Exploding Hearts 4Ever

10 years ago, a car crash wiped out Portland's biggest punk band. Finally, the sole survivor tells all.

EXPLODING HEARTS: (From left) Terry Six, guitar; Adam Cox, vocals/guitar; Jeremy Gage, drums; Matt Fitzgerald, bass.

The Exploding Hearts are the biggest “what if” in the history of Portland music.

Ten years ago next week, the band released its first and only album, Guitar Romantic, a record brimming with sharp hooks and electric punk energy. It combined the streetwise swagger of the Ramones with the bruised vulnerability of classic soul. Back then, it sounded like little else coming out of Portland, and the city didn't quite know what to make of it. Nationally, however, the album was a sensation. Pitchfork awarded it a coveted Best New Music selection. The band was featured on the cover of venerated punk zine Maximumrocknroll. Lookout Records—the Berkeley, Calif.-based indie label that launched the career of Green Day—considered signing the quartet. At the time, a movement toward rock revivalism was in full swing, and there was a feeling the Exploding Hearts could do for '70s-style pop-punk what the Hives and the White Stripes did for garage rock.

Less than four months later, it all ended.

On the way home from a sold-out show in San Francisco, the band's tour van flipped over on Interstate 5 just north of Eugene. Only one band member survived.

A decade later, the Exploding Hearts have achieved an almost mythic status. Guitar Romantic is considered among the best albums of its genre to come out in the past decade, and inspired an entire generation of Portland punks to start their own bands. While their career may have ended in 2003, the Hearts live on.

But for the lone surviving member, the road to immortality has been long and painful.

At age 30, Terry Six still the looks the part of a rock-'n'-roll lifer. He hasn't played in a band since his post-Exploding Hearts project, the Nice Boys, dissolved three years ago, but his hair remains tousled, a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses permanently shading his eyes. It's a sunny Sunday afternoon in Oakland, where Six moved with his wife, Analisa, in 2011, and the guitarist is sitting on a bench overlooking the Inner Harbor. Having grown up in the Portland suburbs and endured 28 years of Northwest winters, he talks with fondness about California's eternal summer. But Six moved here for reasons other than the weather. He needed a break. He needed to heal.

For years after the accident that took the lives of his three best friends, Six refused to talk about the Hearts. "I was pretty angry at that point," he says. "I didn't want to dishonor what we did with my erratic behavior." Six now lives a relatively quiet life, working for a school for autistic youth and attending the occasional concert. And he is beginning to write songs again. He is currently in the process of starting his own record label, on which he hopes eventually to put out his own music.

He knows, however, that he'll never re-create what he had with the Exploding Hearts.

Six and the rest of the band—singer-guitarist Adam Cox, drummer Jeremy Gage and bassist Matt Fitzgerald—began playing music together in 2000, after meeting at C.E. Mason High School in Beaverton, "a school for retards and pregnant girlies," as Cox once described it to Maximumrocknroll. The four bonded over a shared "fuck the system" attitude, spending their time together bickering, talking shit, drinking anything that came in 40-ounce bottles, smoking pot and vandalizing homes, hotel rooms and many of the other places they came across. They were a family.

"Every single thing that we experienced in those teenage years, we did it together," Six says. "We shared the same brain."

They also shared a striking visual aesthetic, which mainly came from the direction of Cox, who designed the Hearts' look. With signature colors of black, white, pink and yellow, the guys took a do-it-yourself approach to their clothing—one of Six's favorite outfits was a pair of black leather pants, a ratty tank top and a leopard-print women's jacket from Goodwill that he dyed pink in the bathtub. Then there was the hair: Cox cut Six's to look like a shagged-out mullet. "I don't recall any other bands looking like us…. We were pretty noticeable," Six says. "Everything we had we shredded, safety-pinned or bleached the hell out of it. We wanted to look really menacing, but also eye-catching."

After graduating from high school, Six moved into Cox's second-floor apartment on Southeast 12th Avenue in Portland. Dubbed the "Pink Palace," the building had a pink tire swing hanging in the front yard, and scuffed-up skateboards crowded the doorway. The smell of stale weed lingered in the rooms and spray paint covered the interior walls. The bedroom doors were tagged with names like "Led Zep," "Dead Moon Night" and "Metallica," the result of "spray-paint wars" between Six and Cox. The kitchen—where the band shot the cover photo for Guitar Romantic—was salmon-pink, with the album's name painted on the wall behind the refrigerator.

In 2002, the Hearts went into the studio to record their first full-length album. The group recorded all the tracks within a two-week period with local producer Pat Kearns in his small setup known then as Studio 13. "We didn't spend too much time on it, and that's what I liked about it," Six says. "We didn't have to try."

