Anyone familiar with Calvin Johnson will likely agree with the reviewer who recently hailed him as “one of the weirder ducks in local music” in the Olympia, Wa., alternative paper, The Weekly Volcano. An outsider with a long history as a performer and promoter in Olympia, Johnson owns K, a highly regarded record label that seeks to “explode the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre world-wide.” Kurt Cobain was a fan. He had the label’s logo—a K inside a shield—tattooed on his arm to remind him “to try and stay a child.” As it is for Johnson, the challenge for Cobain was staying true to youthful ideals.
Since 1982 Johnson has been providing a home for artists outside the mainstream striving to maintain their integrity. The label’s music is a democratic, wide-ranging mix of styles from punk to the silent film soundtracks of Timothy Brock performed by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. The players are largely local, but over the years the label has recorded artists from as far away as Australia, Japan, Germany, Scotland and England, as well as Canada.
Johnson (who was born in 1962) didn’t waste any time getting started. He was 15 when he began working as a DJ at KAOS, a local community-run radio station with a playlist composed entirely of music released on independent or artist-owned labels. More than three decades later, Johnson remains resolutely opposed to what he sees as the corrupting influence of corporate values on popular music.
Johnson’s latest project is a trio called The Hive Dwellers. On their debut album, “Hewn From The Wilderness,” Johnson sing-speaks offbeat ditties voicing the concerns, frustrations and fleeting joys of the marginalized, misunderstood teen who probably spends more time alone than is ideal. His voice is a rich Johnny Cash baritone salted with Lou Reed’s snarky sardonicism. He has Jonathan Richman’s everyman sensibility as a singer, while his writing reflects a deep affection for every era of rock ‘n’ roll, but particularly Brill Building pop and 1970s Max’s Kansas City punk and its aftermath in ’80s Athens, Ga.
The album is a rich stylistic smorgasbord. The first song that caught my ear, “Sitting Alone At The Movies,” is a droll portrait of a lonely boy cautioned against “turning around” in his seat in the theatre lest he catch a glimpse “of the couples doing / what they’re doing / smiles and snuggles … .” A silly, sorry tale pushed along by shuffling drums and a cheesy Farfisa, it’s a pitch-perfect lyrical pastiche of the lugubriously self-pitying girl-group ballads so popular for a time in the mid-’60s. Move over Leslie Gore, make room for Calvin Johnson almost tripping over the words as he tries to cram too many into every bar in his haste to console the lonely soul.
The album opens with “Messed Up And Ramblin,’ ” a rhythmically chopped rockabilly stomp with some tasty Duane Eddy-ish guitar. That’s followed by “The Dignity of Saint Jude,” a slice of airy mid-60’s AM pop melodicism with a jangly “Sweets For My Sweet” guitar riff while Johnson’s dour, almost tuneless vocal gives the sugary pop a slightly subversive Velvet Underground edge.
After all these years, Johnson still wakes up every day ready to hit the ground running. “I like touring,” he told one interview recently. “We’re never going to be on the radio. Playing shows all over the country, people can put a face to the name or the music. It’s a good way to meet people and let them know we’re still alive.”
Calvin Johnson and The Hive Dwellers
7 p.m. Friday, March 30
501 Cherokee Boulevard