How bands survive the loss of a singer: ‘It can’t just be slotting someone in’

Categories: The Guardian

The magnetism of Scott Weiland, who died on Thursday, was central to the appeal of Stone Temple Pilots before he left the band. The challenge of replacing such a key figure has dogged many successful acts

MARK GUARINO Saturday 5 December 2015 09.32 EST

The unexpected death of Scott Weiland late Thursday is now only producing an assessment of his life in music, and his insurmountable gifts as a vocalist and frontman. It also raises the inevitable question of what happens to a band’s legacy after its most recognizable leader passes away.

Weiland, 48, was in and out of Stone Temple Pilots, the California rock band that is remembered as one of the most commercially successful groups of the 1990s alternative rock heyday. As the band’s lead singer, he didn’t just possess powerful vocal skills; his good looks and chameleonic visual sense made him a compelling presence in videos and on the concert stage.

But Weiland’s reported struggles with drugs forced the band to fire him and, after lawsuits between both parties, they later brought in a replacement: Chester Bennington of Linkin Park. The matchup lasted two years and produced a single EP and a tour. Last month Bennington announced an amicable split from STP. Band members Robert DeLeo, Dean DeLeo and Eric Kretz released a statement saying Bennington’s departure offered them “a new beginning” and said they had already written and recorded new music.

“We have had the fortune of playing with some very talented singers over the last few months and will continue to do so until each of us feels and knows when the right person arrives,” they said.

Yet the struggle to find a replacement singer after a band’s most productive years is one that many bands have struggled to overcome.

Despite continuing to make new music, bands like 10,000 Maniacs (Natalie Merchant), INXS (Michael Hutchence), or Creedence Clearwater Revival (John Fogerty) are classic examples of bands that tried, but failed, to strike commercial fire after the departure of their singer. Two years following their breakout hit No Rain in 1993, the neo-psychedelic band Blind Melon had to make an exit following the overdose death of singer Shannon Hoon. The band attempted a reboot in 2006 with a new singer but it fizzled.

In cases like these, scouting a replacement for a charismatic figure such as Hoon – or Hutchence or Weiland – isn’t as simple as just slotting someone in, since their strong visual sense and distinctive vocals became ingrained with the public perception of the band.

Gia DeSantis, who worked with Blind Melon as head of video promotion at Capitol Records, says that the band knew its chapter was closed following Hoon’s death because he had become the public face of their music through their videos, particularly the one for No Rain, which aired around the clock on MTV and that VH1 included in its list of the 100 Greatest Videos of All Time.

“Shannon had a magnetism. You couldn’t take your eyes off him,” DeSantis says. “They knew to bring in a new singer to sing his lyrics would not have had the same magnetism.”

“Because the video was so huge, we now have a visual of Shannon dancing and doing his thing. It’s the same thing with Scott [Weiland], where you have something that is so deeply ingrained into the music I don’t think can be recaptured,” she adds.

Bands that have managed to move through a personnel crisis tend to be warhorses of a former era, like Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen and Genesis. Despite major shifts in sound, style, and players, the founders stayed put to steady the ship. Ted Cohen, a former executive at Warner Bros Records, worked with both Van Halen and Fleetwood Mac early in their careers and says that what kept both bands together despite the rotation of lead singers was Eddie Van Halen and brother Alex Van Halen in the former, and Mick Fleetwood and John McVie in the latter.

“They were the constant centers of their bands, and they surrounded themselves with different people over years. But they were the core,” Cohen says.

Are there genres of music where an acrimonious split or death doesn’t matter? Look to punk and heavy metal, both fundamental areas of music that are ruled less by videos and personalities and more by grooming audiences through live shows.

These bands represent ideas and cultures that are bigger than individual members, which mean the music is more apt to survive disaster. The prototype is Black Flag, a hardcore band that is still revered despite its spreadsheet of singers. Even Blink-182 didn’t blink when singer Tom DeLonge left this year, replacing him with Matt Skiba of Alkaline Trio. And after the 2002 death of singer Layne Staley, Alice in Chains waited four years before reactivating the band with a new singer. Fans mourned Staley but the music meant enough: they came back.

Death, bad blood and much more have destroyed bands as they move through the common trajectory of finding a shared purpose to create music and then, when success finally strikes, becoming embroiled in everything it can yield: drugs, alcohol, lawsuits, ego clashes and the constant pressure to produce new music and tour to keep the franchise afloat.

When bands crumble, some patch themselves together with other refugee musicians who are in the same situation. Audioslave (Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden), Chickenfoot (Van Halen, Red Hot Chili Peppers), and even Velvet Revolver, a band featuring Weiland with members of Guns N’ Roses, are all supergroups that breathed new lives for musicians looking to stay active.

“The chemistry has to be right,” says Cohen. “It can’t just be slotting someone in.”


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