The average lifespan of a supergroup, in a perfect world, should be no more than seven minutes and fifty seconds. It sounds arbitrary — and it is empirical no doubt — but any more is underwhelming overkill. The precision of the figure comes from the length of the instrumental version of a piece of music called Mantra, written and performed by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) with Josh Homme (Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age) on bass. The drummer is obviously Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), who’s a bit of a pile-on when it comes to “supergroups”. The song, from Grohl’s documentary Sound City, is an anomaly, in that it’s actually good. Really, there’s a honeymoon period beyond which a supergroup generally falls flat. The concept itself is a frivolous one: A bunch of famous, well-off, often-drug-addled musicians who’re friends come together to muck about and lap up all adulation that comes their way from emotional, non-discerning fans.
The lack of professional chemistry leads to mediocrity — “never get into business with friends” holds true with art too, it seems. What else could possibly explain the new supergroup in town — Teenage Time Killers (at least try) featuring Corey Taylor, Grohl, Randy Blythe, Jello Biafra (why, Jello?), and a dozen others? There’s great excitement that assists news of talented artists collaborating, but dismay and frustration comes just as quickly.
Look at Them Crooked Vultures. With Led Zeppelin alum John Paul Jones, Homme again and Dave Obviously Grohl, you’d expect explosive results. They released one self-titled album — to a reasonably positive reception — but the music itself was unimaginative. You’d expect groundbreaking work from such pioneers, but what you get instead is been there-done that musings that, while fun, show nothing of the creative capabilities of the musicians involved. There’s no fizz, no pop, it’s all unobjectionable, so-so restaurant art.
That same absence of chemistry, for this writer, was conspicuous in the case of Palms, where the Deftones vocalist, Chino Moreno, joined forces with three members from the defunct post-metal band Isis. It sounded exactly as disconnected as you’d imagine: an Isis song with pronounced, emotional and out of place, Deftones-ish vocals. That common space musicians search for (“chemistry”) was nowhere to be found, just slapdash attempts at harmony. It’s said that many bands tend to write the best music of their career right at the beginning, when they’re being expressive and enjoying the process, not thinking about status, reputation or songwriting. Later, once you become famous and form supergroups, ego battles and rich legacies seemingly get in the way of aesthetic expression. As does appropriate remuneration for your craft.
The concept of the supergroup is a frivolous one: A bunch of famous, well-off, often-drug-addled musicians who’re friends come together to muck about and lap up all adulation that comes their way from emotional, non-discerning fans.
Which is what happened with Audioslave, a coming together of Rage against the Machine’s instrumentalists and Soundgarden’s squealing monster Chris Cornell. On some level, particularly with their first album, there seemed to be a musical connection (Cochise or Gasoline). But they were always destined for disaster. Even before their first release, rumours of a disbanding were circulating — apparently their respective managers were fighting. Eventually, financial disputes and not seeing eye to eye got the better of the band, and they parted ways over business matters (how rock ‘n’ roll).
Jealousy and bitterness are also the underlying aftertaste from endeavours as elaborately laughable as Velvet Revolver, pinning members of non-Axl Guns ‘n’ Roses with notorious alt-rock nutter Scott Weiland, a man who has the distinction of not only being kicked out of his own band (Stone Temple Pilots) but also being replaced by… um, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington. Velvet Revolver was a joyride that began with a notch above average, upbeat music, followed by drugs and fights, then by Weiland being kicked out, to the present day status of being “on hiatus” (an affliction all supergroups eventually suffer from). The creativity and experimentation was evident only briefly and in very concentrated patches, unlike with their non-supergroup groups.
Sometimes, artists step out of their comfort zones/day job bands to start something new. Like how Maynard Keenan would refer (pretentiously) to A Perfect Circle as the anima to Tool’s animus. But that’s where the distinction between a supergroup, a side project, and a group of people in a regular band who just happen to be famous becomes essential. Despite featuring celebrity sessions drummer Josh Freese, Keenan, musicians from Smashing Pumpkins, Pixies and more, A Perfect Circle never gave the impression of being a “supergroup” — it was always a serious artistic pursuit, initiated by guitarist Billy Howerdel. For this writer, Atoms for Piece — Thom Yorke, Flea, Nigel Godrich, the guy who did sessions for REM — falls in that same space, but it’s a blurry line. For some believe the band to be just another supergroup, in the vein of, say, Probot, a heavy metal one-off instigated by Dave Grohl (erm).
One so-called supergroup that does remain exempt from criticism is Mad Season (Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, Screaming Trees). They released one heartbreaking album — Above — that captures the chilling intensity of Layne Staley’s substance abuse problems. But there’s an undercurrent of sadness to Mad Season; the band was formed after its members met in (... drum roll...) rehab. So the music, for what it stands for, seems to have an almost therapeutic quality for its creators, and, by extension, the listener. They’re not the only ones though; there’s Cream, who were massive in their time, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. So it’s not like all supergroups are always terrible. Plus, we’re not total grouches. We understand the temptation to just have some fun — not every musical pursuit has to be radical; it can also be about the joy of collaborations. But being in the public eye, with obsessive fans to boot, comes with its own pitfalls, and over-analysis of thoughtless ventures is one of them. Lather, rinse, repeat.