Eight years ago, Planes Mistaken for Stars frontman Gared O’Donnell told an AV Club reporter that he had a feeling the band would be “a lot better dead than we are alive.” The blistering Midwestern post-core quartet sputtered to a halt a year later, burnt out and battered by the changing musical tides that had broken toward guttural screaming and away from their tightly wound, old-school emo style.
Those words now seem prophetic as the band’s moody throttle and churn is finding larger, more enthusiastic audiences than their first time around. “Without sounding arrogant, it’s sort of true,” says O’Donnell, in a typically brash fashion. “If this many people gave a fuck about us when we were together, then we might not have broken up.”
Even O’Donnell would probably admit that’s some revisionist history. After almost a dozen years, the threads had begun to fray. Longtime bassist Jamie Drier left in 2003 and guitarist Matt Bellinger left in 2006 around the release of their third album, Mercy. They’d moved to Abacus Records, an imprint of indie hard-rock label, Century Media, after two well-received full-lengths for No Idea. Their sound harked back to early ’90s emo acts like Mineral, Texas is the Reason, and Sunny Day Real Estate. They thought it was a move up, but the label folded a week after Mercy‘s release. To add insult to injury, Century Media came around shortly afterward and offered to sign them again — for significantly less than the contract they’d had with their subsidiary.
“It was fundamentally a different deal than we had with Abacus, and by fundamentally I mean tens of thousands of dollars less,” says a still-salty O’Donnell. “We were all disheartened, a little crushed. We got together in a room, and I was like, ‘If anyone’s not 110 percent, raise your hand and we’ll stop. And [drummer Mike Ricketts] raised his hand, and we just broke up right there.”
“They were all, ‘Couldn’t we just do it less, play a handful of shows a year,'” O’ Donnell says, audibly shaking his head. “Now eight years down the line, I have a little more perspective, and I’ve been very lonely.”
As cookie monster-growling faded out, more people found their way to Planes. O’Donnell had begun another band, Hawks and Doves, with a rotating cast of pick-up members. He was in Gainesville doing an annual concert, the Fest (run by Tony Weinbender of No Idea Records), and his bandmates only had time to learn five of his songs.
As it turned out, his old bandmates Chuck French and Neil Keener were there with their band Git Some and agreed to fill out his set by coming on to do a few Planes songs. That got the juices flowing. “Surprisingly, it didn’t feel like nostalgia; it didn’t feel forced,” O’Donnell says. So, they started playing a few shows here and there.
Then fellow Denver musician David Eugene Edwards (16 Horsepower, Woven Hand) heard a Planes Mistaken for Stars song during a college radio interview and was informed they were from his hometown. Struck by their talent, Edwards sought out Planes guitarist French. Soon, bassist Keener had joined Woven Hand as well. When the usual drummer couldn’t make a European tour, Ricketts joined them as well. Seeing them on tour together with someone else fronting struck a chord with O’Donnell.
“I’m super happy for them, but it’s like watching your lady friend or significant other bone somebody else. ‘It looks like they’re really having a good time. I don’t know how casual I am about this,'” he jokes.
However, it proved a fortuitous turn of events: Planes has reformed and re-released Mercy. Woven Hand records for Deathwish Records, whose owner Jacob Bannon is an old friend of O’Donnell. When O’Donnell and Bannon started talking about doing something together, they simultaneously came up with the idea of giving Mercy a proper release, which they did last week — nine years after it first came out then abruptly vanished.
Mercy ranges from the searing betrayal ode “Widow: A Love Song,” bucking like a downed power line, to the tense anthemic throb of “To Spit a Sparrow,” the martial slow-fuse theatrics of “Killed by Killers Who Kill Each Other,” and the classic Fugazi-throb of “Little Death.” It’s an aching, heart-sore album that still bears the imprint of O’Donnell’s then-looming divorce.
That Mercy sounds so good almost a decade after it was first recorded is a testament to how O’Donnell and Planes approach their craft. When metalcore and screamo were the rage, they stayed steadfast to their vision and didn’t always make nice with trendier groups. “There weren’t a whole lot of bands or peers that we could relate to, because they were all full of shit,” he says. “We didn’t relate and we weren’t going to pretend that we did because that was beneath us.”
Planes didn’t make a lot of friends, but the critical tide’s on their side. Meanwhile, the reunited band’s begun work on material for a new album they’ll begin recording in December. At this point, whatever temptation selling out may have offered has dissipated in the fog of time. “I’m into buying in not selling out,” O’Donnell says. “You’ve got to be your own quality control, because you let other people do it and you start to fill with shit.”
He’s really just happy to be back with his family once again. “We took so long away from each other we were able to be assess, and as much as we drove each other crazy we really kept each other pretty sane,” O’Donnell says. “I don’t take anything for granted.”