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Rank Your Records: Steve Bays Ranks Hot Hot Heat’s Six Records

Before the band releases their final album, we had the frontman look back at their entire catalog.

by Cam Lindsay
Jun 30 2016, 1:00pm

In Rank Your Records, we talk to members of bands who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.

Hot Hot Heat is over. This is a fact I learned while asking frontman Steve Bays about the band’s new, self-titled album. “This is the last one,” he confirmed. “It makes me appreciate it more, to be honest. We were told to not say that, like, “Oh, that will put such a negative spin on it. You should say, ‘This is our new album and we’re an active band!’ But to me it just wasn’t an option to pretend that the band wasn’t going to make any more records.”

Obviously, this is a good time to get Bays to rank his records, because chances are it’ll likely be the only time to do it. Hot Hot Heat have definitely earned it. In the wake of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, and Death From Above 1979 establishing Canada as an indie rock powerhouse, it’s easy to forget the global impact that Hot Hot Heat had as a Canadian band when they first emerged. They were in the right place at the right time: a band from the West Coast (Victoria, British Columbia), signed to Sub Pop and making indie rock influenced by new wave and post-punk right as that sound was just breaking. Often sharing bills and magazine spreads with the Rapture, Interpol, and Franz Ferdinand, Hot Hot Heat became stars in the UK and highly influential back home. It’s tough to imagine the existence of their Canadian successors like Tokyo Police Club or Wolf Parade (who later inherited HHH guitarist Dante Decaro) without them. But of course, like every other indie band that gave in and signed to a major, the glory was short-lived.

Bays was happy to take the challenge of ranking his records, admitting, “It forces musicians to be vulnerable. Every time you put out an album, it’s like getting a face tattoo. It’s permanently there and you can never change that.” And although he wasn’t allowed to include the new Hot Hot Heat album, since it’s also the final one, we asked him out of curiosity where it would lie amongst the rest. “Before you said I wasn’t allowed to include it I was going to say number two, because I think it would be a dick move to say it was our best,” he confesses. “But if I was playing Hot Hot Heat to people for the first time, I would definitely play them songs from this new album before I’d play songs from Elevator.”

6. Happiness Ltd. (2007)

Noisey: Why is this your least favorite?
Steve Bays:
This is the album where I decided I didn’t want to play ball with the major label. I didn’t want to live in LA. That was the album where I was just tired of playing by the rules. I think because we made the album the way we wanted to in Vancouver at Mushroom Studios, where we recorded Make Up the Breakdown. It felt like a really cool, live album, and we were excited about it. We mixed it with Rich Costey in New York, but the label didn’t seem that impressed, and at the time all the bands that were doing well for them were the emo-pop bands. We signed with them at the time because they had the Flaming Lips and just signed the Hives, so it was a cool major for a minute there. But then they fired people and some others quit and it just totally changed. I felt like it was a bait and switch. All of a sudden, the mixes were good enough and they hired these LA people, and still they said we needed a single. So we had to write and record more. And then the songs that I thought were the most badass were nixed from the album. So it was just a really jarring feeling, at a time when we should have made a dirtier, more punk album instead of working with a label that was trying to push a square through a circle.

Whose idea was it to work with Rob Cavallo?
Not mine. I felt like there was some kind of nepotism or something. I respect what he’s done for Green Day, but that’s Green Day. And when they got him to do Dookie, he was a relatively unknown, cool, young indie guy. He wasn’t this guy, who had just finished recording a punk rock opera. I think that was the turning point where I realized that I’m just not a major label guy. There was actually an EP that came out after called the Happiness Ltd. EP, and it had some of my favorite songs from that session on it. In some ways, it was a great thing because it taught me how to record and build my own studio, and it led to Future Breeds, this new record and a whole new career path, really.

Why did you re-record "5 Times out of 100" for this record?
That was a major label decision. [Laughs] When we first signed with Warner, they said we should re-record that one because they liked it. The original version we mixed in my apartment and I just love how raw it sounded. So we had just signed with Warner, and we said we would only do it if we could record with Eric Valentine, who had just done Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs For The Deaf. So it was just a good way of getting in to work with him. But then when we finished it I still didn’t want to put it out. I just wanted to work with Eric to get some recording know-how. So we put it on the record, and at that point I was just throwing my hands in the air.

5. Scenes One Through Thirteen (2002)

This is simply because I really like it, but I just don’t find myself wanting to listen to it. I mean, it was such a big record for us in so many ways, but at that point we had a different singer [Matthew Marnik], and I was writing the songs on a Juno-6 and we were influenced by all of the San Diego hardcore bands. It was really cool that it let us sell out shows in Vancouver, so it was a really important record for us. I love that it’s an alienating record unless you’re into that music. I’m super proud of it; maybe it’s the record I’m most proud of. But if I was to say, “Here is the definitive Hot Hot Heat stuff to hear,” I wouldn’t put it in the first batch of songs I’d play someone.

