Photo by Shaina Bracamontez
Four o'clock in the afternoon and I've got lobster face after five hours under the Texas sun sans sunblock. The woman working the door at Side Bar on E. 7th street in downtown Austin is picking through my backpack when I run into Casey Weissbuch and Mike Boyle, drummer and bassist for Nashville's Diarrhea Planet. They've played one show already, Casey's first at SXSW after missing the band's stint last year while in the hospital, and he's stoked—like chocolate-factory levels stoked. I watch him knife a fresh callus off his thumb and he talks about the tears his dad shed (out of joy, duh) when he heard the the band's upcoming LP, I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, out this summer on Infinity Cat Recordings. As the final songs of Spider Bags' set crash out of the building, he tells me last night's gig was OK, but this one's gonna be better: "It sounds way rowdier in there." Perhaps unsurprisingly, crowd surfing comes up, and I mention that in my 23 years on this planet I've never actually done it. "Oh ho ho!" Casey laughs. "You shouldn't have told me that!"
Sure enough, right before the final shred onslaught of perennial closer "Ghost With A Boner"—first DP song ever written, the original 120-second anthem graciously expanded into a six-minute “Free Bird”-ian opus—Evan Bird drops his guitar, hops over the monitors, wraps his hands around my waist and reverse pile-drives me up and into the arms of the crowd. Despite copious opportunities throughout my concert-going life, general reticence kept me from indulging in one of rock's most cherished displays of fandom, and for a split second I feel for the hands dealt the unexpected task of buoying this bulky backpack-wearing boy. Then Evan picks up his guitar, Diarrhea Planet return to full force as "Ghost With A Boner" reaches its like fourth climax and in the moments before I'm nose diving towards the barroom floor, I'm a sweaty sunburnt wreck throwing up devil horns, roaring barbaric rawk yawps.
That was a great show. "Dude, but the second one"—at The Brixton, which I unfortunately had to miss for Snoop Lion-related reasons—"was way better," frontman/guitarist Jordan Smith tells me in a Southern fried Midwest drawl that pushes mongo. "But we're really excited for tonight." Jordan, Mike and I meander about the sprawl of the music industrial complex that overwhelms Downtown Austin for 10 days each March. Half-blocks pass like stations on a finicky radio that can't escape the din of mid-afternoon drinkers. Posters—on walls, streets, lampposts, mailboxes, rickshaws, trashcans, buildings, the sky—for every band and brand you've ever/never heard of. It's pretty amazing, in an are-my-laughs-just-drowning-out-my-tears kinda way; but of course there's still oh so many tacos and actually a whole lot of good music and the flea markets have a surprisingly kick ass selection of band shirts (Jordan cops a Lit one, though he's bummed there are no Slayer tees). The other four Planeteers — Weissbuch, Bird, and guitarists Brent Toler and Emmett Miller — are scattered about the city as well, killing time before the band's set at a showcase hosted by Impose and WNYU at Longbranch Inn, a narrow space in East Austin with a small wooden stage designed to feasibly fit about a third of Diarrhea Planet.
So later that night it's just Casey on stage surrounded by four amps with the fifth posted up on the floor along with the rest of the band. Such spatial logistics, the drummer points out an hour earlier during an interview in the band's van, seem to the be the only real problem the six piece has faced. A small price to pay for a group that relishes the possibilities afforded by a lineup that's two-thirds guitars. See, with four guitarists you can do this thing that Diarrhea Planet does on the I'm Rich opener "Lite Dream": Jordan, always down on one knee, charges ahead with a riff that takes one step forward, one step back in perpetual obstinate optimism through aftershocks of feedback and fuzz left by a torrent of downbeats that Brent and Emmett conjure into fitful power chords that elbow their way up front of the line. Evan hops in on lead thrash so Brent can hang-ten alongside Jordan way up on those tiny strings as everyone assumes power stance position for this final blowout that I swear sounds like you're in the middle of a vert ramp.
