The first time I listened to Freak Heat Waves, I was on a mostly empty transit bus. Desperately trying to shake my reputation as a lover of docile songwriters who use forest metaphors, I was listening closely for something I could understand in a record labeled as a “strange and sexy look into an alien nightclub.” Post-punk had not been my forte in the past, but I had a stubborn determination to understand it. About halfway through the album, an interesting thing happened: a female vocal jumped in, saying something that sounded vaguely like “Cambie Street.” It took me a second to realize that it wasn’t the song, but the automated voice of the bus. For a brief moment Freak Heat Waves and the BC Transit robot were performing a duet.
The fact that I couldn’t differentiate between the song and the vehicle I was in has stuck with me.
It’s easy to characterize Freak Heat Waves as ‘70s influenced retro-futurism and be done with it; but when the retro-futuristic sound fits so seamlessly with the tangible world we live in, it makes me wonder if Freak Heat Waves is more grounded in reality than they let on. This was the first point of conversation when we all met in a Kitsilano apartment to talk about the band’s new record, Bonnie’s State Of Mind.
Freak Heat Waves is loosely defined as a trio. Consisting of guitarist/vocalist Steven Lind, drummer Thomas Di Ninno, and bassist James Twiddy, it is a band with a constantly shifting structure. Each member is heavily involved in production, and each member is prone to switch instruments and do something different at any time. “We’re not really pinned down to our positions in the band.” says Di Ninno. “Actually, we talked once about how amazing it would be to do a whole record where we don’t play anything. Whatever it takes to get the sound we hear in our heads, that’s what we want to do.”
In speaking to Freak Heat Waves it also becomes evident that the experimental process is almost as important to them as the final product itself. “We seem to really like demos,” laughs Di Ninno, referring to almost a year’s worth of test songs being altered, scrapped, or just lost in the ether. “We spent months sending different tracklists back and forth. I think we had 36 pieces of music to choose from when we started tracklisting.”
Recording locations were equally as inconsistent. Although the band hails from Victoria, the record was done on Pender Island, in Medicine Hat, in Montreal, and elsewhere. There isn’t a hometown for these songs — this lack of unity is something intentional.
“It’s almost like a compilation album,” says Lind. “It’s very inspired by mixtapes and the idea of a mixtape. We didn’t just want to record a live set and have one uniform sound. Every song can and should be a mind wipe of the last song.”
The band also credits their label, Vancouver’s own Hockey Dad Records, with a flexibility and openness that you would never see on something bigger and less directly connected to local music. “Ryan [of Hockey Dad Records] was always supportive of anything we wanted to do. He basically told us to bring a record to him and he would make it happen.”
Perhaps the best example of Freak Heat Waves’ decision-making process on Bonnie’s State Of Mind is the song “Dig A Hole.” As in most of the songs, Steven Lind’s vocals prove that “monotone” doesn’t necessarily mean “emotionless.” Sometimes he sounds like a sort of lethargic prophet telling people off. Other times his voice takes on a sickly nature, like someone speaking from a hospital bed. In “Dig A Hole” he sounds like some sort of demented, all-seeing robot. If Freak Heat Waves have created a dystopian soundscape, then Lind is the Dalek bearing down on you in a dimly lit hallway.
When Lind speaks about the track, he is quick to establish the band’s priorities: “It’s a scrappy song, and the guitar track at the end was totally improvised, but in a way we want it to feel like it could very easily go wrong at any time. Like it’s riding the rails a bit. It had a really cool energy though, which is more important than a perfectly recorded track.”
Somewhere near the middle of the track, in what could very loosely be defined as a hook, Lind sings, “It’s just a uniform / No pride of industry / Guaranteed to make you want money for your time.” Here — and in many of the other songs — there are hints of an attack on the idea of financial security and regular old class structure. But Lind, Twiddy, and Dininno are all quick to dispel any idea of an exact meaning. “There are aspects of feeling exploited [in the song],” says Lind, “but I’d rather paint a broad picture of the world that is partly real and partly not. I like when a line can stand on its own, regardless of the other lines on the song. Less black and white. There is an implied meaning to everything but you can’t try and nail it down.”
This ambiguity leads to interesting definitions of the Freak Heat Waves aesthetic. A friend of mine called it “porno-pop-punk,” while another compared the feel to older dystopian narratives, things like Orwell’s 1984 or Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. And this, at least, is no coincidence. When the films are mentioned, all three band members begin to speak enthusiastically.
“I think we all take a lot from old futuristic movies like Robocop, Repo Man or Clockwork Orange,” says Dininno. “All those movies take place in a time that already past. But they all predicted things that have a basis in reality.”
“The movie Possession was a big one for us,” adds Twiddy, “that was a film that definitely had some sort of bearance on the album.”
But to say that Freak Heat Waves is all about retro-futurism would be doing the band a great injustice. They have an aesthetic, no question, but they are adding something distinct to a well established genre. That’s the thing about Bonnie’s State Of Mind. It reveals some sort of meaning without actually defining it. In caring little about “truth,” Freak Heat Waves ends up being an uncommonly truthful band. I’m still not sure if it’s frightening or really cool. Probably both.
Freak Heat Waves new record, Bonnie’s State Of Mind, comes out on Hockey Dad Records this February 3.