It is a pretty jarring transition from this to Knock Knock Knock. I often forget that you had a different vocalist when the band started.
Yeah, and it was weird because before that I sang in a band called New York City Rhythm, but it was more yelling than singing, so I never really considered myself to be a singer. But while we were doing that version of Hot Hot Heat I was recording these pop songs in my bedroom. This was in the day of Napster when you could log in to someone’s computer and see what was in their collection. So Andy Dixon from Ache Records, who released the first Hot Hot Heat seven-inch, was going through my Napster collection and found those pop songs, and he asked to put it out as an Ache release. So I told the guys in the band and they said I should just make them Hot Hot Heat songs. There are still a few songs that have never seen the light of day that were part of my initiation to become the singer of Hot Hot Heat.

4. Knock Knock Knock (2002)

This was the first Sub Pop release and it got us a fair bit of attention. I remember it allowed us to play in LA., which was such a turning point for us. My only real critique is my own fault. They were some of the first songs we ever recorded. We basically met some guy on the street one night, and he said he worked for this recording school. So we did "5 Times out of 100" in some guy’s basement, and then a couple songs at this weird recording school in the middle of the night. I just took the files and mixed them in my apartment, and I really had no idea what I was doing. So the production is pretty rough, but I kind of love that about it at the same time. We also recorded the second half with Chris Walla from Death Cab For Cutie, which was about the time he was just getting into recording bands, so it still felt a bit fresh. He’s what I like about that EP, and my production work is what I don’t like. And I didn’t really consider myself a singer until years later, so at the time I thought, coming from the hardcore scene, it was cool for someone who normally screamed was adding melodies. But it’s pretty difficult for me to hear myself sing on that one. The ideas on it don’t feel tethered to expectations or constrained by us thinking about ourselves as songwriters. We were just trying to be weird and different. It’s the sound of a band trying to make a new sound. That sound can be a bit painful, but it’s a bit rad because I still don’t know how to describe the band on that EP.

This came out just before Canadian music became an international phenomenon. It felt like you guys were grouped more with bands like the Rapture and Yeah Yeah Yeahs than any Canadian bands.
Totally, and I think that’s why we ended up playing the US a lot more. The Rapture were playing in our house in the earliest incarnation, before they even really started. I always thought they were much cooler than us. When we started touring Europe, all of the interviews were about how weird it was that we were from Canada. Y’know, references to Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. And we were like, “Really? That’s all you know about Canadian music!” Whereas now, people will talk about the city or province you’re from if you go to Europe. Canada isn’t just some joke.

Did it mean anything to be on Sub Pop at the time?
For us it was a super big deal because we were really into this band called Portraits of the Past, who went on to become Vue, who were on Sub Pop. We were playing with them in San Fran, and they just seemed like a band, a few years ahead of us, that had their shit figured out. They were kind of like our dads. If you compare their song “White Traffic” to “Bandages” you’ll hear a similar vibe and energy. So that was a big connection, and in the era we grew up Bleach was such a big record for us. Just to have an affiliation with that was pretty cool.

3. Future Breeds (2010)

I like this album because it represents rebellion and independence. We were supposed to do another record with Sire in the contract, and our advance would have been $500,000. But we went to our A&R guy, who we liked, and said, “It’s just not the right fit. It’s not working out.” We chose to turn down half a million dollars and just bought a bunch of recording equipment without any idea of how to use it. I just read a bunch of magazines and taught myself how to record. By the time I finished it, I was just so burnt out from the process. That’s when I met Ryan Dahle, who kind of tagged in and helped me finish the recording part. Then I asked him to mix it, but he wasn’t a mixer, so he told me he’d hang out while I tried to do it. And it took about eight months because there was a lot of experimenting. But it was a real fun time in my life. It was just so liberating.

I guess that experience with Ryan also helped form your band together, the Mounties, and led to him working on the new Hot Hot Heat album.
Yeah, for sure. We’ve become co-workers and buddies ever since. So I wouldn’t trade that for anything. And also, at that point, we had a bit of a chip on our shoulder and wanted to prove to ourselves that we could do whatever we wanted. Even if we were shooting ourselves in the foot, it meant more to be free and independent. To me it just felt like with each record there were fewer people that had anything to do with us at the label, and there were smaller places for us to fit into the mainstream. And since then there have been indie bands that blew up in the mainstream, but to us the writing was just on the wall.

But musically, the sound of the record is something I would never make now. I don’t even know what the hell was going through my head. It sounds like a band that is in transition and in search of something they never found, and trying to learn how to record and trying to learn how to mix. It’s a chaotic mess, but in there are so many pop hooks that I hear those when I listen to it. It doesn’t fit in with anything in a marketable sense, and it is by no means the hippest thing we’ve done, but I like a lot of those songs.

2. Elevator (2005)

This wasn’t what people wanted us or expected us to do. And we were trying to switch directions from being an 80s dance band because we thought it would die. Turns out, it’s 2016 and that genre is alive and well. [Laughs] But we wanted to make a classic, rock record that still has the quirkiness of indie rock and punk’s energy, while at the end of the day it’s just a really focused, honed, well produced album. It was really the opposite approach of how we did Make Up The Breakdown, which was a bit of a mistake. But at the same time I feel like years later it’s the record I get the most feedback about from our fans. I think Make Up The Breakdown was the most culturally significant record we made, and the most impactful on our career, and the most unique record we made. I just think Elevator is a great album in turns of melodic songs that are memorable and entertaining, in a way that is still fresh at this time. You could argue that it’s just a pop record, but it still feels different from any other pop record.

