Rank Your Records: Planes Mistaken For Stars' Gared O'Donnell

The frontman of the unclassifiable band plays favorites with their releases.

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In Rank Your Records, I talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

If there’s one thing no one can accuse Planes Mistaken For Stars of, it’s pandering. For better or worse, the on-again, off-again band has done things their own way over their 23 years together. With their wholly unique style of mean and scuzzy rock, they’ve occupied their own darkened corner within the worlds of punk, emo, and hardcore, despite the fact that they don’t sound like any of their peers, they don’t look like any of their peers, and they’ve avoided trends at all costs. 

Throughout the early 2000s, Planes were hard partying road dogs, hopping on tours with anyone who would have them, from Mastodon to The Ataris. They’ve slowed their touring pace since then, and the band is no longer any of the members’ full-time focus. But when they’re able to find time to step on stage or into a studio together, they can pick up right where they left off.

When asked what makes for a good Planes Mistaken For Stars record, frontman Gared O’Donnell has an answer that's either very humble or very cocky: “We still haven’t written our best one yet.”

I had O’Donnell put the Planes releases in order of personal preference. Here’s what he came up with.

6. Fuck With Fire (2001)

What puts Fuck With Fire at the bottom?
Gared O’Donnell:
I don’t think we were ready. When we did the first self-titled record, we’d been working on that for some time and didn’t have any expectations. Up until that point, everyone’s bands had just been little high school bands. We didn’t know we were gonna strike fire. What we did was accidental and it was kind of magic. Same thing with Knife [in the Marathon]. But Fuck With Fire, it was time to write a full-length and get on a label we wanted to be on, which was No Idea. There’s a lot of special things about the record, I just feel like we could have let it cook a little longer.

You used some unusual recording techniques on this album, right?
Yeah, we just wanted it to sound like a cacophony, and it does. We achieved what we wanted, but I think it made the record suffer in the long run, because there’s a lot of little intricacies that you cannot hear. Even if you remix it, I think it’d still be buried. The melodies and countermelodies Matt [Bellinger] was doing were gorgeous and we just slammed through them.

But does that add to the charm of it? It’s a really filthy sounding record.
Yeah, I think it does. And some people’s opinion is that it's our best record. It’s all subjective. Next week, I might be thinking about it and say, “Damn, Fuck With Fire is my favorite. What was I talking about?” 

It’s got a big crowd-pleaser with “End Me in Richmond.”
Yeah, people love that song. It’s pretty immediate. 

There aren’t a lot of parts in your songs like that breakdown in “End Me in Richmond” where it lends itself to audience participation. After you released that song and saw the response, were you inclined to write more songs like that, for the audience?
No. [Laughs] It never occurred to me. With every record, I want to be a little more accessible, but never enough that I’d pander to an audience. That would be boring. If I’m gonna do something hooky, it’s got to be on my terms. I find the best stuff to be the stuff you have to dig for.

With no disrespect, I’d say that describes Planes’ entire existence.
Yeah, I think it pays back in spades. I’d never toot my own horn, but I do feel like all the stuff we’ve done over the years, whether you like it or not, it is uncompromising. I think that’s one of the reasons we never achieved large commercial success, because we didn’t play games. There was a point after Fuck With Fire where we recorded with At the Drive-In’s manager who was nice to pay for us to do demos with this guy Alex Newport—great engineer, great producer. We went out to Orange County to record and it sounded OK. He pulled me aside and said, “Listen, dudes. You should just clean up your act a little bit and not be so rough around the edges.” And I was like, “No.”

What made you so stubborn about that?
We were all so fiercely independent, and so skeptical of music industry people, especially after working with the Deep Elm guy. Plus, we were all latchkey kids. Half of us only had one parent. We all came from interesting and/or broken families. A lot of kids who grew up on their own grew up way quick. So it was like, “Well, I haven’t let anyone tell me what to do so far.” But looking back, I don’t really regret it, because again, I don’t think people can say we didn’t have integrity and do what the fuck we wanted.

5. Prey (2016)

I don’t mean this in an insulting way, but why make this record? You’d been gone for almost ten years. How’d it come about?
We love each other a lot. We were doing shows here and there, and we were kind of getting bored with our set. We had that artistic itch to scratch, to write tunes the way only the four of us can. I’ve played music with other people on occasion, but it’s never the same.

