Just when the Dismemberment Plan broke up and you thought pop had been nudged out of the indie world for good, along comes Hot Hot Heat--a ragtag Canadian outfit signed to a label known more for garage clamor than pop bliss. Sub Pop released the band's Knock Knock Knock EP followed by a second album, Make Up the Breakdown, late last year to rave reviews from those who bothered to listen to their strange pop confection. Seamlessly blending the cool and the terminally unhip, Hot Hot Heat juggles The Cars, Prince, and the jittery post-punk of Gang of Four and Wire. Keyboardist-turned-vocalist Steve Bays lays his frenetic, scattershot prose over the top of the shifting rhythms, producing an effect not too dissimilar from running the wrong way up an escalator.
Bays admits that the band's eclectic sound isn't for everyone, but that doesn't seem to bother him, despite the added pressure of a major label deal. (Warner Brothers recently signed the band to a multi-album contract and will re-release Make Up the Breakdown in the coming weeks.) When Voices recently spoke to him, Bays sounded remarkably relaxed for a man who just made, arguably, the biggest transition of his life.
Voices: So how exactly did this Warner deal come about?
Steve Bays: We were meeting with different labels because we only had a one-record deal with Sub Pop.
Voices: I didn't realize it was a one-album deal.
SB: Yeah, we were still developing our sound, gigging around Seattle. I think they were reluctant to take a risk on us because they didn't really know what we were all about yet.
Voices: So did you always have a major label deal in mind?
SB: No, actually, we were just taking what was offered to us at the time. By the time they offered more records, we had already gotten some interest from major labels. There was always the possibility that we wouldn't be offered the right kind of deal at a major and that we'd want to stay indie for a while. But we met with a bunch of labels and Warner was the first label that was like, "Whatever you want, we'll give you." So we put together a proposal and they O.K.'d everything. I guess they didn't want to deal with a bidding war, which can be really expensive and brew resentment. It was pretty painless.
Voices: I was speaking with someone over at Sub Pop and they said that you guys were really interested in getting radio and video airplay--something that a major label can give you. Is that true?
SB: Well, we haven't started any campaign with Warner yet. Any commercial radio airplay that's going on right now is because the programmers want to play it or because Sub Pop put it out there.
Voices: I see. But Warner is planning on re-releasing Make Up the Breakdown, correct?
SB: Yeah, probably in six weeks or so. It's very hard to say what [that process] is going to be like. We've had extensive talks with Warner about letting [it] grow organically and not having it shoved down people's throats. And they're totally on the same page. With a band like us, it's not going to work if people feel like they're being sold our band. [Make Up the Breakdown] is the sort of album that's does really well through word-of-mouth. Most press we've done is with people that actually like the music.
Voices: I'd say I fall in that camp.
SB: (laughs) Cool. Yeah, that's the way it should be. There are so many bands I'm finding out about now that actually buy press and I didn't know there was such a thing.
Voices: So how do you think Warner is approaching you? They have a fairly diverse set of artists, from mainstream acts like R.E.M. to more strictly indie bands like the Flaming Lips and Built to Spill. Where does Hot Hot Heat fit on that spectrum?
SB: We've hung out with a ton of people there. Basically, a couple of years ago, there was a huge revamp [at Warner Brothers Records] when Tom Whalley took over. The goal was to change Warner from what it was because it was going downhill and had become totally commercialized. They wanted to make it a label that musicians wanted to be on again, like it was in the early days. That's why they make time these days for bands like the Hives, the Flaming Lips, and Built to Spill. A lot of the people they hired are young and legitimately stoked on music. Many of the Warner people came to our shows even before we were an option of being signed. So there are a lot of music fans working there now.
Voices: Do you think they see you as one of those cred-type indie bands?
SB: Totally. Well, cred is a volatile thing and I can't say I view it objectively--
Voices: I didn't mean to put a negative spin on it. I meant that as a contrast to some of the more blatantly commercial acts on the label, to denote a band that is going to sell more consistently and maybe not do such huge numbers sales-wise.
SB: We told them that we wanted to be a career band from the beginning. We want to change and grow. We don't want to be a flavor of the month, and we're working with them so that we're not marketed the same way as other bands today--even bands with "cred" are being marketed in such a way that I'm not really comfortable with.
Voices: Like maybe some of the garage bands?
