We’ve Got A File On You: Calvin Johnson

We’ve Got A File On You: Calvin Johnson

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

When I say Calvin Johnson has forgotten more about indie rock than most people have ever learned, I might mean it literally. Or maybe Johnson — founder of Beat Happening, K Records, and Dub Narcotic Studios, among other ventures — is just being cagey when he claims not to remember certain moments from his own storied history. That would certainly fit with the affected persona he’s cultivated over the course of four decades as a crucial figure in the development of worldwide independent music (or, in Johnson’s own parlance, the International Pop Underground).

In that time Johnson, 60, has stood out as a pioneer of twee primitivism and the DIY ethic, a savvy curator of talent, an advocate for uncompromising independence, and a magnetic and polarizing performer whose fey and childlike stage presence sometimes incited boos and worse from confused punk audiences. As a producer and label head, he has shined an early spotlight on talents ranging from Beck to Beth Ditto, and his own music under various guises continues to influence new generations of musicians in the indiepop realm and beyond. And although his résumé speaks for itself, it’s instructive (if sometimes mystifying) to hear him speak too.

In 2019, Domino Records compiled Beat Happening’s discography into the box set We Are Beat Happening. This year, Domino followed up the box set by separately releasing each of the band’s LPs on vinyl for the first time in years. The reissue campaign seemed like a nice jumping off point for revisiting moments from throughout Johnson’s career. If only he could recall who Kurt Cobain was…

Beat Happening Reissues (2022)

How did all these reissues end up coming out on Domino?

CALVIN JOHNSON: Oh! You know, that was something that got worked out eight or nine years ago. 2014, I think, we talked to them and it seemed like the thing to do. So here we are. It’s great.

Did you have history with the people from Domino at all?

JOHNSON: You know, I didn’t, but as a band we’ve been friends with the Pastels, who were on Domino. And also Galaxie 500 had put out their albums on Domino — which, they’re not on Domino anymore. But at the time they were. And so I think we talked to them, and they were like, “Oh yeah! Join the club!” So we did that.

Did this process involve going back and listening to the records again?

JOHNSON: I didn’t have to do that, fortunately. The records have been out of print on vinyl for a few years, so we wanted to put them out on vinyl. This idea of making a box set seemed intriguing. And so Lois Maffeo, she organized the booklet for the box set.

You said “fortunately” you didn’t have to go back and listen to those records. How often do you revisit your old work?

JOHNSON: I don’t do that a lot. You know, once in a while if there’s some reason to. But it doesn’t seem that exciting to me. I mean, I like the records, they’re good and stuff, but I have a lot of records, so there’s a lot to listen to.

When you listen back to Beat Happening now, does anything surprise you about it or stand out to you?

JOHNSON: The Greg Sage production is really good. So on the first album, the songs he produced — that was some of the first recording I ever did, really. I had an earlier band that recorded some songs with Steve Fisk in like 1981, but then I hadn’t really done much recording until we started working on that stuff with Greg Sage. I didn’t really have an understanding of the value of a good producer. And so now I look back and I see that the work we did with Steve Fisk and Stuart Moxham and Greg Sage, how valuable their contributions were to making those recordings work well. It’s exciting to hear that they were such an integral part.

That’s interesting because the band is so closely associated with people’s concepts of lo-fi and DIY, but you weren’t thinking of it like, “We have to make this as primitive and unprofessional as possible.”

JOHNSON: I don’t remember that ever coming up as anyone’s goal.

Back then you talked a lot about the teenage spirit and rock ‘n’ roll as a teenage game and “teenagers of all ages,” that it’s not about the actual age but the mindset. I think you’re 60 now.

JOHNSON: It’s true. I cannot deny it.

Do you feel like you’re still in touch with that same spirit you were getting at back then?

JOHNSON: Well, the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, whatever it is, I like — just exciting, people expressing themselves and being themselves, it’s cool. I’m enjoying it. Yeah.

