Beloved Nashville power-punk band Diarrhea Planet had already booked their farewell shows when Jason Isbell’s camp called offering an item on every Music City musician’s bucket list: a gig at the Ryman.
“Being [from] Nashville, if somebody calls you and asks you to play at the Ryman, you can’t really pass it up,” frontman Jordan Smith tells Rolling Stone of what’s slated to be the serious band with the infamously shitty name’s last hurrah, opening the fifth show of Isbell’s six-night run next month at the Mother Church of Country Music. “And with Jason Isbell? It’s like, c’mon, man, that’s ridiculous. … We’ve always wanted to play on that stage. We’ve joked and dreamed about how insane it would be to see a band called Diarrhea Planet at the Ryman. How could you not do it?”
It’ll actually be the second time the four-guitarist sextet has shared the stage with Isbell and his wrecking crew the 400 Unit. The first was a Grammy block party at Nashville’s Cumberland Park in 2016.
The Ryman gig — DP joins fellow Music City flagship punks Bully, Infinity Cat Records labelmates Jeff the Brotherhood, Amanda Shires, Molly Tuttle and Melanie Faye as Isbell’s local openers — makes a full-circle storybook ending for a band of riff-roaring outcasts born of the blood, sweat and beers basement shows of Nashville’s DIY underground in 2009.
But while the Ryman may be Diarrhea Planet’s last waltz on paper, Smith likes to think of it more of a victory lap to Shred Thee Well: the band’s emotional, sold-out three-night stand of official farewell shows at Exit/In earlier this month. DP’s moshing and crowdsurfing crowds are almost as celebrated as the band’s name. Observing the scene of little human tornadoes from the back of the room looks like punk-rock storm chasing. Smith anticipates the Ryman will be a more uncharacteristic, laid-back affair. “It’s probably not really going to be as close to the DP family sort of vibe we like [at our own shows],” he says.
But at Exit/In, over the course of three nights that grew with exponential exuberance, the room was filled with fans sporting involuntary 10-mile-wide grins as they rocked out and air-guitared to scorchers like “Separations” and “Field of Dreams,” along with epic covers like AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” By night three — which Smith says, “was honestly my favorite show I’ve ever played in my whole life” — local fans who came of age with the band, and die-hards who traveled from states far and wide, were singing along with the fervor of a Nashville Predators playoff-game crowd and shedding tears of bittersweet joy as the band bid farewell with its own encore-worthy staples “Kids” and “Ghost With a Boner” (yes, actual song title).
But it was depression and the pressures of adulthood — built up from too many miles on the lonely road — that broke up a band that so sonically personified joy. An hour or so before DP hit the stage for the (second to) last time, Smith is relaxed but animated as he paces the parking lot behind Exit/In, reflecting on burn-out and the realities of life in a touring rock band in 2018 that are forcing him and his bandmates — guitarists Evan Bird, Emmett Miller and Brent Toler, bassist Mike Boyle, and drummer Ian Bush — to walk away from the group he started on a lighthearted lark as a frustrated undergraduate at Belmont University nine years ago.
Going back to 2009, what were your aspirations when you started the band?
Getting your rocks off. That’s it. … Me and [former guitarist and co-founder] Evan Donohue were just feeling a little bit trapped and stifled by Belmont and our music projects. We were playing in a band called the Only Good Thing About the ’40s, that kind of became something that wasn’t really what we both had envisioned when we started that group, and we both just felt a need to do something a little bit more intense and extreme. We found our home [when] we started going to MeeMaw shows and Marj shows — those were my two favorite bands in Nashville — and [we] both found an identity in that sound. … I think our first aspirations were just to have something like that to call our own, because there were so many different bands in the Nashville scene at the time that were doing that thing. That didn’t exist at Belmont. And they didn’t want Belmont to have that either. Nobody wanted anything to do with [us]. So [Diarrhea Planet] was just our way of getting our rocks off and blowing off some steam.
How much do you attribute the band’s early exposure to its unconventional name?
It’s definitely a litmus test [Laughs]. If somebody says that band name, you’ll never forget it. I think our name did a really good job of breaking down any esoteric barriers, so that everybody could come and have a great time, and it just made it sillier and more fun probably. It made it clear that this was a thing for you to enjoy. It wasn’t here to have any pretense. It’s big, it’s dumb, it’s fun — this is what it is. You don’t expect it to be good.