SB: Yeah. I don't want [Hot Hot Heat] to be a band like that, even though a lot of the mainstream press have been putting us in that category because it's easy. The main thing is that we're huge music fans and we love writing songs, challenging ourselves, and making messed-up music. We weren't going to sign with a label that didn't understand or was unwilling to nurture that. We don't [want] to go in, make our money, and leave, either. The guy that we signed with at Warner, Craig [Aaronson], also signed At the Drive-In, which in retrospect was a good idea, but at the time I'm sure people were like, "What? These guys aren't going to go very far."
Voices: Absolutely. Especially when you listen to some of their early stuff.
SB: So basically, of all the labels, Warner was the most willing to give us a fair shot.
Voices: Getting down to the actual music now, I would say that Hot Hot Heat has a very distinct lyrical style. It almost seems at times like you tailor the songs to fit the words. How do you actually assemble the songs?
SB: Tailoring is the right word. Basically, we'll write a riff first. The main thing that I think is different from how most bands write is that I'll often compose the melody or the pattern first so that I can figure out the vocal rhythm and then I'll put the melody around it. That'll determine the exact number of syllables I need.
Voices: It often seems like you're cramming as many words in as possible.
SB: Most of it kind of rolls off the tongue. I like the stuff that sounds a bit tripped out. Once I figure out exactly how many syllables I need and what the melody requires, I'll sit and write stuff out. I actually wrote the lyrics for some of the songs on the album five minutes before we recorded.
Voices: So the process is sort of the opposite of what I presumed.
SB: Some musicians I know keep books filled with lyrics, but I find the problem with that is that you're not going to write a really odd structure or pattern to your lyrics. It's much easier to fall into the standard A-B-A-B format that way.
Voices: I would say that the other unique aspect to your sound is your voice. I remember one reviewer saying that how you feel about Hot Hot Heat is really going to hinge on what you think of Steve Bays's vocals. Do you agree with that?
SB: Yeah, I'll occasionally read a review where the person says, "I didn't like his voice and I couldn't get past that." I can accept that because I do tend to fill most of every song with vocals. There's very few spots where I really let [the songs] breathe.
Voices: It's a claustrophobic sound.
SB: It really is, but that's what I like. We make music that we want to hear. There are so many bands that come out where I catch myself saying, "I wish that they had done this or that differently." This band is an excuse for me to make music the way I would want to hear it if I was buying my ideal record. I'm totally happy with how it came out. [The sound] wasn't an accident. I don't wish I had let it breathe more--
Voices: But you don't get a lot of people who are indifferent toward the vocals, right? People either like it or hate it. Has that been your general experience?
SB: Definitely, which I think is great. Any time there are extremes like that you're doing something right. Even when it comes to our name, a lot of people love it and a lot hate it. Some can't even see past it. They're like, "I can't listen to a band with a name that stupid." (laughs) But people are entitled to those feelings. The only thing I can control is whether or not I like it and I'm totally happy with how the vocals are.
Voices: Singing is a relatively new thing for you.
SB: I started about a year and a half ago. I had screamed in bands before, but my first experience singing was when I built a home studio. I'd wait for my roommates to go to work and then I'd start singing. I wasn't that good, but I'd put Autotune on it and get melodies in key. I'd disguise it with effects in the home studio, but as time went on, I'd start stripping the effects off.
Voices: So you got comfortable with your voice.
SB: Yeah, and once I realized that I could sing in key, I started to have a lot of fun with it.
Voices: O.K., now for the experimental section of the interview. I thought I'd throw out a word or phrase and have you elaborate any way you'd like. A few words or a few sentences, whichever you'd prefer.
SB: Cool. I'm ready.
SB: What came after straightedge hardcore.
Voices: Sub Pop.
SB: Indie kids who are stoked on their job and hope they don't lose it.
Voices: Dismemberment Plan.
SB: Math rock that went poppy but still had the influence on math rather than pop.
Voices: Scenes One Through Thirteen. (Hot Hot Heat's debut album)
SB: Something that at first we tried to shove under a carpet but now we're proud of. As of a few months ago, we're happy with it.
SB: Something that I never want to talk about. (laughs) I like anything. If the song is good, I like it. It doesn't matter if it's whatever's cool on Pitchforkmedia or if it's Tina Turner. If it's a good song it's a good song. I can never cite my influences because I like so many things.
Voices: Five years from now.
SB: Either we're in the band and we've progressed and our fans have gone with us and we sound totally different or we're broken up and I'm producing.
Hot Hot Heat play the Fireside Bowl on March 3.