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The Color of Noise: An interview with the Director of a Documentary About the Notorious Amphetamine Reptile Records

The label started in a grenade crate in a military bunk and released albums by Unsane, Mudhoney, and the Melvins.

by Noisey Staff
Sep 11 2014, 5:25pm

In 1986, Tom Hazelmyer released the first single by his band Halo of Flies. The seven-inch, “Rubber Room” b/w “Thoughts in a Booth” was released in a tiny edition of 200. Hazelmyer’s hopes were that the record would get them signed to a “real” label. Those hopes went unrealized, and thus was born one of the most influential record label of the 80s and 90s.

The Color of Noise, a film produced and directed by Eric Robel tells the tale of the label that, in the early days, was run out of a hand grenade crate tucked under Hazelmyer’s bunk while he was a member of the United States Marine Corps. That label would grow, and Hazelmyer would release influential records from bands like Helmet, Cows, Surgery, Melvins, Unsane, Hammerhead, Boss Hog, Mudhoney and Today is the Day.

In addition to the music, Hazelmyer enlisted artists such as Chris Mars, Frank Kozik, Derek Hess, and Coop to produce artwork/posters for the bands that released records on the AmRep imprint.

Sub Pop, Dischord, Matador and Touch and Go may have been more popular during AmRep’s heyday but were they better? Did they produce a more fulfilling product? Not by a long shot. If you wanted to get punched in the face visually and aurally you picked up an AmRep release. As Long Gone John of Sympathy for the Record Industry says in the film, AmRep was about “the things Tom like to do—eating meat, drinking, shooting guns.”

Hazelmyer, whether he likes it or not, is an icon. His label is legendary. Chris Spencer of Unsane, while being interviewed for the film, states simply and correctly, “AmRep was the shit.”

The Color of Noise will begin screenings on the East Coast on September 17. Noisey interviewed Robel about his film ahead of those screenings.

Noisey: Why Tom Hazelmyer and why now?
Eric Robel: When thinking about the prospect of producing a doc about Amphetamine Reptile Records, I spoke to a few colleagues and friends about it first. The reaction was positive, but the enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that it might be mainly about their favorite music artists on the label. When I mentioned Tom's name, it was like, "Who's Tom?"

Thus, I knew I had a story there, and the idea of combining a personal story with these huge influential musicians and poster artists was a obvious winning combination.

What was your introduction to AmRep and what was the appeal for you, the art or the music for you?
I am from Baltimore, so there was a record store called Reptilian Records owned by Chris X. I popped in from a friend's recommendation who turned me on to the first Helmet record, and I immediately loved the vibe there. I was renting Godzilla movies there at first, but Chris is the type of person who taps into your brain - finds your passions and accurately points you in the right direction. This is what I miss about record stores by the way. Anyway after a while, I would randomly walk in and he would yell "Eric! you're gonna dig this!" and so on. Touch and Go and AmRep seemed to call to me so he started calling me AmRep Eric. I liked heavy music, but not Heavy Metal per se. The combination of punk rock and heavy noisy sounds really got me going. I was attracted mainly to Cows, Hammerhead and Helmet. The art was just part of the background—seeing a COOP or a Derek Hess poster with all my favorite bands listed on them seemed to be some sort of genius marketing scheme that was aimed at me personally—the art's content reflected the vibe of the label.

Did you find that there were people that were interested in AmRep for one of those two reasons or was it always an overlap?
What is not known commonly is the fact that Tom helped these people in some personal way to get their careers going. This was the tie-in for me as a filmmaker, the more I did research about Tom the more I discovered that he was in many ways responsible for certain achievements in these artists lives.

In some cases like with Derek Hess for instance, Tom was not too involved, but what inspired Derek to book bands in Cleveland and to do posters for his shows was the new sounds that were popping up in the late 80s and early 90s. This was a new type of heavy music, noisy but still punk rock. Derek's first real poster was for Cows.

