Interviews

Felix Havoc: The Founder of Havoc Records on His Label, Past Bands + More

Few labels loom as large in my personal history as Havoc Records. The Minnesota hardcore punk institution, helmed by one Felix Havoc, drastically changed my own life trajectory and inarguably the landscape of extreme music itself. Having spent time bandside in Destroy!, Code 13, and Damage Deposit; the litany of certified classics sporting his label’s iconic logo is much too long to list.

For our purposes, I’ll keep the gushing to a minimum. After hearing DS-13’s Killed by the Kids, I kept my burgeoning obsession placated at Baltimore’s Reptilian Records (RIP), an East Coast brick and mortar goldmine for a young punk. Haste doesn’t always make for waste, as my grubby, shelf-clearing hands were never disappointed by anything bearing his seal of approval. Acting as a de facto gold stamp, buying blindly was a certifiably logical endpoint when it came to Havoc Records. 

I’ve long since worn the waxen grooves on label stunners from the likes of Martyrdöd, Aus-Rotten, Regulations, Aus Rotten, Skitsystem, 9 Shocks Terror, The Pist, Caustic Christ, R.A.M.B.O., Victims, From Ashes Rise, The Restarts, Tear It Up, and… you see where I’m going. The discography reads like a veritable “Best of the Decade(s)” list and the P.O. Box on the back has forever been conduit to a world I once didn’t even know existed. 

Felix was kind enough to indulge me with some questions, spanning everything from the label’s origins to his long-running column in the pages of Maximum Rocknroll. Endless thanks for the time and the years of inspiration. Havoc Records has long been a lifeline for me and certainly for countless others. Should this happen to be an introduction to the label, I envy the chance to hear these records anew. For the latest on the label’s goings on and for an impossibly rad amount of punk ephemera, check both the label website and newly minted Instagram account. 

What’s the first punk record you remember buying? For bonus points, do you remember where you got it? 
 
The first really punk record I bought was Clash Give 'Em Enough Rope. I got it at Musicland in Prince Georges Plaza. Also got some stuff there like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Killing Joke, Gang of Four, and Adam and the Ants. Then I discovered that punk wasn't just something that happened in England and there was a hardcore scene right in DC where I lived.

The first hardcore record I bought was Government Issue' Make an Effort at the Record Co-Op at the University of Maryland Student Center. 

What was your first show? 

Black Sabbath and AC/DC a few days apart in the same week of December of 1981 were my first "concerts." The first hardcore show was Scream, Obsessed, and Black Market Baby in 1983. I was lucky to grow up just outside of Washington DC. I caught the tail end of the DC hardcore scene. I just missed Minor Threat, Faith and SOA, but I did get to see quite a lot of the Bad Brains, Void, Government Issue, Scream, Black Market Baby, Marginal Man, and the like. Government Issue was probably the most important local band to me in those days and I am still a big fan. 

As is often the case, labels sprout up as a vehicle to release your own band’s [Destroy] record? Was that the impetus for starting Havoc Records?

I was into collecting records and toyed with the idea of having a label. But while I was in college I had no money and little time. Destroy put out records on Relapse and some other labels, but I wasn't happy with how things worked out, and decided that the only way to control things was to be totally DIY.

After I finished school I was able to work enough to make the money to finance a 7". And then Destroy went on tour in 1993 and I met some really cool bands, I decided there needed to be a record label to help release these new bands. Aus Rotten, Civil Disobedience, Distraught, Bristle, and Masskontroll 7"s all resulted from connections made on that 1993 tour.  

Was there anyone integral that helped or, to borrow from the parlance of our times, assisted with flattening the learning curve of starting/running a label? What were the early days like? 

I had been doing distro at gigs and by mail since 1988 and helped out a lot at Profane Existence in the early days. I learned a lot from Neil of Tribal War Records. I basically apprenticed under him. I would take the bus to NYC and hang out for a few weeks and just kind of shadow him and help out. I copied his skeez with selling at gigs, mail order, and touring, everything totally DIY. Also, in a scene full of alcohol and drugs, he was sober. I was struggling to overcome addiction and focusing on records and the label was a good way to avoid the temptation to party. Neil was a real role model in that area too.

My main inspirations were labels like Dangerhouse, early Dischord, and Pusmort. I also got some help and inspiration from Ebullition, who are still my main distributor and some of the only honest people in that business. Thanks to my low-income background, I managed to complete a degree at the University of Minnesota on Pell Grants and working summer jobs, so I graduated debt free in 1991. I know that would be unheard of today.

