Hydra Head Records is an independent label that first captured my attention when I was a young man just getting into hardcore and more underground metal. The outfit prides itself on its stellar roster and discography of extreme metal music. HHR was founded in New Mexico by Aaron Turner of Sumac (and Old Man Gloom, Isis, House of Low Culture etc) in 1993.
This interview took place at the end of 2012 through email correspondence and was somehow lost to the labyrinth of my PC’s memory banks. With the recent activity at Hydra Head picking up and with me recently re-locating, this interview seemed relevant. The interview contains some information that may be a little outdated, however, most of the answers are still relevant, informative and fun.
Please enjoy but consider this to be a “lost interview” from 2012.
Can you give us some insight into how exactly Hydra Head came to be and what the goal was at the time?
The goal at the beginning was relatively simple I was very passionately immersed in the world of punk/hc, and to some extent metal, and I wanted to be involved in it in a more direct capacity. I had in mind the idea of finding bands to work with, generally those who were pushing the boundaries of their genre/sub-genre, and being directly involved in creating some or all of the art/design for their releases. Visual art was my second passion along with music and I thought founding a record label would be a great way to bring those things together. I was in my last years of high school (93-95) when Hydra Head was started informally as a distro, and then in the fall of 95 released the first 7-inch.
How’d you come up with the name for the label?
It was based off the title of a book I was reading at the time called Hydra Head or The Hydra Head – I can’t quite remember. I don’t even remember the author’s name at this point, and the content book itself wasn’t what I found inspiring. It was more about the literal idea of a multi-headed beast – one entity from which many minds/heads sprang. The implied ferocity and near invulnerability of such a creature was probably appealing to me on a subconscious level as well.
Hydra Head had a really powerful roster from the start; how did you initially select the bands to work with?
As I said above, I was really interested in bands who had an approach to what they were doing that was truly creative – taking an established sound, stretching and bending it into new, and sometimes almost entirely unrecognizable forms. Regional proximity was part of it at first, simply because where I was had something to do with who I worked with, the bands I saw at local shows. Later this ceased to be the case, and wasn’t really a goal to begin with. Another thing that developed for me/us along the way was a desire to work with artists we could get along with on a personal level. This actually became almost as important, and in some cases more so than the music itself.
Who came up with all the elaborate packaging concepts ? (Melvins 4xLP, Torche – Meanderthal CD/LP, Xasthur CD/DVD combo)
Some times I came up with these ideas, sometimes the artists themselves, sometimes an outside design or a combo of those things – it really depended on the project. I always wanted to have not only good artwork and design for the albums, but when possible deluxe and/or elaborate packaging. I loved the idea of records being multi-faceted events, a total experience for the viewer/listener.
It seems like almost every major upcoming hardcore/metal act of the 90’s and start of the 21st century somehow wound up with a release on your label. How does it feel to have had so many hugely influential bands on the label at one point or another? Bands like Botch, Converge and Cave In come to mind.
I never had the idea that we would cultivate an influential roster of artists, but my focus of forward thinking bands had something to do with that, though to what degree I can’t say for sure. Some of it also had to do with where I was, the friends I made through other friends and the fact that like minded individuals have a way of finding each other. Been an avid consumer of music had something to do with it as well – I would have never come to working with or discovering a lot of the bands I did if it weren’t for the fact that I was constantly seeking out new music.
Can you name a band that never worked with Hydra Head Records but that you would have liked to have released something by?
I can think of plenty – an endless list probably, but I’m not sure how important that is. I feel very lucky to have worked with all the bands/artists we have and still shocked that we were able to do that. The fact that so many of my favorite records have come out on Hydra Head is to me, one of the most amazing aspects of the labels existence.
When you listen to bands within the scene now are there any that strike you as having been influenced by your label upon hearing them alone?
I do notice that what we’ve been involved with has had an appreciable impact, but more through our artists than the label itself. I hear plenty of bands that are clearly indebted to many of the artists we’ve worked with, and to an extent I can assume that some of those bands may be aware of the label as a whole. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this though, but once in a while I’ll hear something and think to myself “Hmmnnn that does sound awfully familiar…”
When did you start to feel like the label was starting down the road to closure?
I knew we were in trouble well over a year ago, but didn’t know the full extent of the trouble until very recently. I had turned a blind eye to our financial affairs over the years and just assumed everything would work itself out, and that’s a part of the reason we’ve ended up where we have. This denial on my part is regretful, but I’m glad now to have a chance to turn it around, even if only so that we can keep a lot of our great releases in print and available.
How hard was it to finally push “enter” and upload that farewell note to the Hydra Head blog knowing what it meant?
The hardest aspect of this whole thing was having to tell a handful of artists we weren’t going to be able to release their next record – I think that more than anything was really troubling. Beyond just wanting to be involved in what will surely be great records, I was sorry to have to tell people for the first time in our history that we weren’t going to be able to help them with their releases after having already agreed to do so.
What does the future look like for Aaron Turner?
Bright I’d say. Though this situation with HHR is difficult it also presents us with an opportunity to better ourselves and become more a more reliable company. I’m not 100 % convinced that we can pull this off, even as a catalog-only entity, but we’re certainly going to do our best. Beyond that I will continue making music with various bands and projects as well as on my own. I’m also doing SIGE Records along with my partner and wife Faith Coloccia, and we’ve purposely kept that entity quite small to ensure its sustainability. There is plenty to do and plenty of plans, now it’s just a matter of finding the time to do it.
You seem to have had a very close relationship with most of the artists on the label, something I witnessed more than once myself at fests. Your “crew” for lack of a better term seemed fairly tight knit. Do you still communicate with bands on the label?
Relationships with some artists have come and gone, but for the most part I’m friends with, or at the very least friendly with many of the people we’ve worked with along the way. Some of the HHR roster, past and present, constitute some of my best friends in the world, and Hydra Head also [introduced] me to my wife Faith Coloccia who I came to know when Hydra Head signed her former band Everlovely Lightningheart. To say that HHR facilitated some of my most important relationships would be an understatement.
Do you think the West Coast re-location had any impact on the success of the label?
No – I think what we were doing was well in motion by that point, and actually, looking back on it now, I’d say our last few years in Boston were our high point – at least in terms of how publicly prominent the label and our active artists were at the time. Success is hard to define though, and I’d say my definition of our success would have more to do with the quality of the music we released versus how many copies of any given release we sold. Some of what I consider our most successful releases are amongst those that sold the least.
How do you think the internet has impacted the underground music scene in particular?
That is an enormous topic and one that would be hard to for me concisely summarize. The internet, the accessibility and related disposability of all music, and the ways in which people experience music as a result are both positive and negative. I think it’s great that people from anywhere who have access to the internet can find out about and listen such a vast wealth of music and hopefully it’s helped broaden people’s’ horizons as a result. I would also say that easy accessibility to all forms of music has sped up the rate at which music is evolving, which is interesting to consider. On the other hand, it’s becoming harder and harder to finance recordings and packaging of higher quality because people are more and more reluctant to actually spend money on music when they can easily get it for free. It also seems that because so much music is so readily available the overall value of any artist’s work is diminished and people’s attention spans are waning.
Did you knowingly choose Sept 11/2012 for the announcement of the Hydra Head shut down?
No, it was purely coincidental. To equate or associate the closing of a record label with the deaths of thousands and the subsequent wars that were justified by that event would be beyond arrogant. In hindsight maybe that wasn’t good timing, but at the time we released that statement I just wanted to get on with our “death” and start dealing with the consequences.
Obviously you’re still involved in the arts, but do you plan on doing anything besides music and layout/design work?
I have all kinds of plans for both musical and visual work, but what I’ll actually end up doing is hard to say. I’ve de-prioritized making visual art to focus on making music, but I’ve never lost interest and could see myself pursuing it more seriously at some point in the future. I’ll still get a lot of satisfaction out of making artwork and doing design for musical projects, so I think at the very least I’ll continue to do that for the foreseeable future.
Could you list all of your current projects?
And as of yet unnamed projects, or projects that will be named in conjunction with/under the names of the collaborators:
with William Fowler Collins
with Daniel Menche
What record labels do you find yourself drawn to these days?
