Stepping Darkly Out Front
Calvin Johnson is an indie rock legend. Not that casual observers would know it, which is the way the unassuming Johnson seems to prefer it. The singer, songwriter and executive released his debut solo album -- the stark, soulful What Was Me -- earlier this year after nearly 20 years as a seminal influence on Northwestern do-it-yourselfers.
"I had this naive idea that people might like it," says the soft-spoken Johnson, 40, with a drip of sarcasm. "This album stands on its own. I like to think [fans] really like the feeling there."
Strangely, the album, released on Johnson's own K Records, plays like a small, sweet gesture from a man prone to big ones. His track record speaks for itself. From his home base of Olympia, Washington, Johnson has launched an experimental and passionate legacy. With his pop trio Beat Happening, he helped put the '80s college-rock explosion on the map -- the band even earned a chapter in author Michael Azerrad's 2001 historical account Our Band Could Be Your Life. Between 1983 and 1992, Beat Happening's main aesthetic purpose -- can't really play, can't really sing, but can say something meaningful and do it articulately -- produced such deceptively beautiful pop songs as "Indian Summer" and "Black Candy" and such spooky garage rockers as "You Turn Me On" and "Hangman." The band released the seven-CD retrospective Crashing Through earlier this year, packaging all five of its studio albums with live and singles discs.
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"I think we wrote some great songs," says Johnson matter-of-factly.
Johnson also is the founder of K, a prototype laboratory for the grungy brand of rock we've come to expect from Washington state ("It seemed like a neat thing to do," says Johnson). Along with Sub Pop and Kill Rock Stars, K was a primary conduit for the bash-out movement that erupted from the region a decade ago. Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Dub Narcotic Sound System, Fitz of Depression, Chicks on Speed and even Beck (in his folkier days) have all released albums on K.
The bandleader and record executive is also a skilled studio hand. He produced the wonderful 1997 Modest Mouse record The Lonesome Crowded West, a parable on suburbanization that equates the new West with the old one ("Cowboy Dan," "Long-Distance Drunk"). With Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, he's churned out music under the name Halo Benders, offering up blazing electric-guitar nuggets like "Virginia Reel Around the Fountain." Johnson's also had a hand in the making of Robyn Hitchcock's Moss Elixir (1996), Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Talk About the Blues (1998) and dozens of other records.
With What Was Me, though, Johnson leaves no hint he was ever an enthusiast of noisy guitar rock. Several tracks on the 10-song, 37-minute album feature only Johnson's deep, dark monotone voice, conjuring images of a lonely undertaker on a hill bellowing his inner demons to the valley.
Songs like "The Past Comes Back to Haunt Me" become bitterly intense breakup dirges without accompaniment: "That new look in your eyes/Stops me before I try/I'll never have you near/But don't think I don't care/When it's you that I'm wanting." Even two loving a cappella duets -- "Ode to St. Valentine" with Mirah and the modern gospel "Lightnin Rod for Jesus" with Beth Ditto of The Gossip -- take on a bent of darkness. The 88-second "Valentine" has gooey sentiments, but, in its sparseness here, speaks of desperation. "I don't want to have to ask for a Valentine/That's not love/That's not how it's done/But please won't you give me one," he and Mirah harmonize.
At other points on What Was Me, Johnson thrives on his innate songwriting gifts and offers a quieter, even-lower-fi version of Beat Happening's optimism. "You fill my heart with forget-me-nots/And I feel about eight feet tall," Johnson sings on "Love Will Come Back Again," propelled only by a pretty acoustic-guitar riff. Slap some horns, strings or psychedelic drivel into the mix, and it very well could stand as an outtake from Love's 1967 warm classic Forever Changes.
Johnson, who cites the recordings of jazz singer Nina Simone and others for his chosen minimalism, says he's wanted to record a solo album for the past five or six years, but commitments with Halo Benders, legal issues surrounding the release of the Beat Happening boxed set and the daily grind of running K kept him from realizing his vision until now. Still, even with his personal decree on the shelves for the finicky indie-craving public to digest, Johnson keeps his jolting, unusual work in perspective. "I always think the music I'm making is really normal . . . but I'll never really be normal," he says.
And that's about as deep a comment on his songs and place in the rock 'n' roll universe Johnson will make. He prefers to leave that stuff to critics and writers. He's too wrapped up in the day-to-day life of K, which he says benefits for its current crop of artists using the in-house studio as they please. "To me, I'm just making records," he says.
Besides Mirah and The Gossip, that K roster also features singer-songwriter Sarah Dougher, one-man band Little Wings, psychedelic punks the Microphones and political rockers the Make-Up. Johnson has been touring this month with Little Wings, hitting small clubs and checking the pulse of the rock nation.
"I don't think there's any other record label that has that setup," Johnson says. "I think it's unique . . . it flows naturally. It's the most exciting it's ever been right now. I think it's at its peak."
So, too, is Johnson with his new, challenging collection of songs. Sometimes, even a behind-the-scenes giant needs his creative outlet.
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