I met Ralph several years ago when Anodyne toured Europe. We ended up staying at his flat in Heidelberg on a day off and immediately, I knew that we would be friends for the rest of our lives. Aside from being a good, friend, Ralph also kills it in Planks, a band that we’ll be hitting the road with in August on a brief US tour.
Below is the results of a conversation we had via email.
Hill: Can you give us a quick rundown of the band?
Ralph: Planks is a three-piece coming from Mannheim, which is located in the southern part of Germany. The band consists of Benny (Drums), Frank (Bass) and myself handling vocal duties and guitar. We formed early 2007 after my old band broke up. Benny played drums in another band with a friend of ours and so we got in contact. He liked the direction we wanted to go so we started playing together. We released a demo by ourselves in late 2007. Northern German label Narshardaa Records was kind enough to give us a shot and put out our first self-titled record. In the same session we recorded three songs for the split with Tombs which was first released by BlackBox Recordings and saw a special European edition released by Pruegelprinz Records mid-2009. After that we did a 7” again for Narshardaa which was part of a singles club. A discography tape was just released by two labels, Gafas Del Rigor and Nerdcore, and we will bring some of those tapes as well as the European version of the split for our US-tour in August.
Hill: How did the three of you meet?
Ralph: Frank and I met several years ago at a show in the Mannheim area. We knew each other from a message board and he moved to Mannheim to study. Benny we met in the JUZ Mannheim, a youth center that does shows on a regular basis, and that was the beginning. Benny played and still plays in a pretty sick Crust band called Gunmob (myspace.com/thegunmob).
Hill: JUZ is one of the more well-known youth centers in Germany; can you describe what it’s like?
Ralph: Yes, the JUZ in Mannheim is a pretty established, traditional location. JUZ is the abbreviation for ‘’Jugendzentrum’’ which basically is ‘youth center’. A lot of shows in Europe take place in self-governed places such as JUZs, AZs (‘autonomous centre’) and squats. Mostly a group of left-wing oriented people take the old D.I.Y.-mentality and run this place without any benefit – just for the sake of doing something they believe in. Self-government is the true idea behind all these places. Basically what happens, if you want to do a show, is that you ask for an available date, check back with the people of the venue if you can have the spot for that day. You ask if someone is willing to help and that’s basically it. I was active in Mannheim as well as in Aachen, which are two well established places that are outstanding, as they have a lot of people involved, do shows and other events on a regular basis and have for years, follow their own strict code of DIY- and political ethics and really give a big” fuck you” to all the big commercial locations that do show for the money. If you ask to do a show you will most likely find around ten people that will cook food, do the bar, set up the venue, clean afterwards, provide sleeping places and cook you breakfast – all without payment. I heard things like this are rare in the States, except maybe house shows. I mean, you saw both places when you were on tour with Anodyne and Tombs and how much work people invest, even if in the end only few people will show up you have the feeling someone really believes in what she or he does there. I encourage all readers to visit the following two websites: http://www.az-aachen.de and http://www.juz-mannheim.de to learn more.
Hill: What bands did you play in before forming Planks.
Ralph: Benny played in several bands which were more or less unknown except for a more Tool-oriented metal band called Black Circle. Frank played in several Hardcore bands in the various cities he lived in, one of them being Probity. I started in some local punk bands in the town I come from before finding my first band in form of Integrity-styled outfit Repugnant. We did a handful of shows with the likes of Integrity and Starkweather, the bands we adored the most. We released a full-length and a split-CD with Cleveland’s Pale Creation. After Repugnant broke up, I met Frank and together with my former flatmate Daniel and Ralf Bock, former drummer for the legendary German Powerviolence outfit Stack, we started Hellstrom. We released only a split-7” with Perth Express (which is in my opinion THE best German band in recent years) and played a shitload of show before disbanding in late 2006.
Hill: I’ve been in the loop with you guys pretty much from the formation of the band and witnessed an evolution and development over the years. What was the musical direction when you started?
Ralph: Frank and I always had a common denominator with bands such as Mastodon, Baroness, Playing Enemy, Isis, Andoyne and likes, which we preferred over bands like Skit System or Wolfbrigade. So after Hellstrom broke up and Crust kind of lay behind us, it was a natural progress to start a more down-tuned, heavy sounding outfit. Benny was into bands like Majority Rule, Botch and Refused. Somewhere in the middle we started to arrange ideas. Since I exclusively write the riffs my adoration for Sludge and Stoner bands had quite an impact on the first record and the split we did with you guys. Our label described it as a mixture of HHIG, Coliseum, dark screamo like Angstzustand and a dose of Eyehategod. I never really fell for this description but you could place our musical outline by that time somewhere between those bands I suppose. I always heard more Mastodon in it but maybe that’s because I had them as a main influence writing the first Planks songs.
