Hefty Plans

In most ways John Hughes III is a typical independent-label owner–he started Hefty Records in 1995 to release music by his own band and before long, seduced by the notion of running his own business, began putting out records by other people too. But unlike other budding indie entrepreneurs, Hughes is the 22-year-old son of filmmaker John Hughes, the man who in the 80s turned growing up wealthy and confused on the North Shore into a national experience. And yes, he says, his dad provided him with start-up funds. He won’t say how much, but last February I noticed he could afford to advertise on the back cover of England’s respected avant-music mag the Wire–a spot that currently costs about $2,600.

“I try to have a humble approach to the money,” says Hughes from his Bucktown apartment, which also houses the Hefty office and a steel-doored electronic recording studio. Indeed, none of Hefty’s promotional materials mentions Hughes pere. Then again, as with Peter Getty’s Emperor Norton label, they don’t really need to. “People know who my dad is,” says Hughes. “I can’t escape it–not that I want to, because I have no problem with my relationship with him. But I’m not going to front on it. I want to be totally self-sufficient. It’s going to be slow, but I’m totally committed to making it successful.”

When Hughes was a child, his family moved quite a bit, living in California, Arizona, and Northfield before settling in Lake Forest ten years ago. He tried college, completing his freshman year at Ohio University and two-thirds of his sophomore year at Northwestern before dropping out. By that point he’d already released the first Hefty records, a single and an album by Bill Ding, his avant-pop studio collaboration with guitarist Dan Snazelle. Hughes programmed some beats and sang on those records, but he says he isn’t a musician. “All my stuff is either faked or worked over and over, and I rely on other great players. I’m more about putting beats together with sounds and producing and making it sound good.”

Hughes had also begun working as the musical supervisor for Reach the Rock, the directorial debut by his father’s longtime employee Bill Ryan, which was to be distributed via the elder Hughes’s production deal with Universal. Hughes III had started out giving his father and Ryan casual advice, and before long they saw fit to turn the job over to him. “I’ve introduced my dad to a lot of music, and he wanted to put music in the film that would make a difference,” Hughes says.

As reported in this column in October 1996, Hughes commissioned Tortoise engineer and percussionist John McEntire to write original music and assembled new songs by Tortoise, the Sea and Cake, Dianogah, Polvo, and Bundy Brown. But for contractual reasons no one can hear them until the film comes out, and though Reach the Rock was finished a year ago, the Hollywood suits apparently don’t quite know what to do with the feature. Hughes says there’s been discussion of a limited release in the near future, but that the sound track, originally to be released on Universal subsidiary MCA, will probably come out on Hefty instead.

By late last winter Hughes had mostly finished the film work, and Bill Ding had put out one more album, Trust in God, but Tie Up Your Camel–a mix of jazzy instrumentation, jarring electronic sounds, and shy, introspective vocals–then split up. So Hughes began in earnest to turn Hefty into a real label. He released a mildly acclaimed LP by Euphone, aka Ryan Rapsys (who also drums for Bill Dolan’s post-5ive Style project Heroic Doses); an EP by Ilium, an instrumental trio led by Hughes’s 18-year-old brother, James; and an EP by Super E.S.P., a twisted electronic collaboration between recording engineer Casey Rice and Eternals singer Damon Locks. Next up is the debut by Slicker, Hughes’s new abstract drum ‘n’ bass project.

The release schedule for the rest of the year is pretty ambitious for what’s essentially a one-man label (though Hughes has hired independent publicists and employs one part-timer in England to oversee Hefty’s new European manufacturing and distribution). On deck are records by Chisel Drill Hammer, a Slint-like instrumental quartet from Iowa City; Ghosts & Vodka, a new band with former members of Fireside Bowl vets Tetsuo, Cap’n Jazz, and Joan of Arc; and Toe 2000, an ad hoc trio of drummer Dave Pavkovic, Tortoise bassist Doug McCombs, and AACM guitarist Jeff Parker.

Ilium, Chisel Drill Hammer, Ghosts & Vodka, and DJ Black Nuclear Power (aka Damon Locks) perform in a Hefty showcase Friday at the Empty Bottle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Hughes III photo by Lloyd DeGrane.