What's a discerning musical consumer supposed to do? How can he go about separating the wheat from the chaff, the leather from the pleather, the glam from the glum? He can start by listening to Red Planet. The local quartet's crafty musical blends and theatrical stage attack set it apart from the rest of the pack.
"People come to shows to be entertained," says Red Planet singer Jeremy Powers in explanation for his group's reputation. "Some bands come out and sing with their heads down and just entertain themselves. We like to rock people at our shows."
The seeds for Red Planet were sown in 1994 at Santa Clara University, when Powers, lead guitarist Chris Dunn, and bassist Gordon Evans began playing together informally. It wasn't until 1997, however, when the group's first drummer left to pursue a professional squash career, that the threesome got serious. A mutual friend recommended Brilliantines drummer John Messier, and after one practice, the lineup was complete. Together the bandmates set about blending their vocal harmonies, keyboard solos, thick guitar riffs, and four-beat rhythms into a club-ready assault.
Red Planet's recently released first full-length record, Revolution 33, displays the result, a proud amalgamation of rock's distant history. "Our sound is more than an extension of what we listened to in high school," Powers claims. "In fact, it blends early '80s punk and new wave through the prism of too much beer and being cooped up in your room." Powers and Dunn co-wrote all the tunes and are so prolific that they estimate the band uses less than 20 percent of their material. With a characteristically self-deprecating tone, Dunn states, "We pick whatever songs suck the least."
On Revolution 33, numbers such as "Satellite Radio" begin with Ramones-style guitar riffs and drum interplay as well as guitar heroics and hand claps borrowed from '70s power-rock masters Cheap Trick. Other tunes like "You Can't See Me" display an affinity for early '80s-style keyboards.
As you can imagine, Red Planet doesn't want to be lumped into a narrowly defined musical category. Sure, its members dig the older sounds of rock, but they also appreciate the work of modern acts such as Pavement and Beck. And they are more than happy to argue the relative merits of Rush, Canada's venerable prog-rock outfit, which Powers accuses of being fantasy lyric-spouting "hobbit rock."
"Rush isn't "hobbit rock,' man, it's science fiction," Dunn retorts. "Listen to Iron Maiden if you want to hear "hobbit rock.'"
In order to get a feel for Red Planet, it helps to watch the band interact offstage. Powers is the unflinching extrovert of the group, providing an almost unending stream of one-liners from beneath his Beatles-esque haircut. The baby-faced Dunn punctuates Powers' words with a torrent of stories and half-cooked songs, then snacks on mustard straight from the jar. Evans, who recently received an online proposition from a groupie, encourages them both with his continuous chortles, while Messier plays straight guy, musing quietly about the band.
That the band members actively enjoy playing together -- as well as being together -- comes across during live shows. The group is constantly horsing around, with Powers doing scissor kicks, practicing his Pete Townsend moves, and belting out his sarcastic vocals. Michelle Haunold, the band's label rep at Gearhead Records, remembers seeing the group for the first time at a gig in Sacramento: "I walked in part way through Red Planet's set and my mouth just dropped. They had this amazing keyboard/guitar exchange going on and were singing these hooky harmonies. They were tight and well rehearsed, yet they were having a great time and had a very spontaneous feeling. You could tell they loved what they were doing, and they were singing all original material that spoke to everything I love in music: high-energy new wave/power pop with a bit of punk attitude."
Figuring that the Bay Area gets saturated by local and touring acts, Red Planet decided early on to focus its high-energy shows where people can be more appreciative of up-and-coming live acts -- in college towns like Eugene, Oregon, Santa Barbara, and Davis. "For us, there's a whole country out there," says Dunn. "Why not be in Washington or Portland on the weekends playing gigs? That's fun for us."
"Fun" is the key word for this band. Above all else, the group wants to make the audience feel like it is part of an entertaining experience. "One of the greatest things is when people come up to us after the show and say, "I felt like I was at a party at someone's house,'" bassist Evans asserts. Because of this attitude, and the band's infectious sound and live energy, Red Planet has acquired a devoted following in cities up and down the coast. At this point, the act can actually pay for its tours with its record and merchandise sales. That's pretty unusual for a band that just released its first full-length record.
Like most other bands in the Bay Area, Red Planet has been affected by the tumultuousness of the times: The group is currently inhabiting its third rehearsal space. But rather than focusing on the negative aspects of the music climate, Red Planet's members reckon that most bands that were forced to leave town simply didn't have the right attitude. Powers claims, "It didn't seem like they were having any fun. As long as you're doing what you like to do with your friends, it's gonna be fun!"
All the band members agree that they are, in fact, having fun. With two new releases in the works and a South by Southwest appearance this week, they should be. So what do they aspire to now? Fame and fortune? Leather pants, groupies, and appearances on the Tonight Show? Apparently, enjoyment is still the band's prime directive. Dunn professes, "We would be happy if we could make a living doing this, having fun and playing our music." There you have it: Red Planet, a band so fundamental it's revolutionary.