Interview with The Planetary Blues Band - start from the blues and expandings into the musical universe

"Blues is both the natural and the spiritual element from which the musical expressions burst forth."

The Planetary Blues Band:

A Journey to the Blues Galaxy

Rising Indiana-based blues/jam rock group The Planetary Blues Band is an unique band with brothers Martin Schaefer-Murray, guitar-vocals; Michael Schaefer-Murray, guitar-vocals; Bobby Schaefer-Murray, bass; and Nick Evans, drums. The band got their start playing, and being influenced by, the Blues. Planetary was born in Valparaiso, Indiana in 1999 in their mother's basement, where they spent countless hours learning entire albums by Chicago Blues greats like Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and Son Seals. 

From there, over the course of the past ten-plus years, Planetary has held onto those roots while expanding outward into various other corners of the musical universe. The new release of band is the album "Once Upon A Time In The South Loop".

Martin and Michael Schaefer-Murray talks about the band, Hendrix, William Blake, Percy Shelley, Shakespeare, Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Mahavishnu Orchestra, the Blues DNA, philosophy and many mores.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What does the Blues mean to you and what does Blues have to offer?

Martin: Blues music is the spiritual essence of most American musical idioms. Blues is both the natural and the spiritual element from which the musical expressions burst forth. It cannot be taken for granted that blues music comes from the African American experience an experience spanning decades and different generations from the deep south and later to the urban centers of the north. In this sense, it is typical for white people to imagine that blues music originates from the suffering that African American’s endured due to poverty, Jim Crow laws, and the overall impact of slavery. But to Planetary, this is a narrow way of looking at it, because it implies that blues is solely the result of how the white man treated the black man. It ignores the fact that blues music was also something African Americans played and enjoyed SEPARATELY from whites at family gatherings, social gatherings etc., and that the majority of blues was for dancing and making people feel good. Blues has historical meaning and context, but it’s history is not associated with any one time period. Blues changes, and people forget this. Blues can be played in the context of jazz, rock n roll, folk, and country.

As far as the blues ethos, blues themes are found in everything from black hiphop to even white, British punk bands. Blues is not so much how a person plays guitar, or plays a chord structure, as it is a feeling, and an expression of feeling. There are deep connections and crossovers between the blues and the music of the African American church. Many bluesmen were former preachers, and many preachers were former bluesmen. The Christian religion can provide some good metaphors that describe the blues well. Blues music is the musical equivalent of Jesus in his final moments on the cross asking God “why have you forsaken me?” Blues is the musical expression of the “sinner,” the average person trying to find their way, but caught in the tension between the sacred (the other world) and the profane (this world.) Blues is the expression of this world, the profane, but it is not OF this world, as it speaks to spiritual realities, or spiritual doubts, from anticipation to resignation, from confidence to doubt, from joy to pain, from desire to fulfillment. Beyond philosophy, blues can offer the musician the fundamentals of rock and jazz. Blues can be a great vehicle for songwriting, in terms of lyrics, structure, riffs and so on.

"Blues is not so much how a person plays guitar, or plays a chord structure, as it is a feeling, and an expression of feeling."

Michael: Blues is not just a genre of music to me. To me, blues is an all encompassing term for the whole spectrum of human emotion. To me, you can describe any musical expression of human emotion as blues. I believe Beethoven and Bach wrote blues. I think what’s unique about the early American blues innovators such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Elmore James, and Willie Dixon, is that they were able to take basic human experiences of heartbreak, love, and emotion and write songs people can relate to lyrically, not just musically. I think this is why blues has been one of the most influential forms of music on the globe throughout the 20th and 21st century. Blues is part of the DNA of American culture. It is our heritage, and it has given my brothers and me purpose as American musicians. Blues is extremely precious and valuable. It gives us the inspiration to pursue and master the art of human expression through the creation of music.

How do you describe your sound and progress? What characterizes Planetary’s musical philosophy?