I get to see Diarrhea Planet do this kinda thing three times in about 36 hours (and it would've been more if it weren't for some other meddling assignments), and it's never not a spectacle of brilliant, beaming, face liquifying awesomeness. And the best part: watching the conversions in the crowd take place between my own fits of headbanging — a riff that curls the corner of a lip, a downbeat that jerks a few fists skyward, a bout of fret-tapping that plasters "oh shit" on the whites of a pair of eyes. "It's crazy," Jordan says. "I've actually noticed there are people showing up just for our sets and then leaving." As much as SXSW has become a grim(m) fantasyland, its original purpose hasn't been totally negated. Word of mouth is still a thing, even if it has been dampened by hulking Doritos vending machine-stages, not-so-secret Prince concerts (brought to you by Samsung) and showcase lineups featuring band names already flying about the echo chamber. Despite my own biases, over the course of the next few days it became evident that the words Diarrhea Planet were in a lot of mouths. Some solid pre-fest press and a band name that's too much to ignore offered an initial boost, but as the festival went on word of their exploits, to paraphrase Pitchfork's Jayson Greene, reached Bill Brasky-ian levels of ridiculousness. Tales from sweat drenched shows of solos played on top of bars, on top of amp stacks, on top of stage scaffoldings are all true, and apparently talk of audience members grabbing at the guitarists crotches mid-shred is to be believed as well. During Diarrhea Planet's soundcheck at Longbranch Inn, a guy donning a purple pimp hat and wrapped in a blanket of Lone Star beer sprawled out on the barroom floor, head draped over the monitor between Jordan and Brent where he stayed, rather impressively, well into the first song. I left their Longbranch set missing a bit of skin from my forehead.
Conventional wisdom suggests not taking any of this seriously. It's the really? plastered on the faces of people whose immediate response to "My favorite band right now is Diarrhea Planet" isn't, "That's an awesome band name," which I can assuredly say happens more than you’d think. Jordan and friend Evan P. Donohue (who left the band in 2010 to focus on his own music) started DP while students at Nashville's Belmont University, a school best known for its top-notch music program that pipelines the next generation of Dr. Lukes and Lyor Cohens into the major-label system. Only Emmett and Casey were performance majors, but all played instruments, and no musician can escape Belmont's stuffy, self-serious environment rife with an air of pre-destined greatness and smack in middle of the country music capital of the world. It's exactly the kinda thing that makes antsy, angsty 90s kids reared on an assortment of hardcore, grindcore, (pop-) punk, emo, indie rock, and the kinds of glorious alterna-tunes you'd hear on a Buzz compilation want to start a band called Diarrhea Planet. Y'know, to fuck with people. ‘Cause that's the shit you do when you're bored and in your early 20s. And while immaturity has always been a punk tenet at some level, it's the best bands that recognize when it becomes a crutch, or worse a veil.
"Before, we've always kinda hidden behind a party attitude, like we don't care," Jordan says jammed up against the backseat window of the band's van crammed with the five other Planeteers, buddy Jared Park (who plays guitar with fellow Nashvillian, Torres), myself, and all their gear. "But it's always been kind of a bitter satire of that; it's kind of a stupid way to do things all the time. I'm not saying we aren't about fun, because we are"
—"I'm not," Evan deadpans from the backseat—
"but this record is more honest," Jordan says through the laughs. "It is the first time I've ever actually stated how I'm feeling or where I am mentally, or where I am at in my life, and was honest and didn't hide behind things."
"It's 6:20," Mike says to Jordan, "we'd be in the middle of the friday night rush right now."
"If we were driving?" Jordan asks.
"No. At work."
"Oh, yeah!" They crack up as the three of us head out of the Austin Convention center, where we've just picked up some discounted earplugs, goofiness be damned. (The salesman looked like he'd had vacuum hose stuffed down his throat and switched on full blast when Jordan told him what decibel level the band played at the previous night: "Um, sound guy had us at one-hundred thirteen.") To support their rocking over the past few years, pretty much everyone in Diarrhea Planet has worked at the same Papa John’s in Nashville, a.k.a the Pizza Palace. Jordan even became a shift manager—a position he thinks he'll be able to ditch for good before the band embarks on massive summer tour before the release of I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams.
