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."

By the early Eighties, hardcore was steaming forward creatively on the margins of Middle America with a momentum that British punk had lost, and Hazelmyer was swept up in the tiny local scene dominated by Hüsker Dü and the Replacements. He met Peter Davis and future Babes in Toyland drummer Lori Barbero in Goofy's Upper Deck, an early all-ages punk club upstairs from a strip joint in what's now the parking ramp behind the Target Center. Davis had helped book the Minutemen, Discharge, and others into the club, and Barbero offered her house on 23rd and Garfield as a crash pad for visiting bands. Hazelmyer eventually became friends with both longtime punk movers, practicing in the Troublehouse basement as a member of Tod Lachen and Otto's Chemical Lounge, who were already learning the value of collector-geek chic. "Otto's couldn't afford the $40 a month rent they paid for the basement," remembers Barbero. "So they gave me one of ten T-shirts they made and said, 'Here, take this, it's worth a lot--we only made ten.'"

Hazelmyer stunned his bandmates one spring day in 1983 by announcing that he had decided to join the Marines. "I wasn't going to go to college," he says. "I didn't have the attention span for school. All my punk-rock friends and buddies were saying, 'Reagan's gonna send us to war.' And I was this snotty 18-year-old punk kid saying, 'Yeah, I'm gonna get to shoot people.'" But for a nonpunk whose instinctive iconoclasm rivaled Bob Mould's, Hazelmyer was likely acting on impulses other than a newly cultivated enthusiasm for weaponry. "I think he saw the military as an indispensable step in creating himself," says Rod Smith, who got to know Hazelmyer during his leaves from duty in the mid-Eighties. Not unlike our current governor, who shares the former punker's drive and tough-guy sweetness, Hazelmyer speaks of his military experience as the key to every arena of discipline that informs him.

Stationed in the Pacific Northwest, Hazelmyer drove a pink Cadillac to punk-rock gigs on weekends with Seattle's U-Men, opening for noisy AmRep precursors Big Black, the Butthole Surfers, and Scratch Acid. And during his stays in Minneapolis, he formed a new band, Halo of Flies. Drawing on the same moddish tunefulness and psychedelic noise fueling Hüsker Dü, Haze's smarmy whine and gorgeously caterwauling guitars were prototypical AmRep in their arch attitude and high adrenaline. And when every indie label Hazelmyer approached turned him down for a deal, he decided to put his savings to use by cutting his own records. By the time he was honorably discharged in 1987, the label was snowballing, with no small help from Davis's new booking business, not to mention the steady championing of AmRep bands in the nationally distributed Your Flesh.

Incidents like the Big Mac jag, or such habits as Hazelmyer's gun collecting, may have helped cultivate the jingoist macho image that dogs the 34-year-old to this day. Certainly, the art adorning the Dope, Guns AmRep sleeves, with a bird of prey holding a gun and a baseball bat, was enough to give one pause. And he was at least physically forceful enough to use his muscle when necessary--once putting two fighting members of UFO-rockers Supernova in a headlock, for example. But friends say it was his occasionally impolitic manner as much as his conservative politics--Hazelmyer calls himself a libertarian--that fed the baseless rumor that his shirt was a lighter shade of brown. "I think on some level, he enjoyed the fact that people thought of him as this person that he wasn't," says Mike Wolf, a longtime AmRep employee now living in New York. "He's obviously not a Nazi. And he's not violent or a drug fiend--quite the opposite. He speaks his mind, and he has moderately right-wing beliefs. But he'll argue with you intelligently."

 

More than a few Cosmic Psychos fans know the other alcohol-induced anecdote, the one about Hazelmyer getting ejected three times from his own label showcase at New York's CMJ Music Marathon for charging and tackling the band's bassist onstage. But friends will tell you over and over that, the rare bout of drunken madness aside, Hazelmyer is just an ordinary, good-natured guy. The dyed-in-the-industry musicians in Helmet and Nashville Pussy will testify that Hazelmyer is an anomaly in the business, a plain dealer who makes sure bands are paid, and paid on time. This is no small praise in punk, where label owners from the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra to Black Flag's Greg Ginn have been accused of swindling their artists. When Kozik once flew up from Texas to Minneapolis to hang with his patron for a week, he found the AmRep Mafia don's life "pretty normal." By the Nineties, Haze was married, living in the suburbs, and remarkably levelheaded given the killer image usually hung on him. "Most people who run a successful label have that adult, responsible side and are pretty conservative in their personal life," says Kozick. "They're not out getting fucked up every night. I've met plenty of those people, and they tend to go down in flames."

Instead, Hazelmyer casually tends to a drink at Grumpy's, joking with patrons who used to frequent the bar at 1111 Washington Ave. when it was known as the Roadhouse. Haze has achieved longevity, he says, by paying attention to "nickel-and-dime stuff," and you can see he takes pleasure in getting to know names and faces. He takes as much pride in maintaining a neighborhood feel in the punkified bar as he does in the new floor design and jukebox--stocked with only two AmRep standards, by the way, a compilation album and Helmet's Meantime. Hazelmyer shares ownership with his father, whose metal company jumped ship to rural Tennessee some seven years ago, and also with an old AmRep associate, Dave Peil. And Lori Barbero is there, too, managing the bar for happy hour. "Everyone that he works with, he ends up doing more business with at some point," Barbero says. "He's got a great heart."

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