The blog for the film began in 2011, were there difficulties in getting the film finished? Did it ever turn into a labor of love?
It was always a labor of love from the very start, all the way until the finish. My biggest hurdle was always editorial, the story is big and it includes a lot of artists and musicians. So putting all of that together had to be right. So we restructured a couple times. Our original timeline was two years, but it ended up taking three. Then we waited out the time it takes for the festival decision making process. The film was in the running for SXSW all the way until the last week, and it got into a couple of others. But having the invite by Third Man Records was the decision to go with. I can't thank Jack White and his team enough for letting me premiere there. Tom reaffirmed, it made sense that showing the film in not one of the big cities was more closely to how AmRep operated since the beginning.

How anxious were bands / artists / Hazelmyer to be involved in the project?
The excitement was overwhelming to be a part of the doc for people. About 99 percent of all participants had nothing but great things to say about their experience with the label and Tom. When I would meet with the bands and artists for their interviews, there was always a great sense of respect and good-humored fun to be had.

Was there anyone you wanted involved that you couldn’t get, and if so, why?
I wanted to interview a couple people that just didn't work out based on unavailability at the time, but most of the really important participants were available and willing.

Some that I wished I could have got in there were Corey Parks from Nashville Pussy, John Mohr from Tar and John Bigly from the U-Men. But I got ALL of the Thrown Ups so nothing else matters in the world.

Tom Hazelmyer and Eric Robel

How many interviews did you conduct and how much footage did that result in?
I interviewed over 50 people, two cameras for about 2-3 hours each session. That's a fierce amount of data when transferring to GB space. I logged every interview and backed up on Blu-Ray media, so none of it was wasted. I think I over-did it all, but felt the need to get complete stories of those particular artists and bands in order to have choices. When I started the project, it was very open-ended, which can be scary as a film-maker. But during editorial, things came together and was pieced together with open content to choose from, so I had that going for me, which is nice.

What was the most memorable exchange with an artist / musician during the process?Honestly, the entire interviewing experience was a pleasure. A lot of work, but fun. Michael Dimmitt and I traveled the country a few times on "interview tours," which was always different and a total adventure. We like to party, so it was like being on tour. But there were certain moments of experiencing profound states of being in awe.

Interviewing Jello Biafra at his home in the middle of the night was an experience I will never forget. We were very professional, and he was a hard catch because he doesn't really do these kind of things very often, I mean for documentaries about someone else, which brings up the next point: people were honored to do interviews for a doc about Tom. There is some kind of special place in each person's being that either admire or respect what Tom did for them. Back to Jello though, he showed us his record collection, played music, and was a great host. He even did a voice over for the opening of the film for me through Skype later on. He is the best.

Will there be extras of the unused material available on a DVD or elsewhere? How much unused footage do you have in both interviews and live shows?
I have some special extras in mind that I am working on. I can't reveal them now, but they aren't just "extended songs" or more interviews per se. I have some really interesting historical pieces in the works with new characters not in the film. There will no doubt be some complete performances as well… and some surprises!

What words were most used to describe Hazelmyer by those that worked with him?
“Meat,” “guns,” “drinking”… maybe that should have been the name of the seven-inch series!

What was the most surprising thing you found out about Hazelmyer?
That the man really has a great ear and eye for emerging talent to this day. Some people don't stay in the game after so many years, but Tom really loves music and art, and he has the uncanny ability to identify greatness at the early stages of people's artistic careers. It surprised me that he sometimes rides a bike and eats a salad.

If you had to describe Hazelmyer to those that only know him through the rumors and innuendo, how would you do so?
I would tell them it's all true.

Now that the movie is finished and had its premiere, what are your plans for The Color of Noise?
People have been contacting me from all over the world about screening. But more properly, I am putting together mini-tours where Tom in fact will be joining me here and there for some of them. Looks pretty tight for mid-late September on the east coast, then screening in the mid-west and west throughout the Fall. DVD/Blu-Ray by end of year.

The Color of Noise will be screened on the following dates:

9/17 Richmond, VA Strange Matter
9/18 Washington DC Rock And Roll Hotel
9/19 TBA
9/20 Philadelphia, PA Underground Arts
9/21 New York, NY Highline Ballroom