Interview by Scott Bass
Most people probably envision record label owners as wannabe moguls; hopeful hawks of mass-marketable media with fingers pinching the pulse of popular culture, eyeing the balance sheet for course correction feedback as they build empires and acquire riches. People like Berry Gordy, Clive Davis, Simon Cowell, Sylvia Robinson, and Jack White exemplify that stereotype but represent only one end of the spectrum. On the other end of labeldom are the underground indie tycoons -- driven individuals who will never press a platinum record and wouldn't want to. People running labels that aim to move the cultural radar of what defines "good taste" via small-batch runs of esoteric yet significant subgenre fodder mixed in with ultra-obscure genre reissues deemed in danger of being forgotten... or never heard at all. Folks that fall into this category perform a sort of cultural curation and archivism that's inherently altruistic.
For the last decade and a half, HoZac Records of Chicago has been one of those labels - not just working out in the field, but deep in the weeds -- releasing true underground rock 'n' roll records. As of this issue of PSF, HoZac has just released a tell-all paperback by Power Pop hero Paul Collins, along with a companion single, and it's absolutely required reading for his fans. We spoke to honcho Todd Novak about the label.
Todd: "I'm on the left, Brett Cross on the right. But this was taken right around the time that we launched the label, in 2007."
photo by Canderson
PSF: How long has Hozac been in operation? I recall the label grew out of your magazine "Horizontal Action" -- presumably named in homage to the fantastic Psycho Surgeons -- but then was shortened to HoZac?
TN: HoZac released its first two singles in November of 2006, from VOLT and SPIDER. We folded the magazine around 2005 but YES, the Psycho Surgeons were the culprits for sure! We had heard a lot of folks abbreviate the name to "HoZac" so we just grabbed it and ran with it, basically.
PSF: Unlike most record labels, you have started a book publishing business as well. What was the impetus for that?
TN: We always wanted to do books but just didn't have anything that came to us until Jimi Kritzler in Australia asked if we'd be interested in publishing his first book, Noise in My Head: Voices from the Ugly Australian Underground. And in 2014, we'd been heavily releasing TONS of Australian bands that were covered in this book (Kitchens Floor, UV Race, Super Wild Horses, NUN, Straight Arrows, Repairs, Angie Bermuda projects, etc.) so it really made sense for that to be our first book, introducing the non-Australian world to these amazing bands. From there, people really just came to us with project proposals, most of which have been great, and now we're 10 books deep not even 6 years later!
PSF: According to your website, your releases fall into four basic categories: "Pure Pop," "Darkwave/Synthpunk," "Archival," and "Modern Filthy Grooves." Was this by design or did it just evolve to be that way? Is there any thread connecting these different types of releases?
TN: I guess those would be the catch-all overlapping genre-styles. Definitely not by design, but when we started the label in 2006, we definitely wanted to have a synthesizer-based sound, but that quickly escalated into many other ideas once we heard things we really liked outside of our wheelhouse.
PSF: Can you tell me more about the "HoZac Hookup Klub?"
TN: We started the Hookup Klub just as a way to get some interesting singles out into the world on the backs of some of the era's more popular bands we were working with. There was the Columbus Discount singles club going at the time as well, and there had been other successful Singles Clubs from Sub Pop, Simple Machines, and Estrus, so we figured we'd give it a try. People REALLY made a ton of money flipping our records for big profits on eBay from 2006-2010. I even had a friend say "Sorry I had to sell that single, it was going for $200." I guess that's how it goes.
PSF: Do your customers tend to overlap?
TN: Yes for the most part. We've got a well-balanced group of music fans that are adaptable to lots of curveballs musically. It's still so funny to consider that we were considered a "garage" label, when a large percentage of our releases don't even have real drums, or are completely synthesizer-based. We've definitely had some "garage" releases, but very few straightforward bands. It would be pretty hard to call Ruby Karinto, Nun, Kitchen's Floor, Velveteen Rabbit, or Whirlywirld 'garage' in any stretch.
PSF: How's the record business in 2020? Seems like you're really on a roll!
