Six Pack: side projects which spelled disaster for successful bands

Musicians often create side projects to offer an alternative outlet for self-expression. But sometimes these extra-curricular activities can spell disaster for their main bands. Here's six instances where spin-off acts seriously undermined much more successful groups.

Angels And Airwaves / Box Car Racer - Blink 182

Sometimes, people don’t necessarily realise the consequences of their actions. So when Tom DeLonge took Blink 182 to breaking point in 2001 it could perhaps be argued that he was unaware of what he was doing. When he did it again four years later, however, he must surely have known what would happen.

When DeLonge formed Box Car Racer in 2001, he did so with an old pal David Kennedy and the Blink 182 drummer Travis Barker. It was quite the snub for Blink 182’s bassist Mark Hoppus. He had every reason to think that, given 1999’s Enema Of The State had made Blink arguably the biggest rock band in the world, and that 2001’s Take Off Your Pants And Jacket had continued that run of success, the band would be continuing as before.

But DeLonge had other ideas. Then suffering from a back problem that required him to take strong painkillers, he says he was “in a weird mood”. It meant he didn’t want to write knockabout pop-punk anymore but instead wanted to be taken more seriously. Hence Box Car Racer and its more anodyne emo. But his actions put a major rift into his relationship with Hoppus, who was furious that DeLonge and Barker had gone off without him. “That sucked. It really sucked,” the bassist said. “At the end of the tour in 2001 it felt like Blink had already broken up. I took it personally. I felt like the odd man out, the forgotten bassist. It was really hard.”

DeLonge, though, had barely stopped to think about it: “I honestly did not think it would bother him,” but added, “I honestly never meant to alienate anyone.”

When Blink 182 reconvened to make their self-titled fifth album in 2003, it was with a strange atmosphere. DeLonge wanted to make more adult music, Hoppus’s songs recalled the past but added maturity and the resulting album was solid but disjointed. So, when a year after its release, DeLonge began to work on material for what would become his Angels And Airwaves project while Blink were on tour, Hoppus was understandably annoyed. This time Barker was on his side. It was a tour riddled with arguments, with DeLonge wanting to take time out to deal with his back problem and spend time with his family, Barker distracted by constant TV cameras that were following him for a show called Meet The Barkers, and Hoppus suspicious of DeLonge’s solo songwriting. They called it a hiatus when things eventually came to a head, but it was a break-up. “The break-up of Blink 182 was really trying and very heavy for me,” said Hoppus. “For a while there, everything was falling apart. There was just too much going on.”

Barker and Hoppus formed (+44) soon afterwards, and made it clear what they thought of DeLonge back then. “Fuck that dude,” were Barker’s thoughts on his former bandmate.

DeLonge launched Angels And Airwaves with much fanfare about how it was a band that was going to change the world. And, when it didn’t, he claimed that the reason he had said that was because he was still on strong medication at the time. But it was a project that ripped Blink 182 apart and, even now that they have subsequently reformed, there’s something about the second phase of their career that comes forever stamped with that the fact that one of the band’s main members twice made it clear he wanted to do something else.

City And Colour - Alexisonfire

There was an interesting moment at the 2007 Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammies. Being one of Canada’s then biggest rock exports, Alexisonfire had been asked to sing a song at the show. They were delighted. But it was when their guitarist, Dallas Green, was also asked to do a turn under the guise of his sideproject City And Colour that it became clear he was beginning to be seen as a musical entity in his own right. When Green won an award for Best Alternative Album, but Alexisonfire lost the Group Of The Year to Billy Talent, it only reinforced matters.

Green began City And Colour – so called because his name is both a city and a colour – in 2005, and for a while it existed quite happily alongside the hardcore of Alexisonfire. These were songs that wouldn’t fit within the sturm and drang of his main band, acoustic folk songs and singer-songwriter introspection. He set them free on the internet, and then on his debut record Sometimes. Sad songs with something to say, but which remained personal to him. They didn’t seem much of a threat to Alexisonfire, then going from strength to strength as they followed Watch Out! with Crisis and its peerless hit single This Could Be Anywhere In The World.

But then weird things began to happen to City And Colour. The pop singer Pink fell in love with Green’s songs and, in fact, gave birth to her daughter with City And Colour as the soundtrack in the birthing room. She took him on an arena tour shortly afterwards, something of a surprise for both Green and the fans within those arenas.

