Three weeks before the release of Impulse Voices, Plini’s phone blew up with angry messages from his fans. During the MTV EMAs, American singer and rapper Doja Cat had surprised viewers with a version of her hit Say So and people were quick to notice similarities to the song’s newly added guitar solo and the title track from Plini’s 2016 album, Handmade Cities.
“I was sent the video by a bunch of different fans,” the Sydney-based guitarist Plini Roessler-Holgate recalls. “Some of them were outraged and some were curious. I watched it and I thought, ‘Hey, that is similar’ Then I watched it again and I was like, ‘Hey, that’s really similar.’”
Agreeing with his fans, he sought more information.
“I tried to find out who the band was but some fans did the research for me and found the musical director, who claims to be a big fan of mine. So I found that it was directly inspired, which I actually thought that was pretty cool.
“I think there was enough keyboard warrior outrage,” Plini adds, “that it became an issue even if I didn’t necessarily think it was a huge issue anymore. I just thought it was hilarious. Doja Cat sent me a big apology on Instagram. She said if the musical director was such a big fan of mine to take a chunk out my song then he should have just hit me up to collaborate on it. And that was sort of that.
“It was the perfect timing for this album’s press campaign,” he continues with a cheeky smile. “I mean what better way to get thousands of people who’ve never listened to instrumental prog to at least check it out because their favourite artist is in a headline?”
Plini’s humble and relaxed handling of the controversy epitomises his career to date. A guitarist with an immeasurable amount of talent and an immaculate ear for melodies, he’s always gone about his business without fuss or drama, instead, his music – and heavy touring – has always done the talking.
He released Impulse Voices late last year without any record label support and it garnered one million streams in a mere 60 hours. He also sold out of the numerous vinyl pressings and merch bundles in the process. All from an artist who doesn’t play up to hype and for whom ‘overblown’ isn’t a word in his vocabulary. Quietly but assuredly, he’s become one of the most celebrated young guitarists of the 21st century not through egoism or clever media management, but through the quality of his music and his easygoing, friendly demeanour.
“I usually write everything but the melody first,” he says of his creative process, “and then the melody is sort of the lowest common denominator. Once I have something in a stupid time signature with chords all over the place, I’ll think of what is the simplest thing that I can overlay on top of that to remember that it is a song and not a math exercise.”
This is why his music resonates so well. For a musician labelled a virtuoso in his
craft, a title that can often lead to derivative acrobatic one-upmanship, Plini’s music
is sweet with melodies and ripe with accessibility. Even when the flips and tricks
do come, they’re still inherently musical and feverishly addictive.
“A lot of the music that I listen to is very simple harmonically and that’s what sounds good to me,” he adds. “I have a lot of simple progressions, but then for each chord I’ll find a new way to play that chord that I haven’t done before and by that time I’ve built it into a new place it might sound a little bit more abstract. And then there are some parts which were more just trying to figure out how to get as weird as possible while still sounding pleasant. But I try to make as much room for moments like simple melodies as I do have moments of: ‘Check out this sick lick.’”
Plini’s music has always been wildly, but tastefully diverse. Yet Impulse Voices, an album born out of a most unusual 12 months, takes steps in so many different directions. Much of that diversity can be traced back to having much more time on this record.
Says Plini: “I appreciated having the extra time to work on the music. I tend to be a bit optimistic with my time management, so it was ultimately a positive thing, just in terms of having a lot of extra time I didn’t think I’d have. It took maybe six or seven months in all, rather than the three I initially planned for, and I had a lot of fun with it. I let everything rest; going into a lot of detail with everything and having it sound exactly how I wanted it to be before releasing it.
“I’ve listened to so much different music in the last few years,” he continues, “especially a lot of electronic stuff which started sneaking its way into my music. I’d just think, ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna put in a dance beat in this section I like’, or ‘There’s going to be a disco beat in 19/8 and we’ll just make it as musical as possible.’ I’d learn from the experience.”
Plini’s days were split between tinkering in his home studio and getting fresh air away from his instrument. “Thankfully, living in a really beautiful part of the world where the weather’s usually good, I could just wander around with my headphones in when I wanted time away from writing,” he says.
The album press release cites podcasts were a major part of what snaked through his headphones on those walks, yet Plini assures Prog that wasn’t always the case. “Don’t get me wrong,” he smiles, “I listened to a lot of Meshuggah records as well. I know some people don’t like to listen to other music while they’re working on their own stuff because they want to avoid anything seeping in, but I’ve found almost the opposite. So as well as the podcasts, which I felt was something to keep my brain doing new things, I was listening to a lot of different music and that actually really helped with the process. I’d find a little production trick I wanted to use in this song, or a structure I could use to help with that song I’m stuck at three minutes with.
So listening to all this music was a constant research process.”
What’s even more impressive than the record’s diversity is how effortlessly Plini flits between styles. For a musician whose horizons already stretched far beyond where the naked eye can see, Impulse Voices now reaches distant galaxies. Featuring his most delicate playing as well as his most rampant riffing, the album explores so much between those extremes. From saxophone and electric harp solos to 90s dance breakouts among sprinklings of his archetypal sweet-toothed, smiling melodies, Impulse Voices is a celebration of musicality over self-flattery. Its variance helps give it a greater sense of scope, but the guitarist also makes all these different genres feel like kindred spirits rather than bitter rivals.
As the dust settles down on the Doja Cat drama, Plini welcomes the idea of metal and pop embracing again, for the good of music and for the good of the world:
“I think it’s awesome that a whole minute of the Doja Cat arrangement was guitar solos,” he grins. “And hopefully more and more pop songs will get rearranged in different ways. Then all we need is for it to happen with metal songs too. Eventually we’ll no longer have genres and it’ll be a happy, happy world.”
This article originally appeared in Prog #118.