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10 Years of FILTER: Issue #7 Cover Story: Hot Hot Heat

By Mikel Jollett on March 7, 2012


10 Years of FILTER: Issue #7 Cover Story: Hot Hot Heat

2012 marks FILTER Magazine's tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002's Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November's Issue #50.

Below you will find Issue #7's cover story, in full, where we sat down with Hot Hot Heat and discussed their upbringings in the hardcore-punk scene, the influence of radio rock, and the "everyman" quality of Nirvana.

"The Great New Hope From The Great White North: Hot Hot Heat" (Issue 7, Sep/Oct 2003)

The Heat Also Rises: Success, Humility, and the Curious Burden of Other People's Dreams

"We added 'Bandages' to our playlist here at KROQ in February and started giving it 40 spins a week. I'd heard of Hot Hot Heat, so I went and saw them at Spaceland. They were great. 'Bandages' has been a big hit for the past three months, by any measure: sales, requests, enthusiasm at shows...We don't put a stamp on records that we've broken, but if someone had asked me if we broke them, I would say 'Yes.'"

Meet Lisa Worden. Lisa is the Music Director for KROQ in Los Angeles, the person whose job it is to decide which songs get on air. KROQ is the most influential radio station in the country. It is owned by Infinity Broadcasting, which is owned by Viacom. Viacom also owns MTV. Which means MTV pays attention to KROQ and KROQ pays attention to MTV. For this reason, every other "alternative" (read: "commercial [non-classic]-rock") station in the country pays attention to KROQ. 

The "spins" she refers to are times when a song has been played on air. Forty spins means a song was played 40 times that week. Forty is a good number. Forty spins makes "Bandages" the second most-played song on KROQ, behind Linkin Park"s "Faint." It had 41 spins on KRBZ in Kansas City the week of July 21st. Thirty-one spins on WFNX in Boston. Nineteen spins in New York on WXRK, the nation's largest radio station, up from two spins two weeks prior, after Kevin Weatherly, KROQ's Program Director, makes a trip to New York City. There is a pattern here.

In general, a very simple equation holds sway over all of this. SPINS = SALES. Or, more precisely, REGIONAL SPINS = REGIONAL SALES. Case in point: driven by the massive airplay in Los Angeles, Hot Hot Heat's year-old album Make Up the Breakdown, ships 1700 units per week in L.A. and only 500 units per week in New York. (Remember those measly two spins?) That, of course, will change since Mr. Weatherly"s trip to the Big Apple.

Basic, axiomatic, depressing, though obvious lesson number one: music is a business. Even with cool fucking bands. 

There's more. Make Up the Breakdown was originally released by independent label Sub Pop last year. (The one which originally signed Nirvana way back when). The band then signed with big fucking major label Warner Brothers. But Sub Pop still owns the album. Which means they make all the money from its sales. 

And Make Up the Breakdown just won"t go away. "Bandages" is still rising in charts nationally. KROQ has christened a second single from the album "Talk to Me, Dance with Me" to which it is currently giving a healthy 28 spins a week. The band is constantly referred to as "the next Strokes" (more on that later). Late-night TV shows court them for appearances. They're playing dates with the White Stripes, (the band currently tied with Radiohead for the title "biggest band in the world"). The album has been out a God-damned year and it's just starting to take off. This kind of shit doesn't happen.

Just what in the fuck is going on?

"I'm in the business because I love music. There are people who aren't in it for that." Lisa Worden is a nice person. And she likes cool music. And she's got a job to do. And along with Hot Hot Heat, Interpol, and the White Stripes, she directs her station to play Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Creed. And she won't say it, but she shows so much more enthusiasm for the Hot Hot Heats than Creeds, and you can tell that there's just no fucking way she has a Limp Bizkit CD in her car.

