“One-man band”: when you hear that phrase you probably picture a dude on a street corner with a pair of cymbals between his knees, a drum on his back, some kazoos in his mouth and a guitar case full of quarters. Think again. While naming a band after yourself is fine and good for guys like Dave Matthews and Jon Spencer, some band names are actually just cryptic pseudonyms for a single, mad studio genius.
The past year has seen an explosion of do-it-yourself-ers, including ex-Eels bassist Tommy Walter with his band Abandoned Pools, stone alone emo-ter Chris Carrabba of Dashboard Confessional (see “Dashboard Confessional Concert Checklist: Tickets, Earplugs, Kleenex”), Citizen Cope mastermind Clarence Greenwood and Custom, a.k.a. Duane Lavold. Others who’ve recently gotten some one love include ex-Nine Inch Nails programmer Chris Vrenna (Tweaker), Damon Gough (Badly Drawn Boy) and solo “Superman” John Ondrasik (Five for Fighting).
These artists typically work and write alone, performing nearly every note on their records, sometimes even drawing their own album covers and directing the video. So, assuming they’re proud of their accomplishments, what gives with the isolation and the fake ID?
“Not to sound cheesy, but it’s just a different way of marketing yourself,” Walter said of the choice to go by the handle Abandoned Pools for his pop/electronic solo debut, Humanistic. “I wanted to leave it open to putting a band together, but, also, if you go out as ‘Tommy Walter,’ there’s no man behind the curtain. You’re really putting yourself out there, and I’m not some folk singer with a guitar. This creates more of a mystery and an aura.”
Recent rock history is littered with “bands” that were mostly clever names for the music of a charismatic frontperson. From Prince and the Revolution to Days of the New (Travis Meeks), Smashing Pumpkins (Billy Corgan) and the Magnetic Fields (Stephin Merritt), sometimes one (with some help) is enough.
Electronica acts such as Stardust (Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter) and Aphex Twin (Richard D. James) have been doing it for years: mixing up alluring stage names to mask the fact that all that music is being made by one person, a computer and a host of sampled voices.
But lately, the world of emo rock has blossomed into a haven for artists licking their wounds behind dramatic band names, such as the fragile Bright Eyes (Connor Oberst), Pedro the Lion (David Bazan) and Onelinedrawing (Jonah Sonz Matranga).
For Dashboard’s Carrabba, former lead singer of the emo band Further Seems Forever, the choice was clear – and logical. “I definitely didn’t want it to be ‘The Chris Carrabba Experience,’ ” he said. Although Carrabba had musical assistance from members of his touring band on his album, The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most, much of his live show is geared around his solo performances.
“I wanted [the music] to be a group experience, something I shared with the audience,” he said, noting that most fans shout along to every word at his shows. “I wanted it to be something that made the crowd feel like they were part of it, something communal. Naming it after myself would have diminished their experience and wouldn’t have fostered that same vibe.”
Like Walter, Custom’s Lavold chose a collective-sounding name to leave open the possibility of working with his touring band in the future, but also because it’s been his nickname forever. “I work alone, not because I want to do everything, but because I can,” said Lavold, who not only performs almost every note on his album, but also produced it and directed the controversial video for the single “Hey Mister.”
“If you have an imagination that hears and sees things, it used to be that you were reliant on ‘x’ amount of humans to manifest what you’re imagining,” he explained about the other side of the one-man band coin: preferring to work in solitude. “Now with [recording software] Pro Tools and a Macintosh, you can bungle your way through creating things in your head without hiring 50 players and spending $2,000 a day for a ‘real’ studio.”
Custom said the home studio revolution has not only made it easier for musicians to be jacks-of-all-trades, it has allowed them to record lush albums like his with just a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment. He predicted that the floodgates opened up by such relatively cheap software as Pro Tools and the like could inspire a new generation of recording artists who go it alone.
“I want people to know that we are making records that are in stores on $4,000 worth of equipment,” he said. “The intimidation factor of seeing bands in studios with gigantic mixing boards is gone. You don’t need that.”
Walter works better when he can be alone with his thoughts, and Carrabba just wants everyone to join the band. But you have to hand it to lo-fi rocker John Darnielle, a.k.a. Mountain Goats. In the past, he’s sometimes taken the one-man band concept to its logical conclusion by beginning some solo gigs with the announcement, “We are the Mountain Goats.”
Okay, maybe one isn’t the loneliest number.