Interview with producer Alex P. Willson and director Ardavon Fatehi | By Robert Duguay
Much of rock ’n’ roll’s lore comes from tragedy. Take a look at what happened to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper on the fateful evening of Feb. 3, 1959. Ever since that plane crash took their lives, each of them has become a sort of legend, immortalized on film.
The 21st century had its own similar event happen with the Portland, Oregon, garage punk act The Exploding Hearts. Vocalist and guitarist Adam Cox, bassist Matt Fitzgerald, drummer Jeremy Gage, and guitarist Terry Six seemed to be on their way to stardom until a van accident during the summer of 2003 left Six as the only survivor.
Since that horrific event, the band have been rediscovered on a regular basis by rock music fans. Their only album, 2003’s Guitar Romantic, and a posthumous release, 2006’s Shattered, have gained a cult fanbase. Along with the popularity also comes numerous stories and rumors about the band’s demise. To get the story straight, a documentary about The Exploding Hearts will come out later in 2019.
Producer Alex P. Willson and director Ardavon Fatehi share about the inspiration behind the film, getting people close to the band to do interviews, and what they hope viewers will take from it after they see it.
What inspired you to make the documentary in the first place, and what’s your personal connection to The Exploding Hearts?
Fatehi: I actually grew up with them, and I went to high school with them. We played in a lot of bands together, and The Exploding Hearts was the culmination of a bunch of us in high school doing that. We would play some crappy garage punk during the ’90s, and when they formed, they took that style and made it really good. During the first show they ever played, my band at the time opened up. This was in a basement in Northeast Portland. I was pretty heavily involved in all that, and after the accident, it hit me hard, and it did for quite a while.
Terry and I stayed in touch, but not too much. Around five years ago, he approached me about making a film. Since the band ended, I’ve made a nice career for myself as a filmmaker. He came up to me and said, “Hey, do you want to make a movie about the band? I don’t have trust in a lot of people to do it, but I know you, and I want to get the story about us out there. It could be a cool opportunity if you’re interested.” At first, I wasn’t entirely down to do it. I just wasn’t sure. A bunch of stuff was going to be rehashed emotionally for me, and I knew that it was going to be a lot of work.
Ultimately, I decided to do it. It was a lot of work to do the documentary, but it was also a lot more rewarding. It’s probably the most rewarding project I’ve ever been a part of.
What was the Portland music scene like at that time? Was it a lot more underground? Were there a lot more venues around? How much has it changed since then?
Fatehi: I left Portland around 15 years ago, so I’m not 100 percent sure how it is now, but I do know that the city has changed a lot. Back then, Portland was like this secret city and not a lot of people knew about it. There was a tight-knit community, and everybody knew everybody. In the late ’90s, especially in the punk scene, there was a garage pop thing kind of going on. There was also hardcore punk and crust punk stuff.
I could refer to the style and the aesthetic as melodramatic. That’s kind of what Portland is: It’s just a dark, grey town, and it was definitely that kind of place during the ’90s. When The Exploding Hearts came out, they were like peacocks. They were colorful, they were brash, and they were young. They kind of rubbed people the wrong way but in the most punk rock ways.
It was a lot different than what you hear about going on in Portland nowadays, that’s for sure.
Going into making the documentary, when it came to your personal goals and getting into the thick of it, what was the main thing you wanted to capture?
Willson: I didn’t want it to be some type of VH1 “Behind the Music” thing. There was more of a human element when it came to the story of The Exploding Hearts. It was tough to find, but during the process, we eventually got it down. From talking to people who were there and how tragic the accident was, there was a lot of personal growth that happened. Even in the past few years, people affected by the sudden loss of Adam, Matt, and Jeremy have come a very long way.
You can say the same for Terry. After over a decade, he’s been getting back into playing music and just getting back into music in general. It’s not fully healing, but there’s definitely a growing process that’s occurring. My main goal was just to tell the story right and honor them in a way they would want and in a way they deserve. I didn’t want to mess that up, and it was a huge thing throughout the filming and storyboarding that we were conscious of. We wanted to do it proper right from the get-go.
It’s not just a tribute piece or your typical documentary. This is a really amazing story besides it being about The Exploding Hearts, about rebirth and redemption. Whether people are into punk or rock ’n’ roll, they’ll enjoy this. It’s an incredible story about tragedy, but also, it’s an incredible story about inspiration as well.
That’s definitely evident from the trailers so far. Was it difficult getting the interviews together with the band’s circle of friends or was everyone pretty approachable about being a part of the documentary?
Fatehi: This comes from another reason why Terry thought that I’d be the right guy to do this. A lot of these people who were there, who know so much about this band aren’t easy to find, but I know them all and they’re still in my phonebook. I had to take a leap of faith from that phonebook with all their numbers on it to track them down [laughs]. A lot of people were kind of nervous; we were so young when it happened, and with it being your close friends and your peers, it’s monumental. A lot of people put those emotions away the best they could, and they never really went back there.
A lot of the people we interviewed were going back to this time in their lives for the first time, and it was very genuine, very honest, and also very sad. When it came to living that moment over and over again with people, we felt what we were doing was becoming more necessary and what we were getting was so, so real. That’s so important.
When the documentary comes out and fans watch it, what do you hope they take away from it? What do you want them to feel?
Willson: From my perspective, we just really want people to know the real story. The Exploding Hearts have become somewhat of a legend that’s passed from one rock ’n’ roller or one punk to another. There are so many versions of stories that have come up over the years, and I didn’t grow up with these guys, but I grew up as a fan of their music. There are different rumors about what happened and different information being thrown around. Everyone seems to have a different story about what happened with the band.
Fatehi: Everyone has a different perspective about what happened, and it’s interesting how word of mouth can change people’s thoughts. That’s what our real goal is: just tell the story and get it right. We want to present it in the most authentic way possible.