“I don’t think I’m what her fans are expecting,” he said at the time. “Some of them are nodding and bobbing their heads but some of them aren’t paying any attention at all. But anyone who doesn’t expect that from an opening slot like this one is kidding themselves. Hey – if I don’t make any fans, then I still got to play in a football stadium, right?”

Alexisonfire certainly never got to do it. And so slowly, it became clear that Green’s wistful, downbeat acoustic torch songs were more his focus than Alexisonfire’s bombast and riffs. Though 2009’s Alexisonfire album Old Crows/Young Cardinals was received well, it didn’t have the magic of Crisis – nor a song with as much appeal as This Could Be Anywhere In The World.

When Green spent 2010 on the road with City And Colour, he was still saying that he was committed to both projects. But he also said that Alexisonfire’s new material was a “mish-mash”, that some of it might not “make a record” and that perhaps they would just release it digitally. None of which exactly sounded like a ringing endorsement. In 2011, Alexisonfire split after Green told them he wanted to work on City And Colour alone. That he then released two albums which subsequently went Platinum in Canada more or less tells its own story.

The Mars Volta - At The Drive-In

Though The Mars Volta were formed after At The Drive-In split up, it was the very fact that guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala wanted to make the band’s wild, prog-salsa that caused the hardcore band to die.

In 2001, At The Drive-In were not in a good place. Though revered and respected as the most thrilling band in post hardcore, they were not a happy bunch. The band was split into two camps: Rodriguez-Lopez and Bixler-Zavala and the others. That pair had grown up with each other, run around El Paso in gangs together and, it subsequently turned out, done quite a lot of drugs.

It led to a clash with the less experimental members of the band. Arguments became commonplace in At The Drive-In, and they sprung up over the most minor of things. Bixler-Zavala said they once rowed over whether to go and see Mount Rushmore, the American mountain with the heads of presidents carved into it.

“Certain people in the band were trying to convince us that was important. I was thinking, ‘It’s just graffiti man’. That’s not culture,” said the singer. “I can go talk to some Indian and see and hear more culture than I would do from staring at a bunch of lame Americans and government-made graffiti.”

A little preachy perhaps, but it points to the fact the pair were attempting to pull apart from the rest of the band. They were doing it philosophically – as in this case – but also musically.

“It was baby steps, we were trying to teach them without saying we were teaching them,’ said Rodriguez-Lopez. “How do you show someone abstract expressionism? How do you explain the gap between a still-life of a bowl of fruit and surrealism? We spent most of our time in the van playing records the other guys hated. They couldn’t understand dub music you know…”

Nor, perhaps, did they need to given the hardcore they were making. But it eventually led to Bixler-Zavala and Rodriguez-Lopez working on music away from the others – music inspired by jazz, Puerto Rican sounds, dub and prog rock. “Music the rest of the band didn’t want to or couldn’t understand,” said Rodriguez-Lopez.

While a lot of bands can withstand a lot of things, it’s hard to think of any punk band that has managed to survive its members bringing in Puerto Rican jazz riffs. And so, inevitably, the sideproject won out – At The Drive-In were no longer, and The Mars Volta began their legacy of extraordinary sounds and occasional self-indulgence. But at least no-one could pigeonhole them, as At The Drive-In had been pigeonholed as post-hardcore godfathers. And that was the important thing.

“If you can create something with no label it means you have control over everyone else because you keep people thinking, ‘What are they going to do next?’” said Bixler-Zavala.

Queens Of The Stone Age - Foo Fighters

Not so much a case of a sideproject breaking up a band, but one where playing with new musicians radically shook up the main group. When the Foo Fighters began work on their troubled fourth album One By One, they struggled for direction, forcing themselves to work when there was little inspiration. Drummer Taylor Hawkins had recently survived a drug overdose (narrowly), and the band returned to work perhaps a little too quickly afterwards. “We just weren’t ready,” admitted frontman Dave Grohl.

A few months earlier, before Hawkins’s overdose, Grohl had contributed drums to a couple of songs – Millionaire and Little Sister – that his friend Josh Homme had been writing for the then reasonably unheralded Queens Of The Stone Age. When things didn’t work with QOTSA’s full-time drummer, Homme turned back to Grohl and the Foos man recorded drum parts for what would become their peerless Songs For The Deaf record.

