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Major indie rock
Hot Hot Heat take their quirks to the masses
BY NICK SYLVESTER
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Hot Hot Heat's official Web site

"If I want to say something, Iím just gonna say it. I mean, I donít give a fuck about shit," Dustin Hawthorne, bassist for Hot Hot Heat, confided to me in late 2003. The British Columbia band had just played to a sold-out crowd at Axis, and at the invitation of the Harvard Lampoon, they reconvened with groupies in tow at the humor magís castle immediately afterward. As the night fell to purple haze and questionable dice rolls, Hawthorne laundry-listed other things he didnít give a fuck about ó how many records his band sell, what í80s new-wave acts critics say his band rip, "other shit." Each tick mark dripped with old-guard indie elitism. "Itís just the kind of guy I am."

Self-defensive, self-indulgent, defiantly insular, uncompromising, and ó letís say it ó pretty damn offputting at times, the indie-rock worldís kind of guy has but one value: artistic integrity. The "doing my own thing, man" ethos is at the least admirable and, in its í90s major-label sort of way, maybe even charming. At once anti-pomp and anti-populist, "indie" says fans will dig the shit or they wonít ó no harm done, no compromises needed, please, no more handclaps, always 100 percent human shit and never any top-down label-to-artist creative control. From there follows the simple but crucial distinction between indie- and major-label rock, no matter what label you happen to be on: the first is art, the second is product.

More and more though, bands like Hot Hot Heat, Franz Ferdinand, the Postal Service, the Walkmen, Death Cab for Cutie, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Modest Mouse are collapsing that distinction. Indie in ethos, these acts made unprecedented mainstream media inroads in 2004. With Franz Ferdinandís "Take Me Out" as its flagship, indie took back rock radio from new metal, mall punk, and all that other Nickelbullshit thatís run the road for almost a decade. Just as important, indie rock has appeared with unusual prominence in television and film: TV drama The OC once teased an entire story line out of a Walkmen concert, and in Garden State, Natalie Portmanís character says without a smirk that the Shins "will change your life." Indie rock has become shorthand for purity ó freedom from corruption, really ó and as Intelligent But Heartfelt Youth Music, thereís hardly a better choice.

The indie sound is selling pretty damn well too. Right now, the indie-centric Garden State soundtrack is #1 on the iTunes top-album chart. The Arcade Fire have continued to jump up Billboardís Heatseekers chart, and a few months ago, the Postal Serviceís Sub Pop debut, Give Up, a bedroom IDM pop record, reached 400,000 in sales, going right past Sub Popís third-best seller, Hot Hot Heatís Make Up the Breakdown (230,000), and second only to Nirvanaís Bleach (1.6 million). Plenty of bands have jumped from indies to majors, but only recently has indie self-indulgence itself been the selling point.

Elevator, Hot Hot Heatís major-label follow-up to 2002ís Make Up the Breakdown, could be indieís next major commercial success. Backed by Warner Bros., who signed the band to Reprise after initially handling national distribution for MUTB, Hot Hot Heat approach a mainstream audience thatís not only willing to give their herky-jerky new-new-wave sound a go but also just flat-out relieved by how much fun it is ó especially in the wake of all the Bizkits and Parkies and Insane Clownfaces.

Steve Bays, Hot Hot Heatís lead singer and one of the bandís two principal songwriters, recognizes this increased pressure, but he isnít shaken by it. "People tell us, you know, ĎNowís the time for bands like you!í," he says over a cell phone from the Vancouver airport. "ĎDonít lose the momentum! Keep things going!í We had to make a conscious effort to physically distance ourselves from all that."

Especially since their genreís so in vogue at the moment, Hot Hot Heat, who return to Boston to play Axis this Monday, staved off pop to salvage an identity. Living in Vancouver ó which is to say, not living in New York ó certainly helps, but Hot Hot Heat were far more neurotic, writing and rehearsing Elevator several hours away from Vancouver in an abandoned Victoria barn they had fitted with electricity.

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Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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