Hearts Bleed Radio (Marisha): So, you have a fantastic showcase coming up on Friday. Tell me about the Northside Festival showcase for HBR.
Stephen: Well, it's mostly a bunch of friends bands that I wanted to get together on the same bill. Mostly catchy indie bands, all of whom are excellent performers. The Planes played a super fun showcase with Crazy Pills last year, so I wanted to get them again. Quiet Loudly is a blast to see live, really dynamically good set, poppy, but you can also get a chance to zone out with them. Mount Sharp has a kinda songwriter plus loud dissonant guitar thing, that a sonic youth like myself really digs. pow wow! might be one of the best bands in the city when they really nail it, like, any fan of rock would like them. And lastly, we were fortunate to get Queens natives, The Beets, to round out the bill. They haven't been playing to much recently, and they are kinda getting back into things, so we're super excited.
HBR: Crazy Pills are amazing! It's a really strong line up you've got on a Friday night. You guys are creating a supportive community of bands that tend to curate a lot of interesting shows in Brooklyn on a pretty regular basis. What are some of your favorite venues to play?
Stephen: Venue wise, there are three who have been very friendly to HBR and The Planes... For starters, Matchless, where we're throwing the show. Nice, tight, small room, bar in the band room (key), good food, outdoor area, good location. Cake Shop, has been very kind also, probably the last spot in Manhattan that small bands love to play (not to diss Bowery Electric, but I've never played there). And lastly Grand Vic, where we're doing a showcase on 8/1. Jeremy is a super nice guy and I recommend everyone stops by on a slow night and has a beer with him. Also, we haven't played Fort Useless yet, but we will on 7/13, and we're pumped, 'cause we've been going to shows there forever and what they do is so true to the DIY spirit and the community spirit of indie.
HBR: Fort Useless, Matchless and Grand Victory are great places for live music in an intimate space. I am a major fan of Cake Shop for all of Andy Bodes's ideals, high standards and good taste, all around a great place.
Stephen: I'd take a full room over a big room any day, haha. Legion has been good to us too, and they are super tiny.
|I lost those aviators after this shoot. If anyone finds a pair on Meserole Street, hit me up.
HBR: That's rad that Amanda is doing double time in pow wow! and Crazy Pills.
Stephen: Amanda, and Eddie are doing double duty, cause Eddie is CP's bassist. ALSO, Sal plays drums in both pow wow! and Quiet Loudly.
HBR: Wow, so much cross-pollination! Well, you are also in Big Quiet (not to be confused with Quiet Loudly) and The Planes. How's your experience playing in two different bands? That seems to be a running theme of the upcoming Northside Showcase.
Stephen: You know why that is? 'Cause finding a musician on Cragslist is kinda sketchy. Now, The Planes lucked out with our bassist, Jon Levine. We got a guy who can play the instrument very well, but has good enough taste to not be overplaying. That's a diamond in the rough, right there. I gotta admit, I asked everyone I knew, and no one could make the commitment, and our guy who played on "Little Yellow Letters" (Daniel Kasshu) had his own band, Dialogue From A Silent Film, and couldn't really stick around. But I think there's a real hesitation to just start asking randos to come jam, and that's why after a couple years, the bands get so incestuous. I ended up playing drums in Big Quiet because I met Marisa through a common friend. That project only started (with me, at least) because we were in the same social scene.
HBR: Yes, I completely agree, it's best to play with people you know through other friends or some more organic band formation. It's also so tempting to form side project bands to explore other types of sounds and projects, do you find that to be the case? If only there was more time to pursue dream side project ideas with other musicians we meet. There should be more time dedicated to jam sessions without so much of a goal, though I suppose the nature of NYC time management and such is you have a mission to create something with folks that is more concrete.
Stephen: Yeah, like, I really want to play bass in a band, but I don't have the time. I think it's a time issue for a lot of people, even being in one band. The thing I hate about NYC is that its so expensive that most everyone has to work a full time job too. And it really wears you out.
HBR: Totally, that's true. Are there other bands playing Northside Festival that you're excited to see? (outside your showcase? gasp!)
Stephen: Yeah, Clouder is great, and the lead singer, Eric, moved to, I think NC, so they haven't played that much. Max from QL and Jim from CP are also in that band, they play Saturday night at the Whatever Blog show at Legion. I saw Radical Dads play with Dead Stars a couple of days ago, and I think I'm developing a massive band crush on them, they play Thursday at Legion. A bunch of friends' bands are playing day shows on Saturday and Sunday, Matchless on Sat, and Spike Hill on Sun, so that's where I'll be during the day.
|Stairwell in the abandoned brewery.
HBR: Cool. Tell me a bit about The Planes songwriting process. Do you bring ideas for songs ahead of time? And you brought in a new member a few months ago - how has that changed things?
Stephen: Usually I get like, the skeleton of the song together, chord changes and melody, verse chorus structure, and I make a couple 4-track demos (just like high school!). Then I send them to the guys and see what they think. They'll figure out what they kinda want to do, and we'll get together and see if it works.
HBR: Oh, that's interesting, so you share digital files with other before you get together in person even though you're all in the same city?
Stephen: It's a pretty good formula for getting material together, and it only works cause they're the kinda musicians who have a really sharp memory, and almost always come to practice prepared. Despite our apparent slackitude, The Planes are a very professional band. Jeff (our drummer) wrote one song on our new album, it was from one of his old groups and I always really liked it. I'd like the other guys to get a chance to be songwriters closer to that ground level, and its something we should make a point of doing on the next body of work.