Hill: I’ve heard the new record, or at least the unmastered mixes and I can hear a change in direction. Also, the record sounds like a well-planned, continuous piece with a beginning, middle and end. Would you care to go into the writing process? What were the changes, if any that came about?
Ralph: I’m glad you hear that there is a strategy behind the record’s structure. We just finished the mixing and it will be send to James Plotkin for mastering as we I write this.
A classic Planks song came together in the following steps: 1) I bring riffs or song-like structures I wrote at home to the practice space; 2) I play the ideas to Frank and Benny and introduce them to my idea of the song, since I often have a certain drum and bass idea with me; 3) Benny neglects my idea but said the riff is ok, then we tried around and ended up with a basic structure. That was the classic way.
A while back I moved to Aachen, a city three hours away from Mannheim where we rehearsed. This move changed the whole approach of coming together, trying out riffs I wrote, jam and arrange and rearrange songs. I knew I had more time to try out stuff at home as well as being forced to do this. In my life by that time a lot of things went down which made me more miserable than I ever was before. I questioned a lot of decisions I made and my behavior, especially my way of being part of this ‘scene’. You see, I always thought it is essential to be part of what’s going on and to be into bands other people hyped or whatnot. I realized for myself that I was living a phony phase of my life and listened to so much crap, since I thought I have to. I feel kind of ridiculous looking back as to how blind I was. So the point was, I changed my perception of many things, in particular music. I kind of sold out on my musical roots and found that rather shameful. I suppose this sounds kind of strange and childish but it was actually a real big deal for me.
I sat down for days going through my head and listening to music. There I quickly realized which music really touched me and gave me a home. I quit listening to stoner rock, a lot of doom stuff, crust and other styles and focused on what was truly my music: dark, depressive pop music as well as black metal. Now if you take these ingredients and add our musical roots you will find why our new record sounds like this. It’s way darker, more melody focused but with a cold brutality. We have blast parts now as well as ultra slow parts and really catchy, melodic parts where I try to vary my voice.
I wrote riffs and played them over and over again until I left most of them behind and only a few survived. I kept on working really hard on ideas, where the first record featured raw riffs that we added and arranged in the rehearsals. I wanted to bring complete songs to the rehearsals that were well thought through, had a pop structure and appeal, were dark and still Planks. Benny and Frank dismissed only few ideas or re-changed structures. I wanted atmosphere, room and melody instead of sheer brutality. The other two welcomed this change and I have to say that this process of working on these songs really made us grow together as a band even more. We all found out where our strengths were and contributed to the process. I assume the result sounds more like a solid band record than just a ‘first steps with potential’-record. All of us were willing to try things, learn new skills and to analyze the process on a meta-level. I gotta say, it was a pretty interesting process. Both Frank and Benny are sick musicians and made the songs I wrote so much better and whole. I’m really curious what people will say when they hear the record.
Hill: As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be an underlying continuity in the record. Is there a concept of message that you are trying to communicate?
Ralph: Yes, there is. The record will be what people call a concept record. When I had two-thirds of the lyrics done, which happened over a longer period of time, we chose songs that will be on the new full-length and on the split we will do with Black Freighter. My lyrics always cover only personally related, emotional topics. I do not write about politics or social criticism. I looked over the songs we agreed on for the record and found a kind of continuity of topics, issues etc. When all the songs were finished and I looked over the track list, I found that two songs were topicwise as well as from their dramatics a better round up for the full-length. So I switched them, told the others and they were cool with it. Skimming over the final running order I was stoked that the songs could be segregated into two categories. There I had the idea of making this a concept record.
