Years ago, when Jordan Smith was still in college at Nashville's Belmont University, his band Diarrhea Planet played five shows in one week. This wasn't unusual for the absurdly named four-guitar band. One semester, they played constantly, gigging at least three nights a week — often more — in grubby basements and dive bars. It wasn't easy keeping up with schoolwork, either — though Smith made it.
"At Belmont I was in the commercial music business program — I have a degree in music business," he says. "By day, I'm studying how to work at a place like Warner Brothers, and at night I'm playing a dingy punk club where people are stubbing out cigarettes on each other."
Today, Diarrhea Planet is crossing the desert, traveling from Los Angeles to Tempe, Arizona, and then east where they'll land at Snug Harbor on Sept. 5. The band has graduated from living rooms and dives to larger venues and the festival circuit and has seen heavy buzz, including love from Rolling Stone and SPIN.
Diarrhea Planet's success hinges on a marriage of underground recklessness with arena-sized hooks and musicianship — not to mention the sheer number of guitar strings onstage. Yet it may be that this unlikely band is a natural product of Nashville, a city where the major label music industry is king, yet a wild and raucous underground thrives. Diarrhea Planet draws from both.
"There's a commercial aspect that creeps into everything in Nashville at some form," Smith says. "At the same time, it's awesome because it teaches you how to combine the underground scene and major label, arena-sized aspirations into one thing."
The bar is set high in Nashville, and musicians tend to work hard at their instruments, he says. With an economy largely based on songwriting and music, bands want to be good. Smith appreciates that, but doesn't identify with the big business aspect — he and the other members of Diarrhea Planet, who also went to Belmont, differed with their professors to that end. After all, as he says, it's a city where people say without shame or irony that they want to be the biggest band in the world.
That's not Diarrhea Planet. Still, Smith respects that level of technicality. While he understands the punk mindset — he's played his share of underground show spaces — purposefully sloppy musicianship baffles him. "As someone who's always been lifelong obsessed with the guitar, I don't see why you wouldn't want to be the best guitarist that you can be," Smith says. He references jazz pianist Kenny Werner's book Effortless Mastery, on loan from bandmate Emmett Miller; Werner posits that music is like a language, and that a larger vocabulary leads to more effective communication.
"You can explain something to them so they really get how you feel about it and use specific words so they really get what you're trying to say, and it's the exact same thing with playing guitar," Smith says.
Beyond that, he adds, every guitarist has a different skill set; Among Diarrhea Planet's four guitarists, there are just as many approaches — varying from classical to pop-punk. "If you pursue what you can bring to the table, it's pretty exciting that you can be breaking ground with an instrument that has so many players."
While this focus on musical proficiency comes from the arena-rock and music industry side, it's Diarrhea Planet's wide-open live shows — yes, and their name — that are pure underground. In larger venues and festival settings, it can be hard to connect with the audience — a term Diarrhea Planet uses to literally mean "establish physical contact," as there were no stage barriers in 2009, when the band formed and started playing house parties. Yet they've gotten creative, even as they've graduated to bigger rooms.
"There'll be signs like 'no crowd surfing,'" Smith says. "Typically, at a lot of venues, they're pretty cool if you start playing and you're breaking the rules. They'll kind of let the audience break the rules, too."
It's not always as easy to make these shows as intimate as the band likes — particularly at fests, where barriers can put 20 feet between stage and audience.
Yet, in talking about how he keeps connected to the audience, one thing stands out: Smith makes eye contact or points at people to make sure they know he's paying attention to them, not the other way around. And he admits he's going to have to go wireless soon so he can crowd surf or wade into the audience with his guitar once again — bringing a house party vibe to whatever size room.