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Look Back 2005 – Hot Hot Heat

Let’s look back 15 years to our coverstory featuring Hot Hot Heat from September 2005.

With the disruptions of COVID-19 to the music industry and more specifically the touring industry, we thought it would be fun to go back and look at some of our previous articles & interviews.

There is nothing rock’n’roll about Steve Bays. With his sweetie-pie innocent face, wild red Orphan Annie curls and approachable honest smile – there is simply nothing controversial about this dude. He doesn’t look anything like Brandon Flowers, Sam Endicott or Conor Oberst. He looks more like Napoleon Dynamite’s distant cousin or the geeky guy in high school whose chemistry homework you copied – rather than the frontman of a happening band, who’s getting video-play on VH1 Hits. Onstage, 27-year-old Bays rips it up like a mini-Mick Jagger with style, self-assurance and even sex appeal. The sounds that he and his fellow Canadian Hot Hot Heat bandmates lay on the crowd borderline addiction like a pack of Marlboro Reds. But HHH deliver the pleasure without the guilt.

The band’s 2005 LP Elevator (Sire) has been bouncing aglow in the ears of listeners of both mainstream and college radio stations. It’s the follow-up to the widely-acclaimed 2004 Sub Pop release Make Up The Breakdown. Elevator’s first single and video, “Middle of Nowhere,” has become a favorite on the many MTV-related markets. Bays stars as the cover-boy and focus of the video. He is seen roaming abandoned streets and belting out an emotional chorus as the camera zooms in for lots of close-up shoots of his face. His character is something different from the loud, rambunctious mental-case of a rocker that he was in Make Up’s “Bandages” video. In “Middle of Nowhere,” Bays is sensitive, almost desperate to the point of tears. Though poles apart, these singles carry trademark HHH beats and style – witty, danceable and electrically frantic.

If you can’t get those damn HHH jingles, er songs, out of your head, don’t worry. Neither can Bays. Before their Culture Room gig, I stroll to Target with Bays and drummer Paul Hawley, so the two can take care of some dental hygiene errands. Bays needs dental floss. Hawley needs a toothbrush. (Turns out they are really into dental care.) As Bays selects some floss (the 78-cent kind, nothing fancy), he tells me that he was up until 8 a.m. because one of their works-in-progress for the forth-coming album was stuck in his mind. This sleeplessness is a tell-tell sign that this tune will be on the next record.

“The songs that make it to the record are the ones that keep me up at night,” he explains. The band often rehearse new songs during sound check, giving the tunes different spins to find out what works best. “We have tried [the song] in so many different ways. We’ve tried it first as like a really slow song, and then as a more upbeat, powerful song. That’s the thing. You can present songs in so many different ways. You can present them acoustically, or you can present them as giant arena rock, you know, an epic song – or you can present it as a pop ditty. Either way, it’s still the same few chords and the same melody. It’s just that kind of addictive hook that is like the linchpin.”

Though Bays admits to feeling like an endless channel for creative forces at the moment, the new songs’ hooks and choruses rarely attack his mind as one cohesive unit. “I’d say like a quarter of the time I’ll write lyrics [at the same time as the melody]. Like with ‘Goodnight, Goodnight,’ (Elevator) those were the first lyrics that popped into my head. Most of ‘Running out of Time’ I wrote in half an hour. It’s like ‘Goodnight, Goodnight’ and ‘Running out of Time’ were like stream-of-consciousness for the choruses and partly through the verses. ‘You Owe Me An IOU’ – I just had that lyrical hook in my head for about a year and wanted to use it.”

Stream-of-consciousness seems to be a main form of communication for Bays. He manages to veer our conversation into random, interesting territories as we stroll out of the Target checkout line and into the parking lot. He repeatedly refers to his ideas as abstract and admits to getting off-subject. His open sincerity and rambling dialogue could be a PR director’s nightmare. But Bays has a talent for coming back around to his initial point, and somehow wrapping up his entire spill.

This tour is the first time HHH have written songs while on the road. Bays explains that the last tour was not the most conducive atmosphere for fresh ideas. The members knew that former guitarist Dante DeCaro was leaving the band, and writing new material was put on hold. Now, things couldn’t be further from that mentality. The band are experiencing a rush of ideas and enthusiasm for new songs. “[On the last tour] we were going through all these weird emotional issues. But since we found Luke [Paquin], we are writing constantly, which is so cool,” he says, in a soft whisper so Hawley doesn’t hear.

Evolving their sound is an important goal when coming up with fresh material. Bays knows that HHH are an it item and have trendy tunes for their fans, but to progress, the band has to experiment while keeping their famously catchy vibes. He describes how making a record is a juggling act of pleasing fans, being true to yourself and taking artistic risks.

“[The responsibilities involved] are not really the side of music that I would probably choose to talk about, but there definitely is a dark side to being in a band, which is at the end of the day, you are still entertaining. People are paying money to come and see you and be entertained. So you need to address the fact that there is competition, and there is pressure. People kind of feel like they own you a little bit. So if you do something that they don’t approve of, they feel like you slapped them in the face kind of thing, which is kind of a weird concept. But at the same time, we also have theories, which are if you’re not doing what you believe in and what you’re passionate about, then you’re cheating, you’re lying and it’s dishonest and people will see through it. You can’t do that, even though I know people have ideas about what they think they want. I don’t think anyone knows what they want.