I proceeded to do absolutely nothing with my degree and just went to work full time as a construction laborer which had been my summer job the last few years of college. I wasn't making much money, but I had a lot of enthusiasm and I was living a punk lifestyle 24-7. I was playing in a band, booking gigs, and selling records at gigs and swap meets. So I did a lot of networking and just hustled, trading records, going to record shops on tour and the like.

My original vision was that I would do the band's first 7"s, because most band’s first 7" is their best material anyway. And that would help them move on to a more established label like Tribal War or Sound Pollution. Over time those labels started to fade and I decided to start doing LPs and tours as well. I started printing t-shirts and patches, and just kind of built things up one step at a time. As I moved up in the construction business, I started making more money and was able to finance bigger projects. 

What was the first record the label dropped that seemed to make waves in the punk scene? 

My third release was the Aus Rotten Fuck Nazi Sympathy 7", which up to 2018 had sold over 25,000 copies, mostly in the '90s, twice as much as my next best seller, so that one kind of took on a life of it's own. I meet people all the time who tell me it was the first punk record they bought. 

There’s a litany of records I’d love to hear about, but I’ll keep it relatively brief. The DS-13 releases stand out, as they were playing so much faster than most bands at the time. Care to elaborate on one of the best hardcore bands ever? 

I didn't want the label to be typecast as a crust or street punk, or thrash label, or whatever, I just wanted to put out good records by bands that were cool and it helped if they had a powerful message that they believed in. So when fast hardcore started bubbling up again in the late '90s, I was pretty excited. Bands like Gordon Solie Motherfuckers, Life's Halt, and Blade Crasher were starting to create a buzz and were bringing back the early '80s hardcore style that I really liked.

I was really into trading records back then, and a friend told me about a new Swedish band called DS-13 I should check out. I ordered the 7", listened to it a few dozen times, and right away wrote to them and asked to do US pressing. This led to two tours and the LP and I built up a lot of relationships with people in Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. 

DS-13 @ Programme Skate & Sound, Fullerton, CA, 2017. (Photo: Albert Licano_

Along with Feral Ward and the rise of Tragedy, a bunch of titanic D-beat/crust records also came out on Havoc. I’m not sure if people realize how big that was in the early '00s, but give us a peek behind the curtain? 

I was distributing a lot of Swedish records, and built up some connections there, this led to working with Skitsystem, Wolfbrigade, Victims, Riistetyt, and doing US tours for those bands. In some cases I was just doing the US pressing, in others I was doing the whole deal. I knew From Ashes Rise from booking them here and I was really into their sound. I live in a provincial Midwestern city, so there isn’t as much of a factor of different subsets of hardcore walling each other off. I mean, it’s just small enough a scene where it’s hard to have that luxury.

Working at Extreme Noise, and booking gigs, I was working with people and bands across the spectrum of punk and hardcore. And a few of those connections led to me releasing records or booking tours. 

Holding On, at least sonically, was seen by some as a sore thumb for the label, as they were ostensibly a Youth Crew band. Aside from promoting solidarity within the scene, what’s the backstory? Any other Youth Crew records you hold dear? 

I think that’s a rather subjective judgement. I don’t see Holding On as being too far removed from Tear It Up or DS 13. I enjoyed their music, was friends with them, and wanted to help out a local band.

As for Youth Crew, In the late '80s I bought every Revelation release as it came out, even though I was into crust and grind at the time, I really appreciated the energy and drive of that scene. I saw Youth of Today several times and really liked their energy and positive, inspirational message.

I got way more into Youth Crew after I sobered up in the mid-'90s. Then the lyrics suddenly took on an extra dimension of meaning….. Of that whole scene though, I’d have to say the first Chain of Strength 7” is my favorite record, but nothing topped Youth of Today live in the '80s. 

What’s the best-selling record(s) for the label? 
 
That Aus Rotten 7" by far. Some of the stuff like DS 13, From Ashes Rise, and Code-13 got up around 10,000 copies, and a lot of those releases in the early '00s sold between 5,000 and 10,000. Those are staggering figures by today's standards when pressing 500 seems risky, but were pretty average for the time.

