INTERVIEW- A o-K: The call is out for visionaries

Photo by Daniel St. Laurent

It's easy to forget just how long Calvin Johnson has been driving the bus in the Pacific Northwest. Johnson landed his first radio show at the age of 15 in Olympia, Washington, and soon moved on to writing for an early fanzine incarnation of what would later become Sub Pop Records. By the time Sub Pop took hold as a label and started launching the grunge revolution by way of Nirvana and Soundgarden, Johnson had established K Records, which is home today to artists like The Blow and Kimya Dawson. 

But even at 45 years old, Johnson is still ready to take it on the road; this will be his third trip to Charlottesville in two years. His most recent album, Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil includes re-recordings of some of his older songs using a band composed of K Records artists who accompanied him on a previous tour.

The Hook: What do you get from revisiting these songs?

Calvin Johnson: When I perform live as a solo artist, normally I'm just playing acoustic guitar. The idea was just to have a whole band, a traditional rock band lineup for these songs that are normally just performed solo. I also included some earlier songs from older bands.

The Hook: So you're back to the acoustic guitar on this tour, then?

Calvin Johnson: I have an accompanist who will be playing with me, but he'll be playing guitar or bass or drums.

The Hook: Was it difficult to reinvent them?

Calvin Johnson: It wasn't like, "We should do this song as a rhumba." It wasn't like they set out to try to do it differently. The arrangements just came naturally. [They] just listened to the song and worked out what they wanted to do.

The Hook: Do you prefer the minimalism in some ways?

Calvin Johnson: It's fun to be able to go whichever direction I want, but on the other hand, working with some collaborators like that, you develop a sixth sense of where you want to go, and can read each other's minds.

The Hook: To what extent does your experience with K Records affect your artistic output? Would you be making different albums if you didn't run a label?

Calvin Johnson: Sure. The best part about working at K is that I get to watch the process of how these songs come about with all these amazing artists and be there when they record them. I learn a lot from having a close, personal view of their creative process; it's invaluable.

The Hook: Such as...?

Calvin Johnson: Well, I can't say that there's exactly a one-to-one relation like that. It's more like I watch their process and how they work with things, and it opens me up to new ideas so that when I'm doing stuff I might remember "the way so-and-so solved this problem was this way, so I should try that." It's not, "Mrrah used a cowbell on every song, so I'm going to do that." It's their process, not their outcome.

The Hook: What do you look for in an artist? What will land someone a slot on K records?

Calvin Johnson: Well, I think the question you ask has so many hidden assumptions that I just cringe. First, the idea that I'm out looking. I'm not. And second of all, when it guarantees them a slot? That sort of language is so foreign to my world; the way you're talking implies this talent scout and signing bands to a roster. That's not really my world. I work with people who are visionary in their approach, and if we have only one such person, that's fine. I don't have any set modus operandi. It's not like an assembly line.

The Hook: Fair enough, but "visionary" is still a pretty vague term.

Calvin Johnson: It's the most concrete one I can think of to answer that question. There is a wide variety of musical styles on K. We've worked with hip-hop artists, we've worked with modern composers. It's not a genre, it's not a sound. It's that the people involved have a clear idea of what they want to create and where they want to go.

The Hook: Where do you want K records to go in the next few years?

Calvin Johnson: Well, I'd like us to stay here in Olympia.

The Hook: I meant in terms of this being a turbulent time for record labels.

Calvin Johnson: Any time is a turbulent time for record labels.

Calvin Johnson performs June 4 at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. $3-$7, 10pm.