One year after the tragic death of Scott Hardkiss, Gavin and Robbie Hardkiss have brought the iconic San Francisco label back from the brink. This is the fascinating story of Hardkiss – or, at least, the story so far.
It was one year ago, last January to be sure, and Scott Hardkiss sat in his studio in Brooklyn, listening to a love letter.
That’s what his wife had called it. It seems strange he didn’t recognize this right away himself. He knew the handwriting, he knew the people that wrote it. He didn’t suspect it was addressed to him personally; the exact meaning of this song called “Broken Hearts” eluded him. All he knew is that it was a song that seemed to capture him, hold his restless attention span, just like a digital love letter delivered across the decades.
These sorts of letters didn’t arrive that often. For years after the demise of Hardkiss – a label, a brotherhood, a music collective that sometimes seemed like a hedonistic cult – the three Hardkiss brothers hadn’t seen much of each other. While Gavin Hardkiss remained in the Bay Area, Robbie had moved to Austin and Scott to New York. “If you look at a map,” Robbie notes, “we moved as far apart from each other as you can.”
There had been some activity lately, however – some physical movement but also an emotional and, in the end, creative thaw. Robbie had moved from Austin to Philadelphia, and then back to the Bay Area, where he renewed his collaboration with Gavin on a series of tracks that would, in January 2013, find their way into Scott’s inbox.
“Our goal,” Gavin says, “was to rope him in.”
They had; Scott was enamored and he was ensnared. “Revolution” was to be the first single off a new Hardkiss album, and Scott said he wanted to remix it. “But ‘Broken Hearts’ is my jam,” he told them, “I really want to do something really big and special with that one.”
“Don’t you understand?” Scott’s wife asked him. “You have to remix that one. This is a love letter to you.”
The memory is one that makes everyone smile, if only to take away the sting. The next time the Hardkiss brothers were in the same room was three months later, at Scott Hardkiss’ funeral. He died on March 25, 2013 of a cerebral aneurysm. He was just 43 years old.
I came into this story to praise Hardkiss, sure, but I also intended to bury it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is famously misquoted as saying that “there are no second acts in American lives”. This seems especially true in the music business. They get you when you’re young and they push you out when you’re old enough to think a bit about what they have in store for you. And woe unto the artist who “hangs on too long”, the one who “just can’t let it go…”
But after listening to the new Hardkiss Music album that Robbie & Gavin conceived before Scott’s death – it’s called 1991 – I realized that this isn’t the end. The album isn’t a tribute, or not purely so. It isn’t remixes of old music. It isn’t a closer. In a slightly different configuration, after more than a decade in oblivion, Hardkiss really is back again.
It was mid-March 2014 – close to one year to the day that Scott Hardkiss died – when I spoke with Gavin & Robbie, in wide-ranging interviews that covered their entire lives, really, from the early years before they arrived in San Francisco to the rise and fall and rise again of Hardkiss. Emotions are still raw. But they can’t conceal a sense of pride at this long delayed follow up (a mere 19 years) to the seminal Delusions of Grandeur – a landmark album which proved to the American music industry that dance music could stand toe-to-toe against hip hop and rock at their peak.
I came into this story to bury Hardkiss; instead, I found it was still alive, still a going concern. There’s a new album that came out on April 7, 2014. Singles and remixes are being spread amongst a handful of friendly labels. There’s enough material in existence right now to feed the machine with a steady flow of releases for the next year or so, not to mention the historical reissues (very little Hardkiss music has ever been released digitally).
The beginning of Hardkiss is ambiguous; the middle is contentious and the end hasn’t been written yet. And nobody is still entirely sure what it means. This isn’t that end. It’s the story so far.
And the Turntable Was Our Instrument of Choice
If there was a beginning to this thing they called “Hardkiss” – a record label, a DJ collective, a family and possibly a new religious movement – it began in Potomac, Maryland, with the future Scott Hardkiss holding out a can of beans to the future Robbie Hardkiss and proclaiming a single word.
“Garbanzos!” Robbie remembers today. “It was at a party very early in the school year at my friend’s house. I was in a circle of my friends on the patio, and Scott comes up, walks into the center of the circle holding a can of garbanzo beans and shouting, ‘Garbanzos!’ He went into my buddy Dylan’s kitchen and rummaged through the cabinets until he found his icebreaker to get in. Those were the first words Scott said to me.”