Selector Dub Narcotic’s “Hotter Than Hott” Video (2016)

I’ve never been to Olympia. I assume that’s where this was shot?

JOHNSON: It’s true, it was. Downtown Olympia.

Are there any significant locations in it in terms of Olympia music lore or your own personal history?

JOHNSON: You know, it was just by accident. ‘Cause the director, he was like, “Hey, why don’t we go through King Solomon’s?” which is the cafe at the beginning. And I’m like, “Great!” But that cafe at the time was owned by a fella who, Justin [McIntyre], he’d been in bands in Olympia, and then we ended up at the Old School Pizzeria, which is the place where shows happened. A lot of band members have worked at both those locations as well. So it was cool that we were able to do that. Plus I love that the Intercity Transit Bus is in the video ‘cause Intercity Transit is an important part of how bands can survive in Olympia. Public transit is important.

There’s a lot of dancing in the video…

JOHNSON: We’re tryin’.

Dancing and physical expression like that has always been a big part of your performance…

JOHNSON: Well, thank you.

Was that something spontaneous that just happened when you started stepping on stage? Or was it kind of a planned element of the show?

JOHNSON: I guess I just thought dancing was supposed to be part of playing music. I read about early rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis would shake his hips or whatever, and that seemed like a really big part of early beat music. All the bands that were making records that were exciting were playing at dances, whether it be like Carl Perkins or James Brown or whatever. They were all playing dance music. And people, when they went to see them, it wasn’t a concert setting, it was a dance setting. And early surf music, it was the same thing. Dick Dale or whatever. It’s like, they were playing dances. So it just seemed like music and dancing go together. I think that later when rock music became standing in a coliseum staring at the stage, that’s when music got really boring. So punk rock came along and said, “Wait! What about dancing? What about 45s?” The perfect dance 45. And that’s what great punk bands were making.

The Halo Benders’ “Bombshelter, Pt. 2” (1996)

A lot of your work has been confrontational just by virtue of existing, by being different and defying expectations. This was a rare instance of you telling not showing. Do you get where I’m coming from with that?

JOHNSON: Oh! Well that sounds good! Thanks for noticing.

Did you get any pushback on that song? I don’t know if you were still playing a lot of VFW halls at that point, but with the song being so overtly in favor of conscientious objection and against war, did you get any pushback on it?

JOHNSON: Well, who’s for war? But when I’m making songs, I like a lot of music that has a political element, but most of the time when I try to write a song that’s political, it just doesn’t feel right. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t seem natural. It seems contrived. So I felt like the important thing is to write songs that just seem real. And somehow a lot of political topics just didn’t work for the songwriting. So I feel like rather than the lyrics being political, it’s more like the process might be political. So that’s been more the focus.

Do you remember how you first became aware of Doug Martsch?

JOHNSON: He played in a band called the Treepeople, and people in Olympia were really into them. I was organizing a lot of concerts back then, like ‘90, ‘91. There was a place here in town called the North Shore Surf Club. And I was doing a weekly series of shows there. And I was trying to bring lots of bands from around the Northwest to play. So every Thursday we’d have local bands and maybe one band from Seattle or Portland or something that was a little more established. So I think the first time I put on a show with them was for one of those shows. I’d seen them, though. They played Olympia several times through that era. People were really enthusiastic about them. But I didn’t really connect with them until in ‘92 Beat Happening was on tour. We played Austin, Texas with Treepeople. We were on tour, they were on tour, we just kind of met in Austin, just coincidentally. And that’s when I really talked to them. And we gave them a tape and they gave us a tape. So that was nice. That was cool.

