Total Heat is the project of LA-based musician Ross Wallace Chait (of Girlpool). The debut record Totally Real is out now on Steady Hand Records.
Ross Wallace Chait is an LA-based artist who has drummed for Girlpool and now performs as Total Heat; Sandy Honig is a New York-based comedian and photographer who just wrapped up her run as one of the stars/creators of the Adult Swim show Three Busy Debras. Total Heat’s debut Totally Real was just released last week on Steady Hand Records, so to celebrate, the two friends sat down to catch up about it — plus the Minions, Joe Biden, Michael Jackson, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Ross Wallace Chait: I want to go into the history of how we became friends, which is that we both have a lot of admiration for the Minions and President Joe Biden.
Sandy Honig: [Laughs.] We did sort of bond over the Minions. And I’ll end it at that.
Ross: Well, no — you told me you think Biden is the best US president we’ve had. You said that to me on the 4th of July.
Sandy: Right. Well, I think that might have just been like, I was really in the spirit. And, you know, that’s what they told us to say.
Ross: And by “they,” you mean Biden himself.
Ross: To you specifically.
Sandy: You saw the Minions movie?
Ross: I did.
Sandy: I would be curious to know what you think about the soundtrack — I feel like the soundtrack was heavily praised.
Ross: Well, I agree with the praise. I went to go see the movie with a friend of mine who had this really crazy job where he would do quality control for big budget feature films. In music there are people who do that, and they’re looking for “pops and clicks,” quote-unquote, and he was doing that with movies. And so we went to the Highland Park Theater, which is a great, really affordable theater, and he was explaining to me that the reason theaters like that are so affordable in part, is because they’re paying for the lowest quality version of the film, the lowest quality video and audio. And then I saw — spoiler alert, but their rendition of the Rolling Stones song at the end was so deeply moving to me that I want to go to a different theater and watch it again so I can hear that with the good audio.
Sandy: Do you think that they will be pressing the Minions soundtrack on vinyl?
Ross: I’m sure they already have.
Sandy: Ooooh, I hope the record is yellow! [Laughs.]
Ross: It will be. Do you think it’ll have eyes, though? That’s the question. Ooh, what if it’s scratch and sniff?
Sandy: What would it smell like?
Ross: Come on.
Sandy: Obviously banana. OK, so I was moved to tears while watching the Minions. The part at the end—
Ross: The part I’m talking about. They’re singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and it’s amazing because they aren’t really in tune with each other.
Sandy: No. They just sounded… and that’s the power of music.
Ross: It was like a religious experience sitting there watching it.
Sandy: So I guess my question to you is: Is that the new standard for your next album?
Ross: I mean, I do listen to a lot of choral music. I’ve been listening to a ton of it specifically the last six months. I’ve always been into it, but every morning, I wake up, I put on choral music, and I ride my bike. I’m not a religious person, but it feels like the closest thing to religion I experience. I do a lot of stuff where I sort of multi-track vocals with myself, and I do a lot of improvising when I’m doing vocal parts to kind of have this sound of sort of like community participation in music. I want it to sort of sound like people are singing along to my song — people who can sing, people who don’t know how to sing, people who know the song, people don’t know the song. And completely genuinely, that moment in the Minions movie captured the essence of exactly what I’m going for with that specific thing so beautifully.
Sandy: It’s amazing. Did you grow up religious?
Ross: I was bar mitzvahed. I have a Jewish father and a Christian mother. And I celebrated Christmas also.
Sandy: Did you spend time in synagogue when you were younger?
Ross: I mean, I would go for some of the high holy days, and I had to do the whole thing to get the bar mitzvah. So I had a Torah portion, I studied with a rabbi and all that.
Sandy: There was one prayer, but I don’t remember what it was. All of a sudden, it goes — I don’t know music, but it goes minor or something. The men would do it really low and the women would do it really high, and every time it felt really overwhelming. I was always really bored in synagogue, and then I told my dad once and he said that when he was a kid, it made him cry — that specific part.