If you’re a band that gets attention for its name, then you really have to own the rest of what you’re doing and transcend that and define yourselves.
Yeah. And our whole thing, too, is that it couldn’t have been anything that was cool, hip or perverted. Like Fucked Up [whose booking agent, Smith notes, declined to represent them because of their name]. People wanted to talk shit on Diarrhea Planet’s name, it’s like, you can say our name in a kindergarten classroom. But you can’t say, like, Anal Cunt or Fucked Up, or any of those band’s names. So our thing was like, we didn’t want it to be offensive just for the sake of turning people off or shocking people. We just wanted it to be funny and dumb, and the rule was it had to be something you can say in front of an 11-year-old and not have the parents frown at you and have to cover their kid’s ears.
So why end the band now?
To be honest, the real, main reason that we’re doing this is because we all love ourselves to watch ourselves keep going down this road. For the last two years, we’ve all battled [burnout]. We were different than a lot of bands in that, most bands, what they do is they drop an album and then support that album for about six months, and they come home and they take a little time off. And we never stopped. We did a full tour schedule every year from the day after I graduated from Belmont in 2011, and we just never stopped. And so when you tour like that — that many days a year — you build up a lot of mental static.
You can’t build a normal life at home if you’re always on the road.
Yeah. And you’re stuck in it. We [had a band meeting] and realized we’re all really unhappy. And we’ve all been dealing with the feast-or-famine bullshit of the music industry, where you’re either hood rich or you’re basically, like, almost on the street, stressing out, and we all felt like it was time to incorporate some self-love and get our adult lives back on track. I haven’t had a car for 10 years. First thing I did when we stopped, I worked 60 hours a week and bought a car, right away. I couldn’t have done that in DP. We all made a lot of sacrifices, and gave up things like having a car, having a girlfriend, having a job, having a life. We all watched our friends whittle away, being gone. And so we all reached this point where, when we sat down to have the conversation — we were having a meeting that was actually about something else —I came in, and two of the others guys came in, and we were all like, I can’t do this or I’m gonna put a gun in my mouth and end this by the time I’m 32. It’s just the weird mental thing that happens to every musician that tours too much. I haven’t woken up in eight years without feeling an impending sense of doom of like, I have to have a new record ready, I have to make something happen. It’s that creative pressure.
Do you think Diarrhea Planet will ever play again?
Yeah. As much as I hate to cop to this stuff this early on and give away anything that could possibly happen, we’ve already talked about, like, it’d be cool to see in five years, seven years, three years, if we get a phone call, “Hey, we’ve got this thing! Festival or whatever. Could you guys reunite to do it?” It’s like, “Alright!” I think we all just need a break for a bit.
How would you describe the Diarrhea Planet concert experience, in terms of what it is you were setting out to create?
It really blew my mind reading that article [Lance Conzett wrote for the Nashville Scene], because that was it: The whole point of Diarrhea Planet was — and I say this hoping I don’t insult anyone here in the scene, or anybody in Nashville — but when I moved here I felt very much like an outsider. I felt like I didn’t belong here. People made it clear they didn’t want me here. People very much tried to exclude me and keep me out. But the problem is they greatly underestimated my personality and who I am. You tell me no, and I am going to drill you until you give me a yes, and so Diarrhea Planet was kind of the spirit of resistance against that exclusivity, esoteric, “No, you’re not cool enough” [attitude]. And DP was my way of saying, “Well fuck this! I’m going to make something for all the people who you’ve done this to, and they’re all gonna come over here, and then you guys are gonna want to come over here, because it’s going to be better and you’ll see it.”
And that’s what it was: I wanted to make something that was able to be experienced by everybody, and that everybody would get. Our shows have always been the most open, non-pretentious [events].
So even though it was inspired by a certain kind of spite…
It was! It was motivated very much by spite.
But it still was manifested as this uber-positive, inclusive thing?
Yeah. You know, I’m from the Midwest, I grew up getting called — excuse me — but I got called “faggot” every day because I had long hair and tight clothes. I just always felt like a weird black sheep in Indiana, because I didn’t want to dress like everybody in Indiana. I didn’t want to wear Old Navy baggy cargo pants and stuff like that. I wanted to play in a punk band. And so DP’s purpose was just love … If there’s anything we’re remembered for, I hope we’re remembered for being a force of love and positivity — and we used electric guitars to get that point across.