The album follows-up their 2011 debut, Loose Jewels, a blistering, 18-minute bit of power punk that, like good pizza and cheap beer, was over too fast and left you just craving more. Moments like the hangtime bridge on "Ice Age," the back-to-back build-n-bellows on "My Head" and "Your Dubs," and the tiptoe lead riff of "Raft Nasty" were like manna from some sort of thrash happy deity, but nothing on the LP seemed to reach the monstrous bombast of "Mutt-Feast," track two on their Yama-Uba 7", released a few months earlier. First time I heard its fret-tap breakdown I had to stop putting away my laundry, pick up the needle, and drop it back a few grooves to make sure I'd heard what I thought I'd heard. It was the kinda thing that hadn't reached my ears since I was 16, a student at Paul Green's School of Rock, gawking at this 17-year-old maestro with fingers and hair that flew like Mustaine's, named (of all names) Courtney Cox, who would just lay waste to the neck of her snarled, blinding white Peavy V-Type. I also couldn't remember the last time any rock song had actually made me giddy.
For what it's worth, the budget for Loose Jewels amounted to pretty much nothing, making it damn near impossible for the Planet to delve into the kinds of extravagances they already had in the works. "Lite Dream," along with I'm Rich tracks like "Kids," "Babyhead," and Brent's "Hammer" found their way into DP sets, all of them longer efforts that revealed a heightened awareness of how to mix luxurious bombast with emotional nuance. A video session recorded by Paste in late 2011 is where I first heard "Kids," a sprawling, piecemeal slow-burner that's the undeniable centerpiece of I'm Rich. Slowed down a few ticks now, it bears its stupid, childish self on its back across a wash of melodies that recede then proceed towards a bonkers catharsis that at first appears to be an extended fret-tapping duel between Emmett and Evan, but reveals itself immediately after when all four guitarists execute two too perfect, too hysterical, and too astonishingly poignant synced-up, stop-on-a-dime fret-slides.
"The way I think about it, everything serves a purpose to lead to a different emotion," Jordan says of his songwriting that tends to eschew verse-chorus-verse, while chowing down on enchiladas at an Austin restaurant. "So it's a really quiet sad part, but that really quiet sad part needs something to completely destroy it and turn it into something super destructive." It's a more honest style of songwriting, he figures, especially in contrast to the often strict structural constraints of radio pop. The linear arrangements allow for a stream of hooks that flows from one place to another, arriving somewhere you didn't know you had any interest in going ‘til you got there (a sensation familiar to anyone whose favorite Pavement record is Wowee Zowee). To that, Diarrhea Planet's sensibilities haven't really changed; it's just that on I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams everyone wanted, as Casey puts it an hour later, "Bigger.”
"Just big," adds Emmett.
Then Brent, "We wanted it to be as big as possible."
"Well and everybody got way better," explains Jordan. "Everybody's practiced so much, improved musically, that we were able to do stuff we weren't before."
Mike and Casey have formed an extra bulletproof low end, with Jordan referring to the bassist as "the rhinoceros everybody rides on." Casey's manic, absurdly impenetrable drumming careens in grooves flecked with sudden fills—it's something you can actually dance to and has without a doubt become the band's double-secret weapon (he often plays with his sticks flipped upside down for louder hits that can be hear over the guitars). As for the quartet, Jordan ticks off everyone's strengths without hesitation: Emmett's the master of texture, able to plumb chords for just the right emotion; Brent's who you turn to when you need a big, classic, sleazy lead; Evan can handle any part no matter how frustrating, difficult or totally ridiculous (he’s also good for Danny Elfman-esque leads). And Jordan? "Power," Emmett replies, with Casey adding among the laughter: "Awesome songwriting. You can always depend on him to come up with a cool song."
That supreme inter-band understanding was on display when Diarrhea Planet trekked north to New Paltz, New York to record I'm Rich at Marcata Recordings, the barn-turned-studio owned and operated by Kevin S. McMahon. The longtime producer for Titus Andronicus (he's also worked with The Walkmen, Swans and Real Estate among countless others), it was avid Planet advocate, and Titus frontman, Patrick Stickles who introduced McMahon to the group while they worked on Local Business. Over the course of a few phone calls, it became clear Diarrhea Planet had Massive on their mind, but given budgetary and time constraints McMahon admitted even he was nervous about whether they'd be able to get everything done: "If you guys are ready I can keep up with you for sure," he told them at the time. "Then having the band show up and be so on a fucking major mission," he continued during our phone conversation, "it was really an awesome thing." For eight days in December—split in half by a few tour dates—they recorded, lived and slept in a freezing barn with no shower and only a microwave to cook their food.
