Hot Lips - band photo

Music: An Interview With Hot Lips’ Keith Heppler

Hot Lips band photo shoot
Keith Heppler, Karli Forget, Alex Black

Whoever said you absolutely need guitars to make some noise in the rock n’ roll scene obviously hasn’t listened to Hot Lips before.

A power trio hailing from Toronto, Canada, the band brings a unique brand of electro-grunge rock that drips of a dark, mysterious sexiness with every brooding note.

Likening them to the type of synthesized thunder you’d expect to hear playing in seedy underground clubs (like the ones featured in films like XXX), I was ecstatic to sit down with Hot Lips’ drummer Keith Heppler and explore their music. We got to talking about many facets of the music business and, of course, the waves the band has been making across Canada and internationally with their aggressive industrial sound.

Me: Hi Keith, thanks for joining me today.

Keith: Hey Mitch, no problem, glad to tune in for a chat.

So let us just jump right in then. Pretending that anyone reading this article right now has never heard of you before, can you tell us about Hot Lips as a band? How you guys got started, how long have you guys been doing this together?

We founded in late 2016. I met Karli (Forgèt – vocals, synthesizers) through a Craig’s list ad. She had some demos that she posted online that I really liked, and I had already known Alex (Black – bass, vocals). Alex had previously tour managed for another band I was in, so when Karli and I started jamming, we were tossing out names, and I suggested we jam with Alex. When we did, we just kind of knew that that was the right line up. So the three of us have been going as this trio ever since.

So Hot Lips is based in Toronto, right? Everybody’s from Toronto?

Yeah, we’re all located right downtown Toronto.

Keith Heppler playing drums
Keith Heppler (Photo Credit: Dylan Weller)

When listening to Hot Lips, I found myself picking out many different notes of different things in your sound. The first thing I noticed was that Karli’s voice at times kind of has a little bit of a Pretty Reckless sort of thing going on –  just maybe tones in her voice that remind me of Taylor Momsen’s take on rock music – but I wouldn’t describe that as your band’s sound. I’m hearing notes of maybe a little bit of a tamer version of Rob Zombie, a little bit of Nine Inch Nails, and while I never really listened to their style of music as much as others, a little bit of Garbage too.

Garbage and Nine Inch Nails are significant influences on us. There’s also a band called IAMX, which is Chris Corner’s (of the Sneaker Pimps) solo project that we’re also really into. But really, each of us has our own different influences. Alex is really into stuff like Rob Zombie and Nine Inch Nails, whereas I’m really into stuff like Nirvana and Fugazi. I also really like bands like At the Drive-In. Karli is really influenced by stuff like Garbage and The Sneaker Pimps and even some trip-hop type of stuff. So when you throw all of that together, we’re what you get.

That’s cool because I was going to ask you how you actually describe your music to other people regarding your style or niche. For me, it’s got that grunginess to it but also an industrial kind of sound.

We call it electro-grunge. It’s really 90’s influenced but with a little bit of an industrial and electronic vibe sprinkled on top.

Electro-grunge… that works! It really makes sense, too, because one of the first things I noticed when I looked up your band was that you don’t have a guitar player. Especially in this type of music and the fact that you’re a trio – that’s exceptionally rare to see.

No, and that was one thing that we thought about when we started. We wanted to try to do something different. All of us had come from the traditional two guitars, a bass, and drums kind of band arrangement before this. Personally speaking, I’m always a massive fan of bands that don’t sound like anything else. A band like Primus is a good example – when I hear something like that, I just love it. So when we started Hot Lips, we really wanted to hold songwriting as our most important focus, but we wanted to try to do it a bit unconventionally.

So taking the guitar out was a purposeful decision. I find that particularly neat because it actually is just so different than what’s out there in any contemporary style of music that’s not directly on the pop or hip-hop charts.

Yeah! And the joke is whenever people ask us why don’t we have a guitar player, we ask them, “have you ever met a guitar player?”

