In every movement, whether it’s political, cultural or musical, there are figureheads: a single human visage to characterize the whole. Martin Luther King Jr. embodies the Civil Rights Movement. Elvis is the face of rock ’n’ roll. And Calvin Johnson is arguably the figurehead of American indie rock.
Johnson’s claim to indie fame is not only as musician—though the bands he’s played in include Dub Narcotic Sound System, Go-Team (with Kurt Cobain), the Halo Benders (with Doug Martsch of Built to Spill) and Beat Happening. He’s also helped to lay the foundations of the indie scene as a producer and co-founder of K Records. The “indie” in indie rock, of course, stands for independent, and it follows the model of the DIY (Do It Yourself) punk rock aesthetic of not relying on the corporate record labels.
This is just what Johnson has done. In an interview with Seattle’s music weekly, The Rocket, Johnson once said that in the past “you were either Led Zeppelin or you were a bar band, there was no between.”
In the early ’80s, Johnson began excavating to make a space between bar shows and stadium shows with the launch of Beat Happening—a band that rejected such popular conventions such as enrolling a bass player. Beat Happening played simple, drum-propelled, poppy melodies with Johnson’s unique, slightly off-key baritone voice regularly painting dark images over the top of it. Beat Happening were a foundation, but it would be nearly a decade before indie rock began to really catch on.
Then, in 1991, Johnson organized the International Pop Underground Convention, an event that brought together acts like Fugazi, Bratmobile and Courtney Love to play at a handful of venues around his hometown of Olympia, Wash. Johnson had co-founded K Records a few years earlier to release and distribute tapes that he and his friends did to a few local record stores in Olympia. However, the IPU Convention gave him the connections necessary to boost K to the status of a more-or-less real record label.
Johnson produced albums for names that have since grown colossal: the Make Up, Beck, Modest Mouse and Enemy Mine, just to name a few of the dozens of groups he’s worked with. There’s no doubt that his talent as a producer assisted in rocketing these acts into the realm of international stardom. Yet Johnson is humble about his amazing success as a producer. He says he doesn’t look for gold mine bands that he suspects will hit it big; he just likes people who are playing creative stuff.
“I’m always going to be interested,” he told The Rocket, “in the weird guy in his bedroom making a record on his own no matter what is going on in the mainstream or what is successful.”
Considering all the work he does with his bands and other bands, it’s remarkable that Johnson has had time for solo music. Yet he’s released a couple albums and is touring this autumn with the alternative country act, Little Wings.
His solo stuff is what you might expect: stripped-down, low-fi music. It’s just him, an acoustic guitar, his baritone voice and a plethora of beautiful and haunting lyrics crooned over catchy melodies.