Calvin Johnson of the Hive Dwellers: "Any excuse not to play a rock club, I'm there"
The Hive Dwellers (due Saturday, March 24, at Yellow Feather Coffee) is the latest musical project of Calvin Johnson. Since 1982, Johnson's K Records imprint has been one of the most influential underground labels not just for its ethos of an eternally youthful perspective and using creativity as the route to a better life and world, but also because so much of the music on its roster proved just as enduring and impactful. Kurt Cobain had a tattoo of the K Records logo as a reminder of a time when he felt connected to a more pure and idealistic world. That perspective still informs the K's aesthetic.
If you're familiar with Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System and Halo Bender's, the Hive Dwellers will not come as a complete shock. Johnson's trademark unaffected, unvarnished, deep vocals dance around music that could have come out of Athens in the late '70s or a California surfer club in the early '60s.
On the verge of releasing its first full-length album, Hewn From the Wilderness, the Hive Dwellers are taking the K vision out on the road again with the kind of pop music that with anyone into the kind of music that doesn't apologize for what mainstream culture would call "flaws." We recently spoke with Johnson about Cassavetes, the importance of having shows open to a wider public and Dub Narcotic Disco Plates.
Westword: How did you become familiar with the films of John Cassavetes?
Calvin Johnson: Just as a person who watches movies and enjoys films from previous eras. [Being] interested in underground culture, I was fascinated by his duality of being a mainstream actor in Hollywood films and making unusual films that could be called underground in some way. Definitely off the beaten path. Very not commercial. I wouldn't say that they are un-commercial but they don't strive for mainstream acceptance. I found that interesting as a body of work, besides the fact that he's a really good actor, writer and director. He just seemed like an all around worthwhile artist to study and learn more about.
What was your first Cassavetes movie?
I saw Faces, but before that, it was the 1959 film Shadows. I did see Faces in the theater as well as Shadows in the mid-'90s, so pretty late on, really. I'd seen him as an actor in regular films. And I knew about his work on TV. Anyway, I hadn't seen any of the films he had directed until the mid-90s.
In that movie Songs For Cassavetes you read that quote attributed to him about "surviving twenty-one."
Well, that was a quote the directors of that documentary had everyone read they interviewed. They interviewed a number of people who were involved in underground music and they were asking about underground music. But then part of the interview was that each person would read this quote and then comment on it, if they chose to do so.
It sounds like you had become familiar with his work after maybe some of the ideas he articulated there can be found in your own artistic endeavors.
Well, I am interested in artists with a large body of work to explore how they sustained a strong artistic vision over several pieces. He's definitely somebody who had sustained all the way to the end a very high standard of creative expression.
Your current band is The Hive Dwellers?
Yes. This will be our second U.S. tour, but we've toured around the northwest quite a bit. Playing in Olympia, Portland and so forth.
Who's currently in the band?
It's Gabriel Will, who plays guitar and bass, and Evan Hashi who plays the drums.
Karl Blau played on one of your recent seven inches?
Yeah, Karl helped us record our new album, which will be out at the end of this tour. It's called Hewn From the Wilderness. So he's played on a number of our recordings as well as being one of the main producers we've worked with.
How did you meet Karl?
He's from Skagit County, which is where Anacortes is located on the San Juan Islands. He actually lives on Fidalgo Island, that's where Anacortes is. He has been in a number of bands. He was in D+, which was Bret Lunsford's band -- Bret was in Beat Happening. I met him through Bret, actually. He came down to Olympia to record with D+ back in '95 or '96, and that's when I first met him.
What is it about working with him that you enjoy?
He's a very open fellow. He's very open to ideas. You make a suggestion and he just runs with it. He's quite good. He's got good ears. He's very creative but also free and open.
What is the significance to the name Hive Dwellers?
I'm interested in cooperative endeavors. The Hive Dweller implies a cooperative nature. One of the more disturbing trends in our society is the privatization of public works. Here in Olympia, in Thurston County where we live, we're actually working to reverse that trend. We're hoping to begin using our PUD to sell electricity to the public. So we're trying to do what we can to reverse that privatization trend, which I think is very damaging to our culture, and it's unfortunate.
K Records has been around for longer than most. How have you adjusted to the changing nature of how music is introduced to and distributed to people?