*Laughs* As a guitar player myself, I find that quite funny.

*Laughs

So you touched on some primary influences to your band’s work – would you say that when you all came together, that it was a conscious decision to take those influences and make your sound? Or was that just kind of how it came out?

A little bit of both, I think. Without really speaking about it, I think we inherently wanted to do something a little bit on the heavier side. We’re all fans of loud, aggressive music. But I don’t know if we ever really talked about it. As we started writing and playing shows and touring, we got to know each other pretty well and discover each others’ influences. There’s a lot of down-time on the road, and so you have a lot of time to share music with each other. We’d often get caught playing Youtube roulette – like, “oh, have you seen this video?” “no, but have you seen this one?” – and that just kept going until eventually all of our influences rubbed off on each other.

Hot Lips Band
Keith Heppler, Alex Black, Karli Forget
From left to right: Keith Heppler, Alex Black, Karli Forgèt

So how does your creative process work then? Do you guys all write? Do you have one primary writer?

Karli’s our primary writer. It’s actually interesting because when I first met her, I knew her from around the scene – but she was another drummer. This is the first band she’s ever sang in or played anything but drums in. So when I first met her for this band, we were talking, and she told me, “I don’t even have a keyboard,” and I just remember saying, “it doesn’t matter, we’ll get one, we’ll figure it out.”

But from the start, Karli’s always been the primary songwriter. Alex and I just kind of help with the arrangements. We might suggest to make a chorus twice as long, or try different parts out in different places, or have an idea for a bridge… but usually, Karli will send us a pretty fully formed demo of a song with her playing bass, drums – the whole deal. But she’s pretty cool, she’ll have us put our own spin on it.

That’s cool. I’m always interested in, especially with the diverse style of music out there, how creative processes are so different all the time. Even myself in this isolation phase, I’m writing all sorts of new music, and I’m trying to do it differently than I ever have before. I’ve always been in metal or rock bands, but now I’m sitting down with an acoustic guitar and taking an attitude like “let’s just see what comes out this way.” When I hit the studio with the music eventually, I’m aware that it’s not just going to be me singing with an acoustic guitar, but by writing songs so bare, I’m really curious to see what other people come up with when they hear them so stripped.

Yeah absolutely.

So as a pre-emptive question to the next question, I want to ask: how long have you personally been doing the band thing?

I’ve been playing in bands since I was 14 years old. So… awhile *laughs*.

So what is it then about doing music or creative type of work that you like most?

Oh, man. Everything. I like it all. I love the challenge of trying to get better all the time, I like the camaraderie of being in a band, I like playing live, I like improving in the studio, I like traveling, I love meeting people. I’ve always kind of thought that making an album was like putting up a flyer for a show – I’ve always thought of it that way. Playing live is 100%, my favorite thing. I like everything about it.

Speaking of live performances, I saw in the press release you sent me that you guys had a tour that’s been postponed.

Yeah, just like everybody else right now.

So, pursuing creative work for a living then, and that right there is a good example, are there a lot of challenges you find that come with it?

Of course. I mean, it’s a gig economy, so there are always going to be challenges. Right now, in particular, is a tough time for everyone, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the industry adapts and reacts to it. I don’t want to get into COVID-19 too much, but it’s definitely an interesting time, and I’m just trying to look at it like another challenge to overcome. It would be easy to throw my hands up in the air and say, “we’re not going to play for another 6, 8, 10, 12, 14 months” and then just sit around and wait for it to pass… but instead, I like to think we can just figure out how to deal with it.

I’m sure you can relate to this – but the industry we grew up in has always been in a state of flux. I started playing in bands the year Napster launched… so I grew up watching Much Music and seeing the old model of business alive and well. However, when it came time for my own personal application of everything I’d been watching, my experience was completely different.

For example, at one time, success in the music industry used to be about iTunes and getting an iTunes exclusive. Then streaming came along. MTV was trying to hold on to the music video market, and then that went out the window because Youtube took over. Music videos used to have big budgets – now you’re shooting a video in your sister-in-law’s wine cellar.

