1 HOT HOT HEAT
The door opens on a $125-a-night room at the Holiday Inn in a seedy section of Hollywood. A half-empty bottle of pinot is resting Sideways-style on a wood-paneled nightstand. A pile of dirty laundry is fermenting between two saggy full-size beds. And that old Mr. Coffee maker in the corner looks like it should be carted away as a biohazard.
But despite the downscale surroundings, Hot Hot Heat are — as their name suggests — one of rock’s most combustible heat seekers. The well-coiffed British Columbian band are touring the States prior to the release of their new album, Elevator, which seems likely to make them one of spring’s most talked-about bands. Many young groups in their position would demand that their label set them up in swank digs at one of the posh hotels up the road. Not the Heat. ”We’re just a bunch of music nerds,” says drummer Paul Hawley, 24. ”We couldn’t do that whole self-indulgent rock & roll cliché if we tried.” Keyboardist-frontman Steve Bays, 26, looks around the dingy room and forces a smile. ”The coffeepot isn’t nailed down,” he offers, ”so it’s not the lowest of the low.”
Actually, Hot Hot Heat are already remarkably successful for such a new band. Their 2002 debut, Make Up the Breakdown, looked to the Cure and XTC for inspiration, putting them at the forefront of the then-fledgling post-punk revival. Major labels quickly took note. ”Hot Hot Heat were the pioneers of this ’80s retro rock, pre-Killers, pre-Franz Ferdinand,” says Craig Aaronson, senior VP of A&R at Warner Bros., who lured the band away from Sub Pop the day after the album’s release. ”People shouldn’t forget that they were the frontier.”
But it was 2003’s South by Southwest music festival — one of rock’s most important launching pads (just ask the Strokes and the White Stripes) — that really got Heat’s fire started. ”People were lined up around the block, climbing over the walls to see us,” recalls bassist Dustin Hawthorne, 28. ”I remember thinking, ‘We’re onto something here.”’ He was right: Breakdown ended up selling an impressive 230,000 copies.
Since then, other skinny-tied retro-pop bands — most notably Franz Ferdinand, who once opened for HHH, and the Killers — have hit the pop charts in a big way. Now it could be Heat’s turn, although they’re wary of being lumped in with any ”movement.” ”Maybe we could have a conversation that focuses on our situation instead of asking us about Franz Ferdinand,” Bays coolly suggests, the temperature in the room dipping to subzero. ”Maybe Franz Ferdinand did benefit from us, and [now] maybe we’ll benefit from them.”
When the band went in to record Elevator in Los Angeles last spring, they teamed up with noted hard-rock producer Dave Sardy (Marilyn Manson, Jet), hoping to fire up a bigger, beefier sound. Elevator strips away a lot of the younger, quirkier feel of their last album, revealing a more streamlined band that owes less of an obvious debt to its influences. ”We wanted Elevator to be a different thing, not just a dulled-down version of Breakdown,” says Bays. ”We wanted it to be a statement, so we made some really bold pop songs, like this-is-a-pop-song.” Some of the tunes were such a departure that Bays had some serious second thoughts after Elevator wrapped in October. ”It sounded so different from our past stuff,” he says. ”For a while I thought, ‘If this doesn’t work. . .we’re f—ed.”