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.”
It becomes clear when talking to all three men that everybody in the room put their egos aside and came together to record the best possible album. “It was really interesting how unselfish they were in the studio,” Kearns said. “Adam just turns to Terry and says, ‘Terry, you’re a better guitar player than me. You play my parts on the record.’” Terry didn’t do every guitar on the record, but Cox wanted to make sure that each song was played as well as possible. “It wasn’t that Adam was a bad guitar player,” Pat said, “Terry Six is one of the best guitar players of all time. I thought that was super cool.”
They spent 13 days in the studio -- five days in the beginning, a break to get some more money, and then they finished it, as Kearns noted, “a day here, a day there.”
Trapped in a secret room at Harvard
Shortly after Guitar Romantic came out, King Louie moved back to Harahan and parted ways with the band on good terms. “I wanted to focus on Louisiana music and live in either Louisiana or Memphis,” he said. “I wanted to look at myself as the person who was going to play roadhouses when he’s 60. That’s what I wanted then and that’s what I want now.” As the band was starting to hire a manager, he started to realize that his priorities as a musician weren’t the same as the rest of the band’s. “I don’t ever want to be in a position where I’m playing music for a living,” Bankston said. “I like working a day job, and if I can make money on music, that’s great.”
With Bankston headed back South and the album finished, the band put on a record release show in Portland. Nobody showed up -- just the other bands and their girlfriends -- and they didn’t sell any CDs. “That was the typical Exploding Hearts show in Portland,” Six said. As Six and Kearns pointed out, the Northwestern punk scene at the time, headed up by bands like the Spits, was way more macho. Pop music and love songs weren’t exactly on that scene’s radar.
The band’s individual personalities apparently didn’t help. Kearns noted that although “Terry was the sweet one, the rest of the them were, at times, a bit abrasive.” When the album came out, Kearns met some resistance from people he pushed it to: “People were like, ‘That’s Adam’s band? Fuck that. I’m not listening to that.’”
Instead, Guitar Romantic found an audience on the Internet. While Guitar Romantic didn’t receive a hero’s welcome in Portland, the rest of the world started to take notice. Matt LeMay wrote a glowing review of the record in Pitchfork (giving it at 8.8) after receiving the album from Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber via instant messenger. Naturally, the album made the rounds via file sharing, and that’s how former Pitchfork writer and current Godmode head Nick Sylvester heard it.
At the time, Sylvester worked for the Harvard Lampoon -- the hallowed Ivy League organization and sometime humor publication. And while he was there, he turned the entire Lampoon staff onto Guitar Romantic. They listened to the album on repeat in the office, so naturally, Nick booked the band to play the senior dinner. “Suddenly, Harvard is calling, even if it’s Nick Sylvester at Harvard,” said LeMay.
“We really treated them like royalty,” Sylvester said. “We put them up in this really, really nice bed and breakfast, and we took them to this really really expensive dinner, and they were all dressed up in their punk outfits. They didn’t even know how to act. The waiter was offering something called trinity water, which was so absurdly expensive. They couldn’t understand it. We had no idea that they were normally treated like shit.”
The event itself sounds like a party worthy of its own Animal House knock-off. Campus security wouldn’t allow the show to happen, so they had to throw a decoy party to distract the campus cops. The party got raucous fast -- people were dancing on giant tables, somebody pulled a fire alarm, and when campus officials came, Sylvester had to escort the band through a back door. (The Exploding Hearts were pretty much dressed like a stereotypical, cartoon rock’n’roll band -- like the Ramones in Rock’n’Roll High School or something -- amidst a hoard of college students in black tie.)
At one point, Jeremy got locked in a secret room, which was behind a bookcase. “He ended up drinking too much brandy that was in there and passed out, and then he got locked in,” Six said. “Nick was saying, ‘Your drummer got locked in the secret room while we were gone. We just heard these scratches at the bookcase.’”
“I remember them all, especially Adam, being so amused by the fact that they had these Harvard kids so excited for them to be there,” said LeMay. “That seemed incredibly funny to all of them.”
Since everybody on the Lampoon staff had been listening to Guitar Romantic on repeat, they went nuts during the show. Six remembered looking out and seeing kids in tuxedos hanging off the ceiling and tearing down the water pipes. They knew every song, and they were ecstatic.
“Every single mouth was moving to everything we were singing,” Six said. “Every single mouth. I’d never seen anything like it. I still haven’t.”
Let’s bring it to the present: Kearns is still producing and playing in his band Blue Skies for Black Hearts. When he’s not working at his mom’s hardware store in Harahan, Bankston writes and records with his band the Missing Monuments. He also asked me to include this: “The one-man-band is in negotiations and is getting back together.”
After the Hearts, Six joined a band called the Nice Boys, who have been defunct for three years now. He’s starting a new label, Tuff Break, and he’s starting to write music again. “I recorded a song,” he said, “I’m listening to it with my wife, and she looks at me and she’s like, ‘That’s the Guitar Romantic sound.’”
I wondered if any of the three of them listen to Guitar Romantic anymore. Kearns said no. “It’s hard,” he said. “It just stirs up a lot of emotion.” Bankston also said no, though he expressed interest in revisiting it soon.
Six said he listens to it “... probably more than people would expect me to. It’s just a record in my collection that’s one of my favorites.” He listens to it when he wants to reminisce, sometimes when he’s driving. It’s never on when he’s sad.
“It is a record that I will exclusively listen to alone. I don’t really like to listen to it with other people around,” he said. “I like to keep that just for me.”