It’s a Friday morning at Hot Flash Heat Wave’s house in the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco. All four members of the band are here, everyone either working from home or having the day off. Adam is messing around on the organ and later grabs an acoustic guitar off the wall to play in the backyard. Nathaniel, on the couch inside, is also messing around on a different acoustic guitar, working on perfecting riffs from the new songs the band played the night before at a co-headline set at Slim’s. Ted is locked away in his room mastering a demo that they had recorded last week. Nick is hard at work in his room, finishing up some last second things before their show that night.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be in San Francisco in 2015. Rents have skyrocketed across the city, pushing many musicians south to Los Angeles, including the likes of Ty Segall, Mikal Cronin, John Dwyer and Jessica Pratt. The tech industry, led by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, has taken over, making it near impossible for anyone without a high paying salary to live in this scenic and hilly 7×7 mile city. Electronic music has now dominates the local scene and small indie venues around the city are shutting their doors after decades of shows.
The bohemian ideal of a band all living under one roof with a rehearsal space and a backyard for playing shows at house parties was supposed to have disappeared years ago, yet somehow, I found myself in the middle of it, in what almost seemed like a time machine. It was inspiring to simply observe what was going on around me, witnessing what wasn’t supposed to exist anymore.
In a lengthy piece in the SF Weekly about the state of the Bay Area music scene from more than a year ago, local songwriting and producing legend John Vanderslice bluntly said, “Any newcomer would be fucking crackers to try to set up in San Francisco.” These four early-to-mid 20-somethings from Davis, California are bucking the trend, one catchy guitar riff at a time. Whether they know it or not, Hot Flash Heat Wave may be one of the last of its kind in San Francisco.
Coming up in the acid haze of UC Berkeley co-ops and sweaty fraternity basements, Hot Flash Heat Wave is made up of a triple attack of lead singers—Adam Abildgaard, Ted Davis and Nathaniel Blüm—and drummer Nick Duffy, all of whom are friends dating back to high school. All had been in bands before, but this one seems different. As Ted told me prior to Hot Flash Heat Wave’s show at The Chapel in November, “The thing that makes it click is that we’re all proud of what we do together and we’re all committed to making music in general and we have drive that I haven’t had in other groups.” From the UC Berkeley Jazz Combo to chillwave act Blüm to synthpop group Dempsey, all four members of Hot Flash Heat Wave have been in different bands, but there’s a band chemistry that exists between these four that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Ted continued, “There’s something about band chemistry that’s hard to hone in on, but with this group it’s just felt good and we’ve been able to work out any obstacles that we’ve run into.”
Whether you attribute the band’s tight chemistry to living together or being friends for almost a decade, it’s clear that they’re having fun. Constantly cracking each other up onstage and wearing absurd outfits to shows only further proves that the group’s deep friendship is integral to their success.
Hot Flash Heat Wave self-released their debut album Neapolitan in September, but they haven’t stopped recording since, save a short West Coast tour surrounding the album’s release. Based on their live set, they should have another album coming sooner than expected—half of the songs they have been playing are currently unreleased.
Whereas Neapolitan was chock-full of upbeat, sunny guitar jams like the Room On Fire-era Strokes “Bathroom Song” and the Girls-esque “Just After Midnight,” the new material slows things down a bit, taking cues from Mac DeMarco and Beach Fossils. Although the tempo may be slightly altered, the band’s overall sound hasn’t changed too much and still perfectly encapsulates the California garage-rock sound, with lots of catchy guitar riffs and harmonies that make you reminiscent of when it was possible to drop everything and drive down the coast for a week.
Still without a label, the band is the textbook definition of DIY, booking shows for themselves, recording several tracks inside their house, and creating their own merchandise. Bassist Ted Davis reiterated the importance of DIY, explaining, “It’s been a big part of our aesthetic as a band that we make everything for ourselves—our t-shirts and buttons, for example. As we move forward as a band, we’ll probably work with other artists, but getting to where we are now, I think it’s definitely helped us. People see an image and can tell it’s ours.”
Guitarist Adam Abildgaard continued: “It was cool to do all of this stuff on our own and figure out exactly what we want, so I’m glad we did that rather than release it through a label that may have not been the best label for us.”
Whatever they’ve done, it’s worked. Opening for virtually every buzzy indie band that comes through San Francisco, from Hinds to Twin Peaks, the band has learned how to take the next step. However, staying grounded is what matters the most to Hot Flash Heat Wave. “No matter how big you are, people are just people,” explains guitarist Nathaniel Blüm. “The most important thing is human connection, which I think is the biggest thing we look for in music. If you go about doing a concert with a big ego, people aren’t going to want to connect with you.”
No matter who they’ve interacted with, the band is happy to simply be able to get up on stage and perform, regardless of how many people are in the audience. “When I write a song, even if it’s a sad song, the fact that we’re playing it, meaning we think it’s a good song—it feels like kind of a victory even if it’s a shitty situation you’re writing about,” Adam told me prior to going onstage at the Chapel. “If people are dancing, there’s good vibes even if the lyrics are kind of sad.”
Those lyrics, while sometimes about breakups and heartbreak, perfectly encapsulate what it’s like to be a 20-something in Northern California, full of optimism and escapism. From the swagger of “Gutter Girl” to the punky vibes of “Homecoming,” it’s clear that Hot Flash Heat Wave is the best band to reignite the declining San Francisco indie rock scene. With a growing list of accolades for Neapolitan—including an SF Weekly Best of 2015 shout out—Hot Flash Heat Wave won’t be a local secret for much longer. There may not be many bands like them coming out of San Francisco at the moment, but the immediacy of their unmistakably Californian music will hopefully serve as a call to arms for other young musicians around the City by the Bay.