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Label Oral Histories: Hefty Records


Monday, October 23, 2006

As part of a six-week online series, STOP SMILING will be posting oral histories from the founders of several successful independent record labels who have helped shape the Chicago music scene. Included are insights from the staffs of Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Brilliante Records, Bloodshot, Flameshovel and Hefty Records. These posts will appear on Mondays throughout October.

View previous posts here
Week 1: Touch and Go
Week 2: Thrill Jockey
Week 3: Brilliante Records
Week 4: Bloodshot Records
Week 5: Flameshovel


Label Oral Histories: Hefty Records

By Patrick Sisson

Hefty Records owner John Hughes III has always been a tinkerer. Even as a 10-year-old he sat creating primitive tape loops on a boombox. He?s been obsessed with the minutae of music ever since. This mindset has helped make Hefty, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, a small but successful indie label with a roster of influential electronic artists. Recent albums like Telefon Tel Avis's critically acclaimed Maps of What is Effortless and the latest installment of Hughes's solo project, Slicker, exemplify the Hefty sound: an immaculately constructed hybrid of the synthetic and the organic.

Hughes started Hefty in his dorm room in 1996 as an outlet for his own projects, which included the experimental group Bill Ding. Even after relocating to Chicago and expanding his roster, Hughes kept a start-up's sense of improvisation and experimentation, cultivating the work of pioneering electronic musicians like Scott Herren (via his Savath & Savalas alias). Hughes also branched out into the risky business of reissues, championing two forgotten albums by the Detroit jazz collective Tribe and its frontman, Phil Ranelin, as well as joining Aestuarium Records to co-release On the Beach by Chicago's own Philip Cohran and the Artistic Heritage Ensemble. Hughes also started the Immediate Action limited-edition singles series in 2000.

STOP SMILING recently spoke with Hughes at Hefty's Chicago office, a loft-like space filled with shelves of records and scattered desks. An affable character with a shaggy haircut, Hughes settled down in the lounge to speak about the label's first 10 years of Hefty. Later, Joshua Eustis, one of the members of Telefon Tel Aviv, added his comments via phone.

Stop Smiling: How old were you when you started making music?

John Hughes III: I must have been 10 or 11. I was just fooling around. There was a keyboard in our house, a Juno-60. By the time I was 12 or 13, I started working with a sampling drum machine. Then I really knew that's what I wanted to do. Going through high school, I wanted to learn how to record bands. I'm an intuitive learner, so I can't read a manual or learn by taking a class. I just wanted to get more hands-on experience, so I would invite over the kids who wanted to perform or do vocals.

SS: When you said to yourself, ?I'm going to start a label,? what was the next step?

JH: It started out slow ? I was trying to figure out where to get the records pressed. At the time I didn't think about putting out other people's records. I knew it would take some time to get to that, to get that confidence. It's a lot bigger deal if you screw up other people's records.

SS: Why did you choose the name Hefty?

JH: It totally came out of nowhere. I liked it because it sounded optimistic. And it had a conquering tone to it.

SS: The label started with more rock-oriented groups like Euphone and Bill Ding. But by 1999-2000, the focus had shifted to more electronic music. What caused that shift?

JH: I actually think that there was an electronic influence on both the Bill Ding and Euphone records, but it was definitely more obscured. We also did do some even more rock-oriented records. When I started Hefty those records represented where my head was at, but eventually I wanted to bring that electronic influence to the forefront. I took Hefty there because it's where I felt comfortable. It's where I wanted to take my own music, so it only made sense that it be part of the label's shift as well. Slicker came right on the heels of Bill Ding's break-up.

SS: How did you first meet Scott Herren?

JH: He had put out a couple 12?s in Atlanta, and he got in touch with me after he heard Slicker. It was really weird, but that's how a lot of this works. Throwing that first Slicker record out there led me to some interesting electronic musicians who were hiding out in their bedrooms.

SS: So putting out these records is like a feedback loop?