My point is that it’s really still the industry I grew up dealing with – it’s always been in a state of flux. There are always challenges you need to pivot around and adapt with – this COVID virus is just a little more extreme one. It’s still a bummer though: I do not deny that. When I look at my phone, I see notifications of where I was supposed to be right now – last night I should have been playing in Cincinnati. I really should turn off those notifications *laughs*

Hot Lips Band Performing
Alex Black, Karli Forget, Keith Heppler

You make an excellent point – the music industry has definitely been in a state of constant change. Thinking back about it now, my own personal band experience was kind of similar in the sense that we were trying to do things in an old way when the music industry was already going somewhere else.

The model we grew up seeing.

Exactly. And not to mention the challenges that come from being in Canada – I’m sure when you guys tour the States, you quickly see the difference – you can play in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York twice and New Jersey and yet you haven’t traveled really at all. Then there’s trying to tour this giant landmass.

*Laughing* Definitely. Have you ever done a tour that starts in Vancouver? You have to drive all the way out there with no shows on the way, and then you just work your way back. I’ve done a few of those. If you take the Lake Superior route, you’re driving 8-10 hours per day and still playing shows the same day with no days off.

But then you go down south into the States, and it’s great – you can tour California for like 3 weeks – just one state.

*Laughing* Yeah, there are definitely a few odds stacked against Canadian musicians at the start, but like you said, that’s just another challenge.

Then again, the world has changed, so now you don’t necessarily need a record deal and key to the jumbo jet to get your career going. You can put your music online and find fans first that way – so at least when you do tour, it won’t be to empty venues. You have to be a little more creative in how you find your audience, but you can do it.

Yeah, as a band you are more accessible than ever now, but I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, because so is everyone else. The new challenge is trying to find a way to speak through all the white noise and stand out for a second.

However, I will say that because there’s so much more music available, there’s so much more good music available. Everyone seems to like to focus on how there’s all this crap out there, but I’m constantly intimidated and inspired by what I hear. There are many bands we play with and other artists out there that just continue to blow my mind all the time. That’s really cool, I think – as a fan at least.

Absolutely. And you know, music has always been a reflection of culture, so who knows, maybe 50 years down the road people will look back at this time and see that it was the start of something that had never happened before – the accessibility of music. Not too long ago, you used to be able to go to a bar and see an excellent band all of the time – but you’d have never heard of them ever unless you were actually at that bar… and now…

Yeah, things have definitely evolved from that.

Jumping forward a bit, let’s talk a little bit about what you sent me: the music video for the song “Cry Wolf.”

We filmed the video in February – so before all this COVID outbreak hit North America and became as real to us as it has been. The song coincidentally deals with a lot of the themes that are relatable right now – being trapped and confined inside your own head with your thoughts, unable to escape them, being sort of forced into self-reflection.

We’re super proud of it. We got Steph Misayo Seki from a band called The Primitive Evolution to play cello on the track, and this is one of the first times we’ve ever incorporated a classical instrument into our music. That day in the studio was so much fun. Steph is so talented, and just watching her add to the song and hearing it get this new dimension from her cello was great. I really like that the part is not sampled – it was very organic – we mic’d up a cello, and Steph just came up with the most brilliant parts after having listened to the song demo. It was really cool.

That’s awesome. I really liked the tune (check it out below).

That being said, what other projects are you guys working on right now? Your tour has been postponed – so what else is coming down the pipeline? What else is on the go?

Well, we went into the studio before all this COVID stuff happened, and we did some work that kind of got put on the back burner because we were going to be on tour. But since the shutdown, we recorded a song and a video we shot ourselves in our practice room while social distancing.

How did you do that?

We took turns. I would go in one day, and the drums would be mic’ed up, and I’d record my drum part and film it. Then Alex would go in the next day and put down his bass part and film it, and then Karli the third day. Then we just mixed it remotely yesterday and put it all together. So that’s going to come out just probably, early summer, July maybe.

