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Photo by Michael LavineWhen Calvin Johnson, ringleader of the lo-fi indie-rock circus that is Olympia's K Records, answers the phone, his signature baritone is as throaty as the bark of a mopey basset hound. On his solo record, What Was Me, he sings like a lovesick, gently out-of-tune Bing Crosby. He duets with label mate Mirah (a pitch-perfect crooner like Marion Hutton, who carried the Glenn Miller Orchestra through "Chattanooga Choo Choo"), and the result is indeed sweet—but watch your step with this guy.
He's distrustful of the press, fiercely political and easy to piss off when you're not even trying. Don't even mention the chapter on his old band, Beat Happening, in Michael Azerrad's indie-rock primer, Our Band Could Be Your Life—he refuses to read it. Johnson claims he was never interviewed for the book, which makes Azerrad's account of the band's early days seem a lot less authentic.
Johnson's been running K for more than 20 years and he's tired of having his statements taken out of context. His speech sputters as he considers each word, and his voice seems to tighten as he gets riled up—which is convenient for him because it would be harder to rant and rave if he were eternally stuck in the same drowsy register as the guy from the Crash Test Dummies.
And he's not kidding around when he quotes the K motto: "Exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre since 1982." The slogan is at once fanciful and foreboding—sort of like Johnson himself. He has a strong opinion on everything, and even when his arguments are roundabout and quirky, his point of view is practical and clear—he's a non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian who says, "I'd love to go vegan, but I'd miss the butter." And when he talks about President Bush's recent victory, Johnson's voice twists a little tighter.
"Apparently, Bush won. Though I don't believe it," he says in a clipped deadpan. "And even if he won, there's a fuck of a lot of people who don't like him."
Johnson doesn't sing protest songs—his oeuvre being something closer to the Richman-esque love song—but he did play at a political rally in Pennsylvania a few months ago. And he doesn't appreciate being criticized for "preaching to the choir": "Who is in this choir?" he asks. "There could be 10 people in the choir for 10 different reasons. Some people are there because they believe in God. Some people are there as a social activity because they don't have any friends. Some people are there because they have a crush on somebody else who's there. You can't make assumptions about whether they need to be preached to!"
That's K Records, too: in the early days, Johnson's label was just a bunch of nerdy kids with little musical talent who made up minimalist songs and played them for one another. But Johnson was convincing a lot of people that you didn't have to be as tough as Henry Rollins to play in a punk band—and indie rock owes him a lot for that. Even if you were at a K show just because you had a crush on the cardigan-clad drummer, you were implicitly invited to start your own band, too.
So writing dinky love-rock ditties is more rebellious than buying Top 40 hits, says Johnson, and it's always subversive to march to the beat of your own drum. Or if you're really lo-fi, your own cardboard box: "I certainly had always seen what K does as a very political thing," Johnson says. "Doing things for yourself and your friends is a political act."
CALVIN JOHNSON WITH BOBBY BIRDMAN AT 51 BUCKINGHAM, 296 W. SECOND ST., POMONA, (909) 629-0051. SUN., 7 P.M. CALL FOR COVER. ALL AGES.