The World Would Be a Very Different Place Without Calvin Johnson

Find out how K Records' founder and indie rock musician helped shape D.I.Y. culture

By Jason Kron

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Olympia musician Calvin Johnson, who’s playing at The Trunk Space on April 13th, here’s a little background information: In 1982 he co-founded and began singing for the band Beat Happening, who combined the stripped down elements of punk rock with sounds of high-spirited innocence and thus became pioneers of a style known as twee pop. In the process, they helped prove not only that punk doesn’t have to be testosterone-driven, but that musical sunshine might in some cases be an even bigger “fuck you” than traditional distortion.

Throughout the years, Calvin has continued to make music with such projects as Dub Narcotic Sound System, The Halo Benders, and The Hive Dwellers. On his excellent new solo album A Wonderful Beast (produced and largely co-written by Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney), his trademark baritone voice and auditory geniality have remained intact. Unlike the Mick Jaggers of the world, whose unchanging with age results in their becoming elderly parodies of themselves, Calvin’s retention of youthful energy seems to be a natural and optimal state for him.

Around the same time that Beat Happening began, Calvin started the label K Records, whose slogan is “Exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre.” The artists that he released on K in the 1980s exerted an immense influence on the then-burgeoning alternative rock scene, which included a band called Nirvana. Kurt Cobain was so influenced by the label that he had a K Records tattoo on his arm, which he said he got as a reminder to “try and stay a child.”

Calvin also went on to record and release then-obscure musicians such as Beck and Modest Mouse, who went on to become superstars and influence new movements of their own. Because of the trickle-down effect of this chain of events, the history of mainstream music from the 1990s onward would be very different without him.

Another way that Calvin has changed the world is his influence on DIY (“Do-It-Yourself”) music culture. His generation of musicians included bands such as Minor Threat and Black Flag, who also formed their own labels to release their bands’ work. They were amongst the first to spread the message on a large scale that musicians could be successful in releasing their own music and booking their own tours. For them, the DIY aesthetic was a philosophical badge of honor as opposed to being solely out of economic necessity.

This brought newfound empowerment to the whole venture, which has since helped underground music communities of various genres flourish. Not only was major label support no longer deemed necessary in these scenes, but it was also now even frowned upon by a large subculture who were encouraged by the example of people like Calvin to have more control over their music. “Making it” in the mainstream no longer the end goal of every band, but instead they could achieve their goal instantly by creating and releasing music for the love of the act. 

It’s no wonder that Calvin has compared the idea of subculture to the comic Peanuts, in which the kids live in a self-contained world where the adults exist only as irrelevant, incoherent background noise.

By Sarah Cass

Amongst the institutions who have taken the DIY ethos to heart are The Trunk Space, a venue that’s flourished for fifteen years with a communal “Do-It-Together” attitude, as co-founder Steph Carrico has described it. They’ve become a local symbol for the culture of all-ages shows and off-kilter music that was popularized forty years ago by people like Calvin. Between this and the fact that multiple past and present K Records artists have performed there, his appearance on that stage seems inevitable. And it is at events such as this where older and younger generations can unite out of love for rhythmic revolt and hatred of the corporate ogre.