So then about six months later, I was setting up a show for Beat Happening. This band called Nation Of Ulysses was coming out to tour. And we were doing shows with them. So I called Doug to see if they wanted to play the show with Nation Of Ulysses and Beat Happening — and Slant 6 was playing too. So it was like two cool DC bands, and I was like, “Oh, get Treepeople to play.” And Doug was like, “That would be great, but I quit the band.” And I was like, “Oh! Why?” He was like, “I’m doing this new thing. Maybe you could work with me on it.” I’m like, “Cool!” So he sent me a tape of what became the first Built To Spill album but at that point was just a tape that he made. And he was like, “This is some songs I’m working on.” We were going to get together and record, and different things happened, and it didn’t happen. It took another year for us to get together. You know, it’s just the way things go.

There’s been a couple of rare reunion performances over the years. I think 2010 was the most recent one. Is that a project you think you’ll ever revisit?

JOHNSON: In like 2007 or 2008, we wrote a bunch of new songs. We were gonna make a new record. And then it just kind of didn’t happen. I’m not sure why. So I don’t know. It seems like maybe the enthusiasm just waned a bit. But I’m game. Yeah, whatever works. But everyone seems really busy right now, so it doesn’t seem likely.

Halo Benders Pulled Over On Real Stores Of The Highway Patrol (Mid-1990s)

Halo Benders were featured on Real Stores Of The Highway Patrol, right?

JOHNSON: So I’m told.

Do you remember the incident? How did they end up pulling you guys over?

JOHNSON: You know, it’s all so long ago that I don’t remember the exact details. But I’m sure it was all very exciting.

The Microphones’ Early Recordings At Dub Narcotic Studio (Early 2000s)

As I understand it, Bret Lunsford asked you to let Phil use your studio?

JOHNSON: Phil plays in a band with Bret called D+, and they recorded at Dub Narcotic a few times. So Karl Blau, who’s also in D+, and Phil are both quite accomplished and talented music makers in their own right. They are members of D+, but they have musical lives that extend beyond D+. So they had recorded at Dub Narcotic, so they knew about it. But Phil was moving to Olympia from Anacortes. He grew up in Anacortes, where Bret also grew up. That’s how they knew each other. But Phil was going to move to Olympia, so it just seemed like… He was already doing a lot of recording in Anacortes on his own. He had a little studio set up behind — Bret had a little bookstore there called the Business, and behind the Business, Phil put a little studio in. And Phil was always working in there a lot. So it just seemed like, “Oh yeah. If he’s gonna be in Olympia, he should work in this studio.”

Did you have any involvement in those early Microphones albums? Besides, obviously, putting them out.

JOHNSON: I had the honor of being there for some of the recordings. But he’s very focused, and he’s a visionary artist, so he doesn’t really require a lot of collaboration. Although he did do quite a bit of collaboration on those early records with some other people, and it was exciting to watch. I feel honored to have been around for those.

The Enduring Life Of “Indian Summer” (1988)

“Indian Summer” was recently used in the TV show Reservation Dogs. Have you seen the scene?

JOHNSON: I haven’t seen it, but I heard it was really sad. Oh, no, “Our Secret” was also in an episode, and I heard that was really sad.

Oh, there was more than one Beat Happening song in the show? Is that just because the music supervisor is a big fan? How did that come about?

JOHNSON: You know, it’s all a mystery. But I’m glad that they were interested in using our music. That’s exciting.

“Indian Summer” in particular has been covered a lot, by artists including Luna, R.E.M., and Ben Gibbard. Why do you think that song in particular has resonated so much with people?

JOHNSON: It must be catchy. It must have a good beat. People can definitely dance to it. I’ve seen people dance to it. Seems like it connects with people. It connects on a level that somehow is internal. It’s just great. I’m excited that people are responding to the music that we make. It’s really neat. It’s nice to know that someone’s listening! There’s so much music in the world being made every moment that the fact that anyone takes a moment to just listen to something that you do is a compliment.

Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Calvin” (1998) And Sideways Soul: Dub Narcotic Sound System Meets The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion In A Dancehall Style! (1999)

You had a close working relationship with the Blues Explosion for a couple albums there. How did that come about?

