HoZac Records Takes Underground Punk Acts to South by Southwest
TODD NOVAK: We had gold on hot dogs and didn't we have gold on a peanut butter sandwich at one time?
It's a chilly evening in Chicago, and Brett Cross and Todd Novak, co-founders of HoZac Records, are recalling a time before they started the label. When they could splurge on fancy, yet comedic condiments.
NOVAK: Pure American gold. That was back when the record label was just a twinkle in our eyes. We were already eating gold, and now we're at the point when we would love to have that gold and cash it in to pay some bills.
Todd and Brett sit at a desk in Todd's Wicker Park apartment, folding covers, slipping sleeves over records to be shipped around the world. They sip from PBR cans and listen to the psychedelic folk of Medication, HoZac's third full-length album and their 50th release in just over three years.
SONG: Medication with the song “Didn't Wanna Know”
Fifty releases in such a short time is a remarkable achievement for a small record label, especially in an economic downturn that has cost both Todd and Brett their day jobs. Despite this setback, their efforts are gaining a wider recognition, even if they're not quite eating gold yet with the profits.
HoZac is short for Horizontal Action, a magazine Todd and Brett created in 1997. Horizontal Action was the place to learn about wild underground dirty damaged garage punk music that the indie-rock powers that be, dutifully ignored. It folded in 2006.
But Todd and Brett's reputations as tastemakers built trust and credibility in its readers. So fans from North American and across the pond bought the records, sometimes sound unheard.
NOVAK: We see in the PayPal receipts, the 'Hey we've never heard these bands before but can't wait to check them out.' And it's kind of a really crazy good feeling that some people are actually taking a chance on stuff without going out of the way to actually listen to it, based on the fact that we've devoted the time to release it.
SONG: Cave Weddings with the song “Bring Your Love”
NOVAK: Which is really fulfilling and it's like the most rewarding thing.
BRETT CROSS: Yeah. I think Todd and I have been really fortunate and I think that's what makes it more fun. It would suck more if we were stumbling across these bands that we loved or whatever on the internet, and then putting it out and then crickets for months. But it hasn't been like that at all.
In much the same way childhood friends Todd and Brett discovered bands through trading tapes in the mid-'80s, they now send each other links to bands on MySpace, and that is often how they find bands to release.
NOVAK: That's the most thrilling part is introducing music to people. Putting out a band's first record. Finding the band. Finding this band that has 8 MySpace friends – two of which are MySpace Music and Tom – and you know Tila Tequila or whatever. And then you know we'll find them and we'll be like, 'Hey, you know we really like your stuff we'd really like to do a record,' and most of the time the bands are surprised.
SONG: Myelin Sheaths with the song “Do the Mental Twist”
NOVAK: But a lot of those types of people that would be surprised are the types of people that would put out the best stuff anyway.
HoZac Records is a reflection of the broader spectrum of underground music Todd and Brett now enjoy, beyond the neo-proto-garage punk label covered in their magazine. Nowhere is this more evident than in their first two LPs, released last year. And the contradictions in sound are a conscious effort by Todd and Brett.
SONG: Smith Westerns with the song “Diamond Boys”
NOVAK: I think most of the stuff has either got a pop angle to it or kind of a grimy psychedelic anti-social vibe to it. So we kinda try to like to have both the good and the evil. Like Smith Westerns and Wizard Sleeve.
NOVAK: …are the first two albums we released and you couldn't pick polar opposite bands really.
NOVAK: …unless you were to take like, you know…
CROSS: Like bubble gum and toilet grit.
SONG: Wizzard Sleeve with the song “No Mongo”
NOVAK: Mmmm, hmmm.
If that's not on iTunes, it should be. [Laughter]
CROSS: It will be!
Even with both Todd and Brett looking for full-time work in the ugliest recession of their lives, the label has managed to pay for itself. And 2010 looks promising. An LP from local skuzz glammers Mickey is in the works, as well as the Buddy Holly-inspired Indiana rock and roll of Eric and the Happy Thoughts. On the internet, labels like Matador are singing HoZac's praises. In her Monitor Mix blog for NPR, Carrie Brownstein predicted that in 2010 “HoZac Records would have its day.”
Their next full-length release, from the band Dum-Dum Girls, will be a co-release with indie-giants Sub-Pop. That's something that excites Todd.
NOVAK: So, two domestic companies releasing the same thing is usually pretty odd. Usually you have the European vinyl version and then the U.S. CD version. And hopefully the exposure of having a co-release with Sub-Pop will be immeasurable. (laughs)
CROSS: Or really measurable.
SONG: Dum Dum Girls with the song “Bhang, Bhang, I'm a Burnout”