File Under: Trashy garage rock and punk, with a smattering of catchy pop
Based In: Chicago, Illinois
In less than five years, Chicago’s HoZac has released close to 80 records, and while it’s easy to categorize the majority of that batch under the nebulous “garage/punk” umbrella, the label has dabbled in pop and folk as well. In fact, the Windy City imprint’s catalog is all over the stylistic map. “We’re channeling this restless energy as much as we can,” says Todd Novac, HoZac co-founder. “I’ve seen people criticize the label for being ‘divisive ‘or ‘polarizing ‘because we don’t really stick with one specific underground genre from record to record, but that’s just silly. We like a broad range of music, and believe it or not, it’s not against the law of punk to release a record by Puffy Areolas along with a record by the Sleepovers. It’s like saying you’ll only eat two types of food for the rest of your life, or never visiting Ohio, Oregon or Orlando because of some invisible boundaries you’ve set up for yourself.”
This from an organization that found its humble beginnings as a ‘zine, then went on to create a successful and sought-after singles club while also managing to pull off a handful of yearly festivals, the latest of which is coming up this May after a five-year hiatus. Not to mention that bands like Smith Westerns and Dum Dum Girls – household names around the music blogosphere – put out early releases on HoZac. All in a day’s work for the tireless indie. “We love pop music and we love trash, and those two things work together in wonderful ways that we’re still discovering on a daily basis,” Novak says. “Maybe not everyone can hear the symmetry in some of the stuff we release, but that’s OK, we’re having the time of our lives helping these bands get their music out to a wider audience. I try not to get stuck on any real expectations, so I’d say we’re right about where we feel comfortable with it. I’d like to avoid being too stressed out about it; we’re right on track without it becoming anything dreadful. We’re still just as excited about music as ever, but now we can actually help those bands we think have something the world needs to hear.”
eMusic’s Austin L. Ray spoke with Novac about the label’s evolution from ‘zine to festival.
On transitioning from a magazine to a label:
Brett Cross and I had been running Horizontal Action Magazine from 1997 until 2005, and we’d been doing really well with it, but we were definitely getting a little tired of it, as will happen with anything you immerse your life in like that. It was started as a big inside joke on the underground music world at the time, and it had caught on around the globe really quickly. After only about a year or so, bands would come back from European tours and say, “You can’t find a bathroom in Europe without a copy of Horizontal Action next to the bidet.” It was a lot of fun – we met countless great friends through it, but we never really expected to do it for so long, it was just our little way to contribute our corny sense of humor into the music we loved and hopefully help out good bands in the process. We wanted to have a magazine that had a fictional staff of writers, a la The New Yorker, and absurdity was the only way to go.
We’d been helping our friends with record labels with bands for quite a few years up to that point, and I’d been interested in running a label, but it always seemed like the timing was off since so many others were doing it so well; we figured the real need wasn’t there just yet. We’d worked hard getting the Ponys connected to In The Red, and after that took off, it was definitely a rush to see our friends get swept up in the frenzy. But we’d also been a big help in getting lots of other bands onto our friends ‘smaller local labels like Shit Sandwich, Criminal IQ and a handful of others, so being the intermediary between the bands and the labels was probably the real origin, and piqued the curiosity of doing a label ourselves.
We laid the magazine to rest in 2005 and took a year off, which felt weird. We started up VictimOfTime.com to fill the void, and then the itch to start a label began to emerge. 2005 was a big shift for a lot of things, and an obvious new cycle was emerging, with the band Human Eye acting as the portal between these two worlds. We definitely felt that at the time, so we decided to kill the magazine before it became a chore. For example, the immediacy of MySpace was a big turning point. Music was changing right before our eyes and the time it took to get songs out around the world was speeding up incredibly. We quickly found a few bands ‘side projects that caught our interest, Volt from the folks in Splash Four from France, and Spider from The Spits ‘Erin Wood were the first two releases, followed quickly by new bands we’d became enamored with like Wax Museums, the fledgling Blank Dogs and lots more. But we never were really interested in going after bands we’d covered heavily in the magazine, as most of them were already set up with other respectable labels, so we looked deep into the seedy world of solo-project home recordings and side-projects, hoping to find that ever-fleeting new thrill.
On doing interviews and the brevity of the label’s “History” page:
It was all pretty well exposed everywhere from about 2001-06, really. It just got ridiculous as we’d get asked for interviews instead of the bands that we’d be covering, which we always thought was really odd. Like if Newsweek magazine interviewed Time magazine, instead of interviewing Nelson Mandela, or something like that. Why not just go right for the real subject matter? We always felt that the bands were our main focus, why bother with the media outlet exposing them, right? We figured that since we’d been interviewed so many times over the years that we really didn’t need to further include any of our past doings on the website. That photo on our History page was taken right when Brett and I started the magazine concept in the fall of 1996. It perfectly sums up our “there just aren’t any good music magazines” facial expressions.
On Smith Westerns ’2009 debut LP:
Would you believe that none of the labels the Smith Westerns sent it to were interested? I can clearly recall that Fat Possum were the first to officially pass on it; I distinctly remember the band telling me that Matador also refused to take their “unsolicited” CD, and the other labels just thought they were Black Lips ripoffs, but we knew better. I knew that even though the band hadn’t even heard Redd Kross (yet totally reminded me of their Born Innocent-era stuff) at the time, they had a lot more going for them than any of the other fledgling teen bands we’d encountered, and I really believed in them, despite all the flack they took. They were so excited to have their single come out in the same batch as Catatonic Youth, as well. After seeing them chug and spill a full gallon of milk on stage at the Empty Bottle in late 2008 on a Sunday night show nobody showed up for, trying to show how “innocent” they were, I knew we had to release their album.
