Photo Credit: Joanne DeCaro Afornalli
Folks, this next band is one that I can safely say is the most unique band I have ever featured, in fact, they are likely the most unique band in Los Angeles. This is a band that TRULY puts on a show, the music is solid, there are props, lighting effects, fog machines, puppet shows and dancers, all of which play a part in immersing you in a story like no other. Badass Band 82 is P L a N E T S.
I heard of P L a N E T S via Zachary Zmed of The Janks (Who occasionally plays bass with them) and a while back The Janks and P L a N E T S were on a bill together at The Troubadour. I figured this was the perfect setting to check ‘em out in. I went in not knowing what to expect, and with an open mind. I was not disappointed. Straight off the street I was handed a witch finger by a shrouded figure, which definitely had me intrigued. After not too long, I noticed not only was the band setting up instruments, but some screens were going up and the fog machine was blasting. Then a figure named Father Time took the stage, cracked some awesome jokes, as one would expect from a being billions of years old, and gave a mysterious introduction to what we were about to experience with P L a N E T S in The Darkwoods. It was then that some musicians with black face paint took to the stage, the screens lit up and the first riff was played. For the rest of the show P L a N E T S took the audience on a journey through the Darkwoods through song, shadow puppets, shrouded witch-like dancers, a shower of ripped pages from propaganda books, and the ever present Robot (Yes, you read that correctly). Honestly, this is the most basic description of their show, this is a band you have to EXPERIENCE. No words will describe the show and do it justice.
The tunes themselves are off the album ‘The Darkwoods’, a themed album (the tunes set the tone for the dancers/puppets “telling” you the story). This doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be listened to in order, but you just need to know that it is a part of something bigger. Personal favorites of mine include, “Scared Coyote” a tune filled with mysterious echoes, and mellow building rhythms, that allow Adam’s vocals to really draw you in. This song builds to lengthy, rad guitar riffs and heavier rhythms that are reminiscent of something tribal. Another would be ‘Zombie’ a super heavy tune, mostly instrumental, with some echo-ey, choral type deep vocals, which help to set the crazy, mysteriousness of the Darkwoods. Finally, there’s ‘Miracle Tip’ a dark tune, with slow simple rhythms which build to an instrumental break that will have you just about lose it after the repeating of the lyrics, “On the Miracle Tip, On the Miracle Tip I found you, on the Miracle Tip, on the Miracle Tip you died. On The Miracle Tip, God I hope you’re still alive.” All of their songs are tunes that are so perfectly crafted to be the vehicle of their story that when you hear them, and experience them with the live show, you can’t help but dive into the Darkwoods with them and lose yourself.
Again, this is truly a live band, so you have to experience all aspects of P L a N E T S at once to really appreciate the talent that goes into crafting such an impressive and dare I say, nearly religious experience. Come see this ghostly, rock opera for yourself.
A couple months back, I caught up with many of the musicians, dancers, FX crew, Robot and even Father Time himself, and had a chat, check out what these amazing folks had to say below.
Dean Estrella (Drums)-
When and why did you start playing music?
Why did I start? I had no other choice really, I think its just in the blood. I started playing junior high. I started recording my own music and just picking up insturments. I’ve never taken a lesson but I play a little guitar, a little drums, anything.
Who are your musical influences?
John Frusciante, definitely. Its kind of how I ended up with these guys. I was in a shoegaze band and we played on the same bill as them. When I first met them it was just Adam and Adam and really stripped down. As we played with them over the years, their outfit got bigger and bigger. The guy who was running the show with the band I was in said, “This is the best band we’ve ever played with by a long shot. Any chance that you get, book them.” So Stilly and I got to talking and we were all about John Frusciante. I think that is what gravitated me toward their music, I heard it in some of his vocal stylings and song structures. We started talking about that and were two super fans of the same guy.
So how long have you been playing with P L a N E T S?
About a year and a half, two years.
How does the creative process work with you as part of the rhythm section?
When I came in the band, they already had a wealth of material and the record The Darkwoods was kind of ready to go. All the songs were tracked out. At that point I came in and interpreted the record rhythmically live. I conformed it to a live setting where I feel the record is super dark and moody and slow. Its very Floyd like and the show with the dancing is more fast-paced. But really we just jam it out until we’re good with everything.
