavilion. MPP was an incredibly popular and well received album that saw Animal Collective move away from some of the more extreme elements. With this new popularity comes increased expectations, that unfortunately are going to be hard to match.
Bands that stay together for many years often release that album that is the outlier of their catalog; the album that is greatly different from their other work and often does not fit. Sometimes this album is terrible and it is a good thing that it doesn’t fit. An example of this would be Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Sometimes this album is spellbinding and makes the listener wonder, “where in the hell did this come from?!” I would argue that Merriweather Post Pavilion is one of these albums. Nothing Animal Collective had done before had been so cohesive, so uniformly great from start to finish. Nothing they had done before had been as clean, catchy, and filler free. Sure there had been glimpses in their earlier work (Not to mention Panda Bear’s solo work, which is as highly regarded). Harmonized Beach Boy-esque vocals, dreamy choruses, and bouncy guitar lines or beats had made appearances here or there. But if someone was to listen to the freak-folk of Sung Tongs and then right after put on MPP there is little likelihood that they would assume this is the same band.
Unfortunately when a band releases an album like that, it is hard for them to go back to the band they were before without alienating fans and critics. I had always wondered what was going through the head of some fan at a concert who had only heard “My Girls” or “Brother Sport”. How were they going to react to the off-the-wall “Chores” or the pounding drone of “Did You See the Words”? MPP was and still is a revelation. The arrangements, vocal harmonies, and songwriting are all top notch. It is an album that can be put on four years after its release and still sounds fresh and groundbreaking. But being a person who was never interested in watching three dudes stand behind samplers and keyboards, I was excited when the band in interviews said their new material was more band oriented with more emphasis on live instrumentation.
The best way to describe the follow up to Merriweather, Centipede HZ is: Everything full on. The drums are insistent, layers of keyboard and process guitar fill up each song, the vocals are loud and often spastic. If this album had come right after Strawberry Jam or Feels no one would have batted an eye and everyone would have believed that Animal Collective put out another solidly weird album that no other band could have put out. One thing about Animal Collective is that they have one of the most identifiable and distinct sounds of the new millennium. But this album isn’t just another album. It came after what was one of the last decades defining albums (I still don’t know what to call that decade. The digits? People say the aughts but that is weird so I’ll just avoid calling it anything). Unfortunately albums in a band’s career trajectory cannot exist as islands, isolated unto themselves. Centipede HZ has it’s moments of interesting vocals, catchy melodies, and crunching beats that sound good while driving. “Applesauce” is ridiculously infectious and “Amanita” might be one of their best songs. But in the end it will always be known as the album that followed MPP. The album where instead of coming up with the sonic sibling of their career highlight and basically blowing everyone’s mind, they took a step back to the more comfortable confines of being the band with the weird yelpy vocals and tribal rhythms. It is easy to feel let down by Centipede HZ. But at the same time, people should not ignore the fact that Animal Collective is a band that has been releasing some of the most out there and interesting music created so far this century.
Everything is pretty much New York themed this week as I have tuned out of my desk job a midst the ever-present vacation daydreams. I associate New York City with a lot of bands, probably none so more than Sonic Youth. To me they are the quintessential New York band. An amalgamation of art school, bohemian lifestyles, avant-garde, and punk rock. I am also continually amazed that somehow, a band so downright inaccessible and often difficult to listen to could have an incredibly influential and successful career. It is a testament to the band for creating a sound that is 100% their own while finding some sort of commercial/major label niche in the early 90’s. Sonic Youth’s finest moment is Daydream Nation. It also features the highest ratio of output to quality from Lee Ranaldo. Who always seemed to be overshadowed by Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon. Ranaldo’s three songs on the album were, “Eric’s Trip”, “Hey Joni”, and “Rain King”. The first two have been accepted by Sonic Youth fans as not only two of the best Lee Ranaldo songs, but two of the best Sonic Youth songs as well. What I have always appreciated and really enjoyed about Lee Ranaldo’s songs is his use of surreal stream-of-consciousness lyrics that despite the howl of the guitars, always make the songs seem a little hazy and dream-like. “It’s 1963/It’s 1964/It’s 1957/It’s 1962/Put it all behind you”. I have been fortunate to see Sonic Youth twice, I don’t know if they are ever coming back, but I do know that when Lee shouts, “Kick it!” at 2:59 rock n’ roll rarely ever feels as good.
Yesterday while listening to the Minnesota Twins - Detroit Tigers baseball game on the radio, I commented to a friend how if I was named director of public relations for the Twins one of the first things I would do was have Husker Du Day at the ballpark. We could have “Keep Hanging On” as the team’s official anthem and blast “Celebrated Summer” after a victory. Maybe even Bob Mould, Grant Hart, or Greg Norton’s handlebar mustache could show up and throw out the first pitch. After much discussion we concluded that this would never happen. In a city, Minneapolis, where a sex-crazed Jehovah’s Witness named Prince is adored, why aren’t they celebrating one of the great American rock bands of all time?