So here is short a introduction, which will be more interesting to think about having the record with the lyrics in hand.: The record will be called ‘’The Darkest of Grays’’. This is also a name of a song on the album. The song and name existed way longer than any of the ideas for the concept but now it seems like the perfect summary. It basically deals with the downfall of everything you consider ‘’human’’ or ‘’positive’’ in your existence. All this caused by wrong decisions, failure, depression and most important love and its consequences. I’m a big fan of the work of Edgar Allan Poe so you can find a lot of influence from him on this. The record will be separated not only by Side A and Side B but they will have headings a.k.a. chapters. The first side will be called ‘’Passages’’ and the songs deal with topics and tell stories about how one can lose grip of his own humanity and descent into the Maelstrom of negative thoughts and patterns. The second side is called ‘’Fatalities’’ and focuses on the results of these passages and where you end up, going from bad to worse, from light to dark, from white to…well, the darkest of grays. I do not use the color black in this case, because death is the inevitable black result of all this, but first there are days, weeks, months, years you spend in the darkest shades of grey before you give in an die. This pretty much represents where I move right now and have moved in the last months. It is a really personal record and all autobiographical. For over one and a half years this downward spiral drags me down, steals my energy and causes sorrow. Finishing this record and getting things of my chest with these lyrics helped me a lot getting a more solid ground under my two feet again. Can’t say it’s all good now, but it has been worse.
I’m really keen of my lyrics. They are an even as important part for me as the music is. I spent hours writing and re-arranging them. As mentioned Poe is a big influence on me. Not exactly the way he writes but the pathos he dwells into sometimes. Also my first important lyricists were Dwid from Integrity, Brian from Catharsis and Rennie from Starkweather. They all write in an embellished tone and are very cryptic. I’m not half as good as those guys but the way they use criticism, pathos and dark metaphors really got me and I try my best following their footsteps. Where metaphors about water dominated the first record it’s less ‘’liquid’’ this time. What I didn’t do before but did on this one is to take quotes from my favorite bands. It’s only a couple of lines but ‘’everything I would like to say, someone else said before me with better words’’ I admit in the lyrics to ‘’It just can’t’’ and that’s basically it: sometimes you can’t say it better than another man or woman said before you.
Hill: What is the plan for the new record? Who is releasing it?
Ralph: I’m super stoked about the fact the Markus Haas of legendary German label Per Koro will release ”The Darkest Of Grays”. Per Koro was responsible for some of the most influential releases in the 90ies that made my day when I was fresh into the whole Hardcore thing. The likes of Acme, Carol, Stack, Linsay, Enfold, Chispa and tons of others found a home there and for him to release our record as a Per Koro release for me feels like been given a knighthood. We hope that it will see the light of day end of September when we play some shows with our friends in Black Freighter. We have no US label but we hope to find someone who might be up to do it. I tried to talk Jamie from Gods And Queens to convince whoever responsible to reanimate the old label Edison, as he was somehow involved with it and as this was my favorite US label back in the days I was all over the Per Koro stuff. Maybe I can talk him into that since when I see him in the states.
Hill: We gearing up for a short Tombs / Planks US Tour. Are you guys looking forward to it? Is this the first time you’ve toured in the States?
Ralph: Actually I’m the only one of us three that has been to the States before. We toured all over Europe with our bands but none of us ever flew anywhere to play shows. Benny actually never flew at all before so we’ll see how this works. I pretty much dreamt of this ever since I started my first band. It’s like THE dream almost every European band has, even though every US band you play with tells you that it is so much better to tour Europe. Yes, we’re definitely looking forward to it, especially to be on the road with Tombs again.
Hill: Yes, a couple of years ago, we did a short European / UK Tour. Any fond memories of that experience?
Ralph: That was September of 2008. It was our first longer tour with Planks. I had mixed expectations going into this as I heard a lot of unpleasant things about touring the UK. Looking back at it now it actually was a pretty rad experience. I learned a lot. We ran into a bunch of amazing people that made the trip more than worthwhile. For example the Diet Pills and Dead in the Woods guys. Amazing kids. Also looking back I remember being a bit frustrated by the outcome of some shows but back then I was still used to tour eight to ten days and have only one show that sucked. The tour was kind of a good outlook to how the scene in Europe is right now: You will play shows you expect nothing of, in our case the last minute rehearsal room show in Leicester, but after the show is done and your head clears you think that this was a hell lot of fun. Then again you have things like a Friday show in Leeds, a student town. On the street you encounter people with Tragedy, Converge or Obituary shirts, you go over, ask them if they know about the show and not one single kid said yes. In the end you are left with a lot of money for gas, 15 paying visitors and a promoter that was in a miserable mood due to personal issues and wasn’t not able to do a lot of promo. Those are the days that can really bug you but they just happen. For me the tour was also partly difficult due to inter-personal communication problems. But again, looking back at it I have to say it shouldn’t have dragged me down the way it did back then. All the tours afterwards I entered with a lot more ease on my mind. I used to set high expectations and be bummed if the outcome is different from that. I’d consider myself more realistic right now. We are just an average band among millions and try to do our best, yet not that many people heard of us yet. I assume when we go back there someday a couple of lads remember us and bring a few friends. That’s how this thing works. Still, the best thing was probably hanging around with my brother from another mother for longer time and this is what I look forward to on this upcoming tour.
