sex as a foreign language

awkward aural adventures

Planet Brain – Full Interview

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A version of this interview appears on Subba Cultcha.

You may not have heard of Planet Brain yet, 3 quiet Italian school friends who have been slowly honing their craft for the last decade, but once you have been exposed to their elegiac, transcendent rock music you will be hard pressed not to separate your life into two distinct categories: pre and post Planet Brain. The culmination of years of writing, refining and aural exploration their 2007 debut album ‘Compromises & Carnivals’ was an explosion of styles, a calling card album that contained a mesmeric set of songs that offer up a foundation that could easily be as important as Radiohead’s ’Pablo Honey’ or Muse’s ‘Showbiz’.  Fusing together the psychedelic tinged guitars of Swervedriver and ‘Gish’ era Smashing Pumpkins to the caustic bombast of latter day Muse they created an album seared with a heartfelt vitality rarely captured on record. In singer Marcello Batelli they are blessed with one of the most emotive voices in music today, though his operatics never overshadow the music, with rhythm section  Nicola Zagrando and Claudio Larese Casanova (yes really) provide a muscle that propels Planet Brains music deep within any listeners conscious. Following the UK release of ‘Compromises & Carnivals’ on Function Records the band have toured their homeland as well as making frequent exploratory trips to the UK. Currently completing recording on their follow up EP which sees the band pushing their sound to a darker, heavier soundscape they will be embarking on an Italian tour in November and returning to the Uk in the winter. I recently managed to grab some time with Marcello in order to discuss the bands back story, writing process and where they are heading.

Ok to kick off for those who don’t know can you introduce yourselves and give a brief history of the band. How you formed, what you wanted to get out of the band when you started?

We formed back in 1999, when we were about 15. Nicola and I used to play already together since we were at secondary school, we recorded some stupid songs about our teachers on a demo tape. Then we met Claudio and settled in his house, still our current homestudio-rehearsal room. Our first line up showed Claudio on the keyboards (he’s the drummer now), me (Marcello) on the drums (afterwards moved to guitar and vocals), Nicola on the guitar (then forced to be a bass player). We just started the band to entertain ourselves, without a real project. We soon began to write our own songs (‘Walkie-Talkie’ is one of the first songs we wrote), and we recorded a first demo-album in 2001 called ‘Bottom of the Seas’, followed by the ‘Orange’ EP in 2002, recorded by winning a local contest. We got another “ghost album” recorded in 2004 which was never been released, but some of the songs that were on it had been included in ‘Compromises and Carnivals’ (2007), our debut album.

The songs on ‘Compromises & Carnivals’ cover a huge range of styles from the epic versions of ‘Gash Discipline’ to the highly intimate moments such as ‘Prince Astronaut”. Can you talk us through some of the influences that have informed Planet Brains music and also how the writing process works, how you work as a unit and the timescale over which a song might develop, as despite containing complex parts you can imagine being carefully assembled over months when listening each song sounds so natural you can almost see it being created in a few hours.

Most of the songs of ‘Compromises and Carnivals’ started just as improvisations. We use to jam a lot and record demos when we practice. Some songs were assembled by taking the best parts that came out from the jams, and some others were just left as close as possible to the original versions. Anyway, there is no such thing as a real method in our writing process. Sometimes it all just starts with a guitar riff, or a drum pattern. ‘Prince Astronaut’ was written by me, alone, in many days, and…yes, in an intimate setting, but “Who do you think I am”, for example, was finished only in 3 takes. Above all, the most important thing we focused on was to preserve the original energy – a sort of spontaneous and emotional feeling – each song has in the first takes.

As a band a lot of the reference points that come up include Muse and Radiohead….. but my mind always brings up early Smashing Pumpkins, as well as some elements of shoegazing from the late 80s early nineties in the UK, Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets, Swervedriver…which drew heavily on pyschedelic guitars. Without asking you to do the impossible and label your own sound what would you flag as the bands formative influences?

You’re right, I am a true Smashing fan. Anyway all the three of us listen to different kind of music, and I can say there are no specific bands to which we refer. Nicola is more keen on 70ies psychedelic-progressive bands, such as King Crimson or Yes, Claudio listens a lot to Tool or Porcupine Tree, and recently I loved Sigur Ros, Oceansize and Mars Volta. Actually, these are just the first bands that come into my mind, not necessarily the main ones.

