Calvin Johnson (born November 1, 1962) is an American guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, music producer, and disc jockey born in Seattle, Washington, USA. Known for his uniquely deep, droning singing voice, Johnson was a founding member of the bands Cool Rays, Beat Happening, The Go Team, Dub Narcotic Sound System, and The Halo Benders. Calvin Johnson is also the founder and owner of the influential indie label K Records, and has been cited as a major player in the beginning of the modern independent music movement. As a prominent figure in the Olympia music scene, he was one of the major organizers of the seminal International Pop Underground Convention.
Calvin's first introduction to underground culture was in 1977 when he became a volunteer at Olympia's community radio station, KAOS-FM, at the age of fifteen. The station's uniquely progressive programming policy mandated a focus on music available through independent and artist owned labels, rather than centralized corporate media. This independent, do-it-yourself ethos has been an important influence on Johnson's career. Johnson soon began writing for fanzines, such as Sub/Pop (later to become Sub Pop Records) and Op, and also organized music and film events. Johnson attended the Evergreen State College in Olympia, where his first band, a short-lived group called Cool Rays, made their debut recordings with Steve Fisk in 1981. Calvin established K in the summer of 1982.
At some point, his father gave him a Martin acoustic guitar. He later told an interviewer that his father had "received it as a wedding present from his bride."
Johnson formed Beat Happening in 1982 with fellow Evergreen students Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford. Beat Happening were early leaders in the American indie rock and lo-fi movements, noted for their use of primitive recording techniques, disregard for the technical aspects of musicianship, and songs with subject matters of a childish or coy nature. Instruments were guitars, bass and drums, with members frequently switching instruments and Calvin and Heather taking turns on lead vocals. Tours with artists such as Fugazi confused and alienated audience members while articulating a punk rock position of defiance that was more sensitive than macho. The band has been on hiatus since 1992, but briefly resurfaced to release a new 7" in 2001.
The Go Team was a collaborative project started in 1985 based around the core duo of Johnson and Tobi Vail, later of Bikini Kill & Kill Rock Stars. They toured the West Coast as a two piece, adding Billy Karren for two U.S. tours. The group released several cassettes and 9 singles on K, with a rotating cast of collaborators that included Kurt Cobain, Rich Jensen, David Nichols, and Donna Dresch. All of their recordings are currently out of print.
Dub Narcotic Sound System
Dub Narcotic, named after Calvin's famed analog recording studio, was a project that explored funkier, more dance-party-oriented material in the tradition of the Stax/Volt house bands. Johnson was the sole member to appear on every recording, surrounded by a loose collective of musicians that's included Larry Butler, Todd Ranslow, and Brian Weber (all members of hip-hop group Dead Presidents). Numerous 7" singles and several full-length albums were released. The revolving door nature of the ensemble led to collaborations with Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Lois Maffeo and director/writer/performer Miranda July. The lineup later solidified around the trio of Johnson, bassist Chris Sutton (C.O.C.O, Hornet Leg, The Gossip) and drummer Heather Dunn (Tiger Trap). A catastrophic tour van crash in Montana in 2003 nearly ended the band's career in tragedy. Johnson suffered a major concussion that left him with broken ribs and a serious speech impediment; he has since largely recovered. The band has not toured or released recordings since 2004's Degenerate Introduction.
Halo Benders was a collaboration between Johnson and Doug Martsch of Built To Spill. From 1994-1998, they released three albums. Calvin's deep baritone voice and Doug's high melodies are heard simultaneously, occasionally harmonizing, but often operating independently of one another. Despite the Halo Benders' critical and commercial success, Martsch's commitment to touring with Built To Spill prevented the band from touring and recording more. The band reunited for a 2008 performance in Boise, and may be working on new material.
Concurrent with his activity with Dub Narcotic Sound System, Johnson began
performing solo shows under his own name. Calvin's solo material was a marked
contrast to the upbeat rock of Halo Benders and the funk-soul of DNSS, as it
allowed him to explore mournful blues, folk, & gospel elements.
His first solo album, What Was Me, is an introspective album about love, loss, and death. While some songs employ simple nylon-string guitar accompaniment, many feature only Johnson's voice. It also contains duets with Beth Ditto of The Gossip and Mirah.
His second album, Before the Dream Faded..., is more varied. It includes collaborations with a variety of northwest indie luminaries. The songs cover an odd range of subjects, such as the size and color of hearts, Lucifer, and falling in love.
The most recent album Calvin Johnson & The Sons of the Soil is a career-spanning collection of re-recorded songs with a band consisting of Kyle Field, Adam Forkner, and Jason Anderson, documenting that ensemble's 2003 West Coast touring lineup.
In 2008, Calvin Johnson appeared in the film The Lollipop Generation by G.B. Jones.
Calvin's newest project is Hive Dwellers, who made their recorded debut performing Superchunk's "My Noise" on SCORE! 20 Years of Merge Records: The Covers! A full-length release is planned for fall 2009.
Calvin has also revived his Dub Narcotic Disco Plate 45 rpm series, collaborating with artists such as Atlas Sound, Mahjongg, and Joey Casio at Dub Narcotic to record an A-side, and creating a Selector Dub Narcotic version for the b-side.
Relationship with other musicians
After meeting Ian MacKaye in 1980, Johnson later became friends with the members of Fugazi, and Beat Happening was the opening band on one of Fugazi's first tours.
Johnson has worked with Modest Mouse, Beck, Heavenly, The Microphones, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Blow, Jens Lekman, Mecca Normal, The Gossip and Built to Spill, Fifth Column, among many others. Since founding his Dub Narcotic recording studio in 1993, he has produced and engineered recordings by many bands and artists.
Friends of Kurt Cobain such as Ian Dickson of Earth, Mark Arm of Mudhoney, Bruce Pavitt and Slim Moon have all acknowledged Johnson's significant influence on the late musician. Cobain cited Beat Happening's Jamboree as one of his favorite records, and even got the K Records logo (a small "K" in a shield) tattooed on his arm to "try and remind [him] to stay a child." They were friends in the late 80s/early 90s when Cobain lived in Olympia; he'd been a guest with The Go Team, and on September 25, 1990, Cobain appeared on a KAOS (FM) show hosted by Johnson and performed a number of songs acoustically, including a duet with Johnson on the Wipers song, "D-7." Cobain later grew to resent Johnson's "arrogance" and denounced his ties in a journal entry.
Johnson is also referred to in the John Peel session version of the Hole song, "Olympia" (also credited as "Rock Star" on the album Live Through This). The band's lead singer, Courtney Love has the line: 'I went to school with Calvin,' a reference to Johnson's influence within the burgeoning Olympia indie music scene.