Steve Bays has a problem with his peers.
The frontman for dance-rock quartet Hot Hot Heat distances himself and his band from the emerging crop of hyped hopefuls by his approach to the music. While some bands feed from a collective trough that flaunts its precious knowledge of underground heroes like so many forgotten episodes of "120 Minutes," Hot Hot Heat thrive by asking just one thing of fans: they must have an innate reaction to the melding of a funky groove and bouncy beat.
"The only thing I didn't like about watching shows growing up was that some bands were kind of unapproachable at times," the singer/keyboardist remembers of his formative years in Victoria, British Columbia. "It felt like if you weren't in the know, it was somewhat alienating. So it's nice to walk into an environment where people are having a couple of more drinks than they normally would, [combined with] the fact that it's Friday night and not the fact that you're watching a band. So I'm glad that it's like that here."
Here, to Bays, is Scotland, where last week the band was wrapping up a handful of U.K. tour dates before beginning a stretch of U.S. shows on Monday (March 31) in Atlanta in support of their breakthrough album, Make up the Breakdown.
The most striking facet of the multidimensional LP, which was recently given a major-label push by Warner Bros. after indie Sub Pop's initial release in October, is Bays' voice, which alternates between flitting atop a determined melody and creating one itself. A lot of singers claim to use their voice as an instrument, but Bays takes it literally.
"In the '90s, I noticed that there would be these intricate guitar riffs and singers would just hold one note over it," he said. "I always thought that was a bit dull, so I made a point of making the vocal melody be the most important melody. Often I'd write a keyboard melody and say, 'Nope, that's too good' and just steal it for the vocals."
In "Bandages," the first single from Make up the Breakdown, Bays' lyrical cadence mimics his keyboards nearly note for note in the chorus. His own instrument isn't the only place he takes his vocal cues, however. On "Naked in the City Again" and "Get in or Get Out," the vocal melody peaks and plummets like a bassline, while Bays' syllables pop like a tightly wound metronome on "Oh, Goddamnit." Rarely, if ever, do they sound conventional.
"Sometimes the vocals are written like a bassline. Often they're written like a drum would be, where it would be on the one and the two [count]. Or sometimes it will be like the guitar, on the off note. ... I have this theory: If the vocals were transposed into an instrumental version of the song, would the vocal melodies still be interesting? When you hear Muzak versions of good songs, the vocal melodies are still interesting when they're done by a clarinet or whatever."
Such an approach is surprising for someone who was passed the mic only 18 months ago, after the band got rid of its former singer. With their keyboardist at the helm, Hot Hot Heat's emphasis shifted from math-rock musicianship to pop sensibility.
They didn't turn all Good Charlotte overnight, though. Each member integrated his own forte — Dante DeCaros' discordant guitars, Dustin Hawthorne's hard-rock bass and drummer Paul Hawley's minimalist shadow cast over the mélange — and the result is a hodgepodge of flavors running the gamut from disco and '80s Brit-rock to haphazard pop-punk.
"Bandages" is an apt culmination of the band's rearing. Eerie keyboards turn jubilant when the bassline digs underneath and gives them a lift, and the on-the-one funk makes head-bopping unavoidable. The song has got morals, too, as "bandages" serves as a symbol for a surface remedy that steers away from a fundamental cure.
" 'Bandages' cover up a wound, but in this case it's a metaphor for covering up a mistake," Bays explained. "Whenever I make a mistake, I try to cover it up with other things rather than solving the problem, and that just makes it worse. ... I tend to not deal with things rationally and tend to be a very neurotic at times."
Hot Hot Heat have already begun to lay foundation for a follow-up to Make up the Breakdown, which promises to be even more grandly eclectic than its predecessor.
"We want to have more orchestration and better arrangements, even a bit more diverse," Bays said. "I'd like it not to be in any specific genre or style. The one main thing that will continue is that we want it to be really catchy."
Hot Hot Heat tour dates, according to Warner Bros.:
- 3/31 - Atlanta, GA @ Cotton Club
- 4/2 - Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
- 4/3 - Hoboken, NJ @ Maxwell's
- 4/4 - Old Bridge, NJ @ Sting Ray's
- 4/5 - Philadelphia, PA @ Theatre of Living Arts
- 4/7 - Baltimore, MD @ Fletcher's
- 4/8 - New York, NY @ Bowery Ballroom
- 4/9 - Albany, NY @ Valentine's
- 4/10 - Boston, MA @ Paradise
- 4/12 - Burlington, VT @ Higher Ground
- 4/14 - Providence, RI @ Met Cafe
- 4/15 - Northampton, MA @ Pearl Street
- 4/17 - Rochester, NY @ Water Street Music Hall
- 4/18 - Buffalo, NY @ The Showplace
- 4/19 - Detroit, MI @ The Shelter
- 4/21 - Cleveland, OH @ Grog Shop
- 4/26 - Indio, CA @ Empire Polo Field (Coachella Festival)