Gared O'Donnell is back in Denver now. He wants a cigarette badly, but with six smoke-free months under his belt, he's keeping his cool and just enjoying being back in the city he loves, despite occasional cravings. He even ran a half-marathon a little over a month ago.
"I no longer want to attack everyone I see all day long," says O'Donnell with his trademark wheezing chuckle. "My 37-year-old self could kick the shit out of my 27-year-old self." The Planes Mistaken for Stars frontman is relatively healthy and in high spirits, a far cry from what he was back in 2007, when his band called it quits and he fled Colorado. The split was amicable; O'Donnell says that after ten years of hard living on the road, he could no longer give it his all.
"We felt like if we couldn't do it 110 percent, we shouldn't do it at all," he says. When the band played, it most certainly did that. Nate Newton, bass player for Converge and frontman of Doomriders, has long held that Planes Mistaken for Stars was the most underrated band in punk music. "If Converge is Black Flag," he says, "then Planes are the Minutemen."
Newton, whose bands toured with Planes several times in the band's heyday, says there was never any question that what the band was doing on stage was as real as it gets. "They never got up there and faked it -- ever," says Newton. "You knew if they were happy, you knew if they were sad or angry. But regardless of their mood, they always delivered. They were real, and they were truly sincere about their music. There was nothing contrived about Planes Mistaken for Stars, and I miss them. I have yet to encounter another band even remotely like them."
Part of what made the band so genuine, Newton says, is how effortlessly the members melded the sounds they were raised on.
"Planes always had this sound that was undeniably theirs and theirs alone," says Newton. "You could hear the influence of early-'90s, manila-envelope seven-inch-cover, basement hardcore punk. You could hear the melody and angst of a band like Samiam. You could hear a distinct love for heavy, fuzzed-out classic guitar rock, and you could hear a boozy country ballad hidden in all of it somehow as well."
Peter Bottomley, longtime editor of the now-defunct Skyscraper magazine, echoes the importance of Planes to both Denver and punk music in general.
"They put everything they had into their shows," says Bottomley. "They were always more than a late-to-the-game emo band. Planes deserved more recognition than they got when they were around, but at least their cult following has continued to grow in the afterlife, so it's great to see them still willing to get back together."
Aaron Betcher, who fronted Denver's O'er the Ramparts in the late '90s, remember the first time he saw Planes and just how blown away the newcomers left everyone in attendance.
"When Planes moved out from the great Midwest to find a new home, [their new house] was down the street from my bass player's," says Betcher. "Somehow he met them and became friends, and we played a show at their house -- really in their tiny Easy Bake Oven they called a garage. It was an afternoon party, and everyone was hammered. We played and had a great time, then retired to have some beer. I had met Matt and talked to him about moving from the Midwest, and thought, 'What a nice group of guys.' They went into the garage, I think they tuned up, and then they played.
Betcher says nobody in attendance was ready for what Planes was about to unleash on Denver.
"People ran," says Betcher. "The garage was the only thing that mattered, and PMFS punished us. It was fantastic."
Planes played a lot more brutal, memorable shows over the years in Denver and around the country, but after years of the road life, even the love of fans and critical praise did little to slow its demise.
"My life imploded, and it wasn't feasible to do what we'd been doing for the past decade," says O'Donnell. "I was just in a bad place."
He points to "Penitence," the last song on the band's swan song, Misery. It's a morbid, melancholy dirge in an album of morose and ugly imagery, where he describes walking over his own grave. It doesn't take a lot of explication to see where he was writing from. "It was my sign-off," says O'Donnell. "I wasn't going to jump off a bridge or anything, but there was many a night where I said, 'If I don't wake up, I don't care.' Those songs caught up to us. There was kind of a reckoning we had to face. I was hiding in my own words. I'm not glorifying it; that's just where I was."
Fast-forward to the present, and the members of Planes are wrapping up a West Coast tour with what promises to be insane shows in its home bases of Chicago and Denver (this Sunday at the Marquis Theatre).
"We've had some time away and time to reflect," says O'Donnell. "The sum is greater than its parts, and we understand that we can't be what we are without each other. We have a lot of stuff we can put back in the pot together, see what we can stir up." What they're stirring up, he says, is a lot of the same feeling that made Planes what they were before, but without such a morose take on what it all means. O'Donnell says after years of writer's block, he recently had an explosion of creativity, and songs have been flowing like the old days. Well, sort of like the old days.
"Lyrically, the place I'm coming from, it's more about living than dying," he says. "More songs about fucking and less about being stuck in the dark. It's going to be sticky. Teeming, even."
The other three members of the band -- Chuck French, Neil Keener and Mikey Rickets -- don't have as much catching up to do, as they have been touring in Europe with the alt-country band Wovenhand and pursuing a handful of other musical endeavors since Planes split. It's just a matter of switching gears and getting the old stuff dialed in.
O'Donnell, on the other hand, has been leading a somewhat more suburban life in Peoria, Illinois, with his wife, Rebecca, and two sons. With Rebecca in nursing school, O'Donnell has defaulted to the position of "Mr. Mom," as he puts it -- a stay-at-home dad and online collectibles broker. Getting healthy, he says, has everything to do with being a good dad and wanting to be around as long as he can.
"Ultimately, [smoking] was just incredibly selfish," says O'Donnell. "If I didn't have my wife and boys, I'd be like, 'Whatever.' But eventually I'd get sick from this, and what a horrible reason to leave people that love you alone."
He also couldn't shake the idea that on some level he was a cog in the tobacco companies' evil machinations. "I got to just thinking about tobacco companies," says O'Donnell. "They don't give a fuck. They will kill you for a buck. I'm not a granola guy, but I got to thinking these people just don't care. It's just to make you addicted in a way that's just deadly. It's poison."
Now, with pre-tour rehearsals done and the band on the road, O'Donnell is well aware that he's about to re-enter a much different life than the one he's come to enjoy, but his new perspective has him feeling good about what's to come. It's what he says drove the band back together for this tour and hopefully more.
"I desperately miss it," he says. "When I left Denver, I didn't have a choice. Coming in last night, I got kind of a panic attack, like seeing an old girlfriend that you really cared about. I miss it. The band defined me for so long. I wasn't just Gared; I was Gared from Planes."
Getting back into the groove might not be as simple as piling into a van and hitting the road, but O'Donnell's newfound health and perspective make success and creative output seem more than likely.
"Understanding where we were and where we are and what it all means and growing up a little more -- I'm excited. I'm ready to start a new chapter, to find it again, to fall in love with it again. Just to plug in the amps and hear that buzz and look around the room and see my three best friends -- that's what I'm here for. It's a sign of good things to come."
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