Hot Hot Heat on the 20th Anniversary of 'Make Up the Breakdown' and Its Era-Defining New Wave Revival

"Singing melodically, in the context of still playing our quirky synth/organ hybrid, felt way more rebellious than just following the trends of the hardcore scene at the time," says Steve Bays

Photo: Brian Tamborello

BY Alex HudsonPublished Oct 11, 2022

In 2002, Brooklyn was ground zero for a budding post-punk revival movement that was just starting to hit the mainstream. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the continent from bands like Interpol and the Rapture, a Victoria group was earning buzz with its own spin on '80s new wave.

Hot Hot Heat had formed in 1999 as a hardcore band, releasing a few singles and building a burgeoning fanbase with their harsh, shouty sound. Keyboardist Steve Bays spent his spare time writing melodic, pop-friendly songs, and after he moved over to vocals in Hot Hot Heat, the band's sound changed to match what was previously his solo work.

Bays, guitarist Dante DeCaro (later of Wolf Parade), drummer Paul Hawley and bassist Dustin Hawthorne signed with Sub Pop in 2001, releasing their Knock Knock Knock EP in the spring of 2002 and landing on the cover of Exclaim! before they'd released a full-length. That fall, they issued their debut album, Make Up the Breakdown, a jam-packed 10-song LP that stands as one of the early highlight's of Canada's indie rock renaissance.

What stood out about Make Up the Breakdown at the time is still its most distinctive feature: Bays' voice, a hiccupy yelp that made the simple, sing-song hooks of "Bandages" unique and instantly unforgettable. Whether straining for the high notes in the final chorus of "Get in or Get Out" or croaking with emotion on closing ballad "In Cairo," there's no one else who sounds quite like Bays — although Wolf Parade's Spencer Krug and Tokyo Police Club's Dave Monks, who emerged a few years with their own spins on post-punk, are working in a similar arena.

Since this was the very early stages of new wave revivalism, Make Up the Breakdown doesn't quite follow the later-established rules of the form. With its rave-y synth bass and DeCaro's spiky, two-note guitar riff, "Talk to Me, Dance with Me" is the closest thing here to a straight-up DFA Records banger — except it never does a four-on-the-floor dance beat, like so many imitators would a couple years later. "Oh, Goddamnit" is a convincing garage rocker à la the Strokes, especially thanks to Hawthorne's melodic bassline — except that Hawley's hi-hat work during the chorus is more jaunty than cool, as is Bays' plonky piano line. In an era that would soon be defined by disaffected indie sleaze, Hot Hot Heat were giddy and complex. 

Make Up the Breakdown turned 20 on October 8, and Sub Pop have announced a 20th anniversary edition of the album, which has been remastered and comes with two extra tracks. To mark the occasion, Exclaim! caught up with Steve Bays to discuss his "pitchy and odd" voice, the isolation of Victoria's music scene, and recently warming up to the idea of a HHH reunion.

Having started out as a hardcore band, Hot Hot Heat totally changed their sound by the time you released your debut album. What inspired that change, and how did listeners respond?

Yeah originally we were more synth-punk/math rock. And in the background I was quietly making bedroom pop — sorta like the Cure meets the Faint — on my computer, waiting till my roommates left so I could secretly record my vocals. One day, via Napster's peer-to-peer file sharing, the now-great artist Andy Dixon — the same fella who ran the label, Ache, that released our first HHH punk-style 7" — stumbled upon some songs of mine. He wanted to release them as a separate project to HHH. However, Paul Hawley being the brilliantly competitive mofo that he is, thought it would be more of a win for everybody if, instead, we combine HHH's sound with my bedroom pop sound and see if people dig it.

Well, people did not like it. They were choked we had given up our technical synth math rock for whatever the hell this new sound was. But to me, I remember thinking that we were living in a post-hardcore world, and singing melodically, in the context of still playing our quirky synth/organ hybrid, felt way more rebellious than just following the trends of the hardcore scene at the time, which was starting to feel clique-y and almost conservative by 2001. Too many rules. So we stopped going out, kept our heads down for months, added Dante on guitar, and proceeded to obsess over the Beatles and finding fans outside of just Canada and the West Coast.

What do you remember about making Make Up the Breakdown?

We recorded it over six days with Jack Endino — who was well known for doing Nirvana's first record, Bleach — at Vancouver's Mushroom Studio. We went to Seattle for another day or two to finish the mixes with Jack at his studio, and on the second day we went into the Sub Pop boardroom, and the heads of the label all sat around a big table and listened to the album with us, start to finish, saying hardly anything. The whole time, I thought that we may have just created a stinker, and that maybe Jonathan Ponemon was thinking, "What the hell have I done, signing this bullshit." But turns out they absolutely freaked on it and loved it. Jonathan took us to lunch and told us, "You're about to go on a wild roller coaster of a ride the next few years. Just remember: you meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down." And I took that to heart. He was right on both points. Ha!

Listening back now to Make Up the Breakdown now, what stands out?

I have a love–hate relationship with my own voice. It's so pitchy and odd. But, at the same time, I've learned to love my inner child over the years, and I've also grown to appreciate my inner early-20s child too, Even if he did make many questionable fashion choices. What stands out the most, however, is how incredible talented the other three members were. Dante might be one of the most brilliant guitar players I've ever witnessed. And I get why Paul can sit in on lunches with Dave Grohl and Stewart Copeland and casually take compliments — while secretly freaking out. He's such a beast of a drummer. Same with Dustin on bass! There are good players, but they are all incredible writers of their own parts. Nothing feels stock. Every opportunity to be creative in that moment of the song has been taken by all three of them. In some ways, my voice was the weakest link of the whole record. But at the same time, I think part of the accidental charm might be that I was new and naïve to singing, and so it's an interesting juxtaposition to hear Radiohead-level guitar riffs with anti-Thom Yorke vocals screaming all over 'em.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently on Make Up the Breakdown? Conversely, is there anything about it you wish you had carried forward to subsequent releases?

