He wants you to throw something at him in the middle of his show. He wants to be called an “asshole” while he’s up on stage. And, to show his appreciation, he’ll throw you some jelly beans.
Calvin Johnson pulled these antics while on tour with The Microphones a few years ago. He taped notes under the seats in the audience for them to find during the show, rewarding their participation in the end with a shower of candy.
This is how Calvin Johnson works. The man who started K Records and worked his way up to the status of Pacific Northwest indie god, who takes up half the space on the cover of Beck’s album “One Foot in the Grave,” whose record label emblem was supposedly tattooed on Kurt Cobain’s arm, rolls into shows wearing pastel pink ankle socks. It doesn’t seem to matter to him that his work helped spawn a new musical era – he just wants to twist and shout on stage.
Inevitably, a conversation on the transformation of the punk scene from an elitist sect of abrasive musicians into an open-ended lifestyle will lead to two cities – Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Wash.
The former was rooted in the mostly Dischord records hardcore scene, home to bands such as Minor Threat and Fugazi. Olympia, a town of merely 35,000, is a less-likely choice for being the epicenter of a punk rock revolution. But it is, mostly thanks to the man of the hour.
K’s presence has affected the city “very little,” Johnson modestly lies in his signature baritone voice. He chooses his words carefully, hardly ever constructing a full sentence. “We’re just one of many.”
Calvin Johnson started his work in the underground pop scene working with Olympia community radio station KAOS-FM. He wrote for Sub Pop back before it became a label and was only a fanzine, working closely with its founder, Bruce Pavitt. Both Johnson and Pavitt wrote for Op, an Olympia-based music magazine which focused on independent and artist-owned labels. The two invented Sub Pop’s cassette fanzine, a cheap and easy way to mass-produce music, which lead to the creation of K Records, then a cassette-only label.
Johnson’s first band, Beat Happening, was one of the first cassette releases on K. It drew a lot of attention for playing light and poppy “cuddle-core” while contemporaries were stuck on heavy hardcore.
Since its inception, K Records has signed many now well-known bands, such as Built to Spill and Modest Mouse. Now artists such as Kimya Dawson, Little Wings and the All Girl Summer Fun Band call K home.
Currently, Johnson fronts the funk-freestyle group Dub Narcotic Sound System (named after his Dub Narcotic recording studio, at the K Records headquarters). He came out with a solo album, “What Was Me,” in 2002, getting mixed reviews from critics.
The album is 40 percent a cappella – which is a lot, considering Johnson doesn’t have what would be called a “soothing” voice. But he forges through it, accompanied along the way by Mirah, a former K artist who shows up on nearly every The Microphones/Mount Eerie album, on the song “Ode to St. Valentine.”
Sub Pop’s slogan, “We’re here to decentralize pop culture,” remains integral to Johnson’s creative process. There simply is no set method to how Calvin Johnson’s mind, or business, operates.
“If there was a procedure, it would be really boring. There’s a procedure for the military, and look,” he said, “they’re really boring.”
In all, K Records has created and maintained the do-it-yourself mentality central to genuine indie rock. K Records and Calvin Johnson have aided in the creation of a gray area in punk music, looking to sign the “weirdos recording in their bedrooms,” he said, rather than “the band in the bar down the street.”