We also just booked some time in the studio because we found out studios are opening again during phase one – so we booked some time as quickly as we could. Karli’s been writing and sending us tonnes of demos, and so as long as things don’t get too crazy, I think we’ll try to get together and work on them.

There are definitely all sorts of red tape on how to do things right now – another challenge, I suppose. But it doesn’t seem to be stopping the music community completely. I have been recording the same way that I’m talking to you right now… with my phone. I’ll just sit and sing with my acoustic guitar, get a really rough demo recorded, and then send that track to another guy a few hours away. The mood seems to be one of “hey when we finally get to do this, this will be cool!”

It’s definitely cool that with the advent of software like Garageband or Logic, you don’t really need to know much to be able to share ideas back and forth with each other from all over the world.

It will do for the time being at least.

Absolutely. This virus actually let us take a bit of time off, too – which is something you need once in a while. We took a few weeks off because we’ve been going at this pretty full-time for a couple years now. We’ve seen each other pretty much every day for the last two years… so a little time off to clear our heads has been helpful.

Yet now I’m really excited to hear what kind of music we write with a fresh mindset. We had been in a cycle of “write, record, do shows – lather, rinse, repeat” for so long, so it’s going to be a nice change.

Time off is something that I think a lot of people forget how important it actually is.

Now, this next question is a bit off-script of what I usually put together to ask artists… but I noticed you guys have a lot of short EP releases – what’s the strategy there?

Initially, we just didn’t have money to do more, so we would just put out what we could afford to make *laughs*

But it goes back to what we spoke about earlier… it’s another experiment in being different. We thought about putting out singles or just 2 or 3 song EPs because we’re a relatively young band, and we weren’t sure we hadn’t totally found our sound. It was something different than the old way of putting out a full-length album. I feel like albums can get really easily buried and lost in the music scene today, but if you’re continually putting out singles, you’re always attracting new attention. We actually took a cue from a lot of rappers in that regard – we were just trying to think outside of the box. Because like I was saying, the industry is constantly in flux, and especially for an indie band, if you don’t have a full team behind you or a big budget, you’ve really got to find a way to make every dollar go as far as it can.

It’s definitely something I see happening more and more often these days – constant single releases in favor of a full-length album.

Absolutely, and it’s an efficient way for a band to stay relevant. For example, instead of having one CD release show in Toronto, we might do two or three single release shows. We still put together the same amount of promotion for them, and they’re still release parties. That’s important to note because it still gives those shows the kind of weight that makes them not just another gig – because there’s a purpose behind them.

Then, those release shows get followed up by a run of other shows in southern Ontario and northern USA to promote the release. With the money we make from those performances, we can reinvest into going back into the studio and recording another two songs – maybe with a new producer the next time. We would do all of that in a cycle – and it just keeps the band’s growth accelerating.

Keeping yourself busy all the time – there’s no lull – I like that. Instead of the “here’s the big buildup, here’s the CD release” and then silence for 6 months.

Yeah, it’s a low-key way of being on people’s radar and trying to stay in their faces. Because you know, I watch a lot of bands put out an album, and they have this massive build-up for it. They release the record and maybe do a short tour of 5 shows to promote it… but after that’s all done, I don’t hear about them for a while. What happens a lot after that, and maybe it’s just because their music didn’t get picked up on a playlist – I don’t know exactly what happens or why – but a lot of those bands just kind of fade away. So we’re trying to avoid that.

It’s definitely easy to miss an album release and keep the momentum going with so much continually coming out these days.

You see it all the time.

So another thing I wanted to talk about was travel.  You guys, from my understanding, head down south to the States a fair bit. Now, this isn’t something I’ve really talked about with another artist yet, but are there any challenges you face or advice you have related to playing out of your home country?

I mean crossing the border is never fun, but I don’t know, maybe we’ve just been lucky in that nothing too severe or stressful has happened to us concerning playing outside of Canada.