I think it was accidentally great how it all turned out. However I would have loved to have included the songs from Knock Knock Knock, our first EP on Sub Pop, on the same record. We recorded both records really close together and I remember us going with the 5 songs we did for Knock Knock Knock because, of the 15, we thought they were our best. So in some ways, I feel like that EP is part of MUTBD and should have been included in the same statement. As for things we could have carried over — in some ways, MUTBD is our Appetite for Destruction, recorded fast and dirty and full of true-to-life energy. Essentially a documentation of an album, more than a presentation of an album.

And like GnR, I could see how fans may have appreciated one more album like that before we went all Use Your Illusion on 'em with our big studio album [2005's Elevator]. We even had a handful of songs from that period that should have been tracked, but never were. I've been listening to 'em on old DV tapes of soundchecks from that time, and they were so good.

Having said that, though, we were ready to take all our Beatles lessons and make a true album next, unhindered by time and money. For all we knew, it would be our only opportunity to ever do that, so we were dying to explore what the outcome would be.

And I stand by Elevator as a record too; it's a lot of people's fave record, so I don't mind that it was such a departure. For fans of Elevator, I tell people to check out our last album from 2016, self-titled, and for fans of MUTBD, I tell people to check out Future Breeds from 2010. Those are our two Jeckyl and Hyde sides.

Make Up the Breakdown was part of a resurgence of new wave and post-punk. What did you think of that scene and Hot Hot Heat's place within it?

We were half in, half out. On one hand, we were pretty excited at the time with watching the state of underground music, and we wanted to be combining our favourite elements of those bands in to something new — for example, we used to put on shows in our basement and had bands rolling through, like early versions of the Rapture and Modest Mouse. So indie rock up-and-comers were on our radar I guess.

But, being from Vancouver Island, if we didn't invite touring bands to come to us, or go tour and play with them, then we didn't get to see a lot of the bands that people compared us too from that scene. This was pre-internet, remember! We would order vinyl through the mail and it'd take months to arrive. So we loved new wave and post-punk, but that didn't play as much of a role as our peers in the local music scene played. We all influenced each other in that scene, and that's what makes Vancouver Island musicians and artists so unique from that pre-internet time period.

As for our place in it, I don't really remember it being too conscious of a decision to be included in that scene. It just sorta happened — most likely 'cause it gave the press something to talk about. A musical movement is much more exciting to write about than writing about just one band. So it was nice to be included at times when we were mentioned in the same breath as a band we liked, like the Walkman or the Rapture. And in a tangible sense, it was cool going to clubs and hearing a HHH song right between Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or whatever.

But, to be honest, it was all sorta just a serendipitous flow, as to where we landed. All we knew was we had to get out of Canada if we were going to be appreciated within Canada. That's just sorta how it worked back then, it seemed to us. So our influences were a mix of local and international bands from records we shipped in.

Are the members of Hot Hot Heat in touch at all? With you reissuing your album, is there any chance of a reunion?

Paul and I talk and text almost daily, actually. And Dante is in touch with us too. Occasionally, we meet up and pal around. [I speak with] Dustin over email once in a while, too. As for a reunion, I'm obligated to not confirm or deny, but I will say: it's being discussed as a potential. A definitely maybe situation. I've been the most against it, simply 'cause touring was 17 years of my life, and now I have so much on the go with my studio, Tugboat Pl. — recording, mixing, co-writing, music videos, etc. with other bands — and I have a few other projects of my own that I'm quite passionate about. But having said that, I've warmed up to the idea recently!

Do you feel any affinity for the "indie sleaze" trend?

I love how open-minded this latest generation is. Without rambling on as to why, I actually really do feel their vibe, and I think they may feel our headspace from this record too. Hopefully Sub Pop isn't crazy — they rarely are! — in their suspicions that there's a whole new generation that will be stoked to discover HHH. I feel like my optimism carried me through what could have been a dark period of stressing about getting older, and instead I just kept my head down and kept super busy until one day I looked up, realized I was somehow now 44, and Hot Hot Heat was somehow now a "legacy" act — and that feels rad! I'm honoured as hell, to not be forgotten, yet. It feels like just the other day we were playing the Commodore for the first time, but it's actually been 20 years. So bizarre how fast time does go by when you're having fun.

Fortunately, I feel like the music still feels fresh, 'cause there haven't really been many bands that have come out with the weird flavour we had on MUTBD, so it's not like that sound has all this baggage associated with pop culture burning out on it. It just is what it is.. It exists in a time space continuum, untouchable by mere mortals. Kidding. But hey: especially with so many records made on laptops with loops these days — not that I'm not a fan of plenty of those records too — this "final days of bands recording an album to tape in six days" style of recording might still have some legs left on it to freak people out and make them question their existence. I dunno. Or not. Whatevs.

What are you working on next? 

Other than working on other people's records and music videos: I've just wrapped new music for the Bankes Brothers — such a great EP to come out soon! — some new dwi, a Parker Bossley solo EP. I'm really proud of the record I put out over COVID, In Praise of Bombast, with my L.A.-based side-project Left Field Messiah! If you dig HHH, you should check that ASAP! And I'm currently wrapping up another record with Parker for another project of mine, Fur Trade. Don't worry, we're anti-fur and pro-music. It's maybe one of the coolest records I've ever made! We're about to sign to Light Organ, and our first song to come out may randomly be a Christmas song. Ha! It's called "Christmas in a Cage" and is crazy good. I think? But yeah, I'm hoping our full LP comes out this winter. It's nuts.

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