OutKast, the Walkmen, and Why Bands Can’t Simply Break Up Anymore
In an interview that appeared on Thanksgiving in The Washington Post, Peter Bauer of the fine indie-rock band the Walkmen announced that the group was taking a “pretty extreme hiatus” after its final scheduled concert tonight in Philadelphia. In the parlance of interpersonal band relations, “hiatus” is commonly understood to mean “breakup” — an interpretation Bauer seemed to be actively encouraging by affixing the “pretty extreme” modifier. (Like, if you were to take a “pretty extreme hiatus” from any part of your life, it would probably mean you were dead, right?)
Anyway, that’s how Walkmen fans have taken the news. Grantland’s own Amos Barshad wrote “that the Walkmen basically broke up last week.” So why not just say “we broke up” — or say nothing at all and let your non-togetherness speak for you? Why has this namby-pamby noncommittal language taken over how we talk about musicians who would rather not breathe the same oxygen?
Because even if Bauer had explicitly said “we’re breaking up,” the public would assume his band was really going on hiatus. The concept of breaking up as a gesture of finality has been rendered virtually extinct in contemporary music. Nobody truly believes you’re gone when you say you’re gone, even if your announced absence is initially perceived to be a breakup. The era of calling it a day after a dramatic rooftop concert or your drummer drinking himself to death is long over. Bands are now like Brett Favre or John McClane — the centrifugal force of cyclical action always draws them back. Annual festivals constantly beckon, the album-release schedule remains eternally fetching. In the case of the Walkmen, three of the members have solo records in the works, and two of these records feature other members of the Walkmen, which means the Walkmen haven’t ended so much as multiplied. Also, because the five Walkmen are relatively young and spry — and have children who will eventually need to go to college — it’s likely the money for an “anniversary of our hiatus” tour in 2023 will be too enticing to pass up.
What does this mean? This “pretty extreme hiatus” that appears to be a breakup will probably end up being a “fairly standard multiyear holiday.”
While it’s possible for such an intermission to become an official breakup (as it did for the Jonas Brothers in October), time and again these self-imposed exiles prove only temporary. This was true to an almost-comic degree earlier this year, when Dave Grohl mentioned he was about to start work on a new Foo Fighters record a mere four months after putting the band on suspension. Bon Jovi set a two-year deadline for its hiatus in 2010, though when it promptly returned in 2012, it was without longtime guitarist Richie Sambora. (This seems like a mini breakup, but may in fact wind up being a sabbatical.)
That’s the tricky thing about “hiatus”: Sometimes it’s not intended to be a euphemism for “breakup,” but rather a label for the typical interlude between albums and tours that used to go unnamed. And people seem to instinctively recognize these different meanings. Mumford & Sons announced they were going on hiatus in September, and nobody took it as the group declaring it had painstakingly churned its last creamy power ballad. Ditto that for Green Day, who took a publicly stated breather in 2012 after Billie Joe Armstrong checked into rehab. (Armstrong just announced another “break” for Green Day coming up in 2014.) Sky Blu confirmed this summer in an MTV interview that LMFAO is still “on that hiatus tip,” but promised the dance-pop duo will be back eventually. You know, so American culture doesn’t implode.
Not all hiatuses are created equal, of course — the most serious are of the “indefinite” variety. Sonic Youth and the Black Eyed Peas are both on indefinite hiatuses; the former, at least, is widely presumed to be a permanent vacation, which is only fun and games in the realm of second-tier Aerosmith albums. While “hiatus” itself is an inherently “indefinite” term for an open-ended pause, adding an extra “indefinite” emphasizes the gravity of the hiatus. However you imagine bands spending their timeouts — at the beach, riding tandem bicycles around massive underground compounds, systematically clearing out their DVRs — an “indefinite hiatus” suggests a dire condition analogous to a deathbed coma. But this also can be overcome: Fall Out Boy went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2009, only to return this year with a (terrible) new album, Save Rock and Roll.
What if a band honestly seriously no kidding around for real wants to break up? (Like if your lead singer has been outed as a monstrous pedophile, to name one random example.) A terse website posting is usually the way to go. My Chemical Romance stated that “it has come time for it to end” back in March, which seemed like a criminally untheatrical exit for such a grandiose band. Fortunately, Cedric Bixler-Zavala did a bit of punching up for his comments in January about the conclusion of his ridiculously epic (and epically ridiculous) prog-rock outfit the Mars Volta. “I can’t sit here and pretend anymore,” he tweeted with appropriately melodramatic élan. In both cases, at least one band member had already moved on to another career option — MCR’s Gerard Way is writing comic books, and TMV’s Omar Rodríguez-López is spearheading the luminous post-punk band Bosnian Rainbows. But even when a breakup appears to be definitive, hiatus status can still be applied retroactively. When Creed disbanded in 2004, it was designated a breakup, and then reclassified as a hiatus when the band reformed in 2009. (Creed is currently on another hiatus.)
So, all of this is pretty silly. Who cares if a band breaks up, goes on hiatus, takes a vacation, or enters a witness protection program for several years? What is the point of all this semantic nonsense? It ultimately comes down to a question of control: Do artists have the right to define the contours of their career arcs, or does this inevitably fall to the audience? Because if a band doesn’t put a word on its current status, no matter how uncertain that status might actually be, the public will do it instead.
Take OutKast. For seven years, it has been one of the few groups to avoid hiatus/breakup language. All we know for certain is that there have been no new albums since 2006’s Idlewild. Andre 3000 and Big Boi might work together again, or they might not. Presently, there are rumors that OutKast might be “reuniting” at Coachella in 2014, which prompts the question: Is it really a “reunion” if you haven’t officially broken up or spent time on the hiatus tip? “Reunion” language instantly reframes anything OutKast subsequently does — cynics will call the group’s future shows a “nostalgia cash-in” even though OutKast has only been absent since the mid-’00s. Is it possible that careers now are just an endless cycle of ambiguous dissolutions and triumphant returns?
If this truly is the end of the Walkmen, I must say it feels kind of perfect. I realize I’m probably in the minority of Walkmen fans who prefer the band’s later, quieter, and (for lack of a better term) more “mature” records over the early stuff. I feel like most people who care about this band fell in love with “The Rat” and wanted the Walkmen to stay that young, furious, and drunk forever. But this was the rare rock band that aged gracefully out of its messy, tumultuous, romantically wasted adolescence and into a wised-up, no-bullshit, domesticated adulthood. And because I aged in and out of the same lifestyles at roughly the same time, I stuck with them.
The Walkmen record I always go back to is 2010’s Lisbon, a funereal tone poem mourning the end of the postcollege/premarriage irresponsibility era of grown-up life. No album better captures the feeling of drinking alone way too late at night, when one spouse is in bed and the workday looms in a couple hours and the voices in your head morph into a chorus of woozy New Orleans horns and bittersweet surf-guitar riffs. Lisbon led to the salvation of 2012’s Heaven, the Walkmen’s last (?) record, which found the band settling into the routine of family life with the young century’s most unabashed dad-rock paeans. I was a sucker for this kind of record at the time — I was a month removed from my first child being born when Heaven was released, and I was actively hoping my life was about to enter a better, richer period. The album’s title track became my rallying cry: “Remember, remember, all that we fight for,” Hamilton Leithauser sings in the song’s final moments. It was great advice then and seems like an ideal parting shot now.
Then again, I’d love to see the Walkmen live in 10 years. So, you know, whatever happens happens.