Robbie laughs telling this story, and I laugh too, though I don’t really get it. But it fits that the Hardkiss creation story sounds like a Monty Python sketch. The first two Hardkiss brothers bonded over beans – and a love of Prince and his music, too. It’s much more “rock star” to emphasize the love of Prince. But it’s much more Hardkiss to give the two – the love of Prince and the beans – an equal weight and measure.
They were still in high school then, and the preoccupation of Hardkiss then was how to sneak into clubs, not how to play them. It was long train rides to New York and slowly, methodically forging the birth date on their drivers’ licenses to get past the discriminating bouncers at the Limelight and the Palladium.
Scott and Robbie went to high school together; Scott and Gavin went to college together, at Penn. “We pretty much all met each other through music when we were teenagers,” Gavin says. “None of us were musicians. We just had a love for music and albums and going out to shows and hearing DJs and dancing.”
Scott showed up at Penn one day with turntables. “I think he was into breakdancing in high school,” Gavin says. “And the turntable became our instrument of choice.”
The Epicenter of Everything.
Robbie was the first to pull up stakes for San Francisco, to “seek his fortune,” as Gavin says. Gavin and Scott followed, to “earn their fortune,” as Robbie says.
It was the summer of 1991, and for young kids following the (then) common path of heading out to California to reinvent themselves, they were unusually focused.
“Because of what we were doing on the East Coast, we had a feeling that things were going to explode with the rave scene or electronic music and this new culture,” Gavin says. They’d attended the Storm Raves in New York, and had been throwing their own parties in Philly.
“We picked up to move to San Francisco because Robbie lived there,” Gavin says, “and we thought it’d be cool to bring him into this vision, this idea we had.
“The idea might have been slightly different for Scott than for me. I fancied myself as a Chris Blackwell-type of guy, a Richard Branson. I wanted to start a record label and put out music. Scott wanted to DJ.”
You could make a fair claim that San Francisco in the early ’90s was the epicenter of everything interesting happening in America. It was the locus of a thriving alternative media scene, shot through with the left-wing militancy of a Jello Biafra or a Huey P. Newton. The nation was reeling from a major recession, the inner cities in decay from the fall-out of the ’70s and 11 years of unrelenting Reaganomics. San Francisco seemed to be in a pose of constant rebuttal, both overtly political and intensely personal.
And to someone from the Midwest who could only read about it, San Francisco appeared to be the locus of a dreamy, idealistic, neo-psychedelic renaissance. Instead of hippie space jams, it moved to the pulse of electronic music, powered by names like Hardkiss and also DJ Dan & the Funky Tekno Tribe, Wicked, the Gathering and Dubtribe. The Bay Area’s full moon parties were to become a legend in American rave mythology; for the second time in 25 years, people began flowing into the Bay Area, magnetized by this new cultural citadel.
Gavin remembers the town when he first arrived. “It was a hot mess of post-Industrial, post-post-post-disco, and then there was this English influx of squatter and DIY culture. It was kickin’ off. There were parties every day of the week. You could just kind of wrap yourself in the blanket of this culture for days and weeks and months on end. And just be in the love of it.”
“Our very first move as Hardkiss,” Robbie remembers, “was to go to parties with cards that had our number on it, the tree logo and the line, ‘We’re starting a family and we’re looking for brothers & sisters.’ Those were the terms we were thinking in.”
The Hardkiss album – the new one – is titled 1991. It’s the year they arrived in San Francisco, not the year they met; the year Scott, Gavin and Robbie adopted the Hardkiss name and launched this indefinable concept that they still have trouble explaining.
In 1994, Gavin told URB that it was hard for people to understand just what Hardkiss is. “Yesterday we were trying to explain it to someone and I just caught myself thinking that if I was in their shoes I wouldn’t understand what the fuck we were talking about.”
Twenty years later, Gavin doesn’t find it much easier. “I’ve learned to not question the way that other people define Hardkiss,” he says “Last weekend people were talking about ‘my band’. In their mind, Hardkiss is a band. To my parents Hardkiss is a record label. To some people Hardkiss is a fucking cult or something. I even thought about that, I’m sure, in the throes of it. ‘Just what is it that we’re doing? Is this how Charlie Manson started? What are we doing here? We kind of all live together and none of us work and we all have a spiritual connection to a sound we haven’t created yet!’”
The Magical Sound of the San Francisco Underground.
The Hardkiss strategy unpacked on a blanket in San Francisco was familiar – forward-thinking, even, when you consider where we are today.
Hardkiss would throw parties. The parties would make money to pay for studio time. The studio time would result in tracks, and the tracks would be released on their own label. Next step: world domination.
It almost worked, until ravenomics kicked in. A Hardkiss event featuring 808 State had the venue fall through the day of the show. The event went off at a new space, but at a loss of some $10,000. “We were like, Jesus Christ, what do we want to be? Scrambling promoters? or to have a label?” Robbie says. “That’s when we were like, let’s find an investor and try to fund the label that way.”
The first Hardkiss record, alternately titled San Francisco: The Magick Sounds of the Underground and The Magical Sound of the San Francisco Underground, was produced courtesy of a $1500 grant from the founder of a UK label called Fabulous. Robbie remembers him as “kind of a hippie traveller going here and there. Nobody really knew his story. We were just kids. I was just learning how to put two records together, Scott had a little more experience than I did but not much, really. And this guy visited San Francisco when we were going to full moon parties and throwing our parties. We met him out on a dancefloor somewhere. And he gave us $1500 to put a record out.”
It was a “beautiful rave moment”, but a more substantial investment was required to start a label back then. The start-up capital for Hardkiss Music came in the form of a loan from a more rustic source that Gavin & Robbie now refer to collectively as “the Irish drug dealers”.
“We knew we had to put out a few records, not just one,” Gavin says. “When it was time to start a label, we needed $15,000 for the cost of manufacturing and inventory and all of that shit. Where else could we go? We couldn’t go to a bank. We didn’t know anyone with a ‘job’. We went straight to the guys with the pockets!”
That unique, peculiar Hardkiss sound they got down on record was hyped as the “new sound of San Francisco”. The reality was kind of different. “When we started putting out records, I think we got recognized as sonically what was ‘happening’ here, but it wasn’t,” Gavin says. “What we were doing was our own thing, and you may have heard a song or two, maybe, at a SF event. But that sound travelled, it was on vinyl and it went to DJs in other cities and around the world and people reacted fondly to it. And that opened doors for us to the outside world.”
I Made Absolutely Sure That None of Us Would Ever Return to Normality Again.
The story behind Hardkiss’ most renown record is a little bit of Tony Wilson – the rakish founder of Factory Records – and little bit more of a farce.
The “Irish drug dealers” were feeling a bit uneasy about the status of their loan. “We knew we could get out three or four records on the money that we borrowed,” Gavin says, “and then it was like: How far can we extend this ‘line of credit’? Another year, maybe? Beyond that I don’t know if we could have gotten away with it.
“Because of the strong reaction to the vinyl records, we had labels pursuing us to do something with them and we thought the best thing to do would be to put it all together in one cohesive format, which at the time was a CD.”
In 1995, the average suburban music fan could go down to his local Tower and pick up his or her favorite album by Nirvana or Wu Tang Clan. There were fewer options if they happened to like electronic music. Mixtapes were the main outlet to fans, but that was mostly a cottage industry. Commercially available CDs of dance music were incredibly cheesy fare, with titles like DEATH RAVE 2000 and featuring some of the worst European dance music ever made. If you were lucky, you might find a Moby album or a Plus-8 comp in a rack mingled with New Age tapes.
Delusions of Grandeur changed that. Distributed by Caroline, it turned thousands of kids on to the exact music they could hear at the local outlaw rave or enlightened all ages club. And more importantly, they could use it to turn on their friends. Hardkiss gave them a way to understand this new culture – a way that kids, outcasts, people in it for the drugs and people who would sit in the middle of a dancefloor meditating like a swami could put electronic music in a context they were familiar with. According to Robbie, Hardkiss had always wanted to be in Tower Records. Now they were.
You paid for lending it out, of course. The first page of reviews for used copies of Delusions on Amazon is mostly made up of laments for and accusations of long-ago thefts. “Delusions of Grandeur is the most stolen album of our generation,” Gavin says. “You wouldn’t believe how many letters and emails and messages I’ve gotten claiming that someone ripped off their copy, or borrowed it and never returned it. People have had it stolen from their car, their dorm room, by their exes. Everyone has had their copy stolen.”
Yet Hardkiss was never able to adequately address demand, which lead Robbie to accidentally uncover one of the arcane tricks of the indie record business: under the right circumstances, scarcity simulates success.
