Steve Bays remembers one of Hot Hot Heat's first trips to Los Angeles: slices of pizza with Warner Bros. executive Tom Whalley and supermanager Jim Guerinot, conversation about artistic vision, and strategizing on how a spastic dance-punk band from western Canada could take over the world.
"We could not be farther removed from that environment now," the quartet's singer-keyboardist says, without a trace of rancor.
Hot Hot Heat, which burst onto the scene in 2002 as one of the most exhilarating of the Even Newer Wave of agit-rockers before settling into a career as middling radio hit-makers, returns to L.A. this month to play a residency at the 200-capacity Bootleg Theater in Historic Filipinotown.
On the surface, it reads like a precipitous decline in career fortunes for a band that had No. 1 songs on KROQ and whose three albums combined to sell 530,000 copies. Instead, Bays says, the quartet has pressed restart because of a steep increase in creative energy.
"We were not going to make another radio record," he says, recalling his huddles with drummer Paul Hawley and guitarist Luke Paquin after the 2007 release of Happiness Ltd. "We came up with a manifesto. What do we want out of life? What are the things that make us happy? What do we have to offer? In the end, it was ideas; that's what we have to offer. It was a matter of how to get as many of our ideas out there as possible."
The retrenchment that led to the making and the release of Hot Hot Heat's fourth album, Future Breeds (out June 8 on L.A.-based indie Dangerbird Records), posed two challenges: First, Bays and his mates had to extricate Hot Hot Heat from its deal with Warner. Then they had to reinvent themselves as do-it-yourselfers.
"We weren't upset with anybody at Warner; it just wasn't the right match," Bays says. "Our asking out of the deal actually made financial sense for them."
Part 2 began in early 2008, when Bays' girlfriend gave him an antique piano as a gift and a gear nerd was born. "I just went completely nuts, studying up on what gear I wanted, surfing Craigslist for vintage stuff," he says.
Where to plug it all in was solved when the band found space in a 1903 office building in the Gastown district of Vancouver — plucky in a couple of ways. "Best echo chamber ever," Bays says. "You just want to mic the hallways."
The historic neighborhood, with its cobblestone streets, inspired Future Breeds in other ways. "Vancouver is an emerging city, but in a European way — some joke it's Vansterdam," Bays says. "Gastown is old and gentrifying. Drugs and prostitution are an issue there, but it's treated as more of a social issue than a criminal issue. It's just a crazy little neighborhood."
With crazy little characters. The album's title track, in fact, is about a local couple — "what you'd call a seasoned veteran who's with a young girl, about to go down that slippery slope, and about how you can get out of that life with a single moment of clarity," Bays explains.
The album's seemingly interminable gestation owed mostly to the fact that the band had to figure out what it was doing. They'd worked with producers such as Jack Endino (2002's Make Up the Breakdown), Dave Sardy (2005's Elevator) and, later, Butch Walker and Rob Cavallo. "We had songs written," Bays says, "but I had to learn how to engineer."
Future Breeds is by no means glossy — it's back to damaged disco for Hot Hot Heat. Bays still yelps like somebody who's getting goosed, but it's all good fun — high anxiety amid wicked tempo changes, distressed synths, squiggly guitars, pounding percussion and the occasional blaring horn.
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"I hope it just sounds like guys with a sense of freedom," Bays says. "It's like when we were writing Make Up the Breakdown there was no thought of traveling the world, or that anybody would even hear it. It was just the excitement of four guys who don't give a fuck."
With the exception of Ryan Dahle (Limblifter), who did the mixes, nobody outside the band heard Future Breeds until Hot Hot Heat started shopping it. Dangerbird Records chief Jeff Castelaz not only liked what he heard, but the quartet fit the label's recent strategy of signing acts with already-established careers and cred. It was a "quick, simple deal," he says.
"They know who they are and where they wanted to go," Castelaz says. "They're not overly precious, either. You ask yourself, 'Are these people I could talk to every day for the next few years?' Yes."
It was exactly the fresh start Bays sought. "Dangerbird's enthusiasm was key for me," Bays says. "We're basically treating Hot Hot Heat like an unknown band. It's a weird world right now, and you can't take anything for granted. We just don't want to be known as a radio band."