Canada’s Hot Hot Heat first made themselves known in the UK with their hit single Bandages and the resulting Make Up The Breakdown album. Two years on, the band have just released their new album Elevator.
musicOMH caught up with lead singer Steve Bays and drummer Paul Hawley just before their gig at Sheffield’s Leadmill.
Hot Hot Heat are only three dates into their tour of the UK, so it’s understandable if they’re still adjusting their body clocks to the punishing schedule. “I slept for about 11 or 12 hours straight through last night” says a bleary-eyed Steve Bays while clutching a cup of frankly nasty looking coffee. “On the Nescafe cup, it says ‘fill with hot water, not boiling'” exclaims Bays. “Why is that?”
It’s a question that’s taxed greater minds than mine, and thankfully the conversation quickly moves onto the band’s latest tour. It’s the second time that the Canadian group have played Sheffield’s Leadmill, and they’re clearly looking forward to tonight’s gig. “The tour’s been awesome,” says Steve. “We’ve been away for a couple of years, so to come back with a new record and sell out a load of medium sized venues is really great.”
It’s the band’s first major tour since guitarist Dante DeCaro left in October 2004, following the recording of the new album Elevator. Although this was obviously a blow for the band, it also gave them breathing space between the album’s recording and its release to try out some replacements, before settling on Luke Paquin to fill DeCaro’s shoes.
The recruitment of Luke means that the band’s sound will progress and change, but as drummer Paul Hawley points out: “How could it not? There’s a whole new dynamic to the group now… We’ve already written a bunch of new songs.” The idea of following in DeCaro’s footsteps and launching a solo career doesn’t appeal to neither Steve nor Paul: “We’re much stronger as the sum of our parts,” as Paul puts it.
“We’re much stronger as the sum of our parts” – Hot Hot Heat aren’t into solo careers.
The Canadian music scene appears to have been transformed in recent months. Where once upon a time the country was known for MOR artists such as Celine Dion and Bryan Adams, and latterly punk-poppet Avril Lavigne, credibility was not strong in the country of the Maple Leaf.
That’s all changed now of course, with bands such as The Dears and Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright both releasing critically acclaimed albums in recent months. I wondered if the band knew why the scene had exploded so much recently: “Well, because we led the way obviously!” jokes Paul.
The band are friends with many of the Canadian bands although they say the scene is pretty limited to Toronto and Montreal. “It’s just a bunch of like-minded people, all around the same age, all into indie rock all just coming together,” continues Paul. “I don’t know what it was that gave Canada its credibility all of a sudden, but I don’t think it’s about the country so much, but more about a general global acceptance of that indie-rock aesthetic.”
In fact it turns out that the Hot Hot Heat guys share a connection with everyone’s new favourite flamboyant operatic balladeer: “Our driver used to drive Rufus (Wainwright)… he said he was a really sweet guy,” says Paul, “and of course none of his female fans would even look at a heterosexual male! They all wanted gay men as boyfriends…”
“I don’t know what it was that gave Canada its sudden credibility.” – Hot Hot Heat muse on how Canada has moved from Celine to Rufus…
In the band’s early days, they were signed to the legendary indie label Sub Pop, early home of bands such as Nirvana and Mudhoney. Did the band feel any backlash from fans when they moved to major label WEA (part of Time Warner)?
“Well it’s funny, people have said Elevator is our major label debut, but our last record, although it was on Sub Pop, was re-released through Sire” points out Steve. There was never any backlash as such though. “If music’s good, it’s good, I don’t think it matters what label it’s on.”
“Nowadays it’s not like the ’80s and early ’90s where there was a huge difference between major labels and independent labels” points out Steve. “It’s almost impossible to be totally independent anyway these days… I mean you can do it, but you have to be insanely business-minded to make it succeed. We’ve started to see bands that we know just drop like flies because there’s only so far you can take it.”
Besides, it appears that if you’re strong minded enough you can keep your individuality on a major label: “I heard stories about Madonna in her early days going into the executives’ offices and just telling them the way it was going to be,” recalls Paul. “If you can control your situation it’s fine. I mean, I was told to write another Bandages, but you tell them ‘that was then, this is now’. We move on.”
“When I was eight, I did a lip-synch contest in front of my school, doing Bad, and I won” – Steve Bays on the (very) early Jacko years.
Hot Hot Heat’s sound appears to have been appropriated by a number of bands over the last year or so, with Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads and Bloc Party all leading the way in synth driven, angular guitar music. Do Steve or Paul feel influential in any way?
“It wasn’t until we released this record that people told us that we were!” Steve says. “We certainly never considered ourselves that way, but yeah, there are certainly a lot more dancey new-wave bands about now.”
“We’ve toured with the Futureheads and Franz (Ferdinand), we’ve seen Bloc Party but we’ve never played with them,” adds Paul. “In the back of my mind, I always wanted to be pushing music further”. One radio programmer the band met in Canada hit the nail on the head according to Steve: “She said that good bands stretch the radio format, they don’t just fit in with what’s popular, and I think that’s the way to approach it.”
I read somewhere else that as well as the obvious influences such as The Cure and XTC, one early influence that may surprise people is Michael Jackson. “He was just so omnipresent when we were growing up, you can’t help but be influenced by him,” says Steve. “When I was eight, I did a lip-synch contest in front of my school, doing Bad, and I won.”
Nowadays, the band listen to a range of music – “anything that’s worth looking into, we’ll look into it,” as Steve says. “We listen to a lot of British music, Kasabian, The Libertines, Radiohead… a lot of modern British music”. Paul meanwhile notices another connection: “Talking Heads, Radiohead, The Headstones – basically anything with the word ‘head’ in the title!”
With a whole raft of festival appearances lined up this summer, and with a tonne of potential hit singles on Elevator, it’ll soon be hard to avoid Hot Hot Heat. Now, if only they could answer that question about Nescafe coffee, the world could be their oyster…