Fighting the Cavity Creeps
K Records' Calvin Johnson Is a Cultural Protagonist
Thank fucking God for Olympia's K Records, and thank fucking God for Calvin Johnson. If he hadn't started K Records in 1982, we might not be here right now. K is there, an aural defender against the mindless Clear Channel/Fox monstrosities of mainstream culture so that we don't turn into clone-eared dairy cows. Evidence: Melvins, Love as Laughter, Yume Bitsu, the Go Team, Karl Blau, the Curious Mystery, Modest Mouse, Bikini Kill, and the Blow, just for starters. Johnson is many things—cultural protagonist, guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, producer, and engineering specialist. His own bands, Beat Happening, the Halo Benders, and the Hive Dwellers, have done much in the way of spreading K's communiqué. The low-boomed murmur of his voice is instantly recognizable. Recently, K and Johnson have been concentrating on Kendl Winter. Her newest K release, The Mechanics of Hovering Flight, houses a beautifully idiosyncratic folk sheen of banjo and pickings. Johnson spoke, just after having been to the dentist.
How was the dentist?
It was very satisfying.
Have you been fighting the cavity creeps?
I guess so. I've been fighting and winning, because I haven't had a cavity for years.
Have you been flossing? I floss sometimes and it's a bloodbath.
Almost once a day. It seems like enough, according to the dentist. If you just did it every day for like four or five days, it wouldn't be like that.
Here we have "Live Hygienic Tips" from K Records and Calvin Johnson. Anything else you'd like to say about the hygiene?
Um, uh, no.
Your latest project is the Hive Dwellers. What else has been going on in your world of music?
I've been doing the Dub Narcotic Disco Plate Series and the Hive Dwellers.
Talk about the Plate Series.
Well, the Dub Narcotic Disco Plate is where I record a band doing a song and we release it on a 7-inch, 45-rpm phonograph record, and on the B side, under my name Selector Dub Narcotic, I do a remix of the song. We released a Dub Narcotic Disco Plate with Kendl Winter—one song by her on one side and the remix by me on the other.
Who else are you looking to do the series with?
We've done Bobby Birdman—just recently. Mount Eerie and White Rainbow. And the Hive Dwellers have a volume in the series.
You're coming with Kendl to play at the Intiman as part of Fin Records' "The Next 50," celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair. Do you have specific ties to the Seattle Center and the World's Fair?
I was born on the very last day of the World's Fair: November 1, 1962.
I was trying to find some more information online, but I couldn't find much.
You could just make it up.
Yes! Let's see, so you were born on the last day of the Seattle World's Fair and you remember your birth exactly, right? You know how there are people who say they remember their birth? Do you think that's bullshit?
I don't remember my birth at all. It's all a blur. You're the journalist, you could probably do some research and find out more. But I'm not certain how that's pertinent to our discussion.
I was just going with the making it up thing you said earlier. I was just making up some shit about you remembering every detail of your birth on the last day of the World's Fair, and that's why they wanted you to play this show. The birth was rather easy for you, and you remember it being a brisk fall day. On the first day of your life, you heard Johnny Cash's All Aboard the Blue Train, and your life was set on its trajectory.
Oh, well I just meant that since they weren't providing details about the Next 50 celebration, you could make up details because they don't want to share them with us.
How did you and Kendl Winter start working together?
She's been here in town making music for 10 years, and she has such an interesting personality. She moved here from Arkansas. That's where she grew up. And I just bought her CD, one of her solo CDs, and thought it was pretty good. Then I ran into her in the street and said, "Hey, I got your CD, it's pretty groovy." And then her band, the Blackberry Bushes, played at our Helsing Junction Sleepover a couple of years ago, and we played some shows together here and there. And just, you know, we're both living in Olympia and making music and we crossed paths now and then.
When you record someone and produce them, do you do a lot of the engineering?
Yeah, I do the engineering and maybe I make a suggestion here and there. Mostly I'm just documenting what their vision is the best I can. For Kendl, we talked about it. We figured out what she wanted, and she's got people she works with, and it was a group effort.
What kind of album did she set out to make?
Well, she's a great songwriter; she has all these really powerful songs, and we wanted to bring out the songs as well as we could. It helps because she has really good players that she works with. They're not necessarily playing every show with her, but they play with her when they can or when she wants them to. Her shows are always different. Sometimes she's just by herself, other times she has the whole band. On these sessions, she had a couple of different drummers, and Joe played the bass on most of the songs. Different people came in and played the piano or played violin. People who live in town here and play music who she knows from music. And she's just very personable, so everyone wants to be part of her scene. So it's exciting, it's a real community, people are coming and going and just having a good time and laughing.
What do you do when you're recording a band and they want to do something you think might not work, like record a 19-minute guitar solo?
Well, that hasn't happened yet. But I feel like trust is really important to the process, and so if someone wanted to do something like that, I would trust them that it was a good idea and see how it comes out.
For people who visit Olympia, what do you like to tell them to do?
Nammy's sandwich shop is good, and the farmers market is always popular. There's the really beautiful park called Tumwater Falls Park. That's a great place to go because it's not a city park; it's a private park run by this foundation and it's got a really interesting vibe. Very historical. Lots of salmon there—just chillin', just hanging out.
When you look back and reflect on the K catalog, do you have any favorites?
I really like this White Rainbow record we just did, I like that a lot. They're from Portland. And Adam Forkner, he's in White Rainbow, we've been working with him for 12 or 13 years. It's just exciting to continue a working relationship with them.
What's next for K?
Curious Mystery have a new 45 that we just recorded at the studio, it will come out in July. We just did 10 shows with them on the East Coast.
I read somewhere recently that Kurt Cobain renounced his friendship with you. I think the thing said it was somewhere in his journals. I always thought you all had a good relationship. Have you heard this?
I don't really know anything about that.