Lesser Planets from left: Ian Erickson, Derek Rolando and Richie Townsend. (Photo by Richard Thomas)
Lesser Planets from left: Ian Erickson, Derek Rolando and Richie Townsend. (Photo by Richard Thomas)

Lesser Planets might be described as psychedelic fusion jam, space rock or post-rock … maybe just “trippy” will do. Not to imply it’s a 1960s throwback band. The roots are there, but the music is as much a product of this millennium.

It’s also a band without vocalists. “The reason I want to keep it instrumental for the time being is that between social media, TV, other people’s music and print media, there are enough words out there,” lead guitarist Richie Townsend told The Reader. “We like to let the music speak.”

Or maybe the music is too free-form for words. During the April 14 show at Beaners he facetiously introduced “a lovely little dance number called The Conversation,” then admitted, “I have no idea how it’s gonna go.”

“Free-form” doesn’t mean it doesn’t rock. Before the song Wholeness, an exercise in the whole tone scale, he said, “We’re gonna get this jam out of the way before my mom gets here because it might hurt her.”  After the song he wiped his brow, with justification.

Also regarding his mom, he announced, “Today’s her birthday. As soon as you see her we’re gonna sing Happy Birthday.” The song was sung as promised when she did show up, and Townsend said, “You just found out why we’re an instrumental band.”
Townsend answered a few more questions for The Reader:

What’s your musical history?

My own musical history is a winding road of rock cover bands, acoustic music, drumming circles, original rock bands and then moving into experimental/ambient music with cellist/visual artist Kathy McTavish. The Cosmic Pit Orchestra with Kathy was a turning point in my own approach to music. Before that, my guitar playing was most influenced by Frank Zappa, Ravi Shankar, Pat Travers and fusion players like John McLaughlin. I’ve always enjoyed playing music that was challenging, though I’ve never been able to read music and my knowledge of musical theory is very limited. I do as much I can with what I know.

Who are the other members?

Our drummer, Derek Rolando, is a crazy talented songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Derek has much more touring and band experience than any of us. Derek also plays drums for The Tisdales. He is an encyclopedia of musical knowledge, has a vast vinyl record collection and is the biggest Zappa fan I know. His drumming is unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Ian Erickson plays bass. At 19 years old, Ian is one of the most creative musicians I’ve ever met. Ian also plays with the Potluck Communists. I played in an acoustic group with Ian’s father John Erickson many years ago, when Ian was a little kid. In the couple years I’ve known Ian, his bass playing has taken off in ways we couldn’t have imagined. His most recent adventures have included a pedal board of effects and a six-string bass. Ian lays a solid foundation and then launches it into outer space.

When I formed Lesser Planets with Hannah McDaniel on drums, later adding my longtime friend Dan Zahl on bass, I had in mind a post-rock instrumental project, inspired by locals Portrait of a Drowned Man and similar bands. Besides being an excellent drummer, Hannah is a gifted guitarist and songwriter. I wanted to bring elements of the Cosmic Pit Orchestra into it, whales and cosmic-inspired sounds. Eventually, my love of playing self-indulgent guitar solos crept into the music. 

After playing a great set for Homegrown 2016, Hannah and Dan went on to school and life and Derek and Ian stepped in and took the band to another level. Our Homegrown 2017 set is one of my favorite memories ever of playing music. My favorite and most challenging gig outside of Lesser Planets is accompanying poets for the Homegrown Music Festival Poetry Showcase, this year along with Gaelynn Lea.

What’s your interest in astronomy and how does it relate?

I’ve always enjoyed the night sky, but I actually came to a real interest in astronomy and cosmology while studying for a doctor of ministry degree in Creation Spirituality in Oakland, Cal. Two of my favorite courses were The New Cosmology and Sacred Science, Sacred Story. Learning about our place in the 13.7 billion year cosmic story, I started looking toward the sky to read the story in starlight. I love taking my telescopes outside and looking at the moon, planets and deep sky objects. It inspires me to want to play music from a place of cosmic imagination. It’s also why my guitar effects look like NASA Mission Control. 

Along with my music and guitar influences, I include authors on cosmology and spirituality like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Mary Evelyn Tucker and Starhawk as artistic inspiration. The concept of art-as-meditation is another thing I learned from Matthew Fox and Creation Spirituality that changed my personal approach to music. 

As a band we want to send out good vibes, good energy. If people are laughing or smiling or otherwise digging what we’re doing, then that’s a good gig.

Lesser Planets’ next show is May 5 at Blush for Homegrown. They are on Facebook and Bandcamp.