FROM A DISTANCE, Calvin Johnson -- the basso profundo singer of Beat Happening, the Halo Benders, and Dub Narcotic Sound System, and owner of famed independent K Records -- seems all he's cracked up to be: austere, eccentric, and prone to rub his belly at inappropriate moments.

It isn't easy being an icon. First there are the legends. Was he really fondled by heckler Henry Rollins at a Beat Happening show? Did he actually flip off the cops after being captured on tape, along with his fellow Halo Benders, on True Stories of the Highway Patrol? And what was the deal with his label's logo tattooed on the forearm of our generation's biggest and saddest rock star, Kurt Cobain?

Sitting in Dub Narcotic Studio in Olympia, the gymnasium-sized room above the K offices which once housed a knitting factory, Johnson stretches out on a couch in the far corner. He is friendly and benign. Is this the same scrupulously principled egalitarian who, after nearly 20 years in bands, still refuses to play non-all-ages shows? The craziest dancer in rock and roll?

We've met to discuss Johnson's new album, Sideways Soul: Dub Narcotic Sound System Meets the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in a Dancehall Style, the rockin' collision between Johnson's quirky funk band and the mannered R&B of Spencer's popular group. According to Johnson, the album came about as payment on a debt incurred by Spencer four years ago. "I remixed a song from Extra Width that was on their remix EP," says Johnson. "They asked, 'What kind of compensation do you want?' and I said, 'Well, record something next time you're out here.' And they said okay." On their next tour, the JSBX stopped at Johnson's home studio in Olympia and paid up. "They pulled up and looked out of the car like, 'Is this the place?' and I kinda looked out the window like, 'Is that them?'" Over the next two days, Johnson presided over a trash-stompin' jam session that included members of the Dub Narcotic Sound System, the suave Spencer, and his cohorts Judah Bauer and Russell Simins.

The clattering free-for-all resulted in a record's worth of glorious, loose-limbed tracks. Both of the singular singers shout and holler about the dances done at karaoke bars on "Fudgy the Whale." Spencer cautions, "It's crazy karaoke style/And if you don't watch out/You might get a mic stand in the face." "Banana Meltdown" features the famed Blues Explosion guitar riffs and Johnson's equally notable lyrical finesse: "You think 'cause you made out with Santa/You'll get what you want for Christmas."

This meeting of two of rock's most provocative artists might have left the home studio a pile of ashes by the time the recording was completed, but Johnson describes Spencer and Co. as perfect gentlemen. "They didn't really stay at the house," he says. Sensing the chagrin of Spencer-philes the world over, the singer notes, "No, I never got to see Jon Spencer in his underwear."

But plenty of other magical JSBX moments took place. "They didn't bring anything except their guitars, so I had an amp for Jon, but I gave my favorite amp, my Fender Vibrochamp, to Judah. He was really bummed out because it was small, and said, 'Jon's got a huge amp. Nobody's gonna hear me on this thing!'" Johnson corrected this Freudian drama sensibly. He gave Bauer a really big microphone.

Evidence of the summer camp atmosphere in the studio is strewn everywhere on the songs of Sideways Soul. The two singers trade freestyle rants on the people and places of Olympia, and we get to learn Johnson's secret nicknames for the Blues Explosion: Little Johnny Spencer, Judah 'We Got the Power' Bauer, and Russell McCaveman. It isn't every day that two of indie rock's most famous faces drop their leadership duties and just let fly with some improv.

Lately, however, Spencer's fame seems to rest more on his supermodel looks. The sexy, raven-haired singer is among several rock notables featured in new ads for Calvin Klein jeans. Looking at one of the glossy CK ads for the first time, Johnson seems somewhat surprised by the heavy eyeliner and greasy hairdo that Spencer sports. "Is he even wearing jeans?" What would a Calvin Klein ad featuring "the other Calvin" look like? Johnson quickly replies, "It would look exactly like the Brooke Shields ad."

The irascible singer certainly doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Does he ever have time to hang out down at the karaoke bar? "I've never really been to a karaoke bar," he admits. But if he ever heads down to the joint chronicled in "Fudgy the Whale," what will he sing? "Probably 'Diamonds Are Forever.'"