Inside the end of Nashville DIY’s least-likely semi-success story
Here is an epitaph: They did everything wrong.
At the turning point of the ’00s and ’10s, a hinge point in which rock music slid further into its lowest influence culturally and economically, they started a band that blended pop-punk and ’90s alt-rock and old-school punk and hard rock and hair metal in ways imperceptible, winning over the freaks who loved loud guitars but not securing themselves a steady career in any specific subgenre. They not only split their meager profits between six members, but committed the insanity of employing four guitarists. They toured themselves into the ground, garnering acolytes wherever they played live but never releasing an album that totally captured that runaway energy. They started a ridiculous rock band in an era with little space or tolerance for ridiculous rock bands. They looked upon this work, and of all things they named it Diarrhea Planet.
There was no way this should’ve worked. The version of Diarrhea Planet that existed at the end of their lifeline, at the height of their powers, should’ve been unsustainable from the start. There is little reason that a band like this should’ve found a foothold beyond the scuzzier corners of individual American cities’ DIY scenes. There was no way this should’ve worked. And yet it did, allowing Diarrhea Planet to get much further than anyone would’ve reasonably expected. That is: It worked until it didn’t anymore. And now, one of the most implausible stories of ’10s rock music has reached its conclusion.
On July 23, Diarrhea Planet abruptly announced their impending breakup along with details of two final shows at a hometown venue, Nashville’s Exit/In. Billed as Shred Thee Well, the goodbye run was soon extended to three nights. And the band eventually offered more of a reason for the decision, if only to explain there wasn’t any big dramatic reason: “So here it is: Nothing really happened. We all feel that Diarrhea Planet has run its course (yeah we finally made a poop joke but fuck it y’all love it) and are ready to move on to the next chapters of our lives,” the band said in a statement. The news arrived just over two years past the release of their third and final full-length, 2016’s Turn To Gold.
One might assume that a band like Diarrhea Planet — with a fervent yet cult-sized following — saying goodbye in their hometown would yield local shows mostly attended by the friends and diehards who had been there from the start. But the true reach of an artist is revealed in death, and it quickly became clear that these shows would attract more than just Nashville locals. They would be a pilgrimage, fans venturing from around the country to feel the high of a Diarrhea Planet show one more time, to pay tribute to one of the least-likely semi-success stories of the Nashville rock scene that bubbled up earlier this decade.
So I decided to join them. I traveled down to Nashville to speak with the band members about their decision and their lives today. To mark the passing of Diarrhea Planet. To mark the passing of a brief, vivid, specific passage of Nashville’s music scene with them. To mark the passing of their collective youth.
What came to be known to us outsiders as the East Nashville DIY rock scene — one niche counterargument to the city’s big-business country music industry — is just one part of a wave of changes that have swept across Nashville this decade. It’s a story common to smaller cities across America in recent years: people fleeing, in droves, more expensive metropolises for places like Nashville, inevitably bringing with them higher rents as much as they might bring new burgeoning cultural opportunities. Diarrhea Planet toyed with a few other locales for their goodbye shows — Chicago, New York, newer and bigger venues in Nashville. But in the end they had to bring it all back home, not just to the town that birthed the band but also to a venue that they have deep history with, first selling it out for the show celebrating the release of their 2013 semi-breakthrough I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams.
The street that Exit/In sits on also houses a handful of bars, restaurants, and vintage shops. The short trip between my hotel and the venue, however, is lined with glitzy high-rise hotels and new constructions in skeletal form. If you walk those streets at night, they are eerily silent while holding the promise of more crowds to come. If you take a car, the driver might be a local eager to puzzle over the ubiquity of bachelorette parties peddling around town in party vans or the tourists exploring the city by way of scooters, still wrapping their heads around how rapidly Nashville is becoming unrecognizable to them.
When I first arrive at Exit/In, it’s the quiet before the storm. It’s early evening on Thursday, early evening on the first of the three goodbye shows. Diarrhea Planet are soundchecking. For one of the last times, all six of these men are onstage together: Jordan Smith, Emmet Miller, Evan Bird, and Brent Toler flanked across the front of the stage with their guitars, with Mike Boyle and Ian Bush backing them up on bass and drums, respectively. This is, actually, also the first time in quite a while that all six of these men are onstage together: Boyle left a year ago to attend nursing school, a turning point that in hindsight might denote the beginning of Diarrhea Planet’s dissolution.
Have you ever seen a rock band with four guitarists try to soundcheck? It’s like your middle-school band somehow turned professional. Stray riffs of rock’s dead past echo around an empty room, one man warming up with “Walk This Way” while another introduces an instrumental “You Sexy Thing” reading that evolves into a full-band jam reminiscent of the Allman Bros. interpreting the song with plenty of dueling guitars. The band goes at it for a few minutes, crushingly loud but only hinting at the joyful chaos that might erupt later that night. Bird, with a remote monitor on his guitar freeing up his movements, occasionally leaves the stage to circle the venue, climb up through the balcony, and back down into the main floor, a move he’ll repeat each night of Shred Thee Well. On one of his trips, he pauses to gaze at the long list of performers emblazoned above the bar, an account of all the other respected rock and indie and rap acts who have graced that stage.
There is little tension or emotion on display yet, but rather a businesslike approach; Miller literally has to run to class between soundcheck and the show, having recently started pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. When I talk to Bird in the parking lot afterwards, he almost seems to be living in the future of Diarrhea Planet’s demise already. Maybe it’s just the stress of a hometown show and all its attendant factors, all the family and friends collecting here, but his mind seems elsewhere. He talks of the covers and setlist surprises the band has planned, but alludes to unspecified ambitions for the shows that they couldn’t realize for lack of time.
