Hot Hot Heat: The Great Indie Experiment, Version 4.0
In 1995, Steve Bays, a British Columbian with a curly mop of hair and a dream, started a rock 'n' roll act with dance influences. Bays somehow ended up playing synthesizer with the new group and a friend of the band sang the vocals. Eventually, they dumped the friend, added Dante DeCaro (now with Wolf Parade) to add his jagged take on the guitar, and moved Bays over to the role of singer. The band, called Hot Hot Heat, played around with some heavier post-hardcore stuff, but eventually settled into a heavy, synth-driven version of post-punk, touring with Canadian alt-gods Sloan and eventually signing to Sub Pop.
Though it was an amazing opportunity, any realist is aware that just because a few Sub Pop acts broke — and some in an amazing fashion — there are a number of Ponds for every Postal Service. Hot Hot Heat was given the mixed blessing of an opportunity, recording the five-song Knock Knock Knock in 2002 with the help of Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. Any band welcomes the chance to get its music heard, but how many famous EPs can you think of? The Pixies, Jeff Buckley, and REM may have notable debut EPs in their discographies, but, generally, the EP is a sign that your label wants to test the waters before sinking cash into the expense of a full-length.
Sure, it's no Signals, Calls, and Marches, but Knock Knock Knock opens with a burst of Gang of Four-inspired energy, angst-ridden nervous vocals from Bays, and rapid-fire, skittish rhythms that somehow recall early Cure albums without actually sounding all that much like Robert Smith and company. Everyone I know who heard Knock Knock Knock raved about it, anxiously awaiting a full-length.
Then, at some point before the October 2002 release of what was to be Hot Hot Heat's first full-length, Make Up the Breakdown, something strange happened. The band members, from Bays to the other three, were replaced. Of course, Sub Pop somehow managed to cover up this story in the indie-rock media.
The band that made an exciting EP full of possibilities was relocated somewhere and, suddenly, in their place were four new guys who looked exactly the same but with nicer clothes and significantly less talent. A few of the imitation HHH's songs vaguely recalled the previous release, but by and large, the replicants were like a poor photocopy — somewhat blurry and tougher to decipher. The new HHH might not have been interesting to listen to, but it did outperform the previous version commercially, getting its songs on alternative radio and drawing far larger audiences on tour.
However, as most science fiction stories about clones have taught us, the duplicate product will eventually break down. 2007's Happiness Ltd., the third full-length released as part of the HHH experiment, no longer achieved the goals set by the "scientists" guiding the project. Handing the assignment over to a new "indie" laboratory, the Hot Hot Heat (4.0?) currently touring behind the album Future Breeds has taken a louder approach to the previous formula, including some of the nervous energy from Knock x3, but still lacking the immediacy of the early model. One day, maybe those pulling the string behind the great Hot Hot Heat experiment will publish their results, and we'll be able to see what happened to the earlier mothballed models. Until then, this band is a work in progress.
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