INTERVIEW: Indie pop stars on the long haul to U.S. success

“Can I have a piece of bread?”

My eyes move quickly, darting from a young girl’s face to the van’s floor. Wedged between metal and cloth sits a loaf of white bread. Mushed and sweaty, it’s been there awhile.

“Of course, you want an apple too?”

The girl, pressed up against the club’s main entrance (which won’t open for another hour or so), jumps up, taking the apple from the man’s hand. Three hours from now, the man will take the stage to inspire joy born of pop melody. Right now, his main concern is offering fans a well-balanced meal. He turns to me.

“You want a piece too?”

I glance at the bag with its moist exterior.

“No thanks man, I’m all set.”

Vancouver’s Hot Hot Heat got its start in 1999, a time bassist Dustin Hawthorne remembers well. Those were the days when his band played noisy math rock in basements and fire halls. Nowadays, Hot Hot Heat plays packed houses (D.C.’s 9:30 club for one) spreading a slew of infectious pop-driven riffs.

The group, Hawthorne (bass), Steve Bays (vocals, keyboards), Dante DeCaro (guitar) and Paul Hawley (drums), have a hot video on MTV2 and a new album on Warner Brothers Records. It’s clear these little fish are making their move for the ocean.

As Hawthorne shows, in his treatment of fans outside the club, Hot Hot Heat isn’t forgetting the people that are propping them up. As he explains, they’re also remembering to wear their Sunday best in anticipation of bigger gigs to come.

Hatchet: Are you guys really image conscious, as far as the sound and the look?

Dustin Hawthorne: We definitely think about it a lot. The way we look is an expression in exactly the same way our music is. We’re not totally contrived, I mean we dress ourselves.

H: No wardrobe room?

DH: No, definitely not. I’ve been fashion conscious my entire life and I can say the same for the rest of the band. Back when we were playing in punk bands we looked like weird mod/punk kids, with short black pants and black Spock haircuts. Not that it’s a uniform or anything. It just kind of happens that way.

H: Do you feel like your sound is a throwback to anything? When I listen to the record I hear lots of elements of bands like The Cure.

DH: We get The Cure all the time. The funny thing is, none of use are huge Cure fans. I like the Smiths a lot. Maybe that’s why. We get compared to all these kinds of ’80s type bands. Growing up in the ’80s it’s hard not to have that musical influence come out of us.

H: How’s the indie rock scene right now? You guys have been traveling around it for awhile.

DH: It’s always been absolutely fabulous. I prefer the underground to popular culture.

H: How do you feel about the kids coming out? Indie kids can be a little pretentious.

DH: Yeah, we’ve gotten that. There’s been a bit of backlash over us signing. We do see more mainstream kids coming because we’re starting to get commercial airplay. Honestly, at first I was really freaked out about it. Then I kind of accepted it. I remember when I was young I’d be like, ‘Who the fuck are these jocks? What are they doing here? They don’t deserve to be here.’ I definitely understand where they’re coming from but at the same time what can I do about it? This is the path that I’ve chosen and I either have to deal with it or stop doing it. I’m also more accepting.

H: Yeah?

DH: Yeah, I’m like ‘Why don’t you give these guys a chance?’ Maybe they might turn out to be something really cool. If they come to these shows and see this crazy subculture they might be influenced by it. They might actually turn into indie rock kids.

H: And not just be lame jock guys?

DH: Yeah, exactly.

H: So your video’s been all over MTV2. Are you guys going to make it to MTV? Do you even want to?

DH: Sure. That kind of falls under the question of being called a sellout as opposed to kind of trying to keep it real. It’s a fine line that you have to skate along. And you know you’ve got to take the plunge if you want to actually go forward and do it.

H: You don’t have any reserve about jumping in?

DH: I don’t, no. Unless I’m at a show with a lot of people showing up, or doing interviews, or like whatever, I don’t really notice anything. It’s been a gradual incline. I guess there are certain things that I do notice, mostly the shows. But other than that I kind of have my head buried in the sand. I live in this van and the only people I talk to are the guys in my band.

H: So how’s Warner Brothers treating you?

DH: They’re good. When there was first interest in our band from major labels it was like, ‘Oh my God, I hear they’re absolute devils. They’re gonna totally fucking kill us.’ Whatever, if we want something they’ll get it to us. It’s been good.

H: Do you have any war stories from the road? Any stolen equipment?

DH: We’ve only had one van incident. We blew the engine in it but luckily we were just outside of Vancouver, which is really close to where we’re from. Nothing all that bad has happened to us. Knock on wood. I mean being on the road for this long, you figure something is gonna happen.

H: I heard you were going to school before the band.

DH: Yeah, I just started going to college. But then this came up and I’m like ‘I’m only gonna be young once.’ I can’t come back when I’m 36 and say “Hey lets give it a try.” So here I am.

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