FEATURE: Aaron Turner & the Life & Death of Hydra Head Records

A huge percentile of my record collection is made up of Hydra Head bands. Hearing Botch and Cave In back in the day drastically altered my small world and laid some hell seeds that’d later grow into a music taste tree nobody wants to hang out under. I think I was probably one of the first people in the universe to contact Aaron Turner about the label’s closure last year. I think I was also the stupidest, because I then neglected to pitch it out there to an outlet that’d give his words the space they deserved. My bad, so very belatedly, here it is. Good chat. I didn’t fan-girl too hard. 

Hydra Head Records is underground music royalty. It has nurtured the likes of Converge, Boris, Sunn O))), Jesu, Torche, Neurosis, Cave In, Oxbow, Botch, Pelican, These Arms Are Snakes, and even hosted the mighty Isis before Mike Patton’s Ipecac label came calling. On September 11th, 2012 a post appeared on the label’s blog saying farewell to this world after 17 years of operation. Since then, they’ve gone DIY debt-fixit with a “rehabilitation project” offering a plethora of Hydra Head curiosities for not much money at all. One of label founder Aaron Turner’s guitars even went up for grabs, and was sold instantly for much less than it seemed to be worth – he’d used it to record Isis’ landmark Oceanic LP, even. One ax down, the man took some time out to talk (closing) shop. 

Hydra Head

Aaron, you started Hydra Head when you were still in high school. There must have been a pretty strong impetus for you.

The impetus was just wanting to be as deeply involved in the world of hardcore/punk/metal as possible. I was certainly thirsty for knowledge and experience, and not much has changed since then in that sense, actually. But back then I was living in a place where there was a very small scene and I felt motivated to try to help it grow and also make connections with other like-minded individuals who were dwelling elsewhere – especially those that were part of larger and more productive networks than the one I had immediate access to. I had done some small zines, promoted some local shows, and played music with friends in the area, but starting a label seemed like an even more direct way to reach out into the wider world.

I was drawn to Hydra Head because I was never so whole-heartedly invested in a certain sound so as to be part of a “scene.” Hydra Head seemed to me a label for misfits among misfits. Did you ever feel similarly?

I was never interested in making the output of Hydra Head genre-specific, but I was and am interested in the idea of fostering a musical community based on shared interests and personal connection. Some of this was loosely based around “progressive” hardcore, but along the way branched out into a lot of different areas. As different as a lot of our artists were, there were some surprising connections between and amongst them – a lot of them ended up touring together, collaborating, or becoming friends, or all of the above. Certainly a lot of these connections could have and would have happened without Hydra Head, but I’m hopeful that we had something to do with it and I’m glad we were able to bring together so many different kinds of music and artists together in one weird, mostly happy family.

Hydra Head then became a full-time thing for you after college. Why? Did “full-time” also signal the arrival of other hands in its development? Were they friends, if so?

This just happened naturally. I was doing it more and more throughout my college years and probably could’ve started doing it full time before graduating if I’d been better about managing my time. It really didn’t have anything to do with our financial growth as I was never dependent on Hydra Head that way and actually ended up putting a lot of my own money into it. As far as other people being involved, that happened even before I graduated, and all the other people that worked for/with Hydra Head were friends first and collaborators later.

You did mention “personal problems amongst the label operators” in your parting missive. Was this in reference to your relationships with each other, or as individuals external of their label obligations?

The personal and the business were inextricably tied, and the problems we experienced between us were complicated because of this intertwined relationship. For the most part a lot of the working relationships that existed within Hydra Head were enjoyable – but not always productive, and eventually destructive in some ways. It’s difficult to explain without airing dirty laundry, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Most labels are defined by an interest in one particular slant on any one particular genre, but not Hydra Head. How did you decide which acts spoke to you, and which did not?

Much of it just had to do with my emotional and intellectual reaction to an artists’ work. If they hit me hard on one or both of those levels, then I would consider whether or not it was realistic to approach them about working together. Often times it had to do with personal connection as well. If there was an ability to communicate easily and in a friendly way while even possibly cultivating a friendship with an artist/band, that was often a determining factor as well.

Botch <3
Botch ❤

What initially made it possible for Hydra Head to become a financially sustainable business (if it ever truly was)? Was there a particular catalyst?

It was never financially sustainable, really. We certainly had a number of releases that sold quite well and were able to support ourselves and our artists to some degree, but in the end we really just didn’t have enough business sense to make it work the way it should’ve. I ended up putting quite a bit of my own money into the label over the years, and honestly, that was fine with me because I loved the work and the music and still do, but perhaps that was a mistake as well. Had we been forced to really run on our own fuel with no outside investment, we would’ve made better and more considered choices.

I never understood the segregation between Hydra Head apropos and Tortuga. Both seemed drawn to similarly inclined artists?

Tortuga was run by my former partner, Mark Thompson. He had started Tortuga even before he came to work at Hydra Head, and while there was some crossover musically, there were things that came out on both labels that wouldn’t have made sense on the other. Basically it boiled down to what each of us liked individually, and sometimes Mark and I didn’t see eye to eye on that level. To make a loose distinction, Hydra Head had more of a focus on more extreme music; more experimental/progressive types of music. Tortuga was oriented towards more conventional/commercial rock. Tortuga was also regionally focused on the New England area, whereas Hydra Head definitely was not, even though a lot of our earlier releases came out of there.

“We’ve spent the majority of our existence excitedly scrambling from one thing to the next, taking on more than we could ever possibly hope to achieve, and never quite finding solid footing in the midst of our self-induced whirlwind of chaos.” This was never, ever obvious from the outside. Was it really like this on the inside?

