Steve Bays, Hot Hot Heat

Steve Bays, the singer and songwriter for Hot Hot Heat, grew up on the water, and he lives only feet from it now in Vancouver.  But don’t expect him to take his guitar down to the water’s edge on a whim and start strumming, like some free-spirited songwriter with his toes in the sand and the wind in his hair (even though Bays and I did discover that we both share a love of the great guitar strummin’ songwriter Jim Croce).  Like most professional writers, Bays needs structure to his writing process, and in that aspect he is unique among the songwriters I have talked to, who rely more on the inspiration of their muse.  In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think Bays dutifully goes to his office every day to write.

Actually, he does. 

Bays recently built a studio near his home in Vancouver called Tugboat Place, named after a street there, and it’s where the band recorded their new release Future Breeds (Dangerbird Records).  That studio gives Bays the structure he needs to write.  In fact, much to the chagrin of his band mates, he actually likes to refer to his writing process as the dreaded “w” word: work.  Not only that, but when he goes to the studio to write, he even makes a point of saying that he is “going to work today.”  He works better, he says, when he carves out a time to write.  It’s a discipline that Bays probably acquired as an eight year-old boy, when he began learning the piano by the Suzuki method, a technique that requires rigor and regimen. 

The Suzuki method favors learning an instrument by ear as opposed to by sheet music.  This could explain why I have not been able to get their 2002 song “Bandages” out of my head for the past two days with its irresistible beat and melody.  Bays says the he uses words as an instrument, and this is no better illustrated than in the lyrics to the song.  Let’s take one line from it as an example, and here you will witness the confluence of my background (as an English PhD) and Bays’ background (as a songwriter):

I've been tripping from sipping the dripping dirty water tap

Go ahead, just read the line aloud.  It’s fun to read, isn’t it?  Three things make this line work:

  • The repetition of –pping (this type of repetition is why you liked Dr. Seuss all those years)
  • The –d alliteration in dripping dirty
  • The beat pattern in the phrase dirty water tap. Bays could have written dirty tap water, but that would have placed two stressed beats next to each other (TAP WAter, with stress on the all-caps syllables) in an awkward formation that would be difficult to say or sing.  To make for a more natural flow, he would have to sing, “DIRty TAP waTER,” but that would mean pronouncing “water” in an unnatural way since we stress the first syllable in the word when we say it.  So he sings, “DIRty WAter TAP” in a familiar stressed-unstressed pattern.  When you listen to the chorus, also notice the unnatural stress in the word Bandages when he sings it. 

So read my interview with Steve Bays.  You’ll learn more about his discipline, what he collects when he has writer’s block, and what made him cry all the time as a child. 

How did you get your start as a writer?

My mom put me in piano lessons using the Suzuki method, where you learn by ear.  It was basically a series of cassettes, starting with Twinkle Twinkle Little Star when I was eight.  I stuck with it for about six years, then I switched to jazz and blues.  It was always about hearing the melody and trying to figure it out, which naturally led to hearing melodies in my head and instinctively knowing how to play it on the piano.

It was heavy duty.  I would cry every time I had to go to piano lessons because sometimes it would be an hour straight of finger techniques, just hitting one note.  Even though now I mash the keys on the keyboard when I play now, I don’t think the philosophy has been lost on me. 

I never thought of it as songwriting, but there was really never a time when I said I was going to write songs.  I also started going to punk shows when I was around 12, and I was completely smitten with the idea that there was an underground community that most people didn’t know about.

Talk about the physical act of your writing process.  What’s the first thing you start writing?

I used to always just start with the melody, but our new album is the first one where I wrote down the words and even song titles in advance.  But never the arrangement of the words—that’s always last.  I’ll start with the rhythm of the vocal first, then add the melody, or sometimes melody then rhythm, but often they are around the same time. I’ll just picture the feeling I want and it just comes out.  It’s always very rhythm-oriented.  I was a drummer for years and I think I have a drummer in me at all times.  It make sense to me, then, why it’s easier to make the lyrics fit to a pre-determined rhythm than it is to take existing lyrics and try to write a crazy rhythm.

But on this album, you wrote the lyrics first.

Yeah, with this album and probably from this point on.  Lyrics have started to come a lot easier for me because I don’t feel like they have to represent who I am anymore.  At first I would just write them all down on things like napkins, like when we were writing our first album I would say at least half of the lyrics were written in the studio.  Some are good, some are average.  From that point on, I started taking them more seriously.  But I started putting myself into them a bit too much, and on this album I got more excited about cool ideas and observations about other people and not even worrying about if my personality comes off.  It’s opened me up to writing about anything I feel like.

It sounds very liberating. 

