HE'S A FLAILING, dancing weirdo. Calvin Johnson, the baritone-booming 49-year-old, is also the founding father of a brand of indie rock that has touched music lovers from the Northwest and beyond for decades. As head of Olympia-based label K Records, he's put out music by Beck, Modest Mouse, the Blow, Lois, Heavenly, and Kimya Dawson. He's collaborated with Doug Martsch, Kurt Cobain (on a Go Team song), Tobi Vail, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Beth Ditto. At the tender age of 19, in the prehistoric era before the internet, he started an indie music revolution. He's a god to some. But what makes the oddball tick?
Author Mark Baumgarten (former music guru at the Willamette Week) doesn't throw much light on this question in Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music. While Johnson is definitely front and center, Baumgarten's book is more concerned with K Records' timeline, specifically as it relates to the popularization and prevalence of independent music. In short, it's a history book. And if you're left with questions about the enigma that is Johnson, you've at least been soundly educated about Olympia's indie music scene of the '80s and '90s.
Which is not to say Johnson's biography isn't well-covered. Baumgarten tracks Johnson's burgeoning love of punk music as he grows up in Washington State and cuts his teeth with a radio show on Evergreen State College's KAOS station at age 16, followed by a move to Washington, DC, and his college years back at Evergreen. His precocious love of punk leads to many friendships with pre-famers like Ian MacKaye and Sub Pop's Bruce Pavitt, and eventually to K Records' first release in 1982—150 K-shield-branded tapes of a band recorded live on Johnson's radio show. Baumgarten describes it, "Unlike much punk music, which vacillated between self-seriousness and satire, this music just sounded fun—playful even." It's a perfect description of K's output from there on out.
Over the next 30 years, K moves from being an operation in Johnson's apartment to a successful record label that gets major press from Kurt Cobain's professed love when the grungy years hit. Along with Candice Pedersen—a hard-working college student who eventually ran K while Johnson toured with his bands Beat Happening and the Halo Benders—the label distributes records, handwrites notes to every customer, and records bands in the Olympia music scene. At the height of K's influence was the legendary six-day International Pop Underground Convention in 1991—which galvanized the riot grrrl movement, cemented newbie label Kill Rock Stars' status with a souvenir compilation of the fest, and spread the community vibe of the local music scene. It was K's watershed moment.
Baumgarten's history lessons are conversational and well-written, and he obviously has a deep love for his subject. Amid accounts of who's who, there are small revelations, like just how bizarre K Records' back catalog is: The fervent hard rock of Karp alongside the sugar-spun Softies, and Built to Spill's deft guitar epics bookended with Beat Happening's near musical incompetence. Erratic and varied, it's very much a list that represents K Records' open-door policy, where record deals are made with a handshake. Even if Love Rock Revolution doesn't lob hardballs at Johnson's psyche, it's a nourishing chunk of facts, stories, and memories of long teenage days spent listening to K Records mixtapes.