The legend, the legacy

After 10 years of irreverent rock ‘n’ roll, Hot Live Guys call it a day

  • Valhalla, they are coming: After 10 years on the scene, Winnipeg’s Hot Live Guys (left to right: Sterling Shanski, Joe Warkentin, Julian Bargen and Kurtis Wittmier) are playing their last show this month. – Heather Bays

Winnipeg’s Hot Live Guys are breaking up after more than 10 years of writing and recording raucous rock ‘n’ roll, and playing live shows so intense they more than once left band members bleeding – but not before they release one more album.

Named in 2005 by the Winnipeg Sun as one of the 30 greatest local bands of all time, HLG will play its final show on Wednesday, Dec. 23 at the Royal Albert.

In spite of all the good times, HLG decided to call it a day when singer-guitarist Julian Bargen, 27, grew tired of being in the band and quit.

“The last tour we did [this past August], it was eye-opening for me how impoverishing it was,” Bargen says over beers on an unusually quiet Thursday evening at the Albert. “We came back after doing all this work, and that’s not even the end of the work – there’s still more to do when you get back to Winnipeg. … I’m looking forward to not focusing on a band.”

HLG’s guitarist Joe Warkentin, 26; bassist Kurtis Wittmier, 28; and drummer Sterling Shanski, 33; were surprised by Bargen’s decision.

“I was pretty bummed about it, but I understand,” Wittmier says. “It’s good to break up while we’re still good and people still enjoy our music.”

New album, best to date

Dec. 23 will mark not only the band’s last show, but also the release of its fourth CD, External Culture for Internal Barbarians.

Recorded in six months with producer/engineer Rock Trembath, the disc is HLG’s best to date. It’s heavier and more dynamic than its predecessor, 2006’s Robbin’ a Bank, and better captures the band’s live intensity.

Warkentin and Bargen credit the addition of a new drummer, acquiring distortion pedals, spending more time working on guitar and bass tones while recording, and Bargen’s growth as a singer for the evolution between discs.

“The singing was getting better and lyrics became more of a priority, so there was more reason to write good melodies for the songs,” Warkentin says.

Bargen says the recording was initially intended to be a concept album on authoritarianism. That didn’t work out in the end, but the idea that bands dictate culture to their audiences inspired some of the lyrics.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is all about being cocksure. It gets tiring, but it’s hard to make convincing rock music without being cocksure,” Bargen says. “There’s room for uncertainty, but for the most part, it’s about selling that you’re the sexiest motherfuckers in the room.”

For Warkentin, being cocksure is less of a dilemma.

“When you’re in a rock band, it’s your job to be cooler than the people you’re playing for.”

The Legend

Warkentin and Bargen formed HLG in 1999 with a handful of friends. Initially, the group’s instrumentation included saxophone, trumpet and trombone, and they played something akin to ska and funk.

At that point, Bargen says, the band’s music was about being abrasive and deliberately turning people off.

The band released one CD of ska/funk, 1999’s The Legend, The Legacy. But when Warkentin and Bargen discovered Tricky Woo, things changed.

After seeing the Montreal band perform its brand of straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, the duo decided to change directions and start what they now refer to – possibly joking, possibly not – as “the phase-out period.” One by one, they simply stopped calling the horn players to let them know when practice was happening.

“Julian was largely pushing to play rock all the time, and then we saw Tricky Woo and it was like, holy shit – that was it for us,” Warkentin says, referencing a poorly-attended show Tricky Woo played in Winnipeg. “I was really into how hard they went off for nobody.”

When you’re in a rock band, it’s your job to be cooler than the people you’re playing for.

Joe Warkentin, Hot Live Guys

In 2002 the band recorded and released its second CD, Serve Pipin’ Hot. By then, it was notorious for Warkentin’s stage antics. The Winnipeg Free Press described him as “a younger version of Angus Young with a death wish.”

By the end of 2006, that publication had named them one of 10 local bands to watch, they had released Robbin’ a Bank on local imprint Transistor 66, and they were sharing the stage with the likes of The Supersuckers, Von Zippers, C’mon and their inspiration, Tricky Woo.

They had played countless shows in Winnipeg, toured western Canada a number of times and earned a gig at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas in early 2007.

The Legacy

Ask the members of HLG what their favourite memories are of their 10-year career, and they don’t talk about the praise from critics or the high-profile gigs at the Western Canadian Music Awards and 2004’s JunoFest.

Instead, they reminisce about the good times they had together at practice and on tour: the time in Calgary when they binged on free beer and gourmet hot dogs; the show in Clear Lake when they almost stole a boat; playing to one person at a show in Kitchener, Ont.; facing off against Tie Domi’s sister in a game of floor hockey; making a feature-length home movie called The Barge; and the countless games they would make up and play while driving from city to city.

