Music News

Canadian Smoke

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?

"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.

"Victoria's kind of strange," DeCaro says. "It's got its own independent scene going on that isn't as much influenced from the outside world as a lot of other places." Because of Victoria's small population, the town's promising musicians often move across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver, or to other metropolitan Canadian cities.

Hot Hot Heat credits the lack of external stimuli for shaping the band's blend of stylistics.

"We picked and chose what we listened to a bit more independently, and I think our influences aren't as common in other places," DeCaro says. The band's influences are as subtle as their hairstyles, and every blurb about them references the same names -- the Cure, XTC, U2 . . . and so on. While these influences may not be as uncommon as DeCaro thinks, no other contemporary band tries as hard to blend them.

Hot Hot Heat congealed in 1999 with a different lineup, playing anti-melodic math-rock on the band's 2001 release Scenes One Through Thirteen. Shortly after its release, the band ditched its singer, moved keyboardist Bays to the microphone and recruited DeCaro. The switch in focus to ass-wiggling, sneering intensity propelled Hot Hot Heat into the Northwest's buzzing spotlight.

While contemplating their next release, the band queried a number of American indie labels.

"We're better received in the States anyway. There's a lot more kids who seem like they get it," DeCaro says. With a near cold-call simplicity, the group was asked by Sub Pop to come to Seattle and play for label personnel. Suitably impressed, the label signed the band and put the guys in the studio with Death Cab for Cutie's Chris Walla. There, they kicked out the five-song Knock Knock Knock. Weeks after its release, the foursome returned to the studio, this time with Jack Endino, who produced Nirvana's Bleach and nearly every other important pre-grunge-explosion record for Sub Pop. The resulting LP, Make Up the Breakdown, brought the major labels out before it was even released.

Hot Hot Heat's potential as -- to exhaust a term -- the Canadian Strokes is all too evident on Breakdown. Combine the right danceable rock with the right fashion sense and indie credibility, courtesy of Sub Pop, and Hot Hot Heat becomes a valuable commodity. Warner Bros. recognized this and offered the band an ideal proposition.

"They said, Give us a proposal of whatever you guys would like,'" Bays explains. "So we put together what we considered to be the perfect record deal, and they basically okayed everything." While the major-label debut isn't due for at least a year, Warner Bros. is picking up some of the promotional costs for Make Up the Breakdown, according to band management.

If it weren't for the omnipresent Stateside press reminders, it might be difficult to tell that Hot Hot Heat is a Canadian band. But these lads are patriots -- "I pledge my allegiance to the queen," DeCaro remarks without irony, as he should; Hot Hot Heat is due to receive five-digit grant checks from the Canadian government, which subsidizes artists and pays for health care. In this case, the money might also buy the country some garage-level legitimacy.

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Brendan Joel Kelley