The most cynical take on the phenomenon known as the "side project" was offered by the staff of the now-closed St. Louis punk-rock club Creepy Crawl (via its website circa 2008, on a page titled "Annoying"): "Side-project is another name for self-indulgent crap so embarrassingly bad they can't dignify it with a name and gives them a cover why none of their friends will come see them 'perform.' (Would you go see your friend masturbate if they asked you to come watch?) Note to bands: think of your side-project as a project never to get booked again."
But even if such projects come and go like so many windshield-stuck show fliers, sometimes they can be more than merely self-indulgent. In the last year, a number of established St. Louis rockers, songwriters and hip-hoppers have reconfigured, rebranded and reimagined their music into wholly new sounds and songs. They probably all eschew the "side project" tag, as well they should, so let's call them "parallel bands" or "analog acts" or "splinter groups," even as the bands from whence the new analogs came continue in their own fashion.
Led by Brian McClelland (Middle Class Fashion and Tight Pants Syndrome), Whoa Thunder started as a studio project in 2008 and made its live debut last summer. If the synth- and hook-heavy pop-rock band is principally McClelland's outlet for songs and sounds that don't fit his other projects, Whoa Thunder's first album, You're Under Attack, has staying power.
Similarly, Cave States, led by Chris Grabau (Magnolia Summer) and Danny Kathriner (Half Knots and Colonel Ford), started out in late 2013 and has found its live legs, performing songs from The Great Divide, a debut that's as atmospheric as it is accomplished.
In a similar introspective Americana vein, Fog Lights, led by Justin Johnson (Pretty Little Empire) and Jim Peters (the Upright Animals and Javier Mendoza), has just finished an exquisite debut album, Manhasset, set for release on July 25.
In 2012, the Loot Rock Gang — led by Mat Wilson (Rum Drum Ramblers) and his wife and collaborator Little Rachel — began establishing its own old-time jazz-blues identity with a handful of shows that eventually became a regular run at joints such as Off Broadway and Blues City Deli. Last fall the Gang recorded its first album, That's Why I've Got to Sing, which ought to be on the Victrola of every Pokey fan.
Also in the Americana genre, the Wilhelms, led by Andy Ploof and John Wendland of Rough Shop, have been performing regularly both in and out of state on the strength of the debut, Film at 11. With the death of Rough Shop bassist Anne Tkach, it's likely we'll be hearing more from the Wilhelms.
If any genre owns the "side project that shouldn't be called a side project" tag, it's hip-hop. Where one act ends and another begins can be impossible to determine, as is the case with the FarFetched collective, and pivotal newcomers Blank Generation, featuring Hearskra-Z and Loose Screwz. Released early this year, the project's self-titled album looks back as far as classic, hook-steady Outkast and looks forward to a time when calling out "hands up" in St. Louis could be a party cry again, and not a forceful demand.
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