Without question, Calvin Johnson’s Olympia-based twee pop band Beat Happening provided an aesthetic and ethical template for countless bands to follow.
K Records, the seminal independent record label that he co-founded, provided a similar guiding light built upon its slogan, “Exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre since 1982.” K released records by The Blow, Karl Blau, and Mecca Normal, to name a few, and early recordings of artists who later embraced more mainstream success like Modest Mouse, Built To Spill and Beck.
“A Beautiful Beast,” Johnson’s latest release under his own name, was co-produced by Patrick Carney, the drummer of The Black Keys, and features a fuzzy, garage rock sound over which in his trademark low, droning voice.
Kindle: In what ways does “A Beautiful Beast” build upon or depart from your past recordings?
Johnson: This is Calvin Johnson done right.
Kindle: Do you attribute that to the collaborators you had on the album (producer Patrick Carney, singer Michelle Branch, engineer Marc Whitmore)?
Johnson: We really had a good time recording and making up the songs together. [Patrick Carney] was able to provide some stability to the music. Usually I’m going so many different directions at once. It’s nice to have somebody a little more solid.
Kindle: You’ve tended to produce your albums yourself?
Johnson: That’s a problem, too. I think that I finally learned with that last album I did as Selector Dub Narcotic “This Party Is Just Getting Started” that — wow! — having a producer is really important. It takes a big load off. That was an important lesson to learn after 30 years.
Kindle: You perform under a variety of configurations — as a solo artist with a guitar (or sometimes totally a capella), as an electronic musician (under the Selector Dub Narcotic moniker), or backed by a full rock band. What kind of presentation are we going to expect for this tour?
Johnson: We put together a little combo. It’s a traditional bass, drums, and guitar kind of situation. It’s the same instrumentation as Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin but the thing is this time we’re going to give the vocalist a little personality. That will shine through.
Kindle: You’ll be free to gesticulate?
Johnson: I play the melodica on a couple songs but I’ll mostly be free form.
Kindle: The independent music landscape has changed significantly since K Records was founded, especially in regards to gatekeeper entities. Anybody can instantly release their music digitally on the internet — not that that guarantees an audience.
Johnson: Yeah, that’s great! It’s great that people can do that and release their music to the universe.
Kindle: What place do you see K holding in the DIY/independent music scene now?
Johnson: Hopefully that makes us completely obsolete. That’s great for me because all I really want to do is sing the blues.
Kindle: When you first performed in Pendleton in 2005 at a house show, those of us involved were extremely humbled and excited that you would play here. By then you were already an elder statesman of rock ‘n’ roll. What value do you feel an independent/DIY music scene brings to a rural town, especially now?
Johnson: It’s just as important, now more than ever, because the beauty of technology and media is that it centralizes the ability to get the music out there in a certain way but at the same time there is this decentralization of the live performance and creating your own individual world. Pendleton has its own world which no other place has and to be able celebrate itself is wonderful. You can’t duplicate that anywhere else. It’s unique and every town has its own vibe.
Calvin Johnson and his band performs at the Great Pacific Friday, Feb. 15.