It’s been a decade since Planes Mistaken for Stars last released a record, but little things have kept the band on the minds of its old friends and fans in its adopted city. For nearly ten years, the band called Denver home, recording the bulk of its vaunted catalogue while living here.
Then everything imploded. In 2007, frontman Gared O’Donnell says, his life began to unravel. After being on tour for much of his adult life, he says, that unstable time on the road caught up to him. The band had finished Mercy, the album everyone thought would be its swan song, and O’Donnell fled to Illinois with his family. He got healthier, became a stay-at-home dad to his two boys, and settled in.
But the road turns up like a bad penny, and O’Donnell says he eventually heard its siren call.
“I’m constantly surrounded by things,” he says. “Not bad things, just life. I’ve got two kids; my wife just finished nursing school. Life. I was going through a pre-midlife crisis. I desperately missed being on the road.”
O’Donnell works from home, selling collectibles online. It’s a far cry from his life fronting one of the most passionate and energetic bands to ever call Denver home. He says he loves his current life, but it can feel claustrophobic.
“When you work at home, things don’t ever get done,” he says. “I mean lots of things get done – you answer the phone, you clean the cat box — but it’s hard to get like that one thing done. I was like, ‘Babe, I need to get out of here.’”
O’Donnell took to the road alone with a plan to get out into the dirty underbelly of the country, to hole up in a dingy, backwater motel and write the next Planes record. But his plan didn’t work out.
“That ended up being a hot shit show,” says O’Donnell. “I grabbed all these receipts and napkins and stuff that I’d written little ideas on.... It was so fragmented, and I thought I’d get the fuck out of here and do some Jack Kerouac thing, drive around the country. But I’m forty. I’m not a 22–year-old Beat poet. I wound up in this Motel Six — not exactly the idea I had.”
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When the trip failed to get his creative juices flowing, O’Donnell says, he called his best friend and Planes’ original bass player, Aaron Wise, for help.
“He was like, ‘I’ll come out and help you write,’" says O’Donnell. “He came out and we had a couple adventures, and then he was like, ‘It sounds like you just need to go home and focus on clearing your head and being with your family.' In doing so, I figured out what the theme was for the record: waking up. Waking up and learning to tackle things head on.”
Planes' new album, Prey, is at once a return to form and a step away from past templates the band established all those years ago. The band is trying new things, O’Donnell says, partly because the members finally feel that whatever they create will be good enough, as long as it’s honest.
“I think we’re just a little bit more muscular,” says O’Donnell. “We trimmed a little fat and the guitars aren’t fighting each other. Nobody’s fighting for room.”
On a personal level, O’Donnell says, he’s grown as a musician. He’s done worrying about what people will think of his choices.
“I wasn’t scared to say, 'Hey, I want this song to sound like the Wipers,’” he says. “Everyone else in the band are world-class musicians. I’m not. I’m a lousy guitar player. If you give me shit, I can work with it. But if I’m like, ‘I want this to sound like Thin Lizzy,’ technically I can’ t make it sound like that. But I can get there emotionally."
One highlight of the new record is the song “Fucking Tenderness,” a song with more rock than punk in its DNA and a guitar riff that’s right out of a Journey hit.
“It’s a fucking guitar lead, and I’m not scared of it anymore,” laughs O’Donnell. “I wanted it to sound like Thin Lizzy crossed with Sugar, and I think we got there. That’s always been our attitude, but now.... We didn’t do anything for ten years. So if it sucks, then, oh, well. What do we have to lose?”
O’Donnell is bringing the same attitude toward the band’s upcoming Riot Fest appearance. The band, he says, hasn’t really played a huge festival in a long time. At the same time, he says, music is music and people are people, and Planes is ready to play to both old fans and new.
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“It’s just good to share with people,” says O’Donnell, opening up for just a peek of the tender man that lurks inside his rough exterior. “And that sounds corny as shit, but I didn’t write these songs because I’m bored. I have a fire. We all do. You want to share, even if it’s just to make a person feel less lonely for a few minutes.”
And then the old O'Donnell is back right on cue.
“I just want to get loose, and I want people to get loose with me,” he laughs. “Let’s rip the lid off this motherfucker.”
Planes Mistaken for Stars plays Riot Fest on Friday, September 2. The band will also play a show Friday night at the Marquis with Against Me! The band’s new record, Prey, is available for pre-order at Deathwishinc.com.