What is it about each other that you understand on an intimate level?
We’re like siblings at this point. Me and Mikey [Ricketts] have been playing music for what, 23 years now? It’s like another marriage. He’s like my sister-wife. [Laughs]

With the years between records, what do you think that time off did for your songwriting?
To use kind of a weird term, it made us more muscular, musically. There’s not a lot of fat on that record. I think a couple of the songs could’ve been explored a little further. There are certain things I would change. But the tunes that are on there that I like, I think is the best stuff we’ve ever done. 

Also, at that time, I was going through a fucking complete, weird mental breakdown. I got put on meds I had no business being on. Then I just stopped taking them, but nobody warned me that you can’t stop taking that heavy of an antidepressant without it flipping you upside down.

What did it feel like?
I felt like I was sleepwalking. I’d never been suicidal, but at one point I was counting bullets. It felt like I wasn’t in control of my own capacities to deal with anything that wasn’t going my way. I was just not with it.

With that in mind, when you look back at this record, does it feel like someone else wrote it?
Up until this record, I never knew what I was talking about. It was just like crystal balls, because it was so deep in my psyche that I didn’t realize I was writing about me. But this record, I was just putting down feelings and knew what every song was about. It kind of grounded me, writing the lyrics to this record, and it helped me get through the tunnel. 

4. Planes Mistaken for Stars (1998)

Jumping way back to your first record, what was the band’s identity then?
We didn’t know yet. We were just trying to write good tunes. Later on, down the line, we’d start embracing some of our darker roots. We also found more influences down the line.

Was there anyone you were modeling your sound after in those days?
At the time, we were coming right behind bands like Samiam and Jawbreaker and Christie Front Drive and Texas Is the Reason. I knew we didn’t want to sound like The Promise Ring, and we didn’t want to be cute little Midwest boys. We’re more into Pegboy and that kind of thing. We never wanted to be pretentious. We never wanted to be hipsters. I remember we opened a show with Chamberlain and Pegboy, before we even became Planes. Chamberlain came in and they were such fucking prima donna snobs, which was disappointing because I really love that Fate’s Got a Driver record. And then Pegboy came in and were just like, “Ayy, what the fuck’s going on?” Pegboy was rad, Chamberlain was not rad. Let’s put it that way.  So I never wanted to come off as better than anybody, and that was our mantra. Conversely, we ended up sullying ourselves by making it clear that we were better than nobody by just being fucking animals. 

It seemed like for a brief moment, you were getting pushed into that emo scene at the time.
That’s what everybody wanted us to do. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t do it. Also, it would’ve been too fucking easy and we’re all stubborn. And then Jamie [Drier] joined the band and we gravitated to our common interests, and Jamie is into more darker shit.

And was that weird to have this emo-ish name while you’re incorporating skulls and more sinister imagery?
Well, somebody asked me years later if we got [the band name] from a Replacements song, which is one of my favorite bands but I hadn’t gotten into ‘em yet. There’s a line where Westerberg talks about wishing on a star but it’s a plane. But I could look at the name as sort of sci-fi. To me, a name’s a name. I kind of liked that it did give people the idea that we were gonna be easy to follow, and then we freaked them the fuck out, and it was great.

Can I also ask about the general aesthetic of the band? You guys never looked like you fit in at shows. You had this long, black hair and just looked like a greasy metal band.
We were just road warriors, dude! We were so ostracized at different points in our trajectory, even as kids in high school bands. We just became each other’s inspirations. We kind of shut ourselves off to what other people were doing. I wasn’t buying new music, partly because I didn’t want to hear it and try to sound like it. We wanted to look like Black Oak Arkansas or Lynyrd Skynyrd or Thin Lizzy. We always felt like we had more in common with Thin Lizzy than, say, Sunny Day Real Estate. 

3. Up in Them Guts (2004)

I’ve seen a lot of interviews where you say you didn’t know what these songs were about when you wrote them. Can you explain that?
First off, I thought we were writing songs that sounded like The Replacements. Secondly, I was just trying to write good lyrics that would resonate. I tried to remove myself. A lot of it was personal, but I didn’t realize the extent of it. Like, I didn’t know “Spring Divorce” was going to happen two years later. [Laughs] I had no fucking clue.

You also said you wanted to have less screaming on this record. Is that right?
Yeah, me and Matt kind of went around and around on that at the time. I’m the lead vocalist and I don’t have the world’s prettiest or biggest pipes, I just have a style. But with him [screaming my lyrics back], it was getting kind of redundant. I suggested that we think of a more creative way to interweave them. When it works, it works. Like, of course it’s awesome when he screams “We’re all getting fucked now.”

