We don't love live music simply because it's loud.
Sure, in a wide-open amphitheater or a tight little club, rock 'n' roll's riffs howl a bit higher, and the drums punch harder. But you could just turn up the volume at home, alone. In a crowd, people fulfill that nagging need to share what they love with others in the same vicinity. While the value of recorded music has plunged so much that $9.99 each month now grants listeners access to one of the world's biggest record collections, people continue to open their wallets for the inherently limited concert experience. We want to be a part of something.
That is one of the primary reasons people shell out stacks of cash for reunion tours—the chance to enjoy something in public that, for years, you could only experience in the cold company of your stereo. It's hard to begrudge any band returning from an early grave to collect the payout of its legacy, either, especially when streaming services pay those artists only fractions of pennies per play.
But the Reunionmania that's swept through most genres, particularly rock, during the last decade often forces bands to keep going and outlive their welcome until enthusiasm becomes its own act. Groups return to the stage, make a lot of money by playing in front of big and excited crowds, and then keep up the gig until it becomes a lifeless one. During their first lives, for instance, Faith No More and Refused worked as iconoclasts, ripping at definitions of what it meant to be rock or punk. Faith No More reunited six years ago, Refused three, and they've both since made new albums that range from awful to decent. They remain on the road.
How long can Faith No More and Refused—and dozens of bands in similar positions—revive and attempt to expand their legacy without ruining it altogether?
"I'm kind of too old to worry what the trajectory of our perception is," admits Faith No More bassist Billy Gould, who has been the band's spokesperson in times both good and bad.
Deeply misunderstood in their time, Faith No More came up at the tail end of hard rock dominance, which made their willfully eclectic sound a hard sell for their major-label boosters. "Warner Brothers probably didn't really get us, ever," he says.
In 1992, Faith No More were the reluctant openers of an infamous stadium tour shared by Guns N' Roses and Metallica. Two years had passed since "Epic," Faith No More's biggest hit, overran the radio, and they were already aiming for strange new sounds and turning away from the masses of such a tour.
With roots more John Lydon than Gene Simmons, Faith No More never seemed like natural rock stars, anyway. Their earliest recorded work, 1982's Quiet in Heaven/Song of Liberty, apes post-punkers like Public Image Ltd. The riff-heavy mix of punk and funk on Introduce Yourself and The Real Thing, their sole platinum-selling album, loosely lumped the band in with left-coast contemporaries such as Jane's Addiction, Primus and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Those links progressively eroded with subsequent releases like Angel Dust and King For A Day, Fool For A Lifetime, records that veered off on wild tangents in search of genre fusion. Faith No More achieved cult-icon status by making willfully weird music.
When Faith No More returned after a decade-long absence, frontman Mike Patton didn't desire to produce new material. Not long after they first reconvened, for instance, he told me in an interview that he wasn't sure fans even wanted a new record. Perhaps, too, he was simply protective of a legacy with which he was satisfied. Gould, however, disagreed.
"It was a little frustrating to do a couple years of shows and not have something new to be playing. I always wanted to do something new, from the very beginning, from the first show," Gould says. "I don't think of myself as the kind of person who just looks back."
This tightrope epitomizes the fundamental tension of Reunionmania: While some bands play the hits and get off stage, others make a true go of it. Neither option guarantees safety.
Take the Pixies: Their 2004 reunion with all four core members encountered critical delight and giddy shrieks from fans new and old, all toting credit cards. But theirs has become one of the longest-running of all the alt-rock reunions, even after the departure of Kim Deal in 2013. The release that same year of EP1, the first all-new Pixies record since 1991's Trompe le Monde, proved catastrophic. By the time the proper full-length Indie Cindy arrived last year, it was hard to care about the Pixies all. They had outlived their second life.
Faith No More's new Sol Invictus hasn't proven nearly as toxic as Indie Cindy. Reviews have been positive, and the subsequent tour has been ambitious. Indeed, Faith No More's 1998 breakup proved good for business, as the band's metallic mythos only grew in their absence. Patton's continued output in noise rock supergroups Fantômas and Tomahawk maintained his momentum, as did drummer Mike Bordin's work with Ozzy Osbourne and Gould's with Jello Biafra. By the time Faith No More were ready to reunite in 2009, their reputation had multiplied.
Though they sound nothing alike, Faith No More and Refused share that much. The Swedish punks formed in 1991, between Faith No More's The Real Thing and Angel Dust. Their landmark, The Shape of Punk to Come, offered a surging amalgam of acceptable hardcore and post-hardcore stunts, bolstered by some goofy interstitials. It arrived just months before Refused broke up in 1998. Though not altogether ignored upon release, the record slowly became a genre touchstone for new fans and bands.
Refused have long employed a heavy-handed nonconformist shtick. Their rambling "last official press release" cited Baudrillard and Derrida and declared the band "fucking dead." Their 2012 reunion seemed at odds with that historic rhetoric, like self-imposed hypocrisy. And while Refused's second act has been relentless, its results have been abysmal. Their new album, Freedom, met mixed reviews and tepid sales. It never charted in America. Refused are fucking alive, but very few people seem to care.
Faith No More and Refused now have to decide if they've reunited for long enough. Some signs suggest they have. Promoters recently downgraded a New York City show intended for the 20,000-capacity Madison Square Garden to the arena's theater, roughly a quarter of the size. For now, Gould rationalizes playing larger venues as a course correction for underestimating demand: "The first shows sold out so quick. A lot of our fans couldn't get tickets."
But as the Pixies and now Refused know, even that audience may not last forever. Gould understands that Faith No More may need to recalibrate their future plans, if they're to have any at all.
"In October, that's the last shows we have booked," he says. "We'll re-check in with each other and see where we're at. That's the healthy way to go."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Learning to die."