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Ryan O'Nan

GENRE: Emo, Alternative
LABEL: Wrenched
REVIEWED: April 15, 2024

I was nineteen, and I was helping a girl move into her dorm on the UCSD campus. I had a crush. It was not returned. I was miserable, but pretending nothing was bothering me. That night we went to a show at a venue called The Che Café on the UCSD campus that was home to a good part of the San Diego indie rock music scene. Despite being emotionally open, due to my feelings for this girl, I was also feeling resentful that I was clearly not what she wanted, and there was nothing I could do about it. That’s when I heard Boilermaker for the first time. And I fucking hated them. 

It wasn’t just that their music was somehow more complicated than I was used to. I was in a punk band, writing songs on a regular basis, and doing decently well in the local scene in San Diego, but my songs were all pretty simple structurally, and lyrically,  so I’m sure I felt confronted for my lack of musical talent. But that wasn’t it. Not really.  Watching Boilermaker play made me feel uncool. And that pissed me off. 

I had grown up feeling uncool. Being the lead singer/guitarist in a band that people actually showed up to see had taken the edge off that feeling, but then here was this fucking three-piece band from Leucadia—SO close to where I grew up—playing incredible drumbeats, guitar riffs that put my measly three chord progressions to shame, and to make it so much worse the lead singer played bass and sang at the same time, and not EASY basslines…complicated, beautiful basslines WHILE HE WAS SINGING WITH PERFECT PITCH. I could’ve killed them. All three of them. The girl I was crushing on was standing next to me, and she was nodding her head to the music, and I felt so fucking exposed. Like Salieri in Amadeus hearing Mozart play for the first time. The quiet rage. The little man’s hate. I said, “Fuck this band. They suck. Let’s get out of here.” She didn’t agree that they sucked, but we went.

A couple years later, I found myself back at the Che Café to see a band called No Knife that a friend had introduced me to, and that I had quickly come to love. I’d grown a lot in those two years. I felt less like a teenager trying to break out of a shell, and more like a young man trying to grab onto one mysterious vine after the next as I swung my way through the dark forest of whatever the fuck it meant to be a young man in the mid 90’s. In a lot of ways I was flailing. My homelife was tough, I had NO idea what I wanted to do with my life other than music (which I had a sneaking suspicious I was never going to make a living at), and I had been unlucky in love a few times back-to-back. I was feeling less angry, and way more lost. 

And then Boilermaker opened for No Knife.

At the time, I barely remembered seeing them the first time. Something about the name of the band felt familiar, but the second they started playing, I thought the familiar feeling was because the chords they chose as they played were somehow exactly how I felt on the inside. I have never felt as connected to music being played live as I was that night listening to Boilermaker. It was one of those moments where music can change you on an elemental level.

I met someone that night that I spent the next ten years of my life with, as well. An amazing woman who loved music as much as I did, and who I eventually formed a band with that we named after a Boilermaker song. Ok, enough with the cheesy love story bullshit. 

This is what I want to say about this band. Boilermaker has three albums. All brilliant. But the third album is a thing of genius. A masterpiece, in my opinion. It’s self-titled. Just Boilermaker. It’s not on Spotify or Apple Music. In order for the average person to hear it, you have to order the album or listen to it on YouTube. 

Every song is good. Rare these days.

From the opening song, “Norman” all of their talents are on full display. Try and not be mesmerized by the bassline, You. Will. Lose. I dare you. 

The fourth song is called “Last on the Drive” (possibly my favorite song of all time) begins slow and full, with a lingering chord held out, then kicks in with yes, another incredible bassline (did I mention he sings at the same time). The song begins with the lyric “The Cadillac couldn’t slow in time to see”.

The next song “1/10/98” is only the lead singer playing bass and singing with no other musical accompaniment, which is a combination I never see. It’s short and haunting and beautiful. The very last song, “Bluebird” is another bass and vocal song, with a little keyboard tone in the background. Makes me smile just thinking about it. Sad and gorgeous.  Special.

This album feels like a smile on a sad day. For some reason, I have always enjoyed melancholic tones when I’m feeling low. It doesn’t drag me further down. It has always made me feel less alone, somehow. Seen. Almost remembered. Listening to the music makes me feel like I am listening to a part of myself because I know it so well and I’ve been so many places in my life listening to this music that little pieces of myself are hidden between the notes somehow. No music is a blank slate. I believe every song is a piece of nostalgia. Even if you’re hearing it for the first time. It swells and triggers. That’s its job. It’s like a conjuring spell.

So much incredible art comes with an odd counterbalance of tragedy, and Boilermaker is no different. The three members of the band, Terrin Durfey (vocals/bass), Rich Sanderson (guitar) and Timothy James Semple (drums) played together form 1993 to 2002. They stopped, because  the lead singer, Terrin, sadly passed away from throat cancer. I have heard such wonderful things about him as a person throughout the years. He left some incredible art behind. Like that bold sustained guitar chord at the beginning of Last on the Drive, strummed once and with intention. Crumbling as it grows.

I would call Boilermaker a decently obscure band, at this point. And something about having something only to yourself taps into that old cool factor—that ever elusive thing I grew up hunting for. But, of course, that’s all bullshit. And now, all I want is for others to get a chance to experience this band. I hope you get a chance. The hunt will be worth it.