Heat of the Moment
In early 2003, shortly after the release of his band's major-label debut, Steve Bays imagined himself in one of two positions. Within five years, he figured either Hot Hot Heat would sound totally different and his fans would be tagging along for the ride or the band would be broken up and he'd be a full-time producer.
Two years on, Bays' prophecy appears to be on track... though he's closer to Hot Hot Heat's third record than the producer's chair. Elevator, the band's second, marks a bold change of pace. Bays is so encouraged by the band's progress that he already has seven or eight new songs on his hard drive at home.
"We're writing on the road, which is something we've never done before," Bays says, now on a respite in his home of Vancouver before embarking for South Florida. "Most importantly, we're finally all on the same page as far as the music we want to make, whereas before, we've always been confused."
The band may have been confused, but the haphazard, stumbling approach on its first proper album, Make Up the Breakdown, yielded some stunning singles, including the infectious radio smash "Bandages." Other songs, like the synth-driven Cars homage "No, Not Now" and the organ-propelled "Get In or Get Out" showed a band that had unusual range and obvious potential, even if its ultimate direction was near impossible to divine. Bays, in retrospect, sees that early awkwardness as a double-edged sword: "[The album] had this sort of naive element. We didn't really know what we were doing. That was cool, but it was also at the root of whatever flaws it may have had."
Although Bays and the rest of the band -- which included original guitarist Dante DeCaro, bassist Dustin Hawthorne, and drummer Paul Hawley -- may not have realized their accidental achievement, Craig Aronson, an A&R rep at Warner, pounced. He seized (perhaps a year too early) on Make Up's frenetic, dance-infused rock. No sooner was the album out on the Seattle-based Sub Pop then Aronson had signed the band to Warner and arranged for the album's major-label rerelease. Hot Hot Heat toured relentlessly in support, as thrilled by its fortune as it was petrified by the attendant expectations. In those early performances, Bays clung to his keyboard. He was still only a year removed from taking on singing duties from Matthew Marnik, who handled vocals in an early incarnation of Hot Hot Heat but left prior to Make Up. It was an admittedly painful transition that involved Bays slowly weaning himself off Autotune pitch-correcting technology -- both to get comfortable with the sound of his own voice and because he initially sang horribly off-key.
However, while Bays warmed to his role and grew increasingly confident in his abilities, the band's guitarist, Dante DeCaro, was slower to adjust. "He was miserable because of the touring lifestyle," Bays says. "He loved playing shows, but he wasn't prepared for anything else that went along with it -- all the mental and physical commitments." DeCaro found the road so distasteful that he eventually gave notice. He completed the tour, but his bandmates knew they'd need to add a new member when they recorded the follow-up.
After an exhaustive search, the band settled on Luke Paquin. He may not have had much of an impact on sculpting the album's sound, as most of it was written prior to his involvement, but Paquin's playing definitely stands out. Elevator is a surprisingly guitarcentric record for a band renowned for its gliding synths and spastic rhythms. Bays -- who along with Hawley writes all the group's material -- admits that he's "over pink now" -- a color he uses to describe the buoyant, new wave anthems on Make Up and one the group frequently donned when playing live during that era. "We're just into more classic things in general," Bays says. "We used very few synths on this album. For the most part, it was a classic guitar sound. If the last album was pink, I think of this album as more of a black-and-white photo."
True to his word in 2003, Hot Hot Heat is already a much different band than the one that released Make Up. Not only has classic guitar sound usurped the lightning synths but Dave Sardy's production has smoothed Bays' rougher vocal patches and added a professional polish. Even the band's appearance has morphed; Bays' hair has grown out to a shaggy mane. But the band hasn't completely severed ties to its past. Elevator, especially on cuts like "Pickin' It Up" and "Island of the Honest Man," still retains the same tension that made Make Up so compelling. "I don't think we're ever going to get away from wanting people to dance and being a good live band," Bays says, "but each [record] has a slightly different focus."
As for the live performance, a recent show in Atlanta revealed a band bearing little resemblance to the anxious, hesitant rookies that opened in dingy clubs. The new, guitar-driven songs allow Bays a freedom he's finally ready to exercise. He stalked the stage, pirouetting along the edge, grabbing at extended arms and bobbing heads. And any nervousness regarding his vocals had long since melted away, as he shouted his a cappella song intros at speaker-shredding volume.
Of course, he still isn't 100 percent comfortable with his role as "rock front man." "We have a lighting guy, and I told him early on that I always want to see the crowd," Bays says. "So we always set up lights facing the crowd -- I like to see reactions."
And to see who's tagging along for the ride.
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