There are many reasons bands succeed or fail and, more often than not, none of those have to do with quality. In many cases, it’s a matter of chemistry: Lineup changes or personality conflicts can wreck a band’s momentum, or remove the contributions of a crucial songwriter. In other cases, timing is the culprit: Cultural shifts make musical styles passé, which can derail the careers of artists in those genres.
Of course, popularity is a relative term — Skrillex‘s old band From First to Last played to thousands of fans on Warped Tour, but never became a household name. Failure is also a relative term — just because a band fails to make it big doesn’t mean they’re artistically unworthy. For instance, Tom Mullen, the founder of the website and podcast Washed Up Emo, recalls seeing Swedish post-hardcore punks Refused during their original tenure. “I got to see them on their last tour, a few days before they broke up,” he says. “And there were 200 people at a school-café-slash-venue in Guilford, North Carolina. People knew the song ‘Rather Be Dead’ — they didn’t know ‘New Noise.’” Of course, a cult following isn’t always forever. “People were into [the show], and it was packed, but it wasn’t Terminal 5 in New York City for two nights, or Coachella” — which is where Refused played when they reunited.
Scenes such as this one underscore that success and failure are fluid, and musicians stuck in one or the other position aren’t always there forever. The following list examines the phenomenon of the second act: musicians in underachieving bands who later found greater notoriety and acclaim with other projects, whether it’s measured in album sales, mainstream attention or artistic accomplishments.
Chisel | Ted Leo
Today, Ted Leo is a respected humorist and songwriter. He’s released six albums with his band the Pharmacists, spanning roughshod Britpunk, shuffling pub rock, lacerating folk-punk and all points in between. Live, Leo is a livewire frontman, bristling with energy — resulting in tours with Against Me! and Pearl Jam, and appearances at Coachella and the Pitchfork Music Festival.
But his work with the Pharmacists has its roots in his time as frontman for Washington, D.C., ’90s cult band Chisel, whose strident music was influenced by jaunty mod rock and wiry jangle-punk. “I learned a lot about myself, my strengths and weaknesses in songwriting, what I really wanted to do as an artist,” Leo says. “And I learned some of it on my own — but some of it both from and with [drummer] John [Dugan] and [bassist] Chris [Norberg].”
During its existence, the group recorded with Fugazi‘s Guy Picciotto and played with the Make-Up, Sleater-Kinney, Slant 6, Jawbox and Blonde Redhead. (Mullen even recalls that Oasis opened up for Chisel early in their career.) Such diverse bills were more a result of necessity than design. “We began playing hardcore and punk shows along with the other people who were breaking away [from the norm] musically,” Leo recalls. “And while there was a lot of conversation and mutual influence, it didn’t feel [like we were] striving toward anything more than whatever audience we were playing for, or peer group we were hanging around with.”
Despite having an accessible sound and peerless songwriting, Chisel was firmly underground. “We had minimal coverage in the national press — a tiny mention in Details magazine, for instance — and an announcement in the Washington Post when we split up,” says Dugan. “We were coming from an ethic of playing basement shows or DIY spaces on our tours, working with very small record labels. It was really about young people creating their own culture, so our expectations for our influence were shaped by that.”
Its members are pragmatic, if not downright humble, about Chisel’s lasting influence. “Something about our sound enabled us to play on a wide variety of bills — with Elliott Smith or Shades Apart — and have it make sense,” Dugan says. “There was more than one avenue for approaching our music, so we drew from a few different audiences. But we were not very well known outside a certain circle.”
Knapsack | The Jealous Sound
Knapsack had ’90s bona fides: they toured with Pavement and Jawbox, were signed to Alias Records, home of Archers of Loaf, and boasted a slow-boiling sound that landed somewhere between jagged indie rock and churning emo. But in 2000, the band disintegrated due to the usual reasons: they lost a bass player, and members began relocating for jobs and other bands. “It just reached its logical end, and that was that,” frontman Blair Shehan said in 2013. After Knapsack’s demise, Shehan decided to start a new project, the Jealous Sound. Their vulnerable, gently-melodic 2003 full-length debut, Kill Them with Kindness was full of breathy vocals, saw-toothed guitars and sparkling production. Comparable to Jimmy Eat World and one-time tourmates Death Cab for Cutie, the LP fit seamlessly with the sensitive, introspective indie-emo popular at that time. The album landed on Spin’s Top 40 that year, and the group toured with the Foo Fighters before going on a lengthy break; since returning, they’ve released a new album, 2012′s A Gentle Reminder.
Mineral | The Gloria Record
“They deserve the same swan song that Refused got,” Mullen says of Mineral, the Texas act that recently undertook a high-profile nationwide reunion tour. Indeed, the group’s two albums — 1997′s noisy post-rock opus The Power of Falling and 1998′s slo-core totem EndSerenading — mined anguished emotional depths while twisting familiar sounds into something enduring.
During their original tenure, however, Mineral were barely known outside of certain circles — despite the fact they had signed a deal with Interscope Records just before their split. “I knew about them, but honestly, information was slow,” Mullen says.
It was Chris Simpson and Jeremy Gomez’s post-Mineral band, the Gloria Record, that reaped the benefit of their old band’s slow-building popularity. Their atmospheric 2002 record, Start Here, produced by the in-demand Mike Mogis, had an expansive sound that took cues from more mainstream rock influences — among them, R.E.M., Radiohead and U2. The LP reached the Top 30 of the CMJ album charts.