There’s something of an anxious sigh to how he describes it all, how everything surrounding a show is sort of a headache until that moment he’s walking down the stairs to the stage, guitar in hand. I tell him he seems over it already. “Oh, once that final check clears, I’m out,” he responds. “All I care about at this point is that they spell ‘Diarrhea’ right. I’m kidding. Mostly.”
Before we leave, he puts his number in my phone. He also fills in the “Company” line. It already says “Ex-Diarrhea Planet.”
A long time ago, Jordan Smith made himself a promise: If he couldn’t buy a house at 30, it would be time to reconsider pursuing music as his full-time career. He had seen too many middle-aged lifers, aging punks who had never hit it big, get stuck; there was no way their lives would become demonstrably better or more stable, and yet there was no turning back at that point. Thirty, that seemed like a “good, safe” number, before you go too far down one path. An age when people start making all sorts of decisions about what they want their lives to look like even if they aren’t in a rock band. “If I’m not doing great by then, I still have enough time I can jump into something quick,” he explains, before adding with a laugh: “I’m still young, I still got my physical strength. I can salvage what’s left.” We have this conversation backstage at the Exit/In on the second night of Shred Thee Well, when Smith is preparing to perform a set leaning heavily on Diarrhea Planet’s earliest material. He’s a couple weeks away from turning 30.
Smith made this decision the day after he graduated college, not long into Diarrhea Planet’s existence. It was a different project back then, originating as a side outlet for Smith when he was playing in what he deems a “shoegaze-indie” type of band, which he also dismisses as the kind of band people would play in to be cool during college. In an earlier iteration, Diarrhea Planet was a raw three piece consisting of him, guitarist Evan P. Donohue, and drummer Casey Weissbuch. Boyle and Toler soon joined, with Bird and Miller coming onboard to replace Donohue; it’s only fitting that the true realization of Diarrhea Planet would be birthed by the semi-absurd decision to replace one guitarist with two when two others were already in the band. (“We needed to be more extreme than everyone else,” Smith recalls excitedly yet dryly.)
Given that Smith is the only person who’s been in Diarrhea Planet from the very start, he became a sort of de facto frontman in a band where everyone could, and did, act as frontman at the same time that nobody wanted to be frontman full time. Even if Diarrhea Planet began by Smith’s hand alone, it wouldn’t die that way. There was never a band meeting about breaking up, exactly. But individually, each member reached a similar conclusion. Nobody wanted to be the first to say it, to let everyone else down. Yet when the conversation finally arose, it gave most of them a sense of relief.
The day after they made the decision, Toler was initially bummed and wondered whether it was the right call, before realizing it was time. Bush describes a collective sigh, once it was all out there and they were all on the same page, and particularly remembers watching the weight lift from Smith’s shoulders. “You could almost see his exhale, his stress melt in a way I hadn’t seen in a long time,” he says. “I was really happy for him.” As for Bush, he put on all the Diarrhea Planet recordings and drove around for two and a half hours, processing the fact that the whole community and lifestyle they had built would be coming to a close.
“I had never felt so sad and relieved at the same time,” Miller recalls. “And it’s still hard to articulate.”
With most of Diarrhea Planet members being in that same precipitous late-20s transition era, the sort of life changes Smith once marked down as an abstract deadline have begun to take course. Toler recently got married and is considering a move to Colorado. While he was working on his own material and discovering new musical interests (he recently got into late ’80s and early ’90s house music), he’d also welcome more stability; he has an English degree and has thought about working as a copywriter. Boyle had already departed a year ago, after his mother getting sick compelled him to leave the touring life and attend nursing school. That, in turn, encouraged Miller’s ambition to return to school for electrical engineering. In addition to his old promise, Smith started to grapple with the guilt that comes with being a working, traveling musician and losing touch with friends and family. After years of feeling like the “prodigal son,” he’s looking forward to spending more time in Indiana with his parents, to reckon with the “heavy burden and responsibility” he feels to reconnect with his family and give back the support he felt from them through all the years of Diarrhea Planet.
Looking back, the beginning of the end might’ve been written on the wall when Boyle quit. “If I could’ve done anything again, I would’ve ended the band when he left,” Smith explains. “I think that would’ve been the logical conclusion to the band. When Mike left it was the most devastating blow, because all of us really loved him.” He goes on to describe Boyle as both a sort of steadying rock and the glue of Diarrhea Planet, the even-keeled guy that everyone got along with and who often kept everyone focused with his random, self-imposed tour challenges. (One of these included deciding to run 100 miles in one week, which is a physical toll on top of DP shows that led to Boyle sleeping the entirety of the day and night aside from when he was running or playing bass.)
It’s a sentiment echoed by other members of the band, too. “When Mike left, that was kind of a shocking blow,” Bush recalls. “After he said it, I wasn’t really surprised. But it was just like … OK.” He trails off as if to say, maybe Boyle was onto something and none of them had been acknowledging it yet.
For the remaining five who soldiered on (with a revolving array of bassists), the eventual death knell came from two classic band-killing factors: money and exhaustion. The decision to end Diarrhea Planet was made in the beginning of May, giving all of them the summer to settle into the finality of it. But for fans — and seemingly for plenty of people surrounding the band in Nashville — the news was hard to fathom or decipher. From the outside, everything seemed good, partially confirmed by a statement emphasizing there was no bad blood. Though one would imagine there is a ceiling for a band called Diarrhea Planet that stops short of headlining festivals someday, they had taken it so far: Everywhere they played, they played to fierce and devoted crowds, often selling out substantially-sized clubs. As far as rock bands at their level go, it would’ve seemed that Diarrhea Planet had, for the most part, made it.
But that’s still within the context of being a rock band with six members in the 2010s. Even if things can look pretty good to everyone outside the band, even if you assume a group was doing alright for themselves, the financial realities for a touring band these days are often crippling, dead-end. “We made enough money where we could quit our jobs,” Smith describes, noting they did find more success than plenty of other artists out there. “It’s one of those things where it’s just get-by money, not get-ahead money.”