How about actually getting across the border?

I think a lot of bands get spooked about work visas. There’s a bit of a cost that comes with one at first, but it’s not really a big deal.

When we decided we wanted to start playing down south, we just kind of reached out to some people and went after it. Now, we have an agent and a manager, but before that and we put our team together, I just started asking people I knew had done it and people who managed artists “how did you do it?” and more often than not, they would just tell me. We were never afraid to ask.

Any advice to someone trying to do start playing down south?

Just do it. I can say that to expect for the first time you go down there, it’s like anything – you’ll be playing to about 5 people at first. But maybe you’ll talk to one of the guys in another band or a promoter, and then next time you end up playing another show or a CD release party and then you’re playing to 100 people.

There are a few learning curves at first with the visas and paperwork, but that’s something you just have to do if you want to go. Learn about it – it’s not hard, but it’s worth it.

What’s the whole States’ side experience like then?

People down there are great. The promoters are really reliable, there’s a lot of talent, and the fans at the gigs are fantastic.

Don’t get me wrong – I love playing in Canada, and I don’t prefer one country over the other, but the USA has bigger markets. We’ve been having a great time down there.

That’s great man, glad to hear it.

So we talked a little bit about the “new way” of doing things in the music industry. There seems to have been a shift where many artists are doing a lot of things independently. What are your thoughts on that?

It used to be people thought, and sometimes still people think this way, that getting that elusive record deal means you’re then home free – but that’s not true by any stretch of the imagination. You still have to do all of the work you would anyways, and I think people have started to realize this, and so more artists are going the independent route.

I’ve actually seen lots of artists become very successful doing everything themselves, and because of that, they owe nothing to no one, be it personally or financially. They own all their own music and their own masters too – and that can be huge.

That kind of speaks to the whole purpose of why I started the Creative Wealth Project. I personally think the independent route is very possible today, and so why not do things yourself and for yourself? There are a lot of other creative people out there who want to work with you, and you can form long-lasting relationships and get repeat business transactions from each other. I mean, I would love one day for this thing to snowball to the point that a band looking for an artist could come here and find someone who ends up doing their artwork. Or a new band or artist looking for tips on their profession could come here to read an interview like this one and learn some mistakes to avoid or take away other advice.

Absolutely. I have learned a lot of different things from a lot of different people in different roles to get where I am today.

Close up shot of Karli Forget
Hot Lips Band

I don’t doubt that. I mean, for me, music and writing might be my bread and butter, but as I’m sure you have too, I’ve worked with producers, graphic designers, videographers, etc. and there are all sorts of intricacies to their particular specialties that especially when starting out I didn’t understand. Yet they all were essential to my finished product, and so I found it valuable to learn about them.

Yeah, and I can attest to that. I have learned so much about so many things since I started music as a profession. I initially began booking shows when I was in high school because I just wanted to play some. I didn’t know how other bands got shows, so I just started asking. I knew a lot of great bands that rarely played because they told me nobody ever offered them shows – I never understood that. Like, why not ask for some or learn how to book them yourself? So I started asking questions, and things just went from there.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about merchandise – things like screen printing and how that works, how t-shirts are cut, what quality cotton of you should have…I’ve learned about cameras, I’ve learned about editing, I’ve learned about vans.

*Laughing* Okay, I’ve learned A LOT about vans. 

*Laughing* Oh boy, tell me about it.

But I get what you mean. Again, using myself as an example, I might be a guitar player who just thinks my focus should be on playing guitar – but it doesn’t take long in a music career to find out things and learn some lessons the hard way if you don’t dedicate some time to learning new things.

I remember when I found out that certain colors don’t print the same on t-shirts as they do album covers. That’s a mistake that could have been avoided by hiring or consulting with an artist instead of just assuming they’d print the same – and that batch of t-shirts would have turned out a lot better.

