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"Finished What We Started": How Tragedy Triumphed In Punk Rock
Rock ‘n’ Roll music has seen its share of misfortunes. Even in the punk rock genre, lives are cut short from tragedy. However, hope and inspiration can be born from the untimely death of talented musicians who were surrounded by loved ones. Derrick Plourde, the talented and respected drummer in numerous punk rock bands took his own life in 2005 after years of substance abuse and depression. His suicide prompted immediate tributes from friends and contemporaries. However, his role in the band Bad Astronaut in the midst of recording their third record left an irreplaceable mark in their artistic endeavor. In the wake of unexpected heartbreak, his fellow band mates pushed on, completing a record that both mourned and celebrated the life of Derrick Plourde.
Founded in 2000 by a collective group of musicians in the punk rock scene, the seven-piece band Bad Astronaut pursued a more indie-rock sound with a sense of pop music writing. Headed by Joey Cape, best known as the singer for the punk band Lagwagon and guitarist for the punk super group cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, he teamed up with Lagwagon drummer Plourde, Marko DeSantis from the band Sugercult on bass, and music producer and engineer Angus Cooke. The other members included Thom Flowers on guitar, and Jonathan Cox and Todd Capps on keyboards.
According to the band’s biography on the Fat Wreck Chords website, their first two albums (2001’s “Acrophobe” and 2002’s “Houston: We Have a Drinking Problem”) were darker and more studio heavy than the individuals’ previous work in other bands. As songwriters, there were heavily influenced on the works of the Flaming Lips, David Bowie, and Elliot Smith. For three years, the band was working on their third record, which would become “Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment,” released in 2006.
Unfortunately, on March 31, 2005, word got out that Plourde took his own life the previous day. Immediately upon the tragic news, an outpouring of love and respect flooded the punk rock world. Plourde’s longtime record label, Fat Wreck Chords, issued a statement in loving praise of him: “His profound talents can be heard on all of the early Lagwagon albums and also on recordings from Mad Caddies, Ataris, and Bad Astronaut. Above all, Derrick was a great guy who will be sorely missed and will always remain a member of the Fat family.” Kris Roe, lead singer and guitarist for the band The Ataris, issued a statement on the band’s website recounting his friend and fellow musician, who was the original drummer for the Ataris in the late 1990s. Roe’s heartfelt remembrance paid tribute to Plourde’s “warped” sense of humor from such a “charismatic young individual.”
However, for those who knew him closely, Plourde had a history of drug and alcohol abuse as well as experiencing depression. In Roe’s initial statement, he remarked, “This is one of those things in the back of your mind you kinda somewhat think could happen anytime then suddenly on the day you get that call it just doesn't really seem real. We definitely take some things... some friendships for granted while we are alive, and then suddenly they're gone.”
In the punk rock community, Plourde’s tragic death was most publically conveyed from longtime friend and fellow band-mate Joey Cape. In an interview with Tim Den for Lollipop.com, Cape described the personal issues Ploude dealt with and its effects on his work: “He always had issues... I'm not going to go into specifics about them, but he definitely had underlying problems that, as he got older, started to surface. Different people deal with them differently: Derrick was having a real hard time coping. Around the first tour behind “Hoss,” he started to use drugs. It got pretty bad. He was in rough shape. It got to the point where we had to cancel the tour while we were in Florida and send him to detox. He got clean, but not completely clean, so we had to give him an ultimatum. It was either get off the drugs completely or we had to move on without him. Unfortunately, he chose the latter.”
At the time of Plourde’s death, Bad Astronaut was still periodically working on their third record. According to Cape, Plourde was often in no condition to play and at times, Cape had no idea about his whereabouts. In the same interview, Cape described what was going through his mind upon hearing the news of Plourde’s death. “In the back of my mind - and maybe a lot of other people's, too - I always thought that one day Derrick might self-destruct. Because his issues were capable of self-destruction. But still, despite what you think, when the "expected" actually happens, it's a big shock. I was devastated.” Cape went on to express his admiration of Plourde as a musician, calling him and incredible artist and writer. “For someone like myself, who "writes for a living," even if it's lyrics, to see someone like Derrick who could do it so effortlessly, it was astonishing. Just before he died, my wife and I were telling him to really consider being a writer. He used to send me funny letters from wherever he was - halfway houses, jail - and I'd just want to frame them.”
In 2006, Bad Astronaut released the record “Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment,” a little over a year after Plourde’s passing. Upon its release, the band announced on Myspace that this would be the final album of Bad Astronaut, "because without Derrick, there is no Bad Astronaut." When promoting the album, Cape went into detail about the completion of the record in the wake of Plourde’s death. “During one of his lapses I resolved to finish the record with a close friend of ours, Jonathan Gorman, a drummer Derrick deeply respected. Derrick and I never got the chance to record some of the songs we had rehearsed for Twelve Small Steps… In retrospect, I can see the value in releasing only the songs featuring Derrick’s drumming, but this wouldn’t truthfully document the process of making this album. In the end I did some drum editing and Derrick did not play on the entire album but I feel it best represents what he and I wanted. The album has a split personality because it was recorded before and after losing Derrick. It emotes the feelings I felt throughout this entire period of my life. I am very pleased with the album and I hope Bad Astronaut fans will appreciate it as well, especially because it is one of Derrick Plourde’s last musical contributions to this world.”
While listening to the final record, it’s difficult to not think of all of the emotions that went into completing this album. While many songs had been written while Plourde was still alive, you cannot help but consider this was the band’s swan song in their short but acclaimed tenure. The opening track, “Good Morning Night,” is an up-beat, catchy song filled with a bouncy synth track.
On the fourth track, “Stillwater, California,” Cape documents times jet setting around the world with his friends and bandmates over the years, including a shout out to Plourde.
One of the most compelling songs off the record is “Beat,” with lyrics you cannot help but speculate is a reflection on Cape’s relationship with Plourde. In an eerily meta-moment, Plourde’s drumming is on the recording track on a song eulogizing his death. In particular, this verse refers to Cape’s efforts to complete this album in the wake of his friend’s death:
Today, I finished what we started
Today, I thought you might be proud
We have recorded your defeat
An album always incomplete
The second to last track, “The “F” Word,” offers an epic conclusion to the album with a huge build up of multi-layered sound. The song’s final verse paints the picture of Cape’s empty heart in the wake of tragedy:
It stands to reason and I can't be by myself
It makes no difference who I am
It stands to reason and it's better left undone
It makes no difference what I have
I’m by myself
The record as a whole remains powerful in the years since its release. When listening to the record with knowledge of the loss of life and subsequent artistic inspiration, you can’t help but connect with the emotions Cape and his band mates were experiencing. I cannot say I was a big fan of Bad Astronaut at the time of Plourde’s death in 2005. But upon hearing the news and the outpouring of support, I felt a connection with all those he left behind. When “Twelve Small Steps, One Giant Disappointment” was released in November 2006, I was interested in hearing the finished product. I instantly fell in love with the record and certain songs would get stuck in my head for days.
Prior to the release of the final Bad Astronaut record, Joey Cape wrote a collection of songs soon after Plourde’s death to be recorded for the next Lagwagon record. Released in November 2005, “Resolve” was inspired by Plourde’s life and the record dedicated to to his memory.
Derrick Plourde’s tragic ending should not be forgotten. He was surrounded by loved ones who admired his talents as an artist and for his friendship. His memory will forever be documented on the records he worked on, the music fans he attracted, and the family and friends who had the pleasure of knowing him.