Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hot Hot Heat interview

A version of my interview originally appeared in the North County Times and can be viewed here:

The band performs Saturday at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. Photo by Darren Ankenman, courtesy of

A slip of the tongue can get expensive. Just ask Hot Hot Heat.

The Canadian quartet expects to shell out some dough soon. Earlier this month, singer/keyboardist Steve Bays let a few profanities slip during a live webcast performance at the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.

“The band that played the day before us cursed nine times and got fined $5,000. It’s weird when you get up in front of that many people. All the sudden, you can’t think and then act. It’s like somebody else is behind the scenes controlling you,” explained Bays, in a phone interview from Los Angeles.

Watching Hot Hot Heat in concert is like an adrenaline rush. Their frenetic music serves as the perfect background for Bays, a live wire known to strut across the stage like a young Mick Jagger when he’s not banging on the keys with one hand.

For the current tour, the emphasis is on “being a big dance party and just having fun. Every show, I feel it gets a little better.”

Upon the recent release of fifth studio effort “Future Breeds,” Hot Hot Heat did selected residencies at venues across America for the first time. “The big thing with this album was to treat it like we’re a brand new band. Everything from songwriting and the online presence to our approach to touring, needed to be a fresh new thing. I’m trying to make sure we maintain that spirit we had when we were younger,” said Bays, 32.

Formed in Victoria, B.C. in 1999 and currently based in Vancouver, Hot Hot Heat first garnered major attention here with its New Wave-leaning Sub Pop Records debut “Make up the Breakdown” in 2002.

Initial singles “Bandages” and “Talk to Me, Dance with Me” received heavy airplay on modern rock radio, especially in Southern California. Follow up album “Elevator” was also successful on the strength of minor alternative hits “Goodnight Goodnight” and “Middle of Nowhere.” So far, the band has sold over half a million copies combined.

“Future Breeds” finds the dance rockers back in quirky form and taking more sonic chances than on 2007’s “Happiness Ltd.” Returning to its indie label roots following two releases on Sire Records, the extended down time was partially due to Bays assembling a studio in a downtown Vancouver office building built in 1903.

“I spent a year doing that and teaching myself how to engineer. We were also trying to redefine the musical direction of the band; there was a lot of experimenting.”

Originally earmarked for a side project between Bays and founding drummer Paul Hawley when bassist Dustin Hawthorne left the group, the adventurous new music reverted back to the Hot Hot Heat moniker because “we missed working with our guitar player Luke [Paquin] and…liked the idea of getting a reaction from people.” At times, the sound recalls such disparate influences as Sparks, Muse and Arctic Monkeys.

Bays found handling the technical and creative aspects of the latest release a little overwhelming. “The motivation and excitement was there, but if I knew what a big undertaking it was going to be, I may have thought twice before I dove in head first. It was really intense.”

Still, he has “always enjoyed the relationship between the left and right sides of the brain. I find they’re mutually beneficial. I like working in a logical realm while we try to tap into that eccentric part of the brain.”

Without pressure from a major record company, the musicians were able to add occasional free jazz and musique concrete elements into their trademark spastic sound while Bays yelped away. “If you’re just making music and nobody is there to give you feedback - good or bad - you’re more likely to go down the rabbit hole in search of a weird idea.”

Hawley crafted the odd sound collages on days when Bays turned up late to the studio. “I think [those things] create a chaotic feeling where it gets your brain thinking and you don’t really have time to process everything. It gives you a slight sense of anxiety.”

Some tense guitar work on “Times a Thousand” was done by early Hot Hot Heat member Dante DeCaro, now in Wolf Parade. He was in town for a visit and checked out the band’s new studio one day. Since the song was already written, DeCaro put a jam section over the top. “It would be cool to have him on one of our projects again,” admitted Bays.

The claustrophobic illustrated art design of “Future Breeds,” sporting robot men in a factory making various contraptions, is one of the year’s best album covers. Artist Keith Jones is a childhood friend of the band. “We had his artwork up in the studio while we were making the album. I feel like it inspired some of the music.”

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