Will any band ever break up?

Classic rockers have cashed in on reunions for years. But a new generation is proving reunions can actually be good

Published August 16, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

Mick Jagger performs at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards.   (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
Mick Jagger performs at the 53rd annual Grammy Awards. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

The thick scent of eucalyptus and pollen drifts upward from a downtown Los Angeles flower shop to an upstairs rehearsal space:  The five-piece band Spain, on a hot July night on a dodgy street, are launching into “It’s So True,” a brooding early number, following it with “Ten Nights” and “The Only One.” Intricate, understated lines coil from the lead guitar while the drummer plays brushes, jazz-style; the rhythm guitar summons the Velvet Underground’s spare, eerie third record, and in some of the structures you can hear the ghost of ‘50s country, thanks to leader Josh Haden’s family roots in Missouri’s Ozarks.

A good Spain song is like falling into a trance: It’s a blend of disparate, vibrato-rich sounds that, when played right, sounds inevitable. It’s also a sound very few people have heard lately: This band broke up more than a decade ago.

“We’ve kind of been in deep freeze,” says Haden, a reticent guy in clear-framed glasses who seems energized by the chance to talk about the group again. After the band had seen some success in the '90s – the song “Spiritual” covered by Johnny Cash on "Unchained," a song in a Wim Wenders movie, a signing to DreamWorks that ended up unconsummated – they drifted apart. Haden quit music, enrolled in a fiction-writing program and was dragged into a low-key solo career by Dan the Automator. But when he spoke to fans, one thing was clear: “The feedback I got was that people wanted Spain to record a new album.”

None of the four other current members were part of the original group – one heard Spain’s ethereal debut album in his father’s car stereo during road trips. But as the band moves through its set, they sound like they’ve been together for ages: Audiences in the United States have not heard much from these guys lately, but they’re just back from a three-week tour of Europe that involved playing packed clubs from Norway to Italy, and headlining a 3,000-person festival in Germany.

Rock reunions have been going on for many decades now, but seem to be picking up in frequency as rock’s history gets more crowded with the rubble of busted-up bands. Simon Reynolds has pointed out, in his perceptive book "Retromania," that popular culture has become addicted to its own recent past. Reading the music magazines is a bit like walking down a city street and seeing someone in a Mohawk, another in a Carnaby Street blazer, another in grunge flannel.

At the same time, the bonds that cause people to form, and stay together, in bands can be both strong and intimate – as complex and powerful as a marriage – and sometimes the old ties reassert themselves. Australia’s Go-Betweens reunited in 1999 and produced three albums that were as melodic and charming as their original work, until the sudden death of co-leader Grant McLennan in 2006. But anyone who’s ever drunkenly fallen in bed with a former mate or spouse knows that reunions are fraught with peril.

Many of them have been embarrassing or pointless, whether the Eagles reuniting in 1994 (and several times since) for another mega-tour, or this year’s much-hyped Van Halen reunion, which sputtered when the band canceled more than 30 shows amid reports that they’d been “arguing like mad.” Even the Beach Boys – for all the death, mental illness and bad blood in the past -- are back together, sort of. The Monkees are back on the road just weeks after the death of Davy Jones. The Jackson Five reunited to tour without their most talented member -- Michael.

There was a sense, at least, that bands from the alternative and indie worlds – heirs to the ideology of punk – would not duplicate the pattern of these never-say-die AOR heroes. “The idea was that arena rock sucked, and that we were gonna make it different,” says Ira Robbins, founder of the Trouser Press Record Guide. “We live in a world with an over-glut of everything. There are very few bands that have not overstayed their welcome. I’m in favor of bands who stop while they’re still good – there are plenty of other things to do with your life, other bands to be in.”

Still, some of alternative music’s leading lights – Pavement, the Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Codeine and Archers of Loaf, for instance – have reunited for bracing tours over the last few years, without recording new songs or giving a sense that they’ve necessarily become working units again.

But several other groups from alt-rock’s past are not only playing out again, they’re releasing albums of new material. Some of them – alongside Spain, Southern jangle-poppers the dBs, New Jersey’s ecstatic minimalists the Feelies, and Boston’s pioneering noise-punks Mission of Burma – appear to be hitting a real second wind.

*   *   *

This pileup of revivals arrives at a time in which rock musicians last longer than they did in the ‘50s or ‘60s: It’s as if the live-fast-die-young model has been replaced by the kind of longevity more typical of blues or country musicians. It’s especially true for solo artists: Leonard Cohen – born before Elvis Presley – remains a vital touring and recording act despite the over-covering of his song “Hallelujah.” Even Keith Richards, who has called a rock career as long as his uncharted territory, has survived his ravages.