Hill: The high point of Leeds was watching the Sheer Terror DVD after the show. Touring in Europe versus touring in the States on our level, is very different. Do you have any concerns about this upcoming tour?
Ralph: Of course. The first issue will be entering the US since we Europeans are not allowed to make music on a DIY level. Work permissions are needed, so we tried to find a strategy to avoid being recognized as musicians. If they find out at the airport that we play in a band then we’ll have more than a slight problem. Friends of ours just got sent back at the airport of New York because they admitted being a band that wants to play concerts. They got busted for eight hours and then were sent back where they came from and had to pay these additional flights themselves. But we have a strategy. Other bands we know, such as Trainwreck, Zann or Perth Express all toured the States before and told us what to expect and what not. We really hope to get proper sleeping places since this is one of the major differences touring here and touring the states but since Tombs is not a small DIY band anymore, so we thought this will guarantee at least some audience and sleeping places here and there, where we alone would struggle way more. I assume the whole thing, the longer drives and the different mentalities of the audience might need some adjustment from our side but I’m confident that this will be a good ride and good experience.
Hill: Ha, In most places Tombs is very much a small D.I.Y. band
Ralph: See, this is what a European would assume: You are on Relapse; Relapse is a big label; you’re being booked by Avocado; naturally in the States you are a bigger band, too. But the States are so much bigger and the whole structure of this music scene is so much different. We Europeans think Relapse is a label as big as Metal Blade or Century Media and no one would believe that for example Jade Tree is actually a real big label. Media coverage in magazines and on the web can leave a crooked perception.
Hill: What is the typical European tour like?
Ralph: Stuffed with food I would say primarily. No, seriously, Europe is a pretty sweet place to tour. At least most parts of it. Germany in particular is a really good strip to tour. You will get free food, sleeping places, drinks and mostly a really thankful audience. Some parts are a bit rougher to tour. The venues are sometimes a bit shitty but a lot of cities are still super thankful if a touring band comes by. Black Freighter and Planks did a tour of the eastern part of Europe like Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary etc. last fall. We had some sketchy places to play but therefore people sometimes went nuts. The drives are all not that long if you have a proper booker, drives of max. 9hours are realistic, and that be the worst case. Also a lot of non-Europeans appreciate the rich historical environment Europe offers: Old castles and cities just to name a few. If you get a good show and promoters are really into a band you will have a pretty sweet evening. It’s sad that a lot of bands, when they get bigger get a bigger booking agency. On the one hand this seems like a good deal but on the other you will play show where only promoters do the shows that have a big financial backup in case the shows runs poorly, but therefore they don’t do promo, let you feel that you are just ‘one band’ that comes by and that he/she couldn’t care less if you play. It’s weird, because the best shows here are mostly the ones that can’t guarantee a lot of money, but therefore the promoters put even more effort into cooking, being nice, offering hospitality and make that very evening a special evening. That’s the spirit a lot venues in Europe have. Sadly some bands that toured a lot come back with a big booking agency, get the money they need but therefore shows that suck. I don’t know, it just saddens me a bit. If bands such as Kylesa and Torche tour together, have a huge guarantee, play in Cologne (30minutes from Aachen) as a support to Coalesce, where almost everyone came for the latter, and do not play in Aachen (I tried to get them for the AZ, because the room and the PA had just been renewed) where people would have gone crazy for them and they would still have gotten plenty of money…well, then I don’t know. That’s why I for myself decided to stop promoting shows.
Hill: It’s a complicated issue for US Bands when they tour Europe because I agree that the D.I.Y. shows are often better with respect to connecting to people. When bands become more established, there is a lot more financial pressure with respect to making back the money that was spent on flights, gear rental, transportation, booking fees etc. Many times, the bands are doing back-to-back US and European tours with very tight budgets.
It is a little sad that somehow it all just doesn’t work out.
