Review Fix chats with When Planets AlignMark Nguyen – Lyricist/Protagonist and Juan Lizarazo – Composer/Guitarist out of Bogotá, who discuss their new rock opera, The Death of Us.
About The Death of Us:
Releasing via Planet LA Records, “The Death of Us” is a melodic pop/rock drama punctuated by an electric guitar extravaganza. Thematically, it represents not only grief and loss, but learning to let go when “what we had and knew” is gone. It also investigates the psychic shock of losing a relationship that seemed so strong, so authentic, so cosmic.
Timed to launch exactly one month after the rare occurrence of Jupiter and Saturn aligning in the sky, appearing to merge as one, taking on the appearance of an elongated star, the intergalactic allusions are intentional.
A cosmic creative conjunction between Colombian composer Juan Andrés Lizarazo (aka Juanlizh) and Vietnamese-American poet Mark Nguyen, the duo struck up an immediate kinship, musically and professionally, while enrolled in the music business program at UCLA. Over the past dozen years, the collaborators have released three albums, Radio Silence (2009), The Universe in Me (2012) and 2019’s Lovers & Angels, which debuted at a release event at the Santa Monica Playhouse in Santa Monica, CA. Social imprimatur Bionic Buzz lauded its significant examination of sentient and spiritual passion.
Nguyen, lyricist for their breadth of repertoire, extolls their inclusive vision, “When Planets Align represents the idea of people of different cultures and backgrounds coming together for a common love of creating music and art.” Adds Lizarazo, who’s guitar style is a mixture of Santana and Steve Vai with Colombian rhythmic flavor, ”We wanted to conceive a power duo that encircles our strengths. Many times music duos or teams try to outshine each other but this is not the case with our collaboration. We make the creative destination the best it can be by fusing our ambitions.”
Originally scheduled for release in 2020, the challenge of staying connected during a global pandemic, which prohibited the artists from recording in person, the extraordinary real world backdrop added an extra dose of intense ambiance, none-more-so than on the climatic closer “My Greatest Muse,” which sounds like Matt Bellamy proffering a Moroccan rock concoction of RENT, Wagner, and Rocky Horror Picture Show mixed with shards of Supermassive Black Hole.
Review Fix: How did you get involved in music?
Juan: The story is pretty different. I wasn’t inspired by an artist or band, or came from a musician’s family or something alike. Basically, when I was in high school, my school friends decided to create a band. All of them knew how to play an instrument and in the local schools there was this trend to create rock, ska, punk and traditional Colombian music (like vallenato) bands. I felt discouraged due to the fact that I didn’t play an instrument and I believed I would be shunned from the group and become rejected and never have friends again (somehow dramatic). So I decided to choose an instrument and learn how to play as fast as I could and join my peers in the search of new adventures, sounds and girls. I remembered that my father played acoustic guitar as a hobby and he performed for family and friends’ gatherings and I asked him to teach me. I didn’t start to play rock music, but I began learning all kinds of Colombian and South American traditional folk tunes including artists like Chalchaleros, Atahualpa Yupanqui, Rafael Escalona and Marco Antonio Solis. After some months I became enthralled and in love with the instrument and something changed in me, because I knew this would be my life path.
Mark: Unlike Juan’s story, I didn’t get involved in music more seriously until much later when I moved back to LA in my mid-30s after over a decade in international business in the east coast, Asia and Europe. I didn’t have formal musical training and Juan who was my classmate in music business studies at UCLA Extension in 2009, was one of my first guitar instructors. It was obvious he was naturally more talented with composing music, so I encouraged him to write the music and contributed through lyrics and by building a business to launch the music, which led to the formation of Planet LA Records which released When Planets Align’s first album Radio Silence in 2009.
Review Fix: What’s your creative process like?
Juan: My creative process is similar almost always. I hear a melody and I sing it. Sometimes I sit down to write it or sometimes it comes out of the blue or even a few times in a dream. I record it with my cell phone and leave it there sometimes or just begin working on it. Then I start building the demos with different beats, basslines, harmonies, etc. Afterwards, I add the final arrangements and finally, in general, the guitar solo.
Mark: Like how Juan hears and records melodies, I am a filter of my environment and convey what I process through storytelling and songwriting. I try to condense what I see, hear and feel through concise phrases that sometimes rhyme. Whether these stories are real or imagined, they come from the lens of how I see the world.
