photo & text by nacrowe
when the BRITISH concocted their COTSWOLD GAMES in the 17th century, a forerunner to the modern olympic games, they touted "amateurism" as a way of assuring that the sporting event was kept pure from debased notions of professionalism. after all, they wanted to showcase their self-assured physical superiority over the constituents of their imperialistic holdings without looking as if they actually tried.
this was the prism i viewed CALVIN JOHNSON and the cult surrounding his legendary indie label K RECORDS and the whole 1980s INDIE music scene of OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON through in general. primarily known for his decidedly non-professional musicianship in his notable group BEAT HAPPENING, as well as late projects including THE HALO BENDERS, DUB NARCOTIC SOUND SYSTEM, and THE HIVE DWELLERS, JOHNSON has been renowned for popularizing what has since to become known as TWEE POP. this genre usually denotes music by amateur or non-technical musicians.
before reading MIKE BAUMGARTEN's "LOVE ROCK REVOLUTION" (SASQUATCH BOOKS, 2012), i mistook JOHNSON and his ilk as being inept, arts-fartsy elitists that look down upon musicians with actual talent, like say the concurrent GRUNGE scene that blew in neighboring SEATTLE. perhaps that notion came from reading books about NIRVANA and PEARL JAM and SOUNDGARDEN and how acolytes of the underground made them question the purity of their careerist motives in making music.
BAUMGARTEN's portrayal of JOHNSON in essence is that of a curious music fan that sought out an artistic community that didn't exist in his youth. the narrative of K RECORDS is the story of his efforts to nurture that community, employing a strong DIY ETHIC that put artistry above profit margin. this mindset comes directly out of his involvement with various INDIE and HARDCORE scenes in the early 80s and his connections to institutions like DISCHORD RECORDS and arguably most importantly, EVERGREEN STATE COLLEGE's unconventional KAOS 89.3FM college radio station. if anything, the story of the label is an outgrowth of the community surrounding the radio station, university and the underground independent tape-trading communities across the nation.
i can understand how successful GRUNGE musicians felt pigeonholed by "Calvinist" acolytes from OLYMPIA and the burgeoning scene including fiercely strident labels like KILL ROCK STARS. by making their bed with the "corporate ogre," they were essentially a part of the machine, a by-line on a quarterly report, a commodity and they knew it. yes, the music produced by K RECORDS was decidedly unsophisticated and had what FRANK ZAPPA famously coined in another era as "zero commercial potential," but their motivation was to sell records but to showcase artistic freedom.
and on that scale he flourished having collaborated with/and or helped promote a fertile cultural scene that gave the world HEAVENLY, BIKINI KILL, MECCA NORMAL, BRATMOBILE, HEAVENS TO BETSY / SLEATER-KINNEY, UNWOUND, HEAVENLY, MAKE-UP, THEE HEADCOATS, KICKING GIANT, THE GO TEAM, D+, THE MICROPHONES, BECK, MUDHONEY, TIGER TRAP, THE MELVINS, and even NIRVANA.
so there you go. K RECORDS is almost a modern VELVET UNDERGROUND-like phenomena in their cultural relevance wasn't rooted in the records they sold, but in the bands they influenced. and their influence according to the book was their DIY ETHIC, GRUNGE bands be damned.