There's a sticker circulating throughout the Front Range that most sharp-eyed music fans will have seen. It's a black-and-white line-art photo of a face at a microphone emblazoned with the motto "Punk is whatever we made it to be." Despite the teeny-bop conception of punk rock as an aggro-jockish excuse to slam into one another while being serenaded with formulaic pap by the likes of NOFX, Blink 182 and the countless other SoCal clones they've inspired, the majority of those who've grown up in the scene so loosely referred to as "punk rock" find that the reality is something entirely different.
Whenever embarking on a conversation about punk rock's early-'90s transformation from an abrasive, aggressive-rather-than-inspired, uniformed and elitist sect into an open-ended theory around which entire lifestyles could be molded, the city of Olympia, Washington, and its music scene invariably come up. Along with Washington, D.C., and its largely Dischord Records-centric hardcore scene, Olympia was unquestionably the epicenter of a precious and important movement sprung from youthful idealism, the independent spirit and the revolutionary dictum that artists can invent themselves without preconceived restraints.
Concurrently, any intelligent discussion of Olympia and its many contributions to this punk-rock metamorphosis inevitably turns to a label called K Records and its co-founder Calvin Johnson.
Johnson, who now fronts the Jamaican dub-inspired freestyle funk/soul outfit Dub Narcotic Sound System (so named after his Dub Narcotic recording studio, located at the K Records headquarters), has long been an enigmatic benefactor of countless bands, conventions and the D.I.Y. spirit. Johnson's contributions have been so many that a new film, The Shield Around the K, has recently been released with the express goal of documenting not just Johnson, but also his former band Beat Happening and his label's history and continuing legacy.
Though the film, which was produced and directed by novice cinematographer Heather Rose Dominic, leaves something to be desired aesthetically -- with its shaky footage, unflattering facial close-ups and linear discrepancies, it virtually defines the D.I.Y. philosophy -- the sheer volume of information, along with the connect-the-dots aspect of seeing various personalities who've since become institutions in the world of independent rock (Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, acclaimed rock critics Michael Azzerrad and Ira Robbins, producer and musician Steve Fisk, Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon, Matador Records owner Gerard Cosloy, recording engineer John Goodmanson of Bikini Kill fame, to name a few), give fans and the simply curious a fairly comprehensive if narrowly focused Cliffs Notes version of the Olympia story.
Johnson's is an eccentric personality cultivated over the years, as is made obvious in the film. The opening scene, featuring footage from 1991's International Pop Underground Convention (the brainchild of Johnson and K co-owner Candice Pederson), shows Johnson bellowing a spiel about the astronomical price of candy in the venue, Oly's famed Capitol Theatre, and then proceeding to throw 25-cent Herrara vegan candies (you know, Alexander the Grape and Lemonheads) into the audience. It's a poignant snapshot capturing the childlike qualities that Johnson and K injected into the punk-rock scene of the time. This moment wasn't about whiskey-swilling and razor-blade self-mutilation; it was a return to naiveté, to the unfeigned confidence that the world is yours to do with as you pleased.
In these formative years, Johnson's band Beat Happening was effecting those same qualities through the simplistic, upbeat music that it played, though the lyrics concerned considerably darker subject matter, setting the standard for the paradoxical synthesis that can be seen in the work of current bands like Portland's Quasi. In fact, Beat Happening easily would have fit into the cuddly monikered "twee" category were it not for Johnson's unmistakably pronounced baritone layering stark images over the poppy melodies.
Johnson's style directly confronted the uniform parameters within which punk rock operated in those early years. Ian MacKaye remembers the first time he met Johnson, who was sporting pastel clothing and a pink bandanna tied around his ankle. "It just didn't seem right in that era," MacKaye says with a grin. K Records' reinterpretation of the punk-rock aesthetic didn't stop with fashion reinvention, though; it cracked open wide any preconceived definition of what a punk-rock band should be, releasing records by a multitude of unconventionally constructed bands -- two-piece outfits like Mecca Normal, the Spinanes, Courtney Love (the band, not the "actress"), Kicking Giant and the Crabs, as well as bands like Beat Happening, which regularly shunned conventional notions such as having a bass player.
Beat Happening, with its primitive drum-propelled rhythms and jangling guitars, was an anomaly in the punk-rock scene then. In one of Shield Around the K's more amusing moments, Mecca Normal frontwoman Jean Smith recalls her first meeting with Johnson, where they swapped their respective bands' records. After playing the Beat Happening record, Smith thought, "Pardon me? Didn't he recognize that we were like this hardcore punk-rock band, and he's giving me this album of piffle? So I said to the guy, 'What's up with this shit?'" Despite this initial reaction, Smith and Johnson formed a mutually beneficial friendship that continues to this day.
