By Kat Bein
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Be warned, America: Fashionable guys in skinny ties are once again running amok in the musical landscape. "I wish I had an explanation for it," shrugs mop-topped Steve Bays. In just three years of existence, the Hot Hot Heat frontman/pianist and his bandmates have transformed from obscure British Columbian synth-punkers to the vanguard of the "new" new wave movement. Compared to the Cure, Squeeze, and Elvis Costello and the Attractions, the band's bouncy, hook-laden party music became all things '80s to an adoring critical community. "I play a keyboard, so people say we sound like those bands," Bays notes. "But if I played a guitar, people wouldn't say, 'You guys sound like Def Leppard.'"
Not that he's complaining. Back in 1999, Bays' musical ambitions were getting him nowhere fast. He was bouncing among bands in his hometown in Victoria, British Columbia, when he hooked up with Paul Hawley (drums), Dustin Hawthorne (bass), and Matt Marnik (vocals), and formed Hot Hot Heat. "Between the four of us, we had been in 30 bands," chuckles the piano man.
Due to other commitments, Hot Hot Heat was not designed for longevity. "We were just going to write the stupidest songs you could think of and play a few parties," Bays says. Much to their surprise, HHH's insanely distorted onslaught caught on. By the end of the year, the band popped out a demo and toured the West Coast with fellow Canucks Radio Berlin. "We had no idea if we sucked or not, but at some shows we'd sell a ton of demos," Bays recalls. "After two weeks we were ready to come home. We were still developing our sound, and touring seemed to be a waste of time."
Back home, the members of Hot Hot Heat quit their other projects and hit the studio. 2000 saw a string of vinyl releases on tiny Vancouver indies. Remaining indifferent to touring outside the northwest, Bays was shocked to get an e-mail from Gabe Ermine, owner of Coral Springs label Ohev. "I was like 'How? How did you hear about us?'" a baffled Bays recalls. "He said that someone mentioned our name, and then he downloaded 'Circus Maximus' -- which we thought was our worst song -- off our website. We weren't even into finding a label, but we thought, 'Sure, what the hell?'"
By the time Scenes One Through Thirteen (a compilation of their vinyl releases) hit the streets in February 2001, Hot Hot Heat's love affair with keyboard distortion and yelling had hit the skids. "We decided that synth-punk had gone as far as it would go," Bays opines. The band fired Marnik, and Bays retreated to his home studio. "I started experimenting with different kinds of music and discovered that I could sing in key. It was weird. I had yelled in punk bands before, but I'd never considered singing tunefully."
After six months of seclusion, Bays and Hot Hot Heat emerged with a guitarist (Dante DeCaro) and a melodic sound that confused their fans. "Our first gig back was in Vancouver, where we had a pretty big audience -- we'd regularly sell out a 300-person venue," Bays recalls. "We came back with six songs that totally weren't aggro. After we played, people just kind of stood there in shock, wondering what had happened to us."
Although it took some time for their fellow Canadians to adjust to the new Hot Hot Heat, the band's irresistible hooks opened the ears of Seattle super-indie Sub Pop Records. While Sub Pop considered signing them, the band made an effort to stay in their face. "In three months, we played Seattle seven times," Bays explains. "The first time, we played to seven people. The seventh time, we sold out the club."
Impressed, Sub Pop signed Hot Hot Heat and released the five-song Knock Knock KnockEP to rave reviews in April 2002. While Bays was confounded by constant comparisons to the Cure's Robert Smith, the band returned to the studio in May to record its full-length debut, Make Up the Breakdown.With an album in the can and a red-hot EP in the stores, HHH hit the road with abandon, touring with Les Savy Fav, French Kicks, the Liars, and Sloan. Bays' on-stage swagger evoked Mick Jagger. HHH's music and style brought major-label reps running to the band's gigs with dinner invitations. "All A&R guys would drop the Strokes: 'We almost signed the Strokes, man.' Like we cared," Bays says. "We just wanted to make sure we wouldn't get shelved."
This past October -- just two days before Sub Pop released Make Up the Breakdown-- Hot Hot Heat inked with Warner Bros. "Sub Pop was great, but there's only so much you can do with them," Bays affirms. "We had six days to record Make Up the Breakdown. For our next record, I want six weeks."
Bays may pine for more studio time, but certainly didn't need it. Make Up the Breakdownis a fiercely brilliant ten-song exercise in second-millennium new wave. The ghost of Gang of Four boogies through "Talk to Me, Dance with Me," while "Get In or Get Out" sounds like Jools Holland jamming with the Police. On the soaring, emotive "In Cairo," Bays croons like a bastard child of Robert Smith -- convincing mascara-wearing boys everywhere that he's crying on the inside. "I'm not a Cure fan!" Bays swears. "I had no idea that the Cure had a song called 'Fire in Cairo'!"
Despite their rapid success, the boys in Hot Hot Heat are again tinkering with their sound. "Our tastes are always going to change," Bays pontificates. "After five months on tour, you pick up so many CDs and become a different listener. The new stuff is definitely different than the album; it's not all about being dancey and fun. We want to do some songs that are heavier and quirkier. We want to do an acoustic song. I'm going to play guitar. I want to try a bunch of stuff. Before, we were trying to figure out who we were as a band. I think we know now."