Calvin Johnson

Underground resistance

Calvin Johnson

Calvin Johnson, the king of lo-fi indie rock, tells Neil Cooper why he’s at his happiest playing a church in Glasgow’s West End

When Calvin Johnson plays a booze-free all-ages show in a church hall in Glasgow this week, he won’t be attempting to be cute. Rather, it’s just one more wilfully skewed strategy in this most single-minded of mavericks’ ongoing mission of DIY self-determination, ever since he landed up as a volunteer on a community radio in his native Olympia, Washington while still a teenager.

In the 30 years since, Johnson has been a key figure in the lo-fi pop underground, both through his own bands Beat Happening, The Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System, and through K Records, the label that has been home to Beck, Modest Mouse and a host of other fellow-travellers, and which Johnson still runs on cottage-industry aesthetics today.

More recently, Johnson has returned to his solo troubadour days via the 2007 release of his third album, Calvin Johnson and the Sons of Toil. All of which, as one might expect, is delivered on his own very special terms.

‘I like to play all-age shows,’ Johnson says in his trademark slow baritone. ‘But aside from that, I’m really not excited about playing rock clubs. Church halls are more social. The atmosphere’s just so much better.’

Such an approach is also in keeping with the ethos of Edinburgh’s Tracer Trails organisation, who’ve ploughed a similarly low-key furrow over the last 18 months, and who, for this latest exercise in kindred spirit-hood are venturing outwith the capital for the first time. It’s half a decade since Johnson last played Glasgow, where he forged links with The Vaselines more than 20 years ago, and with The Pastels, who themselves fly an independent flag pioneered by Johnson and K.

Trading under a slogan of ‘Exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre since 1982’, as states of independence go, K Records has kept the faith more than most. Not for nothing did Johnson host the International Pop Underground Convention in 1991, featuring 50 like-minded bands who had no truck with the conveyor-belt pop careerists buffed into homogenised submission who litter today’s mainstream. Fledgling Vaselines fan Kurt Cobain even got himself a tattoo of the distinctive K shield that acts as the label’s logo, repelling all boarders in its hand-drawn but still protective way.

‘There’s an implied meaning in what you say,’ ripostes a somewhat defensive Johnson when asked about operating the K way, ‘that suggests I’m somehow losing out on something. I’m not. If I went with a major label, I’d be losing money and going into debt. I’m not. I can eat a whole lot better than people on major labels because I don’t owe them any money. They’re not exactly rushing out to meet me, but the feeling’s mutual.’

The day we talk, Johnson is holed-up in the self-built laboratory that is his Dub Narcotic studio recording an album with Make Up vocalist Ian Svenonius. There’s also recordings pending from a host of K acts, and a new Halo Benders album mooted. As ever, there’s no master-plan at work here.

‘It’s very vague,’ deadpans Johnson. ‘Things will come out when they’re ready, and we’re not going to rush them. I’m only going to be here for another 30 or 40 years, so why waste time doing things I don’t want to do?’

Calvin Johnson plays Lansdowne Church Hall, Glasgow, Sat 9 Aug.

Calvin Johnson, Ben Butler & Mousepad and eagleowl

An indie hero too many, Johnson is the lynchpin of lo-fi US combo Beat Happening and set up influential indie label K Records. Also BYOB.


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