Martin: Our sound is steeped in the post war (WWII) Chicago sound pioneered by Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin Wolf, etc. In the early days of the band, we took a more basic sound in terms of what is possible with the Chicago format, and we were pretty limited to basic templates like slow blues, basic shuffles, and minor key blues. Over the years, our blues have grown deeper, and we are much more diverse, like the early Chess Records Artists. It seems to us that over time, blues musicians have become more and more “boxed in,” having more limitations in every sense, from structure to lyrical content. In many ways blues has become solely about how someone plays solos on a guitar, which has basically been reduced to players using a small palette of B.B King’s, Albert King’s, and Freddy King’s licks. Much of what we are interested in is the same thing British musicians like Keith Richard’s and Jimmy Page are interested in. We aren’t just trying to play licks lifted from “The Three Kings.” We are interested in that spooky, earthy but other worldly break all the rules and write crazy songs approach that was blues prior to the 1970s. Back in the sixties, Motown was not considered blues, but go to a blues club today and you can expect to hear pop music in the form of soul and R&B. Essentially, blues players aren't writing good songs anymore, and haven't for a while; yet every great rock band from the sixties covered a blues song and had a hit. Blues songs were once great songs, and blues is a great vehicle for songwriting; The Black Keys, Jack White, and Bob Dylan constantly prove this, but they aren't “blues,” according to their marketing planners. Blues has been reduced to novelty, but we aim to fix that as much as we can.

The band’s name came from listening to a Mahavishnu Orchestra song that asks, “are you ready to be a planetary citizen?”

Tell me about the beginning of Planetary. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

Martin: The band was formed in 2000. Michael was doing a lot of jamming with a couple of friends, and soon Bobby and I joined in. This was the first incarnation of the group, with our friend and longtime band member Joe Hengstler on the drums. We did a ton of jamming in our mother’s basement for a couple of years, and we regularly went to a Sunday evening jam night hosted by our father’s friend, bassist Mike Boyle. Mike Boyle had played and recorded with a handful of notable Chicago Blues artists, including Byther Smith, Son Seals, and the Chicago Kingsnakes. Mike introduced us to a number of players, including drummer Glen Wierzbicki. Joe, our drummer, went away to school at Indiana University in Bloomington, more than four hours away, so Glen helped us record our first CD, playing drums and coproducing it. After we finished the CD and released it in 2002, Joe enrolled in school locally, and left Bloomington to rejoin the group. Joe has since moved to Colorado and we are now fortunate to be playing with longtime friend and fellow jammer, Nick Evans. Over the years we recorded three albums of original material, not all blues, before we settled on our sound, our niche and strategy, which includes our newest album of blues, Once Upon A Time In The South Loop.

The band’s name came from listening to a Mahavishnu Orchestra song that asks, “are you ready to be a planetary citizen?” It refers to the fact that the United States has seemed closed off from the rest of the world, getting into wars, engaging in economic activity that primarily entails delegating our economic goals and pursuits to others. American citizens are very detached from the reality of the wars our soldiers fight in, and the wars around the world. American consumers do not understand that the policies of companies like Walmart are directly responsible for much of the turmoil and exploitation that goes on affecting much of the world’s poor. This is also true of our domestic food industry and the practices of our industrial agriculture complex. Planetary, our name, affirms our desire to be better global citizens, and with visibility through our music, we hope to set good examples for our fellow American’s and open some eyes in the process.

How and where do you get inspiration for songwriting and who are your songwriting mentors?

Martin: Inspiration is everywhere. Blues music itself provides a great deal of inspiration, but a good songwriter has to be a sponge, and have certain habits. While a good songwriter does not necessarily have to be a big reader, most of the great songwriters are. To illustrate these points, The Thorns Will Show You, the third track on our new album, had multiple sources of inspiration. Musically, the riff was inspired by an old Geeshie Wiley song, “The Last Kind Word.” The lyrical content comes from Walt Whitman, and from there, personal and intuitive impulses. It would surprise people to know that Robert Johnson’s “Steady Rollin Man,” in terms of the phrase “Steady Rollin,” comes from Whitman. Besides very old blues, including Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, Willie McTell, and many others, we also are big Beatles fans, and huge Bob Dylan fans. Other great musicians in many idioms and time periods lend inspiration.

I also take much inspiration from French existentialists, Russian novelists, philosophers of the enlightenment, writers of the Romantic period, and Eastern philosophies as well my own upbringing in Catholicism and Western theology. Poets like Whitman, William Blake, Percy Shelley, and Dylan Thomas are an endless source of inspiration.

Michael: Inspiration for a song comes from years of listening to music, years of practice and experience, and spontaneity. After you’ve spent years learning to express sounds on an instrument, there comes a time when you start to feel the different expressions of the universe flow through your heart, and through your instrument. It is in these moments that song ideas, whether lyrical or musical, are spontaneously conceived. As Martin stated, growing up we listened to a variety of music. It was not just blues writers like Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry, and Howlin’ Wolf that influenced us, but it was also greats like John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Paul Simon that helped shape our views of song structure and arrangement. A friend of ours once described our sound as a synthesis of many and a copy of none. This was a very reassuring compliment because it’s part of our aim to reflect our roots while bringing our own character and personality to the music.