How could she? She grew up in L.A. in the late '80s and early '90s listening to KROQ. KROQ--the fond memory from junior high. KROQ--the station that played Morrissey, the Cure and the Violent Femmes back when every other station was still playing Paula Abdul and Tony Toni Toné. KROQ--the elegant freak show soundtrack to your first cigarette, your first kiss, your first pair of 12-hole Docs. By most accounts, KROQ (like MTV and the whole fucking world) abandoned cool music sometime in the late '90s after squeezing the final watered-down beanie-laden, goatee-sportin' drops from grunge--and proceeded to bitch-slap anyone who ever wrote the words to "Just Like Heaven" on the back cover of their PeeChee notebook--by overwhelming the airwaves with the moronic, frat-boy nü-metal incoherencies of Fred Durst. I suppose it had to be that way since, by then, (because of the commercial success of "alternative" music), KROQ had been purchased by Infinity Broadcasting. And Infinity Broadcasting is a business. And businesses have to make money. And nü-metal could be packaged and sold to hyperactive 12 year olds. Which it was. And so went KROQ.

Basic, axiomatic, depressing, though obvious lesson number two: it was not video. Marketing killed the radio star.

Still Lisa Worden's got a job to do, and she's reconciled herself to the business side of things. But it's not why she got into this world in the first place--and she secretly wishes she didn't have to play that crap and that some band would come along, like Nirvana did, and strap the entire fucking industry onto their backs with one song, or one album, or one flick of their elegant, alienated, charismatic, youthful, artistic, punk-fucking-rock wrist--and lead it to a place where she can rest easier at night. The music industry is filled with people like Lisa Worden--people who program radio stations or book bands at local clubs or sit in offices working out licensing deals or answering questions from the press or walk aimlessly the streets of New York, Los Angeles, Kansas City, or Boston--and they all want to find that one band.     

It takes three different flights to get from Los Angeles to Victoria, Canada. It's a big jet from L.A. to Reno. A smaller jet from Reno to Seattle. And finally an uneasy, stomach-churning ride on a propeller-driven puddle-jumper with 12 passengers and one stewardess to hop the border and fly into Victoria: a European-style city on Vancouver Island, just a few miles west of the Canadian coast. Victoria is the capital of the Canadian tourist, retirement and Satanist communities--and most importantly--home to the dance/art/punk/new wave/garage/rock juggernaut, Hot Hot Heat.

It's a beautiful city, 350,000 white, healthy, attractive, polite people surrounded by breathtaking ocean vistas, islands, sailboats, float planes blue skies and forest. The streets are cobblestone, of course, and the endless rows of small shops which comprise the downtown near the wharf are all done in classic medieval European architecture, exactly like some little berg tucked away in the French countryside. With one exception. Street punks. They're everywhere. Seventeen, 19, 23-year-old kids with tattered pants, bomber jackets and endless piercings sitting on pristine sidewalks saying things like, "Hey man, wanna help me with some change?" or "Would you give me some money before I hurt someone?" They mostly look harmless (compared to the ones in L.A.), but are a stark contrast to the clean, vibrant, cultured feel of the rest of the city.

It's a college town, home to the University of Victoria, and like all college towns, it has that certain record store that sells all the good music, and that certain guy that knows everything about it. The store is Ditch Records, the guy is named Bill. He's obsessed with the Pixies. He's got a huge goatee. Touring indie rock bands sleep on his floor. You know this guy. I stop by the store in the afternoon to chat. He loves Hot Hot Heat. There are Hot Hot Heat T-shirts on the wall. He's adamant that they've kept their indie cred, despite their burgeoning crossover success. The CD sells well. The local shows are huge. "Maybe some DIY purists would say they've sold out," he confides to me, "but only within a 10-block radius of this store. Everyone else knows they deserve it." I'm convinced. I like him. I like the town. I wonder if anyone back home cares about indie cred. I go to my hotel and prepare to meet the band that night. 

Some cell-phone-tag ensues with Paul (Hawley: drummer) and Steve (Bays: singer, keyboards). We talk and decide the most prudent course of action is to spend the night walking around Victoria, chatting, bar-hopping, and getting drunk. Which we proceed to do three hours later. Dante (Decaro: guitar) can't make it. We'll see him tomorrow. The evening passes like a limbic purgatory of tight pants, sweet beer, and giddy pontification.

First impression: Steve and Paul walking into a small, rustic, downright hickish western-themed bar. They stand out with their retro-Brit clothes and messy hair. Paul is six-five and looks like a big, skinny, endearing, thoughtful teddy bear. Which he is. Steve looks much more the lead singer than I expected. His hair is styled just so (massive curls pulled down in jagged points near his eyes), his face taking on a pinkish hue. He's a good-looking kid. And they're both damn nice. We talk. It's nervous, get-to-know-you-beginning-of-the-night type fare. Dustin (Hawthorne: bass) shows up 15 minutes later. With tattoos and shaggy hair, he is the most recognizably indie-hip looking one of the bunch. He's less laid back than the other two, but strikingly friendly all the same. More beer. More chat. Nobody pays us much mind. I try to convince them that They're hot shit in the States. They don't believe me.

Next Scene: We leave the bar and decide to walk over to a place called Lucky's on the other side of town. It's a fucking gorgeous night. And we're talking about old friends and new friends and basically ignoring the let's-get-some-work-done-and-discuss-meaningful-shit vibe, in favor of the let's-goof-off-and-crack-jokes-and-wander-aimlessly vibe. People stare. At first I assume it's because everyone knows they're rock stars. Steve sets me straight on this, "I love Victoria," he tells me, "but it so does not know what's going on in the rest of the world. So when we come here, some people know who we are, but everyone else is like, 'There go those two gay couples.'" We all laugh. Steve continues, "After that KROQ show in L.A., everyone was taking pictures and asking for autographs. And it's so weird to think that if we lived in L.A., that's what it would be like. We'd walk around, people would trip. But here, It's like nobody gives a shit about us."

Which isn't entirely true. Because at Lucky's, everybody seems to know them. Including the heavily tatted (and entirely decent and polite) bouncer at the door. And the band which is playing on stage. And the bartender. And Piers and Nick, who manage local bands. And a few indie girls who wave coquettishly at Steve. And it isn't like they are rock stars with groupies, it's not like that at all. It's more like they've been here every Thursday for five or 10 years. Which is basically true. It's a scene. A lot of small labels, record stores, journalists, drummers--and everyone's been in everyone else's band. And so they're all peers and Hot Hot Heat is just one piece of this great big puzzle. The one piece that's going off in the States. 

We leave Lucky's and go to another bar. At this point I don't ask or care about the name. It's all brick streets and closed shops and occasional pedestrians and Paul keeps telling me how drunk he is and we're having that earnest philosophical talk about the meaning of life--you know, that talk you have when you're drunk with new people. Everyone seems to be having a fine time and the bouncer at the next place recognizes the band (they're bigger fish than they let on) and wave us all in. The bartender floats us free drinks. Dustin's sister is there. It's a dance club. People dance. Steve and I lean against a wall and talk about ex-girlfriends and success and wanting people to know you for who you are versus wanting people to know you for who you want to be--and there he is on the brink of it, and it's already fucking with his personal life. How could it not? For every lucky fuck that wins the lottery, there's some poor girl who loved him more when he was broke. 

The bar closes and we walk home and someone sober drops me off at my hotel and I stumble into bed and think: no one got into a fight and no one puked and no one peed off a balcony and no one made some huge ego-driven overstatement and everyone was considerate and waited their turn to speak and it wasn't boring or annoying, or fucked-up--just fun and cool and, you know, Canadian.

"The first song we ever wrote used the arpeggiator on an old Juno keyboard. It was very robotic sounding. The only thing we'd discussed was that our theme was kung fu. And we wanted to be a party band. And we made a small compromise when we decided on a whim to incorporate the theme of circus." We're all sitting in a little lunch café eating sandwiches and drinking lots of water. It's the next day. Steve is talking about the evolution of the band in his own charming, ironic way--as if adding ideas to some communal soup. Dante has joined us. He's the pistol whip of the group. The only one who's primary personality characteristic isn't out-and-out friendliness. He's young (22), with large black hair. He doesn't say much, for now. Though he eventually proves to be the most incisive (and therefore funniest) member of the group. Back to Steve and the beginning of the band.

"We played Ché Café in San Diego which, at the time in the hard-core scene, was a really cool place to play. It was Radio Berlin, us, I Am Spoonbender, and the Locust." The Locust is about as hard-core of a band as you could come across: all screaming and dark guitars and fucked-up imagery--and I'm totally surprised to learn that Hot Hot Heat was basically a thought experiment for a bunch of art punks who played for years in serious, straight-edge hard-core bands. Not what I expected. Not much written about it. I think, what the fuck?

Paul chimes in, "When we were younger we went to a lot of hardcore punk shows. There was a scene of about 50 kids that went to every show, and a couple hundred kids that would rotate--all at a couple of venues in town. Steve and Dustin and I were all in that group." They go on to list every band they've ever been in. Most of them are intense, dark, thrash, punk metal. Weird, considering Hot Hot Heat is none of those things. Then I remember: the street punks. The town. And it sort of makes sense.

Besides, Hot Hot Heat started as a guitar-less, keyboard-driven, almost completely non-melodic technical band with a different lead singer who liked to yell. His name was Matthew Marnick. Considering the hallmark Robert Smith-esque distinctiveness of Steve"s vocals--which are the cornerstone of the band's current sound--it's odd to think of someone else fronting the band. But that was another time. Steve is shy on this point, "By that time, when he left, we were selling out shows. We were starting to do really well. So for us to change our sound was kind of bizarre. People were like, 'Why would you do that?'" A few fans resented the change. But, as usual, the band didn't seem to care all that much what other people thought. 

Dustin tells the story of Matthew's departure thusly. "Matt wasn't really hanging out with us and he was just kind of being a dick. So Steve and I drove over to his house under the impression that we were going to kick him out. We went there and I was going to be like, 'OK you're out.' But I choked. It's like breaking up with a girlfriend. I was like, 'Uh...dude...the band's over. We're breaking up.' And he was like, 'OK. Cool. Whatever.' Just totally fine with it. And I have not seen him since those words left my mouth two and a half years ago." 

After taking some time off, the band began to play together again, totally revamping their sound with Steve on vocals and Dante joining in on guitar. They scored a small deal with Sub Pop to release an EP in 2001 (called Knock Knock Knock). The EP was universally embraced by indie kids, punk kids, anyone who ever heard it. This led to an LP in 2002 on tiny Ohev records entitled Scenes One Through Thirteen the success of which led them back to Sub Pop and Make Up the Breakdown and Warner Brothers and mainstream radio and the impending rock stardom.

"I think of the '90s as a time when people stopped dancing." Steve is addressing the fact that Hot Hot Heat are one of the few alt/indie/whatever bands that actually encourage dancing. It's almost time to go. we've been sitting at the lunch table awhile, discussing history and schooling and whatnot. The conversation has inevitably turned to the aesthetics of punk and grunge and pop and sales and just what in the fuck it all means. "We're not really a dance band. We're just a normal band, really. In the '90s it was not cool to show that you really liked to be where you were at. Those were the years of teen angst."

Dante agrees, piping up from his corner of the table, "Right, why would you dance if you were totally depressed?" I wonder exactly what punk has to do with dancing and why it is that suddenly everything from authors to painters to dancey bands from Canada is described as being "punk." "It's not that it became cool to be punk," Dante observes, "it's more like people just realized it was always cool. Kinda like how hippies became lawyers." We all laugh at this, as we're laughing at the whole farce of the D.I.Y. ("do it yourself") ethic of punk rock.

Paul breaks the short silence which follows with another bit of sarcastic wisdom, "I don't want to Do-It-Myself for the rest of my life. And anyway, no one's doing-it-themselves. They're just getting labels that don't have as much money to market them Our marketing team just happens to be an insane corporation." 

So it seems it's all come full circle at this point. Cool bands create the market. The market betrays cool bands. The market loses momentum without coolness, and longs to find new cool bands again. Cool bands are found. Cool bands long to be marketed. Such is life.

"We have no misconceptions about what we're capable of." Again, Paul speaking. "We're talking about all these huge bands: the Beatles and Nirvana--but we're still tiny. We're not anywhere. I don't know if we have the sort of songs and the sort of image that kids in Dayton, Ohio can identify with. It's nice to think we could be capable of great things, but all it's going to set you up for is disappointment. Nirvana was that huge thing. The fact that we have bands like us and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and even the Strokes--I mean, I don't know if we're in the same category as those bands--but people look at the Strokes coming on the scene as being sort of like Nirvana. But if you look at the sales, Nirvana sold like 30 million."

Again, Dante agrees, "Yeah, Nirvana had that everyman thing of the unlikely hero. But we're kind of less universal. It's not like dancey, faggy, pop-rock is going to appeal to everyone."

And it all suddenly feels a little dirty. Because it occurs to me that the fact that we're even sitting here talking about the Strokes is sort of desperate. Trying to squeeze something Nirvana-esque out of a band that's nowhere near even a Gold record. Shit, a band from my high school went Gold. It's silly to talk about. I'm a better writer than that. They're a better band that that. We're better people than that. But we all want some order and we all want the crap on the radio to end. Because it means something to us or we wouldn't spend our lives playing this music or writing about it. And we're not the only ones. There's a whole industry that longs for the same thing. And maybe it's not Hot Hot Heat. But then something's beginning to change, right? If you can turn on a commercial radio station like KROQ and hear a band you actually like, well then, that's something new, right? That wouldn't have happened three years ago. So maybe the world is catching up. Or maybe Hot Hot heat really are going to be the fuck-all kings of the world. Or maybe they're just temporary symbols of the intense hope for change. I'm not sure it matters.

I left something out. Paul had interrupted his speech about Nirvana because there was a baby with huge, striking blue eyes sitting across from us in the café, staring. Mid-sentence, Paul stopped and said, "Whoa. See that baby right there? We're talking about this stuff like we're all important, and 20 years from now he's not going to give a fuck about our band." He paused for a second and said slowly, "Or maybe he will. Either way, it wouldn't make him any less cute." F


Issue #1 (July 2002) Getting To Know: Bright Eyes, Doves, Balligomingo, South and Breakestra
Issue #1 (July 2002) Cover Story: On the Dark Side of the Moon with Weezer
Issue #2 (September 2002) Getting To Know: Haven, Interpol, Division of Laura Lee, Jazzanova and The Cato Salsa Experience
Issue #2 (September 2002) Cover Story: Looking Back in Wonder: Björk Takes a Pause
Issue #3 (November/December 2002) Getting To Know: Röyksopp, Thievery Corporation, Clinic, Hot Hot Heat + The Pattern, Ikara Colt and The Music
Issue #3 (November/December 2002) Cover Story: Coldplay: At Home in the World
Issue #4 (February 2003) Getting To Know: 2 Many DJs, The Coral, Datsuns, Turin Brakes, Microphonse and Muggs
Issue #4 (February 2003) Cover Story: Art Imitating Life Imitating… THE DANDY WARHOLS
Issue #5 Cover Story: Blur
Issue #5 (May/June 2003) Revisited, Getting To Know The Raveonettes, Elefant, Longwave, Verbana, Cave In and Paloalto
Issue #6 (July/Aug 2003)Cover Story: David Bowie  
Issue #6
(July/Aug 2003) Revisited, Getting To Know Broken Social Scene and more

This article is from FILTER Issue 7