In 1916, when British composer Gustav Holst finished his famous orchestral suite The Planets, the solar system was thought of as a relatively simple and unique place. Clyde Tombaugh, the American astronomer who would discover Pluto in 1930, was just a schoolboy when Holst's landmark composition was written, and the sum total of known planets was a tidy eight.
Since that time, Pluto has been added to—and then subtracted from—the official roster of planets, and hundreds of more distant worlds, known as exoplanets, have been discovered orbiting stars beyond our sun. All in all, the universe now appears to be a very different place.
As the 2016 centennial of The Planets comes into view, New York City band One Ring Zero has delivered an updated look at the solar system. The group's latest album, Planets, devotes a song to each of the solar system's planets—Pluto is included—before venturing farther afield to close the album with an instrumental track, "Exoplanets." We sat down recently with Joshua Camp and Michael Hearst, who together contribute guitar, theremin, accordion and melodica, among many other instruments, to the group's shuffling circus sound, at a bar in Brooklyn to talk about music, astronomy and, of course, the ongoing Pluto debate.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
How did the concept for the Planets album come about?
Joshua Camp: It was definitely the demotion of Pluto that inspired the whole thing. When the press started talking about it, we thought, well, that's a perfect topic for a One Ring Zero song.
Michael Hearst: It was 2006, when the International Astronomical Union made that decision.
Camp: So we wrote the song without really thinking further about it. But I think we were so happy with the result that Mike was like, "Why don't we do an entire planets record, à la Gustav Holst?"
Hearst: I was actually doing some research on Pluto and I thought, well, it's almost been 100 years since Holst's Planets. Music has changed; our knowledge of the solar system has changed.
Camp: The irony of course is that Pluto hadn't been discovered at that point, so we're back to where we started.
Listen to One Ring Zero's "Pluto":
So this album has been in the works since 2006?
Camp: We sat on that first song for a long time before we really started to think about a full-length record. I would say the full-on process was three years, starting in 2007.
Hearst: The luxury and the problem of recording in your own apartment is there is no clock. We would tinker and write seven different versions of "Jupiter" and say, "We don't want any of those; let's use this one instead."
Camp: Which is definitely a new process for us. We generally are like, "First thought, best thought."
Hearst: A lot more consideration was put into this album: Do these songs represent these planets? Is this how we want them to sound?
The lyrics have a lot of scientific detail. How much research did you do in writing these songs?
Camp: We did a fair amount of reading. Some of it doesn't physically show up on the record—you can't just have a very prosaic rundown of facts.
Hearst: You could, but then it becomes They Might Be Giants or something.
Camp: We wanted to still have a mysterious, artistic vagueness to some of it. That was something we wrestled with: How do we bring in the details that we've learned on this journey and still make it a good song?
A lot of the tracks are instrumental. With "Exoplanets," for instance, how do you translate what you know about the science into sound?
Hearst: I think a lot of this album is about a human's perspective. You know, what would it be like to pass by these planets?
We imagined that "Exoplanets" had to be something simple, but also something beautiful and dark. As far as we're concerned, being humans from this solar system, these planets are so incredibly distant, and the song needed to capture this feeling of just being so incredibly far away from home. If there were actually a way to go that many light-years away, what music would be in the soundtrack to that?
I was surprised to find that the Earth track is also instrumental. Too much to say?
Hearst: Exactly. We know too much. We have so much information about the Earth, what are we possibly going to say about it?
Camp: I think we just decided that it would be more powerful to do an instrumental with very powerful changes and shifts. Anything we could try to do lyrically would just be trite.
Hearst: Backtracking on what I said earlier about the human perspective, humans have been such a tiny blip in Earth's existence. As intense and chaotic as it might be with us, Earth has been around for billions of years before us and most likely will be around long after us. I hope that the music captures that to a degree. It's kind of this simple, pretty glockenspiel thing, then the Stravinsky moment of humans existing and fucking everything up, and then it goes back to beautifulness.
You have a lot of guest contributions on this album, including vocals and lyrics by author Rick Moody (The Ice Storm) on "Uranus."
Camp: Rick Moody did a lot of research on William Herschel, who discovered Uranus. Rick really gave us an epic poem, two pages of lyrics on Herschel, and we ended up using only a little bit of it. In hindsight we found out that Herschel was a clarinet player, and we didn't put clarinet on that song. That was a little bit of an oversight in our research.
Hearst: We even went so far as trying to get [Queen guitarist] Brian May to put some licks on the album, because he has a degree in astrophysics. He was busy.
And so the big question: Pluto. Where do you stand?
Camp: I think for us, it has such a sentimental human value. It's loomed large in our imagination. And I think we tend to look at things from more of a human than a purely scientific point of view.
Hearst: On a science level I'm okay with it not being a planet anymore. The logic is fine—characteristically it does not fit in the category of planet. It's not even the largest dwarf planet. But it's something we grew up with. And the song is not about us saying, "No, Pluto, we miss you!" It's about what happened with the IAU's decision.