Adam: Me and Cotton had no drummer when we did the record. We spent a year making the songs and we loved them. Then we had a show, and put out the songs as a five song EP. We thought it was cool and we liked it but we had a show and couldn’t do it live very well. We were getting ready to move into a new project, and we had Dino come over for one song because we always wanted to play with him. We work through osmosis, anyone who comes in and starts hanging around and playing with us, we don’t say “Hey you’re our bass player”, but its more like the more you’re here, the more you solidify. At the time we had our first song from a next project, that we knew we couldn’t use fake drums for. We had him come over after a show and had given him a rough idea of what The Darkwoods was going to be, Dino was like “Hey can we play the first song on The Darkwoods”. So we do, I think we played “Scared Coyote” and we were like, “Holy shit!!!” The energy was insane. We had never played it live, just recorded them in our home studio, so we never had live drums. It was fucking exciting. So then he asks to play the second song off the album, and we kept going. By the end, Dino coming in and playing drums kind of revitalized the whole project for us.
Dino: I was already a fan of the material. They had established it already, they put their life into this and because of that you read it only one way. You can’t separate yourself and be a fan. I was just like, “This is killer material!” It was exciting for me to play the songs.
Adam: It had this life all the sudden and we’ve been building ever since.
One song you never get tired of?
“A song to sing when I’m lonely”- John Fruciante
Adam Stilwell (Vocals/Songwriter)-
When and why did you start playing music?
Hmmm, I don’t know. I mean as kids we all toy with that stuff. But seriously, was probably in High School era. When I was in HS the whole grunge thing was happening, so people like Eddie Vedder and Scott Weiland taught me how to sing. I was living with my grandma and I was really shy, I still am a little shy, and I was singing. I grew up in Montana, which is a pretty manly place, so singing is kind of an odd thing to do. There was this little weird, hobbit room for storage at my grandma’s and I would go in there with my tape player, close the door and sing my ass off. I learned in the closet. But we came out of the closet as a band a couple months back to kick off Gay Pride week.
Since you and Adam Cotton started it all, how did you two meet?
I had been in bands for years, but I am also a filmmaker. I have an independent film company and we specialize in horror films. We were up in Montana shooting our biggest one at the time in the mid-2000’s and we would film, then go to open mics and jam. We would get really drunk and cut loose. We had just gone to Sasquatch Music Fest and saw The Flaming Lips for the first time and we were falling in love with them. So then we go to this open mic, and there’s this weird, shy guy playing “Do You Realize” on a ukulele and his voice was kind of Wayne Coyne-ish and we were all singing along and cheering like crazy. The way he tells it is that he was in Montana and he didn’t think anyone in Montana would ever know the song. But there we were cheering. We kind of just adopted him. I had been playing on my own for a couple years and writing songs for the movies. Then all of the sudden there’s this guitar virtuoso Cotton. He was a nice guy and we started playing. Randomly we were friends with Toby Scott who is Bruce Springsteen’s engineer up in Montana, and we were crashing in his studio. So, we started writing music and within the first three months of knowing Adam we had recorded an EP of five songs and had twenty million song ideas. Eventually, we had to come down here to sell the movie, so he came back down with us.
Why the name P L a N E T S?
It started as a sheet of paper with about 3,000 names on it. Then we narrowed it down to a few we liked. That was about when Pluto was declared not a planet and we we’re like, “What the fuck, we were told all our lives Pluto was a planet!” So one of the names was ‘The New Planets’, and we thought maybe we would do that in honor of Pluto. Then we took the ‘The’ off after a couple years, then we had a time where we were starting fresh and working on all the extra drama and dancing, so we cleared the slate and just went with P L a N E T S. Eventually we will be Old Planets, then The Asteroids, The burned out old stars. Its not rocket science, just something we liked.
How would you describe your show to someone who has never been?
It’s a new take on what a rock band could be. I don’t like saying too much because I feel that is intriguing enough. My favorite thing to hear people say after a show is, “I don’t know what I just saw, but I liked it.”
Best live show you have ever gone to?
Ohhhhh boy. I have to say Pearl Jam and Arcade Fire are the two best live bands around right now. There was a Rodrigo y Gabriela show I saw at the Bowl and it started to rain. It was a happy experience, which I didn’t expect.
Nathaniel Peterson (Actor, Ukulele, Art, Robot)-
When and why did you start playing music?
Truthfully, I wouldn’t call myself a musician. Where I come in is really my background in theatre. I have done a ton of musicals and live theatre. It was a natural progression, I wanted to be a rock star and an actor, so this is where I get to do that.
How did you meet everyone?
Stilly and I met when we were twelve, we played baseball together in Whitefish, Montana where we grew up. I met Cotton via the story Stilly told before. Nick was my roommate in college. I met Dino last year.