Vocally do you have any artists you look as markers for what you want to achieve on record. The style of singing you employ brings names like Jeff or Buckley, Thom Yorke and Matt Bellamy and though its easy to see why you always maintain a a unique voice. When did you first really realise you could sing and what were your first experiences of singing?

Brilliant vocalists such as Buckley and Yorke have obviously been great teachers. But I also learned a lot from singers just like Billy Corgan, Layne Stanley or Bjork, for example, whose vocal techniques are personal and excellent without being methodic and perfect. When I started singing my main aim was not to break my vocal strings after each concert! That was simply my first experience of singing. Now I would love to acheive a wider use of the voice, I mean not only in extension, but also in a richer range of tunes and styles…from falsetto to growl!

Lyrically what inspires you to write? Do you draw on personal experiences or do you look for outside influences? Quite a lot of the lyrics seem to be examining the protagonists struggles with their own psyche a lot of the songs talk about someone searching for salvation or answers? In terms of the latter what are the band reading/watching/ listening to right now?

Both personal experiences and outside or literary influences actually. It is true that there are lots of characters taking parts in the songs, and the recurring themes are psychologic questions, states of mind, perceptions…together with language and (non)logic matters. Most of the time it’s all about suggestions or it’s all written around a single word I particulary like. I’m more interested in catching the song mood through the sound of the lyrics then in telling a complete story.
About what the band is reading/watching…mmh, I don’t know, but I’m surely not wrong if I say that Nicola is watching a horror film and reading a fantasy book…haha! Claudio will be on a more romantic/comedy style movie/novel. I am currently reading an old Japanese book, ‘Essays in Idleness’ by Kenko, which is awesome.

With ‘Compromises & Carnivals’ you achieved a definite sound, from the drums to the bass and even guitars, across the entire record. How was this achieved and did you have specific ideas and reference points for the sounds you wanted when you went into the studio or is it something that evolved over the recording process? Also where does the title come from?

We wanted the album to sound as a whole piece. The ten songs were written in differents periods so we tried to give them a continuity effect. At the same time, we wanted the album to sound as natural as a live concert, but with a clear and detailed recording. That is why the instruments settings are mantained the same across the record and the over-dubs are just a few.
The title of the album comes from a line in the second track. It can be representative of many of the themes of the lyrics and it could also reflect, somehow, the way the album is composed: free jamming improvisations (carnivals) transposed and fitted into song-forms (compromises).

You seem to thrive in the live environment and the shows are always a little special. How important is the live experience for Planet Brain, how do you approach shows and do you find the songs develop and change at all live?

When rehearsing we used to think of the songs in a “live” way – that is “how could it be that song when played live?” Being a three-piece band makes you concentrated all the time on how to fill the spaces in the songs, not to leave holes in sounds. But for hard you try this during rehearsing, stage always remains a challenge. It is our privileged testing field, not only to improve the new songs, but also to bring back the old ones to their original jamming structure. I don’t find the songs change at all live, I think they’re gradually evolving gig by gig, confirming the fact that songs are a living thing…that has to be experienced!

Whenever I’ve seen you in the UK you’ve been on line ups where you stand out from the style of bands you play with, yet despite being maybe not what the crowd expected you have always gotten a great response. I wonder if you could talk about this and also if you face a similar situation in Italy? Are there similar bands around at the moment or is it similar to the Uk where the scene is getting a lot heavier in many cases?

Yeah, that was part of the magic of our UK gigs. It also happens here in Italy to share the bill with heavier bands. Last weekend we played together with a metal friend-band (Wrath Prophecy), and it was awesome, we both enjoyed it a lot. I think that the heavy scene finds more spaces just because its fans religiously support their favourite bands and their live shows, more than “indie” audience does. Anyway, it was great to catch the attention of different crowds during our UK gigs, and when we were worried for our set being mellow, we simply tried to recreate an atmosphere on stage, as a new start, or just…kick ‘em out!

You have what appears to be a very good relationship with Function Records, can you talk a little about how this came to be and the benefits of the relationship to date?

I would say that our relationship is a friendship first, before being any sort of business partnership. It all started as a “bands exchange” between PB and Lebatol (the band that’s running the label). We organised a short Italian tour for Lebatol in 2005 and the plan for us was to come to UK for an equal tour. Lebatol Italian tour was awesome, we will never forget that, we had such an amazing time. After that they asked us to put one of our songs on a 7”…then probably an EP or…and finally we decide to release the album.
It’s a matter of fact that they do for us more than we did for them, and we have to thank them a lot for this. Hope they could join us for a longer tour of Italy, possibly later this year.