Brian (our new guitarist) has been a good friend for a while, and is a solid guitarist, with a very similar musical background to myself. I wanted to roll as a three piece for a little bit, because it's easier to schedule practice/shows, AND to see if we could pull it off. I think it went well, but it's nice to have another guitar up there with me! He's learned some of the old guitar parts from our recordings (which were originally played by Gavin Dunaway of Libel, or overdubbed by me), and he's written new parts where they were needed. He's done a fantastic job, and I really feel like the band is in the best place musically that we've ever been.
But yeah, I'll send out MP3s. Haha, some are quite good... others, not so much. Some I lay down drum tracks and 2 guitars... others are just me on the couch with an acoustic guitar. But the idea is, take a couple of days, fool around with this verse/chorus thing, then when we all get together, we can immediately play it. Sometimes, things sound pretty good right off the bat. We cleaned up some of the demos of songs that didn't make it to the "album" stage, and put them on the end of "Drinks on Amps."
HBR: Drinks on Amps is an epic name. It just describes so much in a few words... but it's immediate recognition...
Stephen: Well, like, I think it's a little bit of an inside joke amongst musicians, like, you see the "NO DRINKS ON AMPS" signs in clubs that have house gear, or practice spaces... EVERYBODY put their beer on an amp at some point, signs be damned!
HBR: Oh whenever I see a sticky drink stain ring on my amp I just hope it was my doing or else there's hell to pay! haha! When did you start playing music? In high school? I feel like that's usually the time most of us got our start. Like, I started playing Nirvana's 'Nevermind' and 'Bleach' tab music books.
Stephen: Middle school was when I started, probably 12 or 13 (years old). Started with the alto sax in 4th grade, then a couple years of piano lessons, then I picked up the guitar on my own. Yeah, I had the Nevermind tab book, and Out of Time, and Siamese Dream.
HBR: Learning from tablature (pre Internet!) or playing by ear our favorite songs, by the bands we love from the 90s, was the beginning for a lot of musicians in our community. It sounds like you had a prodigious training, learning piano I've realized is uber helpful for music theory.
Stephen: Yeah, I'm not saying I'm a super great guitarist, I've never taken a guitar lesson in my life. I think lessons are great, but I'm happy with the way I learned music, through the piano, and just kinda figuring out how rock and roll works, with that background in music theory. My buddy, Jake Valli (haven't seen him in forever), in middle school, he took lessons. After a lesson, I'd pick his brain, that helped a lot!
HBR: I don't think lessons are what makes a guitarist great. But yeah sometimes it provides new ideas or techniques. I was supremely resistant to music training until I met Sara Landeau (amazing lady from Willie Mae Rock Camp and Julie Ruin). Rock 'n roll is truly from the soul...
Stephen: But I always just played chords. Then, one summer I was living in Portland, OR, and I was super depressed and lonely, so I decided to go on a mission and place all those scales that I knew on a piano, onto the neck of a guitar. And I made myself practice them for a half an hour a day, just sitting there, bored and sad, running scales. So much of what I can do with the instrument comes from that summer.
HBR: Wow, that's a touching story. Good for you. I mean, it's sometimes that isolation that breeds more discipline and patience, you know?
Stephen: And I think that's whats good about lessons, is that it forces you to A. look at the instrument differently, and B. commit to practice.
|Clockwise from top left: Jon, Stephen, Jeff, Brian
HBR: Sometimes practicing scales isn't fun. But it's a good investment. I think those piano lessons were helpful to you. What made you decide to start a blog? Where do you usually go to read about music? I've found being a band I want to "be in" the places I go to for music news, but apart from HBR and Brooklyn Vegan and a few other spots it's so segmented and all over the place.
Stephen: I always want to be working, 24/7. But the reality is, we can't play shows every night, practice every day, record every weekend... I started a blog because it was something I felt comfortable doing on my own. I like Pitchfork, I understand it as being kinda a clearing house of music that didn't get picked up by radio rock stations... so basically 90% of rock music. A lot of it I don't like, and I don't always agree with what people think about whatever album, but I look at music very academically, and I can understand why a certain writer likes or hates something, even if I feel differently. Pitchfork gets a bad rap because they can kinda make or break a band, and I think there's some animosity from musicians who don't feel like they're on the same wavelength as the writers.
HBR: So another theme, similar to drinks on amps is, I think for a lot of us - cats. Music and cats. Where does one stop and the other begin?
Stephen: There are plenty of cat references in Planes songs. I spend a lot of time with cats and they have such fire inside them.
HBR: Is your music more cat music than dog music? Beatles or Stones? Are binary explanations even relevant anymore? Free association time...
Stephen: Cat music for sure, but I'd love to have a dog and be inspired by one, just not in NYC. Beatles for sure...
HBR: I'm a dog person who likes the Beatles. But I know that will make many enemies. A lot of music has been inspired by dogs, look at Seasick Steve... or Robert Plant's dog Strider.
Stephen: I like the Stones, don't get me wrong, but usually, I don't like overly bluesy rock. Though there are many exceptions to this.
HBR: Uh oh this interview is going off the rails!
Stephen: Yeah, this might be the longest to date!
HBR: One last question, do you ever have fake interviews in your head? I feel like most musicians do! Haha!
Stephen: Yeah, like, if I were asked about this song or whatever, of course...
HBR: What's the interview question I didn't ask that was in your head?
Stephen: I don't know if I had one about this, haha, like, I had to get the interview with Eddie from pow wow! posted this morning. I had an interview with Juan of The Beets this evening and I was thinking about that all day, and running over to the practice space to restring my guitar, and going to my friends photo exhibit. Oh, and we had Big Quiet practice too, so I played the drums for 2.5 hours... I was just looking at this interview as a fun thing to do before I went to bed!
HBR: Aww, good, well just get some rest!
And that's a wrap! I think Marisha did an incredible job interviewing me. Stay tuned to HBR and I'll let you all know when she gets her next band together.
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