Total Heat’s Ross Wallace Chait first sat behind the drum kit at eight years old, setting in motion a career which has seen him bang the drums for Girlpool – he still plays and tours with these – Winter and Walter. Over 15 years on from that life-changing moment and Chait is now setting his eyes on centre stage with solo project Total Heat. Today we premiere his second single as Total Heat, ‘LA Song,’ the follow up to ‘On the FM.’
Within the first few seconds of ‘LA Song’ it’s clear Chait has no intention of playing it safe, the free-spirited nature that he first envisioned his music would encompass from the back of Girlpool’s touring van hitting instantly. The first minute is made up of little more than arpeggiated synths, sporadic uses of the kick drum and Chait’s distant, tron-like vocal. From that point on though ‘LA Song’ blooms into sheer hedonism, the drums rolling and Chait singing “Your face/Now you’re gone” over and over in a call-and-response like fashion. A protracted version of this chorus brings the song to an end, the warm fuzz of nostalgia inherent to the shimmering synths threatened by Chait’s ominous, enigmatic words. An intriguing showcase of the esteemed drummer’s undeniable songwriting chops.
Listen, then check out our interview with Total Heat below.
How did you get your start in music?
I started playing drums when I was eight years old. My parents were both actors (my mom formerly and my dad currently) and as a reward for being in the cast of one of their plays they let me start taking drum lessons with Fred Dinkins (The Emotions, Deniece Williams). He taught me so much as a kid about how to play, how to listen, and how to experience music. He also got me hooked on jazz, funk, soul, and bossa nova at a very young age. I started writing and having more formal musical ideas around fourteen. Being able and being driven to make this switch away from strictly playing the drums I owe in large part to my friends and everyone who was part of the community of young musicians and artists in LA during the late aughts. We all worshiped each other’s music and art, crammed our parents’ backyards for shows in the garage, made zines, wrote poetry, shot films, and were lucky enough to be able to embrace our individuality and love of art in a way that was totally formative. I’ll never begin to be able to quantify what that time meant and how it sticks with me, but I will say that many of those people have gone on to phenomenal careers in music, art, writing, film and are still dear friends of mine. It’s with me forever. Anyway during the later years of being part of that community was when I developed some very basic songwriting chops and enough confidence to start writing, recording, and performing my own music. All before I turned eighteen.
Where did the name Total Heat come from?
I live and was raised in Los Angeles, a place where the climate stays, for about eighty percent of the year, just shy of what most places feel like in the midst of summer. Heat is what I live in, what comes naturally to me and the environment I make music in, totally!
Why did you want to step out from the drum kit so to speak and put out your own music?
Cause my heart probably would have shrivelled up if I hadn’t, don’t you think? The idea to start this band came to me while sitting in the van during a Girlpool tour last fall. I was obsessed with the Velvet Underground Bootlegs albums and listening to a lot of Les Rallizes Denudes (an incredible moody, bluesy Japanese noise band that formed in the late 60s) at the time and wanted to figure out how to make music with the attitude and spirit of that stuff with an ear for jazz and pop too. It hit me that the perfect person to figure that out with would be my friend Joel Jensen-Heath, a bonafide experimental music FREAK with an amazing sense of humour and a huge heart. He plays bass in Total Heat and always sees my strange vision for what it is. I’m honoured and always inspired by the people I play with in this band and others, by great songs, wild experimentation, nature, jokes, you name it, it’s in there somewhere.
Has playing with groups like Girlpool influenced your songwriting? If so, how?
Definitely! I love Girlpool and I’m always blown away by Harmony and Cleo’s songwriting prowess. I believe all the music I’ve played an accompanying role in has inspired Total Heat to varying degrees of obviousness. There’s been more than one occasion where I’ll write and record something and not even notice until I’ve written the whole thing and looped it a dozen times that I accidentally put practically a replica of one of their vocal lines or chord progressions in it, so I’ll send it over and say “whoops” and they’ll say “haha cool” and it’s all good. But yes, it all shapes how I think about songs and sound and writing words to sing. Without the influences of my friends and collaborators the project would be flat and much less inspired so I’m always feeling gratitude for my ability to work with other people and in other projects. There’s also a major element of subconsciousness in writing music I’ve found. So beyond those places where I can retroactively say “oh this sounds like that,” there’s a life and there’s a mind that’s seen and heard all that I’ve seen and heard, remembering some forgetting some, and all of that mashes together and squeezes into the song or the melody or the idea whatever it is. It’s beautiful, like dreaming in some ways, the process by which things you can’t clearly see the impact of, or things you don’t even remember at all, come into creative ideas and output. It’s therapeutic like that…like damn.
You made a lot of Total Heat songs in your old apartment. Can you tell us about the apartment? If that space influenced the songs in anyway?
The Total Heat catalogue started coming together at my old apartment in East Hollywood that I shared with my partner at the time. It was a very small space where in the little nook next to the kitchen I had a simple laptop/keyboard/mic set up that I began writing these songs with. It was funky and kind of run down but had a lot of gritty old Hollywood character and a wild cast of tenants and visitors that we loved being around. Then I moved and continued writing and crafting Total Heat music in my tiny room in a house on a hill in Northeast LA. Beautiful spot, but so small I had to sit on the edge of my bed crouched over my laptop whenever I wanted to make music because the place couldn’t fit a chair! My friend said it was “like camping!” It was a complicated and mind-expanding time full of love, some heartbreak, and deep spiritual and internal growth that I hope is reflected in the music.
How would you explain your sound?
Modern Velvets with a janky, jazzy twist.
What does your musical process look like?
Usually I’ll write a chord progression or melody idea on the piano and listen to it over and over until I have the perfect complimentary line to put on top. It’s hard to say what it is that happens, but when you get that hooky thing you know it and it clicks in. From there I’ll slowly shape other ideas in section pieces around that first clicked in chunk until it becomes a song. My bandmates are integral to this process oftentimes too. Other times I’ll just be walking around, lookin’ at the trees and boom I got a song!
Is an album in the works? If so, can you tell us about it?
Yes. In fact, my plan now is to release two mini albums, one more in the lo fi synth pop domain a la “L.A. Song” and the other in a world of more structurally loose, improvisational jazzy stuff.
Can you pick five songs that influenced your sound?