With a Webster’s Dictionary definition like “of or relating to an intelligentsia that develops new or experimental concepts, especially in the arts”, it’s no wonder so many musicians get blindly lost in the unavoidable pretention of being “avant-garde”. Some musicians spend their entire lives attempting to meet the aims of that definition, and are accountable for the merits, importance, detractions and drawback of such a paradoxically narrow-minded approach to music-making. More interesting though are the artists who – though generally working within the confines of mainstream music – take the occasional mental and intellectual vacation with an overly-indulgent avant-garde side project.
Whether it’s in the form of ambient synthesizer harmonies, spoken-word after-school-special sound collages, the use of home appliances as instruments, playing a guitar with a violin bow, or simply a taking part in a uniquely unexpected collaboration, there exists at the very least an honorable novelty to these extra-curricular endeavors. Les Claypool’s numerous (Oysterhead, Les Claypool’s Fancy Band, Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade, Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains), progressively strange collaborations (with cats like Stewart Copeland, Trey Anastasio, Buckethead, Bernie Worrell from Parliament and all those dudes from Bob Weir’s RatDog), or the damn-near twenty albums of pure, unadulterated indigestible noise that Mars Volta guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez has put out since 2004 are nothing if not expansive fodder for intoxicated late night musical debate.
The phrase “avant-garde side project” itself is, in one glaring sense, classic American redundancy. To many people (especially people in rock bands), the idea of doing an independent-leaning side project at the expense of the band is in and of itself avant-garde: the band is the wholly original identity of a unified group of individuals, joining up for the long haul to avoid the trappings of Capitalism’s inherent money grab and the dehumanization that inevitably follows it; free agency is a luxury reserved for the prima-donnas that fill the roster of professional sports teams.
On the other hand, in New Orleans – a place whose rock, funk, jazz and hip hop scenes are as free-form and incestuous as any in the world – we assume not only that a singer or songwriter will branch off to work on his own or with others, but that, at any given time, every member of a group will be involved in multiple projects, stretched out so seemingly thin that their ability to hold it all together is nearly as impressive as their prolific output; and it’s even endearing when the members of bands of higher stature or more national prominence behave in a similar manner. Add to that a universally-shared attraction to the overtly weird, and you occasionally end up with music that gracefully escapes the trappings of mainstream critical and commercial expectations by sharpening the often-blurred line between artist and listener.
Bradford Cox, the Deerhunter front man whose solo work as Atlas Sound is regarded in some circles as highly as that of his day job, provides a justification that applies not only to his own avant-garde leanings but to the practice as a whole: “Some of it is absolutely, terrifyingly bad, but sometimes I’m just like, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’” Indeed, sometimes the results are bad but sometimes they’re good; likewise, sometimes music’s insanely strange, but other times it’s inexplicably normal. Whatever the end result, it’s amazing to hear the effect it has on the original band’s music. David Bryne‘s magnificently unholy alliance with Brian Eno revolutionized the not just the sound of Talking Heads but the entire new-wave movement, yet their long-simmering exclusive pairing (1981’s remarkable My Life In The Bush of Ghosts) precipitated the band’s demise.
Thankfully, it’s very rarely such a destructive force. When Jeff Tweedy made some solo time from Wilco in early 2000 to put together Loose Fur, he formed possibly the ultimate avant-garde side project by calling up experimental Sonic Youth producer Jim O’Rourke. The music itself wasn’t ambient, noisy, or even all that much of an experiment; but the idea of having singer/songwriter – sometimes referred to as a bona fide poet – from the Midwest pair up with a modernist art music engineer of O’Rourke’s caliber is both one of the most out-of-the-box ideas ever conceived and one of the most innovative developments in contemporary music. The indirect result of this collaboration was the now-legendary American classic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
But regardless of the lasting impact of the fruits of these originative detours, a mere record of their existence – be it good, bad, interesting or ultimately ill-advised – is a welcome addition to a musician’s discography. Any artist who makes it anywhere in the infinitely fractured and expansive hobgoblin that is “the music industry” is undoubtedly a veritable font of creative energy, the curator of an endless stream of invention that can’t ever be fully reigned in. The portion deemed “appropriate” for mainstream consumption is often just the tip of the iceberg, and a window into the rest of any artist’s boundless imagination should be cherished.