Calvin Johnson is the Coolest Guy in Olympia
by Tucker Petertil, 6/16/02
Over the last 30 years. Calvin Johnson and K Records have done much to define and influence independent music groups and record labels, as well as put Olympia on the international music map. His bands include Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, the Halo Benders (with Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch), and currently The Hive Dwellers. I spoke with Calvin at his Dub Narcotic recording studio in May.
Calvin: What was great about punk rock when it started was that it was a lot of singles, and bands would just make a single once a year. Then in the 80s all the bands were making an album every eight months. People said “Why make a single when you can make an album?,” so everyone’s making albums and singles kinda died out, but I like singles so we started this singles series called International Pop Underground. Then about the same time other people had the same idea and singles flourished in the late 80s and early 90s and that was great.
But because of the way people actually listen to music now, it’s much more like the ideas of singles. People are more oriented to getting the song they like, whereas in previous times they’d like a song so they’d buy the album and they’d discover ‘Oh these other songs are good too’…maybe.
Now they just like that song, they just get that song, download it and that’s neat because it refocuses on songs. So we may be in such of era that Joey Ramone always talked about, the myth of classic pop radio.
So, because it’s easy to fit in with this format, I’d like to work with that format …just good songs. The K Singles Zip Pack is like a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) really. You subscribe and instead of a box of vegetables and you’re not sure what it’s gonna be, you get a little pack of songs and theoretically you don’t have to worry ‘cause they’re good songs, they’re singles.
The first week is gonna be Mirah. She has a disco version of a song called “Gone Are All the Days” that she recorded here with a band made up of people from Seattle, Portland, and Olympia. And we’ve got Electric Sunset, which is Nick (Zwart) who used to be Desolation Wilderness, and he’s providing a ring tone version of one of the songs from his upcoming album. Mecca Normal was here and recorded a new single and some extra material that’ll just be available on the Zip Pack. So it’s been fun to work with this format and work directly with the artists within these limitations but also pushing these limitations and discovering what we can do.
OP&L: So when is this gonna start?
Calvin: It starts July 1st, and we’ve been working on getting the material and getting the word out and people have been subscribing.
OP&L: So they get an MP3?
Calvin: We email them a link every Thursday and when they click on it, it automatically downloads the zip, and it has music and other things. With Mirah, we have some extra remixes that’ll only be available through mail-order and we’re also gonna include high resolution scans of posters from shows that Mirah has played over the years.
OP&L: What does this cost?
Calvin: It’s $50 a year, for a year’s worth of excitement and adventure. It’s 50 weeks a year, we’re gonna take two weeks off to recharge the batteries.
OP&L: What else is in the pipeline?
Calvin: We’re putting out a new album by Kendl (of the Blackberry Bushes) called “Albacore” that we’re releasing in the fall. We’ve got new singles by Lake, Karl Blau, the Hive Dwellers which is my group, Joey Casio, and stuff we haven’t recorded yet: Rainbow Bridge, a local band, Angelo Spencer, Tender Forever, The Strange Boys from Austin TX. We’re booked up for the next month and a half.
OP&L: Tell me about the Hive Dwellers.
Calvin: The Hive Dwellers have been playing as a band for the last couple of months. It’s been great, there’s three or four of us. Brian Weber plays keyboards, he’s also in Chain & The Gang, and Gabriel Will and Spencer Kelly and there’s been several people in and out over the last year and a half. I sing and play guitar and melodica sometimes. We do mostly new songs and a couple from my solo records too.
We’ve got a 12” single coming out in the fall, we’ve done some compilations and we were commissioned by National Public Radio’s Mapping Main Street series to do a song. So I said, “Ok, I’ll do Olympia because Capitol Way used to be called Main Street.’ But they said “No, it has to be called Main Street. now.” So the only Main Street. in all of Thurston County is in Bucoda and so I went there and talked to the mayor for a while and hung out and I loved it and did a little song about that called “A Kiss on Main Street.”
OP&L: You also DJ as Selector Dub Narcotic. What music are you playing?
Calvin: I played the Phoenix House the other night and there’s a lot of good local 45s I like to play, the Broken Water single, Rainbow Bridge, Christopher Francis, People In A Position To Know have put out a lot of good 45s.
OP&L: How many records has K put out?
Calvin: Maybe 500 or so and I felt like we really got going once we moved into the Knitting Mill building (now The Loft) and we got the studio going there in 1999-2000. Phil Elevrum (Microphones, Mt. Eerie) lived a block away and Mirah lived two blocks away, people had keys to the studio, and they could come in and record whenever they wanted to. That’s when things started to happen where it wasn’t just us saying “Hey, let’s cut a record.” It took on a life of its own and that’s continued now with Karl Blau and the Blow.
One thing I like about K is that we have a diverse group of artists and success comes in many forms. A band like Karp was never a financially successful band but artistically and culturally they were really important. They typified a certain part of Olympia when they arrived and I’m just so proud of being a part of what they did…it was really exciting.
Mecca Normal, who I’ve been involved with for a long time but haven’t worked with for 15 years, came here a recorded a single and that was exciting. They’re still making powerful and important music even in the face of extreme apathy.
OP&L: So how has the Download Age affected you?
Calvin: It’s great, we’re still not getting any radio play, but now it matters less because people are able to share music they’re excited about.
OP&L: Any summer music recommendations?
Calvin: It’s always worth while to go to the “What You Got Festival” at the Capitol Theatre at the end of June and around the same time is the “Olympia Experimental Music Festival” which apparently is happening this year, it’s always a mystery until it happens. Then there’s the Microfests that happens sporadically, I’m sure there’ll be several of those this summer.
OP&L: Talk about your new releases.
Calvin: Tender Forever is Melanie (Valera) from France originally; she has a official visa to work here which is weird ‘cause I’m so used to scamming things, like “Oh Melanie’s here on vacation,” she wasn’t supposed to be working. We’re about to put out her third album “No Snare” which she recorded mostly in Portland where she lives, but she comes up here a lot and she’ll be playing at the Helsing Junction Sleepover in August.
Jeremy Jay is from California but I met him in Portland. He lives in Europe now but he’ll be here next month, because he has two albums on K: “Dream Diary” and “Splash” coming out. He’s a great pop songwriter and has played on some of my recordings for Hive Dwellers and is a good all around musician. He is playing in Olympia at Northern on the 20th or 21st of June.
Lake has been working on their new album here… I’ve helped them a little but they’re mostly recording themselves and that’s coming along really well… Karl Blau may show up to help them mix.
Joey Casio will be here tomorrow to do a 12” single. He just moved to Portland but we don’t hold that against him. ◙
For more information about Calvin Johnson and K Records, visit www.krecs.com.