System's Abnormal

The musical explosion that took place in the Pacific Northwest during the late Eighties and early Nineties wasn't exactly a secret; if memory serves, a few million gallons of ink were spilled in telling the tale of the so-called grunge movement. But whereas Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney and the rest received much of the credit for this sonic revolution, one of the keys to its success--Calvin Johnson, owner of K Records in Olympia, Washington, and leader of Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System--remains virtually unknown outside cult circles. However, the situation doesn't bother him a bit. When he's asked his opinion of today's pop-music establishment, he replies in a bottomless near-whisper, "I'm where I am and they're where they are, and we really don't intersect on any level. I really have nothing to do with that world. It doesn't affect me."

By contrast, Johnson has had a considerable impact on the sounds made in his neck of the woods during the past decade and a half. K Records, which Johnson formed in 1984 while still a student at Olympia's Evergreen State College, became an early forum for post-punk (the Melvins were a K signee). But just as important were the recordings he made for K with Beat Happening, whose primary lineup also featured Bret Lunsford and Heather Lewis. The trio's recordings, which include 1985's Beat Happening, 1989's Jamboree and 1991's Dreamy (released in conjunction with a better-known Washington state imprint, Sub Pop), were poppy in a Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers sort of way, and the production techniques used to capture them were lo-fi before lo-fi was cool. None were big sellers, but they certainly influenced the right people. Kurt Cobain was such a K Records booster that he had himself tattooed with the company's logo.

But all of this is ancient history to Johnson. Rather than trading on war stories, he prefers to concentrate on K, which is as just as vital (and just as obscure) as it's ever been, and his current group, Dub Narcotic. The combo began as a collective effort: The long-player Boot Party, completed last year, includes contributions from a floating cadre of guests such as DJ Sayeed, vocalists Jennifer Smith and Lois Maffeo and guitarist Lindiwe Coyne. But while the act has recently solidified around a handful of performers (guitarist Brian Weber, drummer Larry Butler, bassist Chris Sutton and Johnson), it has not sacrificed its eclecticism. Most journalists have taken their cue from the combo's name and identified the Sound System as a twisted reggae tribute, but Johnson rejects this assumption: "I see dub as more of a process of recording than as a genre," he remarks. "We're not anything close to being a reggae band. Working in every possible style of music seems right to me."

As this comment implies, Boot Party sports a few snippets of reggae, but it also pours out soul, funk, R&B, pop and just about every other sonic category that comes to mind. These disparate elements hang together because of the quartet's focus on danceability. At its foundation, this is party music, not indie esoterica--although Johnson concedes that he hopes his tunes will appeal to someone sitting home alone with a CD player, too.

"As far as what I like to dance to, I like things that have more than a beat," he says. "It has to be kind of catchy and exciting and inspiring and all those things at the same time. And I hope that comes together. That's the case with all the artistic expression that I'm involved with. I want it to work on more than one level. That's what makes it art, I guess."

Bone Dry, a subsequent Dub Narcotic Sound System EP, underlines this comment. It was cut in Memphis at the recording facility owned by Willie Mitchell, whose record company, Hi, is responsible for Seventies masterworks made by Al Green, Ann Peebles and other soul survivors. In addition, the effort was produced by William Brown, a Stax Records veteran and member of the Mad Lads, an R&B outfit that still draws crowds on the oldies circuit, and employs a brass section highlighted by trumpeter Ben Cauley, formerly of the Bar-Kays, and trombonist Jack Hale, one of the original Memphis Horns. But while these pros make valuable contributions, Bone Dry remains very much a Johnson creation. The title cut and "Superball" are both sloppy and funky due in part to Johnson's basso profundo exclamations: Witness his barks of "bass...assassination" during the amorphous "Bass Hump" and the improvised, autobiographical rap that decorates the goofy "Rot Gut." To put it mildly, these ditties won't be mistaken for "Take Me to the River"--which, in Johnson's mind, is precisely the point.

"I'm kind of a student of Memphis music, and I love it, but we weren't trying to duplicate anything," he insists. "It was more us wanting to work within that environment, which is about doing things until they feel right. That's been going on there since the turn of the century, and it's really different from Nashville, where things are pretty much dictated by union scale. In Nashville, if you're scheduled to record between one o'clock and five o'clock, you're already playing by one. But in Memphis, there are no clocks. No one cares what time it is. They're just going for it, getting it right.

"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."

The majority of the public probably won't get too worked up at this prospect, and that's all right with Johnson, a man who has found his niche. As he puts it, "There's always going to be people doing interesting things that are never going to be mainstream--and that's what I'm interested in. I'm not interested in bands where people say, 'Yeah, I was into them a year before they were big.' I'm interested in bands where people say, 'I'm into that band, and they're never going to be big, because they're so fucking weird.' That's the kind of people who interest me--the ones in their own world."

Dub Narcotic Sound System, with the Blast-Off Heads and Strictly Ballroom. 9 p.m. Thursday, October 23, Grimace Warehouse, 774 Santa Fe Drive, $5, 571-5655.


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