above: Photo by JJ Gonson.
Shooting Star, The Elliott Smith Story Part 1: Bottle Rocket [The Heatmiser Years]
The alternative rock band Heatmiser, formed by close friends Elliott Smith and Neil Gust during their time at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, emerged from the Portland, Oregon indie rock scene in the early 1990s. Heatmiser would go on to release three studio albums and spawn the successful solo career of talented, albeit troubled, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith.
At Amherst, Massachusetts’ Hampshire College, political science and philosophy student Elliott Smith met Neil Gust and the two became close friends. The friends bonded over shared musical interests and formed a band, playing mostly cover songs of Ringo Starr and Elvis Costello at local New England clubs in the late 1980s. After his graduation from Hampshire in 1991, Smith moved back to his hometown of Portland, Oregon with Gust and they officially formed their band, adding Smith’s high school friend Tony Lash on drums and Brandt Peterson on bass and calling it Heatmiser.
After performing local shows in Portland, Heatmiser released its first record, Dead Air, in 1993. The album showcased the band’s hard alternative rock sound, seemingly influenced by the popular Seattle grunge bands of the era. In fact, Dead Air was released one week before Nirvana’s In Utero. The band’s early songs were short: averaging about two to three minutes per song and employing a simple pop song structure: verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus. Despite Elliott later dismissing the band’s early work as “”loud rock songs with no dynamic,” Dead Air showed a glimpse of the genius of Smith’s lyrics and availability of his pop songwriting. Meanwhile, Gust’s lyrical content discussed themes relating to his sexuality and feelings as an outsider. The album failed to garner much attention.
It wasn’t until the 1994 releases of Heatmiser’s second album Cop and Speeder as well as their EP Yellow No. 5 that the band began to gather any attention from critics and media. One critic has called the EP the band’s “most accessibly poppy release.” Cop and Speeder featured a more evolved sound for the band, including more melodic songs as well as a more varied approach to songwriting. Though the band’s sound hadn’t yet reached complete maturity in 1994, their musical evolution was apparent and the band’s dynamics reached a greater variety than the mostly repetitive Dead Air.
Meanwhile, Smith was recording his first solo album, Roman Candle. The album was not originally intended for release and its acoustic lo-fi sound reflects this. As stated in Benjamin Nugent’s biography Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing, Smith played each instrument and recorded the album on a four-track recorder. The album was meant to serve as more of a demo tape for the record label, but the label liked the album enough that they released it. A photograph of Neil Gust served as the album’s front cover. Roman Candle’s title track alludes to his rocky relationship with his stepfather, while “Condor Ave” and “Last Call,” written nearly ten years earlier while Smith was in high school, were also featured on the album. However, the quick success of the solo album created a rising tension between Smith and Heatmiser, specifically his friend Gust.
In 1995, with the help of friend Mary Lou Lord, Smith landed a deal with Portland record label Kill Rock Stars for his second LP. The album, self-titled Elliott Smith, featured Smith’s typical acoustic sound, but also included dark, metaphorical lyrical content relating to depression and drug use. Elliott would later recall the album: “I personally can’t get more dark than that.” He would say that “Needle in the Hay’ is, for me, the darkest [song] and it’s a big ‘fuck you’ song to anybody and everybody.” The album’s only single, “Needle in the Hay” would later be featured in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film The Royal Tenenbaums as well as on the film’s soundtrack. Smith would later reflect on the album’s release: “The self-titled one was a turning point. At the time I felt it was fully what I was and I had no concern about what people would think of it.” In the meantime, Smith began doing interviews by himself and without his friends in Heatmiser. During these interviews, Smith would either not acknowledge Heatmiser or criticize the band’s songs. These actions put an even greater strain on the friendship between Smith and Gust.
Heatmiser bassist Brandt Peterson left the band in August of 1994, and was replaced by Sam Coomes, Elliott’s friend and member of Portland indie band Quasi. Heatmiser recorded what would be its final album, Mic City Sons, in early 1996. During this period, relationships between band members reached an all-time low. Despite the fighting between Gust and Smith, the album showcased the band at the peak of its songwriting ability, artistic maturity, and creative output. The album is usually considered the band’s best work, highlighted by the band shedding its loud and often repetitive rock dynamic and instead favoring a variety of musical styles including quieter, acoustic tunes which were primarily written by Smith. Among Mic City Sons’ highlights were Gust’s “Rest My Head Against the Wall,” which reflected Gust’s reflections on his sexuality, and Smith’s “Half Right.” Prior to release of the album, however, the band officially broke up, which caused their new record label Virgin Records to release the album on their smaller label Caroline Records. Neil Gust went on to form the band No. 2, and would release two albums with the band, but would later start a career in media arts. Sam Coomes would continue his musical career with then-wife, Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, in the band Quasi, which would later serve as Elliott’s backup band on future tours.