People could mostly make rent, live their lives. Diarrhea Planet toured so persistently that it was never really possible for any of them to maintain steady jobs when back home, though some of them would pick up the odd gig to keep some kind of cash flow in the lower ebbs between shows. At a certain point, the lack of a secure future weighed on all of them.
“Everyone’s getting older, you reach a point where this either has to be a career and I can live as if I had a career, or we just have to call it,” Toler says.
“I don’t have a savings account, I live basically paycheck to paycheck … if we’re touring,” Bird explains, describing the sort of city-dwelling twentysomething existence that a lot of people have when not in a well-liked rock band. “That’s fun when you’re single and 22 and don’t have to worry. At the risk of sounding like I’m going soft, we’re all reaching the point where we all have significant others and we’re all thinking, ‘OK, what do I have to show for this?'”
Before this comes across like a rock band bemoaning their lack of 1970s riches, you have to realize that Diarrhea Planet toured themselves into the ground trying to make the band financially sustainable. That was the real bullet that did this project in. “I think my biggest regret is we went too hard,” Smith says. “We really burned ourselves out. When I look at how much all the other bands I know toured, we literally did twice as much and we didn’t take any breaks.”
This is a reality for most bands of Diarrhea Planet’s level, and most bands in the mid-tier indie world. With nobody buying records like they used to, all the money is on the grueling path of touring near-constantly, an approach that can keep the whole thing going but also takes its toll on everyone involved eventually.
As Smith puts it, nobody had been themselves in two or three years. The perpetual motion with no end in sight can lead to all sorts of mental health issues. The pileup of baggage you have to push aside when the day’s objective is to just make it to the next venue in the next town, knowing in the back of your head that you will have this mountain of issues to sift through when you find yourself back home, alone, in the long strained comedown from tour. This began to afflict everyone in Diarrhea Planet, with depression and anxiety rearing their heads. In a band where everything is just this close to working, everything can start to feel like a mirage, a promise receding on the horizon. This is the album that’ll bring us to the next level, this is the tour that’ll get us those bigger shows. Smith describes it as “this weird pressure that builds, and you can never rest.” Every day, there is a song to write or a concert to play, the same as any of the rest of us show up to work; the difference is that in a band of Diarrhea Planet’s stature, that feeling is there while the floor feels as if it could fall out from under you at any given moment.
It’s a strange thing to consider, the idea of young people setting out with that old band dream, achieving it more than they thought they might’ve been possible, then deciding to walk away. Because it wasn’t quite what they had imagined, because it wasn’t quite enough. These are realities that, one would assume, will impact more and more bands of Diarrhea Planet’s generation. There have been plenty of artists who made it to that level and called it off in the past, but now it feels amplified given the distance between a group’s perceived size, on blogs and festival posters, and the tangible fortunes of their actual operation. A band can seem big but still be in debt.
“I think my biggest regret is we went too hard. We really burned ourselves out.”
There was a point when the distance from the purity of Diarrhea Planet’s beginnings became too much, something the band members hadn’t signed up for exactly. “There was kind of an unspoken feeling,” Bush says. “It just wasn’t as fun anymore. It was becoming more and more like work.”
The nature of that work proved too taxing over time. Smith sums up a feeling that wound up defining those breakup conversations: “I love doing this, but I miss waking up and being happy.”
Live was also where the core elements of Diarrhea Planet’s identity were most evident, more readily apparent than on their recordings. This was a gang in the old-school rock band sense, with a particular alchemy at their disposal. Bands like this just don’t develop as often anymore. The circumstances of scenes (or lack thereof) and resources (or lack thereof) are more amenable to an artist working away in the solitude of their bedroom to then hire a band and recreate the music live, or for an auteur to exact their vision with a group of trusted hired guns. Diarrhea Planet grew out of one of the local, tight-knit scenes that still crop up against most odds in America’s major cities, but are also now dying out. The idea of a local scene, in general, is becoming something more diffuse and archaic in the digital era.
But that’s the kind of circumstances that produce a band like Diarrhea Planet, a band where there’s a true dynamic between the players and also a band that, from the crowd, can often look like a couple bands stitched together. You have Smith, the good-looking long-haired boundless source of energy who started it as a punk project but could stand in front of rock groups of most subgenres and look right. You have Bird as a mean-mugging Steven Van Zandt-type foil for whoever’s singing at the moment, hamming it up from the stage, jumping into or walking through the crowd, prone to cradling and kissing his guitar during the maelstrom of whatever song. You have Toler, with his long hair and mustache and vests, looking like he brought Bush from their old Southern rock or ’80s hard rock group. Then there’s the professorial Miller, bespectacled but savant-like in his guitar skills, the bookish chemist capable of stirring up the most violent explosions (and, as I once witnessed at SXSW in 2016, hanging upside down from rafters as he plays). With he and Boyle being the more clean-cut members of Diarrhea Planet, you could picture them in a far more polite indie band than this one.
As Smith points out, Diarrhea Planet was the product of several other bands: In the tradition of DIY scenes like the Nashville of years past, they were all playing around, overlapping in different groups, before coming together into this behemoth. And the exact power of Diarrhea Planet came from both the combination of all that accrued experience and varying dispositions, but also the way in which they all cohered into a complete organism.
“I think we were all coming from different perspectives, but we were all trying to achieve the same thing,” Bird muses. People could write their own songs, but with all of them working from a shared love of rock and pop, it always landed in this unholy mixture that was specifically Diarrhea Planet. All having grown up invested in bands that were truly bands, each member had their own input but directed it towards a shared consciousness. “We got a good balance at the end,” he continues. “It felt like one person playing four guitars.”
