Hot Hot Heat are pouty and gaunt and wear fabulous pants—tight-as-fuck ball-stranglers—usually held up by some sort of achingly perfect studded belt with a stylish buckle. They're immaculately groomed; if they were women, they'd get Brazilian waxes. Come to think of it, they probably shave their privates.
And yet, for all their picture-perfection and stark '80s posturing, they manage to be fresh and vital. They're kinetic, really, exploding out of your stereo with herky-jerky carnival stomps and campy cabaret anthems that stop and start and degenerate into a few slowed-down measures of baroque keyboard tinkling. In the midst of this mayhem, snot-nosed singer/keyboard player Steve Bays twists words until they're barely recognizable and then spits them back out over chunking guitars and vigorous keys. (We thought he was singing "My left back speaker's blown/From blaring ELO," but he was really singing "My left back speaker's blown/Left the radio on," which sound nothing alike—see how much he twists words?) The Victoria, British Columbia, natives are bizarre and kind of demented but unbelievably catchy, too. You will dance, and ingenious drummer Paul Hawley, who never met a fucked-up disco beat he didn't like, is partly to blame.
Lyricist Bays is also to blame, though. He has an unparalleled ear for cadence and inventive wordplay. On "Le Le Low," from the quartet's Sub Pop debut EP Knock Knock Knock, Bays laments cookie-cutter bands: "Where's all your passion gone?/Where's all your fashion gone?/Where's all your magic gone?/Now you feel famous?" He later rhymes "encyclopedia" with "media."
Bays has a distinctive bratty style, but he hasn't always been the front man. Up until a year and some months ago, the band featured Bays on keys, drummer Hawley, bassist Dustin Hawthorne, and a different singer. Though called Hot Hot Heat, they played something more akin to squawking death metal—the more noisy, chaotic and fucked-up, the better. "We were trying to create the most bizarre music we could," says Hawthorne. Three of them wanted to go in a more poppy, melodic direction, and one of them didn't, so they gave the old singer the boot, enlisted baby-faced guitarist Dante DeCaro, and passed the mic to Bays.
Playing the new songs for fans of the old sound was trying, to say the least. "There were a lot of people who were pissed-off," Hawthorne remembers. "There was a backlash in Victoria. A lot of people called us sell-outs, but at the same time, a lot of people were supportive." Fans in the States who've only just met Hot Hot Heat can embrace them without reservation, though.
Good thing because their EP is infectious and challenging, which is no mean feat. It's also really frustrating if you don't have a REPEAT ALL button on your CD player because the stupid thing is only 16 minutes long. Stupid, stupid short CD!
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Thankfully, they're releasing a full-length on Sub Pop in October, produced by grunge-master Jack Endino, who regaled the band with tales of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. "He's like a little slice of history in one person!" Hawthorne gushes.
Also, the band would appreciate if you would quit comparing them to the Cure, please. They do, however, appreciate being compared to XTC; DeCaro even has a bright-yellow XTC shirt he wears onstage, even though it's not black. Of late, the band has been lumped in with the whole Strokes/Hives/White Stripes rock resurgence, which is misguided because the only common ground between Hot Hot Heat and that triumvirate is that they're all young, fresh-faced (except for Julian Casablancas, sometimes), and up-and-coming. But whereas the Strokes, Hives and White Stripes (the Hive Strikes? The Strove Hikes? The White Hypes?) relentlessly mine the '60s and '70s, Hot Hot Heat are stuck firmly in the '80s. They're a KROQ Flashback Lunch unto themselves, but agreeably so, and this is coming from someone who hates the Flashback Lunch, so that's how much they steal it, spitshine it and make it their own.
But don't go expecting them to be a bunch of wild, crazy rock stars just because they all live together in a Victoria apartment like a bunch of wild, crazy rock stars. When asked if they have any secret code to indicate to the others that one of them is—ahem!—preoccupied with a female visitor, Hawthorne had some sort of embolism and then said, "No, we don't; we don't—no, no, no." But perhaps it's because he knows his mom ("mum") and all the other Hot Hot Heat mums read their press clippings. The mums, by the way, are fans of the new sound. Says Hawthorne, "I think my mum was happy I stopped playing weird-sounding music and started playing melodies!"
Hot Hot Heat perform with Radio 4, Dredge and Grand at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 629-0377 or (714) 740-2000. Mon., 7 p.m. $8. All ages.