Discussing influences that included Elvis Costello, the Paul Collins Beat, Nick Lowe, and the Supremes, Kearns and the band made a conscious effort to balance the buzz-saw grit of early punk music with Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" style to give the album a more polished sound than contemporaries such as the Briefs and the Spits. "Punk music was just so hard on its edges and didn't have this tenderness," Kearns says. He'd often encourage Cox to sing like Diana Ross. "Less punk, more Diana!" he'd yell while tracking the vocals.

Released on April 1, 2003, through the now-Portland-based punk label Dirtnap Records, Guitar Romantic blends influences from obscure power-pop acts and 1970s punk bands to girl groups of the 1960s. Coming from a bunch of kids who spent their youth getting wasted and destroying property, the record expresses a surprising vulnerability. Some of that can be credited to New Orleans native King Louie Bankston, who briefly lived in Portland and jumped in and out of the band during the making of Guitar Romantic. Known to leave late-night voice mails for the band members with ideas for melodies and lyrics, Bankston pushed the Hearts to take a more honest approach to their songwriting. "Lyric-wise, [Louie] had the sparkle that we needed," Six says.

When the album came out, punk fans around the country immediately took notice. The first 1,000 wholesale pressings of Guitar Romantic sold out in two days. Portland, however, was slow to catch on: At the album-release show at now-defunct Satyricon in Old Town, the band didn't sell a single record. "Portland didn't give a shit," Kearns says. "Nobody respected these guys or cared about them." Because of their appearance, lyrics and attitude, the Hearts were often dismissed as posers. Although they played regularly around town at venues like Dante's, Murray's Pizza Pub and Meow Meow, their audiences were usually small. "For every die-hard, there were, like, 10 people who fucking hated us," Six says.

Gradually, though, prominent local music figures—such as Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, promoter Mike Thrasher and Jackpot Studios owner Larry Crane—began to show up at the band's shows. Even the more disastrous performances, which involved onstage arguments and Cox rubbing vomit in his hair, are now the stuff of legend. "They just had a charisma," Kearns says. "It was weird. They just couldn't screw stuff up."

Meanwhile, the group's national buzz reached a high point when Pitchfork praised Guitar Romantic, with critic Matt LeMay calling it "simply a fucking awesome power-pop record" and remarking that "the Exploding Hearts are the best punk band to come along in a long time, maybe since the original wave."

"This was clearly a band that spent a lot of time not just listening to records, but really understanding what makes a great song—when that little guitar hook needs to come in, what drum fill is going to pick up the energy before a chorus—all those little procedural details that add up to something totally timeless," LeMay says, looking back. "They pulled it off with a sense of joy and excitement that's hard to find on any record from any era."

The early summer of 2003 presented big opportunities for the Hearts. They were invited to play at The Harvard Lampoon building, where Conan O'Brien had performed the year before and the Strokes the year before that. They opened for iconic English punk band the Buzzcocks at Berbati's Pan. And they went to the Bay Area for the first time, selling out the small but venerable club Bottom of the Hill and visiting the headquarters of Lookout Records, to discuss a record deal. To cap the trip, the band headlined a last-minute show at Thee Parkside in San Francisco. At closing time, the venue pulled the plug on the PA midsong. It didn't matter: The crowd was singing along so loudly, the Hearts didn't need microphones.

"It felt like all of the work we had been doing was finally starting to pay off," Six says.

On the night of July 19, 2003, the Exploding Hearts left San Francisco and set out on the 600-mile, 10-hour drive home, through the twisting roads over mountain passes. In the van, Gage picked at a rotisserie chicken—which he eventually threw out the window—as the band and its manager, Rachelle Ramos, drove through the night. Upon reaching Oregon, fatigued and eagerly looking for somewhere to rest for the night, the group pulled off in a small town south of Eugene.

"We stopped at this shit-kicker country-western bar," Six recalls. "We were really, really tired, and we were just asking around for a place that was close by to stay. These guys were really big assholes to us because we still looked like how we looked, and they didn't want to have anything to do with us."

After being forced out of the bar, the band destroyed the wooden fence out front and left to find a place to park the van and sleep for a few hours. "I woke up to the sound of the engine starting and Matt clearing his throat and coughing," Six says, "and then we drove off."

Just north of Eugene on Interstate 5, around 6 am, Fitzgerald veered onto the gravel on the left side of the road and lost control of the van. Authorities reported that Fitzgerald most likely overcorrected when he attempted to steer the van back toward the highway, causing it to roll multiple times.