JH: Yeah, it's great. You throw it out there and see what comes back in the mail. To me, that's a really natural way of developing your sound, seeing how other musicians out there react to your music and then bringing them into the fold to see if it's something that can connect to the last record. One of my great joys of running a label is being able to be the first one to hear music. But I've literally listened to everything I've received. I remember when Telefon Tel Aviv sent me their demo via FedEx. I was like, "Who the fuck FedExes a demo?"

Joshua Eustis: Charlie Cooper and I overnighted him our demo, and later the next day, we get a phone call. "This is John Hughes from Hefty. I got your demo and I liked it. I'm going to a hockey game, but I'll call you later." That night, he called and we talked for three hours, getting super-hyped.

SS: Many other Hefty releases, like Fahrenheit Fair Enough by Telefon Tel Aviv, combined elements of the electronic with the organic. That was a very original sound at the time, especially coming out of America.

JH: I think we were trying to forge our own identity. At that time, Chicago was so identified with post-rock. When I was putting out a record here and people called it post-rock, I was dying ? not because I didn't like post-rock, because I totally loved what was going on in Chicago and still do ? but I wanted Hefty to have its own identity. When Scott and Telefon started making music, I felt it was what we needed to bust out and form our own identity.

It was also a crazy time for indie labels. If you think about it, how many independent labels have started up in the last 10 years and survived? Before Hefty launched, all the labels like Thrill Jockey, Warp and Matador ? all those that are 10-to-15 years old ? cropped up. But since then, there haven't been many. So I was always feeling that we were in the shadows, and I was always trying to find the right sound.

SS: What does the term "electronic music" mean to you?

JH: The term electronic music implies a sort of musical freedom. You don't necessarily have to go into a studio, where an hourly fee is constantly dangling over the recording process. You can keep working on your composition until it's right. Electronic music is definitely about working with electronic sounds on electronic equipment, but it's more the process that interests me. A lot of people say electronic music is over, and I think Hefty is there trying to save it. We think there's still a lot of life in it.

SS: Hefty has such a collective feel, with many artists appearing on other albums.

JH: I think it's the most interesting thing about building a label. It's not just about one trendy record. It's about building something up.

JE: Lindsay Anderson from L'altra worked on our records, we contributed to the last Slicker record ? Hefty's community is an incestuous little group. And there's a lot of freedom. John always says, "Do your thing: I signed you because I trust you." He's like a dude at a table who just spins a top and lets it go where it wants. He just makes sure it doesn't fall off the table.

SS: Is it difficult to play the parts of label owner and artist?

JH: You have to avoid being selfish. I have to make sure I'm not the only one steering the sound of the label. That's why Scott Herren was so great, and that's why Josh Eustis and Lindsay Anderson, who reappear on projects here and there, are great. You have put the pieces together, build the team and step away.

SS: Had Hefty ever put together a big tour?

JH: We put together an Immediate Action tour when that series was first coming out. It was myself, Telefon and Twine. That was a pretty defining moment, because that was my first tour. I wasn?t into touring initially, but I finally got the strength to get up and play out. So we went down to New Orleans, and our first date was 9/11. So we cancelled the first half of those dates. But what was important was that it was a great bonding experience. We went our and played the rest of the dates, and it felt pretty good.

SS: Did you perform that day?

JH: That show didn't happen. There was obviously tension, and we cancelled those dates. It was a defining moment to be around the people on the label on that day. Everyone has his or her 9/11 story. I'll always remember being down there with those guys.

SS: What does being a decade-old label mean to you?

JH: I think it's a chance for people to revisit Hefty and learn about the label. And, give us some respect, we've been here for 10 years. We also put out a semi-traditional best-of album with a mix by Prefuse 73 (Hefty 10 Digest). It's a history of the label.

SS: Where do you see Hefty going in the future?

JE: Hefty is constantly in flux. It's had a soul slant over the last few years. It's slick, smart and tasteful. It's always being nipped, tucked and expanded.

SS: What does Chicago bring to Hefty and what does Hefty bring to Chicago?

JH: I think the label's personality is consistent with the way Chicago works. You just put your head down and do it. You might not get a lot of praise, and it might piss you off, but it'll make you work harder. Ultimately, it's not a city where people sit around talking about what they're doing. Usually people like that in Chicago don't last that long.


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