Lost momentum. Unrewarding label stints. Poor album reviews. It can all conspire to do a band in. Hot Hot Heat has dealt with such career turbulence over the past few years, yet frontman Steve Bays insists they’re not giving up anytime soon.
“Why do bands break up?” Bays muses over the phone from a tour stop in Washington, D.C. “They start phoning it in, or they stop improving so they’re not stimulated. It’s a list of a million different things, you know, beyond just drugs and girls. But we’re getting better and better, and it feels like we know exactly what our goals are, so we’re not going to stop now.”
The Canadian dance-punk/post-punk foursome behind one of the past decade’s best and most well-received indie-rock debut albums—2002’s Sub Pop–released, Jack Endino–produced Make Up the Breakdown—has felt pressure to repeat that success ever since. There was a lengthy quiet period prior to the recent release of their fourth LP, Future Breeds. And to be brutally frank, the way their previous two albums (2005’s Elevator and 2007’s Happiness Ltd.) were disparaged by many critics and fans suggests that a lot of people wouldn’t have minded if they’d called it quits.
While neither of those albums are nearly as bad as some would have you believe, they did abandon the band’s essential strengths and vitality demonstrated on Breakdown—anxious, exhilarating, propulsive rock that fits somewhere between Elvis Costello’s caustic New Wave and the freshly exhumed and updated Gang of Four-mat mined by the likes of the Futureheads and Franz Ferdinand.
The new direction (coinciding with a jump to Warner Bros.) swapped that razor-sharp fever for expansive, polished, and comparatively generic sonics, and in their attempt to conquer rock radio, HHH fell flat. Not that Bays necessarily regrets going for it.
“Everything we did was a conscious decision, and you need to be prepared to lose fans to get closer to where you wanna go,” he says. “We’ve always been excited about making songs, and I felt like we were always getting tighter as a band and figuring out what we’re really about.”
That process has led them back to the beginning: Future Breeds, released on indie Dangerbird Records, doesn’t exactly ape Breakdown, but definitely taps into the same spirit. Listening to Bays yelp through the distorted synths, digital noise, and jagged guitar shards of opener “YVR” and the short, spastic rhythms and grooves that follow, you can’t help but think Hot Hot Heat made the right choice.
“All people stress about not knowing if they’ve gone down the right path in life, and as a musician it’s super-easy to fall into that,” says Bays. “So when times are tough and you question things, as you inevitably do, I think about how lucky we are to have loyal fans that come out to the shows. So we just gotta keep fighting and try to survive.”