There’s always something fun about watching a decades-old movie and catching glimpses of a now-famous actor long before they were known. I feel like most of us are aware of the fact that Kirsten Dunst was one of the kids in Jumanji, but did you know that she actually played the role of “little girl” in literally every other movie in the ’90s? This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that you can catch a brief glimpse of Octavia Spencer reacting appropriately to Alison Lohman’s dramatic nosebleed in a flawless, lineless performance at the beginning of Drag Me to Hell.
It’s certainly much less common, but the same phenomenon also occurs in music. There’s a certain category of solo songwriter who’s blown up over the past few years to such a degree that we never quite identified the moment when they evolved from, say, “Fleet Foxes’ drummer” to “Father John Misty.” It was a gradual process until it wasn’t, and we eventually became confused as to why the perpetually bored lounge singer was being asked about the new FF LP.
Which is to say I imagine most readers won’t be shocked by most of the items on the list below, but instead will be like, “Damn, I hadn’t thought about that in, like, 10 years,” in most cases due to the onslaught of solo-project-associated headlines that have been pouring out of blogs since “Kurt Vile” became its own entity spun off from The War on Drugs. Anyway, I won’t spoil the rest...
Pete Wentz was in Racetraitor circa 1998
This one serves as a weird prologue to the rest of this list as a) Racetraitor is probably not a household name, b) Pete Wentz barely played with them (however Fall Out Boy drummer Andy Hurley was a founding member and continues to record with the band), and c) the FOB songwriter is a bit of an outlier within the indiesphere most of the rest of the musicians on this list exist within. But it still seemed worth shouting Pete and Andy out for their involvement in a project that’s been largely credited with both helping to establish the metalcore sound and explicitly anti-white-supremacist lyrical themes in heavy music during a decade of Chicago bands being shaped by a guy who literally recorded a proto-edgelord noise-rock song under a moniker with the N word in it (for which he has since apologized, for the record).
Ben Bridwell was in Carissa’s Wierd from 2000 to 2003
The only thing odder than the misconception that we couldn’t bring slowcore with us into the 21st century was the various directions the genre’s top adherents found themselves wandering in: Low went full-on experimental, Duster went missing, Kozalek went misogynist. And while Carissa’s Wierd ultimately left us shortly after Songs About Leaving, their drummer was quick to reimagine their chamber-pop sound for stadium seating and the Kyle XY OST.
Thundercat was in Suicidal Tendencies from 2002 to 2011
As legend has it, Stephen Bruner’s music career took off when his boy band No Curfew scored a hit single in Germany (citation needed—anyone have a YouTube link?), but shortly thereafter he was initiated into Suicidal Tendencies by his older brother and then-ST-drummer Ronald. He may not have been around quite yet to see “Cyco Vision” appear on the first THPS soundtrack, but I guess he was at least in the band when Senses Fail covered “Institutionalized” for American Wasteland.
Jay Reatard was in Destruction Unit from 2003 to 2006
Seems like Destruction Unit didn’t accrue much of an audience outside of their local scene until a decade into their career when they evolved from lo-fi noise to strongarm heavy-psych, but somewhere in there Jay Reatard bled into the lineup from his similar work at the time co-fronting Lost Sounds before moving on from both projects to focus on a pair of now-iconic solo records (and equally revered singles comps) shortly before his untimely death in 2010. That freaked-out take on garage punk was nearly as far removed from those lo-fi origins as the polished, spacey sound Destruction Unit ultimately landed on, so I guess the split makes sense.
St. Vincent was in The Polyphonic Spree from 2003 to 2006
I mean, if you were in Dallas in the early-2000s, from what I can tell it was hard not to be in The Polyphonic Spree (to be honest I was a little surprised to hear they even had tryouts). While she may not have made the cut for the Scrubs TV appearance (can’t confirm; I wasn’t joking about that mid-aughts YouTube quality), it sounds like the gig at least provided her with a runway to launch her own career as a touring musician.
Lil B has been in The Pack since 2004
To be honest I’m not really sure what The Pack’s cultural impact was before Lil B started to very much become an entire thing a little over a decade ago, but looking back now it’s pretty insane to think this guy ever had to forfeit any of his creative vision to conform to the work of his three peers in the project originally known as The WolfPack when Too $hort tracked them down in the Bay Area in the early-2000s after being passed one of their tapes. Somehow I think B would’ve found his way onto Stupid Fruity Crazy Swag even without that endorsement, though.
Blood Orange was in Test Icicles from 2004 to 2006
It felt like an entire prior lifetime that I knew Dev Hynes as the Lightspeed Champion guy before he became Blood Orange, but it turns out that was actually only, like, three years (specifically three years I spent in high school, which is arguably the slowest span of time that humans can experience). This, of course, was also the era of musicians splitting their time between acoustic solo projects and chaotic screamo, post-hardcore, or, in the case of Test Icicles, frigid sasscore to play into the two moods we were trying to convey when assigning a song to our MySpace profiles.
Kurt Vile was in The War on Drugs from 2005 to 2008
I’m afraid I’ll face firing squads for this, but Wagonwheel Blues is by far my favorite War on Drugs LP. Turns out I may have Kurt to thank for this.
Katy Perry was (kind of) in P.O.D. in 2006
This one’s a free space.
Father John Misty was in Fleet Foxes from 2008 to 2012
The year is 2013. I’m at a no-longer-existing record store on Chicago’s West Side to see a briefly hyped (and promptly and rightfully forgotten) local band play a free set opening for the artist formerly known as J. Tillman. I walk in and see that a set is already in progress and ask the 6'2" man in the most aggressively patterned sweater I have ever seen who that is playing. “I think they’re called The Orwells,” he says, but as I turn to respond he’s already vanished. Moments later he steps up on stage and launches into “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings.”
Kevin Morby was in Woods from 2009 to 2013
Technically his second stab at a side-project after having his bass buried in the ruckus of Woods’ ramshackle second-act recordings with the only-slightly-tighter The Babies releasing both of their albums at the tail end of his stint with the band. But Harlem River dropped the year after he left both of those projects behind and waded deeper into contemporary folk as Woods simultaneously cleaned up their act a bit.
Weyes Blood was in Jackie-O Motherfucker circa 2007
At this point, “Weyes Blood” has basically become synonymous with Laurel Canyon revivalism encapsulated in tight pop song structures and polished with a grease unique to Jonathan Rado’s workspace—which may make blindly wandering into the dense Jackie-O Motherfucker discography a disorienting experience. There’s little-to-none of those adjectives present in the droning free-folk of the Portland-forged collective’s work, which Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering briefly got swept up in, and which I can only hope die-hard fans of the baroque-pop songwriter have accidentally ventured into.
Phoebe Bridgers was in Sloppy Jane from 2014 to 2015
Seems like the Phoebe Bridgers–Haley Dahl partnership has been a mutually beneficial one thus far, to put it in the crass business terminology Bridgers’ faux-corporate record label embraces. Their professional relationship goes way back to when a pre-Alps Phoebe played bass in Sloppy Jane, and extends into the present when Bridgers released SJ’s 2021 LP Madison through Saddest Factory. Their friendship goes back even further, but that’s a subject for another list.
Joe Keery was in Post Animal from 2014 to 2019
I think the ascent of Joe Keery happened recently enough that we all remember—and maybe even associate Keery with—his stint with the Chicago alt-rock group. Just leaving this here for future generations to discover that the guy from one of their parents’ favorite TV series was also the guy from one of their favorite cult prog-psych bands before he went solo.
Bartees Strange was in Stay Inside from 2016 to 2018
Stay Inside have earned a pretty sizable following at the fairly niche intersection of post-hardcore and emo. Which may indicate why Bartees Cox dipped before the band unveiled their first full-length to instead work on his own debut LP, which crammed a countless number of genres into a tight 11 tracks, each one abruptly switching gears in a way that somehow never feels jarring.