Calvin Johnson holds a special place in indie rock history. Not only was he a founding member of the seminal indie outfit Beat Happening, he also started the label K Records, the logo of which was famously tattooed on Kurt Cobain’s arm. Based in Olympia, Washington, K Records was one of the first independent labels in the Pacific Northwest, preceding the likes of Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars. However, K was unique for more than its region: its pop leanings and youthful aesthetic defied the hyper-masculine sensibility of the other underground labels of the time (such as SST and Dischord). K has been home to such notable twee acts as Tiger Trap and Heavenly and, more recently, the Microphones, Mirah, and the Blow. In addition to running K Records, Calvin’s musical output has been prolific: since forming Beat Happening, he has played with a host of bands including the Halo Benders (alongside Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch), the Go Team, and the Dub Narcotic Sound System. Catch Calvin playing solo this Tuesday at the Elks Lodge, part of a killer line-up that also includes Ian Svenonius’ Chain & the Gang, Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa, Hands and Knees, and Fat History Month.
Interview by Kathleen Mahoney
When you come to Cambridge on May 21st, you’re playing at the Elks Lodge, a rather atypical venue for a rock concert. In the 80s, your band Beat Happening was known for playing in unconventional spaces too– just as long as you could play all-age shows. Nowadays, how do you research venues when you tour? What are your favorite venues to play?
The first time I ever played the Boston area was at the YWCA hall in Cambridge in 1987, with Galaxie 500 and the Blake Babies. What a lovely hall. In 2004 I was able to play there again, with the Microphones. I love old union, grange, fraternal halls like that, wood floors and high ceilings, they are designed for exactly the kind of performances at which I excel. As you observed, I am interested in making the performances accessible to audience members of all ages; beyond that my least favorite venues are traditional rock clubs. Somewhere between these two criteria lies my fates. It has led to playing in so many wonderful spaces: church basements, river boats, cafes, elementary school auditoriums, barns, libraries, movie theaters, train depots, theater lobbies, more.
How is touring different now than when you started out?
The main difference between now and then is that it is not thought weird to request an all ages show; in the ’80s it was always a struggle. And, now when you ask for hot water for tea it comes out of a red tap next to the coffee machine instead of an old coffee pot (which made your tea taste like stale coffee).
This is at least your second time touring with Ian Svenonius, and you collaborated with him on his most recent project, Chain and the Gang. As longtime affiliates with underground labels (you with K, and Ian mostly with Dischord), how long have you two known each other? How did you begin to collaborate?
Ian Svenonius and I have been working together since 1990, when I released the first Nation of Ulysses 45 on the DisKord label, and helped arrange their NW tour that halcyon summer. Since then K released three albums by the Make-Up, and I have recorded his bands Nation of Ulysses, Make-Up and Chain & the Gang. It all started when I saw Nation of Ulysses play a church in the District Dec. 1989 and was knocked out! What the WTF. We have toured together numerous times, starting with the Beat Happening/Nation of Ulysses (who played together in Cambridge in 1991), Dub Narcotic Sound System/Make-Up and The Hive Dwellers/Chain & the Gang.
Any new K Records artists we should look out for?
Working at K is a joy, there is always something fresh and exciting that keeps music relevant in my life. The new albums by Arrington de Dionyso’s Malaikat dan Singa (Open the Crown) and the Shivas (Whiteout!) are excellent examples, as are the upcoming albums by Kendl Winter (It Can Be Done!) and Ashley Eriksson (Colours). The Hive Dwellers are another source of inspiration, it’s exciting to be working with such concentrated and earnest music-makers. We just toured our Hewn from the Wilderness album through California and are working on our second album now at Dub Narcotic Studio.