Dope, Guns, and Settling Down

How Amphetamine Reptile changed American music--and then went into the bar business

It's the early Nineties, and Tom Hazelmyer is running through the streets of post-Cold War Berlin, shirtless and intoxicated, his bulky, ex-Marine's physique not having given way yet to late-20s girth. He has just toured Europe for a month with his Minneapolis band Halo of Flies, a taut and belligerent counterpoint to the messy and emotive Replacements. And he's fed up with lectures from German punks about how violent Americans are. This is the country that once elected Hitler, right? So he now runs with a sense of drunken purpose, a McDonald's Big Mac in each hand, shouting, "USA! USA!" in Homer Simpson fashion. At least, that's how it sounds in the most legendary anecdote about the owner of Amphetamine Reptile, the punk label that stands among the most successful indies ever to emerge from Minneapolis.

"I had a little bit of a reactionary streak just to get under people's skin," says Hazelmyer now, sitting in one of his custom-designed bar stools at Grumpy's, his newly opened downtown Minneapolis pub. Haze, as friends call him, has "settled" somewhat since his Halo days, playing guitar exclusively for his four-year-old and eight-month-old daughters and concentrating his labors on the three Grumpy's bars he co-owns with friends and family--including one in Coon Rapids and one in northeast Minneapolis. But while the past is somewhat blurry, he offers a correction to the above account. First of all, he was actually filling in for Killdozer's guitarist on tour. "And I didn't take my shirt off," he says with a smile, glancing down at his bearish frame. "I never take my shirt off."

That Hazelmyer's famously contrary persona could still figure prominently in Minneapolis punk lore seems to show how enduring Amphetamine Reptile's profile remains, despite having sold its recording studio two years ago, pared down its roster, and watched its cultural moment go the way of the lambada and David Lynch. Created in order to put out Halo singles in the mid-Eighties, AmRep is one of those indie names that, for better or worse, became internationally identified with an ethos more than a style. AmRep's gestalt was often called, simply, Noise (the third word in its extended title)--a tag encompassing the speedy sludge of Hammerhead, the popular trumpet-bleating of the Cows, and, most famously, Helmet, whose tight blasts of guitar static are usually associated with the so-called AmRep sound, a term that bugs Hazelmyer to no end. To promote the label, its owner dragged these bands and a slew of others (see "AmRep's Greatest Noise," below) under the emphatically apolitical Dope, Guns, and Fucking in the Streets banner, a title shared by a series of seven-inch compilations on the label. With his own sleeve designs, and poster art by underground graphics faves such as Frank Kozik, he helped create the image of AmRep as a haven for hedonistic, gun-toting urban rubes, all united around an aggressive pace and a disdain for any brand of punk bloated with earnestness or earning potential.

AmRep eventually benefited from "alternative," building its aforementioned studios with money from Helmet's major-label jump in 1991. And Hazelmyer scored a recent left-field success with Nashville Pussy, whose manager, Your Flesh editor Peter Davis, is an old ally. But while Hazelmyer and Grumpy's business partner Pat Dwyer keep the back catalog stocked, Haze seems to take as much care developing Smoke King, his line of customized Zippo lighters adorned by Kozik, R. Crumb, Coop, and other trash-art greats. Even so, when I meet the goateed, chain-smoking label maven in his offices one floor above the small Grumpy's in northeast, I'm surprised to learn that he has quietly decided to stop releasing new music altogether.

With human-shaped firing-range art hanging behind him, Hazelmyer presents a couple of cardboard shipping boxes filled with seven-inch singles--the medium that first put labels like AmRep and Sub Pop on the subcultural map. As I soon infer, these sleeveless pressings of the debut record by the Heroine Sheiks, the new band with Cows singer Shannon Selberg, could well be the label's last. "The past year was just like a ray of light from God," says Hazelmyer. "I didn't want to do this anymore, and all of a sudden every band had either left, gone completely inactive, or disbanded." For instance, new-wave revivalists Servotron signed to Lookout; Lollipop stopped performing or recording; the Cows went on hiatus; and Calvin Krime and the Freedom Fighters both called it quits. "It was cool because I'd been looking for a way out without hurting any of the people that I had committed to," he says. "That kept me in this business longer than I wanted, anyhow."

 

Hazelmyer's slow drift into the record business began when his family moved to Minneapolis in 1979, after his father landed a management position in a local architectural metal plant. The teenage Hazelmyer attended North High School, where he was the only punk fan he knew; his appetite had been whetted a year before by a cover photo of the Sex Pistols on Creem. "I used to listen to the Hendrix version of 'Wild Thing' on Monterey Pop over and over," he says. "The last three minutes are all feedback and smashing guitar, and I remember seeing a picture of Johnny Rotten and thinking, 'That guy's gotta be as fucked up as the end of "Wild Thing."

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