Review Fix: What inspires you?
Mark: My first songwriting instructor Phil Swann in 2008 said to me and his students that artists often write their best work when sad, angry and heartbroken. I can relate as I have drawn great inspiration from personal pain or the sorrow of others. Not to say I am pessimistic, and rather the opposite is true as I am usually hopeful. But, it can be challenging to write heartfelt songs when happy. My most memorable song lyrics often write themselves when the most vulnerable parts of my soul seek expression and liberation.
Juan: At first i was pretty inspired by love and the loss of love. As I have become older, I’m more inspired by fiction and real stories, philosophy, psychology, world history tales and ecology concepts. I believe music is a way to tell, understand and communicate a story and is essential to show these emotions and details through its power. Music is the language that shows the world how it really exists.
Review Fix: What does music mean to you?
Juan: Music is my love, my best friend and my language. The interchange that God gave us to communicate with each other in a perfect way. The impeccable relation between humans and their inner self.
Mark: Music evokes an emotional response and fond memories. I recall listening to The Beatles on 8-track tapes in my dad’s car, or my mom singing along to Carpenters songs in the late 1970s. Even though I’ve tried to repress my muse with a corporate career, it has always reminded me listen and create.
Review Fix: How would you describe your sound to someone who has never heard you?
Juan: I will say that is an experience to make you reach into your core. My sound allows you to feel and connect to the deepest labyrinths inside your heart and soul and through its expression you can express all the emotions that are trapped in your substance and make them flow so you feel connected with your essence. It’s a journey for the conscience and a reflection for the imagination.
Review Fix: How are your live shows different from your studio work?
Juan: In the studio everything is controlled and everything can be fixed. Live shows are different. It’s all about the connection with your fans and audience. It’s making them have an experience, a real life changing experience filled with all kinds of emotions, juxtaposing all of them in a mixture of breath taking acts. You have to give it all in your live shows and this way you generate bliss, positive energy, retrospect scenes and savoir faire. I try to make my guitar sing for the crowd and have the band express themselves as heroes that go into battle for the glory of the applause.
Review Fix: What inspired your latest single, The Death of Us?
Mark: The latest single is also the title song of our new record The Death of Us. It is the most personal and real tale I have yet to share with the world. The story is about the end of my relationship with my male partner in 2019, and how heartbroken I felt afterwards. Most of the lyrics were written effortlessly in the sleepless hours, and dreadful days and weeks after the relationship ended suddenly. I was numb, confused and had to go through the stages of grief in order to be transformed by this loss. We have not spoken or met since, so perhaps he may never hear the music – Juan’s passionate melodies, and how the talented singers, performers and production team in Bogotá and LA brought these emotions to life. Though, I hope my personal stories of love found and lost can help guide others through their own grief and transformation, which are universal emotions we all encounter.
Juan: The album is inspired by two main points: One is Mark’s eloquent saga based on his own experience and how he came out of it. The second point is communicating the process lived by many people regarding their relationships due to Covid and quarantine and how people cope with these experiences and how to survive in the future after all these life changes.
Review Fix: What are your goals for 2021?
Juan: One is putting out the album and making it a success. I also want to put out my second album as a solo artist called “Aries, luna, fuego, sueños”. It’s a concept album devoted to my wife Maribel. Also write music through our team WPA music for other artists and/or projects. One last goal is to create music for a movie.
Mark: We are reviving When Planets Align this year with the launch of the album this Spring. We plan to create more music and in collaboration with artists around the world. Given the restrictions many of us are dealing with during the pandemic, we have more time alone or apart and to reflect upon our mortality, and the impact we may have through our art and energy.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Mark: New songs that are not draped in grief like The Death of Us, but reflect an emergence from the dark period of the pandemic.
Juan: More music and more fun.
Review Fix: Anything else you’d like to add?
Juan: I just wish people in the world search and become more happy and awake.
Mark: For much of my life, I try to compartmentalize my different identities, whether private or public, creative or corporate. I believe music has helped me overcome these divisions as it allows me to be true to myself and to share who I am with the world. These songs from The Death of Us are not only based on a real story, but come from a deeply authentic place. Thank you for listening.