Canadian Smoke

With a new album, killer fashion and trendy referencing, Hot Hot Heat prepares to invade the hip U.S.

Hot Hot Heat, a foppish quartet from the tiny island city of Victoria, British Columbia, finds itself riding the wave of rock 'n' roll resurgence t hat thrust the Strokes and the White Stripes into mass consciousness. With a new LP, Make Up the Breakdown, released on the fabled Sub Pop imprint and the ink still drying on a lucrative deal with Warner Bros. Records (signed two days before the Sub Pop album hit shelves), Hot Hot Heat is being hyped as the Canadian Strokes.

"There could be way worse things," laughs singer and keyboardist Steve Bays. "That's better than the Canadian *NSYNC or something."

With that sort of hype, the question beckons: Have you indulged in any Strokes-style star fucking yet?

"Better than the Canadian *NSYNC": Hot Hot Heat strokes the indie rock scene.
Brian Tamborello
"Better than the Canadian *NSYNC": Hot Hot Heat strokes the indie rock scene.

"There's no famous people in Canada, you've gotta remember that," guitarist Dante DeCaro deadpans. No Drew Barrymores, true, but DeCaro is gently reminded of Avril Lavigne, the budding MTV kiddy-punk jailbait starlet also from the Great White North. Excitedly, the guitarist exclaims that his band is scheduled to meet Miss Lavigne in December (presumably at some Canadian/Socialist rock 'n' roll meet-and-greet). "Soon enough . . . soon enough," he mutters ominously.

Yes, it might not be long before Hot Hot Heat reaches the headphones of bandwagon jumpers continent-wide. Make Up the Breakdown comes with built-in hype, fueled by comparative referencing -- Hot Hot Heat sounds like the Cure's mopey front man Robert Smith giving the Strokes a proper buggering -- and the tease of its last release, the sneering 16-minute Knock Knock Knock EP. The boys' snotty New Wave stylings place them with retro archaeologists like Omaha's the Faint and the Bay Area's Vue, while their melodic riffs, hooky choruses and punk roots make them likely fodder for the ongoing garage-rock revival.

Opening with "Naked in the City Again," Breakdown surges beyond the promise of Knock Knock Knock, with Bays' nasal taunt -- "Says she's got it all, says she's got it all/I don't wanna be the one to tell her that she don't" -- over throbbing rhythms and exclamatory guitar work reminiscent of the Smiths' Johnny Marr. On "Get In or Get Out," angular riffs collide with Bays' frenetic keyboards over metronomic drumming.

The swagger is turned up even further on "Oh, Goddamnit," a faux-Brit excursion into emo in which Bays laments a lost lover, and on "No, Not Now," wherein Paul Hawley beats his drums like he's studying disco. Hot Hot Heat's dance party reaches its apex on "Bandages," injecting the Cure's "Killing an Arab" with garage-rock attitude. The entire album clocks in at less than 30 minutes.

There is one barrier for Hot Hot Heat to overcome before it conquers the hip music world, however. The group is Canadian, and Canadians are not well known for contributing to independent/underground music on this side of the 49th parallel.

"I think there aren't a lot of good Canadian artists out there," DeCaro agrees. "The ones that maybe are good slight themselves by going with Canadian [record] labels and things like that." The exceptions, such as Vancouver's Cub, and the Smugglers, experienced limited success by licensing their Canadian releases to Berkeley's Lookout! Records. Similarly, fellow Victorians No Means No broke by recording with Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles label.

"I've noticed it's like, This band is cool, and they're from Canada!' It's like saying, This is a really good band, and their singer has Down syndrome!'" Bays says. "They talk about it like it's this insane challenge or something.

"Being Canadian, you don't really have access to the same circle of people," Bays continues. "Because it's smaller, and a lot of labels don't have as much experience, it's a lot harder and it takes a lot more time and effort and money in order to establish relationships with magazines and radio stations and booking agents. Also, geographically, there's a lot of physical space between every city [in Canada], so it's harder for bands to tour. Canadians don't get to see as many cool bands as Americans, so a lot of people in Canada don't have access to the same music, which means there's not as many people involved in the music industry."

Recognizing that, the band has attempted to straddle the border, infiltrating the States while keeping it real, eh, for the Canucks back home. The band's four twentysomethings -- bassist Dustin Hawthorne is the other -- are skinny, pasty, strike-a-pouty-pose motherfuckers, dandies gussied up in ball-choking tight trousers, fashionista accessories (shiny belts, masses of bracelets, skinny ties) and big, big hairdos. Lest you think this is a rock star ploy, DeCaro explains that Victoria is crawling with similarly afflicted fashion victims. "We just dress a certain way and always have," he says. "We have a lot of friends that dress that way; it's just kind of our crew."

Victoria may be an unlikely birthplace for forward-thinking bands. On the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, the place is a tourist burg that seems Canadian by chance. The islands surrounding it belong to the U.S., and it sits below the imaginary line where the border between the two countries was carved, situated farther south than Bellingham, Washington.

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