Film and TV

The Color of Noise Doc Offers In-Depth Look at AmRep Records Founder

At the end of Eric Robel's Kickstarter funded documentary The Color of Noise, there is a montage of artists that were on or associated with the Tom Hazelmyer's groundbreaking record label Amphetamine Reptile Records (AmRep) that attempt to describe the alternative music Svengali in one word. These words range anywhere from genius to liar, and -- not even the crudest adjective used -- asshole. It's hard to pin down a man who went from a revered guitarist in bands such as Otto's Chemical Lounge (with Bob Mould co-producing their first single to boot) and Halo of Flies to independent label head to artist Haze XXL.

See also: 10 Classic Punk Records that Actually Kind of Suck

The film makes an unfocused attempt to distill Hazelmyer's essence and how it led to AmRep's unprecedented success. The ex-Marine, armed with discipline, great musical taste, and a keen business sense, would go on to sign some of the most important artists of the late '80s and early '90s, including Helmet, Boss Hog, and The Melvins. Instead of keeping its focus on the mogul, who is more than worthy of the attention, the film instead becomes a colorful oral history of the bands he signed to his label, such as The Cows and God Bullies. They frequently share stories of dropping acid and getting into fights. Hazelmyer chimes in occasionally with why he signed them, but it usually devolves into a story about drunkenness, drugs, and nudity from both males and females. There's a lot of arguing and varying points of view, which makes the viewer wonder if Hazelmyer was leading a collective of artists or a tour bus full of drunken reprobates.

AmRep was created in response to the trend of the accelerating speed of songs in punk rock during the early 1980's. Audiences would jump on stage and slam dance as a result. From here, bands could go one of three ways: continue to go even faster, become more melodic, or go metal. AmRep offered the opportunity to go outside the box and become ambitious. After the label created a distribution deal with TwinTone Records in Minneapolis, Hazelmyer was able to devote himself full time to procuring new music to release. He found a vibrant scene in Australia, where he came upon Lubricated Goat, who were already notorious in their native country for showing off more penis than a Judd Apatow comedy, but also used his business sense to send his vibrant roster across Europe to find an eager fan base hungry for a new sound.

Hazelmyer describes the story of AmRep's 25 years in the crudest and colorful of sexual metaphors. When Nirvana's overnight success caused his roster to dwindle, he told the bands to go, but he made sure he bent major labels "over the couch" and got money from them before they signed his bands away. His tenacity prevented him from being a farm system for Interscope and Geffen. In hindsight, Hazelmeyer continues to thrive and the label system is a shadow of its former self, but Robel never links it all together. AmRep started releasing special editions of it's vinyl releases just as the wax renaissance began. Many of the musicians Hazelmyer was associated with have gone on to influence music today. Kristen Pfaff of Janitor Joe would go on to be the bassist of Hole as they were working on their breakthrough album Live Through This. She later died of a drug overdose. Superchunk, who appeared on an AmRep compilation, doesn't even get a mention in the doc, but the members of the band went on to create Merge Records, who released albums from Arcade Fire, Spoon, and Neutral Milk Hotel.

More notably, AmRep inspired a revival in music poster art, led by artist Frank Kozik. His posters depicting The Flintstones homeless on skid row or a portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald with a microphone instead of a gun in his face was able to catch the attention of designer and music fan alike. His captivating art work for the myriad of bands AmRep had on it's roster was churned out at an exponential rate. Kozik planted creative seeds in the minds of artists like Shepherd Fairey and Chris "Coop" Cooper, who would both go on to design posters for bands on the AmRep roster. After Hazelmyer gets meningitis and goes into a come for five days, he awakens as a prolific artist himself

The Color of Noise was made for music fans familiar with AmRep's legacy. Viewers going into the director's cut of the film cold could get lost in the feedback pretty quick. There are nuggets to behold for diehard fans, but it takes two hours of work to get there.

The Color of Noise is scheduled to screen Saturday, November 15, at FilmBar.

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Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil