AUGUST 30, 2002. Bumbershoot has again paralyzed Seattle with elephant ear ennui, so Steve Bays has his work cut out for him. The lanky, amiable Hot Hot Heat vocalist struts in front of a half-full, comatose Graceland—his curly auburn locks a mod update of Def Lep's Joe Elliott, his hips crammed into DIY spermicidal jeans. Bays' tongue is caked with the honey he downed straight, no chaser, 15 minutes earlier to get the pipes flowing. His nerves are barely concealed by youthful giddiness.
"I will not rest," he proclaims, "until I see everybody in this room dancing!"
It is to be a restless evening. A Duckie type leads two gorgeous young women up front to shake it, and maybe 10 people end up recklessly flailing to the Heat's surgical-strike new wave punk, but the majority is unmoved. To be fair, Triple H—let this be the first and last time that nickname is employed—only have one EP available this evening to represent their hook-heavy, Cure-boinks-the-Clash-while-Adam-Ant-watches sound, Knock Knock Knock (Sub Pop). To be frank, lack of reciprocation can get even the spunkiest British Columbian rockers down.
Dante DeCaro, the Heat's guitarist, was recently "kind of going off on Seattle," drummer Paul Hawley recalls in their van before the show. "He was like, 'I hate Seattle because Seattle hates us. I don't wanna play,' and I was like, 'It'll happen, it'll happen.' Seattle's a weird town. It's like a big rock you've gotta chip away at with a tiny hammer."
"Sometimes you feel like people like your band," shrugs Bays. "Other times, you feel like a total bunch of dorks. I'd like to ensure that every show is a party. That means we have to get a wider audience."
What a difference, oh, 50 days make. Warner Bros. snapped up the quartet in mid-October, about a week after the release of their full-length Sub Pop debut, Make Up the Breakdown. Screw a lifetime of scraping away for the brass ring; Hot Hot Heat has a jackhammer, power drill, and plastic explosives behind their Rita Hayworth poster at Shawshank.
OCTOBER 25, 2002. I call Hawley in New Orleans, inform him that their single "Bandages" is already getting spins at Seattle's 107.7 FM ("Oh my god," he gushes, twice), and ask two logical questions: "Do you think you'll get carpal tunnel from picking so much cotton?" and "How often are you required to address your A&R guy as Massa?" (Psyche! I paraphrase those sentiments in the more rudimentary "What are you looking forward to now that you've signed?" and Hawley returns the weak serve appropriately.)
"I'm looking forward to maybe a new van," he deadpans. "Some new equipment perhaps, better distribution, opening up for a band that's bigger than us. Paying our rent, that'll be cool.
"A lot of my favorite bands are on major labels and, coincidentally, none of my punk friends noticed. If the Talking Heads weren't on a major label, I never would've heard them. Same for Nirvana. Should the world be deprived of good music because you wanna keep it indie and sell 2,000 records? It's basically a self-defeating scene."
To an inebriated, living dead, 21-plus Graceland crowd, Hot Hot Heat may be the white belt flavor of the week, but the band is laudably cognizant of what the sound, fury, vintage duds—even those crazy haircuts—mean at the end of the day.
"I think [fashion] has always been important," Hawley says. "What scene is there, whether it's the music scene or the medical scene or the waitress scene, where what you wear isn't important? I want people to think of me as . . . this."
"If we played in suits, the upside would be this 'band unity' vibe and people would remember it," Bays adds. "But the downside is that it's played out, everyone's seen that, blah, blah, blah. At this point, the way we dress onstage is the way we dress every day."