Friday, November 17, 2006


The other day I went to a show, with Art Brut as the headliner, and one of the opening acts reminded me of a topic I’ve wanted to write about for some time. The band was “We Are Scientists”, who are a three piece group from California. All in all, they weren’t bad – they had the crowd moving and they appeared to be having as much fun as well. It was pretty decent entertainment value (though Art Brut made the evening).

However, within 30 seconds of the We Are Scientist’s (hereon referred to as WAS) set, it was pretty clear that they sounded exactly like The Killers – same instrumentation (save for Brandon Flowers on synth), similar sound vocals, and same song structures, style, and tones. Now WAS fans might argue that they did it “first”, or at least before The Killers, and they may be right (WAS formed in 2000, whereas The Killers formed in 2002). Doesn’t matter – The Killers are more popular today. You may also argue that on their recordings, they do not sound the same. That much I don’t know as I’m not familiar with WAS on CD. However, I was waiting from someone in the crowd to shout “Play Mr Brightside!”, the modern version of “Play Freebird!”, it was that close a connection.

This article is not meant to pick on WAS in particular. As I’ve said, I’m not too familiar with them and thus I should temper any judgment I have based on seeing one live set. With that, I cite them because their live performance was so close to sounding like The Killers, it furthered my interest in writing this. This article is meant to discuss the worth of what I call “derivative bands” – or bands that are for the most part regurgitating the works of a previous artist; who, in the grand arena of music, are not doing very much (if anything) to progress music as a whole.

Many of these bands certainly do have some “hits” – isolated songs which possess the qualities necessary to be considered great. For that reason, I can understand why so many would purchase the albums or singles. In the case of The Killers, I’d consider a few songs on that album to be worthwhile, including the two singles, “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me.”

But what I ask is, at its core, did the world of music ever need The Killers? Does it benefit by their existence? Will music in 5 years, 10 years, 50 years, look back on this time and say “if it weren’t for The Killers, none of this would have been possible.”? I highly doubt it.

And the same is true for countless other bands. Does it mean these bands are worthless? No. They provide entertainment, which is part of the musical equation, and in some cases provide a select amount of great songs. But I don’t think that they should ever be called “great”, unless they are also contributing to the growth and development of music at large.

If you think about the last 15-18 years, starting with the grunge era, I think there truly are a handful of rock bands who are both talented and progressive towards music. Start with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Pixies, etc. Certainly Nirvana still has an impact 10-15 years later, if anything, as evidenced by the recent Forbes report that Kurt Cobain is the highest-earning dead celebrity this year, over Elvis and John Lennon. Musically, grunge has continued to have a big impact throughout the last 10 years, even though those bands are, generally, long gone (Pearl Jam died in 1995). Outside of the grunge bands, I think a few other bands who really rose to fame from the early 90s that will continue to have an impact are Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against The Machine, Green Day, Beck, Jane’s Addiction, Massive Attack, Red Hot Chili Peppers, My Bloody Valentine, etc. From the mid to late 90s, you have bands like Tool, Moby, and Radiohead. Newer bands are a little more difficult to predict due to the idea that we have yet to see what impact they will have, but bands like Coldplay, The Arcade Fire, Interpol, Secret Machines, and Sigur Ros seem to be producing some interesting material that is different and can be influential. One trend you see coming out is that for most of these artists I’ve listed, a genre has been attached and in many cases genres were invented just because of them: Grunge, Industrial, Rap-rock, Emo Punk, whatever you call Beck (techno/dance electronic), Trip-Hop, Shoegazer, etc. I know I’ve missed plenty.

When listening to bands, think about how inventive they are; how influential they may end up being. Is this something different and unique, or is this a copy of something someone else has done before? An easy test is to ask yourself how hard it is to describe other bands that sound like this one. If it’s really difficult, then that typically implies that there is something unique about this band. Or, in the case of The Killers or WAS, if it’s extremely easy (Duran Duran!), that probably means they’re fairly derivative. Don’t stop buying the records – just understand their worth and innovation.