How side projects helped two bands help themselves | Music Essay | Indy Week
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How side projects helped two bands help themselves 

Here's your sign: Mutoid Man.

Photo by Yvonne Jukes

Here's your sign: Mutoid Man.

Stephen Brodsky knows why modern Metallica sucks: The band's members simply don't play enough music.

For decades, Metallica's components stuck infamously close to the core, very occasionally contributing to other projects or showing up on stage to support someone else. But they generally regarded the idea of side projects as anathema. James Hetfield once decried the idea of auxiliary acts. Lars Ulrich added drums to a Mercyful Fate bonus track, but really, that's about it.

"Arguably, you could say that's part of the reason part of their catalogue hasn't held up," says Brodsky from his home in Brooklyn. "Those guys should have let themselves branch out a little bit. But then we wouldn't have St. Anger and Some Kind of Monster, which are just as entertaining and amazing on the flipside of a record like Master of Puppets. You can't believe a giant that big could fall that hard."

Brodsky has taken care not to have this problem: He is a dogged collaborator and relentless record-maker, currently involved in so many projects that he can't quite name them all. He's co-writing songs for BMG. He's about to leave for a long tour with Mutoid Man, the infectious pop-metal trio that recently released Bleeder, one of the year's most vibrant heavy records. And he's now on the way to band practice with Cave In, the post-everything metal institution he led for a decade until they broke up in 2006 following a major-label fiasco. By the time they reunited in 2009, Brodksy had issued solo albums and launched several other outlets. For Brodsky, that variety is a necessary condition to creativity.

"It's a continuation of how I started making music—learning how to play guitar, practicing guitar for five hours a day when I was a teenage metalhead, growing up in the suburbs of Massachusetts," he says. "I've always had a very independent sense of being a musician. Whether or not I am in a band is not going to keep me from playing. It's a frequency I'm tuned into, whether or not I have a vehicle for it."

Mutoid Man, for instance, worked as a reminder to Brodksy that he could still write catchy, pithy rock songs that sounded urgent and didn't require the complexity of Cave In. It was an ability he thought he'd lost and that now feeds back into his project of two decades.

"I have a soft spot for that rebirth," he says. "Any new band is exciting for anyone, because you remove all the baggage of what tends to happen with bands that are 10-plus years going."

A similar principle seemed to help salvage Death from Above 1979, the hyper-distorted Toronto duo whose heavy bass and heaving drums pushed them to quick popularity during the first half of the last decade. Their beats aligned them with the moment's disco-punk renaissance, their aggressive tones with the surge of scuzzy rock. But Sebastien Grainger and Jesse Keeler broke up just two years after releasing their sole album, 2004's You're a Woman, I'm a Machine. In fact, they split almost as soon as they began to capitalize on their minimal approach to maximum madness, though they persevered long enough to plow through their standing touring commitments.

Still, they broke up in a wave of bile. They'd grown to hate each other during their five years as a band, The Guardian reported in 2014, and didn't talk to or about each other after DFA 1979 finally clapped to a close. "It really was like breaking up with a girl. I wanted to move on, but everyone would ask, 'How's she doing?'" Keeler said. "I'd reply, 'I don't fucking care!'"

In 2011, the two made up enough ostensibly to cash in, reuniting for Coachella and sporadically hitting the road for more tour dates. "The basic reason this band got back together was because I was sick of the disdain I had for it," Grainger told Rolling Stone. "I couldn't live with it anymore; I found it exhausting to have someone in my life that I had problems with."

After previewing some new material on those stages, DFA 1979 finally returned with their second album ever, The Physical World, late last year. In interviews, they talked candidly about how they'd tried to branch out from their basic thrum-and-drum technique, but that it hadn't worked, that they were still the same old band.

But that's not entirely true. The languid album highlight "White Is Red" is, in the world of this band, a ballad, with plaintive vocals about the broken hearts of teenagers and a chorus that winks at power-pop. It suggests the stint Grainger spent as a songwriter and more standard rock bandleader during his time away. And the rainbow-like electronics that radiate through opener "Cheap Talk" offer an instant reminder that, during the break, Keeler built an audience for his solo electro under the name MSTRKRFT. The Physical World marked DFA 1979's proper reentry into band life, but it bears the scars of their time away, too, signs that they changed in the interim.

Or, as Brodsky puts it, "There is something cool that happens when you create with a group of new people, and you take that high and reapply it to other bands."

But it's not just the music, he says, that can change. Sometimes, a new band can offer an attitude adjustment, just as DFA 1979 and Cave In both needed at one point a decade ago.

"It's the way you behave, the way you interact with certain chemistries," Brodsky explains. "You can bring all that back into an old familiar space and relight a spark."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Stepping out, for good."

  • How to save your band by breaking it

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