Bands face tough question over how — and whether — to continue
By Kevin McKeough
4 April 2004, Chicago Tribune
A band is as much a tribe as a working unit. The years of intense creative collaboration, career ups and downs, and traveling together on concert tours often forge bonds that make band mates feel like members of a family (even if it’s a dysfunctional one).
So the death of a core band member robs a group of a crucial part of its music and leaves the members personally shaken by the loss of a close companion. The combination makes it difficult for a band to continue, yet many do, as demonstrated by the long list of groups — AC/DC, the Allman Brothers Band, the (formerly Grateful) Dead, the Pretenders, the Who and many others — who have rebounded from a member’s death.
Three bands with upcoming local performances — Stereolab, Leftover Salmon and the Drowning Pool — have returned to recording and performing after the death of a core member. Although the groups differ musically, their experiences follow a similar progression from mourning and inactivity to finding solace in playing music again. All three bands see carrying on as a way of honoring their colleagues’ memory, even as they make changes in their music that reflect their loss.
Inevitably, that loss also makes its way into the songs. “Fallen out, fallen out, fallen out of our time and space,” Laetitia Sadier sings in tribute to backing vocalist Mary Hansen on Stereolab’s new CD “Margerine Eclipse.” Hansen was killed in December 2002 at age 36 when she was hit by a truck while riding her bicycle.
Central to band
Hansen joined Stereolab in 1992, a year after it formed, and the pairing of her voice with Sadier’s brought playfulness and charm to the experimental pop group’s brainy mix of easy listening melodies, German rock drone and cutting-edge dance rhythms. “Mary was a very central, major part of the group,” says founding guitarist Tim Gane. “She was the kind of personality who summed us up in a sense.”
The surviving members of Stereolab didn’t play music together for several months and even gave some thought to discontinuing the band, before they resumed work at their new recording studio near Bordeaux, France.
The return to recording helped the band members move beyond their grief even as Hansen’s absence challenged Stereolab to rethink its music. “It was a relief to be working on music again,” Gane recalls. “It’s good to get back to doing something, not cruising along gently but really having to think about music.”
The band still faces a challenge when performing on its current concert tour, the first since Hansen’s death. To adapt, they’ve added two new members and focus mainly on new music, with only a few songs taken from previous records.
“It’s Stereolab, but it’s really quite a different band,” Gane says. “But it has to be. If we don’t do that, I don’t think it’s right that we should keep doing it.”
The Colorado jam band Leftover Salmon has grappled with similar challenges since 39-year-old banjo player and co-founder Mark Vann died of cancer on March 4, 2002. Vann was diagnosed with melanoma and left the group in fall 2001 during the midst of an ill-fated concert tour that had begun on Sept. 12. Leftover Salmon continued performances with a roster of substitute banjo players, but the band found itself uncertain whether it could carry on when Vann finally succumbed to the disease.
Ultimately the band decided that they owed it to his memory to keep going. “We all felt we can’t let Mark down,” Emmitt says.
Leftover Salmon released a self-titled CD two weeks ago, the first studio recording since Vann’s death (not counting a collaboration with the band Cracker on a CD of classic country songs). “It definitely marks a new era that we’re entering into. Well, that we have been entering into for two years since Mark’s passing.” Emitt says.
In the past, the group’s self-conscious mix of other musical styles with a core bluegrass sound and tendency toward comically exaggerated singing have detracted from the band’s strengths as musicians. On “Leftover Salmon” there is a newfound seriousness in the wake of Vann’s death as the band plays songs that range across bluesy Southern rock, no-nonsense bluegrass and earnest folk balladry.
Though Stereolab and Leftover Salmon can likely count on the devoted fan bases they’ve developed over more than a decade to support them in the new phase of their careers, Drowning Pool faces the task of reclaiming fans after its fast-rising career was cut short. The Houston metal quartet had seen sales of its 2001 debut CD, “Sinner,” total more than 1.5 million copies and were in the midst of the popular annual Ozzfest tour when lead singer Dave Williams, 26, died aboard the tour bus of natural causes.
“We were at the pinnacle of our career,” says bassist Stevie Benton. “We went from the happiest we’d been to the most devastated.”
The surviving members of the band retreated to Houston, holing up for a year in a suburban apartment, rarely venturing out and subsisting mainly on pizza from a restaurant on the building’s first floor. The members decided to continue the band under the Drowning Pool name as a way of maintaining Williams’ legacy, but their initial attempts to audition a new singer proved premature.
“We wanted to get a process started, but those first few guys didn’t have a chance,” Benton admits.
It takes time
It would take a year before the band recovered and was able to bring aboard a new singer, choosing Jason “Gong” Jones, a veteran of the Los Angeles metal scene. Williams’ ability to shift from blustery roars to sweet-voiced pleading was a key of the band’s success, but Jones is careful not to imitate the late singer. “I just go out there and sing it the way I sing it. It would be too creepy if I tried to sing it like Dave,” he says.
The band played its first concert with Jones two weeks ago, and Drowning Pool will release its sophomore “Desensitized” later this month.
Even as Drowning Pool seeks to reestablish itself with its first tour since Williams’ death, his memory lingers. “It’s odd, not having Dave here, out on the road with us. He was the last person to go to sleep at night, and the first person to wake you up in the morning, playing the radio at 20,” Benton recollects. “I’m going to miss Dave the whole time.”