Planes Mistaken for Stars just released Prey via Deathwish Records, their first album in ten years. Sonically, the record picks up where 2006’s Mercy left off: a blistering, soulful expression of punk rock self-discovery through a unique post-hardcore filter. For many fans, a new Planes record represents much more than just a new batch of songs to enjoy, it’s the continuation of a band that has never relented from their honest sound.
Planes tore through their set at the first day of the inaugural Sound on Sound Festival outside Austin, Texas, on November 4th. In front of a sleepy afternoon crowd that was still processing the idyllic forest setting, the band pounded through their latest songs with the same reckless attitude they’ve always carried throughout the years. Their chemistry is obvious. The veteran musicians pace themselves like marathon runners, demonstrating a rare ability to build momentum with their set and deliver the most ferocious notes at the end.
After their set, I was joined by my old friend and long-time Planes fan Eric Jernigan (Rosetta, City of Ships) to catch up with the band. We sat down with singer Gared O’Donnell and drummer Mikey “Mongo” Ricketts to talk about the Planes’ past, their latest record Prey, and how they’ve managed to survive as a band for so many years.
IO: People that might just be getting to know Planes through Prey might not know that you guys have been around the block for so long.
Mikey Ricketts: We’ve been on multiple rodeos. It blows our minds when we think back like, alright, Mercy came out in 2006 and we did our last tours in 2007-2008. Now we’ve done another album and it seems like it was two or three years ago, but it’s fuckin’ like 10 years ago and that blows our minds.
Gared O’Donnell: What it is, I think, is that even though we weren’t always playing and doing the Planes thing, we took time off. Like I’m not Gared Planes, this isn’t Mongo from Planes. It’s Uncle Mongo. My kids call him Uncle Mongo. He stood at my wedding. Uncle Chuck [Bassist Chuck French] is Uncle Chuck. You know what I mean?
Ricketts: We just continued to live our lives, but we’re still the best of friends and integral in each other’s lives.
O’Donnell: We’re brothers. That’s how it works—sometimes brothers need some time apart. We did these shows because we missed each other. When we broke up, it was all extraneous things. I had said to the dudes, “if anyone is not 110% raise their hands”. Mikey rose his hand immediately. I was like “fuck!” and then everyone was like, “Well, we could do it part time” but I was being a petulant child. “No way man, the band is everything!”
It took three years’ time off to finally realize how special this is on my own terms. I thought, “Let’s do this some more” and everybody kinda agreed. You get caught up in this wave of a grind, like every two years you have to put a record out, you have to play 100 shows a year, you have to do this, you have to do that. Now we don’t have to do dick, and it feels wonderful. If it’s not going to work out, this tour or that tour, this thing or that thing, fuck it, we got nothing to prove. I think if we haven’t proved it already, then you’re not into us and that’s why.
Ricketts: For me, it’s never been about getting a shit ton of money or a shit ton of fans. I just want to play music and have fun. For me, it’s about playing the shows and having fun. With this group of dudes, I knew from the get-go that it was going to be a lifetime thing. Whether we’re touring or recording music or not, I know that we are brothers to the point where we can take years, a decade off and still come back and play music together and it would still be fun.
O’Donnell: Once we started writing together, and it just seemed silly. Clearly there’s some sort of talent there. There’s some sort of chemistry. Why aren’t we writing new music? If we had started writing and it hadn’t sounded important in our own heads, we wouldn’t have done it, like if we were just phoning it in.
We started doing the record and there were some hiccups, but especially me and Mikey, we understand each other musically very well. Me and him are just kind of syncopated. If we start fuckin’ with something and it doesn’t work, I and Mikey will both be the first to walk from it. “That didn’t work—I’m not gonna waste my fuckin’ time, let’s do something that we feel is right down the middle.”
It’s really nice when people fucking care and it resonates, but if it doesn’t resonate with anyone in the world, me and Mikey are proud of each other. And that’s good enough for me. I can almost sleep at night.
What prompted you to break up after Mercy? Do the specifics even matter or was it just time?
O’Donnell: Ultimately, there were some extraneous things, but really, to go down that rabbit hole, just ends up being shit-talking.
Ricketts: It was a culmination of a lot of things at the same time. Gared and I were both moving back to Illinois for different reasons. I wanted to pursue some other interests and career moves. It just kind of ran it’s course at that time. When we decided to do it, I knew it wasn’t going to be the end. We just needed time to do other shit and hope it came back around. And it’s come back around.