On Chicago Blackout, the HoZac-curated festival that will return in May:
The first Chicago Blackout was scheduled for spring 2000 at the Empty Bottle, but got canceled at the last minute because The Dirtbombs and the other bands we had booked were still “too unknown” to take a chance on for the venue.
But the very first official Blackout that actually happened was at Beat Kitchen [from] April 5-7, 2001, and went over really well. The magazine was building lots of exposure for all these bands, and that particular venue took the chance on us. It went over so well, they asked us back in 2002, so that’s when we got crafty and started trying to bring in bands that could never afford to tour out of town, bands that we were also dying to see in the flesh. The third year, Chicago was in the middle of the notorious E2 nightclub aftermath/disaster that really put the crunch on capacity restrictions at every live venue in the city, so we moved the Blackout to the Subterranean, right in the middle of the action. [In 2003, a stampede at Chicago's E2 nightclub left 21 people dead and 50 injured - Ed.]
Looking back, 2003′s fest was the best one by far, with the Black Lips getting in a fight with Jay Reatard because Jay had to stand in their puke puddles on the first night, Sub Pop’s Jonathan Poneman flying out to Chicago from Seattle to sign the A-Frames, who were a Seattle band, on top of three of the craziest nights of unhinged rock ‘n ‘roll I’ve ever been lucky enough to witness. So many people that ran record labels made the trip here – In The Red, Long Gone John from Sympathy, many other labels swooped in, and along with more people in the crowd than we’d ever predicted, even flying in from overseas and all across the country.
The last three years ‘(2004-06) Blackout Fests were ironically held at the Empty Bottle, the place where we’d been shunned when we first tried to organize it in 2000, but they all went well and though blurry, were incredible times we’ll never forget. But by that time, running the magazine was getting tedious and we were letting other people help us more than we really should have, so it kind of slipped away from our original intent, and started to become a chore.
But after a five-year hiatus, we’re bringing the Chicago Blackout Fest back this year – May 27-28, details coming soon – since we now have a record label that’s supporting a lot of the same bands we’re interested in featuring.
On sharing Dum Dum Girls with Sub Pop:
I got laid off from my job at a skateboard company in July 2009, right after which, the Smith Westerns debut LP really started taking off. The day after my termination, I got an e-mail from Dee Dee of the Dum Dum Girls – we’d released their debut 7″ EP in February. She’d originally asked us to release the Dum Dum Girls debut LP before she was courted by Sub Pop later in 2008, so it was a clear sign from the gods when she e-mailed and announced that she’d somehow managed to get Sub Pop to let us do the first pressing of their debut album. It was a definite coup for HoZac, as Sub Pop never shares domestic pressings with other labels, but just goes to show how cool Dee Dee really was by going to bat for us like that. Luckily, the HoZac/Sub Pop release worked out just fine and was mutually beneficial to everyone involved.
A few words on some HoZac bands:
One of the genuinely craziest, atrociously animated and most exciting bands I’ve seen since The Hunches. The only band in town that the Smith Westerns actually “like.” Vicious glam rock done with GG Allin’s grace and Marc Bolan’s face so unexpectedly well, it’s almost transcendental. A bizarre mix of band members from lots of different backgrounds come together like a monster of rock ‘n ‘roll that really has no modern equal. One of the most exciting bands around today, Chicago is really lucky to have them and their debut LP coming later this spring will be a life-wrecker.
A nasty, scuzzed-up band that keeps evolving and reinventing themselves, now uprooted from Austin and reforming in New York around core member Andy Burr. Andy has been a huge help to us behind the scenes with the label, from helping us get our website together, to helping us connect with the nether regions of the seedy “industry,” along with being the main force behind his unsettling and demonic band, of which you should be hearing more from soon.
Incredible pop constructionists/deconstructionists who were one of the only bands I’ve ever wanted to work with based on their live show alone. Some of the songs are almost religiously sung with such pure intensity, it causes all my hairs to stand on end, and that’s when you know they’ve got “it.” These are probably the songs they’ll be playing while people are waiting to enter heaven. I’m sure there will be some sort of waiting area, and this is what’ll be playing, I just know it. They’ve harnessed that elusive sound people only get to hear after they leave this mortal world.
We fell in love with these guys from the moment we heard their first 7″ in late 2007, and since we’d know Jeremiah for a few years before that when he lived here in Chicago and played in the band Afflictions, I just knew this band would have a much bigger Redd Kross affection. We’d always talked endlessly about Redd Kross together and it wasn’t a surprise to see “S & M Party” on their debut. Their own sound that burst through was just as exciting, channeling yet another variety of pop that felt fresh and invigorating, and we’re glad to have been able to release their other 7″ smash, “Tiny Sioux” – which always reinforces how much better the Ramones really were from 1979-83, and showcases the Box Elders’s brilliant style of songwriting.
Another old, old friend of ours, we’d been watching him slowly climb the evolutionary rungs from an employee at Chicago’s undisputed best record store circa 1998-2002, Raw Records, up to the gutters of 2005′s Chic-A-GoGo performance, and on to national prominence – and the songs just kept getting better and better. Moving to San Francisco was probably the best plan he could have made, stewing in the brine of the original Budget Rock sound could do nothing but help spread his soiled legacy. We were lucky to be able to release his first 7″ single in December of 2008 and it’s by far our best-selling single in our four years of operation. Hopefully we’ll be working with him again sometime soon, although he actually just released a split 7″ on his own Rubber Vomit label which features two songs we recorded (“IV Eyes”/”Schiller Killers”) here in Chicago over the last four to five years as part of the India Studios recording disasters, so it’s great/hilarious/ironic to have him releasing our recordings a few years later!