Indie rock – dating back to, say, the emergence of “college radio” bands like the Smiths and R.E.M. – now has a three-plus-decade history, and a self-consciousness about it that includes anniversary reissues, concerts devoted to a single iconic album and … reunions that aim to recapture a “cultural moment,” like Pavement or the Stone Roses.

Bands, of course, get back together for as many reasons as they break up. For all their differences, what these four groups share is that they didn’t last long enough to exhaust themselves artistically. They also never got big enough for a spectacular self-destruction. And there is less pressure, financial and legal and otherwise, on their reunions than on, say, the Quadrophenia tour by two of the Who’s four original members.

"We really were not popular when we were around the first time,” says Mission of Burma’s singer/guitarist Roger Miller. “People were really confused by our concerts. I remember playing a show in Cleveland, and it was just dead silent between songs. We could get gigs the first time around; people just wouldn’t show up. We became famous for losing clubs money.”

Burma, whose strong body of work since coming back together in 2002 have helped to make post-punk reunions respectable, broke up after only a single LP and some other recordings because Miller feared for his hearing. (The band’s latest album, "Unsound," came out in July.)

“We died in a very weird way,” the guitarist says now. “We didn’t have drug problems, we didn’t hate each other, we weren’t spent creatively – so it was easier to pick up again.”

In Burma’s case, they had turned down numerous offers -- most driven by a sense of the group’s long-term influence -- to tour again.  “Sometimes the money was really good. But we’d say, ‘No, that would be stupid.’" The only way they could see doing it, he says, would be to go onstage and play cards.

But the offer to reunite for two shows in New York -- soon after their inclusion in Michael Azzerad’s indie-rock chronicle, "Our Band Could Be Your Life" -- led to a performance at 2002’s All Tomorrow’s Parties. (That history-conscious English rock festival, along with California’s Coachella, has instigated many reunions.) And soon they were in business again. Along with bigger halls, including 1,000-seat theaters, they played to 20,000 at Coney Island’s Siren Fest.

“People’s response was that it was like we had stopped on March of ’83 and picked up on April of ’83,” Miller says. “Like we picked up where we left off.”

*   *   *

For Peter Holsapple – one of the two singer-songwriters behind the dB’s, a band that remained obscure despite its uncommon tunefulness and role in sparking the R.E.M. revolution -- it was all for the sake of the song.

Holsapple has worked with fellow dB Chris Stamey -- who left the band for a solo career after its second record -- on several occasions since, and sometimes they’d start to wonder. “We tried to imagine how to treat the songs best. We had this feeling that they would sound better with Will (Rigby) and Gene (Holder) on drum and bass. We’d always been friends anyway – when you grow up together and have known each other since you were 8 years old … The idea made sense.”

Until a few shows in Chicago in ’05, though, the whole band had not played together since Reagan’s first term. Several of the songs on their new album, "Falling Off the Sky" (check out, for instance, “Far Away and Long Ago”), are among the year’s most perfect pop. Holsapple says they worked hard on the production – with Scott Litt and Mitch Easter -- to make the album sound timeless.

Like a lot of the successful reunions, they’re seeking a synthesis of old and new. “It’s the same as picking up a conversation with people we’ve known for a long time,” says Holsapple. The dialogue can involve familiar topics, but also new excursions. “I’ve been in a whole other band [roots combo the Continental Drifters] and Chris has recorded a lot of records as producer.” (Rigby has played bass with Matthew Sweet and Steve Earle; Holder has produced Yo La Tengo and Luna.)

“I think there are people who get back together for the cash,” he says. “But other bands still like being together, and still have something to say.”

*   *   *

Some of the most beloved bands of the ‘80s alt-rock era became casualties of the indie boom that followed – the Nirvana era’s bet that bands at home in small clubs could suddenly be pushed into expensive studios and larger tours. “The ‘next level’ wasn’t really that comfortable for us,” says Feelies singer/guitarist Glenn Mercer, explaining that the economics of signing to a major were hard on the group. “There were more people in the crew than in the band.”

But over the post-breakup years, as he and fellow guitarist Bill Million, who’d lost interest in music and effectively ended the group with a sudden move to Florida in 1991 to work at Disney World, spoke from time to time, the idea of getting back together occasionally came up.

And then one day, when Sonic Youth was booked to play a show in New York’s Battery Park, SY guitarist Thurston Moore’s thoughts went back to a band whose crazed strumming had floored him when he was a young man. "I had this fond memory of the Feelies always playing on American holidays," Moore told the New York Times. "I thought, 'Why don't we get the Feelies? Do they exist?"'

Two shows at Hoboken’s legendary Maxwell’s, which sold out almost instantly, and other New York-area gigs proved the group’s devoted following -- which still argues as to whether the spikey "Crazy Rhythms" or the warm, pastoral "The Good Earth" is the band’s masterpiece -- still existed.