You’re currently back in the studio recording for a new EP. How are the sessions going and how are they differing from the ‘Compromises & Carnivals’ sessions? Are you using the same methods/studio/producer?

It’s going to be much different. This time we’re recording all by ourselves at our homestudio, “Brainland”, while ‘Compromises and Carnivals’ (except for guitars and vocals) was recorded and mixed in a real professional studio. Plus, we just bought a reel-to-reel 16 tracks recorder,  so we’re going to mess things up with analogic stuff. Sessions are starting right in these days. The reel-to-reel seems to work fine, tapes have just arrived, I haven’t finished the lyrics, but we’re ready to go! We are working without a producer, even if I’d love to, but we’ve done some pre-production demos lately, in order to try and see which are the main mistakes in each songs, and that method helped us a lot.

What can we expect from the new material, how has the Planet Brain sound evolved?  Any more crazy studio effects.. like the alarm at the end of ‘Vision’ that still has me checking my phone!!!

Haha! Yeah, that was what I wanted as a reaction! We should ask N*kia an endorsement for that. I think this time we will be more concentrated on the sound research itself, also because we have to play the role of the sound-engineers, and I’d prefer to waste some time in experimenting new miking techniques, rather than new ring tones. I’d like the whole sound to be different and renewed, but I can’t tell now how will it be obviously, as much will depend on what we’ll discover during the recordings.
I think new songs represent a step further what we tried on ‘C&C’. There is a wider use of a sort of a “cut-up” technique (not properly a Borroughs’ one): more odd tempos, more puzzle-wise structures and juxtaposed melodies. We wrote long prog-ish songs and then made a synthesis of them. I like to imagine those songs simply being “tracks containing three or four different themes mixed together”, just like an object made of different materials but still a single piece. I know that each theme of a track could have been worth its own developing into a proper song, but on the other side I love these tracks being so chaotic and full of distractions, as if it was an environment you’re in, observing things from multi-angle perspective views.

Guitar wise how do you feel your playing has changed since ‘C & Cs’? Have you changed your set up and if so how? What effects are you currently using?

Well something has changed in my set up. In these last days I’m trying a double amps setting, switching between (or putting together) a Fender Twin and a Vox AC30, but I don’t think I’m going to use that on the record…I need to practise. I’m using different tunings and some new effects/pedals (GigaDelay, Comp, Phaser, Octaver) as well as new overdrive/distortions, Big Muff and stuff. Also Nicola is using different distortions for the bass. On the newest songs I’m more a rhythm guitar than a lead one – as it was several times in C&C. That is because we worked on the arrangements as a whole body, trying to enframe each instrument (guitar in this case) in the other two (bass and drums).

I have a few American friends who have all been digging PB recently and have been ordered to tel you to get over to the states NOW!!!! On that theme where would you like to play that you havent already visited and are there any particular gigs or festivals you’d love to play onday?

Yeah! Please tell your American friends we’re ready to go NOW!
What’s Glastonbury? Never heard this, is it another small-indie-fest like Pinkpop, Reading, Rock Am Ring, Sziget? with an up-to-30 people audience? Haha, Glastonbury would be awesome even if we were the first opening band at 9 am playing a 30 mins set.
We would love to play more around Europe, or follow a bigger band in a part of their tour as supporters.

Looking forward we obviously have the EP coming up and you return to the UK in late August before a tour of Sicily… beyond that what does the winter 2008 and beginning of 2009 hold for Planet Brain?

No masterplan at the minute. Anyway: touring more than ever, keep writing new songs, having fun…why not?

Ok so a quickfire last few… when not playing or writing music what would be a perfect day out for Planet Brain?

Out in the outer space! What else could the Brainians ask?

We’re buying…what are Planet Brain drinking?

Hoegaarden (just our temporary trend – it was Mojito last summer and Guinness two summers ago).

Finally and very cheekily….what went wrong at Euro 2008???!!!


thank you again.

Thanks a lot!

You can check out planet Brain news here: Planet Brain.

You can buy Planet Brains debut album through Function Records.


One Response

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  1. Still loving the Brain… more people should know about them. Shame they don’t get more media attention!


    October 8, 2008 at 9:58 pm

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