This is why Diarrhea Planet’s home was always the stage. This is where they could let that alchemy loose, that now-rare dynamic of a band of constant and locked-in members who feed off of one another. Bird admits he’d never felt it in any other group he played in. And in turn, that was what defined the relationship between Diarrhea Planet member and Diarrhea Planet fan. “That was always my goal, personally with this band,” Bird says. “I was hoping to try and create an environment where everybody feels comfortable. Maybe a little cathartic and, if just for a moment, you can block everything out. We’re all in this together.”
That was Diarrhea Planet’s greatest achievement, the show they cultivated and the community they fostered. And those gigs, they were life-affirming in the way the best, most ludicrous rock concerts are supposed to be. There was rarely a time to breathe, rarely a time to drift back to whatever was bothering you in the outside world. You left them feeling a foot taller and invincible, immeasurably better than when you walked in the door a couple hours earlier.
It’s understandable, then, that a grand finale of three Diarrhea Planet shows would attract followers from all over the country, Exit/In turned into a mecca for one last weekend of sublimely goofy-yet-transcendent rock ‘n’ roll from this band. On the first and second nights of Shred Thee Well, I hear people talk about having seen Diarrhea Planet at house shows and pizza shops during college, and that they just had to come back from Oklahoma or Mississippi or Illinois to witness it once more, at the other end of things. I talk to Nashville natives who had been along for the whole ride. I meet friends and family members and acquaintances of the band who had traveled from Washington and Idaho and California and Pennsylvania and Indiana. A friend of mine from New York pops down for just 22 hours, boarding the plane with nothing but a charger in a fanny pack, just to see them perform one last time.
At the second show, Smith asks the crowd how many of them came in from out of town. Half, maybe more, raise their hands. It’s a sight that takes the band aback, to realize how wide this phenomenon spread and how much it meant to people.
These shows turn out to be as glorious an Irish wake as anyone could’ve hoped or expected. They span Diarrhea Planet’s career. They include crowd-pleasing and party-starting covers. They don’t feel sad, not quite yet. As Smith says to me on the second day, “A funeral’s a celebration, man.” As they always did, Diarrhea Planet approach these final shows with exhilaration, betraying none of the depletion that led them to the point of goodbye shows in the first place.
That being said, the first night starts out a little too staid for a Diarrhea Planet show. This prompts Smith to egg the audience on. “Are you guys seriously gonna stand there with two feet on the ground at your last fucking Diarrhea Planet show?” he asks. “Like you’re watching fucking Father John Misty, in the back smoking a joint?” Soon after, Exit/In’s security struggles to eject crowd-surfers from the venue. They fight, and lose, the battle of stopping dozens of fans from joining Diarrhea Planet onstage in the encore. On the subsequent nights, the staff mostly lets the shows take their course.
Each night, Smith refines the way he says goodbye. On night one, he introduces every song with a one sentence backstory, as if writing the band’s history right there onstage. At the end of each set, he offers a heartfelt thank you that includes their manager, their booking agent (“Fucked Up’s agent wouldn’t touch us, but this guy would”), their label, and an earnest tribute to the fans, to the community that persisted around the band.
The final goodbye of the night is always some variation on “We were Diarrhea Planet! Rest in pieces motherfucker!” The “were” registers with a mixture of wistfulness and victory. Before that, once more, the most implausible rock-show moments transpire: a crowd chanting “Diarrhea” to coax an encore, people screaming “Long live Diarrhea Planet!” And before that, Smith thanks the crowd another way: “Thank you for enduring years of social shame for going to see a fucking band called Diarrhea Planet!”
Standing out back of Exit/In on the night of the final farewell show, the sound of a gathering crowd down in the venue’s smoking yard echoing up the hill, Toler admits that Diarrhea Planet considered changing their name more than we might’ve expected. “That was probably on the table a lot more than people thought it was,” he says. “It’s one of those things like, ‘Are our fans going to be disappointed if we change our name?’ We built this with their help.” Perversely, the very fact that Diarrhea Planet was named Diarrhea Planet is part of their appeal to many fans. Part of this freewheeling and intoxicating group that only ever wanted to create a good time and a good place for anyone who wanted it at their shows, who never sought to take themselves too seriously. Just … good luck convincing people to check the band out, is all.
That being said, Diarrhea Planet were more than a punchline, and you can sense that being saddled with a college-era joke that actively turned away listeners may have spurred some existential crises for the band’s individual members over the years. “When you’re starting to take your songwriting more seriously and put out a single and all the opening lines [people write] are about poo, it’s like, God, why do I even try?” Toler relates, bemused but a little exasperated. “I mean, I know we did this to ourselves.”
At a certain point, the puns could be exhausting. And the band maybe created some psychological distance that didn’t allow them to see how the name “Diarrhea Planet” inevitably set the stage for the following conversation no matter what. Toler remembers when they released the Turn To Gold single “Let It Out.” “You can’t be too mad about it, because at the end of the day you’re in a band called Diarrhea Planet,” Toler starts. “You have to be reasonable and know what to expect.” But all the responses to “Let It Out” stuck with him, with people aghast and asking, “What are these guys thinking?” “It was actually a nice, pleasant song!” Toler says, keeping his arms crossed but verbally throwing his hands in the air at the memory. He’s right: “Let It Out” is probably the prettiest song Diarrhea Planet ever recorded. “We didn’t even think about the song title in relation to the band name,” he concludes. “I guess we should’ve thought about that.”
“Diarrhea Planet were a band where we had an uphill battle our entire career because of our name,” Smith says in a separate conversation backstage. “We weren’t a band that could just walk in and look cool and get a little buzz and go far. We had to get a little buzz, then we had to prove that we were the real thing for like two more years before people would start doing anything.” In hindsight, you could picture how and why Diarrhea Planet achieved their formidable live show. Everything had to be more extreme, everything had to be that much better to convince people to give this band a chance. They did it to themselves, sure, and in doing so they both made their own grave and created the internal demand that they had to be on a different level than anyone else.
