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Singer-songwriter/keyboardist Steve Bays and the rest of his mates in Canada's Hot Hot Heat worked for month upon month and spent an unprecedented sum (for them) to make their latest offering, Happiness Ltd. And what did they get as a reward for their efforts? The recording was released on September 11 — the same day Kanye West's Graduation and 50 Cent's Curtis arrived in stores, kick-starting the most heavily hyped CD-sales slugfest in recent memory. Bays had no illusions about knocking off the hip-hop icons.
"I may have been quoted saying that if we don't sell more than Kanye and 50 combined, I'm quitting the game," he says, laughing. "But it's not true!"
Still, Bays isn't one of those modern-rock types who pretend to be bored by the very thought of success. "As a musician, you want people to hear your music," he notes. "And it pisses me off when musicians hide that — hide their desire to play all over the world and have people sing along and know what you're singing about." As a result, he has no regrets about moving from the independent Sub Pop imprint, which released 2002's Make Up the Breakdown, to Sire, despite the fact that 2005's Elevator, the group's debut for the Warner Bros. subsidiary, sold fewer copies than its low-budget predecessor. "It seems too easy to just point out the negatives," he says.
Of course, Bays does plenty of that in his most recent batch of tunes: The new album's title track begins with the couplet "Happiness is limited/But misery has no end." He acknowledges that this sentiment might seem unusual given that Hot Hot Heat started out as a party band. "But I found myself thinking, what happens after the party?" he says. "What's the next day going to be like? How do you keep life exciting and fun and fresh? That's just part of growing up — but I saw people I knew who were losing that little sparkle in their eye. And to me, it's an art to maintain your joy about life."
As a result, Happiness Ltd. is hardly a simple downer. Despite lyrics such as "I drank the wine of youth/Ended up in a coma," the lead single, "Let Me In," proves to be a rousing track that neatly juxtaposes rock instrumentation with a full orchestra. Elsewhere, "5 Times Out of 100" features exuberant dance beats and plenty of Bays's trademark yelping, while "Outta Heart" is swaddled in ornate pop production that's bigger and more striking than anything the combo's attempted to date.
"We wanted to do something that surprises people," Bays says, "even though every time you change your sound, you have to build a new audience."
Lucky thing he wasn't forced to retire.