A ‘brilliant’ album and a fatal accident: The Exploding Hearts, the great band that could not be

Twenty years after the accident that ended the lives of three of the four members of one of the biggest rock promises of the beginning of the millennium, its only survivor finally decided to pay tribute to them

Exploding Hearts
The Exploding Hearts.

They had everything to carve out a place among the bands that brought about the commercial resurrection of rock at the beginning of the millennium. Their intense live performance had caught the attention of punk classics like The Adicts and Buzzcocks, who quickly recruited them as opening acts. They had stage presence, a great look and an infectious joy. And the most compelling argument: Guitar Romantic (2003), their debut album, was a collection of ten songs – almost all of them with single potential – that, in less than 30 minutes, brought power pop and the garage revival of figures like The Undertones, New York Dolls or Nick Lowe to the present, albeit with more credibility than that of a simple retro exercise.

In the early hours of July 20, 2003, however, the promise of The Exploding Hearts was cut short when, on their way back from a performance, the van in which the group was traveling overturned and three of its members died.

Adam Cox (singer and guitarist, 23 years old) and Jeremy Gage (drums, 21) were thrown from the vehicle and died instantly. Matt Fitzgerald (bass, 20), who is speculated to have fallen asleep at the wheel, died later in hospital. And Terry Six (guitar, 21 at the time, now 41) survived with minor injuries, as well as their manager Ratch Aronica (35 then, 55 now), the only passenger wearing a seat belt. This took place near Eugene, Oregon, while they were headed for their native Portland after causing a sensation with two weekend concerts at the San Francisco Bay, the second one set up spontaneously at the last minute: they started playing at 1.45am, and after four songs, while they were already threatening to cut off their sound, the crowd kept asking for more. Among the audience was the manager of Lookout Records, the label that discovered Green Day and Operation Ivy.

“I remember cartwheeling with the van,” Terry Six told Rolling Stone magazine this summer in an interview on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the incident. “I just remember thinking, ‘We’re gonna have to walk home.’ I honestly didn’t think anything bad was gonna happen out of it, other than all our gear was gonna be shot to smithereens.” The other remaining unofficial member, King Louie Bankston – a New Orleans musician who played keyboards and co-wrote the album, but who was not interested in making a career with the band – author of The Exploding Hearts’ most popular song (the incredibly catchy I’m a Pretender), died in February 2022 of unspecified causes at the age of 49. Jeremy Gage had also expressed his desire to leave the group, although he remained provisionally in the lineup as a favor to his bandmates until they found a new drummer.

“It didn’t hurt you told all my friends I’m a retard”

The members of The Exploding Hearts met in the 1990s in an arts-focused high school for children who had trouble learning in traditional environments. The cloud of misfortune already cast its shadow over young Matt Fitzgerald, who left school shortly after his best friend took his own life. His future bandmates would become, as a result, his closest friends. Meanwhile, Adam Cox, who would become the leader of the band, was taking his first steps: he formed the band Spider Baby and got to meet Ike Turner, problematic rock legend and Tina Turner’s ex-husband, because he was a regular client of his mother at the Wells Fargo bank branch where she worked. Both played the guitar together one afternoon, a pivotal moment to which Terry Six, in the recent Rolling Stone story, referred to as the equivalent of the crossroads where bluesman Robert Johnson acquired – according to legend – prodigious acting skills through supernatural means.

They would form the band in 2001. Although Portland was not a particularly fertile musical enclave, at that time a scene of groups with common characteristics was developing, where, in addition to the Hearts, the still active The Briefs or Epoxies stood out. This whole wave was picked up by the punk record label Dirtnap Records, which released the three bands; Guitar Romantic, the first and only album by The Exploding Hearts, has sold more than the sum of their entire catalog. “[It] is still to this day one of my favorite punk rock records of all time,” founder Ken Cheppaikode said this year in a special for the streaming platform Bandcamp, also on the occasion of the album’s 20th anniversary. “In a lot of ways, [their success] helped make a lot of other great records come into the world.”

Guitar Romantic, Exploding Hearts
The cover of ‘Guitar Romantic,’ The Exploding Hearts’ only album.