So can you talk a little about the theatre side of things? How do you come up with the things you have going on onstage?
A lot of the lyrics are very narrative and a lot of the characters you see are directly inspired by his lyrics or offshoots of conversations we have all had about stories. That aspect is really collaborative. We have weekly meetings about how we can make the next show cooler and different and weird. We have a lot of die hard people that come, so we like to keep it fresh. We are also very aware of the venues we’re playing in and what the vibe there is. It’s a breathing, living entity.
How was the idea for the Robot born?
When Adam and Adam started jamming together I was always hanging around with them. I think the title of the new EP was something like The New Planets have a Robot. It was very spacey material. I was like, “Wait, if it’s called The New Planets have a Robot, then they have to have a robot.” That was a time when we were extremely destitute and we scrounged together like 20 bucks and bought dryer duct, some boxes, aluminum foil and I built this robot. The first time the robot ever came out was the night before we were leaving for LA. I didn’t have a dime in my pocket but the bar we were playing at it was Fat Tuesday and I won the costume contest with the robot and I got a $100 bucks to come to LA and eat for the first week. So the robot has evolved, that was like version 1.0, this is probably like the eighth robot. He gets more and more elaborate as we go.
Adam: The idea behind the band is that every album and song is a piece of a story like a TV show, so the Robot is a character that shows up throughout the whole life of the band. The Darkwoods is one of the realities. The characters show up again and again. It’s a cool way to tell two or three different stories in one song and not have to sing about love all the time.
What’s your favorite musical?
I despise them, but with that being said, they are a lot of fun and you gotta love Rocky Horror.
Nick Daue (Lighting and Special FX)-
How did you meet everyone?
I came on as the technical guy. I’d seen these guys jam before, and they are good friends of mine, I love their music. There was a Halloween show they did where they had some extra things happening and needed some help. My background is theatre as well, but my focus was the more technical side of things. I worked in a Road House while I was in college and would load in shows. I got to learn some cool things and to be creative. I really missed working in that aspect, so every time these guys needed something like that, I would take care of it. Cotton definitely takes care of the sound equipment and I facilitate all the other stuff as best I can.
Do you help with costuming and all that too?
Yeah, whatever needs to get done really. There is a lot of projection stuff we do that I work on and I make sure the lighting design is good when we go from house to house based on different effects we want to happen. I basically need to be available to make sure things happen, sometimes I’ll jump in there with a character that needs to happen.
Adam: Not everyone in the band plays a musical instrument, but they do something that is instrumental to the project happening. Nicky fills those holes. I’ve always known a ton of cool, creative people and anyone is welcome to come give whatever they have. The band is more like a creative collective.
Best live show you have ever gone to?
Pearl Jam is up there for me too. One that wasn’t technically heavy but was awesome was I got to see The Boss in like 1996 in Cleveland. I was like 16 or 17, had a fake ID, no parents with us, drinking beer and listening to The Boss. That was the first tape I had. He did like 17 encores and an acoustic version of ‘Born in the USA’ to finish it off was one of the most amazing rock shows I have seen.
Bryce Whiting (Art, Puppeteer, Percussion, Dancer)-
How did you end up joining P L a N E T S?
I worked with Melanie, who I call Chocolate. We worked together and I was slowly introduced to the group. We ended up going to Coachella together. That was actually my first time hanging out with them all together. It was really cool. I had not seen their show, because at that time there were only a few a year. I finally did see it and it blew my mind. I loved the visuals, the girls doing shadow puppets and dancing. So the next time we hung out, the next week, I was geeking out in front of them. Besides that fact, I think the thing that really made them realize I was interested is that I drew a couple things and made some suggestions. They loved it. The next show they asked me to do some drawings and I never left.
So you are one of the dancers, what else do you do?
I am also a big part of the Art Department. I work with the Shadow Puppets a lot. Specifically, the ones we use as slides on top of the projector because we pair that with actual shadow puppets against the screen. I make those detailed. There are a lot of small things I work on, like the book the email list is in. I do all these small things because I am not a musician, but I can contribute in a lot of other ways.
We are separate but all work together and are typically on the same page with where we want to be.
What is the story behind the creation of the Shadow Puppets?