Discount | The Kills
Before Alison Mosshart bewitched audiences with the Dead Weather and the Kills, she was a teenager fronting the ramshackle Florida pop-punk band Discount. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know this; the vocalist has always downplayed her role in the group, which released three full-lengths, a split with J Church and a Billy Bragg covers EP, among other things. While Mosshart’s profile has grown, her former band remains little-known, which seems just fine by her. The Kills have spent over a decade iterating on their seductive, minimalist electrorock, while her bluesy, gothic vocals have distinguished the Dead Weather within Jack White‘s sprawling empire.
From First To Last | Skrillex
When Skrillex still went by Sonny Moore, he was a shaggy-haired 16-year-old fronting the prog-nodding screamo act From First to Last. The group sold nearly 184,000 copies of their 2004 debut, Dear Diary, My Teen Angst Has a Body Count, on the strength of its intricate post-hardcore riffing and Moore’s adolescent banshee screams. They toured with Hawthorne Heights, All-American Rejects, Every Time I Die and Atreyu. But these milestones pale in comparison to Moore’s achievements as Skrillex: Lollapalooza 2014 headliner, Coachella 2014 show-stealer and the artist responsible for propelling dubstep into the mainstream thanks to LPs such as 2012′s Scary Monsters & Nice Sprites, which has sold upward of 650,000 copies.
Midtown | Cobra Starship
Along with Something Corporate and New Found Glory, Midtown was one of the beneficiaries of the Drive-Thru Records boom of the early ’00s: After the success of 2000′s Save the World, Lose the Girl, the New Jersey band was upstreamed to a major label for 2002′s sensitive, lovelorn Living Well Is the Best Revenge. Although this well-crafted LP boasted radio-ready pop-punk and sold a hair over 100,000 copies, Midtown never quite leapt into mainstream consciousness, and the band split in 2005. Frontman Gabe Saporta’s next band, Cobra Starship, was more successful: The group’s sassy synthpunk and electropop predated the EDM boom — and when trends finally caught up to the band, they achieved two platinum singles (“Good Girls Go Bad,” “You Make Me Feel”), “Snakes On A Plane (Bring It)” and mainstream chart saturation. Cobra Starship’s success and Saporta’s charismatic, cheeky personality even had the added bonus of amplifying Midtown’s mythology; the band reunited for this year’s Skate & Surf Festival.
Arma Angelus | Fall Out Boy
Before Pete Wentz was the mouthpiece and bassist for Fall Out Boy, he was just a Chicago hardcore kid playing in bands such as Arma Angelus. Clark Giles — who released the group’s 2000 EP, The Grave End of the Shovel, via his Happy Couples Never Last label — described AA as a band that was “part of the metalcore strain of the hardcore scene.
“I put it out on the strength of the [band members'] former bands, such as Racetraitor or Extinction,” he says. “My label at that time was primarily a vessel to put out bands from my hometown, and as an extension of my political beliefs. I liked that Racetraitor made people uncomfortable and challenged complacency, so that carried over into my desire to do something by Arma Angelus.”
Although Giles admits that there wasn’t a sense that this band would have a lasting impact — in fact, for a variety of reasons, he notes the record was “one of my worst sellers” — he praises Wentz’s smarts and industry acumen.
“He wasn’t your average musician,” he says. “He was all business — and I mean that as a compliment. He always had a lawyer review anything that I sent him that could be interpreted as forming a contractual business relationship, even if it was just an email. You have to realize how unusual this was at the time, compared to most of the bands that I was dealing with where I would just drunkenly talk them into letting me put out their record after a show in a basement.
“I actually said to my girlfriend at the time, ‘Too bad Pete isn’t in a band that is a little more mainstream instead of a metal band, he could probably be pretty successful.’ Funny how things work out.”
Poison the Well | Sleigh Bells
In post-hardcore circles, Poison the Well were known for being innovative and aggressive, versatile enough to work with Swedish punk producers Pelle Henricsson and Eskil Lövström and tour with metalcore bands. That same genre-flouting spirit abounds in Sleigh Bells, the project started by vocalist Alexis Krauss and ex-Poison the Well guitarist Derek Miller. The duo’s metallic electrorock struck a nerve, largely due to the combination of the latter’s aggressive, distorted guitars and the former’s playground-banshee chants. The visceral novelty of Sleigh Bells’ sound has resulted in more commercial success for Miller — 2010′s Treats has sold 60,000 more copies than Poison the Well’s high-water mark, 2003′s You Come Before You — and more mainstream media exposure. Sleigh Bells appeared on Saturday Night Live, and their songs have appeared in movies such as The Bling Ring and Bachelorette, as well as an iPhone ad.
Home Town Hero/Under the Influence of Giants | AWOLNATION
AWOLNATION is one of modern music’s success stories, an industrial-tinted soul-grunge band enjoying sold-out tours and platinum singles (“Sail”). But before hitting it big, vocalist Aaron Bruno and drummer Drew Stewart were in two different major label bands: the early ’00s rock act Home Town Hero — which was signed to Madonna‘s Maverick Records — and Under the Influence of Giants. The latter had a minor 2006 hit, “Mama’s Room,” a Scissor Sisters-esque disco-pop homage, toured with the Sounds and hit No. 1 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. That Under the Influence of Giants didn’t have more of an impact is somewhat puzzling; the band’s smart self-titled debut took inspiration from Wham!, ELO and glam rock.