"It was like indoor camping," Emmett says. "It was awesome. Plus just being in that tiny little city that's—sorry, Kevin—so far away from civilization, it was like, 'We're here to record.'"
Underneath the towering 30-foot ceilings of Marcata's live room, Diarrhea Planet set up shop and went straight to work cutting basics. There was no "sweatin' the deets," as Jordan puts it, and not even the frontman's sudden breakout of bronchitis cloud slow them down. Despite some concerns and minor handwringing, McMahon estimates Jordan cranked his vocals out in about four hours. "It forced me to sing instead of scream," the singer says almost nonchalant, "which I think ended up sounding better than if I'd been yelling the whole record." The producer recalls the ensuing days rushing by in a blur of guitar pyrotechnics, great explosions of stuff, and just heaps of ear candy—most of it recorded during those initial live-to-tape sessions. "Everybody playing the song right is usually what you're shooting for," McMahon says, adding that crucial musical moments like guitar solos are typically overdubbed to ensure perfection. "But having everybody play the song right and then three guitar solos happen—and you’re gonna use that guitar solo because it will be in the room mics; you won't get rid of it—that's something you just don't expect people to pull off." To top it all off, DP had only finished fleshing out most of the songs in the two weeks before hitting the studio.
"They were a rare example of a band that were able to show up and do that level of like, 'Oh, shit!' as the band that they actually are," McMahon says.
After the first four days, the band split for a few shows while McMahon enlisted his friend/bandmate Kornelius "Kees" (pronounced: "Case") Port to conjure a few starting point drones based on some emotional cues, rather than the songs themselves, that were later filtered and tweaked to the band's liking when they returned. "He was like, 'Here's a kazoo feeding back through a full stack with a ton of effects on it,'" recalls Emmett. The final four days were dedicated to vocals and scattered overdubs, and included a visit from Stickles and Titus guitarist Adam Reich, who added two of the nine solos (along with McMahon, his assistant Sandy Davis, and Port) originally tracked on album closer "Emmett's Vision."
"We ended up dialing it back a little bit," the song's namesake admits.
"’Cause it sounded kinda bad," chimes Jordan.
"But we did it!" Emmett points out with pride. "And that's what's important."
The rallying cry for the I'm Rich sessions was "Go Yankees," the by-product of a late-night conversation on the age-old Mets/Yankees duality, the fat cats with championships vs. the blue collar hero team. It wasn't that Diarrhea Planet had the money to indulge in the wonders of production, but the sentiment was basically, if you've got the opportunity and the means to go absolutely batshit H.A.M. wild, why wouldn't you? Or as Casey puts it: "It was like, 'Should we put another guitar solo on this?' Go Yankees."
The first time I saw Diarrhea Planet back in May 2011, I did not know they played with four guitarists. I'd heard their Aloha! EP (recorded when Evan P. Donohue was still in the group) after a friend had linked me to the Eevil Weevil BandCamp. I dug the gnarled guitar hooks and copious chants in the grand I-don't-know-what-I'm-actually-singing-along-with tradition of "Louie Louie;" but the band more or less sat in the back of my head until a few months later when Patrick Stickles — in a surge of punk pride following Titus' cover of Replacements covers at the Our Band Could Be Your Life concert — plugged DP's first NYC show at Shea Stadium. The following night, I left the Brooklyn DIY spot unable to comprehend why more rock bands didn't play with four guitarists.
"We wanted to rock as hard as possible," Jordan says of the quartet's origins.
"I thought having three guitars was the dumbest thing ever," Mike adds. "I just thought it was stupid, and now we have four."
It was never the band's outright goal, but something that just made perfect sense as it became a reality. By the time of Donohue's departure, the band was already doing this thing where they'd invite friends up on stage to rip during shows—their record: 6 guitarists—and among the guests were Emmett and Evan Bird, who played in another band with Jordan and Casey. Those two started contributing joke parts to DP tracks that were Ha-Ha funny, but also funny in the way that an unexpected bout of harmonics or an extra-raging riff will hit the part of your brain that goes DINGDINGDING whenever "Semi-Charmed Life" comes on the radio.