When you got back together for The Fest in 2010 and did some touring in 2012. During that time, were you writing songs for Prey?
O’Donnell: No, not really. We didn’t really write. I don’t know how it happened. I mean, me and Mikey would fuck around and I had stuff germinating in my head, but I mean, before we went into the studio, we pulled a fuckin’ hail Mary. I don’t know how we got all that shit. It’s not like we were rehearsing a bunch with these dudes.
Ricketts: Well, we had a solid five or six songs in the works between us six months before we recorded.
What’s the story of the Prey recording?
O’Donnell: We recorded right outside Champaign, Illinois, at Matt Talbot from Hum’s studio. They had a little apartment above so we lived there nine days with Sanford [Parker]. He really hammered us out in a non-aggressive way. It was mainly fluid. I think some of us had more of a “down-the-middle” vision of what could happen, but we basically just threw a bunch of shit to the wall and tried to make gumbo. Sanford was really astute.
Ricketts: Sanford had us individually keyed-in as musicians and he knew what to expect from each of us. He helped us all make it cohesive.
It’s hard to go into the studio with things undecided, but it sounds like it worked out in your favor. How did the recording process work out?
Ricketts: Yeah at that point I had pretty much ironed out what I wanted to do, but all the in between stuff…I don’t know what fill I’m going to play here or there but something will happen.
O’Donnell: Neil is bar-none probably the most incredible bass player I’ve ever...musician, even. He doesn’t do more than one take. I think he got all his fuckin’ bass done in one day. He fills it and knows what he needs to do. Mikey and I kind of hammer out the aesthetic. He does his thing and he’s incredible. And then Chuck does his thing, which is Chuck’s thing. You know something amazing is going to be there.
I think me and Sanford just glued the whole fuckin’ thing together with vocals and the pacing. I’m the pacing guy. I have this whole weird thing in my head about how it’s supposed to go. It’s impossible for me to explain. Sanford understood it almost like he was in my shoes. If I said “This is the pacing I want, and I want this song to sound this color”...he understood that shit and didn’t think I was high. (laughs) He would say “Okay I get it man. I got it. Let’s do it.” If I said “I want this song to sound like The Walker Brothers’ vocals” he’s like “Okay perfect. We’ll do this.”
Ricketts: The way this guy (Gared) describes shit too is the most ridiculous shit. He says “I want it sound like fuckin’ scratched oatmeal underneath a leaf.” We’ll say “what the fuck are you talking about, dude?” and Sanford will say, “Lay it down man. Let’s make it happen.”
O’Donnell: But it works out in the end. It’s just got to be an arduous process every once in a while.
Were you stressed at all?
Ricketts: Nah, I never stress. I always feel like it’s going to work out. I’m never going to let something go on the record that sounds like shit.
O’Donnell: I don’t stress that much. Maybe vocals a little bit? I got so much other stress in my life that when it comes to playing music, same with Mikey, fuck it, if I can’t hit something, I’ll sing it different. You have to adapt. It’s just like water, like a river.
Ricketts: I had to do that with my drum parts, too. I had a vision of a beat, and my bass drum foot just wouldn’t do what I wanted it to do, so I thought “Well I’ll just do this instead then. It’s easier.”
Back around 2004, you did a ton of touring in support of Up in Them Guts. Planes played with a variety of different bands like Against Me, High on Fire, Mastodon, Dillinger Escape Plan, Daughters…
O’Donnell: That’s a testament. We play with bands that have the same sort of ideology about music. Like Cursive—those guys are some of our best friends. But to their fans, we’re diametrically-opposed. But to Cursive, it’s like we’re doing the same shit, just we sound a little sonically different. But those guys, there’s not a difference to us.
I’ve been playing with some of the same guys for many years and I feel like we’ve had that mentality, of finding people in the same head-space as you to tour with. Even though it makes no sense musically and it’s to the detriment of your band and all that, you still do it because that’s the people you want to be with.
Ricketts: That’s the shit that transgresses music. I feel like everyone should have an open mind to be accepting of all these different types of music. If you’re a part of this community, you should be listening to Cursive, you should be listening to Mastodon, listening to Planes and High on Fire.