Yeah, and then there’s the business and legal stuff too – how to get commercial insurance, how to get a work visa, how to drop ship t-shirts to a venue while you’re on the road. It’s actually all been a sort of blessing learning all of this stuff when really I just started out wanting to be a drummer.

Essentially, once you start playing for money, you’re an entrepreneur. Most musicians have to be. It’s really not that different than opening up a restaurant – yours just moves around a lot.

I’ve always said that – being in a band is like operating a traveling lemonade stand.

We’re almost getting ready to wrap up here, but I have to ask: do you have any favorite stories from the road or in the music business? These are always fun personal touches I like to throw into these interviews.

I’m not so sure I have one ready. We’re a pretty behaved band, we’re pretty focused… but I guess off the top of my head, I have one about our first away gig that we did and stayed at a hotel in Windsor. We partied pretty hard after the show, and Karli had this aerosol can of glitter spray, and for whatever reason, I insisted she cover me in it – head to toe. I just laid there on the bed and insisted she spray it over me… and dude, that shit was in our van, my clothes, and really just everywhere for months afterward. I don’t know why I asked her to do it – I had too much tequila, I guess… but when I went home and crashed next to my wife, and she woke up, and she was not impressed. I couldn’t wash it out. It was bad. Even now… sometimes I still find glitter on some of our equipment or in the van – and that happened over three years ago.

*Laughs* See, there you go – great story.

Last but not least, do you have any crucial advice for someone else just getting started in the music business or in music in general?

As a performer, or otherwise?

Well, my understanding based on the fact that you were the one who reached out to me for this interview is you’ve learned a few things about music and the business side too. I had that same responsibility once. My role in my former band, aside from being the lead guitar player, was also the guy who did all the business kind of stuff – booking shows, scheduling interviews, all that stuff – so do you have any lessons from along the way in that role? Things that after doing this for years now, looking back on your career, you might say, “I wish I knew this back then” or “doing things this way would have saved a lot of time or hardship”?

First and foremost, I’d make sure you always represent yourself properly.

Hot Lips Band performing
Karli Forget, Alex Black, Keith Heppler
Photo Credit: Dylan Weller

But when you’re first starting a band – just play. A lot. Play anywhere, because you’re going to learn just as much if not more from the crappy gigs like playing in someone’s basement with a blown-out PA. A show like that, even though it might be a terrible show at the time, is going to make your band a lot stronger down the road. Anyone can play well when you have great monitors and a great sound system, but I’m always impressed with bands who can go into a concrete basement where it’s almost impossible to sound good, but yet they always do. Or bands that are having the worst gig of their lives but you in the crowd can’t see any of that because they’re so slick about it – they’ve dealt with everything already that could possibly be thrown at them.

And lastly, I’d say to try really, really hard. There are so many people out there doing the same thing – so you have to put the work in. Playing music is fun for sure, but if you’re serious about it, it’s a lot of work – as I’m sure you know. Don’t skimp on things. Don’t cancel rehearsal to go watch Netflix or do something else. Show up on time, show up prepared, and do it regularly. We always try to be a self-sufficient band – we don’t want to rely on anyone else. We work very hard to be known as a reliable, professional group.

Great advice, Keith. I will say that I definitely know reputation goes a very long way. And not just your reputation for how you deliver on stage, but off stage as well.

Oh yeah – have you ever worked with a band that’s a bunch of dickheads? They’re the worst. It doesn’t matter how good they are – you’ll never play with them again.

Well, I think that’s all I have for you today, my friend! Thanks for taking the time to join me, we covered some great stuff today! Looking forward to checking out the new stuff you guys have been working on in the future!

Thanks Mitch, it was great talking to you!

Be sure to check out the band at their website and social media listed below – stay posted for tour dates (eventually) and new releases!

Website: https://hotlipstoronto.com/home

Of course, don’t forget to follow The Creative Wealth Project below – more interviews with artists, bands, graphic designers, and other creative industry types are coming soon in addition to useful articles to help you build your career in the creative world!