Well, Natasha took a class in college on Shadow Puppets. They started doing it before I knew them. We originally had this idea of using a projector, like an old school one at first, but then we decided that it would be too complicated to find pictures and things that we wanted. Then Cotton had the brilliant idea of using the overhead projector, it’s the same light source but its something we could manipulate more. We use transparencies, but also create puppets that would work well on screen too, they are made of more opaque material but they’re sturdy so they can last a long time. We are proud of everything we do, but we’re all dreamers and we want to improve everything we do. As much as we love it, we will probably change it in a month or two. It’s awesome when people come to the shows, see the change and love it.
One song you never get tired of listening to?
“Where Did Our Love Go” -The Supremes
Melanie Keller- (Dancer, Puppeteer, Percussion)-
How did you become a part of P L a N E T S?
Well, I went to college with Natasha at Cal State LA. We became good buddies and were both in the Theatre/Dance Program. We actually did a couple plays together when I was there, we took acting classes together, partners for a few scenes in class and went on a dance exchange thing in Berkeley for a weekend. We had a lot of the same artistic endeavors. When I moved back to LA four years ago, I was trying to get in touch with her and she said, “Hey come out and see me dance with my boyfriend’s band.” I showed up to a speak easy in Downtown LA and she had gotten together like six of our dance buddies from school and they end up doing this crazy, amazing interpretive performance with the band but it told the story. I had never seen anything like it. She asked me to come be part of the next show, so I did some of the easier numbers. She also mentioned the Shadow Puppet thing and so I was one of the first people to maneuver the shadow puppets. I’ve stuck with them ever since.
So how does your side of the creative process work, since you do a little but of it all?
Natasha choreographs the dances, then I help her figure out things when she gets stuck on something or I have an idea about something that seems appropriate. We have weekly meetings where we talk about whatever is going on, usually its business stuff but maybe we will talk about a new idea or new creation. It’s a collaborative process, you have an idea, bring it forth and everyone else will spit out their ideas based on that. As much as I have ever been a part of something it is entirely collaborative, Stilly still writes the story, Cotton comes up with the music, Natasha choreographs the dances, Bryce is a lot of influence on the drawings for the Shadow Puppets, Natasha did the stories for the Shadow Puppets, then its about collaborating to fill those in. Everyone pitches in with what they can do. There is so much going on backstage too that keeps everything running.
Best live show you have ever gone to?
When I was fifteen I went to my first concert by myself with two good friends, and it was Incubus and Hoobastank in Virginia. We left school a little early and drove an hour out there, bought tickets and were allowed to go for some lucky reason. This was when stadium shows were really big, so Incubus would play places like The Forum, so the center is general admission, but we had seats right at General Admission and we weren’t getting squished, which was nice. Hoobstank was my favorite band at the time. So we’re having fun and this guys screams at me, “You look like you’re having the best time, come on, you gotta get in here!” He pulls me down, picks me up and I crowd surfed for the first time all the way across this crowd. I got to the front and it was the most incredible thing ever. I always wanted to fly, and that’s what it felt like. The kicker is that this happened during my favorite song of theirs. Recently we saw Rodrigo y Gabriela, that was incredible. It was at the Hollywood Bowl and that place is not small but they made it feel so intimate. We went as a band to celebrate Stilly’s birthday so it was special.
Adam Cotton (Guitar, Songwriter, Sound Design)-
How did you and Stilly meet?
It was a random, fateful meeting. I grew up in Texas and went to school in Santa Cruz. I lived in the Bay Area for a while. I did a lot of travelling for a while and was funny because I had pretty single-minded about starting a rock band since I was twelve. I was in bands in High School, not really in College. So I ended up in Whitefish, Montana, which is where a few of the guys are from. I had a buddy up there from music school who had a studio. I went for the summer to see what would happen, and it happened to be the same summer these guys were filming ‘Paper Dolls’ in their hometown. There was one bar in town called ‘The Great Northern’ that had a open mic, I didn’t know anyone except my friend so I was trying to be social and go play. I saw them a bunch of times. There was one night that I was playing “Do You Realize” by The Flaming Lips on ukulele, and not to be stereotypical but I was in Montana so there are not a whole lot of Flaming Lips fans. These guys start screaming, which I didn’t expect. So they got on my radar. I saw Stilly singing backup vocals a couple times and thought, “Man, that guy has a pretty good presence and a pretty good voice, maybe he could be a singer.” I found out later he had been in bands his whole life. We started playing music, and it really clicked. Before you know it, we had a rock band. We ended up here in LA.
How does your creative process typically work?
