Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat on Production Techniques & Closing One Door While Opening Many

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It’s been six years since Hot Hot Heat released Future Breeds. That record—the band’s fourth—was a return to form in many ways, but it also showcased a bolder and dirtier sonic direction for the Canadian act.

After parting ways with Sire Records, their home base since 2005, the group took greater control over their output, with frontman Steve Bays delving deeper into the art of recording, mixing, and producing.

Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat in the Studio.

Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat in the Studio.

“I bought a bunch of recording equipment and taught myself how to engineer by reading Tape Op, Sound on Sound, and listening to a lot of Pensado’s Place,” he told me over the phone from his Vancouver studio.

Bays’ autodidactic efforts certainly paid off with Future Breeds. The band’s sound was redefined and more focused than ever. Following the release, Bays diverted his attention and newfound production talents elsewhere. He collaborated with Small Town Pistols, Diplo, Steve Aoki, We Are the City, Fitz & the Tantrums, Gay Nineties, and Mother Mother, to name a few.

Recently, the band surprised fans with the announcement of a new album—and by disclosing that, after nearly two decades together, Hot Hot Heat are calling it quits. But, before they go, the band’s new, previously shelved album is primed for release.

Bays describes the new eponymously-titled record as “nostalgic, sentimental, and optimistic.”

It’s bittersweet, for obvious reasons. The good news, however: Bays still has an itch for saturated and overdriven sounds, making this LP a wonderful follow-up to their last.

With a new release and busy schedule in place, Bays was kind enough to chat with SonicScoop about the self-titled record, his tried-and-true production techniques, and personal studio.

Hot Hot Heat's self-titled farewell album has just come out.

Hot Hot Heat’s self-titled farewell album has just come out.

Hi Steve. How are you today?

I’m great. I’m in the studio–mixing away.

What are you working on?

I’m working on Mounties, which is a side project of mine. I’m always in and out of mixing a track.

When you’re writing and recording, will you start mixing too?

Yeah, I’ll think from the mastering process backwards. Sometimes, I’ve released stuff that was written, recorded, and mixed all in the same day. Often I’ll spend way longer than that though.

I might listen to a song by The Flaming Lips, for example, and think, “Oh, I really like how this was mastered.” And I know you can’t master something that way unless the mix is delivered a certain way, and you can’t have the mix sound that way unless you’re choosing your instruments carefully.

Then there’s the arrangement as well. Certain mixes won’t allow for too many ideas [to be] recorded.

Right. Mixing is such a delicate process. When you’re mixing your own music, it can be really difficult to wrap your head around the song when you’re—quite literally—in the mix.

Totally. It’s weird. A lot of the records I like tend to be by bands that have at least one guy that’s really curious about mixing or producing.

I like those bands too. There’s something nice about having someone in the band that’s an integral part of the whole process. I feel like that often makes the music better.

I think so. All the records I listen to, there’s always that “attention to detail” element.

I’ve spent years in so many bands that sounded like shit once we recorded, but I know they were good bands. I used to be in three or four bands and we’d often break up after we recorded our first few songs.

It was mostly because we were always like, “That’s what we sound like? Back to the drawing board!” I didn’t really think too much about the recording process [back then].

I bet that happens a lot. As you know, you can’t expect to go into a studio and always sound amazing right off the bat.

With some bands, you can kind of plop them into a certain style. You can say, “Okay, pop punk is supposed to have this kind of kick drum, this kind of guitar sound, and this kind of bass sound.”

But I feel like these days music fans really want change. I guess we’re just exposed to a lot more music now, so once a sound is really defined, people don’t want to hear a ton more bands that sound exactly like that. Every band owes it themselves to experiment with production stuff.

Hot Hot Heat’s sound has definitely shifted in a few ways. Sonically, is this new album what you’ve always wanted the band to sound like?

Hot Hot Heat in the studio.

Hot Hot Heat in the studio.

I don’t think I ever really knew what I wanted us to sound like, initially. I was too busy thinking about being a performer.

I never really considered myself a singer and I never considered myself a songwriter, and by the time I was forced to admit to myself that I was a singer, I had been singing for years. I don’t think I actually called myself a songwriter until after our third or fourth album was out.

But I’ve been very active with my gut and my instincts. I grew up in the punk scene where I was a show promoter and I was more concerned about putting on cool shows. I was really more into the community aspect of music—indie and punk rock—and even all the way up to being signed to a major label I’d refuse to admit to the formality of it all.

I didn’t even want to know record sales. I didn’t want to know how much money was being spent or being made. I really had my head in the sand and then one day a switch went off and I realized that I wanted to take control of a lot more. I wanted to be a lot more aware of what’s going on. In my head, I was this spastic punk rocker that happened to stumble into some pop songs, and then one day I just said, “No, actually I want to think about what I’m doing and enjoy the process.”

I don’t know if that really makes sense, but I didn’t really get into thinking about the sound of our albums until I had produced a bunch of other bands. In 2008, I went into the Warner Bros. office and we basically turned down a half million dollar advance and asked to leave the label. I bought a bunch of recording equipment and taught myself how to engineer by reading Tape Op, Sound on Sound, and listening to a lot of Pensado’s Place. I even Skyped with Dave Pensado himself.

I recorded our second to last album, Future Breeds, and that was really fun. Then, for this most recent album, we all said, “Okay, let’s do that kind of DIY approach to this album. Let’s make it a little bit less freaky and a bit more songwriting-based.”

I feel like Future Breeds was a nod at Make Up the Breakdown, which was quirky and weird and punk, and this most recent record is a little bit more of a combination of Make Up the Breakdown and Elevator, in that it’s leaning more on the songwriting.

When I spoke with Luke [Paquin] back when Future Breeds came out, he described that record as the loudest the band’s ever sounded. How else would you describe this new record?

I’d say it’s nostalgic, sentimental, and optimistic. It’s like parting ways with someone but not in a negative way—it’s more of an optimistic and exciting way where you’re beginning a new chapter.

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