Their name is Backup Planet. And just like some uncharted orb in the sky, they seemingly came out of nowhere last year, blasting through successive rounds of Preservation Pub’s Band Eat Band competition and into the mid-August finals on Market Square.
Their sound draws from so much you’ve heard before—‘70s rock and funk, jam-band improv, a touch of pop, a sliver of metal. But the members of this most unusual power trio mix and match those elements—with just a hint of modern tech to burnish a sturdy nucleus of retro-minded organ and guitar—in ways that never fail to astonish.
“Our initial idea was just to put on a performance that is high-energy, but positive, and not overbearing,” says Planet guitarist and singer Gavin Donati. “And with extended improvisational sections, because that represented the music we all grew up listening to.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to becoming Just Another Jam Band. “It’s weird, because I know every band says their sound is ‘hard to describe,’” Donati says. “But because of the instruments we have—Moog, organ and piano—we ended up with something we… couldn’t really describe. We like to call it progressive funk rock.”
It’s as apt a moniker as any, but it really doesn’t do the band’s particular brand of arena-sized, organ-driven, hallelujah hard-funk the proper justice. But truth be known, their singular sound was in many ways a byproduct of necessity.
The trio came together when Donati and keyboard/organist/synth-man/singer Ben Cooper, veterans of a couple of other local jam-rock and cover outfits, decided to start a new, original project in late 2012.
They picked up drummer Chris Potocik on a referral at a wedding gig, and began playing as a three-piece, with a ready-made fan base consisting of followers of their previous outfits. Since then, they’ve played with bassists at intervals along the way. But according to Donati, none of the four-stringers they auditioned fulfilled what they were looking for rhythmically on the low end.
And thus Backup Planet came to be defined by an apparent limitation—the lack of an electric bass player. Because in an effort to fill sound—and play arrangements better-suited to larger outfits—Donati and Cooper made creative use of Moog synth-bass and tape looping. And in doing so, they forged an eruptive, and inexorably funky signature around the heavy thrum of the Moog synth.
“It kind of defines a lot of the sound we have,” Donati explains. “We have a tight, percussive sound, because of Ben’s left [Moog] hand, and Chris’ right foot. Most of the time, the Moog sounds like a real thick, defined bass sound, like the low B on a five-string.
“At other times, Ben puts the Moog on another setting, and it makes for an even thicker and meatier sound, with just a little waver. It really fills up a room. It gives us a little bit of a Parliament sound. Bernie Worrell [Parliament organist] was big on using that setting.”
Likewise notable in the band’s weird brew of new- and old-school technologies: the use of talk-box vocals, channeled through the Moog, in the manner of ‘70s funk pioneer Roger Troutman. “Almost no one does that anymore,” says Donati. It lends Cooper’s vocals a certain cosmic potency, and also endows the band’s music with a sort of old-school gravitas.
Even with their auspicious debut on the local music scene, Backup Planet have come a long way in a year. Donati says the band rely less heavily on tape loops and other electronic flourishes than they did at the outset, even as their songwriting has grown more complex. “We’ve improved our songwriting a ton,” Donati says. “We used to write just a couple verses and a chorus. Now we have more developed melodies, and harmonies. And we’re learning to play with way more dynamics.”
But thrust of progress has also carried the band away from Knoxville, to Nashville, their base of operations since late summer. Cooper is attending Nashville’s Belmont College, seeking a degree in Music Business.
“It’s been great so far; we’ve been playing steadily, and it’s been getting better,” Donati says. “In the next couple years, we’d like to have a solid touring regimen established around the Southeast and the East coast.”
Don’t look for Backup Planet to be courting A&R men anytime soon, though. “I don’t think any of us want to be on a label right now,” Donati says. “We want to keep it within ourselves. The longer you can keep it in-house, the more efficient you can be.”
Backup Planet will play the Preservation Pub Speakeasy on Saturday, Dec. 7 with Vagabond Philosophy.