The Interview: John Hughes III, Hefty Records

By Sarah Dahnke in Arts & Entertainment on May 22, 2006 1:08PM

Well, it’s birthday season, and to join in the fun, Chicago-based Hefty Records is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The self-proclaimed label of “future roots music” is run by Mr. John Hughes III. (Yes, he’s the son of that other John Hughes.)
Although the label has been putting out records for the past 10 years and is based in our own back yard, Hefty has remained pretty under the radar for most. The label embraces the sounds of artists such as Eliot Lipp, Prefuse 73, Phil Ranelin, and Chicago-based Telefon Tel Aviv and L’Altra. Hughes himself is also an artist, who produces electronic compositions under the name Slicker.
To celebrate Hefty’s first double-digit birthday, the label has released part 1 and part 2 of History is Bunk: Collaborations, Reinterpretations and New Compositions. The albums feature new material by some of the label’s artists, as well as remixes of existing tracks.

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Because we love a big ‘ole party, Chicagoist is anxiously awaiting Hefty’s big 10th anniversary bash. To tide us over, we put the History is Bunk series in the CD player and called up Hughes to chat about the unique collaborative essence of the label and what he has in store for the future.

Chicagoist: Was the concept to do collaborations and mash ups and remixes on History is Bunk your idea, or was it inspired by the artists on the label? How did that come about?
I think most of it came from us. We’re pretty aware of the fact that there still aren’t a lot of people who know about us, so we wanted to do one album that was sort of a retrospective without making it seem like a greatest hits or something because that would be a little inflated or something. So it was kind of like our favorite cross section of what we put out and accompanying it with a mix to make it interesting for people who have been following us. And those other releases were kind of about being progressive or laughing at ourself for celebrating this tenth anniversary thing. You know, making it less about a celebration of the past and the back catalog and make it more about what we’re getting ready to do and introduce some of our new artists. That whole spirit of getting people together and having the label function as one unit and having all of our artists working together or at least being influenced by each other is something that is really important to me. It’s something I definitely wanted to present when we had some attention on us.
The whole collaboration of the label could really be ramped up a lot, but it’s one of those things that is hard to do when everyone is spread around. But it’s something we’re really going to make an effort to make happen more. We’re building a studio right now that’s going to become the label’s studio. Hopefully those kinds of things will make the label one cohesive melted ball of something, you know?

Chicagoist: Could you expand on where you’re trying to take the collaborative nature of the label?
I think the challenge is putting out all of these different branches of the same sound. Our music is really diverse. I think there is something there that ties it all together, sort of the core aesthetic and production sensibilities. I think the more we can do to make that stuff blend together show that it does connect, the stronger it makes the label. I follow a lot of genre-based labels, but for me that wasn’t an option for Hefty. The whole electronic music influence is really less about electronic music and more about being a good method to get a complete idea done with one producer because it gives you so much freedom to explore and try out your ideas and do the “bedroom producer” thing. With electronic music you can make it totally hi-fi and like a for real product.
I grew up making low-fi music on a four track and was into Dinosaur Jr. and that kind of stuff. But my first love was electronic music and hip hop. Once that stuff got more affordable for people to do at home, it really opened up what I wanted to do with the label. I think that’s definitely what ties it all together.
That method of working as well as sharing files across the Internet … that’s kind of what we’re working for and encouraging everyone to do. Hopefully building the studio will encourage more in terms of getting everyone to work together.
The other thing too, is because I’m an artist too, I really try to play that up and be involved and work with people and make it super artist-friendly.

Chicagoist: Are there any labels that you have come across that fit more of that collaborative model that you are trying to set?
Not really. There has been in the past. You know the Phil Ranelin reissues we did? His label that he ran called Tribe records was definitely a pretty interesting model for me. From talking to him, a lot of the things he was doing with Tribe along with this guy Wendell Harrison … They were doing a lot of the things that I’m trying to do now, and it was kind of humbling to see that sort of thing happen way back in the day. In the past there were a lot of smaller labels like Motown and Chess that had their own in-house studios, and to me that’s like the ultimate.

