Answering in Twee with Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening

Melissa Denice Saunders

Calvin Johnson

Photo by Sarah Cass

Calvin Johnson is assembling cassette cases for some mixtapes that he’s made when I go to interview him at the Dub Narcotic Studio. It’s a crisp, fall Olympia afternoon and he’s just finished practicing with his band the Hive Dwellers not too long ago. Asking Calvin questions isn’t such a daunting or nerve-wracking task. When I interned with K over the summer, I’d sometimes peek my head around the wall and he’d coolly and graciously answer my queries from his desk (it was also a relief to learn that he likes cookies as much as I do). A little while into our interview, however, it stops even feeling like an interview at all. Our talk becomes a casual yet straightforward exchange; dotted with moments of Calvin’s off-beat, mellow humor. With some slight but sweet divergences, Calvin talked about music (duh) that he enjoys, both by his bands and other people; Olympia, touring, river towns, the wisdom of the Spice Girls, the new Hive Dwellers album and why goldfish are so freaking cool.

Please name every band that you have played in, past and present.

Calvin: My name is Calvin Johnson and I don't remember if the bands had names but there have been several. Some of them are only for an afternoon. Some had one show. The first band that I had that played more than one show was called Cool Rays and we played shows for, maybe, six months here in Olympia and then dissolved, [which] is pretty common but, I had another band called 003 Legion that was me and Stella Marrs.

We played shows for about a year around Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle .I think we played in Bellingham, once. That was pretty fun. And then Beat Happening; that's the next band that was regular. I had a couple other bands in between but they were never quite jelled. And the Go! Team was a band…it was more like a…it was band, but it was more of a concept and that was for about five years. And Dub Narcotic Sound System was around for about ten years and we toured all over the place. And then Hive Dwellers, the band I'm in right now. We've been playing, one way or another, for about five years; recording, playing shows…we did a huge tour; stuff like that.

What made you decide to choose music—especially underground music as a profession—considering it doesn't necessarily guarantee a steady paycheck?

Well, I never considered it a profession; it's more of a hobby; more of a lifestyle. [I'm] just a fan of music. I like music. I like putting together songs. It seems like a fun thing to do. Figuring out avenues to do it for a while. Olympia is a pretty good place; things are pretty low-key. It works out. There's a lot of creative people in Olympia. It's a good way to keep inspired; just to keep what people are doing and groove off that.

So what's the name of the new Hive Dwellers album?

It's called Moaning.

Oh, it changed from what was on the [K Records] release schedule.

What was on the release schedule?

Hewn From The Wilderness?

That's the album that's out. That's been out for about a year and a half.

I guess that is the most recent album. Yeah. Hewn From The Wilderness. Yes, that is our most recent album and it was recorded here at Dub Narcotic and it was started with…lots of different people played on that album. And it was recorded over several years. Just different people coming and going and playing on different things; Karl Blau did a lot of work on that record, in terms of production. He also played on quite a bit of…quite a few songs. Brett Lyman played on a lot of it; played on several songs. Fred Thomas…Gabriel [Will], of course, was on a lot of it. And, yeah, that was a fun record to make. But it took a long time to really bring it around so it came out in [the] middle of 2012 and we toured a couple times with that. We toured across the country and toured through California and stuff…around the Northwest; to Canada; things like that. [It] was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that.

How were the shows and the audience outside of Olympia?

Well, mostly people seemed to tolerate us. They seemed very open to the idea that we would make music and they listened to it. Some people tapped their toes; tapped their feet, you know? Some people liked to yell out song titles and we're like, “We don't know those songs” and they're like, “Well, make it up!”, you know, it was pretty fun.

So the new album is called Moaning.

Moaning is the new album that we recorded and it's coming out in March [2014]. And that is with Gabriel and Evan [Hashi] and myself; 'cause Evan was our drummer for a while. He recorded on that album. There's a few guest stars here and there and Nicholas from Curious Mystery plays on there; Ange [Angelo Spencer] is on there; bunch of different people. Lindsey Schief, Ashley [Eriksson] plays trumpet…she doesn't play trumpet. She plays cornet. And, yeah, I think we had a lot of fun making that record.

It's weird. I've actually only seen you play live twice, ever in my life.I ended up working the door at that Northern show and then Helsing Junction was the second time.

Helsing Junction. That was enjoyable.

And, well, you don't use a microphone. And not that you need one but why don't you use a mic?

It just keeps thing simple.