I'm sure 625, Prank, Slap A Ham, Dead Alive and other labels were doing similar figures. All of it still tiny compared to bigger hardcore and metal labels, but a big deal for the DIY scene. Today, almost all my sales are Discharge, Broken Bones, and Varukers reissues. I’m lucky if I sell something like DS-13 or 9 Shocks Terror every now and then. 

There’s myriad records from your discography I’d kill to see a deep dive on, like Amdi Petersen’s Army, Dead Stop, and Regulations. In your opinion, what records are worthy of fresh ears and a new look?

Maybe the Murderers 7”, It had a real punk attitude, just “we’re punk, fuck you!” I am especially proud of that Amdi Petersen’s Arme 7”, that band was really exciting, revisiting the early Dischord sound I grew up with. The Martyrdod In Extremis LP is another personal favorite, super heavy and dark. I still want to re-press their first LP.

Regulations isn’t very popular right now, but has a timeless hardcore/punk sound, that I think will inevitably come back around. Nine Shocks Terror LP and 7” have held up really well for me, another band whose sound will come back around in time. Lastly, the Tear It Up 7” just has so much energy, that band was just blasting out of the gate. 

Photo found at Sorry State Records

The No Hold Back, All Attack comp must have been an enormous labor of love and even bigger undertaking. What possessed you to undertake a triple LP’s worth of midwestern punk and hardcore (still have my well worn double CD!)? 

That project was almost entirely the work of Ben Crew. I mainly put up the money and handled the production and distribution. It was intended to be a sequel to the All Go, No Slow comp from 1995. It's a pretty robust document of that era in local music.

You have a great list of your favorite Top 100 2010-2019 records, which I urge everyone to check out. Exploatör is worth the price of admission alone, but could you run through a few of them for us? 

[See Felix's Top 100 2010-2019 list on Discogs here]


Infernoh, War Tjard LP

Blazing hardcore from Sweden, totally incendiery, a really under appreciated band.

Exploatör, Katastrof, Dissekerad, Profoss, Stress SS, Arsle, Institution, Paranoid, Desperat, Koveteringen, so many great hardcore bands from Sweden. Few of these bands get any play in the USA, but to my mind they are on the cutting edge of hardcore.

Otherwise, I’m really into Warthog from NYC and Exit Order from Boston. Two bands that most people are probably pretty familiar with by now. 

Your Instagram, aside from being a treasure trove of hardcore and punk ephemera, indicates you’re a serious hiker! Incidentally, I’ve also spent some time hiking the Ocala National Forest. Any “wild” stories from your travels?

Due to a combination of circumstances I’ve been able to take some time off from responsibilities to do some backpacking, first hiking part of the Florida Trail, then heading through Arizona and Utah for a few months. I hope to hike the Pacific Crest Trail this summer/fall. Don’t worry, I have a friend who is packing and shipping records for me while I’m travelling.

I don’t have any really wild stories, just that it’s very satisfying and enlightening to spend time in the outdoors. I am drawn to long distance thru hiking because it allows you to immerse yourself in the present moment and just experience the outdoors day after day. I spent a lot of the last ten years struggling with stress and pressure trying to run a small construction company. Leaving that behind to experience the natural wonder of the outdoors has been a really uplifting change of pace.

Most of my life I have been kind of negative, I had what scientists would call a "negativity bias" in my thinking. Going out hiking long trails has been a great way to pivot to a more positive outlook and find peace.

As a long running columnist and contributor to Maximum Rocknroll, what’re your thoughts as we approach a year without the print magazine? 

I was sad to see it go, but changes in technology and lack of support made it uneconomical to continue the print magazine. MRR still exists as an online radio show and I have been reviewing records for the online zine as well.

If you don't instantly recognize this photo, you aren't punk

Anything else we should mention before closing this out?

On a final note, my label and distro are not that active these days. I focus almost entirely on doing reissues and selling the back catalog. Part of that is just because I’m getting old, but part of it is by design.

Today is for the young and new bands. No one needs a hold over from the '80s like me dominating the proceedings. I have a decent day job in construction and don’t have to compromise my views or taste to make money off music. Hardcore hasn’t died out because each new generation brings in a lot of new energy and enthusiasm. I’m not putting a ton of money or energy into the label, but the records are there for those who want them, at a decent price and readily available. It’s up to the next wave to start bands and labels and carry things forward. 

Havoc Records: Official online store | Instagram

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Tagged: 90s hardcore week, code 13, ds-13

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