High infidelity: For the love of side projects

High infidelity: For the love of side projects

Earlier this year I got engaged. It’s the first time that I’ve placed myself in the crosshairs of matrimony, and I have to say, I’m far less freaked out about it than I thought I’d be. Let me revise that: I’m not freaked out about it at all. (You never know who may be reading.) I did, however, wait for quite a long time in my life before taking that leap. A large percentage of my friends are married. Some for a long time. Some of them even twice. And maybe counting.

It wasn’t the looming specter of commitment itself that made me leery about getting married for so long, though. I’ve always wanted to. I didn’t want to do it for just the sake of it. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I liked playing the field throughout much of my 20s and 30s. By which I mean, yeah, I was kind of a slut. But even then, I was looking for something: the right chemistry, a situation that clicked on many levels at once, one that could sustain not just a few weeks of dating or a few months of cohabitation, but a potential lifetime of partnership.

I knew all this because I play in bands. Granted, taking lessons learned from being a musician and applying them to romance is probably not the smartest thing to do. Okay, it’s definitely not the smartest thing to do. There’s the old cliché about how being in a band is like being in marriage—only with three other people. Polyamorous punchline aside, that’s pretty true.

But what that cliché also implies is equally as true: When you’re in a band, you’re constantly tempted to try out others. The drummer of another band will sidle up to you at a bar and slyly mention that they’re looking for a bassist—you know, one who plays kind of like you. More frequent than the blatant propositioning, though, are urges to do side projects. The pull is strong. No band you may play in, no matter how fulfilling, is usually able to encompass all of your musical ambitions. Or kinks, as the case may be. 

I’m no advocate of infidelity in the area of romance. But when it comes to music, there are few things I relish more than a hot, juicy affair—in the form of a side project. 

The first side project I was aware of as a kid also happens to have stood the test of time as one of the greatest in music history: Tom Tom Club. I dug Talking Heads even as a youngster. In particular I responded to David Byrne’s jerky, nerdy delivery, which I could relate to at the age of 9. Still can, I guess. Tom Tom Club, though, was even more accessible. Laidback, elastic, and hypnotic, the group’s 1981 hit “Genius Of Love” captivated me as a kid. Back then I had no idea that the group was made up of half of Talking Heads: bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Frantz. Minus Byrne’s distinctive voice and controlling vision, the duo plied playful rhythm and quirky chants in a way that made Talking Heads sound downright stuffy.

The fact that Tom Tom Club comprises a married couple complicates the relationship analogy, but it also proves it. Some of the best side projects have been the result of music-making couples who decide to go on a little honeymoon, as it were, from their main bands. In 1985, the husband-and-wife team of John Doe and Exene Cervenka took the rootsy punk of their primary outlet X and took a detour down a dirt road—the result being Poor Little Critters On The Road, the debut by their country-tinted side project The Knitters. Not only is it a solid album of alternately punchy and tender Americana, it also let its members relax and frolic in a way that they couldn’t in the high-profile X. Granted, Doe and Cervenka divorced in ’85, but they’ve remained bandmates—in both X and The Knitters—which is testament to how creative pairings can often far outlast romantic ones. 

Some side projects, on the other hand, are a chance for a member of a spouse-based band to step out on his or her significant other—strictly musically, of course. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker make up two-thirds of the long-running, slow-moving indie-rock band Low, but Sparhawk cuts loose quite a bit more in his louder, more rocking side project, Retribution Gospel Choir. Or at least that’s how it started out; as evidenced by the eerie, whispery, Low-like song “Seven” from RGC’s recent album 3, there’s becoming less of a stylistic gulf between his two bands. Even if “Seven” slips into some extended Neil Young-esque jamming for most of its hefty length.

The gradual convergence of sound between RGC and Low goes both ways, as the latter band has been steadily amping itself up over the past few years. Sometimes that can lead to a less than satisfying side project, though—after all, what’s the point of a side project if it isn’t a marked departure from the artist’s main band? A couple of songwriters from the Omaha-spawned Saddle Creek scene embody both sides of this issue. Tim Kasher, the frontman of Cursive, also heads up the side project The Good Life. Apart from a few cosmetic differences in intensity and instrumentation, though, it’s easy to imagine most of The Good Life’s songs as ones that could have fit on Cursive albums. But seeing as how Cursive specializes in hermetically sealed concept albums, it also makes sense that Kasher would use The Good Life as a vessel for songs and ideas that don’t fit Cursive’s program.

Besides Kasher, another songwriter from the Omaha-spawned Saddle Creek scene embodies the other side of this issue. Conor Oberst of the beloved indie-rock band Bright Eyes has lately funneled most of his energy into the self-explanatory supergroup Monsters Of Folk and his roughly similar country-rock outfit Mystic Valley Band. These three outfits all feel like kissing cousins—but the outlier is his side project Desaparecidos. With loads of distorted guitars and a snotty, angsty pop-punk edge, Desaparecidos happens to be my favorite Oberst band by a mile; it also happens to be his least active. But the recent release of a single—the first Desaparecidos output in a decade—plus the announcement of more activity soon makes me happy. Yet it also reinforces the idea that Oberst, long slammed by detractors for his one-note voice and lack of emotional depth, has definitely rendered such critiques null and void.

Some musicians are happy playing the same kind of music, day in and day out, for their entire careers. Others just aren’t cut out for creative monogamy. Singer Elias Rønnenfelt, of the Danish punk sensation Iceage, is still a very young man, so he shouldn’t be worried about tying himself down to any one group or style just yet. He already seems aware of this, though; his restless nature has attracted him to a variety of side projects, including Vår. The darkwave project is a team-up between Rønnenfelt and his fellow Copenhagen singer-instrumentalist Loke Rahbek, and their stunning new debut, No One Dances Quite Like My Brothers, is as immersive as Iceage is explosive. Tellingly, the duo flirts with homoerotic imagery in their press photos as well as the video for “In Your Arms”—as if to reinforce the impression that Vår is a collaboration of passion.

The list of notable side projects from the ’00s until now is impressive: Everything from the Tool-derived A Perfect Circle to the Death Cab For Cutie spinoff The Postal Service have matched—if not sometimes eclipsed—the bands that spawned them. Often, though, a successful side project can help breathe new life into the original band. Would Britpop legend Blur be renewing its vows if frontman Damon Albarn hadn’t been able to liberally explore his options over the past decade, most notably in the massively successful Gorillaz? It’s hard to say; it could just as easily be argued that Gorillaz has held Blur back from a full-blown reunion all this time.

What’s incontrovertible is the fact that some musicians make their best work in side projects, just as others flounder and flop when they dare dally outside their main bands—if they’re even tempted to, which many aren’t. As a guy who plays music I’ve wandered all over the place in this regard, goofing around with some random noise collective one weekend then pumping out fun, dumb metal riffs with old friends the next. As a spouse, well, I plan on keeping my wagon circled much tighter. When it comes to side projects, bandmates tend to be a little more forgiving.

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