But other times, it’s such an odd fit for what you’re singing about. A song like “Say Not a Word” has a sexual energy to it. It’s a straight-up fuck song. But it’s performed in such a heavy way and the juxtaposition is an interesting dynamic. 
Well, the story about “Say Not a Word” is that it is a song about fucking, but the reason it works and has the swagger and aggression it does is because it’s more about the frustration of turning a potentially beautiful situation down. It’s the residuals you walk away with. It’s more about what didn’t happen, that eats you up in your head.

By writing a song like that, are you manifesting it? Are you playing with your own destiny and picking at the devil?
To a certain extent, yeah. We’re all tailors of our own existence. If you read between the lines of reality, you can tailor things a little bit. I didn’t understand the magic I was working with on some of that stuff and it actually became a prophecy. I think music is a lot more powerful than people let on.

2. Mercy (2006)

You’ve said that there’s a “unique darkness” to this record. What does that mean to you?
Matt had left the band and we had a lot to prove. Towards the end of Matt’s run with us, we weren’t really seeing eye to eye. He had other things going on. We were signing what would be a real contract with real money, not just to record but to live for a little while, which was huge at the time. Half of us had kids. We thought we might actually make it a career for a while, which was never the dream, but it was ideal. So we signed this contract and Matt said he had to take six months off. I was like, “Are you fucking crazy?” He said, “I’d like to see you try to do it without me.”

It’s a sore subject, but shortly before Matt passed away, me and him had this conversation where it all came back around and we hugged each other. He said, “I get why you did what you did, and that’s my favorite record.” So it’s partly dark because Matt was my brother. We’d been friends since we were 14. Also, I was in the process of figuring out that the relationship I was in for the last ten years was not gonna work. The writing was on the wall. That’s what a lot of those lyrics are about, the end of something. 

The artwork looks like a Cris Crude piece. How’d you get hooked up with him?
Pg. 99, we were friends with those dudes. He’s a good buddy and came through in a pinch.

Is the band’s name even on this cover?
No, I don’t think it’s on Prey, either.

I don’t mean this in an insulting way, but that’s a great example of you guys doing all of these little things that work against you.
Self-sabotage? Yeah. [Laughs] I think in the long run, we were hoping that’d be an admirable thing and people would come around to see us as a dark horse and think we were sticking to our guns. 

Is there a line between sticking to your guns and getting in your own way?
Hindsight's 20/20. In retrospect now, yeah, but who fucking cares? We got nothing to prove. We want to play a couple dozen shows a year, we want to put out good records, and we have no delusions that we’re all gonna buy houses anytime soon.

1. Knife In The Marathon (2000)

How’d this earn the top spot?
At that time, it was almost as if I traveled through a fold in time and this was standing right there in our practice spot with Matt and Jamie and Mikey. Listening to that record, there’s no fat on it. It’s unmitigated fucking rage, but it’s not a hardcore record. There’s no empty sloganeering. It’s broken hearted, it’s about growing up, and that’s what we were doing. We’d just moved to Denver from Peoria, 13 of us, together. We were forging our own path and came into our own, which is why we got so fucking weird.

What was it like when 13 people descended upon a new city?
It was actually pretty seamless. There wasn’t a whole lot of pushback. I think that, because we came in with a lot of enthusiasm and because we weren’t ultra-pretentious, and because we just wanted to play, we just gravitated towards bands that wanted to play. We were sort of these war hippies. [Laughs]

You don’t play a lot of these songs live, do you?
No, we don’t play any of them. It just doesn’t land right.

Why’s that?
It just doesn’t, I don’t know. It’s so very specific—four dudes playing those five songs or whatever it is. With a lot of our stuff on Guts or Fuck With Fire, we’re able to reinterpret those songs and either slow them down or thicken ‘em up a bit. These songs, you just don’t want to fuck with them. Plus, they go back to back to back so perfectly that it’s weird to pull one out of sequence.

And the last one is eight minutes long.
There’s a two-minute, 12-second pause in it. We’d lost a couple friends at the time. The house we all started the band in—the house we’d all hang out with them in—was 212 Division in East Peoria. So, we were like, how do a tribute? So we did two minutes and 12 seconds of silence that will be on that record forever.

Here’s my Best of Planes playlist: