Singin’ with friends
K Records’ Calvin Johnson and his latest crew, The Hive Dwellers
“Hello … this is Calvin Johnson,” came a deep baritone voice over the phone, slicing through background music and a crackling long-distance connection.
For three decades’ worth of fans of lo-fi indie rock, that voice is as instantly familiar as the source of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” is to …well, everybody. The extremely prolific performer has recorded as a solo artist and with dozens of different projects, most notably Beat Happening, The Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System.
As founder of Olympia, Wash., independent label K Records, he also has disseminated the music of hundreds of other acts. A then-teenage Johnson started the label to spread music made by friends in 1982, and over the years that list of friends has included such acts as Beck, Bikini Kill and Built to Spill … and that’s just skimming the top of the B-section of K’s catalogue.
After 30 years, Johnson said—by phone from Oakland while on tour with his latest band, The Hive Dwellers—that working with friends wasn’t just why he started, but how he keeps going.
“I’m fortunate that I get to work with such visionary and creative people,” he said. “There’s always something going on, always people feeding off each other, and it’s easy to just jump in and keep going.
“It’s in our nature. Music is part of us. It’s like food. People gather around the table, they share food and music the same way, always offering up little morsels. There’s a constant flow of people in every direction that you get to meet and work with. That’s exciting.”
While many of Johnson’s past collaborations have been one-offs and studio projects, The Hive Dwellers, which also features Gabriel Will (bass/electric guitar) and Evan Hashi (drums), toured for three years before recording a full-length, last year’s Hewn from the Wilderness.
“I wanted to do something that wasn’t as immediate, to let the songs go their own direction before recording them,” Johnson said of the approach. “It was an experiment for me.”
In addition to his role as rock ’n’ roll ringleader, and in keeping with the DIY, power-to-the-people ethos with which he approaches music, Johnson also throws his considerable clout behind political causes in his hometown. Alongside bits about K’s latest releases, the label website’s news feed also carries bits about Olympia’s populist power struggles to its considerable international audience. Last year it supported a ballot measure to allow public power, and it recently focused on striking hospital workers.
“We try to keep in touch with local things that don’t get a lot of attention,” Johnson said. “With the public-power issue it was mostly a news blackout, because the utilities are so powerful it wasn’t covered at all. So we figured we have this platform, it’s something we’re interested in, so we’re going to write about it.”
The recent labor struggle, for which Johnson performed at a rally, involved workers striking after the owners of Olympia’s Providence St. Peter Hospital made cuts to their health-care benefits.
“Everyone was just like, ‘That’s ridiculous, you’re a hospital,’” Johnson explained. “And they’re like, ‘It’s not ridiculous, we’re a corporation that wants to cut costs, and this is an unnecessary cost.
“Because corporations have become so big and so powerful, every single labor issue is significant, because the ability of workers to organize and bargain collectively is not an industry-by-industry issue but across the board.”
As for the music industry, which Johnson has made a career of skirting, he just chooses to ignore it altogether.
“I really don’t know anything about it. I live in my own little world, so the music industry … I don’t know what goes on with it.”