Eluding the “Corporate Ogre”

Calvin Johnson, The Paper Opera Tour

Photo: Erin Zima

“Rock ‘n’ roll is a teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages,” said a young Calvin Johnson in 1979. As if to prove his own maxim, Johnson, now in his early 40s, still makes the team. To list his merits, which have been copiously documented by indie journalists and grunge documentarians alike, would be redundant.

But for those unfamiliar with punk rock’s most beloved baritone, a brief history might be helpful: He established the legendary Olympia record label, K, in 1982 after collaborating on a fanzine with Sub Pop Records founder Bruce Pavitt. He went on to form the seminal pop trio Beat Happening, whose music would later influence a slew of famed artists such as Nirvana and Beck. He recorded, produced and released albums by indie-rock favorites from the Make Up and Modest Mouse to Mecca Normal and Heavenly, collaborating along the way with the likes of Jon Spencer and Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch. He fronted Dub Narcotic Sound System and the Halo Benders while maintaining a hectic tour schedule including numerous solo stints. And he continues to seek out new and imaginative talent for the K roster, while still finding time to pen the occasional blurb on his website and send care packages to his friends around the country.

In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azzerad writes, “Beat Happening and K were a major force in widening the idea of a punk rocker from a mohawked guy in a motorcycle jacket to a nerdy girl in a cardigan.”

But Johnson remains modest. “That’s for the critics to decide,” he says. “It certainly wasn’t an idea we came up with ourselves. You could say the same thing about Half Japanese or Talking Heads or the Smiths.” But it is safe to say that since the ’80s, K has been recognized as the do-it-yourself vanguard against what Johnson likes to call “the corporate ogre”. The subversiveness of K’s ideological platform is nowhere more apparent than in the eccentric manifestos Johnson and his cohorts have written over the years:

“Because the corporate ogre has infected the creative community with its black plague of indentured servitude… …Because we are the gravediggers who have buried the gray spectre of rock star myth… Revolution is the end. Revolution is the beginning,” reads the call to arms for K’s infamous 1991 International Pop Underground Convention, a six-day celebration of sub-cultural dissent and D.I.Y. potentiality. For an entire week, Olympia was invaded by an army of “hangman hipsters, new mod rockers… [and] plotters of the youth rebellion in every form.” The festival spotlighted some of the most influential punk acts of the day, from D.C. favorites Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi to bastions of the Northwest scene like Unwound, the Melvins and of course Johnson’s own Beat Happening.

Fourteen years later, K remains a powerful force in the underground community. But a lot has changed in the state of independent music. Let’s face it, Modest Mouse has traveled a long way from home-produced cassette recordings to Grammy nominations, and the white-belt-clad congregation of former K acts like the Make Up has long since moved on to bigger and better fads. Indie rock, for better or for worse, has become more widely accessible than ever before. And today, whether Johnson Likes it or not, the indie gospel is spread through popular movie soundtracks and blurbs in Rolling Stone, a far cry from the intimate network of cut ‘n’ paste fanzines that once sustained it. Given these extenuating circumstances, it was inevitable that K’s goals as a label changed as well.

“One big difference between now and 12 or 13 years ago is that we’re not trying to put out as many records,” says Johnson, who admits that even in Olympia there are many avenues for bands besides K. “We’re just one of many labels in Olympia and there is much more going on here than any one label could hope to represent.”

But whatever K might have forfeited in numbers, it has made up for in quality. Over the past several years, a new breed of talent has come to define K’s lineup. Artists like Mirah, the Microphones, the Blow, Little Wings, and Wolf Colonel represent a new and revitalized era for K, and uphold the label’s track record for turning out unique and revolutionary music.

“I feel that starting to work with Mirah and the Microphones was the real shift in focus for me,” Johnson says. “It made me realize that I wasn’t as excited about working with a traditional band situation as I was working with these very focused, visionary artists who are all interrelated.”

In a considerably short amount of time, and often armed with little more than their guitars and vocal cords, the aforementioned visionaries have already made a lasting impression on the indie landscape. From the Microphones brooding, percussive mountain hymns, to the Blow’s sexually subversive playground ditties, to Mirah’s bold instrumentation of folk ballads, critics have hailed the endeavors of the new K aesthetes.

Khaela Maricich, with Calvin Johnson and Phil Elvrum, The Paper Opera Tour

Photo: Erin Zima

Perhaps one of their most distinguishing features is their familial spirit. The artists play on one another’s records, cover one another’s songs and often share the stage during performances. According to Johnson, collaboration has always been an important aspect of K records, but it’s never been as pervasive or significant as it is now.

“To an extent there’s always been cross over and interaction between K artists, but now that’s happening more than ever,” he says. “These newer artists have all been recording on each other’s records and it’s exciting and fun to see it happen to such a degree. I don’t miss the traditional band one bit.”

In the summer of 2001, Johnson, Phil Elvrum (a.k.a. the Microphones) and Khaela Maricich (a.k.a. The Blow), hit the road for The Paper Opera Tour, stopping just about anywhere and everywhere from a women’s club on the Jersey Shore, to a historic Boston movie theater to a massive art studio in Washington D.C. K’s collaborative temperament was perhaps no where more evident than in these assorted venues. Rather than playing separate consecutive sets, the three worked collectively to stage an inimitable performance each night. Based largely on audience participation, the Paper Opera featured short plays, dance routines and human simulations of the solar system (not to mention a sultry rendition of Beat Happening’s “Gravedigger Blues” by Maricich, then known as Get the Hell Out of the Way of the Volcano).

But another characteristic that sets these artists apart, according to Johnson, is their work ethic. Some of yesteryear’s K acts, he explains, would put out a record every year or so, and tour maybe one month out of 12. That is no longer the case. “These people are constantly working on their music. Some of them are literally on tour all the time, and I find that very exciting. The mark of a successful label for me is whether or not its artists can make a living off their music, and that’s happening right now with K,” Johnson says.

“I used to have an idea that I wanted K to be more of an all encompassing resource for artists. We used to offer a lot of different facilities and resources, like a dark room, a graphics lab and dubbing equipment. But I’ve realized that there are other people who can do those things a lot better than we can, so now we’re concentrating on what we do best: working with these visionary artists and helping them get their music out to the world the way they want it to be done.”

So it seems as if K is right where Johnson wants it to be. No matter what happens, it will remain one of the most relevant outlets available to cutting edge artists, whether three-piece pop punk acts, noisy math rock quartets or one-person art projects. But perhaps it’s time to start distinguishing between the K Records we’ve all read about and the K Records Johnson has brought to life. The difference, as Johnson suggests, is that today, rather than being made relevant, K artists create relevance for themselves. And Johnson is nothing more than a player on their team.

“I’m just glad to be along for the ride,” he says.