“You know how when there’s a line and you can’t get in, everyone’s says, That place must be great?” Robbie says. “Well, we looked like we were really successful because we could never keep up with demand. We were actually dying between records. We were committed to putting out a beautiful cover and a single with impact. We didn’t want to just throw the quickest, easiest thing out there like a lot of dance labels were doing.
“We were really successful in marketing ourselves like that, even though it wasn’t intentional at all. But we were still not making a profit. How could Hardkiss Music not make money?! It didn’t. We were putting every dime back into the label. And yet we looked really good.”
The marketing of mystery was also embedded in their name. My own first encounter wasn’t with Hardkiss, The Hardkiss Brothers or Scott, Robbie or Gavin individually. It was with the “San Francisco Hardkiss Experience”. It gave me the distinct impression that there was a lot more going on here than some dudes playing records together. So too did the mysterious phrase printed on the back cover of Delusions: “I made absolutely sure that none of us would ever return to normality again.” Things like this made Hardkiss feel like more of an experience than a label or a band or a group of DJs that used to stand outside the Limelight in trenchcoats, speaking fake French to help bluff their way inside. It felt like Hardkiss was a phenomenon, something to see – a thing created in a bolt of lightning, in an instant; born like Zarathustra, laughing.
There Will Come Soft Rains.
Hardkiss was riding high on notoriety in the second half of the ’90s. The label was still stubbornly resistant to profit, but the individual members were earning a living on the road. “At the time it felt like a lot of fun. It really did,” Robbie says. Beneath the surface, he compares the drama unraveling to an episode of Behind The Music.
Hardkiss had signed with new management, which pushed for a major label deal. And they got one. “Scott was ready, artistically, to go there in a major way,” Robbie says. “He was ahead of us in a sense. Gavin might dispute that, since he wasn’t concerned with those things at all. But Scott had a clear vision from the start of what he wanted to do. He was the type of guy who could sit down and do ‘Raincry’ and do it pretty quickly because he knew what he wanted to do before he started. For this, he wanted to blend all of his rock and funk and Prince and hip hop influences together in a larger electronic-influnced album. He was ready for it. Gavin and I weren’t. We were fine with Hardkiss putting out singles every once in awhile.”
The labels weren’t ready to deal with just Scott Hardkiss, though. They wanted the whole package. “Our management worked out a deal where it would be first a God Within/Scott Hardkiss album, and then a Hardkiss album with all of us,” Robbie remembers. “And then the deal went south in just a myriad of typical music industry cliche ways.”
People were changing. Gavin was married and was the first to have kids among them; Robbie met his wife around this time as well. “There were some demands of family that just came first for me,” Gavin says. “You get the call: Hey bro, you’ve got to go to San Francisco to the studio and get the mixer out of the studio in two hours. No, I can’t go in two hours. If you need me to do stuff, lets plan it in advance. Things changed.”
Meanwhile, Scott’s album stalled. “I think the real hangup was the software wasn’t ready to do what Scott wanted it to do,” Robbie says. “Scott was tracking tons of live instrumentation and bringing in musicians for everything. If Ableton Live was out then, it could have handled it. He actually had an engineer writing code to try to put these things on a mathematical grid so he could then do his electronic sequencing. They were doing that. You can imagine this was taking a very long time…”
Hardkiss’ A&R rep left the label, their management entered something of a low-intensity civil war and lawyers were trying to break down whether or not the individual Hardkiss brothers could release any music at all during this unexpected hiatus.
“When I think of my personal responsibility for things not working out,” Robbie says, “I think that Gavin and I should have stepped in and offered up the Hardkiss songs for the would-be album. Scott was struggling to get his right; it was just a matter of scheduling that his was to come out first. At the moment when it was all going pear-shaped, we should have just done the Hardkiss album. It would have relieved the pressure everyone was feeling. But I think it was about confidence. I didn’t think I had the songs, though I had ‘Champagne Beat Boogie’ and the record I released on Classic Music Co., ‘Everything is Changing’. Those songs would have been great on a major label, really.
“In retrospect, I should have said, ‘Scott, let’s take a break from all of this and track this way for a little bit.’ But I really didn’t have the confidence in myself and my own material to do that at the time.”
Here It Is. Sorry This Is Late.
If this were a VH1 special, this is the point where one member of Hardkiss throws down his guitar and storms out, never to be seen again. Fade.
The early ’00s was a period of cosmic burnout seemingly for everyone that came of age in the ’90s but especially for Hardkiss. Inseparable for a decade, they scattered to three of the four cardinal points on the American map – Scott in New York, Robbie in Austin and Gavin hanging back in the Bay Area. Scott and Gavin were “a bit estranged,” in the latter’s words. Gavin and Robbie remained in touch, not all the time, but enough to stay involved in one another’s lives.
It’s difficult to write about what holds families together. It’s more difficult to explain what it is that drives close families apart. Everybody was doing their own thing. And that’s what they were doing for awhile.
After moving to Philadelphia, Robbie found himself joining Scott on stage for a live show in New York. “We had people driving from Vermont and stuff,” he says. “Scott had his band and was super-psyched about it. And yet it kind of seemed that people were most excited that the Hardkiss brothers were together again.”
This was a slow process, as if galactic systems thrown violently apart were slowly drifting back into a regular orbit. But it was a different configuration of Hardkiss that brought it back.
“Robbie’s wife got a job in Sausalito about three years ago,” Gavin says, “And then Robbie and his daughters moved out here. We’ve been at it since then.”
“I told him, ‘We’re coming back and you and I are going to make some music together.’ I knew we were,” Robbie says. “I heard it in the sound. I’d been listening to Gavin’s stuff and I told him that he’s in the clouds and I’m down to earth, and he can take my stuff to the clouds and I can bring him down to earth and we can really help each other musically.
“We didn’t have a plan to get Hardkiss back together, but we did have a specific plan to make music together. That would obviously be two of the Hardkiss brothers together. And having both of us in the same room, there was no way we weren’t going to talk about the past and the things I’m talking to you about right now.”
In January 2013, Gavin and Robbie sent some of this new material to a few people, with Scott being first on the list. They considered adding a note about that last Hardkiss album, the one never made. “Here it is! Sorry it’s 15 years late!”
They asked Scott to listen and tell them what he thought. And then to tell them what he wanted to mix. “So much of this album was written with him in the studio with us, in our hearts and in our minds,” Robbie says. “‘Broken Hearts’ was really for him. It was written before he died, and it’s crazy how it changed meaning. I actually had tears in the studio with that song, just because of what that melody that Gavin wrote meant to me and what it reminded me of.
“I started writing lyrics, though most of them aren’t in the final version that’s on there. They were really about the beginning, of Scott, Gavin & me up until that day. It was kind of a love letter of sorts.
“We didn’t get to talk to him enough about the music before he died. We didn’t know if he made the connection of ‘Broken Hearts’. Did he know it was about us? His wife, Stephanie, told us that they were listening to it in the car. She said to him, ‘You’ve got to remix that one.’ He asked why, and she said, ‘Uh, Scott, that’s a love letter to you.’
“Scott never asked if we wrote that for him. But we needed remixes for ‘Revolution’, because that was going to be the first single. He told us he wanted to remix that, but that ‘Broken Hearts’ song – that was his jam. ‘I really want to do something really big and special with that one,’ he said.”
And They Never Did Return to Normality, Either.
“There was a period of time – and I still feel this – that I felt like Scott was alive and he was just living in another city,” Gavin says. “Like he was still out there. There’s a sense of comfort to that. He’s still in my dreams and musically he’s still such a part of the palette of the music that I’m interested in that it doesn’t seem like he’s gone.
“I have the unfortunate life experience of having people die who are young and who were closer to me than Scott was. I’ve been down this path, and know that feeling of losing a young soul. It doesn’t get easier having done it before.”
Musically, were do you go after that? It would have been a difficult question, Gavin says, if they didn’t have nearly two albums’ worth songs written. “We had these 20 songs that we had made and were in various states of completion. Me and Robbie had to buckle down and figure out how to get this next wave of music out, while giving it some time to breathe to honor his family and his legacy. It’s still been a challenge making it through.
“We were going to start a whole new label, but there was really no point in putting the work into that if we could get everyone on board to continue the Hardkiss legacy, open the door to put out this album, new material and then re-release all the stuff we did in the ’90s.”
I ask Robbie point blank if this feels like a door closing or a door opening. “It’s an opening,” he says. “This album is the re-introduction to Hardkiss. The plan is to not go more than two months without releasing something else.”
This is where a conclusion would go, if this were the end of the story. I’d say something hopeful, and add something flattering to make you go and buy some records. But this is just the story so far.