A few weeks ago in The Stranger, we profiled the many ways bands can split up. To keep the universe in equilibrium, we now present a survey of how bands keep on keepin' on, despite all the complications. If you think it's easy to hold a group of unstable egomaniacs together while creating music that everyone in said group can stand playing over and over, well, you've probably never been in a band. The following seven Seattle groups have beat the odds and have persevered for several years. How in the hell did they do this?
Take Mudhoney, for example. They're one of those catalytic rock bands you expected to flame out quickly, yet here they are 27 years after forming, still thriving with a substantial worldwide fan base. They had a brief spike of popularity thanks to the grunge hype machine's hyper machinations, peaking with 1992's Piece of Cake and an appearance on the million-selling Singles soundtrack. One key to Mudhoney's longevity is that all four original members were friends; the only lineup change occurred in 1999 when bassist Matt Lukin exited and Guy Maddison, who'd played with frontman Mark Arm in Bloodloss, entered. Arm attributes punk and hardcore's ethos of egalitarianism as another key factor, "where everyone has an equal stake in publishing and money." Having no leader, Arm says, "helped keep any weird, out-of-control ego fights at bay."
Over the last 11 years, Master Musicians of Bukkake have risen to the highest echelon in Seattle's musical underground and attained global acclaim with their ritualistic, otherworldly take on heavy rock and powerful drone. Randall Dunn may be the most visible member, but MMOB operate as a unified unit, which keeps egos in check. Onstage, they don costumes that obscure their identities, which also nullifies the cult of personality. Dunn and drummer Don McGreevy cite communication and mutual respect as integral, too. Beyond that, Dunn says it's key to understand "what each member is good at within the context of the band. Everybody in this band has so many different skills. No one person is being satisfied 100 percent of the time. We try to play to each other's strengths instead of alienating people."
Ambient-metal pioneers Earth changed rock with their 1993 LP Earth 2: Special Low Frequency Version. After their initial eight-year run, Earth receded for six years while leader Dylan Carlson dealt with substance-abuse issues. They reunited in 2003 and have been creating distinctively heavy desert rock ever since. Carlson's stoic, minimalist "vision" has been the group's sole constant, and finding musicians who can best manifest it has kept Earth on its axis.
If anyone in town knows how to foster longevity, it's Jeff Kelly. His melodious psych-rock band the Green Pajamas have existed since 1984. "Joe [Ross] and I started this thing when we were young, and we still enjoy each other's company," Kelly says. "We argue about shit often, but it's a bit like brothers and we end up still together in the end. In fact, the whole Pajamas live band is a bit like family—albeit a polyamorous relationship or an open marriage. Allowing each other musical freedom may be key. We all have our various projects." Another good point is to limit live gigs. "I am of the opinion that we should only go out and play shows if it sounds like a lot of fun," Kelly says. "I want to play just when there is a reason to celebrate."
With flamboyant funk/soul ensemble Eldridge Gravy & the Court Supreme, there's strength in numbers. With membership in the double figures, they've been instigating raucous parties since 2006. Drummer Chris Pollina says, "Having a big band (14 at present), while definitely challenging in a lot of ways, has helped us stay together and be successful. It keeps egos from getting too big, it makes it harder to get sick of each other, and it means more people to share the band-related work (poster/T-shirt design, publicity, booking, making videos). It also gave us a nice bump early on in terms of getting people to come out to our shows—if everyone can get three friends out, we've already got 40 people in the room—and that made it easier to get a little momentum, see some response from the crowd." Pollina also notes that Eldridge Gravy's "accessible, fun music" contributes to the group's durability. "Being in a band that plays music that only 1 percent of people can dig (and when they dig it, they're standing there with their arms crossed) doesn't give you a lot of energy back compared to seeing folks of all ages and from all walks of life dancing and having fun."
Sparkly pop-punk hit-makers Tacocat have kept it together for eight years because not only are they all BFFs, they also "share an interest in evolving as musicians and as people," as well as rejecting Republican philosophies, says singer/tambourine virtuoso and former Stranger staffer Emily Nokes. "Of course, we all cycle through being the stressed-out one, the crabby one, the one on a bender, the one with the best hair, etc., but like any healthy long-term relationship, it's about patience and knowing each other's quirks so you can approach conflict without a meltdown. Being in a band is absolutely insane and ever-changing, so I guess it's about finding comfort in what can be really uncomfortable and/or sharing the best moments of your entire life with people you actually like." Further, Nokes states, Tacocat are "democratic to a fault (being as we are three Libras and one Gemini). We each excel at our own corners of band biz, but no one really wants to be 'the leader.' We're each 25 percent of this thing, and that is that."
As for Lesbian, the smart person's heavy-metal band of choice, they've flourished since 2004 through "a cohesive musical vision and mutual respect, a desire to explore personal growth through music," they proclaim, collectively. Other factors that keep these philosophers of volume intact: "patience, intuition, flexibility, maintaining enthusiasm, and, at the end of the day, realizing that we collectively serve the music/art that we create together, not ourselves individually... plus a whole lot of marijuana... and playing with your fucking heart!"
