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On the fast ferry to success

February 01, 2003|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

Steve Bays is doing his best to maintain his cool, but it's hard.

"Everything's been happening really fast," says the singer and keyboardist for the band Hot Hot Heat, sitting in the bar of the Troubadour this week.

Bays is gulping down a ham and cheese sandwich so he won't need to eat too close to his group's concert at the West Hollywood club a couple of hours later. He gets worked up on any concert night, he says. But lately there's been a lot to process.

The band had barely put out its first album, "Make Up the Breakdown," on independent Sub Pop Records last fall before being signed by Warner Bros. Records. And this is its first show in L.A. since hooking up with powerhouse manager Jim Guerinot, whose clients include No Doubt, Beck and the Offspring.

The buzz in the air this evening recalls that surrounding the Strokes a year ago -- especially given similar '80s echoes in the two groups' music, with Hot Hot Heat leaning toward the angular quirkiness and classic pop structures of early XTC and Joe Jackson. But if there are some superficial similarities between the two acts, there's a clear difference in attitude. Bays, 24, displays none of the sense of entitlement that emanates from the Strokes, who did go on to become leaders in what has been widely labeled a resurgence of rock 'n' roll passion.

On stage, Bays is an eager entertainer, singing in a modified yelp with microphone in one hand, playing his keyboard with the other, his Chia hair bouncing as he moves to the herky-jerky music. The twitchy cadences, elliptical melodies and clever yet emotional wordplay of such catchy, smart songs as "Bandages" scream new wave, but with none of the silliness that trivialized and ultimately sank that genre. The quartet's brief performance also adds muscle and depth to the enticing music.

"Music's our main thing," Bays says before Wednesday's show. "I was going to school and then going from being a slacker musician to being in a band all the time. Now there's so much more going on, a lot of work. But I'm appreciating this time. A lot of people would love to be in this position, and I don't want to be a whiner."

While the Strokes are from Manhattan, Hot Hot Heat comes from an island on the opposite side of the continent -- and the pop culture spectrum. The band is from Victoria, the quaint, quiet capital of British Columbia on Vancouver Island in Canada. There was barely a rock scene there when the four HHH members were growing up, and it's a good two-hour ferry ride to Vancouver or Seattle to see a show.

"When a band would come to Victoria, it'd be a big deal," says Bays, naming such indie acts as Blonde Redhead, Modest Mouse and Les Savy Fav among those who have played there in recent years. "There wasn't a cool indie record store until a friend started one a couple of years ago."

For young music fans, it meant hitching rides across the water to see shows, while trading records among themselves and using the Internet to learn about new music. For budding musicians, the circle was small and tight, with Bays, drummer Paul Hawley, guitarist Dante DeCaro and bassist Dustin Hawthorne all playing around town before forming Hot Hot Heat four years ago.

"There's never been an indie rock scene there other than a dozen people," Bays says. "The guys in this band were in that handful. I was in four bands -- we all kept trading off. I saw this band as the all-star band. Paul is the best drummer from there, Dustin the best bassist, Dante the best guitarist. I was the only keyboard player."

The band at first had more of a punk sensibility, with Bays' synthesizer a distinctive element. With an EP, "Knock, Knock, Knock," released by Sub Pop last April, the sound had evolved to incorporate pop song structure without losing the aggressive edge. The release of the album in October saw the sound and songwriting become more sophisticated and nuanced.

All Music Guide said the album "sounds like it's been hiding since 1981 and was just unearthed recently." The book went on to say that only adds to the charm of paranoid pop songs like "No, Not Now" and "Bandages," which, "with their tense hooks and witty wordplay, come close to matching the greatness of their influences."

Bays accepts the compliments but doesn't wholly agree with the evaluation.

"There are too many contemporary influences in it," he says, mentioning Radiohead among the role models and noting that new songs the band has been writing take the music in several new directions.

On stage Wednesday, the older influences are hard to ignore. But they're complexly woven into the songs, recalling not just the obvious XTC, Gang of Four and Joe Jackson-like elements, but also more obscure but high-quality pop acts such as Buzzcocks singer Pete Shelley and L.A. '70s and '80s band Jules & the Polar Bears. And never is Hot Hot Heat self-consciously retro. In fact, never was it self-conscious at all, which may be the key to the band's potential success and winning appeal.

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