Evolve or Die!

When asked in early 2003, a few short months after the release of his band's debut album, where he thought he'd be in five years, Steve Bays was convinced he'd find himself in one of two positions: Either his band, Hot Hot Heat, would sound totally different and its fans would be tagging along for the ride, or the band would be broken up and he'd be a full-time producer.

Two years on, Bays's prophecy appears to be on track -- although he's probably closer to Hot Hot Heat's third record than the producer's chair. Elevator, the band's newest album, marks a bold change of pace even if it's not as thoroughly alienating as the Bays of 2003 would have predicted. He is so encouraged by the band's progress that he already has seven or eight new songs on his hard drive at home. "We're writing on the road, which is something we've never done before," says Bays, now on a short respite in his hometown of Vancouver before embarking on yet another U.S. tour. "Most importantly, we're finally all on the same page as far as the music we want to make, whereas before we've always been confused."

The band may have been confused, but the haphazard, stumbling approach on its first proper album, Make Up the Breakdown, yielded some stunning singles, including the infectious radio smash "Bandages." Other songs, like the synth-driven Cars homage "No, Not Now" and the organ-propelled "Get In or Get Out," showed a group with unusual range and obvious potential. Bays, in retrospect, views that early awkwardness as a double-edged sword. "[The album] had this sort of naive element. We didn't really know what we were doing. That was cool, but it was also at the root of whatever flaws it may have had."

Although Bays and his bandmates -- guitarist Dante DeCaro, bassist Dustin Hawthorne, and drummer Paul Hawley -- may not have realized their accidental achievement, Craig Aronson, an A&R rep at Warner was quick to pounce on Make Up's frenetic, dance-infused rock. No sooner was the album out on the Seattle-based Sub Pop than Aronson had signed the band to Warner and arranged for the album's major label re-release. Touring relentlessly, the musicians were as thrilled by their fortune as they were utterly petrified by the attendant expectations. In those early performances, Bays clung to his keyboard, rarely venturing beyond its immediate vicinity. At that point, he was still only a year removed from having assumed singing duties full-time (Matthew Marnik handled vocals during Hot Hot Heat's early incarnation but left prior to the sessions for Make Up).

However, while Bays warmed to his role and grew increasingly confident of his abilities, DeCaro was slower to adjust. "He was miserable because of the touring lifestyle. He loved playing shows, but he wasn't prepared for anything else that went along with it -- all the mental and physical commitments," says Bays. DeCaro found the touring lifestyle so distasteful he informed the band members they would need to find a replacement. Fortunately for Bays and the rest of the group, DeCaro was gracious enough to complete the demanding tour schedule in the wake of Make Up's success, but the bandmates knew they would need to add a new permanent member as they entered the studio to record the followup.

After an exhaustive search, the band settled on Luke Paquin. He may not have had much of an impact on the album's sound, because most of the record was written prior to Paquin's involvement, but his playing is unlikely to go unnoticed. Make Up's successor, Elevator, is a surprisingly guitar-centric record for a band mostly renowned for gliding synths and spastic rhythms. Bays, who along with drummer Paul Hawley writes the group's material, admits he's "over pink now" -- a color he uses to describe the buoyant New Wave anthems on Make Up, and a hue the group frequently donned when playing live during that era. "We're just into more classic things in general," says Bays. "We used very few synths on this album. For the most part it was a classic guitar sound. If the last album was pink, I think of this album as more of a black-and-white photo."

True to his word in 2003, Hot Hot Heat is already a much different band from the one that released Make Up, and Dave Sardy's production has both smoothed Bays's rougher vocal patches and given the group a professional polish. Even the band's appearance has changed considerably, with Bays having grown out his hair to a shaggy mane. However, despite Bays's bold pronouncement, the bandmates haven't completely severed ties to their past. Elevator, especially on cuts like "Pickin' It Up" and "Island of the Honest Man," retains some of the original tension that made them so compelling in the first place. "I don't think we're ever going to get away from wanting people to dance and being a good live band, but each [record] has a slightly different focus," says Bays, apparently taking a more measured view of progress than he did in 2003.

As for live performances, the band bears little resemblance to the anxious, hesitant one that opened in dingy clubs. The new guitar-based songs allow Bays a freedom he's finally ready to exercise. He stalks the stage, pirouetting along the edge, grabbing at extended arms and bobbing heads. And any nervousness apparent in his vocals has long since melted away, as he now shouts his a cappella song intros at speaker-shredding volume. Of course Bays still isn't 100 percent comfortable with his role as "rock frontman." "We have a lighting guy [on tour] and I told him early on that I always want to see the crowd," he says. "So we always set up lights facing the crowd -- I like to see reactions."

And perhaps how many are tagging along for the ride.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jonathan Garrett