"It felt like a fucking joke," Six says. "I remember being in the van and thinking, 'Goddamn it, now we have to walk all the way home.' That was what I was thinking when the van was flipping." When it came to a stop, the damage was much more significant. Along with the instruments and equipment, Cox, Gage and Fitzgerald had all been ejected from the vehicle. "I saw our life—and our friends and just everything—destroyed on the side of I-5," Six says.

Cox, 23, and Gage, 21, died at the scene; Fitzgerald, 20, died at the hospital shortly thereafter. Six and Ramos were treated for minor injuries and released. It was just after 6 am on July 20 when families and close friends were notified of what had happened.

"When they died, the city stopped," Kearns says.

Relatives, friends, fans and musicians stood shoulder to shoulder at a packed memorial service for the band at the Old Laurelhurst Church. Benefit shows were held at Dante's, Meow Meow, Thee Parkside, Bottom of the Hill and Chop Suey in Seattle. Six, who moved back in with his parents, was inundated by guests concerned with his well-being—"just like spiky-hair, leather-jacket dudes passed out on my floor," Six says. "It was like that for months. Nobody had left me alone." Letters to the grieving families poured in from all over the world, expressing condolences and gratitude for the band's music. "It was shocking to me to realize the magnitude of their music and how far-reaching it was," says Nancy Fitzgerald, Matt's mother. "To have their legacy live on like this…it's been an extraordinary experience and an extraordinary gift."

As suddenly as the Hearts' career ended, Guitar Romantic has not faded from the public consciousness. In September 2009, Pitchfork ranked the album No. 60 on its list of the top 200 albums of the 2000s. Around the same time, Bobby Martinez—who interviewed the Hearts for Maximumrocknroll—was working at 1-2-3-4 Go! Records in Oakland when Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong came in asking to listen to Guitar Romantic. A few months later, Green Day played an abbreviated cover of the album's first song, "Modern Kicks," at a secret club show.

Within Portland's music scene, the Hearts have become a guiding light.

"So much of how I try to make our band or our songs, they were doing, and doing so well," says Hutch Harris of the Thermals, who released their debut album within a month of Guitar Romantic. "It's hard to believe that came out of Portland in [2003]. It sounds so authentic."

Younger Portland acts like Mean Jeans, Youthbitch and the Cry! have taken notes from the Hearts' daring songwriting, uncompromising attitude and visual aesthetic. The spark that truly ignited the band and made it so special, though, is harder to pin down. "Defining what that thing is—if I could do that, then I could be in the best band in the world," says Mean Jeans' Christian Blunda.

But for Terry Six, the fact remains that, on that morning 10 years ago, he lost more than a band. He lost three of his closest friends. It still rattles him.

"I don't think I'll ever not hurt," he says. Although he has since moved to Oakland, married and played in other bands like the Nice Boys, the tragedy will always—to some extent—be tiptoed around. "I don't know what there is to really say to someone like me," he says. "We'll never really know how the band could have really, really accomplished what we wanted to do."

Six is slowly easing his way back into music. There's excitement in his voice as he describes his plans: the recording equipment he's been hoarding, his ideas for future releases on his own label, Tuff Break Records, and writing his own music again. A few weeks ago, he called Louie Bankston and played over the phone a song he recently wrote. His occasional bandmate said it sounded just like something off Guitar Romantic. Six hadn't written a song like that for years.

It can't actually be the Exploding Hearts, of course. But it's a start.

Guitar Romantic by the Numbers

1. Recorded April 2002 at Studio 13 in Portland with producer Pat Kearns.

2. Released domestically April 1, 2003, on Dirtnap Records.

3. Five other albums released within a month: The White Stripes, Elephant; The Black Keys, Thickfreakness; Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell; The Kills, Keep on Your Mean Side; Andrew Bird, Weather Systems.

4. Only 10 tracks: "Modern Kicks," "I'm a Pretender," "Thorns in Roses," "You're Black and Blue," "Sleeping Aides & Razorblades," "Rumours in Town," "Throwaway Style," "Boulevard Trash," “Jailbird,” “Still Crazy.” 

5. Total run time: 28:33.

6. Cover photo taken in the kitchen of Adam Cox and Terry Six's home on SE 12th Ave. by Chrysteai Branchaw.

7. Sold approximately 30,000 copies. 

8. Dirtnap's top-selling album.

9. Placed at No. 60 on Pitchfork's Top 200 Albums of the 2000s, ahead of Elliott Smith's Figure 8; the Thermals' The Body, the Blood, the Machine; the Decemberists' Picaresque; Sleater-Kinney's The Woods and One Beat; and the Shins' Oh, Inverted World. 

10. "Modern Kicks" listed at No. 290 on Pitchfork's Top 500 Tracks of the 2000s.

WWeek 2015

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