Ralph: I saw the transition process from the Tombs/Planks to the Tombs/Buried Inside European tour. From what you told me you had great experiences and played places like Greece you would have never gone to if it weren’t for Avocado. On the other hand you had no real killer show, right? I mean intense as the Leicester experience. It’s a mixed blessing; both sides have their pros and their cons. And also I agree, the costs that need coverage are immense, so a strict DIY tour will most likely leave you with private investment. I don’t assume that we will go out of the US tour with all the money for our flights but we see that as a kind of holiday slash adventure.
Hill: In general, what is the climate of the music scene in Germany? Is there a difference between East and West?
Ralph: There is pretty huge change going on right now. I used to book a lot of shows but I retired from that while back so all I can say is from the perspective of a musician playing shows and touring as I only rarely go to watch a band play live anymore. The people got really picky in the last years. A while back you could do a show, write ”coming from the USA” on the flyer and the show would have been packed. Nowadays, since there are so many bands touring, even the smallest that no one knows, people are kind of fed up. The really choose carefully which show that want to go to. With Planks in the beginning we played shows with old school bands and people were into it. Nowadays if you find someone with a Trash Talk shirt he might just stand there, check out two songs and then leave. The current 28th or whatnot Old School revival is THE big thing. All the kids are into that. Unfortunately for us, we haven’t achieved the transition to a more metal focused audience and bookers even though we played with the liked of Baroness, Doomriders, Wolves In The Throne Room and others. Also the big trend here is package tours. Two or more bands with big labels tour together. I rather dislike this idea. I always prefer a European band as support. I was really bummed when Tombs came over with Buried Inside and Planks couldn’t play one single show with them. But there is a lot of business going on, also in the German scene.
The classical east/west diversion in Germany is non-existent in my opinion. You have bands from that part play in the South, North or West all the time and the other way around. I just think that the last years showed that the better bands come from the East such as Perth Express, Zann, Black Freighter, Men In Search Of The Perfect Weapon, Fluid and so on. But basically all Europe got some really good bands by now that can stand the international test without problems. You can see this mostly if some US bands, when they tour, open up for a bigger German band. This wasn’t the case five years ago. No one cared for the German support band back then.
Hill: I’ve always been a fan of European bands all the way back to Kreator, Sodom, and Darkthrone. When I first came over to tour in Europe, I learned about tons of great bands that were virtually unknown in the states like Angstzustand, Arsen, Chainbreaker and Morser from Germany. Most recently, aside from Planks, I’ve been really into Crowskin, and Black Shape of Nexus. I can see similarities between Planks and the bands I mentioned. Do you find yourselves sharing bills?
Ralph: Haha, except for Darkthrone all the bands you mentioned are German. Also I introduced you to a couple of them, right? You should add Celeste from France and Amen Ra from Belgium, two of the more descent bands right now. And didn’t you forget to mention THE European band I guess changed both our musical perception a lot? Breach, from Sweden? In my opinion still THE most important European band. Well the whole black metal thing pretty much originated from Europe and still offers some of the finest bands: Circle of Ouroborous, Glorior Belli, Behexen and so. The list is sheer endless.
But for your question: Yes, definitely! Black Shape Of Nexus are actually friends of ours and we had the same rehearsal space. Crowskin and B.SON are both people we know and bands we would share bills with. It hasn’t happened yet, but music wise no problem. They are both straight up Doom bands and we play a lot of Doom shows even though you can’t put us directly into the category. All the bands you mentioned could play on one bill, no big deal (except they are all dysfunctional except for Morser). The good thing over here in Europe, in my opinion, is that shows and festivals are sometimes strictly segregated and sometimes mixed. You can choose carefully what and where you feel at home. If you are a straight Doom metal maniac you go to ‘’South of Mainstream’’, ‘’Doom in Bloom’’ or the gigantic ‘’Roadburn’’ where you will find only bands that share a lot of adjuncts: doom, sludge, noise, dark, metal. Some other festivals like the ‘’Trainspotting’’ you find Tombs, Planks, Trainwreck, Brutal Knights alongside Indie or more punk related bands. I must admit I enjoy these festivals way more as I can’t stand the same sound over and over again the whole day. Yet I will try to be at the ‘’Roadburn’’ next year.
I myself came to a point where I try to avoid festivals, if we don’t play there ourselves. I only go there if a band I really dig is playing and I can’t see that band in a club or if there are people I care to meet. But all in all I rather try to spend as much time available with the girl I love or kick back at home and watch some classic Horror movies. I’m 30 years old and close to hardcore-retirement…it’s time to cut the kids crap and start a country band.
Check out some Planks Live videos: