Alien and Yet Familiar

This post is about side projects. It’s going to seem like it’s about live music, but it’s really not. Were I a better writer, I would be able to figure out how to weave the two topics together more elegantly. I’m not a better writer though, so just remember this is about side projects.

I have seen a pretty good amount of live music in my life. Mostly rock shows, but other genres, too. I have watched all types of people put on all types of concerts, and the only thing I can say that was common to every single concert was that it looked exhausting.

Touring musicians play for anywhere from one to four hours, scream and sweat all over the stage, thank the audience, and then do it again and again and again and again for months. If I were a touring musician, I think I would last maybe a month before the whole thing felt like work instead of fun. I would quit so quickly. By contrast, there are artists who have been sleeping on a bus for 50 years and still find the energy to make thousands of other people happy every single night.

Here’s a good example of how “the road” would ruin me. About a month and a half ago, I went to Asheville, North Carolina with a friend to see a Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill. The plan was to see that show on August 17th, hang out in Charlotte, North Carolina for a couple days, and then drive to Baltimore on the weekend to see the same Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill again on August 20th. There was a heavy storm in Asheville on the night of the 17th, though, so the show was rescheduled for August 19th, the day before the Baltimore show.

My friend and I were determined not to waste either of our tickets, so we rearranged our Airbnb, saw the show in Asheville on the 19th, woke up early on the 20th, dragged our hungover carcasses into the car, and hoofed it 7 hours or so back to Baltimore. We were completely burnt out and delirious by the time we made it to my Baltimore apartment, but we got to the next show successfully.

You know who else had to wake up early and drive 7 hours or so from Asheville to Baltimore for the Wilco/Sleater-Kinney double bill? Wilco and Sleater-Kinney! And they were actually playing the show. The whole thing struck me as insane. Our experience felt like a saga in and of itself, and it was just 5 percent of what those bands would go through on their tour. Not only did they not seem tired in the slightest on stage, they actually seemed to have way more energy than my friend and I did. Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney actually watched the Wilco show from the side of the stage after their set, even though they had already been on tour with them for over two weeks at that point. Incredible. I would have been asleep on the tour bus.

I said about 450 words ago that this post was about side projects, and it still is. For the unacquainted, a side project is when a musician is still in their primary band, but puts out an album under a different name anyway. Normally artists don’t tour behind these projects. They are usually created between tours of the main band, or while the main band is recording a new project, too. They are also generally less successful than their main band’s albums in terms of pure sales. Unfortunately, fewer people hear them.

Here’s what I love so much about side projects: these musicians, frankly, have a more physically demanding job than any of us will have in our entire lives, and in between that they still find time to explore new creative outlets. Doing so can only mean that they love music so much that their job is also their hobby. I think that comes out in the music, too, and listening to side projects is a reminder that music is supposed to make everyone involved happy, and it’s pretty cool when it does.

Jerry Garcia, in his 30 years as founder and frontman of the Grateful Dead, made songs that quite literally inspired people to live their entire lives following a music act. What’s his favorite album he ever released? His Jerry Garcia Band side project album, Cats Under the Stars. “As far as I’m concerned, Cats Under the Stars is my most successful record–even though it’s my least successful record!” Garcia said. “I’ve always loved it an it just never went anywhere.”

That’s what the side project is all about.

Here are six side projects you should check out.

Martin Courtney- Many Moons (2015)

Main Band: Real Estate

Martin Courtney is a founder of Real Estate, who are known for their jangly, arpeggiated guitars. They’re almost uncommonly pleasant to listen to. Courtney keeps that trend up with Many Moons, which has guitar lines and layered harmonies that are every bit as good as Real Estate’s best songs.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vestiges”; “Northern Highway”; “Little Blue”

Lotus Plaza- Spooky Action at a Distance (2012)

Main Band: Deerhunter

Deerhunter is definitely a collaborative effort, but if someone were to ask whose band it is, the answer would invariably be lead singer and primary songwriter Bradford Cox. Lotus Plaza is not a side project of Bradford Cox, but rather a side project of Lockett Pundt, Deerhunter’s lead guitarist. Pundt takes a more direct approach on “Spooky Action at a Distance” than Deerhunter ever had to this point in their career. Deerhunter, along with a band soon to be mentioned, were the forerunners of the 2000s psychedelic movement, and their music was extremely catchy but also fairly esoteric. Pundt keeps the reverb and the interesting outros from Deerhunter’s catalog but creates a brighter and less nocturnal sound.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Strangers”; “Jet Out of the Tundra”; “Eveningness”

Deakin- Sleep Cycle (2016)

Main Band: Animal Collective

Here’s that other band that was a 2000s psychedelic pioneer. Animal Collective’s two most famous members–by far–are Avey Tare and Panda Bear, each of whom have had wildly successful solo careers outside of Animal Collective. Deakin is neither of those people, but for my money this is the best Animal Collective side project. It’s a perfect blend of acoustic folk music and psychedelic synthesizer atmosphere. The songs, most of which are over 6 minutes, seamlessly change shape and form, and they end up feeling much shorter than they are as a result.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Golden Chords”; “Just Am”; “Good House”

Dukes of Stratosphear- Chips From the Chocolate Fireball (1987)

Main Band: XTC

Is this a proper side project? I’m unsure. The situation is this: all the members of XTC created this album under a different band name in order to explore a different musical style than they usually did. I think that counts, actually. XTC makes very weird, very catchy new wave music, and Dukes of Stratosphear make very weird, very catchy psychedelic music. XTC said their idea was to recreate the psych records of the 1960s that they loved so much, and for the most part they used vintage recording equipment to get the sound as close to the 60s as possible. It worked and then some, as this is a perfect combination of 7 or 8 different psych-pop legends. Try to tell me “Brainiac’s Daughter” doesn’t sound like a lost Paul McCartney song.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Vanishing Girl”; “Collideascope”; “Brainiac’s Daughter”

Loose Fur- Loose Fur (2003)

Main Bands: Wilco and Jim O’Rourke

Sorry to talk about Wilco so much. That’s two posts in a row. Next time, no Wilco (maybe). Anyway, Loose Fur is a cool side project from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, and Jim O’Rourke, who is a multi-instrumentalist who’s been involved in a million different bands. He played instruments and helped produce Wilco’s most experimental and critically acclaimed albums “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and “A Ghost is Born,” and Loose Fur is definitely in the mold of those two albums. The songs have a looser feel than the songs on those albums, though, which is fitting given the name of the band.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “Laminated Cat”; “You Were Wrong”; “Chinese Apple”

Traveling Wilburys- The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1 (1988)

Main Bands (Really Main Artists): George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison

I guess this is more of a supergroup than a side project, but I’m going to count it, because the existence of The Traveling Wilburys is proof of my argument that side projects are awesome because they show how much musicians love making music. All five of these guys had very lengthy careers at the time this album came out. The “newest” guy, Petty, had been putting out albums for over a decade. I don’t think anyone would have blamed any of these guys for hanging up their rock n’ roll shoes and retiring from the life completely. Instead, they made this album, and frankly they sound like they’re having more fun than they’d had in years. I can’t confirm that, but Harrison’s main criterion for adding a band member is he had to enjoy hanging out with them. They also gave each other fake nicknames: Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury, Orbison was Lefty Wilbury, etc. These guys should have been grumpy, over the hill old men, but that doesn’t sound grumpy to me. Long live the side project.

Three Tracks to Check Out: “End of the Line”; “Handle With Care”; “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”

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