Interviewing a musician can often be a strange business. A voice so carefully hewn on record can seem remarkably different on the telephone – the curves and bumps of the spoken word so different from the eloquent yelps of the studio.
Calvin Johnson, though, remains – refreshingly, absolutely – Calvin Johnson. Ploughing deep into the baritone, his polite, respectful manner recalls the innocence of his songwriting, the careful persistence of each answer echoing the artistic persistence that has under-pinned his own lengthy career.
Helping to form Beat Happening – alongside Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford – the singer added a new, rather more humane, rather more emotive, string to the American underground's bow. Sifting through this era, the trio have pieced together new 2-LP retrospective 'Look Around' – an appropriate introduction for newcomers, and a wonderful summation for those already enamoured by their charms.
Approached by Domino, the project fell into place with remarkable ease. “It just seemed like it was time to get this Beat Happening stuff out into the world,” he says. “And it just seemed like the album was a good place for it to be.”
With a new generation of groups finding inspiration in DIY ideals, Beat Happening's stock has rarely been higher. “It seems as though the general population has a more accepting view towards new music, in my opinion. But, maybe, who knows? It seems like what we're doing doesn't seem so strange, for better or worse. That could be a good or bad thing.”
“I always felt that the music we made was timeless, it could come from any time and it could be accepted in any time. So the fact that it was made 25 years ago I don't think is relevant to... people can perceive it on its own merits.”
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It's certainly a long way from the band's roots. Emerging from Olympia, Washington, Beat Happening's minimalist pop drew from garage rock, from The Cramps and from the more experimental end of punk rock. “When I started getting into punk, nobody even knew what punk was,” he recalls. “The average person had no idea what punk was, they didn't know anything about it, and they certainly had no way of hearing it. It wasn't on the radio, so there was no way to hear it. So when we were starting out punk was completely underground. We were playing to people who didn't know about punk, didn't know what it was and had never heard of it. That was the problem.”
Pushing hard against this indifference and often outright hostility, Beat Happening created some of the most timeless music of the entire 80s underground movement. Listening to 'Look Around' is absolutely fascinating, with each track seeming contain within it a myriad, a vast mosaic of secrets. “Our records were very well produced by Steve Hisk. He's a professional engineer, and he did a good job. And I think that he captured the songs which I think are worth documenting,” the singer explains. “It's just good songwriting. I think that's it. We just happened to write songs that speak for themselves.”
The process of putting the compilation together allowed the three band members the chance to rake back over the past. “It was exciting. It was exciting to re-imagine the songs and put them together in an order that would make sense in a contemporary setting. Bret came up with the initial list and Heather and I made some suggestions. It was fun.”
Not that the members of Beat Happening are estranged. Still rooted in the Pacific North West, the trio see each other on a regular basis. “Bret lives in Anacortes, Washington, which is about 100 miles north of me. He lives on this island called Fidalgo Island. He has been very instrumental in keeping the music scene there going. He's one of the people who started a festival that happens every summer, and he started this label up there called Know Your Own.”
“So he's been very instrumental in keeping the music scene vital in Anacortes and he's always been conscious to keep the connection between Olympia and Anacortes so I've played in Anacortes many times, and I always go for the festival every summer. Just this August his older daughter got married, and Heather and I were there for that. It was a lot of fun.”
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I always felt that the music we made was timeless...
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A twin LP set, 'Look Around' is built work as a continuous document. “It's a double album but I just think of it as an album. It's on two records but we didn't envision it as one record being this and one record being that. It's just an album that's on two records, a collection of the songs we felt were in the order that made sense to us.”
Calvin of course founded K Records, the label that would become connected to much larger names – Kurt Cobain, Beck, Modest Mouse – while retaining its status as a (relatively speaking) minute independent. Famed for its dedication to the physical artifact – K refused to discontinue its cassette runs long before the current revival took hold – the songwriter admits that he simply wants his music to be heard.
“Whatever works for people to hear the music. I think that it's great that music is so accessible now. When K started, actually hearing the music... that was the challenge. And in the modern world, hearing music is not a challenge. It's extremely accessible. And that's exciting, that people can hear music whenever they want to and hear it from all different corners of the world. So the idea was that we start a label because we want to share music with people and now that has become much more of a reality than ever before.”
“It's just a different world,” he adds. “That worked, and I still like cassettes and records. Those are formats that I prefer, but I understand that the majority of people in the world listen to music in a different way than I do. And that's fine with me. I'm not trying to make them change the way... people listen to music the way they do because that's what they do. It's not my place to try to make people listen to records if they don't want to. But I like records, so I want to make records available for people who want to hear 'em.”
Forever associated with the Pacific North West, Calvin Johnson believes that the internet has not succeeded in flattening out these localised sounds and scenes. “People like to play music with each other, they like to go out, they like to see live music and that's always going to be true, I think. And that's always going to be the basis of any regional identity. So that will always exist. The internet is a tool, it can be used as a tool for establishing local identity as well as erasing it.”
Currently putting the finishing touches to a new album from the Selector Dub Narcotic project, Calvin Johnson is continually looking forwards. On his latest UK tour the singer drew from a 70-strong set list, tailing each show to the mood of the night. But 'Look Around' ends with a curiosity – the 2000 recording of 'Angel Gone'. Could more Beat Happening work take place in the future?
“I'm not opposed. I've always felt like... people say, are you going to play again? I'm like, I'm not opposed. But I feel like I only want to do it if we're going to do new songs. I don't want to spend time re-learning old songs. It takes just as much time to make new songs, so we might as well make new songs. So, under those conditions I'm not opposed.”
Retaining his passion for music of all shades, sounds and hues, Calvin Johnson remains justifiably proud of the work he completed with Beat Happening. From 1985's seminal debut to the dreamy finale 'You Turn Me On' the band's output retained a remarkable creative intensity, one that cuts through clearly on the new compilation. Asked for the Beat Happening achievement he is most proud of, the singer is unequivocal.
“Well, the fact that we ended up making six albums. I'm a bit taken aback by it, because I feel the quality was maintained throughout all six records. So I feel like we did a pretty good job with that. Of just accomplishing such a body of work. The quality was consistent throughout.”
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'Look Around' is out now on Domino.