“The main thing with bands – why they start to suck – is that they get bored, but there is still pressure for them to write. Then they just go through the motions, and they just use the old hat tricks that they used on the last record. But if you’re in that position, you should just quit, I think,” he says.

HHH are nowhere near the burnout stage of calling it quits. In Bays’ mind they are just getting started. “I think you should always be functionally insecure to keep motivated and to keep pushing yourself,” he says. “I think if I just quit the band and moved to a desert island, I wouldn’t feel like we had achieved everything. I kind of feel like we are just starting out.”

Bays has some big ideas for their future and describes the constant struggle of always wanting to do more, bigger, better. “The new [material we are writing] is like bigger in scale, like emotionally. It’s kind of anthemic. I kind of feel like it’s a bit, one part Ziggy Stardust (the “Five Years” style), one part Queen, one part early U2 – but it still sounds like us at the same time. We’re trying to do stuff that we’ve never done before and trying really hard to find out what we like and don’t like about the past two records.

“Once you finish a record you are really fulfilled, but then right away, almost at the same time you realize what you could’ve done, what you should’ve done. It’s like any craft really; you’re just always trying to find new ways of staying excited. Well, the one thing that will always stay the same is that it has to be really catchy. It needs to almost be addictive, which is kind of an abstract concept.

“I mean, to be honest, there was this kind of pressure [when making the previous albums]. There was all this talk, ‘Oh, Hot Hot Heat’s new wave, retro, dance-punk’ all these labels. On the one hand, I felt like we were going to be shooting ourselves in the foot if we didn’t follow through on that. But on the other hand, I wanted to put something out that would surprise people, piss some people off and have other people go, ‘I love this.’”

Right now Bays is obviously in a profound world inside his mind, showing an unexpected side of himself. He is thoughtful, soft-spoken, contemplative and charmingly timid. While onstage, he is clearly another kind of creature – one with a spunky strut, boundless coolness and attractive self-importance. But as we stroll along the crosswalk outside Target, teenagers and college kids are smiling and staring and asking to shake Bays’ hand. This is a definite reminder that he is a well-known artist, and not my former chem. lab partner.

It’s not just me. Bays also describes himself as having two sides – onstage and off-stage personas. “I’m definitely pretty mellow [in person],” he says, doodling with his hair. “I’m not that great at PR and stuff like that. I don’t necessarily feel that comfortable in front of a camera. But onstage, it’s just a completely different thing. I think I’m a completely different person. I don’t know why. I think it’s just easier to put on a good show if you just know that you are a different person onstage, and you just have an invisible mask on, and you can say and do things that you wouldn’t normally do and you don’t have to think about it. I think if you think too much, you can close doors. But off-stage I definitely think too much. And usually with songwriting, it’s usually the moments when I just turn my brain off and it just happens.”

Even the most reserved artist at some point has to be willing to expose parts of themselves to be a larger success. We make our way back to the HHH tour bus, and chat in the back lounge. It’s quite. Bays gets even more focused and thoughtful. He recalls the first time he realized that his inner-self was becoming available for people to not only experience, but to also critique.

“The first time was when we finished mixing Make Up The Breakdown in Seattle and we marched it over to the Sub Pop office and played it for them. I remember feeling so naked. I was just like, ‘Oh! Turn the vocals down. Turn the vocals down.’ I was just so embarrassed,” he says grinning. “I remember when I heard the Strokes second album. The vocals were so quiet, and I remember thinking, ‘Turn them up. Turn them up.’ But at the same time, I was kind of picturing him [Julian Casablancas] being in the same position and feeling so naked because that’s the hardest part – being able to hear yourself really clearly.

“When we first started I used to put all these effects on the vocals and I used to hide behind abstract lyrics. But once I grew comfortable with doing Make Up The Breakdown, I realized that I kind of liked that nakedness. The more you expose yourself and more naked you are – it almost doesn’t matter what your insecurities are. It’s almost like it doesn’t matter if you’re ugly or what you’re saying isn’t pretty. People just want to know everything.”

Bays’ distinctly unrock look has become undeniably stylish and works in his favor, making him one of the hottest lead-singer-keyboardists on the music circuit. He laughs at the notion. “I was totally opposed to it at first because I thought keyboard was really uncool, which I definitely think it’s still not synonymous with cool, but it’s getting cooler,” he says with a lighthearted chuckle.

Funny as it may be – he’s right, which triggers some questions. So what if Bays doesn’t have an indie shag, white belt and dark-rimmed specs? And who cares if he buys Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash records rather than the latest scenester hits?

“I think there is something to be said for being different – but not just for the sake of being different,” he says, twirling his locks. “If you can justify being bizarre or different, then it’s pretty cool.”

Bays justifies his geeky-cool self just fine to me. He is more than abstract ideas, red curls and keyboards. He’s the nerd who transforms into the hunk. The reminder that people are not always as they appear. The promise that the face of rock will never be static.

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