The Nice Boys sound like good-time music. “Teenage Nights”, the opener from their self-titled debut, kicks off with a hard cowbell beat, erupts into ragged romantic guitar licks and finally crests to its power-pop peak in a wave of Cheap Trick harmonies. And that’s just for starters. “Johnny Guitar”, the single, rocks like a thousand Saturday nights, all jump-kicked power chords and bad boy charm.
So it might surprise you that the story of the Nice Boys starts in a very dark place. It begins with guitarist Terry Six living with his parents in Portland, Oregon, trying to put his life together after a van crash killed three of his best buddies and brought the Exploding Hearts, one of garage-punk’s most promising bands, to a dead stop.
Shell-shocked, confused, unsure what to do and unable to move forward, Six might have languished there at home for years, except for the care of a friend. Guitarist Gabe Lageson from the Riffs, a band that Exploding Hearts had often played with, started coming over nights and afternoons bringing a guitar. He’d check on Six regularly, at first to make sure he was okay and later to try and prod him into making music. Gradually, the two began writing songs together. Six, who didn’t know what he wanted at first, began to realize that music was a big part of who he’d been, what he was, and who he might be in the future. It was something he couldn’t give up, no matter how painful the memories might be.
Slowly the two began crafting songs, not just on the fast, abrasive punk that had been Exploding Hearts and the Riffs’ main course, but glam and 1970s power-pop as well. “Finally, we just said, ‘Why don’t we do this?’” Six recalled. They recorded a single together, Six contributing the a-side “You Don’t See Me Anymore” and Lageson the b-side “Lipstick Love”. The single drew rave reviews from punk rock bibles like Horizontal Action and Maximum Rock ‘N Roll called it “a perfectly written and perfectly executed pop masterpiece”. A little later, Colin Jarrell and Alan Mansfield, the rhythm section from the Riffs, joined up, and the Nice Boys were on their way.
The full-length confirmed what the single had hinted—that Nice Boys weren’t going to be Exploding Hearts II or Riffs the Sequel, but an entirely new enterprise. “The Hearts were more focused on making 1970s punk mixed with Nick Lowe. That was our angle,” said Six. The Riffs, by contrast, drew hard 1970s punk comparisons like Sex Pistols and Dead Boys. The new band would be harder to classify by design. “Our influences were just all of the music we could think of that we love—from any time,” said Six. “I like to think of this self-titled record as like a foundation record. So that the next record we put out, we won’t be throwing a curve ball at the listeners. They’ll be like ... oh wow, they did a little bit of that on their last record. So we did every single genre we could think of that we all loved.”
Picture Six and Lageson sitting in a living room, guitars plugged in, record covers everywhere, tossing band names and song titles back and forth. “Part of it just came out of the songs we were writing,” said Six, “but we also consciously tried to include as many genres as possible. We knew we wanted to have a later 1978 or 1979 kind of Cheap Trick sounding song. And then we wanted to have a George Harrison song, and then, of course, we wanted the glam because we’re all glam heads here.”
Six and Lageson split songwriting duties fairly equally, with Six kicking in “Johnny Guitar”, “Ain’t Been Beat”, and the very Big Star-ish “Southern Streets” (which Six says was inspired by a visit to Memphis where he was held up at gunpoint on the way home from an Oblivians show). Meanwhile Lageson penned the power-chorded “Teenage Nights” and the baroquely splendid, ELO- and Beatles-tripping “Avenue 29”. A third songwriting band member, keyboard player Brian Lelko joined this year after the album came out on Birdman Records.
Yet while songwriting is split, the singing is all down to Six, who said he gradually getting used to his new role. (He didn’t sing at all in the Exploding Hearts.) “Singing’s hard,” he admitted. “I’m still learning, but I’m more comfortable now, and I need to deal with it. I’m getting there.”
Playing guitar, by contrast “is like breathing”, not surprising when you consider Six has been playing since age 11. “My parents rented an acoustic guitar for me at first, because they were like, he’s not going to be into it. So, that way when I asked for a tennis racket…” (Thirteen years later, Six has a guitar and a tennis racket.)
Mostly self-taught, Six admitted to two lessons with a Portland-area teacher. “I told him, dude, just show me how to play ‘Judy is a Punk,’ and instead he started going on this Eric Clapton trip, I was like, “I don’t care about that stuff. So I just started picking it up. I made my own way.”
While still in his teens, Six hooked up with Adam Cox, Matt Fitzgerald and Jeremy Gage to form Exploding Hearts. The band’s Guitar Romantic, released on Dirtnap Records in 2002, was a breakout success. Pitchfork called it “simply a fucking awesome power-pop record” and gave it an 8.8 rating. The band seemed poised for major, mainstream success a la the Strokes. And then, on July 20th, 2003, Exploding Hearts’ tour van flipped over near Eugene Oregon, killing Cox and Gage instantly and Fitzgerald several hours later at the hospital. Terry Six survived with minor injuries, as did the band’s manager.
The band’s reputation has continued to grow, however, and this year Dirtnap Records put out Shattered, a collection of unreleased Exploding Hearts tracks from 2001 to 2003. Six said that he wasn’t consulted about the reissue and wasn’t happy when he found out how closely it was timed to coincide with the Nice Boys’ release. Still, lately, listening to it, he has begun to change his mind. “I saw Matt Fitzgerald’s mom over the Thanksgiving holiday, and she gave me a copy of it,” he said. “She was like, ‘You don’t have a copy?’ I listened to it. It sounded great. I thought I’d be a little bummed because it would be some competition with what I’m doing right now, but at the same time, I’m just glad that it’s out ... I’m really, really happy about that. It’s a good thing for me to have that album.”
Six says that even now it’s hard for him to listen to the old tunes. “But sometimes when I get wasted, I will play it for people, and go, ‘Listen to that shit. Wasn’t it fucking great?’” he admitted. Asked what people should remember about Exploding Hearts, he thought for a minute, then replied. “We tried to really give something to everybody that we all loved and we wanted to give it back and we did. I think we did a really good job at that. We showed that we could ... we showed them that if we could do this, they could, too ... anybody that loved that kind of music could do it.” And, if The Nice Boys debut is any signal, they can do it again and again. Maybe the best memorial for one great band is another.