Again, the list could be ridiculously long, but I’ll limit to just a few – these would be labels that I would consider in some way part of the same lineage as Hydra Head, or the kind of operations that still make labels a relevant activity – that is those that possess one or more of the following qualities: a good curatorial eye, are run on a sound ethical/ideological platform, maintain a consistent level of quality regardless of genre, have great presentation with their releases, etc: Gilead Media, Editions Mego, Profound Lore, Touch, Ideological Organ, Chondritic Sound, Hospital Productions, Taiga Records, Youth Attack, Ektro Records, Norma Evangelium Diaboli, Type Records, and on and on….
Thoughts on current music sound, current bands or artists you really like? Any the general public should be aware of?
I won’t make another lengthy list – I think checking out releases from any of the labels above would be a good start, and on my blog I often list records and artists to which I’m currently listening. I will say this though – there seems to be a jaded perspective on music that is quite prevalent, and it revolves around the idea that there “isn’t any good music any more” or “things have changed”, and while it’s true things have changed, that is a necessary and wonderful thing to behold. The idea that there isn’t any good music any more sounds completely foreign to me – maybe there’s just so much music available now and it’s easier to make recordings that the “market” is flooded with a lot of mediocre sounds, but there are a ton of great artists currently active – on a weekly basis I discover at least one or more great artists or records that were previously unknown to me. Beyond what’s new, older and previously really obscure music is now much easier to obtain, so if anyone says they can’t find enough good music I’d say the problem lies more with their perspective and potentially a cultivated jadedness rather than a lack of inspiring sound.
Married life, how you are you liking it?
Along with being born, discovering music and art, getting married is the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s definitely brought about many positive changes for me and broadened my perspective in some very unexpected ways.
How has it affected your artwork and perception of the world around you?
I am much better at having critical discussions about art and music now than I was in the past. I used to be a lot more defensive, even when receiving constructive criticism, and being with Faith and having the opportunity to have really in depth discussions about what I’m doing or we’re doing in a friendly context has made a huge difference for me. This more acceptant and open attitude has had a really positive impact on my work and sharpened my mind in the process. As far as the world around me, being married has heightened my level of awareness of other people and allowed me to become a more empathetic and compassionate person. Through getting to know someone else I’ve also gotten to know myself a lot better and faced a lot of issues that I spent most of my life running away from. I’d like to think that I’d have come to some of these things on my own, but I have to say my personal evolution has certainly been sped up and enriched by getting married to Faith.
I’m not asking you to pick favorites or name names, but can you pick your favorite 25 Hydra Head releases and name them for us? (that was my idea of an e-joke… sad, I know)
Oh boy – that’s a really tough one, and I’m sure I’ll leave some out (and I’ve excluded projects I’ve played in even though those are some of my favorites as well)… This may not be the definitive list, nor would these be in order, but here’s what comes to mind immediately: Bergraven “Dödsvisioner”, Oxbow “The Narcotic Story”, Mare s/t EP, Botch “We are the Romans”, Everlovely Lightningheart “Cusp”, Discordance Axis “The Inalienable Dreamless”, Jesu s/t, Khlyst s/t, Cave In “Until Your Heart Stops”, Bohren & Der Club of Gore “Dolores”, The Austerity Program “Black Madonna”, Khanate “Clean Hands Go Foul”, Cave In “Jupiter”, Keelhaul “II”, Helms Alee “Weatherhead”, Knut “Challenger”, Harvey Milk “A Small Turn of Human Kindness”, Pyramids s/t, Boris and Merzbow “Sun Baked Snow Cave”, Pelican s/t EP, v/a In These Black Days 7″ series, Cavity “On the Lam”, Neurosis “Sovereign”, Craw “Bodies for Strontium 90”, Botch “American Nervoso”….
Is there anything in those questions that I missed that you would like to address?
I don’t think so… except to say what I’ve been saying over and over lately – that is I’m extremely grateful that Hydra Head exists, I’m grateful that it has meant as much in some instances to other people as it has to me, I’m grateful that I/we were able to be a part of releasing so many truly amazing albums, and I’m happy that my life was permanently altered by this unruly and reckless beast.