Out of Step: Don’t Call It a Comeback – The Tricky Balancing Act of the Band Reunion


“We’ll go our way
We may have changed
But we’re still here and we came to play”

– Lifetime, How We Are

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Band reunions are no rare occurrence in the music world these days. With so many bands flaming out over petty squabbles or calling it quits in order to pursue other musical directions, there’s no shortage of reunion fodder to be had. As mid-level and small bands have risen in visibility over the past 20 years there has almost been a market created specifically for reunions. Like blockbuster movie sequels to Hollywood, band reunions to the music world represent a known quantity.

Year after year, clubs and festivals seem to play host to more and more reunited bands, knowing before tickets ever go on sale that they’ll be able to draw a sizable crowd. Touring is just one part of the reunion equation, however. While not a prerequisite, when a band gets back together you can bet there’ll be reissues of the back catalog to go alongside it. Like ticket sales, these reissues are a known quantity and stores will stock reissue vinyl for long out-of-print albums, knowing they’ll bring in old and new collectors alike. Sometimes reunited bands take this known quantity effect too far however. Sometimes they record new music too.

The first band reunion I can recall getting really excited over was that of 90’s hardcore legends Lifetime. Having broken up long before I had ever gotten into their music, I was ecstatic about the possibility of finally seeing them play. The band had already casually reunited for a short time and played a few random shows when I finally saw them play Boston in July 2006. It was at that show that I heard the two most dreaded words one can from a reunited band: “new song.”

The simple fact of the matter is that when people go to hear live music, they want to hear songs they know. It’s one thing if you go to a show without having caught up with the band’s latest album or if they decide to play something they’re toying with for a new release. When you go to see a reunited band however, that known quantity effect becomes active and you expect to hear mostly songs you’ve been living with ever since the band originally called it quits. The last thing you need is some new song crowding around your old favorites and potentially hampering their style. I know it’s silly to think that a bad new song will ever make the good old songs become worse, but we thought the same thing about Star Wars and look what happened there! That’s right, your favorite reunited band’s new song could end up being the musical equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks.

Luckily Lifetime’s new song did not disappoint and neither did the new album they released the next year. Sadly, this is not typical of most post-reunion releases. The Get Up Kids’ 2011 reunion album sounded decent enough live, but fell flat somewhere between there and my speakers. Rival Schools’ new LP in the same year and their 2013 “lost” album release just made their debut (and previously only) album seem like a brilliant fluke. Even as I write this I’m struggling to find anything to like about The Dismemberment Plan’s reunion album, but I’ll be damed if I let Emergency & I be sullied by it. These are just a few reunion album experiences however. There are plenty more that I haven’t even chosen to get involved with. For most bands – especially young bands – their music has a time and a place and while it may be possible to revisit that place in a live show, you can’t go back and act like nothing has changed. At this point, I’d rather reuniting bands just play and reissue old material; it might save us all some embarrassment.

Live shows for reunited bands are always good though, right? Not necessarily. As I mentioned before, the expectations facing a reunited band are that when you see them live, A) you’re going to hear a bunch of stuff you already know and B) it’s going to sound like what you remember. I’ve come up with a third expectation as well: C) that it’s going to be accessible. In my experience you can usually count on expectation A and B to be fulfilled with a few exceptions. For instance, the recently reunited Black Flag (and their doppelgangers composed of former members, simply called Flag) come to mind as something I really don’t need to see live. Even last year’s semi-reunion of rap pioneers Run-DMC at Fun Fun Fun Fest was quaint, but ultimately forgettable.

For the most part reunion shows have been a positive experience for me, however. Each year it seems that Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest has provided me a number of chances to see some of my favorite reunited acts play out. Two years ago it was the combination of Hot Snakes and Kid Dynamite that left me breathless, bruised, and beaming at the end of the 3-day festival. Last year Refused were the reunited band whose name was on the tips over everyone’s tongues, but Sunny Day Real Estate, Braid, and even Bob Mould (covering his former band Sugar’s seminal LP Copper Blue) were all top notch performances. Even this year, with my schedule looking a bit thinner than usual, I’m still looking forward to Quicksand, The Descendants, and yes The Dismemberment Plan, though they better take it easy on the new stuff. This all brings me right back to expectation C though: accessibility.