O’Donnell: I remember in 2001 a booking agent said “You guys peaked. There’s no point in even writing records after Fuck with Fire. Nobody cares.” And I was like “Fuck you!”
Then we did Up in Them Guts, which I think is a superior record in its own right. I mean, they’re all of our babies you know? People told us, “If you did this, if you just toned it down here, or did this here. You could be huge. You could be the next At the Drive-In.” Fuck that, I said! There’s already an At the Drive-In. “You could be the next Mastodon.” There’s already a Mastodon. “Well if you can’t get on the uptake, then we’re not for you.” they said.
The bands that try to change themselves, that try to be the next Mastodon or Cursive will always end up shooting themselves in the foot. You might get big for a while and you might have a career on the road where you’re fuckin’ smashing it and all that. But you know what, nobody is gonna keep your records on the shelves. And to me, that’s what’s important. That our records have longevity. That you could listen to a Planes record at 25 or 45 and still get meaning out of it. That’s what I want.
Ricketts: It’s about being true to yourself and not trying to be something you’re not.
How do you remain a band through pressures of adulthood, like having wives and kids at home?
O’Donnell: It’s about pacing. It doesn’t hurt that we genuinely love each other. Even though we don’t always like each other, we love each other. Me and (Mongo) could get into it tonight, and at the end of the night if I said, “I really need your help here” he would say, ”What is it, man?” He could be fuming mad me thinking, “This fuckin’ cocksucker” and he would still always be there for me. It’s about loving your bandmates. If you don’t, then your bandmates probably shouldn’t be in a band with you.
Ricketts: Balancing life and music is about pacing and planning. You have to plan your time, to make it valuable and make it worthwhile when you do it.
O’Donnell: And don’t take it for granted. Any of it. Don’t take it for granted. I’m just stoked. The drives fucking sucked to get here. We’re all beat to fuck but I’m just stoked to be here. I just got to share my life and our collective lives with a bunch of people and I’m not going to take that for granted. And as soon as you do, just hang it up. Or become a lawyer or some bullshit. I don’t know.
Eric Jernigan: Gared, what’s your headspace getting into these older songs? One of the things that drew me to Planes Mistaken for Stars when I was younger was the honesty in your lyrics. I was floored at how confessional the songs were. Where are you at now on stage playing songs from Knife in the Marathon or Fuck with Fire?
O’Donnell: It’s weird because at the time, I thought I was being clever, like I was a wordsmith. I didn’t realize that I was basically writing a poetic journal. Some songs I would not feel comfortable ever playing again. Like that scar has healed and I don’t want to open it up again. There’s a couple. Not many.
For a lot of these songs, I’ve been able to adapt and understand what they mean in retrospect. It just reminds me of somebody else going through this. Ultimately, I look at it like I’m sharing a story. Sometimes you have bad stories in your life, painful things that happen, or even great things. I just try to adapt and decide if the forum is appropriate for me to share those things.
It also has to do with the synergy of (the band). If we were in bad moods, there’s no fucking way I would ever play “Spring Divorce”. No way. You want to see me completely bloodletting on stage? No fucking way. But, if we’re in good moods and everything was going good and someone really needed to hear that and it would be a catharsis to them, we would try to pull it out of our quiver.
That’s a good question though. No one has asked me “how do you sing about this shit because it’s obviously real”. There’s a counterbalance. We’re not doing empty slogans here. Even when I’m yelling “it’s riot season,” I’m not writing a catchy punk song. That’s how I feel. I feel hot under the skin. I feel angry and anxious. I’ll speak for all of us in that respect.
Jernigan: Your record Mercy was recently reissued on Deathwish, one of the most respected labels in the heavy music community. Does it matter to you what label you’re on?
O’Donnell: Oh yeah. Deathwish is a family. We’ve known Jake and the Converge dudes for sixteen years. They always took care of us. We did some touring early on and some of their fans didn’t really get us, but Converge got it. All the guys were fans. They would warm up playing Planes songs on stage. I always looked at it like the Faith/Void split on Dischord. Two totally different bands, but if you really feel it, it’s the same angle. Jake was like “How about a new record? We can look at Mercy like an extremely expensive advertisement for your next record.” (laughs)
Ricketts: Deathwish is integral. Not just for doing what we’ve done for the past year and a half, but for the past fifteen years.
O’Donnell: Jake [Bannon] is a true artist, and when you meet true artists, you know they generally have excellent taste.