“It’s pretty bittersweet,” Bargen says. “I’m excited for new opportunities, but certainly sad this one is ending.”

All the members of the band are thankful for the friendships they’ve made and the good times they had.

“We played lots of shows and we wrote a lot of songs,” Warkentin says. “I’m glad some people dug our albums and our shows. That’s cool.”     

“I remember thinking, ‘This is awesome,’” Wittmier adds. “I don’t know if I [ever] considered making a living off this, but whatever it was – it was worth it.”

Hot Live Memories

Friends, fans and former band members talk about Hot Live Guys.

“When we were 15 or 16, we would practice at Joe’s mom’s house in the basement. We would always do it on whatever night Dawson’s Creek was on. So after thrashing about in the basement for a while, we would come out, these sweaty 15- and 16-year-olds, and get heavily, emotionally involved in the show. The switch from playing in a rock band to getting excited about what Pacey was up to that week was a highlight.”
—David Pankratz, former drummer

“Every show that I have played, in my short time in the band, has been my favourite. Rockin’ out with those cats on stage, helping to play their tunes has been a highlight of my musical career.”
—Sterling Shanski, current drummer

“I approach [Transistor 66] as a family, and you’re never supposed to have a favourite. But, Hot Live Guys were my favourite.”
—Art MacIntyre, owner, Transistor 66 Record Company

“They’re fuckin’ great and I’m gonna say they’re one of the most criminally underrated bands in Canada, if not the world. … Every show I’ve ever played with them, I’d be in the van the next day driving to the next show and one of their songs would be in my head. A lot of bands that have a live show like that, they don’t have the songs to back it up, so that combination in Hot Live Guys is just killer.”
—Ian Blurton, singer-guitarist, C’mon

“If I had one thing to say about HLG, it would be: funnest band to play in.”
—Kevin Kornelsen, former drummer

“There’s some sincere rock n’ roll that happens when HLG play. There’s lots of bands in this city that ply a similar trade musically, but I can’t really name one that compares when it comes to the energy they’d bring to any given performance. It’s completely out of context as a lyrical citation, but Government Issue had a song called Hole in the Scene – and with Hot Live Guys breaking up, those are about the only words that come to mind. They’re going to be dearly missed.”
—Sam Smith, artistic director, The Royal Albert

“When we recorded Serve Pipin’ Hot we spent about $300 on booze and about $200 on recording equipment, went to Julian’s grandparents’ cabin and basically had the best weekend of our lives. I remember standing on couches with mics and just screaming our asses off. Then we passed out and we kind of just woke up and there was this album in our laps. No one remembered recording it. It was like a present from our drunken selves. ...
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize, because the live show takes over, is that those are fucking awesome songs that they’re playing. Those are world-class riffs and incredibly interesting lyrics being hollered at you by a man who looks a lot like Robert Plant these days.”
—Sandy Taronno, former bass player

“It’s mostly just a blur of Joe sort of just throwing himself around stage.”
—Curran Faris, guitarist for Hide Your Daughters, trying to describe his favourite HLG show and inadvertently describing every HLG show

Read more on Aaron Epp’s blog at www.uniter.ca/blogs.

Hot Live Discography

The Legend, The Legacy – 1999
Self-released
More ska and funk than straight-forward rock, HLG’s debut includes a track about the size of Bargen’s manhood as well as a song that features the simple refrain, “Joe is a stud.” Including the horn players, the band had eight members at this point.

Serve Pipin’ Hot – 2002
Self-released
After scrapping the results of two other recording sessions, the band – now a four-piece rock act – recorded Serve Pipin’ Hot at a cabin over four or five alcohol-fueled days. The first song, H2K, was inspired by a Hooters poster on the wall of then-drummer Kevin Kornelsen’s jam space.

Robbin’ a Bank- 2006
Transistor 66
The band’s breakthrough release earned four-star reviews from both the Sun and Free Press. Recorded during two days at Private Ear Recording, the eight-song disc features Sock It To Me, at that point a staple of their live show, and Light of Love, a reworked Serve Pipin’ Hot track.

C’mon/Hot Live Guys 7” – 2008
Transistor 66/War on Music
Rawer and faster than anything on Robbin’ a Bank, the two tracks HLG used for their side of this split 7” were taken from a 2006 recording session. On the other side? Two songs by C’mon, the Toronto rock act fronted by Weakerthans producer and HLG fan Ian Blurton.

External Culture for Internal Barbarians – 2009
Transistor 66
Deriving its name from something Nietzsche said, HLG’s swan song was recorded over a six-month period starting last December. It’s heavier and more dynamic than Robbin’ a Bank, something the band credits in part to the addition of new drummer Sterling Shanski, formerly of The Fabulous Kildonans. Standout track: Creamy Illusion.

Published in Volume 64, Number 14 of The Uniter (December 3, 2009)

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