On the other hand, fending off threats to band longevity requires vigilance—and good old common sense. Easy to say, hard to enforce. Arm observes, "Assholism is probably the greatest threat. It manifests itself in many ways. Like someone who thinks that they have a vision everyone should bend to, people who've crawled up their own assholes with drugs or alcohol." Arm had a five-year struggle with heroin, which caused Mudhoney to take two extended breaks, but he kicked it, and consequently, rock 'n' roll has benefited. He also thinks "too much ambition" can sink a ship. "If you want wealth," he advises, "you're better off working in finance and putting down your instrument. The strange thing is, we had a couple of friends who had great ambition, and for some reason it worked out for them. But I've seen a lot of people who didn't catch that brass ring and it led to bitterness and it made them unpleasant to be around in their older age."
MMOB's McGreevy points out that mundane reasons can sabotage a band. "Maybe somebody can't tour because they have kids or a mortgage, and that contributes to the overall stress level of the band. Also, some people just don't like to tour." Dunn says, "Relationships can stunt a band." On a deeper, more abstract level, he notes, "It's important to be aware that nothing stays stationary. People grow, change, develop, and have more to give over longer periods of time. Conceptual education [increases], so things open up. A lot of people see that as a threat." Paradoxically, according to McGreevy, "Arguments or heated moments are sort of like a tempering. They actually make the bond among the people within the band much stronger."
When asked about the threats to band survival, Earth's Carlson quotes those sages AC/DC: "'It's a long way to the top if you want to rock 'n' roll'—[imagine] the minuscule odds that your band is going to matter to anyone." He also acknowledges egos (a chronic problem) and changing priorities. "Some members are not willing to make the sacrifices required to keep doing it." Ergo, they must go.
The Green Pajamas' Kelly pinpoints that old chestnut—"clashing personalities," and also "differences of opinion regarding how each member might want the music to progress (or not progress). Steven Lawrence, for instance, wanted us to get uniforms and keep everything very '60s psychedelic.' He quit the band when he became aware that I wasn't interested in that. I loved Paul Revere and the Raiders, but I didn't think I would look very good in a uniform."
Tacocat's Nokes has a useful list of things that take a toll on band health: "unrealistic expectations. Taking yourself/music too seriously. Money. 'The industry.' Incompatible astrological signs. Drugs/alcohol. Growing up and realizing it's time to have a baby or a car payment or whatever. Unsympathetic workplaces. Bad ideas. No ideas. Not being cut out for tour life/rough shows/criticism. David Lee Roth."
Lesbian say, "A shift in priorities away from the band's collective vision. Life hurdles can really fuck shit up. Use them to your advantage. Sacrifice has to be present." Eldridge Gravy's Pollina helpfully counsels that musicians should watch the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster: "Just don't do what they do, and you should be set."
Finally, many bands must deal with problematic members who imperil their unity. Narcotics and booze sometimes figure heavily into this tense scenario. As in the cases of Mudhoney and Earth, it was the frontmen who almost brought down the teams with their junk habits. Thankfully, both have recovered and gone on to do some of their best work. If Arm hadn't received an ultimatum to quit drugs from Emily Rieman, the woman who became his wife, Mudhoney's legacy likely would be very different today. As for Carlson, he got straight through a "combination of the legal system and a realization that music was the source of everything of real value in my life."
The strange thing about Lesbian is, no one gets out of the band; you can only get in, they maintain. "After nearly 12 years as a band, we decided to add a frontman [Brad Mowen of Master Musicians of Bukkake], but no one can be replaced. Everyone shows up on time, dressed appropriately, and there's no problem!"
Sometimes the ill will of a personnel change can linger for years. Take MMOB. They had a meeting a decade ago and decided after a consensus vote to jettison a guitarist for aesthetic and reliability reasons. McGreevy recalls, "It was really difficult. It shows that it's still difficult because he's still posting [negative comments] every time there's a blip on the radar for us. He's always scraping the furthest corners of the internet for information about us."
While this ex-member moved to a different city, his wrath resurges whenever MMOB issue a new album or achieve positive media attention, says Dunn. He hasn't moved on, but MMOB have, resoundingly. "We were able to tour, to finish things, there weren't roadblocks," Dunn says. "The band's always had a sense of humor, but there used to be a contrarian, smarter-than-the-audience, Melvins '90s thing to it that was removed like a bad limb.
"What makes it so some families can have kids that grow up and go off to college in the sense of bands going on tour and actually doing something, versus ones that get stuck in the mud—other than the music being good or bad?" Dunn muses. "I learned a lot about operating my own band from working with other bands [as a producer]. I would watch people talk over each other and not be able to see growth in each other, or I would see people treating each other respectfully.
Not all bands can be the Stones or Rush. The center usually cannot hold. Dunn puts band dynamics into perspective: "We're all fuckin' dysfunctional, semi-nihilistic maniacs just to do this shit anyway."