Calvin Johnson gives us a tour of K Records

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Impose founder Derek Evers and Calvin Johnson

Olympia, Washington is as enigmatic a town as any I've been to. In fact, I just Googled Twin Peaks' locations because if it wasn't filmed in Olympia (it wasn't), then it should've been. It's a town shrouded in music lore, close to many big-time cities, yet alone and removed all the same. It's the economically-challenged middle-kid between Seattle and Portland with a cynicism most Olympians wear proudly. Many who live there won't even call Seattle by name, simply referring to it as “the north.” Yet, like many struggling towns, great music remains its outlet (see: Detroit, Baltimore, etc.).

When we traveled down from “the north,” I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Having set up a show at the Northern, a drug and alcohol-free all-ages venue run by K Records manager Mariella Luz, it was not the “all-ages” experience those of us from Brooklyn are used to. In the northeast, kids seek out all-ages venue as a place to illegally drink, but in Olympia, that seemed to be happening all around us on street corners and porch stoops. In that sense, in the middle of this college town, the Northern was a respite just as all-ages venues are anywhere, but one—and this is the important part—where the music and art is the only focus.

This leads us to the venerable K Records. Founded in 1982 by Calvin Johnson, it embodies much of what the city of Olympia reflects: a strong work ethic and a cold-shoulder to outside influence. In a time when authenticity is rare, K oozes it. Which is exactly why we wanted to stop by their offices; I like to think Impose also evinces authenticity, but maybe some would rub off if we rubbed shoulders for a day with Calvin and Mariella. Both of them were kind enough to give us a tour of their offices, housed in a beautiful old synagogue with 25-cent-per-hour parking outside, it's yet another reminder of how important music can be to a city. Especially one that wears its identity so proudly and exposed the way Olympia does.

Below is a brief excerpt of the conversation we had with Calvin and Mariella, and you can check out the rest of the photos from our office tour here.

I tried to start with a joke…

Do you get a lot of Google hits on your name because of the football player?

Calvin: I have no idea, how do you find that out?

So you were working at Sub Pop when you got the inspiration to start K, can you take us through that; the reasoning, the motivation?

C: Sub Pop was a fanzine at the time not a record label, and I was one of the people working on the fanzine. We had done issues of the fanzine as cassettes, because at the time we were frustrated that we were writing about music, pretty obscure music, that people didn't have any opportunity to hear. So we made the cassette versions, compilations, so you could listen to the music we were writing about and they were very successful. That got me thinking about cassettes as a format, so I started the label doing cassette-only releases for the first few years because it was a very accessible format.

But why the separation from Sub Pop?

C: Well Sub Pop was Bruce Pavitt's project and his fanzine, and he was out of town actually, on tour with a band called Pale Ale—he was their road manager—and I had worked with this local band (The Supreme Cool Beings), and they had some songs and they said 'Let's put out a cassette.' It was just something I did.

calvin johnson at k records

Are you re-indulging in cassettes as a format with your newer releases?

C: We have made some cassettes of our most recent albums, yeah.

Mariella: We also still have cassettes that we originally released that are selling again.

I don't see any 001's lying around, do you still have any copies of those?

C: No.

How many did you press?

C: Might have been 150.

And did you ever repress?

C: No. Most of the cassette-only releases we made less than that. Some of the compilations we made more, like 200 or 300, but band cassettes normally we only did 100.

But do you have a personal copy or one framed or anything like that?

C: No.

M: [laughs] During the move, there's a poster downstairs from one of the early K releases—from a woman named Jan Brock—Calvin actually found a cassette version of that and gave it to me a week ago. And I was looking at the J card and all of the early K releases didn't have any catalog numbers. This was way before we even had KLP numbers, so The Supreme Cool Beings, Jan Brock, and the Cool Rays and all that, it was before we even started thinking about putting numbers on things.

Do you remember when you were past the point of breaking even and had a manageable business model.

C: We're working on that.

How important is being an independent label to you; especially in this era of sponsorships and corporate involvement in what has always traditionally been known as “independent” music?

Well, it's important to me personally. But another question I could counter that with is, 'what are our options?' There are no other options. We could be K an independent label, or we could just not exist. Like, has Garnet or Time Warner come knocking on your [Impose] door?

No, but conceptually speaking, what's important to you? Is there a difference between small market and large market capitalism?

C: Yes.

Then is that important to you?

C: Of course.

So how would you summarize that difference?

C: The mom & pop grocery store vs. the corporate chain, there's a huge difference.

But why is that important?

C: It's important because corporate dominance of our culture is eroding our democracy. The personal freedoms that we all cherish and celebrate are being taken away from us through the corporate dominance of both our culture and political system. So I feel it's important to resist that in whichever ways possible.

In the corporation culture, there's a hunger for authenticity now, and you could argue that K is very authentic, has that effected your running the label?

C: I'm not sure I understand your question… corporate marketing comes and goes and we're not really affected by it, because we're not really seen as a source of potential profit. We're just us.

Like, no one from Urban Outfitters has come and been like, 'Hey Calvin, we'd love to have your stuff in our stores'?

C: Well, we're not opposed to having the things that we make for sale in various corporate outlets. I mean, we've always been available in places like Tower or certain chains of places that have shown an interest in independent music. If they're interested, great! We'd like to be available, we'd like to be accessible. Who wouldn't?

M: If you're in the business of making things, it's kind of—in a creative way—good to keep your head down and do the things that are interesting to you and not be motivated by what other people would think are cool or interesting. We make things, we do things, we believe in the things that we do and we really get behind them, and sometimes that catches on, and sometimes it doesn't, but that's not the goal.

Off the top of your head, do you know the best selling record on K?

C: I guess that would be Kimya's or the Microphones? I'm not quite sure.

M: Of all time? I still think it's the Beck record. Either the Beck record or Kimya's. I think the Beck record went unofficial gold, and Kimya's songs from the record that were on Juno went gold. But we don't actually do soundscan so… [laughs]

You always hear people say 'that band has a K Records sound.' Can you explain that to us?

C: Well, you're the rock critic, so you explain it to us. I don't know what it means.

How important is Olympia to your identity as a label?

C: Um… I like it here.

K Records flag