The Calvin effect
Influential K Records founder Calvin Johnson is coming to Moxie’s
I am a huge fan of most of the music lumped into the “indie rock” genre, so it’s incredible that it wasn’t until last week that I watched the documentary, The Shield Around the K. The 1998 film documents the history of Calvin Johnson, his first band Beat Happening and the K Records label he and co-founder Candice Pederson started 20 years ago, hatching “indie” as we know it in the fertile musical community of Olympia, Wash.
Footage of the 1991 International Pop Underground Festival that K Records organized is featured prominently throughout the film, and in the opening sequences Johnson and Beat Happening are shown performing on Olympia’s Capitol Theatre stage during the event. As Johnson’s impossibly low baritone purrs and growls over the sparse arrangements, constant screams of approval rise out of the shadowy mass of fans in front of the stage.
I felt goose bumps rise on my arms as I watched. It wasn’t just the exciting scene that was getting to me, though; it was also the fact that somewhere in that mass of kids was a 22-year-old version of me, dancing and screaming too.
If you’re familiar with Johnson and the work he’s done—starting and running K Records, playing in various influential bands (Beat Happening, Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System) and producing, recording and playing with everyone from Beck to The Microphones at his Dub Narcotic studio—then you surely know that the work he’s done makes for an impressive resume.
Personally, it’s profoundly unnerving to realize that my life, since attending what rock critic and Trouser Press author Ira Robbins called “the tribal gathering of 1991,” has been largely informed by what I witnessed during that memorable week. I might be a little freaked out by this recent epiphany, but I’m also pretty damned grateful.
In addition to the revelation of my perpetually dateless self witnessing the effect the slightly off-key Johnson was having on the posse of cute girls in barrettes and horn-rimmed glasses, I saw several other important things that summer in Olympia.
I saw tons of perfect bands. Fugazi, Mecca Normal, Beat Happening, Nation of Ulysses and dozens more that I’d never seen before or knew existed that would become my favorites and influence me to start several bands of my own.
I saw an all-volunteer army of music fans putting on a seamless four-day music festival without security or incident, and I would attempt to copy this feat here in Chico and continue reaching out to some of those same bands, spending the majority of my time putting on and playing at hundreds of rock shows over past decade.
Most important, though, I saw that no idea humans are capable of imagining is too crazy, that it was possible to just do something because you wanted to. That inspiration still resonates, and while watching the documentary the vibrations were nearly unbearable.
I did talk on the phone to Johnson, who was on the road in Los Angeles, for this story, and I made a few mush-mouthed attempts to get his take on K’s legacy and influence. Mostly, though, I just wanted to find out what he’s up to.
In his unmistakable mellow baritone he told me how excited he was that K had just released the collected recordings of the Beakers and the Blackouts, a couple of Seattle bands that were around in the ‘80s that he “really liked when [he] was a teenager,” and that he’s in the process of recording a new solo album where “many of the songs are being produced by others…Phil [Elvrum], Mirah…”
After the upcoming Chico show, Johnson will fly to the East Coast to wrap up the tour with a night at Yo La Tengo’s annual week-long Hanukah celebration at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, N.J.