For those of us who have grown up in the Pacific Northwest, who've been weaned on indie rock, and Pac NW indie rock in particular, the name Calvin Johnson is a known and loaded one. For the uninitiated, Calvin Johnson is - for all intents and purposes - Washington's indie rock godfather. Beginning in the early ‘80s with the seminal lo-fi, oddball, minimalist rock group Beat Happening, Johnson has been a trailblazer in the world of DIY rock. When he founded Olympia's K Records, Johnson cemented his status as the bearer of all that is new and weird in these parts and beyond.
His history is filled with such odd touchstones (the iconic International Underground Pop Convention, Kurt Cobain talking shit about him in print) that it's sometimes easy to forget that he's still creating music that is obsessed with the tonally odd and the religiously low fidelity. Serving as a reminder is his forthcoming LP, Hewn From the Wilderness, released under the moniker of his most recent project, the Hive Dwellers.
"We were at the Dub Narcotic Studio, just banging some pots and pans together," says Johnson of the recording process. "Various folks came by and made their own contributions, played some spoons, things like that."
What Johnson means by "various folks" is a veritable cavalcade of K Records alums, including Jeremy Jay, Karl Blau, the Vibrarians' K.E. Sixx and Basemint's Spencer Kelley, among others. But despite the many people involved in the recording of Hewn From the Wilderness, Johnson's inimitable voice remains the most defining element of the album. His droning baritone has long been his calling card, and it allows the seamless incorporation of strange lyrics and ideas to slip by almost unnoticed. Something about the uniqueness of his voice manages to make cohesive an album of differing styles and a variety of collaborations.
Johnson's idiosyncrasies don't stop at the album. Live, his tics and odd movements are on full display. Adding to the generally unusual nature of Johnson's projects is his method of live performance: the Hive Dwellers, a three-piece, perform only with the aid of amplifiers for the guitar and bass. No PA, and no microphones. Regardless of the reason why Johnson chooses to perform in this way (the most I could get from him was "it just feels right"), the effect it has is to draw everyone in. I saw the Hive Dwellers perform recently, and the whole crowd gathered in tight around the stage to take in the music. If it's not a compulsion, it's pretty darn smart.
The styles on Hewn range from slinky, jazz-inflected cuts ("Messed Up and Ramblin‘," "Tell-Tale Heart") to unabashed pop ("The Dignity of Saint Jude") to garage-y bursts ("Ride With Me") to stomping odes to individualism ("Get In"). Regardless of what style Johnson affects, he will always sound unmistakably like Calvin Johnson. For all of the various projects and forms he's embraced over the years, he's maintained an utterly unique voice - literally and figuratively.
NORTHERN, WITH GUESTS, SATURDAY, APRIL 28, 8 PM, $5, 414 1/2 LEGION WAY, OLYMPIA