Every So Often, Side Projects Aren't That Peripheral at All

Between Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, Maynard James Keenan is a busy guy.
Between Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, Maynard James Keenan is a busy guy.
Photo by Jack Gorman

Dave Grohl is often seen as somewhat of a musical outlier. Not only has he managed to avoid the prats and pitfalls of rock superstardom (drug abuse, awful solo records, etc.) all the while maintaining his status as one of rock music’s good guys, he managed to extend his career far longer than many would have imagined. The former drummer for Nirvana – arguably the biggest rock band of the '90s – Grohl picked up shortly after Kurt Cobain’s death and formed Foo Fighters.

More than two decades later – yes, Foo Fighters’ debut record came out 22 years ago this July, and now you feel old – Grohl and company are not only still going, but are universally regarded as one of the premier rock bands on the modern mainstream scene. Not only has Foo Fighters far outlived Nirvana; it could be argued Foo Fighters' musical output equals (or even outpaces) that of Grohl’s previous outfit.

Point being, Grohl somehow managed to find success with one band, having already done so with another. He did not, however, do so while the previous band was still in existence. This is where the enigmatic Maynard James Keenan comes in.

The mastermind behind Tool – one of the premier hard-rock bands of the past 25 years – Keenan also founded A Perfect Circle, which plays Smart Financial Centre on Thursday. Unlike some side projects that emerge from the ashes of a previous band, A Perfect Circle has somehow managed to not only coexist alongside its more famous sister band, but to thrive as well.

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Since 2000, when A Perfect Circle unveiled its debut, Mer de Noms, the band has released three albums that, in total, sold north of 3 million copies. Tool, by comparison, has released two albums during that span that combined to sell north of 4 million copies. Point being, Tool is still the band with which Keenan will always be identified, but A Perfect Circle is more than successful in its own right. Some one-off side piece, APC is not.

And this is where the notion of the side project can take any number of turns. Some, like Keenan, can have it both ways. While Tool is a commercial force and APC isn’t too far behind on the critical and commercial scale, he also dabbles with another side project, Puscifer, a more obscure band that nonetheless fulfills Keenan’s many creative urges. The man can, simply put, have it both ways.

So, yes, side projects can take on any number of forms. There are supergroups, which we’ve tackled at length before. These supergroups allow a famous rock star — or in many cases, a number of famous rock stars — to pair up for any number of reasons. Sometimes (Velvet Revolver), it’s a simple cash grab. Other times (Audioslave), bands with totally different sounds merge into something a little bit different. In some cases (Them Crooked Vultures, Monsters of Folk, any number of Jack White-related side projects), a bunch of really talented guys get together, and what results is on par with the bands from which the supergroups spawned.

In some cases, side projects rival, or even eclipse, the heights of their predecessors. Hell, sometimes a side project becomes so popular and consuming that the artist’s original band basically fades away. A textbook example is Gorillaz. The animated outfit, the brainchild of Blur front man Damon Albarn, formed in 1998. Nearly two decades later, Gorillaz have logged four studio albums (a fifth, Humanz, arrives this Friday), three compilation albums, two extended plays, a remix album, nearly 20 singles, and tours aplenty. During that time, Blur — most famous in the U.S. for 1997’s “Song 2” (it’s the “Woo-Hoo” song) — has only released three studio albums.

Broken Bells is another example. A synth-pop-rock duo consisting of Danger Mouse and James Mercer (lead singer of the Shins), the band has released a pair of studio albums since forming in 2010. Both debuted inside the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, and the group’s self-titled debut was even nominated for a 2011 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. The outfit was certainly to Mercer’s liking, as his primary band (the Shins) released the same number of studio albums during the same span.

Not all side projects are built to last. Rather, some simply afford the opportunity for famous musicians to explore a genre or sound that simply wasn’t feasible with their more famous outfit. The Postal Service, which features members of Death Cab for Cutie and Rilo Kiley, released an album in 2003 and hasn’t released another since.

Fort Minor (a hip-hop side project from Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda) experienced a similar fate; the group released The Rising Tied in 2005 and has yet to follow up with a proper sophomore studio album. Not that these one-off side projects lack merit; people are still clamoring for a second Postal Service album, and one must not necessarily like Linkin Park to embrace Fort Minor.

But this is the beauty of the side project; it is whatever its founders want it to be, a project that can be undertaken without commercial or critical expectations. In many cases, a side project is simply a chance for a bunch of friends to jam out and see what results. Sometimes it’s a hit, sometimes not. It’s all in the name of fun and art, which at last check, is sort of music’s primary objective anyway.


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