Don’t Call Giraffe Tongue Orchestra a ‘Supergroup’
Musicians' intrinsic motivation drives creativity
Posted Sep 27, 2016
“We dine where the sun can’t shine.”
— from Blood Moon by the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra
The mere mention of the term can cause involuntary eye-rolling and exasperated sighing.
That’s because, in the eyes of many music fans, a “supergroup” — a newly formed band made of members of previously successful bands — is not a “real” band. Rather it’s seen as a vanity project whereby already successful rockstars can show how cool they are and cash in on their fans’ blind devotion.
And so, over the decades, perhaps starting with Cream (made up of rock legends Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce) and including bands such as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; Asia; Chickenfoot; Them Crooked Vultures; and the Prophets of Rage, we delight in casting doubt on supergroups, and we fiercely debate their relative worth as compared with that of the previous projects of the supergroup’s individual members.
So when Ben Weinman of the Dillinger Escape Plan, one of the greatest “mathcore” bands of all time; Brent Hinds of Mastodon, one of the greatest “sludge metal” bands ever; and William Duvall of Alice in Chains, one of the greatest “grunge” bands of all time, teamed up to form Giraffe Tongue Orchestra — along with Thomas Pridgen, formerly of the Mars Volta, and Pete Griffin, formerly of Dethklok—it was hard to avoid the supergroup label.
But when I spoke with Weinman, Hinds and Duvall, it became clear that calling Giraffe Tongue Orchestra—who recently released their new album Broken Lines—a supergroup misses the point entirely. That’s because, for these musicians, despite their individual successes, music is still about finding kindred spirits and creating art that challenges themselves and others.
Music that defies expectations.
Research suggests that when expectations rise to the level of stereotypes, they can be damaging to performance and well-being because they are distracting and ultimately imply that people are limited in their opportunities for success.
For example, studies of “stereotype threat” suggest that if there is a societal stereotype (e.g., “women aren’t good at math”), making someone aware of this stereotype prior to a test worsens academic performance. Similarly, showing American Indian children stereotypical American Indian sports logos results in lower self-esteem and lower mood.
In the case of musicians, expectations may also interfere with the intrinsic motivation that can drive creativity. In theory, intrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity because it is inherently meaningful or important, whereas extrinsic motivation refers to doing an activity for external rewards (e.g., fame, money).
Research suggests that creativity is enhanced when intrinsic motivation is high. So in theory, being labeled a supergroup, which implies a focus on extrinsic motivation, such as fame and money, risks interfering with artists’ intrinsic motivation to create music as its own reward.
To understand why the members of the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra reject the stereotype of being a supergroup, it is important to recognize how the individual Giraffe Tongue Orchestra members got their start.
For example, Weinman and Duvall started out with early ’80s hardcore punk, a genre that was largely stereotyped as violent and without social worth, ignored by the rest of the music world, thus making extrinsic motivations, such money and fame, largely unavailable. That being the case, hardcore musicians needed to have a strong sense of intrinsic motivation in order to succeed.
Bands such as Black Flag and Minor Threat took a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach to this high-intensity music—forming their own labels, putting out their own fanzines and organizing their own shows—and developing their art for its own sake.
Duvall, who was heavily influenced by Black Flag, started out by forming the hardcore bands Awareness Void of Chaos and Neon Christ in Atlanta, where there was hardly any hardcore or punk rock at the time. “To some degree, Ben, Brent and I all come from a similar background… I met other kids who were of similar mind—very few, but there were a few,” Duvall told me. “And that is what mattered. That’s all punk rock is—to me, anyways. Maybe no one cares. But I care.
“This is important because I say it’s important.”
Duvall was keenly aware at that point that there were few expectations placed upon him. And that lack of expectations gave him true freedom of expression. “In the early days of the hardcore scene, there was nothing. There were no expectations placed upon us from the outside world because we didn’t count,” he said. “Our music wasn’t even considered music. And there was a beauty in that because it was completely innocent.”
Weinman described how the ethos of hardcore inspired him as a high school kid making music. “We’re putting out records ourselves. We’re putting on shows ourselves. We need to make this happen, and that was the tie that was binding.
“That was my tribe,” he said.
And for Weinman, “making it” as a professional musician was not even a consideration. “I was not one of those guys who was just like, ‘Fuck you, Mom, I’m going to be a rockstar!’” he explained. “I was like, ‘You can’t make it.’ It was like winning the lottery. It was so impossible.”