Slowly, and with the Foos struggling for direction and harmony, Grohl decided that he quite fancied the gig on a more full time basis. “At night I’d go rehearse in a closet with Queens and it would be the best band in the world,” he said. “And then I’d come back to the Foo Fighters studio and be totally dismayed by the apathy.”

But work dragged on with the Foos until, with studio costs nearly at a million dollars, they invited the press in to hear the album they had made. Which was the very moment that the Foos nearly broke up. An argument erupted in the control room as a UK journalist and photographer waited outside to interview the band, and Grohl threatened: “Do you want me to go and tell those guys that we’re going to break up right fucking now? Because I will. We can if you want.”

Things didn’t get that far, but Grohl quickly made it clear where his priorities lay. A short while later he made his first live return to the drums since his Nirvana days and played a show with Queens Of The Stone Age at the Troubadour in LA – something that angered Hawkins so much he refused to go and watch.

Next, Grohl binned the million dollar Foos album, and finally he said, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to play with Queens Of The Stone Age for a while.” And so he did, touring with the band across 2002.

But when Queens and the Foos were both booked to play Coachella that year, it led to a massive argument in the Foos camp – one, actually, that had the effect of clearing the air. The row and subsequent show saved the band, and shortly afterwards, Grohl and Hawkins hammered out the foundations of what would become One By One in about two weeks flat. While Queens Of The Stone Age had very nearly become an escape route out of the Foo Fighters for Grohl, actually it gave him the respite from the band he needed. Perhaps more a case of the side project saving the main band…

Echobrain - Metallica

It was in January 2001 that Jason Newsted spoke to his fellow members of Metallica and inquired as to whether he might take a year out to work on his band Echobrain. You could see his point - Metallica hadn’t been in the studio for four years while singer James Hetfield was an alcoholic mess, and drummer Lars Ulrich had recently been more focussed on fighting Napster.

So when Hetfield said no, saying that Newsted would be “taking away from the strength of Metallica” and likening a side project to cheating on a wife, Newsted was understandably furious – pointing to the work Hetfield had done outside of Metallica to back him up. It made little difference, and the bassist stormed out of the band to work on Echobrain’s 2002 debut album. Hetfield, for his part, went to rehab and Metallica fell apart (as spectacularly documented on Some Kind Of Monster).

Though Metallica didn’t break up, they did everything else but. Their next album, 2003’s St Anger, was arguably the worst record they ever made. And with Newsted’s departure, so the band began to rely more and more on their back catalogue as they toured – becoming a heritage act, more than a cutting edge one. Perhaps they should have just let Newsted do his thing.

The Raconteurs / Dead Weather - The White Stripes

When The White Stripes released Get Behind Me Satan in 2005, it seemed clear that Jack White was already moving in different directions. Gone were the blues stomps of old, and instead was a newer, artier aesthetic. There were other changes too, White married in the same year and also spent two weeks in near silence as a result of strained vocal chords.

But perhaps the most significant change came when he and fellow Michigan musician Brendan Benson found themselves in an attic with a couple of guitars, and emerged a little while later with the song Steady As She Goes. By the end of 2005, two members of The Greenhornes – Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler – had been drafted in and the four of them were in Benson’s Detroit studio recording The Raconteur’s debut album Broken Boy Soldiers. Something was up.

Released in early 2006, the Raconteurs album gave White the taste for playing in a band, rather than in the White Stripes’ two-piece. But still he returned to the day job for 2007’s Icky Thump. In some ways a return to the blues rock of old, but also a return that featured experiments like the addition of bagpipes, it was delightedly received. But it wouldn’t save the band. Drummer Meg White suffered anxiety issues that prevented her from touring and they didn’t play live for two years.

Despite White claiming that a White Stripes album was his priority, both The Raconteurs and another sideproject, The Dead Weather, released albums in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Having had a taste of playing with other musicians, White quietly folded The White Stripes in 2011 “mostly to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band.”

Tom Bryant

Tom Bryant is The Guardian's deputy digital editor. The author of The True Lives Of My Chemical Romance: The Definitive Biography, he has written for Kerrang!, Q, MOJO, The Guardian, the Daily Mail, The Mirror, the BBC, Huck magazine, the londonpaper and Debrett's - during the course of which he has been attacked by the Red Hot Chili Peppers' bass player and accused of starting a riot with The Prodigy. Though not when writing for Debrett's.