Simply put, we put out too many records. We should’ve done fewer releases and focused more on each. We often spread ourselves too thin financially. We couldn’t afford to put out as many records as we did, but we kept on doing it. Because we weren’t very organised and taking on so much work, we also hired and sustained a staff that was larger than what we could really afford. We had so many ideas, so many artists we wanted to work with, so much enthusiasm – but lacked the time, focus and money to properly run the label. We often operated on blind optimism thinking everything would turn out fine, ignoring the reality of what was actually happening around us.

Aaron Turner

When did you notice Hydra Head’s modus operandi starting to become untenable? Was there a particular catalyst for this?

The first signs were visible years ago, but it wasn’t really until this last year that things really started to look bleak. Sales continued dropping, discord amongst some people involved with the label grew, debts grew, and it became apparent that we had to stop or we were just going to implode.

What steps did you take to rectify these problems? Can they even be rectified?

At the moment we’re focusing on repayment of debt and general stabilisation of the company. We’ve cut back the number of people involved, and we’re going to work only on keeping titles from our back catalog in print from now on instead of working on new releases, and we’re figuring out as many ways as possible to cut back on costs and raise funds through selling off the piles of records and CDs that have amassed over the years. Whether or not these efforts will help us far enough out of the hole to stay alive, I’m not sure – we’ll just have to wait and see. I think it can be done, but I also thought we’d be able to go on as we have in perpetuity, which I can see clearly now is not possible.

You cited “an unwillingness to compromise our aesthetic standards.” What were you referring to, specifically? Was the suggestion of changing Hydra Head’s direction to one more “viable” in today’s climate ever raised, and if so, what made it something you didn’t wish to pursue?

No, the question was never one of pandering to a more commercially viable audience. It was more about compromising the quality of our releases. We often spent much more than we could justify on making records happen in the way we and the artists wanted them to. This often meant sizable recording budgets for the artists that wanted/needed that, and spending a lot on the packaging of the final albums. While this made for a lot of great releases, many of those titles didn’t sell high enough numbers to balance out the expenses involved. That’s a crude way of putting it, but from a business perspective it just wasn’t a functional business model and it eventually caught up with us, especially as sales dwindled over the years – which was in part due to our choices in bands as well as the slowly creeping onslaught of illegal downloading.

Pulling the plug on a label you started at a very young age and maintained for almost twenty years cannot have been easy. What was the final nail in the coffin? Do you have any regrets, apart from the obvious?

There wasn’t really a final nail, it was just a matter of admitting that we really couldn’t do it anymore. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was one that had to be made. If I hadn’t made that call, I would’ve only ended up causing more trouble and pain to our artists, myself, our employees and everyone else connected to the label.

Cave In <3
Cave In ❤

Hydra Head’s loss is music-as-art’s loss. It’s a bigger blow to underground music than most people will have initially realised, I think. Your label nurtured a generation of pioneering talent (Converge, Botch, and Neurosis spring very quickly to mind) that has, ironically, gone on to inform more commercially successful acts over time. With that in mind, who suffers more – the underground, or the mainstream?

I don’t think it will be a huge loss for anyone in the big picture. In the short term it is a loss for all of the artists who were expecting us to help them release their next albums. Even in those cases though, they’re all great bands and should have no problem finding homes for their future works. I also think there are plenty of great labels around who operate in roughly the same territory that Hydra Head did, so there’ll be no shortage of places to go to for good, adventurous music delivered in creative and inspiring ways. My one concern, however, is what’s happening across the board – that is, Hydra Head isn’t the only label that’s crumbling at the moment. I’ve heard from plenty of other label people I know that they are also considering giving up – not because of a lack of interest on their parts, but simply because it’s getting more expensive to manufacture records as time goes on and people are becoming less and less willing to actually pay for them. Who knows where that will lead, and I have no doubt that great music will continue to thrive, but it’s a discouraging trend none the less.

After two decades of working with so many bands intriguing on both musical and artistic levels – Xasthur’s cassette tapes are something I’m constantly beguiled by, personally – who have been the most memorable for you and why?

Once again, our history has been fairly lengthy at this point and we’ve worked with so many artists it’d be hard to single out just a few. Most of our relationships have been good, almost all have been productive on at least some level, and only a few have been truly troublesome – and even of those, something was learned and often good releases were the end result. I’ve certainly learned a lot about working with others and about myself through the process of running the label and made so many good friends along the way. When I think back on the experience as a whole I definitely have snapshots in my mind of a lot of things: Cave In’s van on fire on the side of a Pennsylvania highway, the Oktopus from Dälek sleeping in the hallway of our old apartment in a pile of disheveled blankets, getting boxes of the first 7″ release dropped at my parents house in Santa Fe, eating peanuts at dinner in South Pasadena with Scott/Xasthur, watching Oxbow silence an entire hall full of people with just a few whispers and some long hard stares… the flood of images is virtually endless and spans my entire adult life, and even my late teen years. To say that it’s shaped my life would be an understatement.

Can underground bands like the ones championed by Hydra Head still exist in today’s climate? Is adaption possible? Ironically, despite the internet, I feel like I discover less and less of these kinds of acts with each passing year.

There are more bands by the minute and this glut of music can certainly be overwhelming, but there’s no shortage of good music these days that’s for certain. The way music is produced and disseminated will certainly continue to change, and it may become harder for bands to get noticed, but things will go on; good new music will continue to come into being, and there will be people who are willing to make the effort to seek it out.

Where to for Aaron Turner?

Everything.

//

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