It's always changing. There's all sorts of format changes. Really the crux of it is word of mouth. That never changes. The way you find out about music is your friend says, "Oh you should hear this." Whatever the format or mode the music is being carried through -- whether that's phonograph records, compact discs or digital downloads -- that never changes.
People are like, "You've got to hear this song." Just getting out in front of people and letting people know we exist has always been our modus operandi. I like touring. We're never going to be on the radio. Playing shows all over the country, people can put a face to the name or the music. It's a good way to meet people and let them know we're still alive.
You played in Denver at Chielle that las time you came through?
Oh yeah. That was with Karl, Karl Blau in 2006.
Sara Thurston owned that store.
She organized that show. That was the last time I played in Denver.
You're one of the key figures in underground music in America and could probably play wherever you want. Why did you want to place a place like Chielle that time and a place like Yellow Feather this time?
Yellow Feather was recommended to me by a former Denver resident, Germaine Baca. She plays in a band called Old Time Relijun on K. I knew that she was from Denver. Cindy Wonderful is another former Denver person who has lived in Olympia. I told [Germaine] that I wanted to play a show in Denver, and she said, "You've got to play Yellow Feather." So I called them up. They were like, "Cool."
I am very committed to making the shows very accessible to all audience members who may choose to attend. And a lot of venues restrict their audience by various means. So I find that disturbing. It seems like a bummer. I like it when the audience is not restricted. The only restrictions sometimes now is a financial restriction. There's usually some sort of admission charge. Which we try to keep within reason. Otherwise we want it to be an accessible event, and usually, rock clubs are not accessible. Rock clubs are kind of lame anyway. So any excuse not to play a rock club, I'm there.
You did a cover of that Superchunk song "My Noise" for that Merge Records compilation?
Actually it wasn't a Superchunk song. It was a band called Chunk, which existed before Superchunk. The label said, "We're having a celebration of our anniversary, and we would like people to cover any song that was ever on our label. My favorite songs from the label were the first few seven inches that came out. And I said, "Oh I want to do that Chunk song." So I did. But when the CD came out, it didn't list it as a Chunk song, it listed it as a Superchunk song. And I was like, "Bummer."
Only because I feel like there was a distinction. Certainly they felt there was a distinction because they changed the name. Because there were different people in the band. So they changed it from Chunk to Superchunk. So I felt like, "Why did you put it on there as Superchunk, when it's simply Chunk?" I don't know. I haven't asked them because I haven't seen them since.
Why did you choose to cover that song in particular?
Oh, it's classic. It's just a great...the theme of it is good. I's gots to be me.
Were you directly involved in making the documentary The Shield Around the K?
Well I was in it. They interviewed me. I really enjoyed Songs For Cassavetes, I think they got me on a better day. I think I was a better interview on that day.
The International Pop Underground Convention only happened once. Why did you not try to do another one of those kinds of things?
I'm just not into being in the convention business.
Are you still involved with Dub Narcotic these days?
Dub Narcotic Studio is in Olympia. We have opened it up to the general public. Before the studio was just for our artists. But now we have a studio manager, Bob Schwenkler. He's really fixed it up, and now it's available for other artists. We have one or two people a month come in and use the studio.
Under my name Selector Dub Narcotic, I do a lot of recording and mixing with different people. Recently, we did a new 45 by Mount Eerie and also one by LAKE, who are artists on K. Dub Narcotic Disco played with Bobby Birdman and Kendl Winter. Got something coming up here with Arrington De Dionyso and Curious Mystery, as well. So how that works is it's called a Dub Narcotic Disco Plate. I record the band doing the song for the A-side. Then I do a remix of it as Selector Dub Narcotic on the B-side. There's been about 25 of those.
Did you do one with Atlas Sound?
Yes. I did one with Mount Eerie, Christmas, White Rainbow and LAKE.
How did you end up meeting Phil Elverum?
Same with Karl Blau. He was in D+. I think I met them before they came to Olympia. Dub Narcotic Sound System played Anacortes with D+. We played with Phil's band before he was The Microphones--around the time he started doing The Microphones, he had a band called Tugboat. Tugboat played with Dub Narcotic Sound System in Anacortes. I don't remember exactly because he worked at The Business, which is the book store that Bret owned. He's just been around.
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