As devout Christians, both of Smith’s parents used to pray for the band’s success. “We always joke, ‘Hey everybody, say a prayer for Diarrhea Planet,'” Smith says. He starts talking from behind his hand, like a mock aside. “Because we’re gonna need it with a name like that.” Perhaps inspired by this, Bush has a tattoo reading “Have Mercy On Diarrhea Planet” on the inside of his bicep.
Despite the dire times Smith describes in recent history, he skews towards positivity this weekend. He leans on optimism about what Diarrhea Planet were able to pull off. And in that sense, when he screams a thank you to people for coming to see a band called Diarrhea Planet from the stage, he’s referring to something bigger than the moniker. “For us, it was more about empowering people who listen to us,” Smith explains. “Like they feel they have the power to take control of their own life, like they have the power to get through the day.” Maybe that’s rewriting the past, or finding meaning in it over time. But that does resonate when you see people screaming the name, chanting it for an encore. There was a freedom to all of this. The answer to “Why on Earth would you name your band Diarrhea Planet? Why would anyone like this band?” turns out to be: “Why not? We can be anything.”
“We had an uphill battle our entire career because of our name.”
Maybe that meant that Diarrhea Planet was always born to die, that it would be that kind of band people have an ardent and unrealistic attachment to in their youth. And just as the name loses whatever humorous luster it had at first, just as everyone is starting to have relationships and lives outside of rock music, maybe our attachment as fans isn’t quite the same. Smith remembers the old days, the frenzy of DIY shows, college kids escaping the quotidian with the kind of sweaty, ferocious abandon that shows only provide during more innocent chapters of your life. Diarrhea Planet shows are still wild, but maybe not quite as much.
“I would argue that some of our time in this band has come to an end just looking at our crowds,” Smith admits. Everyone’s aging, getting to a different point in life. Maybe Diarrhea Planet were always going to be a band for when we were just kids. At 30, they were already weary of discussing that name over and over and over. Imagine how they would’ve felt at 40.
When Diarrhea Planet released Turn To Gold in 2016, there weren’t yet hints of an impending end, the desire to call it off still simmering. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Going into that album, they felt some momentum. I’m Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams had really ignited things around the band, started to garner them more attention and earn them more fans. So for the next one, they went big, and they thought, logically enough, that Diarrhea Planet would get bigger, too.
“We wanted to sound like a band from the ’90s with a lot of money,” Smith says of the plan for Turn To Gold. And indeed, the album did everything that a next-step breakthrough album should. It maintained the vitality and idiosyncrasy of their songs, but it was rendered in a glorious, hi-fi sheen compared to their past albums and EPs. It was a muscular, ambitious rock album, all those guitars portrayed with a clarity and professionalism absent from Diarrhea Planet’s scrappier early day recordings. It showcased a mellower side, like on “Let It Out,” but it also had hooks, hooks that were ready to fill bigger spaces: the ’80s shout-along chorus of “Life Pass,” each passage of the shape-shifting “Hot Topic,” Smith’s bug-eyed sing-speak-scream in closer “Headband.”
In hindsight the name Turn To Gold plays like wishful thinking or failed materialization of inner ambitions, the rejected title of It’ll Be A Damn Shame If We Don’t Win an off-hand joke that proved prescient. “That was kind of a tragic album,” Smith says of Turn To Gold. Diarrhea Planet were banking on that release, put everything into it. And two years later, they feel as if it more or less stalled. “I feel like that was probably the hardest we worked on a record,” Smith explains. “Budget ran out on it and they had to let publicists go. Our record got killed dead in the water. We did all this work and the business end of things couldn’t hold up.”
“We wanted Turn To Gold to be a bigger release than it was,” Toler admits, with a note of defeat.
“We all expected to bump up again,” Smith recounts of the time between I’m Rich and Turn To Gold. “When you invest that much time and energy in something just to see it plateau, it’s kind of a devastating blow. Because it’s like, ‘Well, shit, we have to go back and do another album and make sure it doesn’t get fucked up on its release like that one did.'” For a band with six people, who needed and hoped to be playing bigger and better gigs, it did prove to be a contributing factor to Diarrhea Planet’s collapse in the end. Staring up the mountain of another album release and couple years of touring into their early 30s, with no promise that this one would do any better, was dispiriting.
For a while, though, Diarrhea Planet were looking ahead. They had already written much of another album, and though it will remain a hypothetical, it sounds like it could’ve been a pretty intriguing period of their career.
Diarrhea Planet were always a collision of eras and genres. (Toler details how fans have compared them to touchstones as disparate as Blink-182, Sonic Youth, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, none of which he hears in their music.) The prospective fourth LP seemed like it would be even more different. After collectively discovering a love of ’80s music — as evidenced by their less-expected decision to cover Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” live — the new material was bearing the influence of new wave and post-punk, though Smith also describes it as “a little trippier, heavier, noisier, denser,” so who knows what would’ve been in store. He compares some of the songs they actually recorded to Devo and Fugazi, while also noting he’d gravitated towards more traditional verse-chorus structures after favoring nonlinear writing — songs like “Hot Topic,” in which there is little repetition of discrete sections. In general, that ’80s inspiration had produced what Smith characterized as their poppiest material.
It wasn’t just the happenstance of what they were listening to, though. For the next album, Diarrhea Planet were going to try and jump to a major, to be able to get more tour support and bigger recording budgets. It was the only logical path forward for a band of their size, who had put in all the road hours already. Another incremental step, to a slightly larger label to then move to a major, would take years. So this time, they had their sights set high. However, those meetings proved fruitless and frustrating. For Smith — whose distaste for the mechanisms of the music industry is clearly a significant reason he wanted to leave Diarrhea Planet behind and go back to writing music on his own terms — the experience of talking to majors was particularly aggravating. “The stuff was some of the coolest songs we’d written, but by the end we were losing steam,” he says. “The offers that were coming in for records weren’t ones we were that interested in.”
