The Anniversary

Make Up The Breakdown Turns 20

Sub Pop
Sub Pop

It’s funny to think now, two decades later, what the early Aughts Return To Rock(™) era hath wrought. As the Strokes and their downtown-cool, Velvet Underground-revivalist shtick surged in popularity – largely a pendulum swing away from TRL boy bands, rap-rock, post-post–post grunge (and all other strains of Butt Rock) — a wave of like-minded guitar acts followed, from New York or not. As journalist Lizzy Goodman outlined in her 2017 scene opus Meet Me In The Bathroom, “almost every artist I interviewed for this book – from all over the world – said it was the Strokes that opened the door for them.” One of those bands hailed from British Columbia and had an eye-twitchingly meta name: Hot Hot Heat.

You could absolutely argue that Hot Hot Heat’s mainstream success was catalyzed by the Strokes, whose popularity and nostalgia-driven aesthetic birthed legions of “the” bands (the Hives, the Vines, the Von Bondies, the White Stripes, the Killers). It also opened up a lane for the more dance-punk-oriented Hot Hot Heat to exist. Hot Hot Heat and their contemporaries made use of the garage-band revival, but they mashed in pop-punk, electronic, and post-punk that was largely inspired by ’70s and ’80s acts like the B-52’s, Sparks, Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, Public Image Ltd., New Order, the Clash, and Gang Of Four.

’00s bands under the energetic, club-ready dance-punk umbrella eventually evolved into what we now call indie-sleaze, a ruling metropolitan aesthetic that lasted roughly from 2006-2012 where early 20-something millennials danced to whatever Misshapes were spinning, read Nylon and Hipster Runoff, listened to M.I.A., drank PBR and/or Four Loko, and dressed exclusively in metallic lamé pants from American Apparel. The entire vibe was very “wasted and sweaty at an indie dance club,” and bands like Hot Hot Heat were part of what made that happen.

Unlike other ’00s dance-punk acts, such as LCD Soundsystem, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Arctic Monkeys, Hot Hot Heat’s career cooled wayyyy down after the initial flush of the album we’re all here to discuss, 2002’s Make Up The Breakdown, which turns 20 on Saturday. And yet Make Up The Breakdown is vital to any discussion of aughts dance–punk.

Hot Hot Heat comprised drugstore clerk Dustin Hawthorne and personal assistant-turned-singer Steve Bays, who’d been playing together since 1995. In 1998, the duo met drummer Paul Hawley, and later the group’s friend Matthew Marnik came on board as vocalist. It wasn’t long before Marnik left, guitarist Dante DeCaro joined, and Bays took over vocals. Collectively, Hot Hot Heat drew heavy influence from ’80s new wavers like XTC, the Clash, and Elvis Costello And The Attractions but adopted a more hardcore sound. Once they signed to Sub Pop, though, their melodies got synthier, their lyrics a bit cleverer. In 2002, their debut LP Knock Knock Knock dropped and featured engineering and mixing from then-Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla. (I highly recommend revisiting the howling clatter of the EP’s “Touch You Touch You,” which absolutely sets the mood for Make Up The Breakdown.)

Considering the extent to which Make Up The Breakdown would become overshadowed by Hot Hot Heat’s more successful peers, it’s a little bonkers to see how much hype they received both before and after their Sub Pop debut. Thanks to that Sub Pop connection, the band got Nirvana and Soundgarden producer Jack Endino behind the board on Make Up The Breakdown, and they did some early tours with the Walkmen and the Dismemberment Plan.

It’s not hard to see why, for a minute there, Hot Hot Heat scorched the KROQ airwaves and MTV rotation. Single “Bandages” opens with an attention-grabbing bass-drum thump and follows with the kind of ominous synth line that makes you think someone is either going to be murdered — or throw the ultimate dance party! Then, there’s Bays’ word-obliterating vocals. This guy somehow managed to sound both strangled and drunk, slurring a three-syllable word like “bandages” into a whole mess of other potential words. Is he saying “bondage cheese”? “Band of chives”? (I would spend the next 10 years hearing “I’ve been shaking from bacon” instead of “I’ve been shaking from making an awful decision.”) Anyway, Bays gave off some real because tonooight will be the noooight emo energy — but if Secondhand Serenade covered the Talking Heads.

If you remember when Make Up The Breakdown came out, then you will no doubt remember how critically acclaimed it was. Pitchfork gave it an 8.7, “Bandages” and “Talk To Me, Dance With Me” both went #1 on KROQ’s charts in LA. Make Up The Breakdown won Favourite Album at the 2004 Canadian Independent Music Awards. (Fun fact: Guitarist Dante DeCaro left Hot Hot Heat in October 2004, and in 2005 joined a little Montreal band called Wolf Parade.) The only real pushback Hot Hot Heat got was from the UK, where “Bandages” was removed from the radio due to the ongoing war in the Middle East.

Revisiting Make Up The Breakdown, the hooks are really what make the album, along with Bays’ asphyxiating vocals. Thematically, there’s not a lot of depth within the lyrics, which seem to be primarily interested in dancing, dancing with pretty girls, dancing with pretty girls who might emotionally cut you, and/or girls who get drunk and naked for attention.

So Hot Hot Heat stick to what they do best: melodic and verbal repetition, cheeky wordplay, and bendy pronunciations. Opener “Naked In The City Again” — a title that sounds like a Meet Me In The Bathroom mad lib — has Bays morphing words like “all” to “awwwwl” and “city” into “citayyy.” The marble-mouthed fun continues on jerky follow-up “No, Not Now,” which basically just consists of Bays going, “Ow now (translation: oh no)/ She’s got a secret now!” Next up, “Get In Get Out” follows more or less the same format of building songs around couplets, then adding a bridge, but throws in a manic organ-synth breakdown.

Later, “Oh, Godamnit” takes on a more stream-of-consciousness delivery as Bays agonizes over the loss of a relationship — and maybe also his bodily wellness? “Regular exposure to insecticide has caused me to break out in hives/ I’m losing weight. I cannot wait till Saturday…/ Cuz on Saturday, my tax deductions make me function like a blue collar…/ White collar…? …I don’t know — so I gotta hollar/ ‘Oh! Oh Goddamnit! I think I’ve lost it!/ Oh God! Goddamnit, I think I’ve lost you!'”

On “Aveda,” which is not named for the hair care company, Hot Hot Heat get a little slap happy with their beloved synth-organ as they describe a lady who convinced Bays to shave his curls. There’s a kicky drum solo in there, otherwise “Aveda” is filler. Things pick up on the talk-sung “This Town,” which for a minute there actually does sound like it shares a few strands of offbeat DNA with Dismemberment Plan’s “The City.”

And what else can you expect from a Hot Hot Heat song called “Talk To Me, Dance With Me” other than fervent cowbell and an agitated guitar-line spelling out the future for Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm? Two decades on, that’s what I’ve arrived at the conclusion Hot Hot Heat were good for: laying the foundation for an entire lineage of bands before being drowned out by the very scene they helped create.

Hot Hot Heat, of course, did release four more albums: 2005’s Elevator, 2007’s Happiness Ltd., 2010’s Future Breeds, and their last, 2016’s self-titled. One arguably unwise thing the band did was leave Sub Pop a year after their debut dropped for the Warner Music Group. As a 2016 interview with the Independent points out, “Hot Hot Heat’s contemporaries were making similar moves – in 2005 the Strokes had just signed to RCA and the Hives became Hot Hot Heat’s label mates at Sire.” Bays justified the leap to the majors, telling the Independent he wanted to reach more people but still keep their credibility. “But loads of articles were like ‘oh, signed to a major, that was quick.’ Personally I couldn’t care less.”

That move to Sire, for better or worse, did take Hot Hot Heat in new directions and gave them access to studio talent they might not have otherwise found on an indie label (circa 2003, that is). But I would argue that the band’s major-label pivot sanded away whatever DIY grit they initially had as a band that literally used to be punk. Hot Hot Heat were ostensibly going for a poppier sound on subsequent albums, but they never quite recaptured the sweaty dance floor magic of Make Up The Breakdown.

I’m not trying to say that Hot Hot Heat shouldn’t have sold out, or whatever mainstream rhetoric applies best here. Hot Hot Heat were always a pop-leaning band. Instead, I’m arguing that Hot Hot Heat’s edgier roots are precisely what made them so appealing, and ultimately carved out a place for the rock revival’s next wave. Hot Hot Heat probably deserve better than to be a “remember them??” band – the type of scene-specific act relegated to indie-sleaze explainer blogs and listicles. Still, a 17-year run — highlighted by a stellar debut album — is way more than most bands will get. For millions of listeners, Hot Hot Heat are still fire.

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