To be in a band in Portland, in the early 2000s, was to be part of a very specific aesthetic. While he no longer lived there, the specter of the city’s poet laureate, Elliott Smith, loomed large, with every aspiring singer-songwriter seeking to duplicate his heartbreaking melodies of self-doubt and self-effacement.
Other local bands like The Decemberists used cerebral, brainy lyrics and whimsical instrumentation to evoke Dickensian narratives. In general, the Pacific Northwest sound was dominated by groups such as Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, and The Microphones, humble collectives that peered inwards, shying away from outlandish forms of expression.
So, how the fuck does one explain The Exploding Hearts?
A gang of four impish dudes barely out of their teens and bedecked in glam outfits of denim and pink, the Exploding Hearts formed in Portland in 2001, embodying an ethos completely asymmetrical from their contemporaries. Taking cues from British power-pop auteur Nick Lowe, sleaze rockers the New York Dolls and punk icons Buzzcocks, the Exploding Hearts were an undeniable force of energy, winning critics and fans to their side, two minutes at a time, with their collection of unstoppable pop songs.
Their debut, 2003’s Guitar Romantic — a motley collection of catchy tunes about sniffing glue, living out on the boulevard and losing your nerve in front of your dream girl — stands a durable testament of the band’s masterful application of outsider power-pop.
Tragically, the band never recorded a follow-up to that album. Driving back to Portland following a show at Bottom of the Hill in 2003, the band’s van crashed, killing members Adam Cox, Matt Fitzgerald, Jeremy Gage, all of whom were 23 or younger at the time.
That Terry Six, the sole surviving member, lived through the accident is a miracle. That he continues to make music is a miracle further still. And that he will be playing at this year’s Burger Boogaloo music festival with his longtime creative collaborator and so-called fifth Exploding Hearts’ member, “King” Louie Bankston, is yet another blessing.
The duo, performing as Terry and Louie, will be playing songs from their 2018 debut album, …a Thousand Guitars, along with select tracks from the Exploding Hearts catalog. This performance marks a powerful culmination for Six, who has coped not only with the tragedy of Exploding Hearts, but also the dissolution of his follow-up band The Nice Boys and a relocation away from Portland to his current home in Oakland.
“I didn’t really think, nor really care to think, that we would perform live — I just assumed that we going to call it a recording project and leave it at that,” said Six, who will play at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the 10th-anniversary edition of Burger Boogaloo, held at Mosswood Park in Oakland. “But here we are now, and I think it makes perfect sense that we’re playing at Burger Boogaloo.”
The group’s performance will be an anniversary of their own of sorts. After playing Burger Boogaloo three years ago, Terry and Louie decamped to San Francisco the next day to record the opening salvoes of …a Thousand Guitars. The origins of that process began years earlier, when Six penned some songs for the Exploding Hearts that were never recorded. Sitting on those old unfinished tunes, he connected with Bankston — who wrote many of the Exploding Hearts lyrics — to work on bringing that music to light. After two-and-a-half years of writing, recording and mixing the album, those songs are finally available on …a Thousand Guitars.
Prior to making the album, Six was on an extended hiatus from music, and it was unlikely he would have returned to his roots if his old friend Bankston wasn’t interested in joining him.
“After a few failed attempts at music and a lot of major setbacks, my boundaries were tighter, and I just didn’t have trust for that many people,” said Six. “Louie was integral in re-acclimating me and getting me back into it, because he’s one of the only people I have faith in.”
That faith and connection is wholly evident in …a Thousand Guitars, which has all the foundational elements that made Guitar Romantic such a legendary record. There are snotty punk tunes that cop T-Rex riffs (“Rebel Ways,”), power pop anthems out of the Cheap Trick playbook (the title track) and distorted doo-wop mashups (“Pink Razor Blade.”) The album even showcases some news wrinkles to Six’s songwriting oeuvre, such as the reggae-inflected ballad “Cheated By Love.”
What really makes the album so compelling is that underneath all the curled lips, battered leather jackets and busted beer cans, is a vulnerable, heart-on-sleeve guy coping with self-doubt. There is a reason for the moniker Exploding Hearts—the tough exterior of those rowdy punks was always underwritten by a group of sensitive outsiders looking for acceptance.
“When we were living in Portland, I remember it as the best time of my life, but we were very much on our own,” said Six. “We were alienated from a lot of Portland, we were a joke, and I’ll never forget that. At the same time, it was kind of challenge accepted, and I do think that Portland eventually got us. I remember playing a New Year’s Eve show in 2002 to a room full of people, and normally they would be making fun of us, but they were having the time of life. That felt really good.”
Six has found a new home in Oakland and the Exploding Hearts are more beloved now than ever. The band recently got new attention when presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke included their tunes on his Spotify playlist, and a long-gestating documentary on the band is moving closer to reality. Six said he thinks every day of the accident that took his three best friends and playing Exploding Hearts songs live is still difficult for him. But he has found some sort of inner solace, and perhaps, finally, acceptance.
“For a long time, I was at war with myself about the accident — I felt victimized and bitter and resentful,” said Six. “Now, I’m at a place where I accepted what happened and I won’t let that define me as a person anymore. And what has made that easier, is thinking of our legacy, and seeing how happy it makes people — seeing that positive affect. That means a lot to me.”
Burger Boogaloo, Saturday and Sunday, July 6-7, noon-10 p.m., at Mosswood Park, 3612 Webster St., Oakland. $66-$199, burgerboogaloo.com