One of the most important and challenging aspects for me when writing a song is to express what I feel by sharing an experience in the most relatable terms I can. This means leaving the song vague enough to be open to interpretation. If the listener finds some sort of meaning in the song, whatever it may be, I feel the goal of the song is accomplished.

"The best advice I can remember is something I’ve heard since I was young so I’m not sure where it originated. It is to always show up. Always make yourself available to learn and experience."

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

Martin: Most modern music, with the exception of techno, does not depart much from the music of the original blues innovators, and many of the musicians outside of the blues idiom in the last fifty or sixty years, and even further back, have been inspired by blues music. Much of the music that has been popular over the last century is directly connected to the blues, because it is either a direct ripoff or it has been influenced in some way by the blues. Most people don’t know that Dvorak’s symphony in E minor was written because he loved blues. Dvorak actually predicted that African American music would change the way the whole world approached music, and he predicted that African American blues and spirituals would eventually steer the course of all world music. He was correct. For everyone except the casual listener, a connection can be made between what one finds in music and what the original blues innovators were creating.

Blues is revolutionary music, but there also seems to be a sort of reactionary following of purists who turn to blues because they cannot stand electronic, programed music, or the plastic assembly line, American Idol, fast food style of commercial music created for mass consumption.

Michael: Blues was very much part of the DNA of both American and British pop music of the 60’s and 70’s. It became strongly ingrained in so much music that today people still listen to it all the time without realising it. If you listen to the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Yardbirds, the Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Dylan, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, Santana, the Black Crowes, or Jack White; it is likely you are hearing some blues. In other words, even if you are not listening to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, it’s still likely that you’re listening to blues. Blues is part of music’s genetic makeup. The blues is here to stay.

"Beyond philosophy, blues can offer the musician the fundamentals of rock and jazz. Blues can be a great vehicle for songwriting, in terms of lyrics, structure, riffs and so on."

Do you remember anything funny from the recording and show time with the band?

Martin: Everything has the potential to be funny. We recorded this last album so quickly and efficiently that we really had no time to laugh at anything. As far as shows go, there is always something funny going on right in front of us in terms of how some people might dance. We encourage dancing though, so we can’t get too specific about that except maybe one little example. Years back, an old man with a cowboy hat was doing this ridiculously funny little dance involving a pool stick, a pole, lots of air humping and sexual gestures, and an imaginary dance partner; all I can say is that it was astoundingly funny!

Most of the stuff that comes to mind is either too vulgar to repeat, or too personal in some way or another, but we do laugh and joke around all the time. One time, on a Colorado trip, our stage manager Guillermo put on a wig and invented a character named Tucker. Guillermo would put on the wig and go into this character, a deranged redneck who was obsessed with the band. There might be some Youtube videos of this. Funny stuff happens all the time.

What is the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs youve ever had?

Martin: Most recently, our CD release party at Buddy Guy’s Legends was memorable, mainly because our whole family was there (except one sister who lives in Dublin), and especially because our father who lives in Virginia was able to make it back to Chicago for the show. Buddy Guy also got up on stage and sang with us for the first time. Some other shows that stand out include a show with the legendary Son Seals a few months before he passed away, a CD release party in 2007 at the old Memorial Opera House in our hometown, and one particular gig at this little Brewery in Gunnison Colorado. The latter gig was just one particularly fun gig out of a really fun trip. I would have to say that some of our gigs in Bloomington Indiana, where Indiana University is located, were also great. Many of our regular hometown gigs have been special. We had a regular Thursday night gig for years in Valparaiso, Indiana. Many of these gigs were the most fun we could have, because we were playing for friends, and we had few expectations and little anxiety. As far as jams go, our best jams are with just us that’s where the magic happens. We love to play with a sax player friend of ours, Jeff Miller, and along with Jeff, we have had some great jams with keyboard player “Waz”. We have also had fun jams with great drummers like “Killer” Ray Allison, a former Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters drummer who now exclusively plays guitar and sings. Bobby and I used to play with Ray about once a month. Jamming is always a great time!

"We miss everything about the blues of the past! This is why we do what we do. Yes, a real blues exists, and always will."

