Preparing for Takeoff
It's almost a given that any really good rock-and-roll documentary begins in a smallish town in the middle of nowhere, as, flanked by dreary industrial surroundings and repressive blue-collar mentalities, young artists see music as the only escape from a lifetime of factory work. For the Beatles, it was Liverpool; for Nirvana, Aberdeen, Washington; even Michael Jackson had to plot an escape from Gary, Indiana. If rock history has taught us anything, it's that completely wretched surroundings often breed the best art.
In the case of Planes Mistaken for Stars, the crummy, formative burg that defined its future work was Peoria, Illinois. Two and a half hours away from the sophistication of Chicago, the small town -- with its factory-filled skyline and muggy Midwest summers -- provided the band with plenty of reasons to want to escape; Planes' viscous post-hardcore sound eventually gave it the means to do so. For the past two years, the band has called Denver home, and while its members thoroughly enjoy their new locale, the psychological impact of industrial desolation isn't completely corrected by a cross-country trip in a Ryder truck.
"[Peoria] helped shape my songs," says singer/guitarist Garred O'Donnell. "It's a bleak place, and songs are basically the catharsis. Either we write songs and get our anger and frustration and hostility out that way, or we slit our wrists. That place definitely is one of our biggest inspirations."
Anybody who chances a listen to the band's latest, Fuck With Fire, won't find much room to disagree. Throughout the album, a pair of guitars bristle with enough distortion to appease even the most ardent metalhead, though the band's embrace of fast/slow dynamics and moderately poppy slow sections roots it firmly in the punk world. If Fugazi was as concerned with whooping it up for listeners as with exploring syncopated rhythms, it might sound a lot like Planes.
Although Planes Mistaken for Stars has spent half of its four-year career in Denver, O'Donnell and crew -- guitarist Matt Bellinger, bassist Jamie Drier and drummer Mike Ricketts -- still recall the bitter boredom and futility of ambition caused by life in the Rust Belt. Peoria wasn't a welcoming place for anyone interested in anything beyond mainstream consumer culture, whether it was punk rock, skateboarding or jazz and fine arts. Such edifying experiences weren't nonexistent in Planes' former hometown, but it took a focused effort to seek out anything that wasn't approved by Joe Sixpack. Peoria's youth learned to make the most of the meager opportunities to escape the doldrums of industrial-town life. It's that very urgency that Planes Mistaken for Stars blends into its frantic post-hardcore sound. It's also a fire O'Donnell finds missing from many audiences in more cosmopolitan areas.
"What I've noticed a lot in bigger cities, in places that are meccas of culture, meccas of subculture or whatever, the kids have everything handed to them, for the most part," he says. "It shows a lot in some of the bands, too. They don't have the same kind of fire. When a touring band comes through a city like that, the kids aren't as hungry. When we got bands coming on tour to Peoria, we were hungry for it. Our first EP and a half was written there. All our stuff was recorded there.
"Some of my favorite bands have come from places like that," he says. "Look how good the Replacements are, and Hüsker Dü. As far as the city they came from, it shaped them. You can hear that sort of fire and anger in their songs, even in their poppier songs. You can just tell the difference between a band from the Midwest and a band from L.A. or something like that. They're just more visceral."
O'Donnell isn't just paying lip service to that hunger, either. His band's become an integral part of the Denver scene -- a position the band's members wholeheartedly appreciate -- but he's quick to point out how much softer the punk scene is in Denver because of the ready availability of punk shows and clubs; the town even holds a punk-rock bowling night at a northern alley.
"It got to a point where people are going to shows to drink and using the music as their backdrop," he continues. "That takes away the whole spirit. That's fucking insulting to bands that drive clear across the country to rock. They're live music; they're not a jukebox."
It would be impossible to confuse Planes Mistaken for Stars with a jukebox -- or a band that does anything other than what it wants to do. The band's music showcases O'Donnell's defiant punk-rock attitude and boasts a wall of sound that's about as easygoing as a viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Throughout Fuck With Fire, guitars jump between teeth-gnashing hardcore riffs and pummeling thrash so quickly there's little room for listeners to catch their breath, and a wrecking-crew rhythm section crashes along with them. At times, Fire flames up in a blaze of guitars ("End Me in Richmond"); at others, the band lets its weightier metal influences shine in hulking and overbearing guitar riffs ("Rhythm Dies"). The band is never afraid to let its songs get nasty, brutish and loud. And though there are traces of the omnipresent tempo shifts that characterize Planes' counterparts in the post-hardcore world, the group is more concerned with aural warfare than with exploring the intricacies of pendulum-swing dynamics.
Despite its decidedly jagged sound, Planes has still earned an association with the emo scene's pop sound and crushed, sentimental lyrics. The association seems encouraged by the act's name, which might lead listeners to expect a bunch of bespectacled youths brooding over the problems of long-distance love. O'Donnell, surprisingly, doesn't really worry about such matters. For Planes Mistaken for Stars, the proof's in the music, not word-of-mouth associations with punk subgenres.
"Part of it's funny, because we'll roll up, and kids will think that we'll have cardigans on and be crying about shit," he laughs. "Then we play, and we scare kids because we're big and hairy and jump all over each other, and that's great."
Of course, the word-of-mouth method has worked to Planes' benefit during the past couple of years, prodded along by the band's workhorse touring. Planes has become one of Colorado's most visible musical exports and has begun to build the kind of indie credibility that fills rooms all across the country. While many post-hardcore bands sport a lineup of clean-cut Rivers Cuomo wannabes, Planes' stage presence is a menacing combination of Black Flag-era Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop and Ozzy Osbourne. The band has built a national reputation as a promising hard-rock act, based on a live set that combines wild-eyed sonic mayhem with the unchoreographed, chaotic stage flailing of the rawest rock and roll. Planes travels behind an impressive body of recorded work: When Fuck With Fire hit stores last month, it already had two full-length albums and one EP in its catalogue. The 1998 self-titled debut EP and 1998's Staggerswallowswell were recorded in Peoria with founding bassist Aaron Wise (later replaced by Drier) and released on emo mainstay, Deep Elm Records. When it came time to record Fuck With Fire, the band signed on with Florida's No Idea Records, a punk and indie stalwart that also claims Hot Water Music and Christy Front Drive on its roster.
While it may appear that the dogged days as a struggling unknown act are slowly fading into the past, Planes Mistaken for Stars does not intend to go soft anytime soon: The band's goals have just been refocused to match a higher profile.
"The more we do stuff, the more there's new fire and new things to conquer," O'Donnell says. "Everybody has goals. They're lying if they tell you different. Anybody who's in a band wants kids to buy their record, wants kids to hear them."
For now, Denver plays a major role in launching that vision. The city's convenient location in the heart of the country makes touring in any direction a relatively easy task, and the band still laps up the atmosphere of its adopted hometown.
"This city's been real good to us so far," O'Donnell says. "One of the reasons we moved here is that it has all the trappings of a big city. It has the culture and it has the vibe, but it doesn't have all the bad stuff. It doesn't have so much of a rat-race feeling, and it doesn't have a way cold and impersonal feeling. It seems pretty warm to me. I'm sure there are people who lived here their whole life who would disagree, but the age-old story is the grass is always greener. This is definitely green-assed grass here for us, coming from where we come from."
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