Other band members echo Smith’s feelings about that phase. Bush returns to the idea that the idea of Diarrhea Planet becoming a job was polluting the whole experience. “Doing those demos, there was this huge, unsaid pressure that these songs would have to deliver,” he says. “Because we want to get a major. There’s that loss of innocence. Are we doing this for fun or are we doing this so we can live?”
“We got so tied up in ‘how come’ instead of the process,” Miller adds.
“Still trying to get to that next level,” Bush continues. “We weren’t at the point where we could feel like we could make the record we really wanted to make. We were trying to do something to get a little further along.”
With the decision to end Diarrhea Planet came the decision to, ultimately, abandon the new album. All of them have different opinions on what could be done with that material. There’s been talk of releasing it, unrefined and unfinished, on Bandcamp, as a parting gift to fans. Some of them figure these songs will never see the light of day. Some feel that maybe the album could be set aside and re-examined in some unspecified future.
“Right when we first decided to call it quits, I was like, ‘Damn, I was digging the stuff we were working on,'” Toler says of his initial disappointment. “At the same time, I was working on some of my own stuff.” That part is telling: With a band made up of six guys with different backgrounds and songwriting abilities, there was always going to be the possibility that they could get pulled down separate paths rather than continuing to filter their work through the team effort of Diarrhea Planet.
“I felt good about [the new material], but it felt like everybody was writing their own album,” Bird says, echoing Toler’s comments.
With Turn To Gold being a strong yet somewhat of a deflated and unintended finale, you could expect the band to feel defeated that this final work never got its chance. Some of them are satisfied with the catalog as it stands.
“There’s a question of canon,” Miller says of the prospect of new Diarrhea Planet music making its way into the world someday. What they have feels like a complete body of work to him.
Bush likes that it ends with Turn To Gold. “It’s the Black Album, the funeral record. It’s maybe the biggest change in writing and lyricism, everything,” he says. “From Loose Jewels to Turn To Gold, it’s almost two different bands. It’s a good snapshot of what Diarrhea Planet was.”
Before the end of the night, Bird will deliver a note-perfect rendition of “Bulls On Parade.” The band will decamp backstage ahead of the encore and make the last minute decision that they have to play “Kids” one more time; it winds up being perhaps the emotional zenith of the entire weekend, Smith wailing “Just kids!” and an audience yelling it back at him, everyone acknowledging the passage of this into the past. Finally, he says they’ll end it with the song that started it all, and once more the stage is overflowing with fans screaming along to a song called “Ghost With A Boner.” Diarrhea Planet died as they lived, taking things that you’d think couldn’t be elevated and wrestling true catharsis out of them.
Afterwards, the lights go up. Fans mingle in circles, dazed. Friends and family take photos with the band members onstage, as they intermittently pack up their gear. It’s still matter-of-fact, as if it’s just one more gig; I run into Smith and Toler in the parking lot and they’re loading up their cars to head home as if they’ll be right back in town for another one tomorrow. A group of friends, though not the entire band, wind up at an afterparty in some kind of metal shop on a wooded, semi-secluded bend; a highway and houses are visible, but otherwise it feels sheltered under the deep blanket of the Tennessee sky at two AM. Dance music reverberates from inside the shop. People sit on top of a van and drink cheap beer. A bottle of champagne or two eventually get popped. The whole thing feels like a distant remnant of the lives Diarrhea Planet described in the old days, kids making space for themselves in forgotten buildings in far-flung corners of Nashville. Then, it fades away. The Irish wake, the funeral-as-celebration, Diarrhea Planet — it’s all over.
The next afternoon, I accidentally crash Bird’s aftermath/celebratory lunch with his family. Gathered at Martin’s BBQ — a massive, two-floor establishment that appears to be frequented by tourists and locals in equal measure — Bird’s got about a dozen people with him. Originally hailing from Tacoma, Washington, he had one of the biggest groups coming into town for the grand finale. When I find him, he’s got a beer in one hand and a half-finished barbecue sandwich in the other. Enjoying life after the rock band and, presumably, a life spent hanging with family uninterrupted by journalists.
When I first interviewed Diarrhea Planet a couple years ago, there was a nearly anarchic spirit to their conversation the same as onstage — they’d talk over each other, finish sentences like they were trading licks, turn someone’s serious answer into their own punchline. There was excitement, with a new album on the way. Maybe it’s the passage of the years, the anxiety and burnout Smith described plaguing the band, or maybe it’s the final drained sigh at the end of all of this, but each member of Diarrhea Planet now comes across differently. Even someone as quick-talking and friendly as Smith. They all seem older, done, ready to move on.
Back then, Bird seemed like the class clown, cutting in with sarcastic quips the same as he plays it up onstage. In person, he admits, he’s a little more serious than you’d expect. (Get this for an alternate history of Diarrhea Planet: Before choosing the rock band life, Bird had considered becoming, of all things, a cop in Tacoma. The distance between those two occupations is … vast.) On the road, that means Bird was often the guy who tried to keep everybody going, the guy who’d say, “Let’s go, back in the van, we got a job to do.”
So on the other side of that, he’s also the guy who may need the most decompression. As he describes it, and I legitimately can’t tell if he’s being straight-up or returning to the old jokes, he’s been waking up in the afternoon, eating Chinese leftovers, watching The Good Wife, and looking at bathrobes on the internet. He is doing as little as possible, for the first time in forever. “The weight of us living out of a bag and constantly being on the go, it all hit me at once,” Bird admits. “It was more taxing than I realized, I think. These 10 years have aged me 30 years.”
With Bird being the first person I talk to after the fact, there’s the inevitable question: Do you feel good about how it ended? Do you wish you had taken it further? These possibilities have lingered in the subtext of conversations all weekend, the “Why now?” The threat of unfinished business, or quitting right at the moment things were about to really take off.