Why did you work with Dave Sardy?
We had been on tour with the Walkmen, and every night they played their song “The Rat” we would go out and watch it. We would do the same with Franz Ferdinand, when they played “Take Me Out” months before it was released. I would go out on stage and sing it with them. It was such a good song! Sometimes you can tell a song is a hit. You just know it before it becomes one. That song “The Rat” was so big for us. It just blew our minds every night. And they recorded it with Sardy, so we trusted their opinion more than our own. At that point we had met with so many producers, and we had people flying out to our gigs. Almost every night we would meet with a different producer, but Dave Sardy seemed like the only one who was cool and chill, and also had a definite sound. So we started making Elevator with Rick Rubin…

Wait. What?
Yeah, we actually worked with him for a while. We went to his place and played him songs and talked about them, and he would teach us things. I was basically recording demos and just sending them to him all the time. And I’d go back and forth between Victoria and Vancouver, and I’d have these phone meetings with him on the ferry. It was just a difficult time to be working with a producer who was notorious for taking his time. I remember at the time he was working on the Weezer album [Make Believe], and he told us that he told them to write over 100 songs. And I was like, “Honestly, I don’t have that in me to be that kind of guy. I can’t do this.” So we went with Sardy because he trained under Rick Rubin, and we knew understood indie rock a bit more.

Dante left the band right after you finished the album. He was such a big part of the band’s sound. How tough was that to deal with?
It definitely added a lot of stress. There was so much of our schedule and our lives where it was just go, go, go. I remember playing Wolverhampton with Franz Ferdinand, and Dante had just told us and said, “Do you think I’m making the right decision?” And I said, “I think you’re being a fucking idiot!” But in retrospect, I totally get it now. I think it was just tough, and we were getting too mainstream for him. He really loved Cobble Hill where he grew up, and he was a small town guy, in the same way that I couldn’t live in LA because I’m a Victoria guy. So it totally made sense that he burnt out after we were on tour for months and months and months. I remember Warner wanted us to play Jools Holland but he refused to do it at the time. And the label was just begging us, because it could break a band. It was like Saturday Night Live that way. They offered to fly us there and back in first class, and he just said no. And that was essentially what made Warner UK emotionally just drop us. So I was resentful for a while, but I’m not a resentful person. Dante and I were good buddies again very shortly after. I still love the guy.

1. Make Up the Breakdown (2002)

Why is this your favorite?
What I like about it is, I don’t think we knew that it was going to be as impactful as it was. We definitely didn’t know. I remember playing it for Sub Pop at the office the day we finished it. Because we recorded it in six days, and then days seven and eight were in Seattle mixing it at Jack Endino’s studio. We ended up remixing some of it with Chris Walla and John Goodmanson, but it was done extremely quickly. But I remember playing it for Sub Pop and my heart sank. I just thought it was awful. I was so embarrassed. I think just because it was so naked, and it still is when I listen to it now. The bare minimum of tracks, the vocals are super loud, there’s not much to hide behind, but I think to the average ear that was refreshing at the time.

That was kind of Jack Endino’s style. So why did you work with him? Was it Sub Pop’s idea, because he’d worked with so many bands before?
No, by that point, they weren’t really using him. In fact, they advised against it because it wasn’t our style. They liked him but they didn’t think he was the right person for us.

He even later said this was a very different record for him.
[Laughs] Yeah. I’ve never worked with anyone like him. He was so focused on the recording side of things. The main thing he focused on was the sound and making sure the engineering was right. He was so focused that he was like a robot. He was that good. But to his credit, we got the album done really quickly, and did it for 7,000 bucks or something. The reason we did it with him was because we’d been playing with the Black Halos from Vancouver, and they were mentoring us. I knew nothing about production, and we loved their album, The Violent Years, and we thought we’d come close to the quality of that album. We just wanted good sound; we didn’t know about style or aesthetics at all.

This was originally released by Sub Pop, but then re-released by Sire. What happened there?
So there was a period where we were touring the album and playing to seven people in Boise, Idaho. There was definitely a year of being a brand new band and paying our dues, sleeping on floors and stuff. Sub Pop rarely invested money to go to radio. But the small amount of promotion we got really helped the band. Part of the deal with Sire was re-releasing Make Up the Breakdown and giving it a proper push. Basically we had to tour the album with another cycle with Warner pushing it. That record cycle felt like another lifetime. We really did tour that album into the ground.

Do you remember “Bandages” getting banned by the BBC Radio because of the Iraq War?
Yeah, almost as quickly as I found out that we were A rotation on Radio 1, I found out that they pulled it because some people felt it was insensitive to the soldiers, which I thought was weird because “Seven Nation Army” was out at the same time and that didn’t get pulled.

Cam Lindsay is on Twitter - @yasdnilmac

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