When David Bjorkback answered the phone, nothing seemed all that unusual. Bjorkback, also known as that caped crusader of rock, The Torch Marauder, had just finished chatting with a fellow named Calvin Johnson who was looking for a club to play in as he passed through North Carolina. Bjorkback, who had a show booked for the first week of November at Bully’s Basement, was more than happy to have Johnson and his mates join him for the evening. But when he explained to his bandmates in Razzle just who he happened to be sharing the bill with, they looked dumbfounded. “They said ‘Do you know who that is?’” says Bjorkback.
Unbeknownst to Bjorkback, Johnson just happened be the Calvin Johnson, former member of the seminal Pacific Northwest act Beat Happening and also of the Halo Benders. The same Calvin Johnson who started his own label, K Records, as a teenager and today, 20 years later finds his modest empire thriving. Johnson is in the unique position of being a creative and commercially successful artist who, being his own boss, hasn’t had to cave in to any sort of pressure from higher-ups that focus on the bottom line. His current tour finds him playing with another K Records act, Little Wings. Little Wings’ front man Kyle Field just saw the release of an interesting project on K, an album titled Light Green Leaves, which is actually three albums that all have the same title but have completely different songs and formats (there’s a CD version, a cassette version and an vinyl version). “It was a really fun record to work on,” says Johnson. “It’s great touring with Kyle as well. Every show is totally different. He’s very unpredictable.”
Calvin Johnson is pretty much responsible for putting his home of Olympia, Wash., on the musical map over his more than two decades of creative output. His latest album, What Was Me, offers spare and simple songs that feature Johnson’s smoky baritone and poignant poetry. “I’ve been playing a lot of solo shows for the last four or five years,” says Johnson. “I just wanted to get these songs down. I felt like with Halo Benders and Beat Happening we pretty much recorded the songs as we wrote them. With this record I decided to wait a couple of years and play the songs for a while and then record them when I felt like I knew them really well.” Once again, a unique and fortunate position to be in with no label heads hounding you to put out a new record.
K records itself seems to be sitting pretty in an ever-shifting and uncertain landscape of contemporary music. Possessing a roster that would turn other indie labels green with envy, Johnson seems content exactly where he is. “I’m enjoying right now,” he says. “It’s great. It’s probably the most exciting time that K has ever had, I think, because everyone’s working so hard and doing so much. It’s a most interesting period for us.”
Perhaps the best part of it all is that, more than being bands at a label, the ensemble is a group of friends, eagerly collaborating with one another. “Everybody’s working on everybody’s records and we play shows together all the time. It’s just a really fun, creative group of people I’m working with right now.”
The pairing of these two acts at the Basement will most likely be a study in contrasts. Johnson’s laconic delivery is certainly miles apart from the sturm und drang of the blue-fleshed Torch Marauder. But no matter who you’re coming to see, odds are you’ll find something you like between the pair.
For more information on Calvin Johnson or Little Wings, visit www.krecs.com.