A decidedly bright, pop release, with a raw sound and love lyrics that range between the comic and the harsh (“it didn’t hurt you told all my friends I’m a retard / I hung new posters on my wall and the dog don’t remember your name,” they sing in Sleeping Aides and Razorblades), Guitar Romantic, published in April 2003, quickly sparked interest among the fans. Fernando Ballesteros, journalist for the Spanish music publication Efe Eme, tells EL PAÍS: “Before that tragic end, I seem to remember a certain stir forming around them in the forums of the time. On iPunkRock, for example, Exploding Hearts was talked about as a sensation in the scene. [The album] was much more than a promising debut; it was so brilliant that it would have put them in a difficult position for the second one that didn’t arrive. They exuded authenticity. In the end, when it comes to rock & roll, you either have it or you don’t, and they had it.”

Matt LeMay, a consultant, recording engineer and also a musician, met singer Adam Cox in the spring of 2003. “I think The Exploding Hearts were outside of that whole rock comeback thing associated with The Strokes or Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Those bands seemed impossibly modern and cool, distant and inaccessible, while The Exploding Hearts had lots of fun and weren’t afraid to look stupid,” he reflects. In 2013, when the album turned 10, LeMay published a loving review in Pitchfork, going over his favorite part of each song. “[They] could have been characters on a Saturday morning cartoon show about a punk band: all white jeans, leather jackets, bleached hair, and weather-agnostic sunglasses,” he wrote. “MP3s ripped from a limited German vinyl release had already been making the rounds among punk and power-pop aficionados when Dirtnap Records officially put out the band’s debut. [...] For all the complicated feelings attached to it, Guitar Romantic still makes me more excited than sad.”

From trauma to tribute

In the long Rolling Stone interview, Terry Six explained his reluctance to play The Exploding Hearts songs live again. Following the tenth anniversary of Guitar Romantic, Six and King Louie Bankston got together to play as Terry & Louie, and he decided to dust off the old songs. However, he gradually began to feel ill at ease: “It just felt like, at times, we were like a tribute band.” Six and Bankston canceled concerts, said “things” that they did not mean and went their separate ways. The surprise death of the latter in 2022 left the guitarist as the sole keeper of the legacy of The Exploding Hearts.

On July 20, 2023, exactly 20 years after the accident, he went on stage at a small New York club with capacity for 250 people and performed Guitar Romantic in full with a group of musicians that included one of the heroes of the band, Paul Collins, leader of The Nerves and The Beat. This year, in total, he has paid tribute to The Exploding Hearts five times, all in low-profile events.

For several years now, he has also been providing material and giving interviews to director Ardavon Fatehi, a former classmate of the members of The Exploding Hearts, for a documentary about the band. A way to heal a trauma whose cure he put off after the disaster with a rushed escape: just a year after the deaths of his colleagues, Six started another group, The Nice Boys. Even though it was very well received, it was also part of a time period that, he admits, he does not look back on very fondly. “I never really fully healed. I never took a break,” he explained to Bandcamp this year. The music scene that the Hearts helped establish in Oregon also continued to evolve. One of the most notable native groups of the past decade, The Cry!, settled their debt with the band through versions of Modern Kicks, the song that opened the iconic album, and Thorns in Roses.

Prophets in their own land, and across the pond, too: Paty Critter, the singer and bassist of the Spanish band Pantones, has no qualms about referring to The Exploding Hearts as her “fetish band.” “I found them around 2004, definitely after the accident, which I only found out about a while later. Of course, that crowned them with an aura of cursed band, and it makes phrases like ‘21 and it ain’t no fun / My life’s going by but it’s just begun’ chilling. But, honestly, I think that glorifying them as a result of their accident doesn’t do them justice. Guitar Romantic deserves to be in the Olympus of power pop without the need for legends and tragic stories,” she says.

A conclusion similar to that of Six himself, who referred to the album as “a representation of that time in our lives, where we were young and stupid, and we didn’t care. We just wanted to be in a rock & roll band and have fun with it.” Reason enough not to put the songs away, collecting dust in the display case of the sacred. “That’s not why we made this record. [...] We made it to be played extremely loud.”

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