Q&A With Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat

Steve Bays, Hot Hot Heat’s frontman, had a lot more to say than we could squeeze into Westword’s September 27 profile, as demonstrated by the attached Q&A.

At interview time (on September 12, the day after HHH’s latest CD, Happiness Ltd., was released), the band was heading north to Los Angeles following an early morning acoustic show at an L.A. radio station – and Bays was semi-dazed thanks to a lack of sleep and massive caffeine consumption. Nevertheless, he proved to be friendly and articulate as he talked about a variety of topics, including the group’s head-to-head matchup with Kanye West and 50 Cent; the high cost of realizing their vision for the most recent recording; the joys of using a real orchestra on the disc, as opposed to a synthesized one; the downbeat cast of many new lyrics, which contrast sharply with the outfit’s original party-band image; the inspiration provided by Denver’s DeVotchKa; his defense of major labels; the experience of opening for the Killers earlier this year, only to have the headliner pull the plug because lead singer Brandon Flowers’ voice went out; and his own experiences with throat problems, which turns into a salute to national health care Michael Moore would love.

Read the entire prescription below:

Westword (Michael Roberts): The new album came out on the same day as the new CDs by Kanye West and 50 Cent. Whose idea was that?

Steve Bays: Oh man, I know. It’s weird. I think it’s just that we didn’t want to wait any longer to put it out. By the time you finish a record, you just want it out right away. And I didn’t really mind. I may have been quoted saying that if we don’t sell more than Kanye and 50 combined, I’m quitting the game (laughs). But it’s not true!

WW: So are you pissed that Rolling Stone didn’t put you on the cover starring both of them down.

SB: Yeah, I was surprised that we were left out of that (laughs). Plus, there was the whole coming out on September 11 thing. At first, we were like, is that a bad call? But no, I think it’s good. The record’s about searching for happiness, you know. Why shouldn’t it come out on that day?

WW: Your record company bio had a line that really jumped out at me. It was in the context of how long it took to make the album and all the different studios you used – and it read, “We’re penniless as a result.” Is that an exaggeration? Or did you guys really shoot the works?

SB: It’s one of those things where I know we can make our own record. We’re all savvy about production and being in the studio and stuff. And these days you can just do a record inexpensively. But we wanted to put a lot of time into this one. It was more just whenever we had a song or two that we needed to record, we were really impatient and impulsive about it. Everything about this record was capturing the vibe and making sure that when it was recorded, we were all excited about it – kind of in a frenzy. And so I think it was more that we didn’t really worry about anything. We didn’t worry about time, we didn’t worry about me. We could have made the record ourselves in a home studio, but I just wanted to make sure it was right. So we kept going back and making changes to little things. Even though a lot of the songs were written right away, from the guy, with the production, we actually spent a lot more time on it.

WW: In the old days, the labels would pick up the tab and musicians would really think about it – and then they’d wind up unbelievably in debt. Do you guys have a deal set up where you complete the recording and then hand it in, so you know how much you’re spending?

SB: To be honest with you, we’ve never really paid attention to what the numbers are. If something needs to be done, we demand it until they say “no” – and so far, they haven’t said “no.” But record labels are one of those things where they’re basically lending you money, and whatever you don’t spend on your record you get to use as, like, a loan to live off of. It’s a weird thing. We kept talking like, “Oh, we’re going to produce our own record.” And a lot of what you hear on the record is straight off the demos we record at home, and even in my bedroom. But as the record progressed, we just wanted it to be even more different from anything we’ve done in the past. We wanted it to sound bigger and more experimental. So originally the idea was that we would record the album in our home town really quick, in two weeks, so it would sound live and exciting and urgent. But by the end, we were adding full orchestras to some of the songs.

WW: Right. You didn’t let concerns about cost inhibit you from being in an entire symphony.

SB: Yeah. That’s symbolic of not worrying about limitations. Especially because I think we’re in a category where there are a lot of other indie bands where they do what they do well, but it has that sort of indie sound. And I think we wanted to break free of any expectations. So every record has been a little bit different. I think we wanted to do something that surprises people, even though every time you change your sound, you have to build a new audience. If you keep doing what you know works, it’s a lot easier. But we don’t want to do that.

WW: How big was the string section you used? And how fun was it to have something that big at your command?

SB: It was actually a full orchestra. It was crazy. So there were like clarinets and tubas and all sorts of stuff. But where it was kind of fun was, it was recorded at Abbey Road, but back in L.A., I actually went into the ProTools file and started shifting things around. So a lot of what you hear on “Outta Heart” is actually manipulated after the fact. It was kind of cool that was so classically organic and put it in the context of a rock band and add a theremin and add a bunch of girls singing over the top. It’s hard talking about, because almost nothing on the record was us saying, “Here’s the plan of attack. Let’s see it through.” A lot of it was just us having fun and experimenting and having the luxury of just getting weird pretty much.

WW: You mentioned earlier about going in different directions and then having to rebuild your audience. You guys started out as essentially a party band, but this album starts off with the line, “Happiness is limited/But misery has no end,” which isn’t exactly a party starter. (Bays laughs.) Do you feel it was important that those be the first words, because they really set the stage for the rest of the album?

SB: Well, in the end, it started to become apparent that a lot of what I was singing about was wanting to be happy and wanting to maintain that sense of youth and joy and excitement. Especially with us totally starting as a party band. But I found myself thinking, what happens after the party? 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 maintaining your joy about life. As a musician, it’s your job to stay excited and inspired. It’s too easy to be pessimistic and cynical. So actually, a lot of the record is me fighting that urge to become cynical and jaded.

WW: Right. The very next song, “Let Me In,” includes the lines, “I drank the wine of youth/Ended up in a coma,” which is kind of unexpected. After all, you’re not exactly ready for retirement.

SB: Right (laughs).

WW: Do you feel that way because you’ve toured so much? Does it feel like you’ve been at it for more years than you actually have?

SB: Maybe. And I guess I’m still fairly young – although I do feel I’ve crammed a lot into a short period of time. All the benefits of youth, I’ve definitely exploited them, and I continue to exploit them. But sometimes you do end up in a weird place if you’re not careful.

WW: In one interview I read, you mentioned that a band from Denver, DeVotchKa, helped reenergize you.

SB: Yeah. That was at the point where I heard some DeVotchKa and Sufjan Stevens and I started getting excited about stuff sounding bigger. And it obviously comes from an artistic place. It’s not a generic let’s-make-it-sound-big in a meat-head, heavy rock kind of way. I just liked the pure, big sound. There’s that one DeVotchKa song that’s on the soundtracks of a lot of things, and it’s also in Little Miss Sunshine, toward the end, and I just love the organic rock band sound of it, but also with strings in it. Modest Mouse did that a few years ago, lots of bands have done it. But there’s something that makes the music feel a little bit more sincere. And especially on this record, a lot of the lyrics were more than just party lyrics. They were actually about real life. So it made sense to start experimenting with the sound more. But there are so many great contemporaries out now who’ve inspired me. In the past, all my references were from the ‘60s and ‘70s. So it’s nice that there’s so much coming out now that’s so inspiring.

WW: You’ve also talked about how happy you are to be on a major label now, even though it’s trendy these days to suggest that the entire major-label apparatus is past its prime and is collapsing. Do you still feel like there’s life in this old model yet?

SB: It’s true. But I feel we have our foot in the old school and in the new school. I say that because, to me, it seems too easy to just point out the negatives of this set-up. I like the idea and the romance of being on Sire and being able to potentially reach a lot of people. As a musician, you want people to hear your music, 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. But at the same time, I think we’ve always kind of operated almost as an indie band in the sense that we do everything. The cover art, the website, the production of the album, the videos, the planning of tours, choosing who we tour with: Every single element, we’re working on and with. I think you need to be a renaissance artist, really. You have to do everything. You can’t just sit back like Slash with a bottle of whiskey in your hand. The way things have changed, you do actually need to do everything, and that is kind of the indie mentality. So I think regardless of what label you’re on, whether it’s Merge or Saddle Creek or Sire or RCA, you really need to do everything yourself, but to have people help you. There’s no easy answer.

WW: I also get the sense that you’d like to have a real career in music. You’re not interested in blowing up and then quickly fading away.

SB: Yeah. I’ve always kind of set it up that way, and I hope we’ll be granted that. I don’t know. But I think that’s why for every record, we’ve tried to do something different. It’s almost like we’re demanding the right to be able to change and grow as we get older. I picture us making music for a long time. At no point do I really want to stop. And it doesn’t matter what label we’re on. I can see myself putting out my own records when I’m sixty. I’ll record it at home, and if there’s a video, I’ll do it myself. I just like being creative. And when we finished the record, none of us really stopped doing stuff.

WW: In fact, you were on tour before the record came out – and you sort of got a chance to headline at Red Rocks because you opened for the Killers in May, and then they had to stop three songs in. What was that experience like? Were you worried that people would get angry because they were told they had to turn around and go home?

SB: We went out into the walkway down from Red Rocks; we went out and dabbled with talking with people. And they were really surprisingly understanding. I thought there might be a little bit of a riot, but I guess it wasn’t that kind of crowd. They asked us, actually, if we wanted to go back on after they went off stage. But that night, I felt like the set was so great, and it was such a fun show, that I didn’t think we’d be able to top ourselves. And I didn’t want to feel like the second-best option. I feel like they do what they do really well, and what we do is a different thing. I didn’t want to be a replacement.

WW: Did you have any idea that Brandon was ailing when you were playing? Or was it a surprise?

SB: I was surprised, because we were hanging out earlier that night. But when you have a voice problem, it’s the freakiest thing. We were in London last week and the singer from the Used, Bert, he was saying he had vocal nodes that he had to have removed, and they’d just played their first show since he’d had surgery. And he was saying how scary it was, because it felt like his singing style had changed. I think every singer is scared of that – that they’re going to damage their voice. And I think that’s what it was. Brandon was scared he was going to do permanent damage, and it was smarter to cancel the show and let his voice rest. And I can respect that, because there have been times when I’ve just worn my voice so raw. Actually, in Italy, for the first time in I think two or three years, my voice started to cut out. This was actually about a week ago. We were randomly opening for Nine-Inch Nails and Tool (laughs).

WW: That’s an interesting combination – you guys with Nine-Inch Nails and Tool.

SB: Yeah, it was already a tough crowd for a band like us. And we had just started promoting the record, we hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep, and there were too many late nights – and my voice started to cut out by the end of the set. It feels like you’re naked in a massive classroom and everyone’s staring at you and nothing’s coming out. It’s scary. So I had to go see a specialist and all this shit. But when your instrument cuts out, there’s nothing worse.

WW: Did you guys have to end the set early? Or were you able to muddle through?

SB: We’ve never canceled a show, and I don’t want to ever have to. But our sound guy knows if that ever happens, he just puts a ton of delay on my voice and cranks up the other guys’ mikes. And fortunately it was near the end of the set. So we played all the songs we knew people would be singing along to in the audience, so it was kind of disguised a little bit. But it was weird being in Italy because the day before that show, I knew there was something up with my head. So we found a doctor who spoke no English, and I don’t speak their language, either. But somehow we communicated.

WW: What did he find?

SB: I guess I had an ear infection, but it was affecting everything else. It was like, when we flew to Europe, they never unpopped. All I could hear was myself in my head. I was trying to explain that. So they gave me some antibiotics, but they really didn’t make a difference. And then the next day in Germany, I traipsed around Berlin trying to find a specialist, and I finally found someone who spoke English. But the great thing about Italy and Germany was, I didn’t need health insurance, and I didn’t need to pay for anything. It was just, “You’re sick? We’ll fix you.”

WW: Have you seen the Michael Moore film Sicko, about the health-care industry?

SB: I totally have, yeah. And it made me feel better about living in Canada.

WW: Yeah, that was quite an endorsement for Canadian health care.

SB: Totally. And it’s freaky: When you’re sick and you’re in another country and you don’t speak the language, it’s really scary. Because I had the flu and also fever and all sorts of stuff. And when you’re cabbing around the city trying to find a doctor, I can’t image what it must be like to also sort out medical insurance there. But back to B. Flowers and Red Rocks, it must have been a tough thing to do. I can’t imagine what he was going through. But for us, it was great, and about a month later, we got to go back there, because we did some dates with Snow Patrol. And there’s something about that audience, that part of the world, we’ve always had great shows. I’m not sure if it’s just the venue – people getting caught up in the romance of that venue, or if it was just Denver, period. But it’s always great playing there. And we can’t wait to do it again.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts