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Best Olympian 2014: Calvin Johnson

Calvin Johnson has been the fiercest proponent to the Olympia music scene

CALVIN JOHNSON: The K Records founder brought "lo-fi" and "twee" rock to the South Sound and the world. PHOTO CREDIT: WINTER TEEMS

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"Our role isn't to create popular bands," says Johnson, "we're just here to document them."

The founder of K Records, Calvin Johnson, who dug into hearts with his bands Beat Happening, Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System, who played records on Evergreen's independent radio station, KAOS, when he was just 16, and who sprouted a whole generation of K-Kids, is known for his eccentricities as well as his huge influence on independent music in Olympia and across the globe.

"Calvin's work challenges people to reconfigure the way they filter things, the way they perceive things, and to think about music or expression or art in different ways," said Ian MacKaye (Fugazi, Minor Threat), who first met Johnson in 1981. "He has his way of doing things, and he's not going to change ... he may drive some people crazy - but that's the job of the eccentric."

>>> Calvin Johnson / photo credit: Winter Teems

Despite Johnson's unconventional ways, whether dancing with jerky movements and lots of hip circles, or starting his label as cassette tapes only, his distinct baritone voice and ability to reach the soul through music have influenced droves of musicians.

R.E.M., The Vaselines and Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie all covered Beat Happening's song "Indian Summer." And without Johnson and K Records, people like Kathi Wilcox of Bikini Kill and The Julie Ruin would not be where they are today.

"Calvin Johnson was a big influence on me," Wilcox said. "Without Calvin, I never would have moved to Olympia or started a band.  I was given the first Beat Happening record when I was 14, and I used to just stare at the back cover and imagine they were my friends.  I thought they were all so cool looking, and the music was so bold and strange, it wasn't like anything I'd ever heard before.  I just thought they must have really interesting and exciting lives.  And I figured that any town that could produce a band like that was somewhere I wanted to be. So after high school, I moved to Olympia to go to Evergreen.  Calvin's model of how to be in a band, how to tour and put out records, has always been really inspiring to me.  I didn't actually meet him until just before Bikini Kill started, but he was one of my early musical and life role models."

>>> Calvin Johnson / photo credit: Winter Teems

During the interview process, Johnson's eccentricities came through in small peeks. Like the way he kept his hands tucked between his knees most of the time, and the way his answers were either short, with a simple "I don't know," or long, like when he poured on admiration for the early punk scene or, perhaps most notably, in the way he said things with a monotone voice and a face that hid emotion, something he's quietly known for.

It was when we made it to the photography part of the interview, when Johnson was not in a box made by questions, that I caught the truest glimpse of his spirit. I watched him jump up and down on a beat-up old couch on the ground floor of K Records; I watched him fool around with tape reels, almost dancing with the ribbon; I watched him eyeball the camera with hands outstretched, strutting his body as if on a catwalk, or on stage. I'm pretty sure he even smiled, if only at the corners.

This is the spirit that runs K Records, the one that creates, the one that doesn't give a fuck what anyone else thinks, the one that opens doors for a community to come and be themselves, musically and otherwise. And this is the spirit that Johnson gave to Olympia; nearly 25 years ago, when, at the age of 20, he started K Records.

"Calvin has been the fiercest proponent to the Olympia music scene," said MacKaye. "He's brought a lot of light and a lot of attention ... and he made it real ... He really does love that town."

LINK: Best of Olympia 2014

See Also

Best Olympia 2013 Audrey Henley

Best Olympia 2012 Mathias Eichler

Best Olympia 2011 Jerry Ziegler

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