Music Without Borders: The Hive Dwellers
by Tucker Petertil
Calvin Johnson, late of Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, the Halo Benders, Sons of the Soil and a couple of solo albums, has a new record entitled “Hewn From The Wilderness” from his latest band, The Hive Dwellers. I had some thoughts about his latest batch of songs and so asked Calvin via email a few questions, as he’s out touring on the east coast with the Dwellers.
The record jacket features a simple photo of beehives in the snow and on the rear cover is a photo of a front yard with a “This household supports Occupy Olympia” yard sign in the foreground and the Capitol dome appearing ghostly in the foggy background. Right away you sense a local effort even though Calvin’s fans are worldwide.
On the record the featured musicians include Andrew Dorsett, Karl Blau, Jessica Dennison and more. I asked Calvin who are the main Hive Dwellers.
Replied Calvin, “The Hive Dwellers after many flights of fancy have landed in a serene lagoon of Evan Hashi, drums, Gabriel Will, electric guitar and bass guitar, Calvin Johnson guitar, melodica, voice.”
Were the songs on “Hewn From The Wilderness” easy to write.
“Some were like the light of inspiration. Others spiraled slowly to the surface through hard-pan. Each song on Hewn from the Wilderness was a joy to record. If it was not pleasurable, it was tossed out the window and replaced with another.”
The album starts out slowly with on “Messed up and Ramblin’.” Here the band sounds like bees stumbling out of a smoky hive, handclaps, cardboard box drums, a simple bass run and electric guitar brimming with trebly tremolo and lo fi ambitions. Calvin’s words are all about churning butter, banging back doors and hurrying somewhere but mainly his lyrics fit the title.
Things take an initially retro turn with the second track The Dignity of Saint Jude, and it’s like a breath of fresh spring air. It’s beginning guitar line sounds like some forgotten folk rock band of yesteryear until Calvin’s vocal brings it all into familiar territory as he sings “city lights gave me the cold shoulder even though I’ve been rubbing elbows with the luminary of the obsessed,” and pleads with Saint Jude not to give up on him. This had me wondering if Catholicism was an issue in his life.
“Catholicism is little known in my life. However, someone mentioned that St. Jude is the patron saint of lost causes. It occurred to me that if even St. Jude has given up on you, you’re really hopeless.”
Other songs include “Tell Tale Heart,” a funk gumbo complete with jungle shrieks and the feeling that any moment Eric Burden and War might start singing about spilling wine. “Sitting Alone at the Movies” is just that: a rumination on going solo to a motion picture show. I asked how that came to be written.
“While living in the Martin Apartments, I often attended 99 cent movies at the State Theater. It was an activity I enjoyed doing alone. Once it became a song idea it wrote itself.”
“Get In” is the centerpiece of the album, a lengthy stompin’ track with a long list of mean names people call each other and the encouragement to “Get In” and join the outsiders that actually make up the majority of the population. It seemed familiar.
“‘Get In’ has existed in several different forms over the years. It came together as a song while recording a Hive Dwellers session in Chicago with the band Mahjongg operating as the band. We re-worked it for the more garage/beat approach found on Hewn from the Wilderness.”
“Ride with Me” is a ripping tune about bicycles and “unbridled enthusiasm,” so I asked Calvin if he thought it had a chance to become the human powered equivalent of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild”.
“Like a true suburban child, I’m bored, too bored to be wild.”
There’s also a song called “A Woman Named Trudy” and I couldn’t help asking who the mystery woman might be.
“There was a desire to write a song using a name. The name Trudy is an attractive name and I know no one named Trudy so no one could be suspected as the Trudy of the song.”
Finally I asked Calvin if he felt there was a new approach or direction that he was going in with this record and The Hive Dwellers in general?
“We believe in rock’n’roll.” ◙
The Hive Dwellers play the Northern at its new location, 414½ Legion Way, on Saturday, April 28.