About twenty-five years ago, Tom Hazelmyer started his own label, Amphetamine Reptile Records. He had a band of sorts, Halo Of Flies, more of a project at that point than an actual band but he wanted his records released, so he did it on his own. Printing and constructing the record jackets himself using a sleeve-folding gadget made in a machine shop during his stint in the Marine Corp, Hazelmyer set in motion what was to become one of the better known independent rock labels of the 1980s and 90s. Powerful music wrapped in eye catching graphics were the trademarks and Amphetamine Reptile became synonymous with aggressive, subversive bands and, for good or ill, went on to popularize what is now known as "noise rock."
At the end of August there will be a 25th Anniversary bash celebrating that label's history and success with three shows (August 27th - 29th) in Minneapolis. Headlined by the ever durable Melvins, the shows have drawn attention due to the highly anticipated reunion sets by AmRep heavyweights God Bullies, The Thrown-Ups, Boss Hog, Janitor Joe, Hammerhead, Freedom Fighters and Calvin Krime. In addition, there will be an exhibition of AmRep related poster art as well as a photo exhibit of photographer Daniel Corrigan's work at the Ox-Op Gallery also in Minneapolis.
Beyond the music biz ups and downs, beyond the criticisms from non-believers, the anniversary shows are as much of a celebration of Hazelmyer's strength as a businessman, graphic artists and talent scout as it is a celebration about the music which bands on the label created.
"AmRep doesn't mean anything here," says Shannon Selberg calling from his home in Minneapolis. "This place is built on 'Minnesota Nice' and AmRep is not nice. So they [the local media] want to forget it happened."
His voice is clear and emphatic. Selberg, once the front man for AmRep's flagship band, Cows, knows what he's talking about and has never been known to be one to pull any verbal punches. "The Replacements and Soul Asylum and The Jayhawks [laughs] bands like that. Late period Husker Du and even the more nicey-nice bands from back then, those are the ones who still exist and bands like Cows and Hammerhead never happened."
It's a case of the local music establishment unwilling to accept something off the radar. A majority of the bands on AmRep refused to play it straight. That or they just didn't know how to and, really, not everyone wants to make easily accessible work. The music on AmRep was made by and for the curious; music fans looking for a dash of musical chaos and anyone was welcome to revel in it. On the flip side, not everyone understands or enjoys noisy, aggressive rock and it's those people who seem to refute its merit. Selberg figures it this way: "I think a lot of [critics] went to AmRep shows when they were young and they didn't get it, they didn't like it. But now they're older and write for magazines, they've kinda had their revenge [laughs]. It's like people who are Republicans now because when they were young they were rejected by cool people [cackles] and now they hate liberals with a passion."
Looking over the label's discography, one would be hard pressed to find a single band that isn't in some way challenging. From the slogging thud of Love 666 to the hyper interplanetary antics of Supernova to the industrial blitzkrieg of Today Is The Day. Freedom Fighters were catchy as hell, but why wasn't there a bassist? Lubricated Goat had an amazingly sleazy gutter ball attack, but why were they naked? And did the bass player just light his hair on fire? Groups like this tend to embarrass local dignitaries.
Amphetamine Reptile was never about fitting in but one would think local media would covet local talent. No matter, the label had strongholds outside the Twin Cities thanks in part to the band's constant touring: New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Austin all could be counted on for a good turnout and a lively, sometimes violent crowd. Europe, too, seemed to open its arms.
Hazelmyer's business savvy and track record was good enough to earn him various distribution deals, first with Twin/Tone then Mordam. The label's eventual cash cow, Helmet, had their contract bought out by Interscope Records giving the label an economic boost. They moved the operation into a one-story building located in a dicey part of south Minneapolis and installed a recording studio in the basement. The gold record awarded to them for Helmet's 1992 Meantime LP hung in the bathroom.
To their credit, AmRep didn't hide behind a "punk rock" banner in order to prove their credibility. Such pointless axioms were unnecessary, especially since they made it on their own terms. One of those "terms" was jokingly playing upon the outsider's predisposed notion of the typical Midwesterner as beer-drinking, foul-mouthed caricature which seemed to have rubbed the overly sensitive indie/punk folks the wrong way. While some ended up foolishly buying into the label's proto-redneck image, they not only overlooked the fact AmRep was run communally with almost everything done in-house (except for the actual pressing of the LPs and CDs), they missed the point altogether.
"I think some people missed out on some of the goofiness and comedy going on," says Matt Enstminger, drummer for Janitor Joe. "Cows, God Bullies, Thrown-Ups, bands with a really awesome sense of humor. That part of the label was underplayed a bit."
Paul Sanders, guitarist/singer for Hammerhead agrees. "They were perfectly aligned for the touring you needed to do at the time," he says. "There were other labels that were considered more neutral on [politics], but maybe they didn't pay, maybe they didn't last."
"As far as Indie labels go, they were a top notch operation," continues Selberg. "I've heard all the horror stories from other bands about not getting paid, the posters aren't out and they're no reviews for the albums. We got hundreds of reviews, the clubs always got the right stuff, as soon as they had money in their account they paid us, we had complete creative control. What more could you ask for?"
"Exuberant recklessness, I think that's what I responded to," says Cristina Martinez, singer for the legendary New York City band Boss Hog, referring to what attracted her to the label. The band released their most challenging and, some would argue, their most notable work on AmRep. With their debut, Drinkin', Letching and Lying" EP in 1989, their sleek look, arty industrial noise and blatant feminine sexuality seemed miles away from the other band's wonderfully unusual idea of rock music. But Martinez says it's all the same: "I think that comes from the basic dynamic of the band, a running diatribe set to grindcore, it was psychosexual bedlam appealing to your basest instincts. The precise definition of rock and roll."
Today the label's Good 'Ol Boy identity has been worn away with time (one look at the DVD collection of AmRep videos reveals how quaint all that looks now), the anniversary shows are sold out and the label's popularity is constantly growing as new curiosity seekers discover the back catalog. Yet resistance from their hometown continues. In 2007 the label released their first CD in years, the Heroine Sheiks' Journey To The Edge Of The Knife which was a homecoming of sorts as it was Selberg's return to both the label and city after living in New York since the late 90s. The current lineup of the band also included AmRep alum, Paul Sanders on guitar. The fact that Journey... was the band's most solid and rock-oriented release to date made it all the more a big deal. Or at least, so it should have been...
"It didn't even get reviewed in Minneapolis," says Selberg, his words mixed with an audible combination of resignation and spite, "and that about says it all."
With the combination of younger fans eager to see the original bands for themselves and older fans from all over the globe hungry for their favorite music, it should come as no surprise these anniversary shows have sold out well in advance.
"It's really weird but I never had an inkling that anything from back then would have the kind of legs that it does," says Enstminger, "but you never think that when you're a young person, you're just doing it in the moment, never thinking about the future. So it shocks me a little bit; and it shocks me even more that anyone remembers Janitor Joe. You think you're going to be forgotten... well, maybe I do, maybe that's my Midwestern sensibility."
"Obviously, I don't think there will be a Janitor Joe before or after that reunion show," says Joe Breuer, the band's singer/guitarist. "For other bands, if it gets them more exposure, great; some of those bands deserve that. For me it's like a 25th anniversary high school reunion or something; people you lost touch with but never had anything against, now you get a chance to re-connect."
Despite the anniversary show being their last performance and considering the acrimony following their split, Hammerhead has raised a few eyebrows by not only playing a series of shows, but writing new material as well. "As we got back together, we re-connected as a band and got back into writing songs," explains Sanders. "Then you might as well make use of the time you have-one show turned into two which turned into four. It's the most natural experience for me. I learned to play my instrument with those guys."
