We Met with the legendary founding member of K Records/Beat Happening/Selector Dub Narcotic, Calvin Johnson, after his DJ set in Boise, Idaho at Treefort Festival. We talked about some of his favorite albums by The Rolling Sones, Ringo Starr, American Nudism, and more.
Calvin Johnson On K Records
Calvin Johnson formed K in Summer, 1982. The impetus to start such a label is complex. At the time he lived in the Capitol Theater Building in downtown, Olympia, next door to Stella Marrs’ studio, the original Girl City. Together they played in a band, 003 Legion. The project of the summer was the Sub/Pop fanzine #8. Calvin had been working on the Sub/Pop fanzine with it’s founder, Bruce Pavitt, since 1980; important tasks assigned to Calvin included “late-night peanut butter and jelly sandwiches”. At this time, Bruce was on tour as Road Manager with Pell Mell, and Calvin was left to mind the front.
The motto of Sub/Pop was “Decentralize Pop Culture”. It drew a lot of inspiration from the Olympia music magazine Op (founded by John Foster), which focused on music available through independent and artist owned labels, and the Olympia community radio station KAOS-FM, which had a music policy that prioritized such independent and do-it-yourself music. Both Calvin and Bruce worked with Op magazine and hosted radio shows on KAOS. Two issues of Sub/Pop were released as cassettes compiling underground music, mainly originating from Sub/Pop’s focus regions, the Northwestern and Midwestern United States.
This concept of cassette fanzine was inspired by two radio DJs at 3RRR in Melbourne, Australia who founded a cassette fanzine, Fast Forward, in 1980. The cassette was just beginning to make sense as a format; up to this point, LPs dominated the music consumer landscape. The walkman and ghettoblaster were just emerging, as cassette technology made giant advances in audio fidelity. Building on these ideas, K began as a cassette-only label, focusing on Olympia’s embryonic downtown music scene. Prior to this, there had been one label in Olympia, Mr. Brown, which released four singles and two compilations. The K releases were on a much more modest scale. Another advantage of the cassette format: you could manufacture titles at a reasonable cost per piece in much lower quantities. The usual run of a K release was around 100 copies.
K soon took on a life outside of downtown Olympia. Calvin was once quoted on the subject thusly in a well respected journal of popular underground culture: Let’s skip the well crafted puff piece and redirect the center of gravity because it bears repeating:
I care about tummys
I care about art
Sonic Medusa, please break my heart
We are not in the entertainment biz. K is a library card for the culturally deadpan… hometaping is a required course. Johnny Appleseed had the right idea: homegrown tastes best, decentralize the means and distribution of your sustenance, cultivate strains outside the petridish of corporate culture. Decentralize your tastebuds. The emperor has some new clothes but guess what? They fall apart after the third washing. Why wait? Turn the hoses on them and street party scenic. We’ve already got Lady Godiva on a Trojan Horse and nobody’s looking. So check it out, the overdue fines have been paid