Bird remembers the day he called his father to tell him Diarrhea Planet were breaking up. That day, he asked Bird the same kinds of questions. Bird told him that, yeah, he thinks that’s it. In response, his dad said: “You guys had a hell of a run.”
They drove it into the ground, the right way. They pushed themselves and called it before they really destroyed themselves and each other, before they began hating each other. So any talk of hiatus, or a slow disappearance, that felt out of the question. It was better to end with a full-stop as emphatic as the pace at which Diarrhea Planet lived for all these years. Bird leans on an old classic rock adage to explain: “For lack of a better way to put it, burn out rather than fade away.”
Talking amongst the ashes of Diarrhea Planet, each member skews more towards gratitude, awe that they got to do this at all or that it worked for as long as it did. Their goals had been simple, narrow, at a certain point in time. And so you could tick off any number of peaks from over the decade. Miller fondly recalls their late-night set at Bonnaroo 2014; Boyle is psyched that they got to tour and see the country and somehow take a band called Diarrhea Planet to a late-night show like Seth Meyers. In this context, the regrets are few.
“I feel like we did it, I don’t have any remorse,” Bird says at the bar at Martin’s. At the same time, he acknowledges the slow-realization aftermath that’s unfolding for members like him, who haven’t already gone back to school and chosen another life. Every other member of Diarrhea Planet assumed Bird would the first to continue onwards with music, but he isn’t so sure. “I don’t know if I’m good at anything else, I’m not even sure if I’m good at this,” he admits dryly. “I would love to keep playing, but the prospect of starting over is pretty demoralizing right now.”
“These 10 years have aged me 30 years.”
That isn’t just specific to Diarrhea Planet’s stature, but also to Nashville. At another point in the weekend, Smith talks of how Nashville is a city where “your social stake in the community is your bands.” That’s where people put their self-value, and every time you see someone at a party, you talk about what your bands are doing. For a long time, Diarrhea Planet would’ve been local heroes, one of the bands that made it out and represented that Nashville scene and got to come back to those parties with (mostly) good news. Now, for the time being, they are all civilians again.
“This has been my only thought, my entire life has been one thing for almost a decade,” Bird says. “And now for me to say that doesn’t exist anymore … Yeah, it’s terrifying.”
When I first arrive, Bush is at his house with Smith, Miller, and Boyle. But at this moment, he’s alone, talking about his own personal experience with Diarrhea Planet. At 26, Bush is the youngest member of the band, and despite having had all his own misgivings about more tours and major label record deals, there’s perhaps the most poignance in hearing him speak about the end of all this. At the beginning of the decade, he was a high school student in Wisconsin planning to move down to Nashville to attend college at Belmont University. He recalls reading Belmont’s newspaper, trying to find out what music was going on down there. He saw news about a band called Diarrhea Planet.
“Diarrhea Planet has been such a large institution for me being here,” he reflects. “They were one of the first bands I saw when I moved here, when Jordan still had a rattail. I was like, fuck, that’s amazing. This shit exists here and I wanna be in that world.” A year and a half later, he filled in on drums for Diarrhea Planet for the first time. A couple years after that, he officially joined them. “They kept me here,” he says, not without sadness, mulling over what the future holds.
As it goes with local scenes, the Nashville DIY culture was really winding down by the time it was being written about by journalists in Los Angeles or New York. By 2013 or 2014, the house shows were already starting to dissipate, the gentrification was making its effects felt. Bush came in at the end of that, and then joined one of the bands who would become the face of that to all of us outsiders. There’s an extra layer of remembrance going on this weekend: With Diarrhea Planet, fading memories of a bygone era in the city’s culture are buried, too.
While he acknowledges how radically different Nashville is now than it was eight years ago, Bush remains curious. He’s engaged with another part of the city’s rock culture, doing freelance work for Jack White’s Third Man Records. And he’s curious to see where everything goes, suggesting he doesn’t want to leave Nashville just yet, when there has been so much excitement and change. In the same breath, he remembers coming here as an outsider to find that scene, and more so than the other members he feels other things ending at Shred Thee Well. “I think it was, for a lot of people, shutting the book on that era in a weekend,” he says. “The end of their 20s, for a lot of people.”
At another point in the evening, Bush sits alone out front of his house staring into the distance, much like he described his moment of reverie that morning, and Boyle and Smith are talking on the back porch. The version of Nashville that greeted Bush all those years ago, that still looms large in Smith’s mind. “I’ll be real,” he begins. “I appreciated all the touring and everything, but I have a soft spot for the beginning.” He reminisces about Glenn Danzig’s House, the defunct DIY venue where Diarrhea Planet and plenty of other bands like them cut their teeth, in a small but like-minded and competitive community. He recollects when the Nashville scene started to make noise in other cities, and corporations like Vice and Converse came down to document shows, all of the “crusty-ass punk kids” laughing as they signed waivers and received free sneakers. “I think that era was the most powerful expression of art and community I’ve ever seen,” he says.
You can’t get those days back, and Smith knows that, even as he envisions a new chapter in his musical life that approaches something resembling his roots. Outside the industry, where he could age into something of a local punk godfather fostering the culture and putting out albums here and there on the side of whatever life he chooses. That, in its way, feels more attainable, more balanced, than keeping Diarrhea Planet alive. “By the time you get to our age, life has kicked the shit out of you enough that you’re used to it,” he says. “You get more level-headed and you make safer decisions. It’s harder to feel joy at a big thing that happens. But you don’t get down in the bad times. You keep an even-keel, because things change. You get older and lose your innocence and see how the world really works. That changes you as a person, too. Changes how you perceive your dreams and what you think is realistic or not realistic.”
