In April of 2002, back when the phrase "dance-punk" had yet to appear in anything more widely read than indie-crit website Pitchforkmedia.com, Sub Pop released an EP by a little Canadian band called Hot Hot Heat, from a little Canadian town called Victoria Island.A little Canadian band, with a very little attention span.
"When we started, we were in a few other bands as well - it was just kind of a side project," remembers Hot Hot Heat singer/keyboardist Steve Bays. "The idea was, we were going to play parties, and it was just going to be keyboards, bass, drums and vocals. It was going to be kind of bizarre, not hip-hop vocals, but very sputtered and staggered. A lot of words, really arty. And the keys were going to be, like, dark and heavy."
Knock Knock Knock was recorded only two years after Bays, drummer Paul Hawley and bassist Dustin Hawthorne conceived Hot Hot Heat as a purposefully difficult distraction. But it showcased a quickly mutating act that had already evolved to the point of adding spiky guitar (courtesy of Dante DeCaro) and energetic hooks to its formerly synth-dominated palette. And when Sub Pop released the explosive full-length Make Up the Breakdown shortly after, in October '02, Hot Hot Heat was already mastering a deft balance of two styles that, coincidentally enough, were just minutes from defining indie-rock's latest trends: catchy retro New Wave worship and raw, danceable post-punk.
"For us, it just seemed natural, because the way we had always operated was, you start a band, play a dozen shows, and then you break up and you start a new band with a new sound," says Bays. "And somewhere in there, you record a demo. We took it two steps further [with Hot Hot Heat], but you kind of go where your interests are heading."
During the year-plus the band spent on the road promoting Breakdown, the concept of smelting punk energy, disco rhythms and posthardcore innovation into something kids wearing white belts could dance to caught fire. It spread from Sacramento, Brooklyn and D.C. (the hometowns of !!!, Liars and Dischord Records, respectively) into the pages of Spin and local-music scenes nationwide; the members of Hot Hot Heat came out of the van-club-van vacuum to discover that they were not only part of some big fringe-music infatuation, but also being hailed by some newcomers as being among its elder statesmen.
"It was only once we finished touring for [Make Up the Breakdown], when we started working on the next record, that we could sit back and read about things and witness it," Bays says. "To be cited as an influence on other bands, or to be associated with a genre, seemed really bizarre. Before that, the whole time we were out, what we had been working against was the fact that nobody seemed able to find a description for the music."
Hot Hot Heat came from a particularly insular hometown music scene. Bays, Hawthorne and Hawley had played together in different groups since adolescence, and Bays worked as a show promoter in order to get national acts he wanted to see to come to town. So to be tied to a trend in general, and a specific sound in particular, was disorienting to the group.
It didn't affect Hot Hot Heat's process, however; the band had been signed to Warner Music Group shortly after Make Up the Breakdown was released, and as it headed into the studio to record its major-label debut, the longtime friends' familiar sonic restlessness once again shaped the proceedings.
The resulting album, this year's highly buzzed Elevator, has little in common with its visceral, ADD-afflicted predecessor, beyond Bays' vaguely Robert Smith-esque vocals and the sound of a rhythm section that's been playing together forever. Essentially, Elevator is a new take on classic rock at its most infectious, one that draws from both extremes of the late-'70s palette. Once more there's a balance, but this time it's between trippy, arena-band self-indulgence, and the hard-pop concision of a band like Cheap Trick.
"A lot of people mention the '80s in the context of Make Up the Breakdown," says Bays. "The '80s were cool, but with Elevator, it was more sort of classic guitar-driven stuff from the '60s and '70s … it was more of a '70s pop record. We wanted it to be really over the top, all about hooks, and almost embarrassingly naked at times.
"I think once people started citing us as being in a specific genre, we kind of freaked out and ran away from it as quickly as we could."
Whatever its impetus, Elevator's hand-clapping sound and more welcoming vibe has managed to draw in new fans without alienating too many of the old ones. Hot Hot Heat is enjoying both MTV2 ubiquity, and the opportunity to headline its largest shows to date. One thing that doesn't change from record to record is this act's commitment to touring, which has produced fallout both good (they're a tight, entertaining band) and bad (their rigorous touring schedule precipitated the departure of guitarist DeCaro, who's since been replaced by Luke Paquin).
"We always want the song to go over well live," attests Bays. "We write from the perspective of a rock album. Even though this album was our attempt at writing an extreme pop album, it's written the way a rock band would write a pop record. That live element distinguishes us.
"We love being a hard-working band on the road. You have such a short period in your life when you can be in a band, and eventually you become culturally irrelevant. While we're still young, we just want to work our asses off."