Music News

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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts