EXTREMELY FRAGILE. PLEASE BE GENTLE.
Watching Gared O'Donnell retrieve his guitar, I can't help but laugh a little as I catch sight of those words painted on the outside of his hard-shell case in bright, safety-orange-colored letters. Fragile? Really? Explosive, sure. But fragile? Imagine such a timid plea slapped on a crate of napalm.
It's Monday night, five days before Planes Mistaken for Stars is slated to take the stage for the last time ever. O'Donnell's agreed to let me tag along with him to practice. I'm in the back room on the top floor of a drafty downtown warehouse looking on as the band runs through its penultimate rehearsal. There are no vocals tonight, and no real chatter among O'Donnell and his mates — guitarists Chuck French and Matt Bellinger, bassist Neil Keener and drummer Mikey Ricketts. Just the five of them plowing through a decade's worth of material with workmanlike focus and unwavering intensity. Trying to blend in behind Bellinger's amp cabinet, I feel like a fly on the wall — in a slaughterhouse.
Planes Mistaken for Stars
This is bittersweet. While it's a privilege to be able to witness such private moments during the last days of one of Denver's most vital bands, it's also tinged with sadness. I mean, this is it. After more than ten years, Planes, which formed in Peoria, Illinois, in 1997 and set up shop in the Mile High City in 1999, is making its final approach.
Planes Mistaken for Stars. What a name! It seemed so simple yet so profound (essentially, wishing on planes mistaken for stars) — a lot like the band itself, as we'd later discover. Planes emerged in the waning days of emo, first gaining infamy by appearing on a comp put out by Deep Elm called Emo Diaries, a title that seemed ill-conceived and trite even back then. Because of the association, Planes initially got lumped in with the endless parade of heart-on-sleeve sentimentalists. And while early songs like "Copper and Stars," from its self-titled debut, certainly shared threads of the same fabric, Planes was cut from an entirely different cloth — a fact that became clear upon the release of the brooding, far more menacing Knife in the Marathon.
And Planes distinguished itself even further with each subsequent release — 2001's Fuck With Fire, 2002's Spearheading the Sin Movement seven-inch, 2004's Up in Them Guts — all of which led up to its masterwork, Mercy, the band's de facto swan song from 2006. On Mercy, Planes sharpened its menace into a shiv and scraped the surface until a frayed bundle of nerves was exposed, pulsing with dread, frustration, loneliness, despair and lust, as well as regret — something a great many of us will feel this time next week, when Planes is permanently grounded.
Back in the warehouse, O'Donnell and company end rehearsal with a run through "Copper and Stars." French breaks early, and I follow him downstairs as he gets ready for work. I ask him how he feels now that it's almost over. "It's never going to be over, man," he says. "That's why I moved out here, because of those guys. It's kind of weird and scary and exciting, kind of like any big change. It's like, fuck, what I am going to do? But then it's like, there's so many other things I can do."
"It's sad, you know, but I feel it's necessary, for multiple reasons," says Ricketts when asked the same question. "I mean, it's definitely sad, though. I'm enjoying these practices as much as I'm going to enjoy that show — just playing the songs, you know?"
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O'Donnell, meanwhile, is a little more downbeat: "It feels like I'm flying to a wake," he says. "It feels like I'm going to a funeral. It doesn't feel cool at all. It doesn't feel as fun as I want it to be. It feels very premature. It doesn't feel right, you know? I'm dragging my feet. You're going to see my boot heels for a mile. I got drug here. I didn't fucking walk into this. I got drug."
"We pretty much all dedicated the past ten years of our lives to it," Ricketts says when asked how much the band has meant to him. "It's everything — you know, it has been."
"How much has it meant to me?" says O'Donnell. "Fuck's sake, man, what a horrible question to ask me. How much has it meant to me? How much has it meant to breathe? I don't really know a good answer for that."