It’s so liberating.  When I’m out in public, someone will say something and I’m like, “Oooh, there’s a song.” And I’m always whipping out my iPhone.  Like the song “21@12” on the new album is about having a false sense of empowerment when you are in your early 20s, because you’re not really worried about social sanctions and you have a false sense of confidence.  The lyric hook was about a time when a friend of mine was turning 21 at midnight and couldn’t get into a bar.  I took a picture on my iPhone of the bouncer holding his ID and shaking his head with a clock above him.  It was three hours before midnight.

Often it starts with a great hook, like “21@12” or “JFK’s LSD” sounds like a great song title, so I’ll fight to justify using that song title.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXj2ur6PUQ4&w=425&h=355]

So sometimes you start with a song title?

Yeah, I find the hardest thing to do in a band is come up with the band name, the second hardest thing is to come up with an album title, third hardest is the song title, fourth is the chorus lyric.  Verses are super easy, bridges are even easier. I’ve found that if you just accept the fact that certain things choose you, then it’s ok.  Like when Future Breeds came out of my mouth one day—I don’t know where it came from, but I’ve come up with a bunch of justifications for where it came from since. So it was there and I just worked around it.  And Hot Hot Heat, our drummer came up with that out of nowhere years ago.

What inspires you to write?

Sometimes it’s giant important concepts, but most of the time it’s one sentence that somebody says that might be really loaded.  I am really into loaded words, especially combining loaded words together that trigger a particular emotion.  Often something someone says will not mean anything to them, but to me it triggers a bunch of powerful feelings, whether it’s from childhood or related to current hot topics. 

Then I also use words like an instrument with rhythm.  If a song is really dark, I’ll cheer it up with brighter lyrics. Often I am in fear that our songs are too fun, so I will throw in some blacks and browns and greys.

Why does that scare you?

For the same reason why anyone who has had the word pop used to describe their bands.  It can deter people before they even hear your music.  It’s a word that carries a lot of baggage.

Elaborate on your idea of loaded words.

A loaded word is a landmine.  A word can sit there unnoticed, or you can walk over it and it explodes. If you put it with the right lyrics, it can do a lot of damage because it triggers an explosion in whoever is listening to it.  A lot of what we talk about when we are making songs is about triggering a feeling in people that they have never felt before.  When I listen to another band, it’s not always about how talented they are, but about how it makes me think, “Wait, what’s this feeling? I’ve never had it before.”

Talk about your writing routine.  How disciplined are you?

I thrive when I set aside time to write and make it seem official.  Our guitar player hates when I use the word “work.”  But I rise to the occasion when I call it that, like, “I am going to work today.”

I do feel like the later it gets in the day, I’ll fall into a whimsical frenzy of eccentricities, and a lot of the time that will lead to me writing until 10 in the morning.  A lot of the new album was written when the sun was coming up.  I like to feel like I am escaping, but it usually needs to start with a catalyst in the form of structure.

That’s why I built the studio.  I needed to feel like I work on my own hours and treat it like something, so I'll say, “I gotta go to work.”

Do you write for a pre-determined length?

Often with the structural or the arrangement stuff, Paul, our drummer, and I go to the studio around noon or 1pm and have a couple of coffees and get really excited about a concept.  Usually that’s the starting point for us—a concept.  Like for “Implosionatic,” I remember walking into the studio and listening to a lot of Andre 3000 and being inspired by how he makes songs with major chords feel cool and not too poppy.  So I wanted to write a punk song that seems dark and weird but is all major chords, no minor chords.  The other trip we were on was trying to switch up time signatures.  The overall theme of a lot of the album was getting away from the 4/4 box and repeated measures every four bars,  but to do it in a way that no one will notice.  Some bands are really good at that, like Phoenix. 

So we’ll come up with a concept and try to solve it with a puzzle.  When the evening rolls around, the caffeine has worn off and we are starting to feel different, we might have a few drinks and go for a walk to try and clear our minds and approach it with a fresh perspective.  If we are still excited about it, we go really late into the night. 

Sometimes a song can be done in a day, other times we may not be feeling it and I’ll come back to it months later.  On Future Breeds, we had so many songs we were starting, then putting away and coming back to later.  The problem with that is that I would lose some songs or forget about them. I was re-opening certain sessions that I had titled by date, and I couldn’t find something specific that I was looking for. Now I title sessions by song title so I won’t forget songs.  It also takes the pressure of finding a song title off of me.  So with the first song on the album, I found it and we recorded it in a night.

What is your preferred method of writing?

I used to have all of these really nice books that looked great on my bookshelf, like Lord of the Rings type bound beautiful books.  But it was unrealistic, because sometimes the best stuff comes to me when I am sleeping. Like I woke up this morning and wrote something down with only four hours of sleep.  So now I use my iPhone.  Not a very romantic way, but so much of what I bring to table is are realistic moments twisted and tainted in an interesting way. 

Is there anything you must have when you write?

I need to feel like if I put effort into something, there’s a chance that it will become something quickly. I am uninspired by the fact that something I wrote may not be recorded for a year or two.  I am not the kind of guy who can walk down to the beach with an acoustic guitar and whip out the last twenty songs I’ve written, because they are always very spur of the moment.  Who I was yesterday is not who I am today.  I like to record and document as quickly as possible.

I am very sensitive to the instrument I am writing on.  If you play keyboards, there are only so many different ways you can sound.  That’s another reason I built the studio, because if you run a Wurlitzer through an old Silvertone guitar amp, everything you do sounds great.  And it really is inspiring.  Same with an old piano my girlfriend gave me.  It sounded horrible at first, so we put thumbtacks all over it, and all of the sudden three more songs were written almost right away. 

So for me it’s about the instrument. When we were on tour, I always had the same keyboard onstage.  I tried to write with it, but it was so uninspiring because it was the same keyboard I had been playing every night.  So even now on tour I have a keyboard that triggers sounds on a laptop, and they are sounds that I have sampled myself in the studio, so I have access to all these new sounds that will trigger things on the road.  It needs to be about new sounds for me.

What do you do when you get writer’s block?

For me it’s about switching around my life.  Before we made the second to last album, I was really stumped, so I tried moving to LA and hated it.  I moved to Toronto but it was too cold.  I tried drinking myself silly, I tried selling all my possessions.  I like to feel like I can always reserve the right to be an idiot or a freak if I need to be, and sometimes that involves getting rid of possessions or collecting things and surrounding myself with antiques or taxidermy.  Because when you are uninspired, it’s really depressing place. It feels like a grey cloud everywhere you go.  The problem is that when I am my happiest, I can pull things out of people that inspire me.  I can sit down with anyone and get them to say something that will want to make me write something.

Describe your ideal perfect writing environment.

The home studio has always been a dream. It would be nice if the acoustics were better, because right now we are in old 1903 office building that overlooks the water and the mountains.  No one knows we have a studio there.  We don’t really make super loud noise until everyone has left the building, but it would be nice if we could make super loud noise all day long.  

Do you find being on the water very inspiring?

Yeah, I grew up about 100 feet from the water, so I find when I am too far from it I feel off.  Growing up on an island, I was always very conscious of it.  And now I still live about 100 feet from the water and the studio is about 100 feet from the water.  But you have to be comfortable giving up a lot to do that; the place where I live is very cramped.  Like living in a boat. 

How do you know when a song is done?

The whole “art is never finished, only abandoned” comes up constantly.  Even when we are mixing, we keep reopening sessions.  The luxury of being able to engineer it myself and having one of the best friends down the street mix it definitely outweighs the cons, but one of the cons is that there is always something more that could have been done with it.  For me it comes down to one thing: is it a song that sounds like it’s been toiled over.  There is a slightly neurotic anxious energy to our sound that probably puts off a lot of people. 

Take a song like “Times A Thousand.”  It started with Paul playing a blues riff, and I just took one line from the acoustic guitar riff he was playing and crafted it into a song while he was out for dinner.  I thought it would be funny to sing like Eminem over one part of it, so it turned into this weird Beck meets Eminem meets Zeppelin thing. But then I became obsessed with not using musical references, and instead saying things that have to do with feelings. So I just said, “Picture a train robbery from a 1920s silent film,” and I got friends to play on it.  A lot of I didn’t use, but it was a collage of several ideas and I just crafted it for months.  

How do you go about revising your lyrics?

I don’t often revise lyrics.  I usually don’t sing them until I feel comfortable, and by that I mean that I don’t feel embarrassed by them.  I usually have a filter where I get a pang or a twinge in my soul that makes me feel embarrassed.  Then I know something is wrong.  Or sometimes I’ll have a great line on paper that doesn’t work in a song. 

The only time I revise lyrics is when they are cheesy or make me feel slightly uncomfortable because when I sing it it can be interpreted as sexist or something like that.  Or when I play something back and think that something in the way it’s worded makes me sound like a jerk.  When that happens, it’s usually because I’ve had too many drinks, so I’ll just wake up the next morning and retool it.  That’s another great thing about having your own studio: you can work on something at night, wake up, and listen to it.  Here’s my rule of thumb: did I wake up sober and cranky and still feel in love with these words?

Do you have any literary inspirations for your songwriting?

I love Oscar Wilde.  When I was writing "21@12," I was obsessed with Allen Ginsburg. I will go through periods where I’ll watch every YouTube clip on somebody, just spend the whole day eating, drinking, and surfing YouTube.