First, there's the ferry. To haul your whole band and gear over to the Canadian isle known as Victoria, it costs about $100. Compared to the ten bucks for gas to get from San Diego to Los Angeles, Victoria's oceanic isolation would seem a barrier to a good music scene.
"There's no bridge. Bands are like, "Woah, I can't leave when I want to? I can't come when I want to?'" explains Dustin Hawthorne, bassist for synth-punk band Hot Hot Heat, the island's biggest export in recent history. "Victoria is kind of a little big city-like 300,000 people."
Yet during the 15 years he's been involved in Victoria's music scene-as fan and performer-Hawthorne and the rest of HHH witnessed enough punk to feed a career. Struggle played in a Victoria basement. Final Conflict and Coffin Break shelled out for the ferry. And Les Savy Fav recently oversold their gig town.
"There's always been a good music scene there. There's not a ton of bands that are punk or indie, but there's always been venues to play at. And there's a lot of punk basement shows," says Hawthorne.
HHH has proved that it's rather easy, however, to get off the island. Since releasing their Knock Knock Knock EP on Sub Pop in early 2002, things have spread like an airborne disease. The music industry's needle is currently stuck on "rock'; dirty, off-kilter and cheaply produced emotion is back in vogue. And with vocalist Steve Bays' melodic punk yowls over the band's herky-jerky synth-pop, HHH have found a niche somewhere between the Cure and Wire.
After Sub Pop released their full-length debut, Make Up the Breakdown, college radio went apeshit. The album made most critics' Best of 2002 lists. And big boys Warner Brothers brokered a deal with Sub Pop to bring HHH up to "the show."
If the Heat wave gets as intense as Warner thinks it will, the oft-maligned musical product of Canada will see a prouder moment.
"Well, [Canada's] given the world what, Nickelback? What else is awful?" Hawthorne jokes, failing to mention Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. "A lot of people get a kick out of the fact that we're from Canada. I'm by no means patriotic, but I am glad I live in Canada because I can go to the doctor whenever I want to and not pay a million dollars."
Hawthorne doesn't undervalue socialized medicine; to hear him speak, you'd think it was as important to the aspiring musician as a stack of amplifiers.
"My premiums are $27 a month and it's full," Hawthorne says, audibly grateful. "I could cut my arm off and get it sewed back on for cheap."
Musically, HHH have cut off a few appendages and undergone extensive reconstructive surgeries. Initially without a guitar player, Hawthorne explains that the beta version of his band was "trying to write the most abstract stuff-weird time signatures and tempo changes."
But after they parted ways with their original vocalist and Bays took over lead, they tried their hand at writing pop songs-something hummable, even. And for all the knocks critics love to give pop musicians for exploiting an easy craft, Hawthorne contends it's harder than it sounds.
"One wouldn't think so, but coordinating melodies and counter melodies is harder than trying to create screwy, avant garde music," he says.
Yet beneath the gigantic hooks of songs like their debut single, "Bandages," is a hefty sense of screwy instability. Considering their background in experimental and punk music, Hawthorne says it was unavoidable.
"First and foremost, I'm a punk rocker. Growing up I didn't listen to pop music at all," he admits. "I grew up on a diet of Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, Youth Brigade and stuff like that. And kind of metal, too. The upside of playing in punk bands and coming from punk is that it helped us when we were trying to write pop songs. It gives the edgy side to it."
Hawthorne says seminal San Diego label, Gravity Records, was a huge influence on the band. They've already played two shows in San Diego-one at the Honey Bee Hive and another at the Casbah. Their upcoming show at the Casbah may be the last time they play an intimate show here. Their press clippings are starting to spill out of the binder, and MTV will undoubtedly adopt them soon. SPIN just ran a full-page feature on the band, and Hawthorne's not too cool to admit his giddiness.
"We were in Los Angeles when that issue came out," he remembers. "I went to the newsstand and saw it, and bought four copies right away. One of the guys in the newsstand was like, "Are you in the magazine?' And I'm like, "Yeah, page 35!' Obviously, I was very excited about it.
"It doesn't really go to any of our heads. But it's cool to see that the hard work we've put forth in the past year is paying off."