JOHNSON: Well, Jon Spencer is a rock ‘n’ roll animal, and I crossed paths with him, and I realized that this beast must be tamed. And I’m from the West, so we use lassos out here. And I attempt to lasso him and corral him to the Dub Narcotic Studio. But he just gave me the most ferocious — it wasn’t a growl, it was more of a roar. It was almost like a warning growl that grew into a roar. And all I could do is just be like, “Right on, brother.” And the next thing you know, the guitar started spinning, and the rock ‘n’ roll was just flying in every direction. And I was just doing all I could to grab as much of it as I could out of the air and pack it into the form of a song.

They have a song called “Calvin” on Acme. Is this the only band you’ve recorded who has written a song about you?

JOHNSON: I have no idea. But he’s a very original fellow, so he was probably the first person to think of it. I don’t really know. He may have stolen the idea because — it’s difficult. There’s a lot of larceny. The smell, it wafts from their tour van.

International Pop Underground Convention (1991)

Johnson and his K Records co-founder Candice Pedersen helped organize this gathering of hundreds of independent musicians and fans from around the world, which involved concerts, house parties, film screenings, and a cakewalk among other activities.

This was an influential event that had a lot of ripple effects, but in Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life it’s also painted as the end of an era. Do you see it that way?

JOHNSON: No.

So you see it as something that jolted certain scenes to life? How would you define the importance of that event?

JOHNSON: It was just a fun gathering of creative people. The idea was to make it a convention where people, they met, rather than a festival, where you just show up and play. But it’s where you’re convening and interacting — that was the concept. And some of those people are still interacting. It’s great.

It’s interesting that you made it a one-time thing and didn’t try to repeat it. Was that a conscious choice, or was it more like people got busy?

JOHNSON: I’m just lazy. It’s just too much work. There was a lot of people involved in doing the convention. I was there to do stuff. There were other people that did stuff. So it was a collaboration between a lot of people, and that just takes a lot of coordinating. It seems like a real pain in the ass.

Recording Solo Album A Wonderful Beast With Patrick Carney (2018)

A few years ago you made a record with Patrick Carney from the Black Keys. What was that process like?

JOHNSON: Oh, it was fun! We had a great time. He has this studio set up above his garage.

In Tennessee?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it’s in Nashville, Tennessee. Pretty exciting. So yeah, he was just like, “Let’s play some music.” I’m like, “Cool.” I feel like he might have had the idea that I was better at making music than I am. I think he had the idea that we would play music together. But I’m not really much of a music person. So I could come up with little bits and pieces, but I can’t really — if I’m going to play a song, I have to practice it for a couple of months. So what we did is we made up little bits and pieces, and then… Mostly he was like, “Here, play this little guitar part,” and then he’s like, “You know what? Maybe I should play it.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s probably better.” So yeah, it was like that. It was fun. I played some things — you know, guitar on some things, whatever. But mostly it was just easier and quicker for him to play the instruments, which he’s very good at. He can rock out. He’s like a classic guitar, sort of a garage band guy. Can play the bass, drums, guitars. Lots of cool keyboards hanging around. But it was very focused. It was very song-oriented. I really appreciated that about the process. Because Patrick was really oriented on “What’s the song need?” It wasn’t like, “Hey, I’ve got all these cool toys! Let’s play with ’em!” It’s like, “What does this song need?” And if there’s a tool available that would fit that need, then great. But it wasn’t like, “We have to make up a song so we can play with all these toys.” So he’s really refreshing to have a little music-oriented focus. Yeah. It was a lot of fun.

Relationship With Kurt Cobain (Who Famously Had A K Records Tattoo) And Courtney Love (Against Whom Johnson Once Took Out A Restraining Order)

I wanted to ask about your relationship with Kurt Cobain. Do you remember when you first met him?

JOHNSON: Name rings a bell. [Long pause.] That was all so long ago that I don’t remember much about it.

I’ve read that you took out a restraining order against Courtney Love at one point. Have you made up at some point over the years?

JOHNSON: You know, we haven’t had a chance to. Our paths haven’t crossed.

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