Chicagoist: When you’re doing collaborations and remixes right now, since you don’t have the in-house studio built, how do you guys make it happen?

We kind of live by file transferring over chat programs or uploading a file to an FTP and kind of swapping it back and forth until it’s finished. I think there are a lot of people working like that. I think there are groups who are separated that are already working like that a lot. With the History is Bunk series, that’s kind of the idea – all of these spare parts can kind of go together in one thing and work. So it’s a matter of organizing the end result that produces.

Chicagoist: So how does that tie in with live performances? I know you’ve said you don’t particularly enjoy performing live yourself, but what about the other artists? Do you think there are opportunities for them to continue these collaborations live?

That’s hard. If someone sat down and did a record together then wanted to perform it live it’s a little bit easier. Even though the stuff we are doing is expressive, and you can improvise in the studio, I think it’s pretty hard to do it live on the fly with other people. But if it was the kind of thing that was mapped out it could definitely work.

Chicagoist: So in the beginning of the label in 1995, you started as a way to put out your own stuff. Back then, how did you meet people and decide who you were going to produce?

I put out some stuff with this guy Ryan Rapsys, who was a Chicago guy. He was kind of a one-man band sort of thing. When I started I was just a little DIY sort of thing and just wanted to throw my stuff out there. I had really mild expectations. Then I just got to a point where I wanted to do more.
I guess I’ve always been really good at networking. I’m pretty low-key and antisocial myself. I have a good little core of people who are close to me. We somehow found a way to get people call back.

Chicagoist: Were you seeking out any certain sound you were seeking out? You have talked before about how you like a sort of “gritty” sound in production. When did that idea evolve for the label?
There were really no criteria for what I wanted to put out back then. I think when I decided to put the Bill Ding project I was doing aside and get back to my roots with electronic music with that first Slicker record … That record sort of combined really heavy electronic influence but also had instruments. With that record I ended up meeting Scott Herrin, and he was definitely the biggest early influence on the label as far as identifying our sound. So when I wanted to get back to electronic music but keep that sort of live instrument thing going and keeping the sounds really organic but making electronic music for the limited audience we had in the beginning … It was when those sounds mixed together. After that I met the Telefon guys, and to me, after that the catalog gets really cohesive.

Chicagoist: Earlier you talked about the wide variety of music that you guys put out. How are all of these different styles of artists able to collaborate together?
I think it’s because everyone is listening to each other, and everyone is a fan of each other’s music on the label. There have only been a few records that have been made without the label in mind. I think everyone thinks about Hefty when they are making records and gets influenced by what the label is about, which is kind of hard to put your finger on … But I think all of the artists on the label kind of get it.

Chicagoist: You guys already had a 10th anniversary party in March in New York. What are you guys planning for Chicago?
We’re still trying to work it out. It’s been a weird year because we’re by far busier than we have ever been. Also, our U.S. distributor went out of business right after Eliot Lipp’s record came out. They just went bankrupt overnight. And we still don’t have proper distribution in the U.S. Meanwhile, our international distribution is awesome. It’s kind of this weird feeling to be in your home country, and you don’t really have a distribution network. It sort of took our focus off of these extra shows we’re going to do. We’re going to get around to them, but it’s just been sort of a weird start.

Chicagoist: So are you looking for a new distributor right now?

Well, the industry has changed so much that it seems like this is going to keep happening. So many distributors have just kind of disappeared. We’re really happy with doing the digital distribution thing. We’re totally looking for a new distributor, but we’re not going to commit to anything until we find the right one for us. We’re not desperate.

Chicagoist: Do you mean digital distribution through iTunes?

We’re trying to bring the Immediate Action series into more of a digital domain by doing these little one-op Eps and maxi singles that are available on iTunes first exclusively. The whole idea is that one of our artists can turn in tracks, and we can get them mastered and put online within a couple of weeks. The press lead time is so long on records. We feel like we need that side to the label that is current where we can just throw stuff out there. I think it’s pretty cool that we can do that sort of thing. I’m not a big fan of digital music, you know, like getting it that way. I’m pretty traditional. I like the vinyl and the artwork and stuff. But when you can make it work for you, I think it’s cool.