Keep the Beat

Exploring Calvin Johnson's understated influence

Calvin Johnson isn’t exactly a household name, though his impact on underground indie rock is undeniable.

Johnson is a singer, songwriter, producer and label owner whose do-it-yourself ethic has become the standard for musicians and labels alike. His 30-plus years making and sharing music has influenced countless more well-known artists, though Johnson remains modest in his work and inspired by the music.

This week, Johnson’s band the Hive Dwellers make their Santa Rosa debut when they play the Arlene Francis Center. Johnson is known for his distinct droning vocals and playful lo-fi indie pop in bands like Beat Happening and the Halo Benders. He’s also the founder and head of K Records and Dub Narcotic recording studio, making him a one-man enterprise of independent music.

“One of the things I try to live by is ‘Where’s the passion?’ It needs to be there,” says Johnson, speaking by phone from K Records headquarters in Olympia, Wash.

Johnson first discovered his own passion for music as a young man living in Olympia. He was exposed to an array of independent and progressive music while volunteering at the local community radio station in 1977, and soon he was writing for fanzines and booking local shows.

Olympia is a small town, smaller than Novato, yet it’s musical culture is on par with other northwest hubs like Seattle and Portland. “People just stay home and work on their stuff,” says Johnson. “Just about every night there’s a show somewhere. It’s a little bit overwhelming.”

In 1982, Johnson founded his first band, Beat Happening, as well as his label, K Records. While other pioneering labels like Sub Pop Records grew to near major-label status, Johnson has kept K Records small by design, keeping his passion focused on that shared experience of discovering and celebrating great music. “I’m still very excited about music—seeing people expressing themselves and inspiring others with what’s in their heart,” explains Johnson.

Since 1993, Johnson has also worked as a recording producer at his Dub Narcotic Studios, and though the majority of acts he works with are local musicians, breakout indie bands like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse have spent time in the studio. In one form or another, Johnson has contributed to a few hundred albums throughout his career.

The Hive Dwellers formed in 2009, after Johnson spent a decade playing and recording largely as a solo artist. At first, the project was a conglomeration between him and an assortment of friends playing around, and the band’s debut album reflects that cacophony. But for the last few years, the band has evolved a set lineup, and this year the group released its sophomore LP, Moanin’.

Johnson describes the follow-up as both “a lot more immediate and more spontaneous,” and he’s more than ready to finally bring the band’s new material to the North Bay.