TORONTO — The day he walked away from a lucrative contract with a major label, Hot Hot Heat’s Steve Bays was comforted by a small slice of validation.
Just as he was walking out of the Warner Bros. offices for the last time, his ear picked up the sounds of his own band’s 2005 album, Elevator, blaring from the office of the label’s art director.
But it was the record’s rudimentary demo he was hearing, not the super-polished version that hit store shelves. Curious, Bays asked why he was listening to the sketched-out version of the album — recorded by Bays himself — rather than the finished product.
“He was like: ‘I prefer these over the album,”’ Bays recalled. “I was like, ‘You prefer the demos I made for free over the $300,000 album that we made?’
“It just became obvious to me: our strength is not about being streamlined or sounding perfect. The flaws are actually the strengths of the band.
“So this time, we just left all the flaws in.”
Bays is referring to the band’s just-released fifth album, Future Breeds, which is being hailed by some as a return-to-form for the Victoria-bred rockers.
The band backed away from Warner in 2008, after the previous year’s effort Happiness Ltd. proved a commercial and critical disappointment.
Bays said the band found themselves at a crossroads. He felt they needed the autonomy to make which ever creative changes they felt were necessary, and they didn’t think they could get that while on the payroll of a major label.
And without that freedom to make decisions — and even mistakes — they weren’t sure they could continue on.
“It just seemed like the only option, to be honest,” Bays says of their departure from the label. “I just thought, well, I don’t know if it’s the right fit for us, and especially with the direction that we want to take things. I want to produce the record myself, I want to engineer it myself. We’re not necessarily going to produce songs that are meant to be played on the radio.
“We wanted to reinvent the band.”
Bays and drummer Paul Hawley — the only other remaining member of the band’s original lineup — crafted a manifesto, which they called “The Constitution.” He said it was composed of creative ideas they had, ideas about the way they wanted to live their lives and “grow into adults.”
Mostly, they wanted to find a way to fill every moment of their next album with surprising, interesting ideas. And they wanted to do it without the harsh glare of a record label that had invested millions in the band.
“I think we just needed to feel like nobody was paying attention to us, and nobody cared and we weren’t letting anybody down if we did anything,” Bays explained.
“So we just literally quit everything. We started the band from scratch, and we didn’t know if it would be a Hot Hot Heat record or if it would be a side project record.”
It’s funny, then, that Future Breeds seems to be the most infectious, hook-laden piece of music the band has written since its debut, Make Up the Breakdown.
With many of the hallmarks of that record restored — the hyper-caffeine new wave kinetics, nervous lyrics and Bay’s breathlessly urgent (even a bit spazzy) vocal delivery — Future Breeds is a throwback to the band’s original star-making turn.
Though Bays seems pleased by the comparison, he notes that the procedure behind Make Up the Breakdown couldn’t have been more different than Future Breeds.
“Make Up the Breakdown, we made in six days, and I was writing lyrics on napkins in the studio,” he recalled with a laugh. “Then this album, which people say is the closest thing we’ve done to Make Up the Breakdown, was arguably a year and a half, two years to make.”