Like so many successful rock stars these days, Steven Wilson doesn't believe in musical monogamy. Best known as the frontman of British progressive-metal quartet Porcupine Tree, Wilson spent January in a Belgian studio finishing the quartet's new album before jetting to Tel Aviv to frantically rehearse for the February world tour of Blackfield, the indie rock band he formed with Israeli star Aviv Geffen. During the time in between, Wilson met singer Tim Bowness, his partner in No-Man, to talk about their next art-rock record.
The rocker is busier than an O'Hare air-traffic controller during a Thanksgiving blizzard, but he doesn't complain. "For me, one of the greatest gifts of being a musician – professional or otherwise – is the opportunity to meet and to work with many other people," he says.
Wilson is one of several well-known popular musicians bucking the traditional model of marrying into one band and remaining singularly faithful during its life cycle. For instance, Jack White is a White Stripe as well as a Raconteur. Ben Gibbard works for The Postal Service when he's not driving Death Cab for Cutie. Tool's frontman, Maynard James Keenan, chisels away at A Perfect Circle during his downtime. Meanwhile, Damon Albarn makes all of them look like slackers as he dashes between Blur, Gorillaz, and The Good, The Bad, and The Queen. Groups of these sort are more than mere solo projects or guest slots on other records. They're full-on commitments that require smart scheduling, not to mention an open-marriage understanding by other band members.
"The Beatles model, 'All for one, one for all,' remains the predominant model for bands," observes Jim DeRogatis, rock critic for The Chicago Sun-Times. And for good reason, says the writer. He believes a band is like a marriage and that alternative arrangements only lead to jealousies. "Even if you're the greatest husband or wife in the world and you go outside the marriage ... there's going to be some suspicion and wariness," says Mr. DeRogatis.
Not so, claim those who commute between groups. "I've always been pretty respectful of Linkin Park," says Mike Shinoda, the rock group's vocalist and guitarist, who also moonlights as the leader of Fort Minor. "I try not to do things that would negatively affect the band because I do consider that my main band."
To some bands, however, the term "side project" is as taboo as talk of Yoko Ono.
In 1985, Duran Duran undertook a brief hiatus as the five-piece divided, amoeba-like, into two side projects: Power Station and Arcadia. The result was that Duran Duran almost became Duran. Though the group reconvened to record a single, a permanent rift left the three members of Arcadia with the Duran Duran banner until 2001's full-band reunion.
Yet, an argument can also be made that such parallel ventures offset the proverbial "creative differences" that cleave bands.
"To be in a situation where you have to work with the same three guys for your whole career feels very unhealthy to me," says Wilson, whose tour for Porcupine Tree's "Fear of a Blank Planet" has delayed plans to convene a metal supergroup he's forged with Opeth's Mikael Akerfeldt and Dream Theater's Mike Portnoy. "We all go off and work with other people and come back to Porcupine Tree with renewed enthusiasm – and hopefully new ideas."
Sometimes, "the other band" presents an opportunity for a musician to step to the fore. For example, Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford is the focal point of Mike & The Mechanics and Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen is front and center in Man-Raze. A few musicians also welcome the opportunity to step back from the spotlight. DeRogatis says Warren Haynes of blues-rock trio Gov't Mule is a good songwriter who nevertheless likes to just play guitar in The Allman Brothers Band. "It can be a refreshing break to just step back and be a sideman," says DeRogatis.
Jay Farrar, the quiet force behind Son Volt, which has just released "The Search," feels less burdened by responsibility in Gob Iron, his band with songwriter Anders Parker. "Having been in a band context for some time with Son Volt, I think I was just looking for a different creative outlet," he says. "The process with Son Volt is more that I'm bringing my songs to the group and then we work on the songs. Whereas with Gob Iron, it's collaborative pretty much all the way down the line."
For established artists, today's music landscape has made it easier for artists to split their time between multiple bands.
"Thirty years ago, bands would be on the road nonstop," says Shinoda, currently promoting Linkin Park's "Minutes to Midnight." "The only time you'd run into [other] bands would be when they were out with you, you'd cross paths." Now, he says, one can collaborate by swapping encrypted song files via e-mail.
Toggling between bands does, however, present its challenges. Wilson and Farrar admit that there have been times when they have been unable to take advantages of opportunities with one band because of prior commitments with the other. But, they say, interest in one group usually generates a spillover into the fan base of other projects – a net gain for all parties.
"It's difficult when you're juggling two different endeavors," says Farrar, "but ultimately it's rewarding."
We asked Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson, Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda, and Son Volt's Jay Farrar to tell us about their new albums.
Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet (Atlantic)
Steven Wilson: "In a sense, there's such an extraordinary amount of information available now that I think what this is resulting in is a sense of blankness, a sense of information overload. A sense that nothing is really appreciated. Or cherished. Or treasured that, perhaps things were even 10 years ago. Twenty years ago. And this is what 'Fear of a Blank Planet' is about. It's all about the 10-year-old kid in his bedroom who has prescription drugs in his bedroom because his parents can't be bothered to deal with the issues that my parents might have dealt with, you know, in a traditional way. He's got an Xbox, he's got a Sony Playstation, he's got Internet – so he's got access to everything he could possibly want – he's got a TV in his room, he's got a cellphone. And all this stuff doesn't create a rounded human being at all."
Linkin Park – Minutes to Midnight (Warner Bros.)
Mike Shinoda: "After I did the Fort Minor record, I felt really refreshed, coming back to the Linkin Park record. It was like I had gone on vacation and did something that was completely different. If you're a musician and you can get back to a state of mind where you leave all that technicality of playing aside for a second and just listen to what you're doing and see if the sound of it moves you ... that's a feeling I was aware of, but hadn't been as in touch with as I was when I was younger. So now, being able to get back to that and make weird sounds that throw the rule book out the window to a certain degree, that feels good. I co-produced the Linkin Park record with Rick [Rubin] and, for my part of the production, I wanted to bring that excitement about the raw musical production back to the band. I was trying to communicate that to the other guys by saying, 'Remember when you first got your guitar, or first played piano, or first did any of these things? Let's get back to that and let's do something that's really pure.' "
Son Volt – The Search (Transmit Sound/Legacy)
Jay Farrar: "I knew that I wanted to try horns on ["Picture"] but I didn't know how it was going to be, but the horn players did a great job on that song. I think the song "Underground Dream" is a surprise, as I look back, because it was still very much in the formative stages when we recorded it. When we recorded it, I think it was the fifth time we had ever played the song, and that's the take that made it to the record. It's all live."