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Why the indie band never dies: fake breakups, permanent adolescence and cash comebacks

Do bands such as LCD Soundsystem ever split up – or is ‘quitting’ just the first stage of a long, tactical manoeuvre?

The last 15 years in music have made over-enthused geeks of us all. Fans carp and applaud every time a group of people who haven’t hung out for a while decide to hang out again, enthralled by the mere act of reunion. Recently, however, the trend has accelerated. Bands are reuniting after just a few years apart, and embark on a huge “final” tour before they go; a chance for a long, profitable goodbye.

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Take LCD Soundsystem, for example. In 2011, they announced their final show at Madison Square Garden, a show immortalised in their concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits. Just four years later, they released a new song, Christmas Will Break Your Heart. A huge reunion tour followed, then a new album – their first to US No 1 – and another massive tour. Mike Skinner, who said he’d stopped playing music as the Streets after a final gig in 2011, has just announced a new tour. Whole genres have been getting in on the act, too: in the wake of the My Bloody Valentine reunion a slew of 90s shoegaze bands such as Ride, Lush and Slowdive all announced new tours. When Wild Beasts and the Maccabees recently announced they were breaking up, there was a sense that it wouldn’t be for ever.

While it’s easy to be cynical about these kinds of manoeuvres, options for indie bands in particular have narrowed as the genre has fallen out of favour both critically and commercially: there was not a single indie band among the

Top 20 bestselling albums of 2016, nor among Pitchfork’s Top 10 albums of the year(Radiohead were at 10 with a deeply un-indie record), despite the website once being the bastion for beardy guitar bands. Popular culture now celebrates solo artists with strong visual identities who flirt with the mainstream. Groups that have found ways to incorporate some of that (Wolf Alice, the 1975, London Grammar) are doing well, but the closer bands stick to the old formula, the harder it is.

It is easy to see why some decide to jump. “Bands re-form now because they need the cash,” says Will Rees, guitarist in Mystery Jets, the south London band who got big in the mid-2000s. His group almost reached breaking point after struggling to garner much interest around their fourth record, Radlands – and considered calling it quits – but things started to pick up again after their fifth record, Curve of the Earth. Before that point, however, being in an indie band was a costly pursuit with dwindling rewards. “It’s OK for solo artists who work in a small writing room using a MacBook Pro and a few synths, but if you are a band you need more cash and more time,” says Rees.

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It might seem confusing that bands are struggling at such a boom time for live music: attendance at concerts and festivals are at an all-time high, with a 12% rise in audiences at live events in just the past year. However, according to Jason Edwards, a booking agent at Coda who represents Years & Years and Grimes, the number of shows that bands are able to do is dwindling massively, even while live music is growing. “It’s harder and harder for bands,” he says. “It used to be the case that you’d tour after an album came out, then do some festivals, then tour again after the summer.

Now people only have the attention span for one tour or just festivals, perhaps not even both.” It’s particularly a problem for traditional indie bands who just want to write music and tour without any bells or whistles.

“The guys in Wild Beasts didn’t start a band so that they could be very engaged on social media, or think of themselves as a brand, or be constantly pushing their celebrity status,” says Edwards. “They just want to be remembered for their music, not all of the other fluff. But it’s very hard to make an impact that way these days.”

In this difficult climate for indie bands, a “final” tour then becomes quite attractive, the sense of irrevocability – or, as Edwards puts it, “increasing your stock” – means a band will sell more tickets and play bigger venues. James Murphy has since suggested that he’d never really meant it when he said LCD were over, and the band wouldn’t have been able to play such a big venue without the announcement: “My theory was, if I make [Madison Square Garden] our last show, we’ll sell it out in two weeks,” he told the New York Times.

Bands, though, are more than just businesses. When I speak to people in groups who have recently broken up, or are “on hiatus”, they acknowledge there’s public cynicism about those decisions but often there’s a deeper, more psychological need for closure that drives the decision. “I think it just got to a point where we said: ‘We have been doing this 14 years, our entire adult lives,’” says Felix White, guitarist in the Maccabees, who played their final gig at Alexandra Palace earlier this year. “I was so tunnel-visioned with the Maccabees and everything that it meant, it just absorbed my entire life.”

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“Playing live music is incredibly addictive; it comes with a 90-minute adrenaline rush that is irreplaceable,” says Jamie MacColl from Bombay Bicycle Club, who decided to go on indefinite hiatus, despite their final album and tour being their most successful to date. “I guess the big question that I could never, and still can’t, reconcile is how sustainable it is to live that way, constantly chasing that high, and then living the other 22-and-a-half hours of the day in a state of permanent quasi-adolescence.”

But how long can this process last? Whether it’s bands calling time on the fraught touring lifestyle for emotional reasons or simply needing some extra financial support, there may be a point at which fans are exhausted by the routine. “If this continues as a trend of an OK thing to do, people are going to call bullshit on it in the future,” says Edwards. “I can already think of one act who’ve announced a big comeback, booked huge venues and it hasn’t gone as well as they’d hoped. They haven’t replicated what they’ve seen with other people. It’s the same with the shoegaze bands: the first one that reformed was a huge deal, the next still a pretty big deal, the ones after not nearly as big a deal.”

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The problem bands face right now is bigger than live music. Fewer records are released each week, not least because there is no Top of the Pops, no weekly music press, no Saturday morning music shows to support this weekly churn. The majority of music you see on TV is at award shows or festivals, huge one-off flashy performances, each one an event in their own right. It makes sense that people are bored of watching the same bands tour the same venues over and over again.

They want excitement: multi-act tours, big production, the sense that they are going to something they might never be able to see again. “In a small way, it’s kind of a part of fake news, hypernormalisation and other things going on right now,” concludes Rees. “Things aren’t what they seem, aren’t really real. A band can say they are going to split up and that’s it but actually they may come back in four years. No one ever really dies.”

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