On the 20th anniversary of their one and only album, we look back at the sad story of the Portland shouldabeens
About seven or eight years back, I was trawling through a playlist of power pop bands, a favourite pastime of mine. Buried among Todd Rundgren, Big Star, The Posies and Matthew Sweet was a band I’d never heard before: The Exploding Hearts. The song in question was ‘Modern Kicks’, a ragged slice of tunefulness from 2003 that managed to recall The Buzzcocks, Redd Kross and The Ramones in three wonderful minutes. It sounds like you’ve been listening to it all your life and yet every repeat listen feels like the first one all over again. It’s perfect.
Exploring their perfectly titled album Guitar Romantic made it clear that ‘Modern Kicks’ wasn’t the exception, it was the rule. If anything, a couple of songs might have been even better (no power pop song this millennium comes close to ‘Sleeping Aides And Razorblades’). But what happened next? Where was the follow-up? How could a band capable of such fuzzed-out brilliance drop an absolute classic, earn rave reviews and critical acclaim, and just disappear?
There are myriad circumstances that would lead a band to vanish after a single album, but none quite as tragic as those that befell The Exploding Hearts. The same year that Guitar Romantic set them on their way, the band was driving back from a gig in San Francisco. Near Eugene, Oregon, their van crashed, killing singer/guitarist Adam Cox, bassist Matt Fitzgerald and drummer Jeremy Gage. Guitarist Terry Six and manager Rachell Ramos were the only survivors.
There’s something rattling about falling in love with a band that existed in the same time and space as you and discovering that most of the members are dead. But the story of The Exploding Hearts cuts deeper than that. It’s more existential and human than simple missed musical potential – though you can only wonder at how far a band with The Exploding Hearts’ unstudied, unironic cool could have gone in the guitar-heavy 00s.
The pain in The Exploding Hearts’ story – for listeners and fans at least – is how alive they sound. How spikily young and brash every aspect of Guitar Romantic is. How every inch of the record bristles with impatient energy. It’s implicit in the spray-paint pink and neon yellow artwork, in Cox’s defiant leer, Six and Gage’s shades and slouches, and Fitzgerald’s blank stare. It’s seared into the lyrics, which flit between lovelorn pleas and mea culpa admissions, that eternal youthful yin and yang of heartbreaker and heartbroken.
The tragedy of The Exploding Hearts didn’t end with the car crash. The hidden figure in a lot of coverage of the band is King Louie Bankston, a prominent figure in the Louisiana garage punk scene. Bankston moved to Portland and, after a chance meeting with Cox on the street, called him and sang ‘I’m A Pretender’– a song his other band had rejected – down the phone. Cox invited him to join The Exploding Hearts on the spot. Later, Louie would tell the story of meeting Alex Chilton of Memphis power pop royalty Big Star in 2013 and singing it to him, too. Chilton replied, “Louie, you just wrote a hit song.”
King Louie quit The Exploding Hearts when they hired Rachell Ramos as their manager and dedicated themselves to a serious career as musicians, later explaining in interviews that music as a profession just didn’t sit right with him. He later said that the deaths of Cox, Fitzgerald and Gage prevented him from playing that kind of music for a long time, but he eventually reunited with Terry Six as Terry & Louie. King Louie died in 2022 from complications due to heart failure, aged 49. The next day, Terry Six wrote on Instagram, “I still don’t want to believe this is real. Rest easy my brother.”
Spare a thought for Terry Six in all of this. On the 20th anniversary of Guitar Romantic, Jack White’s Third Man Records announced an expanded, remastered reissue. While it will undoubtedly draw a whole new audience to the band’s music, you can only imagine the difficult emotions it will dredge up for a survivor of so much tragedy.
There are few consolations in grief. No glowing reviews will compensate for the loss of human life. There’s no glorious hook that will make it all ok. It feels trite to even suggest that leaving such a wonderful album behind is any kind of salve for Six or the families of Adam Cox, Jeremy Gage, Matt Fitzgerald and Louie Bankston. But as anyone who’s lost someone will tell you, the reminders of who they were in life become increasingly vital as time goes on. The best you can do is play Guitar Romantic loud and bask in the joy of youth cast in aspic.
Guitar Romantic (Expanded & Remastered) is out on Third Man Records on 26 May