When the worlds of rock and opera combine, the end result is usually pretty epic. The latest addition to the list is The Death of Us, a mini rock opera by global collective When Planets Align. Described as “an unflinching first-person account of earth-shattering love, loss, grief and redemption,” and at times likened to “Matt Bellamy proffering a Moroccan rock concoction of RENT, Wagner, and Rocky Horror Picture Show mixed with shards of Supermassive Black Hole,” we got in touch with When Planet Align and guitar wizard, Juan Lizarazo, to learn more about his work, The Death of Us and much more.
Thanks for your time. How is 2021 treating you and what are your hopes for the year ahead?
Juan Lizarazo: “Hello and thanks to you too. 2021 has been good to me. Death of Us has been a great success and we have had an awesome public response. This project has all the flavours and colours for the fans to enjoy and it marks the rebirth for Mark and I’s biggest project, When Planets Align. An amazing collaboration that produces rock, pop, metal, and progressive with deep and heartfelt emotive lyrics. I also want to focus on my solo career which is my Latin rock/pop project that will bring a lot of surprises and excitement. On a personal matter, I was able to come back to martial arts too, after a long back injury, which makes me feel joyful. Right now 2021, it’s a great blessing.”
So, tell us about When Planets Align the collective you’re currently working with. How did you get involved?
“When Planets Align was founded by Mark and I in 2009. I was Mark’s guitar teacher at that time after being peers in the UCLA extension music business program. I showed him some of my songs and he proposed to use these songs and riffs and compose new music through his lyrics. After recording the first single, ‘Hey Gwen,’ we decided that we should make a record, and Mark felt we had to go all the way and that was the birth of When Planets Align, Planet LA Records and a long-term friendship. A new collective of sound, guitar solos, and poetic libretto was born.”
The new release is a mini rock opera, The Death of Us. Can you explain more about the rock opera?
“Well, after some reviews it was considered that. When we created it, it was a concept album about Mark’s long lost relationship and how he wanted to convey a story that was profoundly connected with the world. After the music was made and all the COVID-19 situations began to occur, we decided that this project not only reflected one person’s experience, but that it was a concept album that anyone could relate to in their lives especially with the pandemic and how these lockdowns and bearings have created so many broken hearts. So the concept was born, basically a heart-thorn concept record.”
It’s described as an adventurous combo of RENT, Wagner, David Bowie, and Rocky Horror Picture Show. How would you describe it?
“For me, it’s a mixture of genres, sounds, and colourful musical summons. As I read the lyrics that Mark sent me, I knew I had to create something that wasn’t predictable and for this, I had to change genres and combine them into one big pile of songs. I didn’t want it to be common and to write and play a simple rock or pop album, so I started to add blues licks and Steve Vai’s strange and rapid riffs, for which he is not so much known for. I also was inspired by funk, rhythmic patterns, and Muse’s classical music fusion, and it all blended with my own interpretation of sounds and archetypical music theory. After putting it all together with the amazing production of Sergio Martinez and Federico Perez Garcia here in Bogotá, The Death of Us was born.”
What were the main challenges of writing such an ambitious piece during the pandemic lockdown and how did you overcome them?
“Well, for me, the challenges were not in the writing process but in the production sessions. We had to wait a long time to record one part or the other, especially regarding the singers’ recording, due to studio times which were blocked because of lockdowns. This happened with the mixing process too and it was stressful, but in the end, the result was worth the wait.”
When writing something like this, what are the key elements you would say you have to get right to make it successful?
“Believe in yourself and don’t let anyone’s opinion get in the way of your musical vision as a composer. That is something that has been lost right now. Everything seems so standard. I believe that you should experiment, try, combine and apply as a music writer and player. We have twelve notes that can be used in all kinds of ways, don’t apply the same formula always.”
I’ve heard names like Steve Vai and Zappa being mentioned. Who would you say are your biggest influences?
“These names are a few of the many. My biggest influences have always been Metallica and Dream Theater, coming in close second Bon Jovi, Prince, and Steve Vai. I’m also greatly influenced by Latin artists, especially old legends such as Los Visconti, Los Chalchaleros, and Atahualpa Yupanqui. These artists were the first artists I learned to play on the guitar and are part of my guitarist and composer DNA. I can also mention all the Colombian music genres especially Vallenato and Cumbia, which live inside most Colombian musicians.”
Do you remember the musician, song, or album that really grabbed your attention and changed the direction of your life?
“Yeah, it was Metallica. I remember when I first heard the Load album, I was enthralled. It’s very curious due to the fact that people always find themselves impressed by the Black album or Master of Puppets, but for me it was Load. It’s such a good album. Has amazing licks and solos and the songs are so well written and produced with great messages in their lyrics. I heard that and I was ready to become a musician.”
There is a range of musical backgrounds in When Planets Align. What did you learn from working with those musicians and what did you want to bring to the party?
“I believe each of them was great and really understood my musical vision. All the band is from Bogotá, including Daniel Triana, an amazing drummer with a profound and deep musical workout performance, Felipe Belalcázar, marvelous bass player, with huge tones, he has been a lifetime friend too. We had a prodigious keyboard player from Cali Colombia, called Andres Gomez and Sarah Left on cello for The Death of Us. We also had a wonderful Colombian brass band for the song ‘Redemption.’ Now, with the singers, we had the pleasure to work with Gabe Kubanda, Shalini Varghese, Diego Garcia, and Boogiewhip, all of whom convey my melodies in a fantastic way. These musicians told me how to express my vision through others and make beautiful songs come alive.”
Something like a rock opera requires an equally extravagant show. What are the plans for that?
“Right now, it’s all about the release. Now, of course, we want to make a full production but it all depends on the lockdowns and COVID situation. But still, there’s a lot of surprises coming down the block.”
In terms of other rock operas out there, are there any that you think set a level for you to work to?
“For me it is Jesus Christ Superstar. I have been a lifelong fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work and as composer and musician, he is an inspiration. That’s the goal. To create a musical piece that reaches these levels of grandeur. That is Mount Everest and I play all day and write all day to achieve it.”
Now you’ve taken on this challenge, what next for Juan? Do you have any other projects on the go or in the pipeline?
“Yeah, I have several. The closest one is called Aries, luna, Fuego, Sueños which is my second solo album. It’s a Latin rock album through my solo project. It is a concept album devoted to my lovely wife Maribel. On my first solo record, I wrote a song for her called ‘El Sueño de la Alquimia’ and this new album is inspired by this song. I also want to put out my first instrumental album called Guitar Tales. As for WPA, I believe we want to create The Death of Us Part Two and a second part to our 2019 release Lovers and Angels. Two rock operas for the world to listen to.”
Thanks again for your time and good luck with everything. Over to you for the final words…
“I just want to say please enjoy the record and find the light in yourself. Also, listen to all kinds of music, you will be surprised at what you will find.”