Originally published on Forbes.com.
“The only thing that I really have left to say,” said Iggy Pop, reclining on a couch wearing a black leather jacket over his bare torso, “is that the Stooges are a real group.”
What did Pop mean by “real group”? He meant that the Stooges make new music together. They don’t just perform songs, they create new ones. Although Iggy and the Stooges could have made a good living as their own cover band, they risked failure and ridicule by going into the studio and recording an album’s-worth of new material. They went the extra step of interacting with each other, sharing ideas, giving feedback, and uniting around a common vision.
Surprisingly, the resulting album, Ready to Die, which was released by Fat Possum Records in April, is quite good. How did a group of sexagenarians create a good punk rock album? According to Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic, it was because the band was “liberated from the weight of their history.” Somehow, so many years later, Iggy and the Stooges were able to start over.
Bands break up for many reasons. Usually, like other kinds of teams, they reach the end of their life cycle. They find that the sum is no longer greater than the parts and they move on. Unfortunately, they rarely do so on friendly terms. If enough years go by and they decide to reunite, they may discover, to their dismay, that the same problems that led to their breakup are still there. They are not the band they were at their peak, the version of themselves celebrated by fans and their own memories. They are a greyer version of their own dead end.
This is why getting the band back together is so difficult. Many of us wish we could recreate the team with which we did our best work. But if we were to get that team back together, we’d find ourselves back at the point at which we had decided to call it quits.
The best way to get a band back together is to do what Iggy and the Stooges did: start at the beginning. But Iggy and the Stooges did not forget the past, or else they would have recreated it. They learned from their past. James Williamson, who came back into the Stooges fold after the death of original guitarist Ron Ashton in 2009, had fallen out with Iggy Pop in 1977 over recording the album Soldier. Based on that experience, Williamson learned, as he said recently, “to try to be a little more flexible with [Pop] and to basically let him be the boss of his vocals.” Through learning, the songwriting partners freed themselves from the weight of their history.
The Pixies, who announced last week that their founding member and bassist Kim Deal has quit the band, were not able to free themselves from past dysfunctions. For almost ten years, since reuniting in 2004, Pixies played and replayed their catalog of songs, released on four albums between 1988 and 1991, to a growing base of ecstatic fans. They had talked about and tried to make new music together. But, with the exception of one song in 2004, they didn’t.
The Pixies’ original breakup is considered one of the messiest in rock n’ roll history. Singer Charles Thompson (also known as Black Francis and Frank Black) and Deal did not get along, and their conflict style was passive aggressive. As described in Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies by Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz, they rarely engaged in open confrontation. This made it almost impossible for the conflict to ever get resolved. Kim Deal’s husband at the time, John Murphy, said, “You’re still in a little, teeny, tiny company. And if you’re pissed, who do you go to? You can’t go to the HR or an entity like that. You have to talk it out. And if you don’t talk it out, you end up getting things built up.” Rather than directly confronting the source of the conflict, the band members resisted each other in subtle ways.
In fact, their style had become so non-confrontational that Thompson let the band know via a BBC interview and then fax that the Pixies were no more. As he later said, “I didn’t want to have any kind of confrontation with the rest of the band. I didn’t want to have a band meeting and discuss it. I wasn’t happy, and I left.”
Conflict styles are difficult to change. When the Pixies reunited in 2004, their style shifted from passive aggressive to conflict avoidant. The reunion tour was going well and no one wanted to rock the boat. Their goal became to not disrupt the status quo.
But this overemphasis on maintaining harmony came with two costs. First, Deal and Thompson did not work on improving their relationship. Without repair, the tension between them remained, which probably helps account for why Deal left.
Second, with no one feeling free and open enough to express themselves, there was no way any creative work could get done. The Pixies ceased to be a debating society a long time ago. As Kim Deal told a journalist, “It’s like when everyone is too afraid of telling the king he doesn’t have any clothes on. You get intimidated by your own success.” When team members do not feel free to express ideas and differences of opinion, there can be no innovation. That is true for business teams as much as for rock bands.
For the Pixies to create new music the second time around, they needed to get the conversation going again. They needed to change their conflict style and learn from their past experience – the good times and the bad – how to work together again. They needed to free themselves of their history. Thompson acknowledged this back in 2004, when they first reunited. In the documentary Loud Quiet Loud: A Film About The Pixies, he tells a journalist, “We should really just start over with a different name, that’s the only way to keep it honest. Start all over from scratch.” They knew what they needed to do, but they didn’t do it.
If Kim Deal had no other outlet for her creativity, she may have settled for replaying old Pixies songs to her adoring fans. But that wasn’t the case. Deal has been releasing solo music and collaborating with other artists, such as Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. And her band The Breeders released an album in 2009 and are now preparing for a major tour to celebrate the anniversary of their 1993 album, Last Splash.
The reunion of The Pixies is the rule, not the exception. It’s extremely difficult for teams of any kind to change their old ways. They develop habitualized and ingrained patterns of interacting that, once established, cannot be changed easily. If you want to get the band back together and be a real group, in the way that Iggy Pop meant it, you need to put forth significant effort to learn from your mistakes.