Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #129. Subscribe to our print edition here!
A self-managed prog god with a keen eye for architecture, Plini brings a fresh new angle to the world of guitar music. So much so, Steve Vai has even described him as “the future of exceptional guitar playing.” Words by Matt Doria. Photo by Christopher Quyen.
Despite being entirely instrumental, the Sunhead EP is drenched in character. The punishing chugs in “Salt + Charcoal” drill into the mix with a merciless anger, while the honeyed strums that wash over the title track revel in their lucidity. It’s a milestone release for Plini Roessler-Holgate – better known simply as Plini – who unashamedly looks to his idols for help in turning a plain ol’ guitar into an instrument of inconceivable emotion.
“I guess it comes down to all the music I’ve ever listened to,” Plini muses on his techniques. “Like, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is a classic example of how you can make an acoustic guitar sound sad. I think there’s a lot of ideas like that, and I guess I just attribute different sounds to different things, just from listening to music so much. A clean guitar with just a little bit of reverb – that reminds a lot of some of the softer Opeth songs, which gives me that feeling of a sad, dark forest. So if I come to a part where I want to evoke that sort of emotion, I’m kind of like, ‘Okay, what would Opeth do?’ Or if there’s a big melody, someone like Joe Satriani or John Petrucci would use a shitload of delay and reverb, so if I wanted a part to sound really epic, I’d play it like they would play it.”
“One thing that’s different about this new EP is that there’s a lot of post-rock guitar layering – just one note played as fast as possible with a whole heap of delay – and I think that might’ve come from watching Sleepmakeswaves a lot, because they just play with so much emotion and so much energy, even if they’re not doing a lot with the guitar. It’s all about putting everything you’ve got into one note, and really making that note count. It’s such an animalistic way of getting something across, and I love that.”
Anything but simple is the custom-built .strandberg* Boden OS 6 that has now become synonymous with Plini’s image. Named for its resemblance to reindeer antlers, the extremely rare guitar – headstock-free, as is common with djentlemen like Plini – is a masterstroke of collaborative genius, meticulously designed with equal focus placed on aesthetic and tone. And as Plini tells us, it took a metamorphic trip abroad to find what would eventually wind up a crucial facet of his makeup.
“As you might know, it’s not really that easy to find cool instruments in Australia,” he laughs. “So I was overseas, and I went to a show where the band Intervals were playing, and their guitarist had a .strandberg* – I played it for about a minute backstage, and I was like, ‘Yep, this is the sickest thing I’ve ever played.’ So I emailed Ola Strandberg, who started the company, and I guess I got kind of lucky because at the time, I was starting to get a little bit of attention, and he had just started making production guitars. Before that, he was just making them by hand in his garage. We became really good friends and I became a .strandberg* artist, and eventually, it just made sense to do a signature model.”
Mostly known for playing Telecasters before joining forces with .strandberg*, Plini approached the guitar’s tonal body as an opportunity to refine all the things he loved about his former kit, without any of the pitfalls they came with.
“A lot of the time onstage, I would get halfway through a song and realise that my tone knob had rolled off a tiny bit,” Plini explains. “On a loud stage, you can’t really tell, so I would have to fix that up and just feel like the biggest idiot. So I just told them, ‘Let’s make a guitar without a tone knob so I can play better.’ I used to have a five-way switch, too, but I would only really use each humbucker and then one of the split sounds, so we trimmed it down to a three-way switch – the middle position is just two inner coils, so we get that kind of sparkly, Strat-ish sort of sound. And the top wood on it is an Australian blackwood, which whoever built the guitar just happened to have a supply of, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, I have to do that!’ There was no way I could use any other wood if there was an Australian wood available.”
A lot of the guitar’s design quirks come down to Plini’s experience as a Uni-certified architect – his little beast of a Boden looks like a piece of high-end furniture, and strikes the eye in such a way that futuristic buildings might in a flick like Blade Runner. And that “handmade or the highway” attitude spreads far beyond Plini’s guitar: the 26-year-old is fully self-managed, booking tours and dropping music as independently as possible, even as he climbs the prog-rock ranks.
“When I started out, it was just a bit of a challenge to see how far I could get without doing things ‘traditionally’, so to speak,” Plini says. “But also, I haven’t really met anyone where I’ve felt like what they were offering me was worth it, financially speaking. I’ve realised that I can figure most things out myself, and if I can’t figure them out this year, maybe I can figure them out next year. This is the kind of thing that I want to do for – hopefully – my whole life, so I’m not really in a rush to be all like, ‘I need to play to 100,000 people this year!’ Or, ‘I need to sign to the biggest label possible and get the best manager!’ It’s so fun and rewarding to be figuring out how the industry works on my own terms.”
Cautious to ruminate on his goals, Plini is taking life decidedly day-by-day. Whatever happens is what happens, and he notes an importance to keep heads from getting stuck in the clouds. Such is what allows the Sydney native to really appreciate the opportunities that do come his way. Though, if he’s being honest, there is one particular trophy that Plini is keen to score.
“I’d love to play the Sydney Opera House,” he beams. “That’s a total bucket list thing for me. I guess the reality of that is that I’d need to accumulate, like, 2,500 people who would be in Sydney, or would come to Sydney to watch someone play the guitar. And you’re going to help me make that happen, right? That’s why I’m in Australian Guitar right now! [Laughs].”
For now, punters will be able to catch Plini when he hits the road throughout September, playing with a full band in some of Australia’s most revered theatres. And there’s a reason he’ll be calling such venues home on the Sunhead tour – Plini’s live show is captivating cacophony of lights, sounds and atmosphere. Theatricality lies at its core, and improvisation is beyond essential.
“All of the songs have changes in some way,” he teases, “Whether it’s added solo sections or parts that we just play completely differently. I think that’s a big part of what makes the live show interesting – especially for this sort of music, because it can get so technical and so clinical feeling; you might just be going to see a band that spends the whole show concentrating on their instruments to reproduce something they already played in the studio. So I think that improvised element, or throwing in a few surprises – even just playing stuff wrong for the sake of a laugh – that makes it really fun.”
In addition to the hour-plus headline sets, all shows on the run will be accompanied by a hands-on guitar workshop and Q&A session with Plini and his tourmates, Javier Reyes (who may might recognise from Animals As Leaders) and David Maxim Micic. The clinics are an immersive alternative to the recent (and dreaded) trend of the ‘VIP meet-and-greet’, which Plini assures us he is staunchly against.
“I did my first clinic a few years ago, not really knowing what the idea of a clinic even was,” he chuckles. “But it was a lot of fun, because it’s just a lot of really likeminded people learning about the things that they love, and asking about things that they can’t necessarily find out just from going online.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of bands are doing the whole ‘VIP meet and greet’ thing these days, just because it’s a huge financial help. I don’t think I would ever want to charge someone purely to shake my hand awkwardly and then take a photo – doing it this way is really fun, because hopefully, it’s inspiring to people who want to learn something about what I do, or what David and Javier do. And all the clinics I’ve done so far have been super chill. We get together and hang out, talk about all this shit we love, and then watch the show!”
Though you’ll need to fork over some dough to cop Plini’s full spate of lessons, the young virtuoso is happy to offer Australian Guitar some vital advice for wannabe guitar heroes: “Figure out what sort of music it is that you want to make, and then figure out how you can make it.”
And again, there’s no shame in looking up to other, already established masters of the riff. “One thing that can be really helpful is if you think about all the things your favourite bands do that you love,” Plini continues, “And then all of the things your favourite bands do that you don’t really like, because then you might be able to form an idea of what your perfect style of music would be. Like, if you really like AC/DC but you hate 4/4, then maybe your whole thing could be writing dad rock in odd time signatures!”
Friday September 7th - The Zoo, Brisbane
Saturday September 8th - Manning Bar, Sydney
Thursday September 13th - Badlands Bar, Perth
Friday September 4th - Jive, Adelaide
Saturday September 15th - Corner Hotel, Melbourne