Calvin Johnson is one forward-looking dude. He brought strict punk rock ethos and DIY aesthetics—supporting community, contributing to ‘zines, booking shows—to underground rock, and played an integral role in revolutionizing it. Johnson’s K Records (which he launched in the early ’80s) was one-third of the trifecta of Amerindie godhead labels (along with SST and Dischord) that set forth the principles and expression of independent punk rock—playing only all-ages shows, putting out cheap records and cassettes, doing whatever the fuck they want.
And Johnson didn’t stop there. With Olympia buddies Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford, he formed Beat Happening, which put forth a blueprint for ’80s punk—the band didn’t use aggression and rage, but instead played playful candy pop that helped define the lo-fi movement.
But instead of looking back, Johnson would prefer to talk about his newish band The Hive Dwellers and the artists currently releasing records on K. Sound of the City caught up with him on the phone from the K Records office.
So, The Hive Dwellers are sort of a new project for you?
No… I’ve been playing with the Hive Dwellers for about three years now. We did a US tour in 2009 with Chain and the Gang and we played all over. We played in Manhattan and Brooklyn on that tour. But that was three years ago. This is the first time we’ve gone out across the country since then, but we’ve been playing around the Northwest a lot.
And the Hive Dwellers have a new record coming out?
Yes, there’s a new album that’s going to be out in June. It’s called Hewn From The Wilderness. With this tour it made sense for us, because of our work schedule, to do the tour before the record came out instead of after. But you know, that’s the way it goes.
How did you go about choosing the two places Hive Dwellers are playing in New York? Staten Island seems like a really weird place to play.
Well, I’ve always wanted to play in Staten Island. I think it’s cool there are a lot of shows in Brooklyn now, because in the ’80s I used to say, “Why don’t we play in Brooklyn? What difference does it make if it’s Brooklyn? It’s just two subway stops; it’s just getting on the subway. But now a lot of shows happen in Brooklyn. I think, “Why not have a show in the Bronx? What about Staten Island?” So, Todd [Patrick] was like, “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to book something on Staten Island.” But this place we’re playing on Staten Island, they have a lot of shows there and lot of music events. Most people in Manhattan don’t really think of the boroughs as part of New York; technically they are and that’s how people used to feel about Brooklyn. Now, it’s the people in Brooklyn who feel that about the rest of New York. They’re like “What? Go to Manhattan? That’s so far.”
But Staten Island is tougher to get to than, say, the Bronx, Queens or anywhere in Brooklyn.
It is a challenge. It takes a real commitment. There’s also a ferry. And it’s free.
I remember Beat Happening playing Maxwell’s in Hoboken a lot.
Our first show in the New York area was at a place called ABC No Rio. Actually our first two shows… it was in 1984… no, 1986 and 1987 we played at ABC No Rio.
And that place still exists.
Cool. Then we played Maxwell’s and the CBGB Canteen, which was next door to CBGB’s. It was like a record store/coffee shop type place. Because we only played all ages shows, we never actually played in CBGB’s.
Besides the Hive Dwellers, you have a lot of other projects going on, like Dub Narcotic Sound System, and you’ve released albums under your own name. Are you still going to do the other stuff?
I do have a series of singles I’ve been putting out called Dub Narcotic Disco Plate, and that’s where I record a band on the A-side at [Dub Narcotic Studio] and then I re-mix it as Selector Dub Narcotic as the B-side. The most recent volumes of that series were Bobby Birdman, LAKE, Kendl Winter and Mount Eerie.
People seem to still identify you most with the iconic Beat Happening but the music you’ve done post-Beat Happening isn’t too shabby either, as is the stuff you continue to put out on K.
I’m just doing my thing (now) and if people dig it, great. If they don’t, that’s just the way it always has been. I think that some of the artists we work with are really more popular, or more well known. LAKE and Mount Eerie, the Kendl record is doing really well and Kurt Blau.
It feels like K flies under the radar as other labels like Merge, Sub Pop and Matador garner a lot of the attention.
Well, they probably know what they’re doing.
How’s K Records holding up after all these years?
We’re still here.
What’s your typical day like at K?
Well, I’m here every day, knockin’ heads together.
Sounds like you run a tight ship.
No… I leave that to our general manager.
Does K have a big staff?
There’s like four or five of us. It’s hard to keep track. We have interns. Then there’s the studio on the first floor—the Dub Narcotic Studio.
Beat Happening were covered in a chapter in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could be your Life, and that served as the impetus for reunions by the likes of Mission of Burma and Dinosaur Jr. Did it cross your mind that those bands are reuniting and playing shows…
Whatever works. I’m pretty busy. I wouldn’t mind seeing Mission of Burma but they haven’t played in Olympia. I’d go see them if I could. I’ve enjoyed their music. I remember when Roger (Miller) played solo in Olympia but that was like 25 years ago.
What about a Beat Happening reunion?
Uh, huh. Who knows. Lord knows. It never occurred to me that, well, Mission of Burma are playing some shows. Maybe we should jump on the bandwagon. That’s just never crossed my mind.
Does the nostalgia thing turn you off?
I’m not as nostalgic as the next guy. But I’m busy making Hive Dwellers records. I certainly love all the things I did in the past but I don’t necessarily feel that I’ve done my best work. I feel like my best work is ahead of me.
KARP, one of your K bands, is the subject of a documentary called Kill All Redneck Pricks. You played a vital role in that doc, we well as putting out their records. What struck you about those guys?
The thing about KARP that I love was that they were this loud, obnoxious, powerful band and they weren’t assholes. They weren’t macho dicks. They were really cool people and really just sweethearts. Jared (Warren) is still just like the nicest guy you’ll ever meet; just a really cool guy and even though he’s working with the Melvins and he’s touring all the time, he’s just a down to earth and natural guy—it’s beautiful. That idea they had some sort of aggression—that Kill All Redneck Pricks was the name of their newsletter—but they didn’t act out that aggression. It was more like they released that through humor and I think that was the very appropriate way, or release, for those feelings. They were really powerful performers and it was really beautiful to see them play.
Back in the day, Beat Happening opened up for Black Flag. Did the SST Records vision influence you and have an impact on the way K runs its business?
Oh, sure. They were a force because they just put out so many records. They were a very prolific label and that worked on two levels: on the one level, they were working with very prolific artists like Minutemen and Black Flag. These bands put out records regularly, like every month or something and that was like really blowing my mind. It was like “Oh, wow. They already have a new record out? Crazy.” But then on the other level, once the label got successful to a certain extent, the label got very prolific and they started to put out tons and tons of different bands. That also influenced me in a different way. It made me realize that maybe I shouldn’t necessarily put out everything you think might be… I felt like (SST) was doing too much stuff. That struck me as something I should keep in mind. Quality over quantity. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind.
Were there other labels that played a vital role in influencing K?
Oh, sure. Sun Records; Dangerhouse Records was a big influence on me. The graphic design I thought was really beautiful then they had cool pop singles. Dischord of course; Rough Trade. Sub Pop as a fanzine started before I started the label and I worked on the fanzine with Bruce [Pavitt] from issue two on. That was very influential on me. Bruce is a very important person in my life, definitely, and he’s had a huge influence on me.
Did you think when you started K as a teenager in the ’80s, you’d still be doing it in 2012?
Well, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t be.
And you don’t foresee an end to it?
Eh. Beats workin’.
Hive Dwellers play Market Hotel tonight (note: this show was moved from the Flatiron Hotel rooftop) and Coyle Cavern on Saturday.