Ross: Yeah, those Torah portion singing parts are incredibly complex musically. It’s insane that children can memorize those things. I remember learning about why it was sung instead of spoken, and it was sort of part of the way they used the language — like saying the same letter sound sung one way versus sung another way had different meanings. I thought that was so cool. And it’s really distinctive too, because when you hear somebody reciting Torah portions, even without the syllables or if it were in a different language, you could tell exactly what it was just based on the weird interview intervals of the singing. Which is an interesting way to communicate.
Sandy: I love that you like choral music. I think that’s beautiful.
Ross: I do. And I was going to say, it’s too bad that this is going to be written and not audio — speaking of communication — because anyone who reads this won’t be able to experience you speaking exclusively in a Minion voice and me speaking exclusively in a robot voice, which we’ve been doing this whole time.
Sandy: [Laughs.] OK, I have a question for you. Fuck, marry, kill: A-flat, G sharp, or middle C.
Ross: OK, definitely marry A-flat. I have a lot of songs in A-flat and I don’t know why. I was writing everything in A for a long time, and then I sort of was making a conscious effort not to do that because I thought I was being boring, even though that’s silly. Like you should just write in whatever key comes naturally to you. But I was really making a conscious effort to avoid A, and I just got as far as A-flat.
G-sharp is going to have to go, sadly.
Ross: Yeah. Well, G-sharp and A-flat are the same note. I hate to burst your bubble. G-sharp is just a uglier way of saying A-flat, in my opinion.
Sandy: It’s actually a trick question, because of course I knew that.
Ross: But middle C — you know, that’s the most famous note.
Sandy:, I know. But I thought maybe you would kill middle C because it’s like, we get it.
Ross: But if you’re fucking middle C, it’s like you’re you’re having sex with the most famous person in the world.
Sandy: That’s pretty good.
Ross: But is that a desirable thing?
Sandy: I think that you would marry middle C.
Ross: Dude, I so quickly answered the marry question first. I have a deep connection with A-flat. Middle C — I mean, respect, but I don’t think we see eye to eye in terms of how we look at the world.
Sandy: I guess that’s true. I have another question for you: How does it feel being a male musician in this industry? Is it hard?
Ross: I wouldn’t say it’s hard, exactly, but it’s definitely something I think about often, and I think about the implications of me doing what I do as a cis male all the time.
Sandy: Oh, my god, I was literally kidding. You know that?
Ross: [Laughs.] Oh, my god, no.
Sandy: Because that’s the question that everyone asks women.
Ross: Well, I was answering your question genuinely!
Sandy: I know, but I felt like you thought I was canceling you, or that I was forcing you into an apology you didn’t need to make. You’re allowed to make music!
Ross: I think apologizing for being male is a valid thing to do.
Sandy: OK, OK, but I just wanted to lift you up and say you have nothing to apologize for, king. OK, This one is serious: Which pedophile do you think had a bigger influence on your music, Michael Jackson or David Bowie?
Ross: [Laughs.] Oh god. You know Michael Jackson’s buried right across the street?
Sandy: I went there recently but they don’t let you go to the grave.
Ross: I thought it was just closed for COVID.
Sandy: Oh, because they don’t want him to get COVID?
Ross: [Laughs.] Yeah.
Sandy: Do you feel that COVID has changed music?
Sandy: Do you feel that—
Ross: You didn’t let me answer the pedophile question.
Sandy: Oh, sorry. Go ahead.
Ross: David Bowie is the answer.
Sandy: [Laughs.] I knew it. Do you feel like you could write a song about anything?
Ross: I don’t think I would feel comfortable writing a serious song from another person’s perspective. In a lot of cases, I can write about characters that I make up that are sort of based on other people, but kind of are far enough away from real people that they sort of feel like they’re just in this movie that I’m writing the song within. But if you said to me — I guess you’re a bad example because you’re my friend. But if a stranger who the circumstances of their life were completely different from my own and we had very little shared experiences, and they asked me to write a song — not that this would ever happen.
Sandy: Someone comes up to you on the street with a gun and they say, “Write a song about squirrels.”
Ross: Or, “write a song about me getting a divorce from my husband” — I don’t know that I could pull that off successfully. I would try. I’ll try anything.
Sandy: I don’t know anything about music, so talk to me like you’re talking to someone that knows nothing about how you write a song.
Ross: Which I’ve been doing this whole time.
Sandy: Great, thank you. [Laughs.] How do you come up with a song?
Ross: That’s the whole question?
Sandy: Yeah, how do you do it? where do you start?
Ross: I start by making chords, which are combinations of notes that are played at the same time.
Sandy: I know what a chord is!
Ross: [Laughs.] It happens two ways: I’ll be playing chords and I’ll come up with the chord progression, and then the chord progression will become a foundation from which I write a vocal melody.
Sandy: So you come up with the way the voice goes before you come up with the words?
Ross: Yes, always. Well, except for very rare situations. There’s a song called “Sing What’s in Your Heart” on the album, and that — I was just in a really good mood going from the gym back to my house, and I just like came up with that line in my head. And then I was like, This is good. I have to write a whole song around it. Some lyrics come to me sometimes, but not really with a melody. I have to work to make it fit with the melody. So the answer to that question is, I don’t have an answer. There are many different ways.
Sandy: OK, got it.
Ross: So boring. I have a bad personality.
Sandy: No! Who said that?
Sandy: I did. Off the record. So your new album has 11 songs — why not 10? That would be a lot cleaner, if you had ten songs. So what made you go, “I’m going to be greedy, I’m going to go for one more.” How do you know when the album’s done?
Ross: Well, to get back to your not-serious question about being male in music — being a fucking musician, singing songs on a stage, is so insanely egotistical, you know? And I feel like I would die — and at minimum be, like, so unbelievably unhappy I wouldn’t be able to function — if I didn’t do it. But the ego of it is an insane thing to reckon with, so if you’re making an album and they’re all just songs about pretty much you and what you experience, and you make all the stylistic choices — the difference between 10 and 11, it’s like you’ve broken the seal wide open.
Sandy: [Laughs.] If you had to get rid of one of the songs to make it even, which one would it be?
Ross: I don’t really want to answer that, but you if insist.
Sandy: You have to. And to be clear, you don’t have to throw it away forever. You could just put it on your next album.
Ross: OK, well, there’s this song on there called “Shakin’” on there that I made sort of as a part two to this other song called “Believin’,” which is also on the album. “Shakin’” sort of turned into this thing that was stylistically distinct from the other one, and sometimes I think I should have saved that to be its own standalone thing, or make other songs with it that sound more like that. So it’s a little bit out of place, maybe. Not that I don’t like it.
Sandy: My favorite was “Rock ‘N Roll Star.”
Ross: Oh, sweet.
Sandy: Speak on that.
Ross: That song — I like it. It’s sort of about this thing, which is sort of a through line throughout the record: I kind of struggle to say the things that are most emotionally meaningful to me in my life to other people, and I think it’s a combination of being shy and, you know, weird, traumatic incidents throughout my life. But I can just say whatever I want when I’m making music. It gives me this pass to be myself, but also kind of be character. And so “Rock ‘N Roll Star” is about the concept of having this life that is so insular and so repressed and everything around you is falling apart, but you have this concept of yourself as somebody who can make music really truthfully, so that is so important to you that all the other stuff breaking down doesn’t matter.
Sandy: Really well said.
Ross: Thank you.
Sandy: No follow up questions.
Ross: I’ve never talked about that song to anyone, actually.
Ross: Yeah. I never play it. I haven’t really figured out a good way to do it with the band. Not because I don’t like it — just because it’s more of a recording song than a structurally performable one.
Sandy: That’s interesting that there would be a difference.
Ross: Yeah. I mean, I mess around when I’m recording a lot and I will try to get away with as many unpredictable structural things as I can. And yeah, that was one where I put these kind of disparate pieces together, and they clicked into place somehow. Which is a hard thing to teach a band how to do.
Sandy: Yeah, I see what you mean. OK, what would you describe your genre as?
Ross: I think it’s closest to lo-fi pop. But I do…
Sandy: You don’t like that question.
Ross: I don’t really think about it that much.
Sandy: I would describe it as Cali vibes. Leading into my next question: Do you feel that it’s Cali vibes?
Ross: Definitely. I mean, I’m from here.
Sandy: So you describe yourself as a Cali guy?
Ross: Yeah, of course. Even though I’m doing robot voice right now, some people have told me that I have the most distinctively California accent of anyone they’ve ever met, which I take offense to. But I’m not going to pretend that’s not a huge part of who I am.
Sandy: You’re extremely Cali.
Ross: I grew up on Venice Beach.
Sandy: And you can hear it in the music.
Ross: Yeah. Because what stuck with me stylistically from that is kind of more like hip hop music, drumming kind of stuff. I don’t do surf music at all. I steer clear of that pretty intentionally, but it’s cool that the Cali thing comes through despite that.
Sandy: How do you feel about surf music?
Ross: Surf music is not something I dislike, but I think there is a lot of resurgence of that, especially among people of my demographic playing in rock bands. I don’t need to be adding more to it, personally. Not to disparage anyone that’s doing that.
Sandy: What is your favorite thing about California?
Ross: It sucks because I want to do a hand signal, but I’ll describe the hand signal. My dad grew up in New York, lived there for a huge chunk of his life and then he moved here. He would always go like this: “New York is like this, California is like this.”
Sandy: That’s true.
Ross: I’ll try to describe it. The New York hand signal is like two sort of clawed hands moving inward toward each other, and the California hand signal is two hands, almost like you’re holding platters on each one, and your chest is opening up toward the sky and you’re looking up.
Sandy: I love that.
Ross: So that’s what I like most about it.
Sandy: What is your favorite thing about Los Angeles?
Ross: It’s just perfect. I don’t know. I think about it all the time. It’s such a perfect place to me. Everything is represented and the layout is unique and it’s beautiful, and there’s nature. My favorite thing about it… I love how in a lot of places you can you can go up on a hill and see really far. Whenever even I walk up on the hills around here, I get so moved by just seeing how much life is being lived within what I can see with my own eyes. But it’s a hard question. I love it so much. It’s everything to me.
Sandy: That’s truly the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard, because everyone that I talk to that lives in Los Angeles hates it.
Ross: [Laughs.] Yeah, totally.
Sandy: It’s so refreshing. And I feel like it comes across. OK, let me see if I have a good question to wrap us up with…
This one is excluding Biden: Which US president would you most want to be in a band with?
Ross: Oh, wow. That’s really a hard question. I heard this great story about Jimmy Carter recently, where he was… God, this is going to reflect poorly on my knowledge of US history, but he was sitting in a room making a decision about whether or not to attack a foreign country. The quote is like, “I was sitting in the same room where they put on a Mahler record and decided that they were going to nuke Hiroshima. Instead, I put on a Willie Nelson record and decided to give peace a chance.” [Laughs.] So for that reason, I say Jimmy Carter.
Sandy: [Laughs.] That’s real?
Ross: I’m botching the exact words, but yes, that really did happen.
Sandy: That’s amazing. Well, I think this is a perfect place to wrap up this iconic interview. I’m so glad that we were able to find time in our busy schedules to sit down.
Ross: Me too. It was such a pleasure. Thank you, Sandy. You’re the best.
Sandy: I can’t wait for everyone to hear the new album.