While those of us who cover the local music scene have a certain affinity for seeing bands in smaller, more intimate environs, for bigger acts that intimacy comes at the price of accessibility. One would assume that when a band reunites and decides to play to audiences again, that they’re looking to cash in on or at least nurture what is often a much larger fan base than when they originally broke up. Playing festivals around the country is probably the easiest way to reach the most people at once and since a reunited band is something of a known quantity, the possibility of being invited to such events is much higher. With festival dates more spread out than venue-a-day shows, it’s likely less taxing on a band that’s come to terms over the length of their hiatus with making music on the side instead of as their primary income. Why then did Texas’ own late 90’s punk game-changers At The Drive-In so royally screw up what could have been the greatest reunion of the decade by so horribly lacking accessibility. Was it pride? Was it stupidity? Maybe it was just bad luck.


It was a reunion that most thought would never happen. After the band’s break up in the early 2000’s half the band went on to play in Jim Ward’s Sparta while the other half formed the core of the progressive rock group Mars Volta. We had all heard stories of continued bad feelings between the band’s members, but rumors began surfacing in late 2011 that the hatchet had been buried. Soon the announcement was made: At the Drive-In were back together and they were going to be playing some shows, most notably the Coachella festival in California. You’d expect a Texas band to play Texas so I assumed that an ACL spot was a no-brainer for ATDI, but when the lineup was announced they were nowhere on it. Fun Fun Fun Fest was still a possibility however and given that the festival was more in line with the band’s punk and hardcore roots, it was even a more understandable option.

As the summer approached, cryptic messages began to appear in ATDI’s Twitter feed. Maps of Texas, with stars in various locations. What could it mean? What cipher was needed to decode these transmissions? We soon found out as ATDI announced a series of last minute pre-Coachella shows across Texas, including at Austin’s Red 7. Had I been paying rapt attention to my Twitter feed the Saturday morning of the Red 7 show announcement instead of playing video games, I may have gotten to the web site in time to make a purchase, but given that they sold out in less than 5 minutes it still may not have made any difference. OK, so I missed out, but At the Drive-In were definitely going to be playing Fun Fun Fun Fest; the portents all pointed to it. Of course when the Fun Fun Fun Fest lineup announcement arrived, ATDI where nowhere on it. So much for accessibility. Yeah, bands should play music for themselves, but (call me selfish) reunions are about the fans! As the Coachella date came and went, unforeseeable personal crises as well as some old wounds threatened to tear the band apart again. It seemed I wouldn’t get to see ATDI play live at all. Finally when Mars Volta broke up after a spat between singer Cedric Bixler and guitarist Omar Rodriguez, the final nail in ATDI’s coffin was driven for a second time. At least they didn’t release any new material.

In the end, band reunions are a classic case of being careful what you wish for. Yes, it’s great to catch a band that you never had a chance to see in their heyday and have since become a fan of. Or it’s great when your favorite band from high school gets back together and that wave of nostalgia hits you, but a reunited band is like a broken up couple that gets back together. Just because a band reunites doesn’t mean the old problems that broke them up have gone away, nor does it mean that they’re the same people they once were. Take reunions with a grain of salt and reunion albums even more so. If your memories are good enough and the music hits you in just the right way, then even a train wreck like the At the Drive- In reunion can seem like a Lifetime-style triumph in the end. Seriously though … no new stuff please.

About Brian

Brian Audette lives somewhere in Austin within a pillow fort made of broken dreams. He only comes out to see shows and buy beer. He has a surprisingly well maintained lawn and is using it to breed an army of attack mosquitoes with which to take over the world. Brian can be reached at brian@ovrld.com or at @bjaudette.