TN: Well, 2020 is pretty different, that's for sure, and with the COVID pandemic now firmly in place, I think we really made a smart move in starting to release more archival material and less focus on modern bands. I mean, we were already struggling to find modern bands we liked for the past few years. We seem to be at a historic lull compared to 10 years ago, and it's night and day compared to 15-18 years ago when the flood of top-notch new bands was at a fever clip. Maybe everyone has it too easy now?
PSF: Do you still consider yourself a "small label?
TN: We are definitely still a small label. Our average releases are 300-500 copies per edition, so we're far smaller than we were in the 2006-2012 era, before Spotify's effect took hold. But we ARE on a roll as far as archival discovery goes, we've been very lucky to get connected with some of the amazing projects we've worked on. Thank God for the fact that for every one band that had a record out in the '70's & '80's, there were 5-10 bands or more that recorded, but just didn't get to release their material.
PSF: When you were younger, did you have any inkling that you'd grow to become a bonafide cultural anthropologist? Are we in danger of losing obscure music without the efforts of archivists like yourself?
TN: I was always interested in anthropology and archaeology at a very young age, and then got into other historical hobbies like coin & stamps as a little kid, so I've had this inclination for a long time. I really wonder what would happen to some of this stuff if we didn't release it, and help it spread out into the world as it should have happened in the first place.
PSF: HoZac seems to be very forward-thinking in terms of their approach to selling records -- not many labels support pre-order package deals for instance. How successful are your pre-order campaigns? Would you recommend other indie labels to take this approach?
TN: We mainly do pre-orders as an organization process- it opens the ordering process but gives some folks the chance to get their order in while it's on their mind, vs. a release date reminder. We usually do decently with our pre-orders, but some are far better than others- it all depends on what record or book we're talking about. It's definitely the easiest way to manage a shipment. For example, we'd get a pre-order on March 10th, and then on March 15th, we get a message from the customer to add another LP to the order, so this lead-time allows us to combine orders when possible to save shipping & supply costs.
PSF: What are your thoughts on modern vinyl pressing?
TN: We've been using the same pressing plant, United, for all 215 releases so far, and there have been a few disappointments, but they always come correct. I'd say try out the one closest to you, but then again, there's definitely industry people who are very leery about the new WarmTone pressing machines, and their quality issues. Our lacquer cutter uses an early '70's Warner Brothers lathe to cut our releases, so it's actually being done on a historic machine, which gives it that special something of course.
PSF: Is the "vinyl resurgence" still happening?
TN: Sadly, I think that was pre-2012, as once Spotify was available in the US, lots of folks stopped taking chances on new releases by bands like they used to. But then again, the music world was really different in 2012 vs 2006, we have to remember. I used cassettes all the time as a kid, but I can clearly recall my mom asking me "Why don't you buy the record and just record it onto cassette and that way you can have it on both formats?" This has stuck with me since the mid-'80's, so even though cassettes are firmly rooted in my childhood music experience, they really don't hold any nostalgic value to me as a format. I've bought completely blank tapes from bands on tour with nothing else to sell numerous times. And the "nostalgia" of having to fix a broken tape many times just isn't rosy enough for me to embrace.
PSF: Would this explain your decision not to partake in the recent cassette trend? Seems like quite a few indie releases are also coming out on cassette these days.
TN: I guess it just seems like most people would prefer records over cassettes, I know all my friends do. Having to deal with broken/shattered cassettes in the mail sounds like a nightmare, plus their 3-D structure makes them unusually expensive to ship versus a 7". It's a headache we'd love to avoid at all costs.
PSF: Ten years ago you were interviewed by NPR -- which is pretty darned impressive -- but personally I'm even more impressed by the glowing coverage that regularly appears on the Dangerous Minds blog. After taking a break from record collecting for over a decade, reading those articles about your latest projects is one of the things that pulled me back into the hobby. Can you elaborate on your relationship with DM?
TN: Thanks! The NPR interview was with our first "Superfan" Carrie Brownstein, a few years before she left her radio show to start Portlandia. She was just this huge fan who we were really surprised about, but once she actually asked these bands on our label to open for her new band Wild Flag in Chicago, we knew it wasn't just some passing interest. She was super cool to talk to and we wish she still did her radio show!