But becoming a real unit again was important for the Feelies. And while day jobs, families and the commuting distance between Florida and New Jersey meant that new songs took a while, last summer’s album "Here Before" ended up as a very fine return that merged the band’s various acoustic and electric impulses.

“For us it would have been too much of a nostalgia trip to just get together to play old songs,” says Mercer.  “From the beginning, our first shows, we talked about writing new music.” Creative vitality was not the sole reason: “We always felt more comfortable in the studio,” Mercer says. “We’re not really hammy people. ‘Hey everyone, put your hands together!'"

Ironically, the live shows of this bashful band are reputedly among the finest in its career, and they’ve sold out nearly as soon as they’ve been announced. On the West Coast, fans are still waiting.

*   *   *

So some of these reunions have been successful. The Jayhawks put out an excellent record last year, "Mockingbird Time," with the two leaders’ harmonies no less sterling on tour. L.A. canyon-rock revivalists Beachwood Sparks have a good new record. Midwestern power poppers Shoes are back in style as well. Dinosaur Jr. have confounded skeptics with their recent tours and recordings. Mazzy Star is recording new material.

Trouser Press’ Robbins still thinks the track record for rock reunions is pretty unimpressive. “Go onto any vintage band’s website and they’ve got a record. It may not be in stores, but it’s ‘the best thing they’ve ever done.’ Please – stop it.”

It’s even worse when a band was really good once, but now tours well past its sell-by date. The Rolling Stones – jeered by punk rockers as dinosaurs 35 years ago – draw bigger and bigger crowds each year, even as they seem more like a corporation than the band of raw genius from the ‘60s and early ‘70s. As for the Who, after the death of Keith Moon and John Entwistle: "They’re a Who tribute band, with incredibly good credentials," says Robbins. Which ain’t the real thing.

Part of the blame for excessive reunions goes to retro-minded rock festivals, Robbins says. “Maybe we need a festival run by lawyers, because it usually comes down to people suing each other. Sometimes it’s the girlfriend or the wife. But as bands get older, it’s usually about making a living, and somebody sued somebody.”

With or without attorneys’ assistance, the tide of revivals will likely continue with time, including groups that seemed like non-entities the first time. (Men Without Hats, of “Safety Dance” fame, have just announced a new tour.)

In the old days, when bands were together, you knew it. Publicity photographs made it seem like groups like the Beatles or the Byrds spent all their offstage time together, dressing the same and cavorting in desert setting or in swimming pools. Founding members of iconic bands were rarely replaced, and when they were, it was a big deal. But rock culture – and the music business -- has changed in ways that make a band’s identity more flexible. And hologram technology could make it even easier.

“It used to be, when the singer left, you’re done,” says Robbins. “The industry has grown up to keep bands as ‘brands.’ If you go into the studio with ProTools, and knock out a couple of blues tunes, you’re a band again.”

It all has a direct bearing on reunions. “J. Geils band announced a tour that doesn’t involve J. Geils,” he says. “It’s like the band version of an oxymoron.”

*   *   *

We’re back at the flower shop in L.A., and Spain is starting to dig deeper into old songs like “She Haunts My Dreams” as well as new material like “I’m Still Free,” driven by a soulful organ and a guitarist who loves counterpoint and chromaticism. This is not a group that’s faking it. On Aug. 28 they’ll play a show at L.A.’s Bootleg Bar with the Haden sisters backing and with former Minuteman Mike Watt opening -- a record release party to mark the release of Spain’s three original records on vinyl.

Vinyl reissues, of course, are a way that indie bands keep the flame alive and keep funds coming in. So, these days, is Kickstarter, but the group tried in vain to generate support for new recording.

Like most bands whose fans are past their teens and 20s, it’s not easy to generate sales or attention, and the very fine new record, "The Soul of Spain" – well distributed in Europe and available on iTunes – does not yet have a U.S. label.

So while some reunions are big business, these cult bands are mostly in it for the art, or the fun, or whatever strange combination of the two combines to form rock ‘n’ roll.

Holsapple is happy to have a new record that’s getting a real retail push – in contrast to the way early dBs records were mishandled – and he could see another dBs record after this one, if the songs he writes seem to fit. But he has no illusions.

“I see my future as being less of a professional musician,” says the singer, who helps manage the performing arts center in Durham, N.C. “We have a generation of listeners who don’t think they need to pay for music. I have a family and a life and I have to think of something besides beating my head against the wall as a musician. It’s sad for me.” Sometimes, he says, he wishes he’d finished college and chosen to do something more practical.

But the band’s return is also a quiet kind of triumph. “They’re more like a broken-up couple who move in together because they want to share the rent,” Robbins says. “They’ve learned to live together.”

Nearly every artist and musician is trying to find a way to survive in a radically redrawn digital world. For the dBs, the Feelies, Spain and Mission of Burma, the reward is in the music they make, and the souls they reclaim.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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