Do you have any formal training though that helps you project your voice?

Not at all. I should probably do…I did have a…I took a couple voice lessons once but I probably should have done more. It's just…it's hard for me to…I have a short attention span

As I'm seeing more, there's probably a lot more to singing than I know and maybe I should learn more…but you can't do everything right now.

What are you putting on the tapes that you're making now?

They're just some compilations that I sell on tour; [to] sell at the souvenir stand. I just got an order of tapes.

If you could shape shift into any animal, which would you choose?

Maybe a hare.

Why would you change into a hare?

I don't know. Seems like it would be fun; [you] could jump around and go underground and stuff.

Seems legit.

Maybe an owl. They have a lot of feathers. Of course, if I was a salamander then I'd be poisonous.

You could be a hare-owl-salamander so then you could go underground but have a lot of feathers but be poisonous.

Yeah, that's an idea.

You could stay human and have the opposable thumbs.

Probably what I'm going to do is, I decided, I'm going to just stay a human. Yeah.

[laughs] That's a very practical, well-thought out choice. What is your favorite color and why do you like it?

Pink is good. It has a certain flare and it's easy to see when you're on your bike. Getting hit by cars is not a goal; not a goal to strive for.

Which is your favorite domestic animal? What qualities does it have that resonate with you?

I like goldfish 'cause they're flashy [Melissa laughs] and they get to, like, hang out with rocks. [They're] part of the carp family, you know.

Describe your favorite foods. How do feel when you eat these foods?

I enjoy pears and wheat. Pears are very uplifting. Wheat is quite sustainable. It's very nourishing. I feel like I'm going to make it at least one more day.

Okay, what is your favorite tree?

Well, the gingko is a good tree because smells like certain types of decay but it also is good for memory. The seeder tree is good because the bark…you can use it to bind your shoes back together when they come apart. You could also make shoes out of the bark. You can also make shoes out of old tires.

This question's good for Washington and you're a water sign. What kinds of water do you like best: rivers, streams, lakes or the sea? Do you know what this kind of water says to you?

I do like the sea. I like going there. But I noticed that the last couple times I went to the ocean… didn't really feel like hanging out there. I just kind of went there and said, “Oh, yeah. That's cool.” Whereas you go the lake, it feels more like you want to just be there. And streams are fascinating; [it's like] where they came from and where they're going. And then rivers, I love river towns. I really want to go play a show in Cairo, Illinois; that's where the Ohio flows into the Mississippi and there was a guy who used to live in Olympia who's there and he said he wanted to set up a show for me. But then when I wrote to him about setting up a show he was like, “Oh, I moved to Providence, Rhode Island” so I wasn't able to play in Cairo but you know, doesn't mean I'm not going to. Memphis is another good river town along the Mississippi.

A lot of people wouldn't think of this but Cambridge, Massachusetts is a river town. There's the Charles River.

The Charles River, yep, that's true. And the Charles River is a very short river. Same with the Hudson. The Hudson's not very long but it's wide. The Charles River is pretty wide, I mean, compared to, like, a lot of rivers around here. It always fascinated me that you have these huge rivers: the Potomac, the Charles on the east coast. On the west coast, our rivers aren't that big. You know, even the Chehalis River is one of the biggest river systems… it's the biggest river system in western Washington. But when you go the mouth of Chehalis it's really… it's nothing like the mouth of the Charles. But in Washington we don't have any really big rivers except… even the Snake never gets that wide. Not like those east coast rivers; not like your Ohio or whatever. What was the question?

It was, “what kind of water do you like best?” I'm guessing rivers.

I like ponds. Ponds are cool. There's so many life forces that exist there. Plus, they're murky, muddy and taste strange. Ponds are probably my favorite.

Right on. So, K was founded in, what '84…

1982.

1982. I wasn't even alive then [laughs].

Well, don't blame me.

My parents actually met at a party. My dad was spinning records and my mom told him how much he liked the records he was spinning.

“You're doing it wrong! Here, let me do it!” Like that? And he was like, “I'm in love!”

[Laughs] I wasn't there but… if there was somebody who was, like, say in 2013, one or two years old and they grew up; what would be a dollop of wisdom that you'd give this person? A little gem of wisdom that you'd leave for a kid now.

Oh, follow your heart. It sounds like a cliché but it's really true. But the best clichés are.

Calvin Johnson's next record will be the new Hive Dwellers LP in 2014. For all things Calvin, shop K Records.

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