Kill Rock Stars' Slim Moon, a spoken-word artist and musician, recalls his first impression of the scene Johnson largely engineered. "In the Olympia rock scene, from the moment I moved here, it was always understood that punk rock was, 'If you can think of it and it's a good thing to do, then just do it,' and yet elsewhere, there always seemed to be these rules. This was more punk rock than the legions of hardcore bands who all sounded the same."
Buoyed by the support of like-minded individuals such as John Foster, a fellow DJ at Oly's college radio station KAOS and the founder of OP magazine (later Option magazine), and Steve Fisk, also a DJ at KAOS (later a producer who would record Nirvana, among other luminaries), Johnson's inspiration was to create an art factory, à la Warhol's New York Factory, to support his community's artistic efforts. His first great victory in this regard was 1991's International Pop Underground Convention, held in August at a handful of venues in and around Olympia. With performances morning, noon and night by then-burgeoning acts like Bratmobile, the Spinanes, Beat Happening, Courtney Love, the Melvins, Kicking Giant, Mecca Normal, Nation of Ulysses and many others, the IPU stands out as an important meeting of the minds that would help mold a new concept of what punk rock could be.
Rock critic Ira Robbins characterizes the IPU as the "tribal gathering of 1991: Everyone who knew they were supposed to be there was." The convention did its own part in breaking down the stringent codebook of punk rock. There was no security, no time limits for the performers, and all the staff were volunteers, including a ticket-taker who played in a little band called Fugazi. Jean Smith recalls, "The interesting thing was that the musicians were mingling successfully with the audience. I would say that having Mr. MacKaye there -- Mr. Fugazi -- doing the door one night at the theater was illuminating to people; that this idolized character within the punk-rock scene would sort of stoop to do the door broke down a few misconceptions of what the interaction of the music scene was about."
Started as an outlet to release the works of Johnson and his friends' projects, K began as a cassette-only label with a distribution network that spanned a few local record stores in Olympia. But with the networking explosion that the IPU facilitated, Johnson and partner Pederson were soon inspired to release K's artists on seven-inch vinyl and LP formats. In the documentary, Courtney Love member and Yoyo Recordings owner Pat Maley recalls asking Johnson what happened to the cassette revolution. His response: "Didn't you hear? We won."
Johnson is the only one to understate his pivotal role in this revolutionary music movement. Noted rock writer and Nirvana biographer Michael Azzerrad puts it best: "For any movement like that, I think you have to have a figurehead, a cult leader, and that would be Calvin Johnson." Johnson downplays his efforts, saying, "There's so many amazing people in Olympia, it's hard to credit just one person. I am just one of many."
Throughout its history, K has developed a reputation as an extremely nurturing record label continuously driven by the same ideals on which it was founded. Matador Records head Gerard Cosloy, who garnered large-scale success as an indie magnate, offers his own interpretation. "K ideally is the spirit of friendship. It's not so much about commerce and market share and how to use the label as a battering ram to buy someone a huge house someday; it's more about educating people about different kinds of music and helping your friends document what they're doing and get it out to people."
In recent years, Johnson's vision of a factory-esque organization has almost completely materialized. In K Records' new building in Olympia, the upper floor is divided into spaces that local artists rent to pursue their projects. On the phone from the complex, Johnson animatedly reports, "I was just up in the studio checking out some people silk-screening for a record cover; there's just all kinds of people doing stuff around here. Pretty much all of the spaces are rented to artists who are making a living doing their artwork, so it's kind of exciting."
Looking back on his label's history and accomplishments, Johnson doesn't hesitate when asked if there are projects he wishes K had released but didn't. "There's always that sort of thing, but I think we've put out so many great records that I'm proud to have been involved with, I just figure it all worked out. Whatever didn't happen, something else did, and that was what was supposed to happen, so it's all fun. I just look at this year; we have another eight albums coming out, and if I was going to put out more records, I don't know how I would."
But can the current roster of K projects generate the same kind of excitement as in the early days? "The times now are more exciting than ever," says Johnson. "There's just so much happening, and so many people are able to do their work in a way that makes it available to the world. What's happening in Olympia is more exciting than any other time.
"There's a lot left to do. I think that having K be a place where artists can have their work recognized and distributed, and it can be done on a level where they are able to make a living off of their work -- that's a goal we haven't achieved completely. We're still heading towards that." If Johnson's track record of tenacity and ingenuity is any indication, it leaves little doubt that that promise will one day be fulfilled.
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