Steve Bays | Bays for Days

Steve Bays is a big time sound nerd. However, he’s also a big time legitimate rock star. The trajectory of his luminescent career arks from his days as the indie-rock-god-sex-panther-frontman of the internationally loved band, Hot Hot Heat, to his present, more laid back, life in his native Canada as a producer, mix engineer, writer, collaborator and overall all things music geek. After touring for over a decade, sweating through the crouches of his skinny jeans, and swooning young scenesters into absolute vomit-riddled-rock-star hysteria, he’s settled down to a life of less travel in Vancouver. His carbonated pace, however, has all but gone flat.

Building his own studio and accumulating palisades of vintage gear, he’s widened his focus to include two new bands, as well as being heavily involved in countless other projects over the last year. Having just finished a new Hot Hot Heat album, he has also been signed to Last Gang Records for one of his new projects, Fur Trade, and is finishing up an album with friends/collaborators Hawksley Workman and Ryan Dahle, called Mounties. He has his sonic little hands in a bunch of new albums including an incredible sounding album by James Younger. Creatively, Steve is a huge slut.     

Steve’s excitement for everything recording comes from an obsessive inquisitiveness for audio engineering, of which he has a wealth of knowledge–hence the nerd acumen, which he takes as a compliment. He enjoys living in one place, and his routine of going to the studio daily as if he has a normal job. Entering his studio in the morning, like going to work, he drinks coffee and sits at his desk to work, though the scene feigns the mental image of cubicles and water coolers. The walls are decorated with a spectrum of vintage knick-knacks, including a taxidermy deer head, an old Lamborghini poster and framed portraits from almost every era, of people no one knows. It’s very cool and looks like a mix between a gentlemen’s club and an eighties high school student’s bedroom. It’s nothing like the office you work in.  

This sense of home has come slowly for Steve. There’s nothing about him that seems overtly Canadian. In many ways, Canada was last to embrace Hot Hot Heat, whose original following was much larger in the UK and the US. Yet, he seems to have fully embraced his home in the past few years, having recently formed two bands with overtly Canadian names, which conjure a nostalgia that borders on pride. He’s gone full circle.  

“I think I was just jealous. Even though bands that are only known in Canada want to be known outside of Canada, I always loved playing here. Our Canadian tours always felt so warm, and cozy, and accepting. It’s like, I get really excited about my neighbours lately. I’ve lived on my street now for over a month and I know all their names and we’re hanging out and trading records and stuff. Does that mean that they’re the coolest people in the world and they just happen to live near me. No, it’s just that we’re a community. And there’s a warm feeling about Canada. I don’t think that makes sense to people until they’ve experienced insomnia in Tokyo, or been on a bus and waking up in Boulder, Colorado for the thirtieth time. I spent literally 12 years feeling homesick.”

Bays inhabits a space somewhere between his ability to make hi-fi sound, and his taste in relatively lo-fi, more indie sounding music. Steve obsesses about sound like a true audiophile, though he is not a trained engineer. This may be his greatest asset. He has a freshness when approaching production that creates spontaneity and excitement in his music.  

Fur Trade is Steve’s new band with long-time collaborator Parker Bossley. It is an outlet that provides Steve with more control and a fresh new sound to play with. It is less democratic than HHH, because it is just two of them, and it’s spontaneous and creatively explosive. “A lot of the Fur Trade stuff was written and recorded in one night. The main thing is when you only have one other person, especially someone you click with really well, you don’t have that process of democracy, which can sometimes homogenize things. HHH really works when it works, but everyone has different tastes, and so you subconsciously steer what you’re doing towards their tastes just because it feels so good when everyone agrees. Whereas when you start a new project it is a completely different result.”  

Bays’ fingers go deeper and deeper into the production pie. The fact that there are only two people in the band mean that many of the instruments are overdubbed by Bays and Bossley in the studio, with the intention of making electronic music, not live, with organic instruments. Steve explains, “I always wanted to make studio dance music. Then I realized its not that I just like dance music, I just like music that is heavily manipulated and dance music is the easiest way to get into that world.”  

Their arrangement with Last Gang Records is similarly compatible with Bays’ newfound comfort at home. “Last Gang has basically been like, whatever you want to do just do it. We got signed based on the fact that we said we want to just make records, we don’t want to tour it.” Bays no longer feels the urge to travel constantly, promoting himself or his band. In fact, he’s sort of against it. 

Mounties is Bays’ other current project - a collaboration with iconic Canadian musicians/ producers, Hawksley Workman and Ryan Dahle. The name stems from a frustrating search on All Music Guide for a one-word-band-name only to find that all the good ones were already taken. They had decided they would call the band Skymall after the bad duty free magazine you find on planes. Serendipitously, Dahle came up with Mounties and couldn’t find another band with the same name. 

The formation of the band also came out of nowhere. Bays was supposed to be producing Hawksley’s forthcoming album together with Dahle. When they got together to start production, Bays tells me: “We ended up drinking wine and jamming and recording. Then we were just so stoked on how it came out sounding, that we were like: ‘I guess we’ve started a band.’”  They still haven’t recorded Hawksley’s album. 

It is hard to pin down who manages the production in this project. All three have their own part, delegated by their personalities and how they fit with each other. “Ryan sets up scenarios where we’re super excited and inspires us and says things that get us motivated. But Hawksley talks like a crazy artist so it makes you feel like a crazy artist by association. So that’s kind of producing as well - he puts you into a really trippy head space.” Bays says that he likes to remain in the artist headspace until post production mode, when he provides the magical finish.  

Like a lot of Bays’ endeavours as of late, Mounties first song, “Headphones”, became an instant hit. In similarly spectacular fashion, the three of them wrote it in two hours. Assuming the secret to this success is the fact that Mounties is a veritable power ménage, Bays still humbly, and realistically, points the finger to Lady Luck. “The longer I make music, the more I realize that luck and timing are everything, because when something snowballs it’s because a series of stars align.”  

Whether Bays’ success has always been a matter of luck and timing, or some magical creative tempest inside him is a mystery. It is certain though, that with his success Bays remains an oddly normal, humble and generous person to be around. He makes you feel totally at home with him, and is more likely to be talking like a virgin about a new piece of obscure gear that he’s into, than bragging about what he did last night. In essence, he’s a big nerd, in the absolute best way.      

Fur Trade’s debut album Don’t Get Heavy was released last month through Last Gang Records. Mounties debut album is due out later this year through Light Organ Records. 

Leave a comment

ION Magazine 170-422 Richards Street Vancouver BC Canada V6B 2Z4
© Copyright ION Publishing Group 2013