Still Crazy: Remembering the Exploding Hearts’ ‘Guitar Romantic’

The Exploding Hearts were a punk rock band who dressed the part: Ramones t-shirts, skintight jeans, torn animal print shirt, all accented with touches of hot pink. Their formula was simple: bratty vocals and loud guitars and lyrics about heartbreak. It was fun music that sounded like a party just getting started.

On July 20, 2003, Adam Cox, Matt Fitzgerald, and Jeremy Gage were killed in a car accident on their way back to Portland after two shows in San Francisco. Only one member of the band survived — guitarist Terry Six.

About three months before the tour — 10 years ago today — their only proper full-length album, Guitar Romantic, got a wide release in America. (It got a limited release in late 2002 from the German label Screaming Apple.)

I don’t want to focus on the tragedy surrounding the Exploding Hearts. Instead, I’d like to celebrate their one full-length document.

During a time when Julian Casablancas’ detached cool and Jack White’s straight-faced blues worship were at the forefront of the largely self-serious “rock is back” albums, Guitar Romantic was refreshingly fun. It paired Cheap Trick-ian riffs with songs about getting high and falling in love. The band ushered in tambourines, finger snaps, bubblegum melodies, barroom pianos, and ripping guitar solos. And their lyrics were funny. (From “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades”: “You know the first time you left me, babe, it was so hard,/ And it didn’t hurt you told all my friends I’m a reee-tard!”)

Guitar Romantic is 10 years old, and it’s an album that I’d hold up next to the fathers of punk and power pop as a rock’n’roll classic. I was honored to speak with three men involved with the creation of that record: Pat Kearns, who produced the album; King Louie Bankston, a former member of the Hearts who co-wrote most of the album’s songs; and Terry Six, one of the great unsung rock’n’roll guitarists of all time.

Laying the groundwork

The Exploding Hearts’ origins date back pretty far for Terry Six and Adam Cox: “God man, it starts back in high school,” Six said. “Like my freshman year. That’s how long the Exploding Hearts waited to be a thing.” He and Adam Cox grew up together, and over time, they went through numerous bands and people until they had the core of the Exploding Hearts: Cox, Six, drummer Jeremy Gage, and bassist Jim Evans. Cox and Six lived together, drank a lot of beer, listened to music, and started developing their power pop band.

One day, Cox, who was also a member of Portland punk band the Spider Babies, was walking down the street when he heard a guy yell, “Hey, Spider Baby!” And there, across the street on Hawthorne Avenue, was King Louie Bankston, the favorite son of Harahan, Louisiana. (Eat it, Hank Lauricella.) While the rest of the band were in their early 20s, Louie was 31 years old, sometimes performed as a one-man band, and was already a veteran of rock’n’roll, country, and R&B bands. One sentence uttered over the phone quickly reveals his Cajun accent. (Shortly after contacting Louie, he sent me this text: “Dude, you just made a big mistake giving me your number…gonna text gator pics all year long!”) He had moved to Portland to work with his band, 10-4 Backdoor. He was familiar with Adam’s music, Adam was familiar with his. They hit it off immediately.

“He pulled out this CD that was spray painted. It was pink and red, and I didn’t even know if it worked,” Louie said. It was the Exploding Hearts’ demo. “I put it on and it was just like bam. This is it! This is what I’ve been waiting to hear from somebody since I was a teenager.”

He called Cox and said he wanted to sing him a song — “I’m a Pretender.” It had been rejected by a previous band of his, but he didn’t want to see it go to waste. “I sang ‘I’m a Pretender’ to Alex Chilton before I left for Portland, Oregon, and he looked me straight in the face and said, ‘Louie, you just wrote a hit song.’”

The Hearts loved it, and that began their songwriting and performing relationship with King Louie. “He finally found that he had a pop outlet with us,” Six said. “He was always talking about torment. Adam’s main subject was heartbreak and agony.”

Bankston and the band learned a lot from each other. When Bankston and Cox started co-writing songs together, Cox taught Bankston to condense his more longwinded storytelling style. Meanwhile, the band were given several lessons from the Tao of Louie. (Bankston on playing: “Forget about punk rock and just be punk. Play your guitar clean.” Bankston on “Jailbird”: “Dude, this is your best song. You’re gonna throw it away?” One that Six remembered: “Just point at the rafters, man, just point at ‘em.”)

The band invited him into the fold to sing and man the keyboard– an instrument he didn’t know how to play at the time. (He marked the notes he had to play with a Sharpie.) They hung out together all the time, which fed their songwriting. Jeremy and Louie worked together at Oaks Amusement Park, where Adam and Matt would go and meet up with girls. Their experiences at the park, plus a bunch of stuff about huffing rubber cement, ended up in “Jailbird”. “Every conversation we would have would turn into a song,” Bankston said.

When it came time to make an album, they’d been sitting on a handful of songs: “We had them for quite some time and we spent a great deal of time working with them and giving them the care that they needed,” he said.

Recording by the washing machine

The band had passed along a cassette recording to Pat Kearns, a Portland producer and engineer. “That was the first time I heard the band,” Kearns said. “They were amazing.”

In April 2002, they set aside some time in Studio 13, Kearns’ first studio which he describes as “incredibly, incredibly small.” It was in a Hillsdale basement; the band recorded next to washers and dryers. The ceiling was low, there wasn’t enough room for the whole band to play at the same time, and the control room was literally shoved into a bedroom closet.

And then, the week before they went into the studio, Evans quit the band. “I don’t think [Adam] really cared, but I was really worried about it,” Six said. He asked Cox if they should postpone recording; Cox said no. So they called their friend Matt Fitzgerald. They asked him to play a one-off show with the band, and after that gig, he was hired on the spot.

“I think that was really to Matt’s credit — he gave Guitar Romantic that extra punch that it needed. That drive,” Six said. “That’s probably why it still sounds that fresh, because it was still so fresh to us at that point.”

Kearns got no warning from the band that they’d just hired a new guy: “They come busting through the doors and I’m getting set up, and they’re like, ‘Hey, meet our new bass player, don’t worry about it.’”

Since there wasn’t enough room for the entire band to play live, they recorded each element individually starting with drums. That helps explain why even though they recorded the LP in a basement, each element sounds remarkably clean. Also: Kearns had recently purchased a Sennheiser 441 microphone that previously belonged to Kenny G. The vocal sound was influenced by Elvis Costello’s on My Aim is True; Kearns said he used a chorus effect to get “that kind of weird Exploding Hearts washy feel”.

As a producer, Kearns made sure each guy brought their A-game. “Pat should be really proud of that record,” Louie said. “He really brought us together. He kicked us in the ass, man. He said, ‘No, you guys are going to stay here and do this.’”

The day Six came in to record guitars, he turned 20. He woke up at his place with Cox, neither of them really acknowledged that it was his birthday, and they went into the studio. “I remember thinking, ‘This is my best birthday. To be able to do this? This is really great.’” Naturally, they partied all night, which he paid for the next day in the studio: “Worth every minute of it.”

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