One of the main things to appreciate about Husker Du is that if you trace their discography, you can audibly hear the progression of the songs and their style album to album. With Zen Arcade and New Day Rising they took something simple and brutal like hardcore punk and made first a concept album, and then a double album. Each one showcasing Mould and Hart’s songwriting chops in various genres. After they had pushed hardcore to the limits of the genre, Flip Your Wig and Candy Apple Grey wore their pop influences on their sleeves. It is still punk, but it feels smarter, with more emphasis on hooks and melody. In retrospect, its easy to see that these two albums were clear predecessors to the 90’s alternative rock movement. The band would end their run after Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Another double album which would give them more of those than anyone since The Who (Probably not. King Crimson probably had 2 quadruple albums about lizards in-between).
What separated Husker Du in the long run is that they weren’t afraid to reach back to the 60’s for inspiration and ideas. While many artists of the 80’s underground/punk genres wanted to distance themselves from that era, Husker Du embraced what was good in 60’s pop and rock n’ roll and filtered it through the maelstrom of punk and 1980’s era confusion. Check out their cover of The Byrds’ “8 Miles High” for a literal example.
Here’s a song written and sung by Grant Hart, who I’ve always felt was overshadowed by Bob Mould.
Chapterhouse was a fringe shoegazer band at best. Although they never had the popularity or critical success as such bands as My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, or Ride they are a more than worthwhile listen if you enjoy the genre. Chapterhouse were a British band that rode the shoegaze tidal wave in and out of town. Lots of minor shoegaze bands had their time in the sun but few had any staying power over time as shoegaze was relegated to second-tier status in the wake of grunge and Brit-pop. Chapterhouse after two albums (one which was essentially a compilation of EP’s) faded into obscurity. But in their time they were a band that melded the distorted wall of sound with the ethereal dreaminess of the genre as well as anyone when they were on top of their game.
Further Listening: Whirlpool (album, 1991)
The Men just released their newest album Open Your Heart on March 6, 2012 to what appears to be universal acclaim and excitement. This gradual ascension to the top of the indie rock internet hype pantheon has seemed inevitable for The Men after their previous album Leave Home was an honorable mention on Pitchfork’s Best of 2011 year wrap-up and they released a killer first single (the s/t track) from the new album. But the question I keep asking myself with this new Men album is, is the widespread acclaim warranted? Or are we a culture so hungry for straight no-bullshit rock n’ roll that we want to love this album regardless?
Open Your Heart, right now has a metascore of 87 out of 100 on Metacritic. To expand further on this 87, other albums with this score include Low’s Things We Lost in the Fire, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. So The Men are rubbing elbows with some of music’s finest (I was hoping Elbow was up there just so I could say rubbing elbows with Elbow, but it was not to be). Not bad for a band on their second proper album and first with a new rhythm section. So is this right? Is this wrong? I think the truth lies somewhere in between.
On one hand, Open Your Heart is a rollicking, face-melter of an album. I put it on in my car on a warm night with the windows down, and it almost made me forget I was driving a white Jetta. It’s recalls Grant Hart led Husker Du with elements of hardcore punk, kraut, shoegaze, and alt-country sprinkled in. Frost that muther with some searing lead guitar, bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes and you have an album. It’s a solid album, not luminary, and the vocals are mixed too low (nerd alert). But what it does provide is something that new indie rock in general has been missing for what seems like a long time: the fearlessness to rock.
Indie rock of the 2010’s (and probably before that) has seemed cold, calculated, and a bit faceless. Quick! Name 3 or 4 indie guitar players under 35 years old that have a distinct sound. Oh that’s right, that’ not possible. It does not say a whole lot for my generation that some of the most visceral rock n’ roll created today is done by 40 year old dads (Grinderman, Sonic Youth, etc.). Too often it sounds like the band is more concerned about a certain image, sound, or style than just playing their instruments and letting it all hang out. I think many people feel that way. I believe there is a hunger out there for real rock n’ roll music. There is no denying that real powerful rock n’ roll music does something to your brain, body, and innards which other music does not. Which explains the reaction to The Men. Are we going to look at this album in 10-15 years and put it on the same level as The Wall or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? It is impossible to know that answer. But its easy to see how a band like The Men who are willing to put it out there like its 1987 and they’re signed to SST Records, capture a feeling or a sense of nostalgia. I think that the step The Men have taken here gets me more excited for their third release more than anything else.
So while this album should be bought and spun in CD players, turntables, and whatever iPods do, it brings us to the more important question: Why have people forgotten how to make good rock n’ roll music? It’s not hard, it’s 1/4 talent, 3/4 balls. Have we as a society become too complacent, too content to look at our phones all day, and just listen to recycled synth garble? I think that this album shows us that we have. If we have to lift someone up to remind us of how powerful rock n’roll can be, then so be it.