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System's Abnormal

K Records founder Calvin Johnson leads Dub Narcotic Sound System down the road less traveled.

"Brian [Weber] is pretty knowledgeable musically, so he was able to converse with everyone on a musical level. I'm not able to do that. I have to explain things in a much more vague way--like, 'I'd like it to go buh-buh-buh-buh. And they totally understood it either way. So the whole thing was really cool."

Since this session, Dub Narcotic has cut another single, an extremely enjoyable slab of vinyl called "Wasted"/"Groove." But that's not the only time Johnson has been in the studio of late. He also just completed a new disc, The Rebel's Not In, for the Halo Benders, a side project that pairs him with Doug Martsch, the brilliant leader of Built to Spill ("Building for the Future," May 1). The Benders have issued two previous albums --God Don't Make Junk and Don't Tell Me Now--that have turned heads, but Johnson believes that its third salvo, due in January, easily eclipses them. "In some ways it's not too different, but it's bigger-sounding--and I think it's better, too. I feel like it's one of the best records I've ever made, personally."

Martsch also figures in two additional K Records endeavors: In 1996 the firm put out The Normal Years, a compilation of Built to Spill's indie efforts, and last month Johnson reissued Guilt, Regret and Embarrassment, a 1989 collectible Martsch made with a Seattle act known as Treepeople. Martsch certainly has other things to do; at present he's in Chicago, recording a followup to Built to Spill's Warner Bros. bow, Perfect From Now On. But he remains committed to K--and he's hardly the only person with major-label credentials to display such loyalty. There's also Beck Hansen, arguably the most acclaimed singer-songwriter of the past couple of years ("Beck on the Highway," May 22). In 1994, around the same time that he was earning his first national exposure with the track "Loser" and the Geffen Records release Mellow Gold, he put out One Foot in the Grave, a folk-oriented offering, on K. Two years down the line, the album Odelay topped critics' polls, earned a Grammy and generated numerous hit singles. But despite this attention, Beck hasn't turned his back on Johnson.

"He's already recorded another album for us," Johnson divulges, "but it's not quite finished being mixed yet, and he's so fucking busy that it's hard to get it done. I guess I'm not aggressive enough about bugging him. I really need to, but since everyone else is pulling him every which way, I feel bad about going to him and saying, 'Let's finish this fucking thing.'" He says that the as-yet-untitled LP is dominated by "more acoustic stuff. Half of One Foot in the Grave was done with a rock band, which people seem to overlook. But this time it's mainly him, and it's great. The songs are just so incredible, and he's so fun to work with. I feel like I've got a pretty good job: I get to work with all these talented people that I really admire, like Beck and Doug and whoever, and just stand back and watch them go. I'm really lucky."

Other artists on the K Records roster aren't nearly as well-known, but Johnson speaks about them with every bit as much enthusiasm as he musters for his more famous pals. For instance, he sings the praises of Mocket, a band fronted by Olympia's Audrey Marrs, whose mini-album Fanfare turned up in stores last month. "The record is a strange mix of the past and the future," he says. "People often compare it to some sort of a new-wave record, but it has a very futuristic feel to me. It feels very much yet-to-come."

Even when Johnson is on the road, he keeps close tabs on K product. "There are a lot of people who work at K who take care of things for me," he says, "but I check in regularly." He claims not to be surprised that a company he started on a whim is still flourishing after thirteen years in operation: "I think I had a pretty good idea that it might be. I don't think I wanted to admit it to anyone, but deep inside, I had the idea."

Every day, fledgling musicians start labels of their own, and many of them look to K Records as an example of how to do things right. Johnson is pleased by this recognition, but he warns entrepreneurs not to take such emulation too far. "I'm glad if we can provide a kind of outline or road map for people. I hope it's a positive thing. But people have to do what works for them. I think everyone's different--and I think everyone at K is different, too. That's why I like to work with them--because they're not like everyone else. But that's me. If someone else is going to do something interesting, it's got to be their own thing. Hopefully, we'll inspire people to apply the form instead of the content and express themselves instead of expressing us."

That's good advice, since Johnson is far from finished making statements of his own. He even hints at a possible return of Beat Happening. "Bret [Lunsford] is in a band called B+ that has a new album on K," he says. "They went with us for the first two and a half weeks of this tour. So we're both still active, and we talk about getting it together again every now and then. We haven't gotten around to doing anything about it yet, but we will. It'll happen."

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