According to HoZac Records cofounder Brett Cross, success for a fledgling record label isn't really obtained as much as it's realized. "You've got to let it happen organically. If you push that shit, you might end up prolapsing your rectum."
It was 40 releases in when HoZac—the don't-just-call-'em-garage label founded by Cross and Todd Novak in 2006—dropped the much-hyped Smith Westerns debut self-titled LP and found itself in an uncharted territory of publicity. Not only was it the first full-length from the local trio of young'uns (who went on to sign with Fat Possum), but it also happened to be the first 12-inch record for HoZac, which had till then stuck to small runs of seven-inch singles from the likes of Blank Dogs, the Box Elders, Jacuzzi Boys, and Davila 666. Novak not-so-jokingly concedes they were afraid to do albums at first because they didn't know where to put them.
"It was our Trojan horse," Cross says of the Smith Westerns.
"It got us into these weird places that we'd never been or had any of our records reviewed," Novak follows. "There's been some people who have never reviewed any of our records except for the Smith Westerns, but we've got their contact info, so we go ahead and bombard them now."
With the record's success—not to mention a push from releasing the first pressing of the Dum Dum Girls debut LP, I Will Be, in 2010—Novak was able to focus on the label full-time after losing his job of 13 years at AWH Skateboard Distribution in Niles (formerly located in Evanston). When asked if all-day label life ever became brain numbing, addled by an apartment packed with vinyl and an endless barrage of e-mails, Novak spins it positive. "I actually don't mind taking a walk and putting up posters. I don't mind driving to the post office. One day I do Web ads, one day accounting. I like doing every part of it. It's not overwhelming."
The label mutated from the popular (and sometimes raunchy infamous) underground punk zine Horizontal Action that Novak, 38, and Cross, 40, released 15 issues of between '97 and '05. The zine also spawned the recently revived Blackout Fest (see: two weekends ago). HoZac predictably began small and aimed low with its first pair of releases: HZR-001 was a seven-inch EP from Volt—a synth-loud French band with members who were old friends of the zine—and HZR-002 was by the duo Spider—featuring Erin Wood of the Spits—that HoZac discovered through MySpace.
If you're capable of harking back to the days when MySpace wasn't one huge fucking banner ad, it actually provided a useful tool to track down bands—and bands who were "friends" with those bands—and so on.
"Every band would pretty much list their influences as their top friends on MySpace. I can't believe how much stuff I discovered just through that," Novak says. "It's too bad somebody can't do myspace2005.com and have the site be exactly what it was."
Even before Novak sold all of his Star Wars toys and Cross kicked in some cash to release that first round of records, the longtime friends had batted around the idea of starting the label. "We knew it was looming, we just didn't know when we'd do it," Novak explains. "[Local label] Shit Sandwich was going pretty strong. So was Criminal IQ. We'd throw bands to them and they'd put the records out. Then all of the sudden, there was just nothing there."
And so when the pair finally decided to take the plunge, they tapped into their resources at garage/punk cohorts like In the Red, Dusty Medical, and Douchemaster. Located in LA, Milwaukee, and Atlanta respectively, the labels helped school HoZac with info about what they charged and how to get in touch with Revolver for distribution.
Cross and Novak now push a catalog of nearly 120 releases. And neither is interested in overstepping the parameters of a successful indie label and threatening their collective sanity.
"We can't really put out more records than we do, I know that," Novak explains. "Just because we put out 22 records last year, we can't be like, 'Let's do 44 this year.' It's the law of diminishing returns—the 12th doughnut. You don't want that doughnut."