Boss Hog reformed a few years back to play the prestigious All Tomorrow's Parties festival and since then have been playing a few select gigs so the AmRep anniversary wound up being an obvious choice. "Hazelmyer is a good egg," says Martinez, "he's always did right by us." Like it or not, the specter of History hangs over everything but Martinez isn't phased by it at all. "I'm proud of what we've accomplished," she says of her band. "There are some things I would have done differently, I suppose, having the benefit of experience. I learned as I went and you can definitely hear that. If anything, I wish I had done more."
Speaking of History, just as most of the bands weren't in it to make money, they weren't into it hoping they'd influence younger bands, either, but that's just what happened. The music's ripple effect has had a long and far carrying effect. One can scan at the perimeters of the noise rock scene today and evidence of AmRep's influence abounds. The Allentown, Pennsylvania band, Pissed Jeans, is a good example: loud, raunchy, catchy and tough melodic hooks, amazing musicianship, funny and self-effacing. Perfect if not brilliant. Then there's Part Chimp (London), Lightning Bolt (Providence), The Holy Shroud (Nova Scotia), Pink And Brown (San Francisco), Transistor! Transistor! (Dery, New Hampshire) and Racebannon (Bloomington, Indiana). Each band carrying on some distinct way a chip from the the esteemed AmRep DNA but also bring something new to the genre—modern takes on an old favorite.
The task of putting on these shows has been more than Hazelmyer expected, "because I'm retarded that way," but adds: "Then again, maybe that's why I get shit done, a result of me ignoring what a daunting task it actually is and undertaking it regardless."
And that's how it's gone for him, just getting to it no matter the consequences. The short-lived distribution deal with Atlantic in the late 90s allowed AmRep more room to work but things weren't as active and burn-out was upon him. The band's they were trying to promote were either breaking up or moved on to major labels. When Cows played their last show in December of 1998, it became clear it was time to move on. The label ceased releasing new records in 2001 and quietly existed off its back catalog ever since.
Hazelmyer's post-record biz life has been far from idle. After his family there's the his renowned Minneapolis bar, Grumpy's and his art gallery, Ox-Op, an obvious career move considering how much of an eye for design and graphics he's maintained. From the decor of the AmRep offices and its sleek logo, to many of his label's famous LP covers. That the musicians let him anywhere near the artwork to their records is testimony to how much they trusted him.
"You can tell Tom is perusing all the things that he liked about the label and ignoring all the things that were a complete pain in the ass," muses Sanders, "he's doing art, he likes working with a small group of people but he doesn't like dealing with the pain in the ass bands."
"I never bothered to follow a formula so it was all over the place," says Hazelmyer about the artistic process. "Stealing and manipulating found images certainly occurred, other times images would be created from scratch or doing art direction for the massively talented [photographer] Dan Corrigan."
So it would seem this former record label owner was safely out of the business. That is until a certain incident a few years back in a New York City bar pushed him back into releasing music... even if that means only one single every few years.
"Actually, what I saw that night depressed me in regards to music," he recalls. "I saw both Heroine Sheiks and John Brannon's Easy Action rip the entire planet a new one with amazing and fresh sets to a half-empty, apathetic crowd. At that moment it was clear that our world is far too complacent... no one feels the need to tear shit up and rip it down. Like a forest fire, the needed element is to clear the fucking old growth. Apparently today's youth at large can't be bothered to play with matches."
About two months ago, he was making record jackets again, printing, folding, gluing and bagging. Instead of his own Halo Of Flies singles, he was putting together limited edition records of various bands specially made for the anniversary shows. So, it's full circle time and he's fine with it. "Getting dirt back under the finger nails and a creak in the back from stuffing [records] for six hours is what I need at present," he says. "In the end it seems to make it closer to creating art rather than mass producing LP/CD/whatever. Towards the end [it] started to seem like manufacturing widgets, [and that's why] I quit doing it."
Twenty-five years ago, Tom Hazelmyer started his own label because he wanted to and because he could. Many years of hard work and determination have brought us here: a legacy worth being proud of, a back catalog worthy of future generation's curiosity and an anniversary worth celebrating and to those of us within hearing distance we'll be forever grateful.
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