Personally, more than anything I am influenced by life experiences and nature. To me, I get blown away by crazy thunderstorms and floods. Being in those kinds of things influenced me a lot when I was a kid. I have a million CD’s, some people still have those, I take a lot in. Those things mix and mingle. For our band, I am constantly playing guitar and coming up with stuff. The stuff that actually ends up in the band is .0001 of the stuff I come up with. Sometimes it’s frustrating. There are weeks worth of ideas, sometimes I give Stilly a pile of stuff and he goes through it. We already have a few different albums planned out. I do music for movies too, so there is a lot. You just have to make peace that people won’t hear 99% of it.
So what’s next for P L a N E T S?
Our next album, which we are super excited about, is totally different than what we are doing now, in the music and props. The band as an organism is going to be similar but the characters and world are going to change. This one takes place in The Darkwoods and the next album will be taking place in Outer Space. It is way more like early Pink Floyd stuff, long-winded space rock stuff. We are going to start sneaking songs into the sets in the coming months.
One song you never get tired of listening to?
“Riders on the Storm”- The Doors
Natasha Snow Needles (Choreography, Dancer, Puppeteer)-
How did you become involved in P L a N E T S?
I was dating the lead singer and I wanted to be dancing and performing. So Adam was like, “Why don’t you just dance to some of our songs?” So I got two girlfriends together and it kind of exploded from there. Adam and Cotton write songs as stories, and each had its own beginning to end. So I noticed this pattern and started creating Shadow Puppets for it on poster board and using them on a makeshift screen. We slowly started to incorporate our best friends, like Bryce, Alain, Melanie, are all very dear to my heart. We are all best friends in the band. That’s how everyone came together. Everyone has something unique and wonderful to contribute to the band. We’re lucky.
How does your creative process work for the choreography?
Cotton and Stilly play the music for me, and I will get a general feel for it. Then we will talk about colors, inspiration and moods in the song. The song, ‘Miracle Tip’ with the fingers, I was imagining The Grudge and Pans Labyrinth, you get that visual in your brain then throw that into dance. Everything has movement in it.
So you took a class on Shadow Puppetry?
I did. I did the choreography for a play called ‘Cloud Gatherer’ which sparked my fascination for the shadow puppets. I took a couple classes in it, and the first one I did was more like actual hand puppets. It was not my style, but I like the romantic aspect of black and white. It’s fun to create special details. It’s a challenge to make paper moveable, and it’s very intense. The experience of working on that play helped teach me everything I needed to know.
Best live show you have ever gone to?
Arcade Fire. For my 28th birthday Stilly, Bryce and Melanie surprised me with tickets to Arcade Fire, then surprised me again the next weekend, so we went twice. I literally cried during every single song. I just recently wen to see Rodrigo y Gabriela at the bowl, and that was amazing.
Father Time- (Brick Patrick)
How did you end up with P L a N E T S?
It would be easy to say I saved this band but really the band saved me. I had just been left by Mumford & Sons or as I could call them, Mumford & Sonsabitches. I wrote half the lyrics to “Little Lion Man” and we were doing a show at Nokia Live and I brought some of my African American friends backstage. Then they kicked me out of the band. They’re racists. I mean, I can’t back this up with any proof but its true. I also took a shit in a recording studio when they were making their second EP. That may have had something to do with it too but I’m pretty sure it was because they’re really, really, Irish.
No, really I am a cosmic entity that has been around for a long time, 13.7666 billion years. I touched the void, I was there for the birth of non-being. The non-being, being the creation of the 10,000 things we refer to as the present moment. I was given an offer by CBS/NBC powers that be, but I chose the band circuit to put my message out because I feel like it’s a harder challenge. I’ve always liked a challenge and it’s a losing fight anyway. December 21, 2012 was kind of the tipping point for me. I really had to teach humanity how to extinguish me from their minds and unfortunately I failed. I am not talking about clock time, you need to make appointments, you need to know when to go to the Dentist, but its really easy stuff. Unfortunately, the only one who gets it now is Gary Busey and I don’t know how to clone that guy yet.
Why did you chose P L a N E T S specifically to spread your message?
Well, like I said, it was kind of a symbiotic choice. I was at a low point when Mother Space and I were in the middle of one of our tiffs because I had ran into a collapsed supernova named Rhonda that I was in love with at the time, and I was having a good time with. Mother Space thought it was inappropriate. I was really at the bottom of the barrel, and I call that the upward spiral. Once at the bottom there is only spiraling up from there, so a hand came in and that hand was P L a N E T S. They saved me from the darkest hour. It could have been the undoing of all space and time as we know it.
FIND P L a N E T S HERE: