“We grew up in a small town and didn’t know anything about the music industry or major labels,” he recalled. “All I knew was that Nirvana had signed to Sub Pop, and I thought that was cool.” Although Hot Hot Heat got its start as a screamo band, by the time it made contact with Sub Pop, its sound had mutated into what would soon be known as dance-punk. The band stood at the forefront of a movement that would explode on the indie rock scene within another year.
Sub Pop head of A&R (artists and repertoire) Tony Kiewel realized the band members were wet behind the ears and signed them to a “short deal,” feeling that “they deserved to be able to grow. From the very start we had the sense this was a band that was destined to be on a bigger stage.”
The label launched Hot Hot Heat with an EP, “Knock, Knock, Knock,” and when full-length debut “Make Up the Breakdown” was released in 2002, Hot Hot Heat was already the new darling of the indie scene. The record has sold 280,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
“When that blew up, it was our biggest seller since Nirvana,” Kiewel said. “It still probably ranks at No. 6 or so on our sales list.”
Major labels started circling, and Bays said the band saw all the interest as “a lot of fun. You just want to keep moving forward. Although we saw the pros of being on an indie, we wanted the money to record songs the way we wanted to, and we wanted to get the music out to a more general audience.”
But after inking with Warner Bros. imprint Sire, 2005’s “Elevator” stalled at retail, shifting 75,000 fewer copies than its predecessor.
“I don’t know what results we were hoping for exactly, but our main goal is always just to earn the ability to make the next record, and we’ve done that,” Bays said.
New album “Happiness Ltd.,” which arrives September 11, is a polished, mostly uptempo alternative rock affair and may prove a better fit for modern rock radio than the more pop-oriented “Elevator.”
“I wouldn’t change labels right now,” said Bays. “We’re still interested in reaching that larger audience.”
For Hot Hot Heat, arenas are the goal. “There are a lot of bands that I wouldn’t advise to leave the indie world for a major,” Bays said. “But we don’t want to play clubs. We love the big audiences.”