As far as the Dangerous Minds connection, we were hooked up by our friend Christina at Feral Ward Books who suggested we could get some coverage if we reached out, and it worked! Very thankful for that, and that is one of the only websites that really seems to have active music fans reading it, and not just click-bait type articles. It's one of the only real deep music interest sites left out there, it seems.
PSF: If you could go back 20 years with what you know now, what lessons would you tell your younger self?
TN: We would have started the record label way earlier. In 2001, when Chicago was just exploding with great bands, not to mention all the other great bands kicking around in the 2001-2006 era. I'd always helped friend's record labels out with ideas for records, starting with Sack O' Shit in the late 1990's, up to Criminal IQ and Shit Sandwich locally in the early 2000's, and even urged In The Red to work with The Clone Defects, Lost Sounds, and The Ponys a few years before that eventually happened.
PSF: You've recently begun excavating the archives of Orange Records, the late David Peel's (RIP) label. Can you share the origin of that? Not many people are familiar with that catalog, it seems that with a few exceptions those releases were about as well-known as much of Peel's music -- which is to say, not very well known at all.
TN: We really got interested in the Orange label after digging around on Discogs and realizing how many gaps and inconsistencies there were in the catalog. Once we contacted David and started the ball rolling on the King of Punk LP reissue, we got approached by a high-end record collector who was asking if we had David's ear and if we could ask him some details on a few other releases, which were new to us. This resulted in the revelation of the EDDIE CRISS GROUP Undertaker LP as well as the 14th Wish 7", both from 1980. Both seemed pretty much lost to time, with zero information online, but we're hoping to uncover more from the back catalog as well.
PSF: What's your take on David Peel? Was he a hippy or a punk or both?
TN: David was a true original, part hippie, part punk, and all around agitator/activist, and he's a crucial piece of NYC punk history as well as the Proto Punk high watermark with his American Revolution LP from 1970. He was really crazy to work with, that's for sure!
PSF: That's begging for follow-up, can you please share a good "David Peel is crazy to work with" story?
TN: YES! Ok, so we tracked David down for the King of Punk archival LP reissue and we got that going, but fast forward about 8 months after the release and we find out that David had licensed the LP to another label in France on the same terms. Our super-simple contract clearly stated worldwide rights for 3 years, which David signed, but he claimed he only authorized a US pressing, so that was pretty wild to deal with. Sadly, our distribution was already locked in place, especially overseas, so this other label had a really difficult time selling the LP to all the places around them that already were carrying the HoZac version. Not sure how this other label could have overlooked such a recent reissue, too, that part is pretty mind-boggling. I really felt bad for the other label, but I guess it just shows how much of a hustler David was right up until the end.
PSF: What's your favorite recent release? Which release are you most proud of?
TN: Hmm, probably the Velveteen Rabbit LP, which was really difficult to get finished, but it stands as one of the most indescribable pieces of modern rock'n roll. Otherwise the 14th Wish Archival 7" is a pretty big one, just completely forgotten, and so irresistible!
PSF: What's the current state of the label during COVID times?
TN: I'm certainly glad to have the luxury of working from my home office with few necessary interactions. We're already considering pushing back modern band releases due to the pandemic as to align them with the bands being able to perform again, but we're lucky to have quite a few archival projects to work on in the interim period, however long this lasts. The fact that records and books are pretty much geared toward isolated entertainment is really fortunate for us as well, so we're just really glad to be staying busy and that's keeping the sanity in line over here.
USPS is our lifeline of course so it was really frustrating to see the entanglements from the Trump administration further complicate things, but luckily you only have to affect the mail process ever-so-slightly before crossing into federal crime territory, so it seems like it's getting back to normal. I just ordered an LP from Canada this week and was told to expect a 3-4 week arrival time, and it landed in 9 days, so it's feeling like we're getting back to regular, efficiency-wise.
Official HoZac Records website
HoZac Records Discography
HoZac Archival Discography
HoZac Hookup Club Discography
HoZac OHIO Underground Series Discography
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