When should a band break up?

When should a band break up?

Last week, a former bandmate and I got together to play some of our old songs. Our band had been neither famous nor fabulous, but we’d had some great times and made some recordings I remain proud of. Still it was bittersweet, playing those songs. Although it never came up during our impromptu rock session, the unspoken question that hung between us the whole time was, Why the fuck did we ever break up? Before that question could congeal into an actual discussion, I realized the answer: We broke up because it was time for us to break up. Simple as that. We’d had our fun, played our noise, and made the most of our fleeting few years together. When that ran its course, we let it drift away. 

Being in a band, goes the cliché, is like being in a relationship. That’s especially true when it comes to breakups. Even the word is the same. And in both kinds of breakups—musical and romantic—there are those around you who love you, who have an emotional investment in that sundered relationship, and who feel obliged to pick sides. Whose fault was it? Was the breakup healthy or messy? Who gets custody of the TV you bought together? But the most glaring questions are usually these: Did the breakup happen too soon? Did it happen too late? Or should it have happened at all?

As I was jamming with my buddy in his basement a few days ago, the long-running, Grammy-winning band The Mars Volta announced its breakup. Around the same time, two even longer-running bands, Guided By Voices and New Order, either announced or released new albums. Guided By Voices still makes thrilling music, and the group’s on-again/off-again existence seems to have helped its longevity, not hindered it. New Order has also broken up before, and it should do so again, as promptly as possible; it’s now a husk of its former self, issuing discs of leftovers like the new Lost Sirens in a sad attempt to keep its heart beating.

The Mars Volta, on the other hand, is a less clear-cut case. Guided By Voices and New Order had plenty of time to establish themselves with strong, epochal bodies of work before the breakups began. Even if they’d broken up and stayed that way years ago, each of those groups would have cemented their places in history. The wheels started coming off The Mars Volta right out of the gate. To continue the relationship analogy, The Mars Volta was a rebound band: Singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López had previously been members of At The Drive-In, a vastly influential post-hardcore group whose final album, 2000’s Relationship Of Command, was a minor mainstream breakthrough that hinted at possible dominion to come.

When At The Drive-In unceremoniously imploded in 2001, Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López hit the ground running with The Mars Volta. Reaching for a far more complex, lofty, and progressive sound, the new group released its debut full-length, De-Loused In The Comatorium, in 2003. Every square millimeter of the songs’ multifaceted surfaces teemed with textures and ideas. It was an album with something to prove—to those who made it, to those who heard it, and to those who'd played in At The Drive-In but who weren’t asked to be in The Mars Volta. There’s no doubt that De-Loused is a genuine, and genuinely idiosyncratic, work of brilliance. But there’s also no denying that it’s a middle finger raised in the direction of At The Drive-In. After a breakup, it’s natural—if not altogether gracious—to rub any newfound success in your ex’s face, as if to spitefully show them how much they held you down.

De-Loused, then, was Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López’s sexy rebound—and like most rebounds, it wasn’t destined to last. Superstars like Flea, John Frusciante, and Rick Rubin contributed to it, but it marked an M.O. that would prove to be part of The Mars Volta’s undoing: a ceaselessly revolving cast of collaborators. Attrition, fickleness, and even the tragic death of member Jeremy Michael Ward helped establish an instability in the group that manifested itself as a strange equation: hubristic ambition mixed with neurotic second-guessing. After 2005’s excellent Frances The Mute expanded The Mars Volta’s majestic, schizophonic palette, the honeymoon took a header. From 2006’s Amputechture on, each new Mars Volta album was a crapshoot. Which Mars Volta was going to show up, the coherent, committed one, or the slovenly booty call, full of slurring come-ons and wilted promise?

The Mars Volta is the kind of band that inspired cultish devotion, but at some point, not even the cultists could take it. Among fans, bitching about the latest album became a blood sport. The schadenfreude got so bad, the band’s final album, last year’s Noctourniquet, came and went without most people realizing it was The Mars Volta’s best album in years. That said, it wasn’t a return to form. Rather than a sign of renewed health, it was a last gasp, a disconnected and disintegrating disc full of piecemeal anthems and scattershot flashes of adrenaline. The orgy was over; all that was left were the aftershocks. The Mars Volta had two choices open to it after Noctourniquet: either pull its shit together or call it a day.

Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López chose the latter. They were a decade too late. Had the group called it quits after Frances, its catalog would have been solid, its legacy assured. Now, The Mars Volta’s worst work has colored its best. The ’00s were a time of simplicity, humbleness, and the dumbing down of indie rock. The Mars Volta refused to conform or remain predictably consistent. As a wave of watered-down, post-Shins-and-Strokes bands strove to keep things strummy and hummable, Bixler-Zavala and Rodríguez-López went off the deep end. Fluid and virtuosic, it was impossible to get a grip on them. As it turned out, that made it equally hard for them to keep a grip on themselves.

This might not be the last chapter in The Mars Volta story. Much in the same way that Guided By Voices and New Order, to varying degrees of success, have staged comebacks, it’s entirely possible that The Mars Volta might rise again someday. After all, even At The Drive-In reunited last year—but that was for a brief number of shows, a cynical-seeming enterprise that Rodríguez-López admitted was mostly for the money. He and Bixler-Zavala have been good at burning bridges, both musical and personal, which means they may never get the chance to rewrite their history, to make good on the staggering promise of works like De-Loused and Frances. Just as the indie scene is beginning to open itself back up to more ornate, ambitious, fantastical, and imaginative sounds, the group that helped inspire such courageousness might fade to a footnote.

Regardless, The Mars Volta will always be a pretty major footnote. My old band could never have dreamed of being that. But even if no one really gives a shit anymore—or ever gave a shit in the first place—my old bandmate and I had a blast playing the old songs we wrote together a decade ago. We even decided to play a show together soon: pulling out the old hits, reliving the old times, rekindling the old flame. But not too much. And definitely not permanently. We already broke up once. The pressure is off. Sometimes, believe it or not, you really can be friends with your ex. The secret is remembering that a well-timed breakup can be as sweet as a first kiss.