"I've always wanted to make music that makes kids feel like they did right after they watched School of Rock," Emmett says a few hours before he and Evan scramble up the light rig at Cheer Up Charlie's. "I know I had the same experiences as so many other kids after seeing that movie: I just went home, plugged in and practiced non-stop. And I think having this new record, personally, I wanted to write parts that challenged myself. I wanted to see how far I could push myself."
Fueling the Planet’s evolution over the past few years is a hyper earnest approach to music that subscribes to the maxim that nothing in rock music ever actually dies. It just gets eaten by whatever comes next. It’s the reason a great rock and roll song, I’ve always figured, sounds like every great rock and roll song you've ever heard. In Diarrhea Planet, you have six people bringing their ideas of what that entails to the table, as well as a musician's respect for the stuff they don't personally dig. Together they figure out how to meld it all together into something greater than any one thing; something surprising, something impossibly fun and bursting with life. They're feelings Jordan's become more adept at expressing in his own lyrics, picking up cues from Stickles, one of punk's current heart-on-sleeve kings. A good amount still gets lost in Jordan's bellows, but what sticks out in a song like "Separations," the first single from I'm Rich, is an honesty that's as candid, even brutal, as it is wholly life-affirming: "She's got a leg up when she tells me / That right now is the worst time to feel so heavy / You keep shutting down and sinking / You've got to get up and carry on.'" Immediately followed by a pristine shout-along that’s impossible to misconstrue: "So dig your heels in / And grit your teeth in / And quit your bitching!"
Jordan tells me there used to be something of a no-noodling before sets rule, but that went out the window when even he couldn't help but throw a few fret taps and licks into the menagerie of familiar riffs—Sabbath to Green Day—Evan, Emmett and Brent would play during soundcheck (without fail, Emmett always strums Third Eye Blind's "Never Let You Go"). It's more fun that way, Jordan says, and more importantly, it makes people laugh. But it's also during these soundchecks where you really get a sense of how distinct each player in Diarrhea Planet is, a chance to see the brief sparks of individuality in the moments before they coalesce.
"I have the best bandmates I've ever played with, and some of the best musicians I've ever seen," Jordan says. "And I feel like it's my responsibility to give them my best offering and I feel like everybody in general feels that way—this need to give our best to one another because that's what is gonna keep everything moving forward. And it just keeps it better for everybody."
Back in New York a few weeks later, I take a friend from high school to see Diarrhea Planet at Shea Stadium. He hadn't heard a single note of theirs, just all of my unending praise. But knowing some of the doofy rock radio we used to get hype about as teenagers, I figured he'd love it. His gleeful exclamation, "Disgusting! This is disgusting!" following the triumphant barrage of solos that concludes "Emmett's Vision" was confirmation enough. "I heard so much in there, like all this metal and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Blink-182 and I don't even know!" he gushed afterwards. "All these things that made me feel just huge, like I was back in middle school or something." Diarrhea Planet treat rock and pop like a playground: building bigger slides and wilder jungle gyms to accommodate the possibilities borne out of their ever-growing chops and understanding of the musical spectrum.
On I'm Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, Diarrhea Planet worked towards that balance between clarity of intent and freedom of outcome: "With the first record and some of the shows we played on those early tours, we would be really solid in one of those two capacities, and we'd kinda vacillate between this extreme one side or the other," Evan says. "But I think now we're getting more tuned in to what we actually want."
"Dolly Parton said in an interview on NPR," Jordan adds, with a quick laugh, "'You gotta figure out what you're doing and then do it on purpose.' And I think that's what we're getting at."
"That's a great quote," nods Casey.
"We've been trying to figure out what we want to say,” Jordan continues, “and now we're trying to do that to the best of our ability, and do it actually on purpose and not have to keep discovering who we are I guess."
I know, for sure, this is growing up.
Posted on August 20, 2013. More on: diarrhea planet, sxsw, ghost with a boner, sxsw imposition, austin, texas, side bar, casey weissbuch, mike boyle, jordan smith, wnyu, longbranch inn, pitchfork, jayson greene, bill brasky, belmont university, dr luke, lyor cohen, loose jewels, im rich beyond your wildest dreams, marcata recordings, kevin s mcmahon, titus andronicus, the walkmen, swans, real estate, cheer up charlies