In the end, the role Diarrhea Planet played here in Nashville might have been enough of a dream fulfilled. In another time, maybe Diarrhea Planet could have concerned themselves with radio play or a hit record. That would’ve been nice, but it wasn’t what Smith was expecting. The target he had in mind, all those years ago, was closer and yet still not easy to hit. “I wanted to be a cornerstone band,” he explains. “When someone talks about a movement and says, you have to listen to these four specific bands, because they’re the most important. That’s what I wanted.”
Other times, Smith talks about it as the sort of encouragement and support they needed in the moment. “It’s like, ‘Why the fuck didn’t you say something to us?’ Why didn’t you let us know you loved our band?” he says. “We could’ve used that help.” Now when he considers the end of Diarrhea Planet and the prospect of future endeavors, there’s a whole other uphill battle with which to reckon. “There’s something really daunting, man,” he says. “Once you walk away, the journey starts over from square one.”
Breakups are rarely permanent anymore, and when you’re dealing with a band that’s still as young, talented, and full of potential as Diarrhea Planet, questions of a reunion naturally come up even before the final nail goes into the coffin. Talk of a plausible future for Diarrhea Planet runs parallel to their goodbye shows throughout the weekend, with each member voicing the willingness to revisit the band someday. Their answers vary on what that would mean, what the parameters required would be or what the exact form a reunion would take. Would they finish that new album, or let that mystery of unreleased music drift off into the ether? Would they reunite for one-off hometown holiday shows as older men?
One reunion comes around a lot sooner than anyone expected. The Monday after Shred Thee Well, before my plane even lands in New York, news of one more Diarrhea Planet show hits the internet. In late October, not yet two months from their final shows at Exit/In, Diarrhea Planet will open for Jason Isbell at the hallowed Nashville venue, the Ryman Auditorium.
“If someone calls you and says we want you to play the Ryman, you don’t say no,” Smith explains after the news comes out. The band is well-aware of how it all looks. They’d already decided to quit and booked their goodbye shows when they got the call from Isbell, a longtime supporter of theirs. The Exit/In shows were the final Diarrhea Planet shows, Smith stresses; opening for Isbell, in a venue like the Ryman that would be exceedingly unsuitable for a normal Diarrhea Planet show full of Diarrhea Planet fans, is an addendum and a victory lap for the band. One thing they had to do for themselves, just to say that, somehow, the austere venue that rarely lets rock bands play is going to let a rock band called Diarrhea Planet play.
It’s almost a perfect epilogue to Diarrhea Planet’s story, one more coup for them to get smuggled into the Ryman. But the band see that as a real honor. “It’s like Nashville pulling us in for one final hug, saying ‘We love you and want you to play on this stage before you’re done,'” Smith says. “OK, we’ll answer the call.”
Smith is steadfast that this isn’t the first installment in an ellipsis of a breakup. This is it. And then, for some time at least, Diarrhea Planet will be over. They won’t be popping up for a couple shows here and there. For now, the band members are resolute in their decision, confident that it had to end here. “It felt like it was going to go in a bad direction if we didn’t stop now,” Smith says.
“Nobody wanted to hate it,” Bush explains. “Let’s end it while we still love it and it’ll be a little bitter, but better to end it on that and be really proud and always be able to look back and be like, ‘Fuck, yeah, we did that.'”
For Boyle, the final shows were a belated way for him to put Diarrhea Planet to rest before starting his new life in earnest. “All I wanted to do in high school and college was tour, make records, see what that was all about,” he says. “I feel like we did that thoroughly. I feel lucky. I’ve reached a point of closure with it.”
“I think in the past few weeks I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about what any of this means at all costs,” Miller admits. Now, he’s looking forward to continuing his degree and rediscovering his love for classical guitar — just for himself, not for any recitals or work pressures. “Now that we’re done with Diarrhea Planet, it really belongs to the fans,” he says. When asked how he felt the morning after, he smiles, looking like a man who has discovered a newfound inner balance: “Immense calm. It was perfect.”
The circumstances for a more full-fledged reunion would have to be there, everyone would have to feel right about it, and it isn’t something that would come around in a year or two. “In my mind, if we’re taking a breather, it’s gonna feel like a breather,” Bird says firmly. “I’m confident something will happen. I just don’t know what or when.”
“I think if there is a tangible interest in us getting back together and releasing something, and if we were all settled and comfortable in our own worlds and at a point where we all really wanted to do it for the love of the game, that would be it for me,” Bush ventures. He jokes about if Bonnaroo calls in 10 years. “The money would be amazing, but it’s an afterthought.”
“I think everybody’s left saying I’m totally down,” Smith says. “But it’ll have to be the right phone call with the right offer, something where we can justify saying ‘Let’s do it.'”
In the meantime, they are making peace with their new lives. As many questions were left unanswered at the end of Diarrhea Planet, Smith expected the week after to feel like “one big sigh.” That word appearing again, an exhale of tension that’s bottled up over nearly 10 years. Now, they might remember what a breather feels like. They might find out what life feels like less weighed-down with the pressures of making this work. They might remember what it’s like to wake up and be happy.
“I can just be me. I can be Jordan again,” Smith says. “I don’t have to be smiling, pretending to be happy all the time. Emmett can be Emmett. Brent can be Brent. Evan can be Evan. Mike can be Mike. Ian can be Ian.”
The creature of Diarrhea Planet, that thing built up of these six individuals, is dissolving as they go in their own directions. But as they leave, as they wind up in whatever new career in whatever new town, they’ll always have this thing tying them together. “We’re brothers at this point,” Bird says.
So maybe, someday, that old bond will remain as strong as ever and pull them back together. Maybe that’s all the right phone call is, one Diarrhea Planet member to another saying it’s time to do it again. Maybe, someday, you will hear people scream “Long live Diarrhea Planet!” at a show once more. And that time, it won’t be bittersweet, a goodbye as much as tribute. That time, everyone will be older. But maybe the screams won’t be diminished by the time spent away, the diverging paths people’s lives take as they age. They’ll be louder than ever, powered by the triumph of resurrection.