Theo Hilton (center) with Nana Grizol.
Theo Hilton, an Athens native and founder of the acclaimed folk-punk band Nana Grizol, has embarked on a new project—a record label catering specifically to the queer community. Hilton’s Cruisin’ Records currently has five signees and is quickly growing. In order to help the label serve its intended purpose, Hilton says all its bands either have queer-identifying members or otherwise support the LGBTQ community.
Hilton says the idea for Cruisin’ came about a few years ago, when he began to see a need for a queer-friendly space in the wider music community. He partnered with Clyde Peterson, a longtime friend and member of the Seattle band Your Heart Breaks, and they pooled their resources to kickstart the label.
“We want to use connections and resources that we have to support and promote queer artists and cultural production,” Hilton says. “That means taking the people that we work with, figuring out how we can best support them and promoting queer-positive faces to push against any opposition.”
As a queer artist, the cause is personal for Hilton. He says he had a difficult time finding queer-friendly spaces when he was younger, and now that he has more resources and connections in the music world, he realizes it’s up to him to create what wasn’t there before.
Hilton first realized his queer identity as a student at Clarke Central High School. Though he had a support group of friends, he says spaces for those who were questioning their identity were difficult to come by. After he moved from Athens to Seattle, he said he found more spaces that were LGBTQ-friendly, but very few were related to the music scene.
“As a songwriter and band member, the most important thing for me is to speak directly about that part of my experience,” Hilton says. “It’s important to have spaces where we can be critical and also be affirmed.”
After discussing the initial Cruisin’ concept with Peterson, Hilton began to reach out to bands interested in releasing music on the label. Its first batch of releases is out this fall, and includes albums by three different artists: Delicate Art, by L.A.’s Lonesome Leash; Theo Zumm, a collection of early home recordings by Nana Grizol; and a reissue of ManDate’s Oral History.
Peterson also plays bass guitar in ManDate, and says he is excited for the album’s Cruisin’ release.
“I’m interested in the places where punk rock and the queer community interact,” Peterson says. “Those things aren’t part of traditional capitalist culture, and finding our own way and making our own spaces has always been part of queer culture.”
Both Peterson and Hilton says the goal of Cruisin’ is to give a voice to those who feel as though they are not being heard. Peterson says that if a musician can find somewhere to feel included and get support, both their music and overall livelihood will benefit.
“We found bands who didn’t have enough support and gave them what we could to help,” Peterson says. “After this many years of playing and touring, we know a little more than someone just starting out, so we want to make it easier for them.”
Ultimately, Peterson and Hilton want to see both music and queer communities succeed, and when they couldn’t find a space where the two areas intersected, they created one. Hilton says he envisions Cruisin’ eventually growing beyond the typical label format, adding that he “hope[s] to use Cruisin’ as a platform to organize events and intentional queer spaces” in cities around the country.
Hilton will return to Athens Saturday, when Nana Grizol headlines an all-ages show at Kindercore Vinyl, and he says he is excited to come home as someone who is more confident and comfortable in his identity.
“It’s interesting to think about my perception of myself as a queer person and how that’s changed since I was younger,” Hilton says. “The introduction of queer spaces in music changed how I thought of myself, and that’s why I want to create a space where that can be possible for other artists, as well.”
NANA GRIZOL Literate, heartfelt folk-punk band led by former Athenian Theo Hilton. See story on p. 9.
BAD MOVES Power-pop group from Washington, DC.
GRAPE SODA This local duo plays spastic, psychedelic synthpop driven by organ and drums.