Joy Williams, formerly one half of the folk-swamp duo The Civil Wars, sits in her house in Venice Beach, Calif. She’s curled up in a light grey wool chair in the corner of her bedroom with a cup of tea that she—not so secretly—wishes was something just a bit stronger for an evening of dialoguing. Williams says she’s on a short cleanse, however. So for now, tea it is.
The Civil Wars’ ride to Grammy award-winning recognition and seemingly abrupt implosion was the stuff of classic rock folklore. The clichéd narratives of fast tracks to fame, burnout, and boy-girl disillusionment became widely known in indie-pop circles, while the actual truths remained barred from public knowledge.
And yet, The Civil Wars’ story follows so many of their predecessors’: they eventually break up. The Beatles’ breakup was messy and embittered. Led Zeppelin’s breakup fell to drummer’s John Bonham’s untimely death. Guns ‘n’ Roses’ breakup could be distilled to a farcical clash of egos mixed with a cocktail of drugs and alcohol.
But this phenomenon is certainly not limited to the most canonized bands in musical history. The White Stripes’ breakup stunned the post-Y2K rock fans. LCD Soundsystem’s breakup devastated the indie-leaning Millennials, and even The Gaslight Anthem just announced they’re taking a hiatus for personal reasons.
Whether they played on the roof of Apple Studios in London or someone’s friend’s cousin’s basement deep in the heart of America, so many of our favorite bands seem to reach this same fate. It’s become such a trope, in fact, that retro-rock band Dawes immortalized the concept in its fourth LP All Your Favorite Bands, released earlier this year. “I hope your brother’s El Camino runs forever,” sings Taylor Goldsmith before offering the singular plea for goodwill: “May all your favorite bands stay together.”
But when they don’t, the question then becomes what to do next.
In the short time since The Civil Wars’ breakup, Williams considerably reinvented her style and sound. “While I still love a little black dress,” she admits, “I’d say I’m loving not being tied to a particular color palette. I can let my mood and my creativity and all my colors literally come out now.”
Williams’ first solo record after her time in the duo, Venus, just dropped in June. Musically, Venus incorporates pop elements like synthy keyboard mimicking marimbas (“Not Good Enough”), drum machines (“Before I Sleep”), and tribal-inspired rhythms (lead single “Woman (Oh Mama)”). Her soprano—still wavering in the balance between defiant and delicate—carries her statement-making resurgent record. But, Williams’ process of reinvention is still new, somewhat foreign, and ultimately evolving.
“Reinvention isn’t something, in my opinion, that you can mathematically craft,” she says. “It’s a process. It’s messy. It’s not always very graceful. It’s human—the cycle of something ending so something new can start to grow. That’s life. For me, it’s taken time, long talks with friends, some soul searching, periods of quiet, taking risks, dreaming again, and creating as authentically as possible, no matter the outcome. I can never control the outcome, so I figure I may as well be brave, create and risk as intelligently as I know.”
While Williams boldly shares the personal process of finding herself and sharing that new, altered version, the practical matters of bands breaking up also comes into play. Because—for better or for worse—music is ultimately a business.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, when businesses dissolve in the United States, individuals have to file an annual return for the year they went out of business. The ordeal involves tax returns and deposits, official statements, payroll documentation, and more. The IRS even proves a handy checklist.
In the music industry, this also includes less official, but still pragmatic matters like divvying up shared gear and equipment, organizing old merchandise, and dividing shared bank accounts.
For Williams, her lawyers take care of the business logistics for and communications with her former band. For Kelly Dyson of the British experimental group Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love, however, the IRS’ checklist doesn’t do much good. Because Dyson’s band never garnered the number of Grammys or amount of attention as The Civil Wars did, Low Low’s unceremonious breakup yields a different set of logistical consequences, even if they didn’t earn enough income from records to collect much in the way of royalties.
What began as Kelly and his brother Ellis trading CD-R’s to each other “in the post,” ended after four full-length experimental-pop records released in both the U.S. and U.K. Low Low’s final offering, this year’s bold, underrated, and forebodingly titled Last, marked the brothers’ band calling it quits. Dyson blamed burnout and a breakup with an old girlfriend.
Still, he recalls, “I knew we were making our best album [and] we would have made better if we had carried on.”
Last, truly represents Low Low’s best work—a jarring collection of acoustic folk songs addled and rattled by synthetic sounds and lo-fi recording hisses. The brothers’ blood relation manifests in how in sync Last sounds—balancing the smooth with the static in the transition from “Guard” to “Dandelions” and within the ballad “Dispel.” But as the feedback-ridden closing title track comes to Dyson’s slow and acoustic end plea of, “Why couldn’t life be simple?” an understanding of the band’s finality creates an ache that colors the entire complex listening experience.
“It felt, and still feels, so wrong to stop making music with Ellis as it had been a feature of our lives for so long. It’s been over a couple of years since we actually finished the recording and I’ve yet to write a song since which is my longest dry spell since I first learnt to play guitar.“
Two-and-a-half years ago, Dyson hit the road out of Great Britain with his wife after he and his brother agreed to stop writing and recording together. As such, all the vestiges of his old band rest in yet another country.
“The studio is still gathering dust in the basement of the house that is no longer mine, almost like the day we left it. There are a few damp boxes of merch under the mixing desk, gathering mold. I believe our whole embarrassing cassette and CD-R archive of recordings since we were kids is in there, too, along with an assortment of instruments and studio gear” Dyson writes. “Ellis recently went back and picked up his mixing desk, but said that the tape machine was no longer in a usable condition, so he left it. I guess he’ll move stuff out slowly. I’ve not been back in the U.K. long enough to deal with it.”
Austin-based singer-songwriter Monk Parker, formerly of the similarly named (and wholly unrelated) band The Low Lows, details an analogous experience with his old group’s gear. The Low Lows, an alt-country band that formed in Georgia, officially disbanded about four years ago.
“Everyone just sort of takes their ball and goes home, but occasionally there are weird past-life manifestations,” Parker writes during a layover at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on his way to Canada for some promotional gigs. “I was just reminded by our U.K. label Monotreme that our old band left a bunch of vintage amps and combo organs in the label’s storage space in London five years ago,” he notes as an example.
But still, once the pain and finality of a band breakup distills and subsides, musicians like Parker and Dyson still feel the need to reinvent themselves musically. Parker, after a period of physical illness and mental revelations, is prepping his debut solo release, the melodic and moody How The Spark Loves The Tinder, for release on August 28.
And Dyson, checking in over a bad 3G connection from somewhere in Norway, admits to feeling the pull back to music. “I’ve been void of creativity too long. I want to be engaged in something again, a project. I miss the sound of amps with drums. I’ve re-bought a few things to start recording while we are on the road—a field-recording device, microphones, and studio headphones,” he writes.
“I seriously thought for a while that I had finished with music altogether, but I feel a faint itch coming back.”