A passion for outsider art has guided Tom Hazelmyer, punk rocker turned bar owner turned printmaker.
His response? Classic Hazelmyer.
“Go [screw] yourself.”
Instead, the 48-year-old musician, artist, Marine Corps veteran, husband and father of three fashioned his own rehab by taking up an art form he’d never explored: hand-cut prints, which start with carving images and letters in reverse on linoleum.
“Veronica had a school project at home, some carving stuff, and we got some linoleum slabs and I started dickin’ around with it,” Hazelmyer said last Thursday, standing over the ink-stained work table in his office and puffing on a pipe as 17-year-old daughter Veronica drew nearby.
“The brain damage was such that writing and some other stuff was scrambled up. So you have to relearn how to do everything, think about doing it while you’re doing it, and it’s to the point now where I can write backward upside down.”
Hazelmyer became “completely obsessed” — a phrase he uses often to describe his many projects. His office walls overflow with new prints by his artist alter-ego HAZE XXL, many of which will be on display along with work by his old Minneapolis North High School friend Jeff Mathison (a k a MATH.i) at Soo Visual Arts Center starting this weekend.
Founder of the pioneering punk rock label Amphetamine Reptile Records and co-owner of the Grumpy’s Bar empire, Hazelmyer is a poster child for the DIY work ethic. Each of his engraved linoleum blocks takes eight to 12 hours to carve at his home workspace in Hopkins, then he hauls the stamp to his office behind the downtown Grumpy’s, where he methodically makes the prints.
“That’s what I dig about the process, having part of yourself in it,” he said, while acknowledging the irony of his turn away from technology. “It took me over 20 years to get to where I can do anything I want on the computer, graphically. I’ve been doing album covers and posters for years, and the second I master it all, I start cranking out hand-cut letters.”
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Born and raised in Michigan, Hazelmyer tagged along with his mother on thrift-store and estate sale outings, and started collecting comic books and Creem and Circus magazines, which foretold the coming of punk rock. In 1980, the family moved to Minneapolis, where his father got a job at the Flour City Architectural Metals foundry and 15-year-old Tom found nirvana in the record store bins.
He worked summers at the foundry and formed the punk bands Todd Lachen and Otto’s Chemical Lounge, but ultimately he found the underground scene stifling.
“I quit Otto’s to join the Marines,” he said. “It was the most unpopular thing you could possibly do from the hard-core scene [perspective]. That was ’83, and I was running with that crowd, who were like, ‘Ronald Reagan’s gonna get us to war.’ I was like, ‘Really? I’ll sign up. Who’s gonna go first? The Marines? That’s who I’ll go for.’
“It was priceless to see people’s faces when I said that. I’ve always liked tweaking noses to a certain extent that way, and it’s not just to be reactionary. … If you’re not [messing] with the herd, you’re part of it.”
While stationed in Seattle, Hazelmyer kept collecting records and hooked up with members of Mudhoney and other forward-pushing musicians who would go on to make Seattle the capital of grunge.
“It was amazingly lucky to go from watching the Minneapolis thing take off, and getting to play with Soul Asylum and the Hüskers, but right when they started to explode I took off and plopped down in Seattle and got to watch that happen a second time,” he said. “Now that I’m pushing 50, you realize most people don’t get to see that once: The fun part — before it takes off, that’s when the most lively, insane [stuff] is going on and the weird cross-pollination and energy levels are amazing. Once it takes off, it’s death. That’s when everyone rushes in and kills it.”
While on leave in Minneapolis, he formed the noise trio Halo of Flies. The sound proved too grating for independent record labels of the day, so Hazelmyer founded AmRep “literally out of a grenade box under my bunk” and released records by Halo and Mudhoney precursors the Thrown Ups. He tired of touring and other hassles that come with being in a band, but at the same time “realized I really enjoyed putting the whole thing together: packaging, pressing, the whole nine yards.”
AmRep thrived into the ’90s, releasing incendiary music by the Melvins, Helmet, Cows, Boss Hog and many others that all fell under the same fiercely independent umbrella aesthetically, if not musically. At its peak, Hazelmyer became enamored of Zippo lighters, and quickly fashioned his own wildly popular Smoke King line, festooned with artwork by longtime collaborators and art giants such as Frank Kozik, Shag, Shepard Fairey, R. Crumb and Coop. No marketing plan preceded the venture, just the gut instincts that have served Hazelmyer well all these years.
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For Haze, as he’s known to his friends, one project or idea flows organically into another — all born of a fertile work ethic that found him (“out of boredom”) partnering with his father and his longtime friend Pat Dwyer to open the first Grumpy’s in Coon Rapids in 1995 (sold in 2008), followed by the northeast Minneapolis edition in 1998, downtown Minneapolis in 1999 and Roseville in 2008.
“I’ve never had a problem rolling up my sleeves,” he said, when asked what drives him.
Hazelmyer abhors the word “art,” taking pains to distance himself from anything he deems pretentious or overly intellectual. Watching him work with an X-Acto knife, it’s clear he has more in common with the foundry guys who would spit tobacco while cussing him out on the job than with any art school grad.
He enjoys tinkering. He’s old-school. He’s hellbent on making things, and making things happen (his next act is a cameo in fellow outsider artist Chris Mars’ new feature film “Elkmound”), even when his wife, Lisa, and his doctors have asked him to slow down.
“When I left the hospital, they all told me to take it easier, and I’ve definitely tried to, but I don’t know how lucky I’ve been with that,” he said. “I’ve always been into cars, guns and guitars; always will. Whenever I become a fan of something, I just dive in.”
Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer and songwriter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.