But despite the fact that the members of the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra found creativity through their internal drive to be creative, the success of their bands made it inevitable that people would develop expectations; namely, that they would continue to put out the same type of music that originally appealed to their fans. For example, Duvall soon noticed that as Neon Christ’s popularity increased, people started wanting Duvall to conform to only playing hardcore.
“The pack mentality doesn’t want expansion. The pack mentality doesn’t want to be challenged. They came with their expectations, and those expectations have to be fulfilled. And if they’re not, they’re going to be pissed off,” Duvall explained. “And that’s when you start dealing with this word — expectations. You either are living up to my expectations, or you are not living up to my expectations, and I feel betrayed.”
But Duvall didn’t get into hardcore to conform. “I was always interested in all kinds of music. And so after Neon Christ, I quickly felt stymied by what was viewed as the hard core or post-hard core scene of the late ’80s,” he explained. “I’m pursuing my own path here, wherever it takes me. My thing about punk as a philosophy — not as a music or a fashion — is that you do what you want to do.
“And so I feel like, from that standpoint, I never stopped being hardcore,” Duvall said.
It was perhaps this experience with Neon Christ that prepared him for the boiling cauldron of expectations that awaited him when he joined Alice in Chains, after their hiatus following the death of frontman Layne Staley. Many people thought that continuing without Staley was blasphemy. But Duvall thought that this response missed the organic nature of how Alice in Chains developed with Duvall as frontman, including the group’s two albums, “Black Gives Way to Blue” and “The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.”
“It’s become a band in its own right. It’s developed its very own honest chemistry… and it’s done it in all time zones, all these languages, all these audiences, in all walks of life, on all stages of the world,” Duvall said. “While at the same time, all of this noise and debate is raging. ‘How dare they! They don’t have the right to do this. Meanwhile, we’re on to the next town and stomping another stage into the fucking dirt.”
Eventually, Duvall summed up his hardcore attitude and defiance of fans’ expectations with the simple statement of independence when he said, “I am not Layne Staley!”
Hinds described a particular aversion to any form of categorization or expectation. This was no easy task when considering the high acclaim that Mastodon received after the group’s third studio album, “Blood Mountain.” Expectations were very high, to say the least, as evidenced by Pitchfork’s review of the album in which it stated, “Please welcome the new ‘Monsters of Rock.”
But from the beginning, Hinds was having none of it. Hinds told me, “I was a huge Black Sabbath fan. Now, if you want to call that metal, then call it metal. But I don’t call it metal, I call it Black Sabbath. I do not like to be pigeonholed. Mastodon is not just a metal band. We’re a very organic, growing band – rock and roll, prog rock, metal, ethereal. We cover the spectrum.”
His desire not to be labeled arguably came to a head when James Hetfield of Metallica personally anointed Hinds as ascending to the rank of metal god. “James Hetfield did actually come up to me and shake my hand and look me right in the eye and said, ‘I’m passing the torch along to you,’” Hinds recalled. “And I’m basically looking at him and saying, ‘You can keep the torch, man.’”
Hinds has even found himself in hot water for speaking out against what he sees as the homogenization of heavy metal. He was quoted as saying, “I hate metal,” which he thinks was a misunderstanding of what he said and the intent of his statement. What he meant, in fact, was that he hated conformity and the expectation to conform.
“Like the ‘I hate metal’ thing. I never said that. I said, ‘I hate most metal bands because they all sound the same,” Hinds explained. “And I hate metal as a genre, because it’s such a typical-sounding genre where there’s no originality left — just nibbling each other’s nuts and just trying to be the next long-haired tattooed guy. And that thing went viral, went all over the internet.”
The timing was inconvenient. “And my next tour was opening up for Judas Priest, the gods of metal,” Hinds said.
So when Weinman and Hinds got together to form the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra years ago, the idea of forming a supergroup with big-time expectations was the furthest thing from their minds. They approached it the way that they have always approached music; namely, to make something creative and exciting for its own sake.
Although as Weinman tells it, the band was formed before he even knew it.
“It started as Brent and I wanting to jam together. We’ve been friends for a very long time. We’ve toured together, were on the same record label and have the same friends. But there was a drummer that we were both big fans of, and his son was a big fan of our bands. So he was coming backstage and hanging out with us, and he was a great kid and a drummer. He was really adamant about starting a group with Brent and I,” Weinman recalled.
“And so he would go to me, ‘Hey, let’s start a band. Brent’s down. Let’s do it.’ I was, like, ‘OK, if Brent’s down, I’m down.’ And he would say the same thing to Brent. ‘Yeah, let’s do this band. Ben’s down, and I’ll play drums.’ And Brent was, like, ‘If Ben’s down, I’ll do it.’
“And then one day we talked to each other, and we were, like, ‘Are we in a band together?’” Weinman said.
But to make the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra work, they needed like-minded band mates. And because of years of touring with different bands, and the success of the Dillinger Escape Plan and Mastodon, Weinman and Hinds had access to almost every famous rock and metal musician in the world.
But Weinman and Hinds waited years before solidifying their lineup. They weren’t looking for famous musicians per se, just musicians who shared their ethos and vision for this project — an organic and original band.
“I never looked at this as a supergroup. I looked at this as an experience and also a chance to be in a band with one of my most dearest friends, Ben Weinman,” Hinds explained. “And then also when I became friends with Thomas Pridgen and Pete Griffin and friends with William Duvall. I’ve known William the longest, and I’ve been friends with Ben the longest. And when I met Thomas, it was like two old friends from another life re-meeting or something. With Pete, kind of the same way. He was kind of a lost brother.”
Duvall recalled how he got involved with the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra. “About a year ago, I ran into Brett Hinds at the grocery store. He brought it up again, and then that put me in touch with Ben Weinman,” Duvall explained. “Neither of us wanted to do anything that wasn’t a real band … . It could have been a vanity project. ‘Look how cool we are, look how cool our friends are, and we put out this record in tribute to that.’ Or you could do something that’s more an honest meeting of the minds. And that’s what Ben and I were interested in when we talked.”
But despite the best intentions of the band, part of the challenge for the members of the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra was to avoid succumbing to the expectations that people have of supergroups. This includes the pressure to make music that sounds like the members’ previous bands, rather than developing an original sound, or the pressure to simply “dial it in” without fully investing in the project.
Weinman feels that part of the key to avoiding the trap of those expectations was not treating the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra as a “side project.”
“I think that’s one of the reasons why side projects and supergroups don’t succeed, is because people in them know that they’re always going to be less than,” Weinman explained. “They’re squeezing in these projects between heavy touring cycles, and different schedule conflicts, and they’re not used to playing with each other ... . So a lot of time these albums come out just because that’s the time we have to make it.”
Duvall thinks that it’s important to recognize the expectations and pressure, but to continue to focus on one’s own intrinsic motivation. “People are going to say what they want to say. They are going to project upon me whatever they want to project — whether that’s good or bad,” Duvall said.
“You just have to find a way to not necessarily be impervious to it — because that’s impossible, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy, either — but also not let it dominate you or paralyze you. And then you keep doing whatever you feel right about doing.
“As long as you are willing to go ahead and accept the fact that you may not get instant gratification of a certain type, you might not get instant appreciation. But the reward is in the act itself.”
And Hinds reminded himself of the potentially damaging effects of expectations on his creativity. “I really try not to focus on what expectations are put on the band,” he said. “It’s somewhat toxic, actually, and a waste of my time. I would start second-guessing my creative conduit, which is something I shouldn’t be doing or thinking about at all.”
More, Hinds is confident in the Giraffe Tongue Orchestra’s work and thinks that people will eventually be inspired by the group’s not conforming to norms. “I’ve never given in to the public’s expectation of what they expect of us, because as far as I see it, I’m kind of leading them to a better place by letting them know that you don’t have to expect the same thing out of someone,” he explained. “Life is all about growth.”
Ultimately, the band’s members are thrilled that they took their time, and stoked their creativity and originality to form a vital band. As Weinman said, “Once we got the right combination of people together, it was magic.”
Hinds concurred. “It’s literally like 13-year-olds getting together in their basement,” he said. “Only at the last rehearsal did it sound like GTO — the way I wanted it to sound. And then you find that you’re dancing with your guitar on, instead of standing with your guitar on.”
And they are ready to share their art with the world. “We can now announce to the world that we exist,” Duvall said.
And so far, the world has been smiling back at them. In addition to their album coming out, they have announced a U.S. tour to start later this fall, and they released their first video for the song Blood Moon.
And the initial reviews of the music are fantastic. Metal Injection said about the song “Crucifixion”: “It's exactly as weird and progressive as you wanted it to be.” And Blabbermouth said, “Giraffe Tongue Orchestra’s debut album promises to be one of the most exciting releases of 2016.”
But regardless of whatever success they’ve had or will have, just don’t call them a supergroup. Because they will always think of themselves the same way they did when they were first starting out — driven by their own desire to be creative, rather than by the expectations of others.
Hinds puts things into perspective. “When things start getting super-awesome with the band, I will comply with the terminology supergroup,” Hinds said.
“But for now — struggling band.”