Michael: I’d have to say that the most memorable gig we’ve played to date was our cd release party on my birthday at Buddy Guy’s Legends last May. Like Martin said, Buddy joined us on stage at the end of our first set and sang a few verses from some classics. I couldn’t have received a better birthday surprise! The next most memorable performance for me, was sharing the stage with Son Seals to perform his classic, “Funky Bitch”, just months before he died. It was a memory that we’ll cherish the rest of our lives, and we owe our dear friend and mentor Mike Boyle thanks for making it possible.

Which memory from Buddy Guy makes you smile?

Martin: All of them, but one time he told Michael to “shut the f*** up.” It was really funny. Michael was trying to get him to sign his strat, and Buddy was telling him not to sell it. Michael was going on about how it was his favorite guitar and how he would never sell it. It was just funny to hear Buddy say “shut the f*** up” to one of us. Really though, last summer Buddy gave us some encouragement, told us we sounded good, and to keep it up, and that was very good to hear.

Michael: Every memory I have of him brings a smile to my face. Even when he smiled and told me to shut the f*** up to my face. Buddy has a smile brighter than any other musician I can think of.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

Martin: The staff at Legends, doing what they do and knowing who they know, are all great people, especially Buddy’s son Greg. Greg has been very helpful and supportive. Mike Boyle, who I mentioned earlier, was instrumental in getting us going in the early days. We have had tons of friends over the years that have contributed in some way, including our stage manager Guillermo, our friend Mike Evans who now lives in Austin Texas, our old drummer Joe Hengstler, Killer Ray Allison, Rocco Calipari, our current manager Jonathan Parker, and so many more. Meetings with a famous person like Buddy Guy only go so far, cool as they might be; its the close, interpersonal relationships with friends that end up having the most magnitude. We get good advice all the time, from Buddy himself saying “keep doing what you’re doing,” to a big time entertainment lawyer in Chicago who told us “if you want to do something unique with blues, write songs, blues people aren't doing that anymore.”

"I believe Beethoven and Bach wrote blues. I think what’s unique about the early American blues innovators such as Robert Johnson, Son House, Elmore James, and Willie Dixon, is that they were able to take basic human experiences of heartbreak, love, and emotion and write songs people can relate to lyrically, not just musically."

Michael: The best advice I can remember is something I’ve heard since I was young so I’m not sure where it originated. It is to always show up. Always make yourself available to learn and experience.

What do you miss the most nowadays from the blues of the past? Do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

Martin: We miss everything about the blues of the past! This is why we do what we do. Yes, a real blues exists, and always will. Due to marketing and exploitation however, there are a million different genres and categories. I think someone like Jack White is an example of real blues. I do not think blues is like Shakespeare, a thing that can only live in the past. No one today speaks the language of Shakespeare, and it doesn’t matter how much one appreciates Shakespeare, there is no going back to that way of speaking or writing. Blues, however, is still around, and the language still exists. White people who do not play music but control the industry have had a disastrous effect on blues music. Though I appreciate people like Alligator record’s founder Bruce Iglauer, I am of the mindset that men like Bruce do much harm to blues when they begin making decisions as to what blues is. If there is no real blues today, when did it stop? That is the question that needs to be asked. It is absurd to me that socalled scholars have actually tried to answer this.

The tendency of people to prop up young white kids as the next big thing has had a monumentally adverse effect on the growth and seriousness of the blues as an art. Thirteen year olds, fifteen year olds; kids should not be thrown out there as the next big thing. This novelty of kid bluesmen is killing blues. A kid simply cannot do what Howlin Wolf or Muddy Waters did. A kid cannott sing “I’m a Man.” In the nineties and early 2000’s we had “boy bands” like ‘N Sync, Backstreet Boys, and Jonas Brothers. We need to go back to man bands, and that includes blues as well. I don’t want to hear about life from a thirteen year old. Who cares that a thirteen year old can play SOMEONE ELSE’S licks on a guitar. That has nothing to do with blues. We have a song, “Blues Resurrection” which speaks to these issues in part at least. I did not feel mature enough to authentically write or sing blues until I was about 27, and after becoming a father.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine for a whole day?

Michael: It would take too many weeks to settle on an answer to this question, so I’m just going to go with Bobby, because time traveling to see Hendrix at the Fillmore is definitely at the top of my bucket list.

Martin: I would take the entire band back to London in the sixties, to the Crawdaddy Club or Marquee Club, and have us on a bill with the Yardbirds, Stones, and John Mayall. From there, we would proceed to kick their asses, blow them away, like Hendrix did. We would blow them away so much that we would not get back in that time machine, and we would today be recognized as one the great rock bands of all time. Sound a bit arrogant? Good!

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