Saturday, January 14
Artist, entrepreneur and indie rock god Calvin Johnson brings his one-man-show to the Mutton Busting section of One Yellow Rabbits High Performance Rodeo. And while he may not be a thespian in the purest sense, this twisted troubadour has already trod his fair share of stage boards as a founding member of the renowned indie bands Beat Happening and Dub Narcotic Sound System (amongst others).
As the proprietor of the self-proclaimed "lo-fi and punk" music label K Records, based out of Olympia, Washington, Johnson has earned a reputation for being a brilliant producer and interpreter of musical materials, skills which he has now successfully parlayed into a pair of ear-catching solo albums. What Was Me (2002) and his more recent release, Before the Dream Faded, are both collections of Johnsons original, quirky and irreverent poetry delivered in an unflappable Tom Waits-like baritone rumble.
From his cynical satires to his heartfelt confessions, Johnsons willingness to expose the deep, dark core of his creative genius, combined with his intelligent, insightful and decidedly unique approach to the art of presentation, make him an ideal selection to join the lineup of the fifth annual Mutton Busting Festival of cutting-edge performance and visual art. Preparing (at long last) to visit Calgary for the first time, the multi-talented singer-songwriter describes his new approach and the gradual, yet in hindsight inevitable, devolution that led to his outing as a solo musician.
"These days, its just me and my acoustic guitar, quite a change from my days with Halo Bender," explains Johnson of his current occupation of choice. "I enjoy performing on my own because I only have to deal with my own logistics and it makes things a lot easier. I just walk in, do my thing, and walk out again. No waiting for a drummer to set up his kit. Ive played at festivals in Sweden and I recently did the "What the Heck" festival. Ill be touring the U.S. for eight weeks and then its off to Bordeaux, France and England. I love travelling! Ive never played Calgary before and Im looking forward to it."
When hes not leading the revolt against the corporate ogre, Johnson finds time to reflect and pen introspective songs such as the bluesy "Obliteration Overload," the uber-funky "Leaves of Tea" and the emotional electro-groove number "When Hearts Turn Blue," which come together to compose the sullenly optimistic backbone of his latest effort.
Of course, taking this streamlined route provided by the one-man band approach also has a downside namely the enormous responsibility of having to do it all yourself. To ease this passage, Calvin recruited the best and brightest from K Records to accompany him on his latest musical adventure.
"For my new album (Before the Dream Faded), quite a bit of the songwriting was tried out in a live setting first and then taken into the studio," Johnson says. "I invited different producers to come and work on the project and I opened the whole thing up to their ideas for instrumentation and arrangement.
This resulted in a wide variety of styles being highlighted on the album and a bit of an indie rock all-star team being recruited during production. Singer-songwriter Mirah (Yom Tov Zeitlyn) plays organs and sings on "When Hearts Turn Blue," Khaela Marricich from The Blow produced a track, and Phil Elvrum from The Microphones and Mt. Eerie plays on several songs.
"A few people were working with me for the first time, but for the most part all of the people involved have some relationship to myself, K Records and the other players, as well. Id just drop off cassettes of specific songs to them in Olympia to mull over for a few weeks ahead of time and see what theyd come up with. It was especially fun collaborating with Devon Welch of the Chromatics he worked on four or five of the tracks, as well. And it really works."
Whether hes plugging away in his legendary Dub Narcotic Studios (a.k.a. The Big Room the 6,000 square feet upper floor of a former knitting mill) or braving the scrutiny of the spotlight, Johnson seems impervious to pressure and maintains his brooding sense of humour throughout. Adopting the same no-nonsense attitude towards his two-decade long career, he describes the process by which he crafts his artistic creations and in turn responds to the reactions they evoke.
"When it comes to songwriting, I dont have any one method. I think thats a good thing to come from all places. The critics can say whatever they want, but I like to let the people decide for themselves. I dont bother trying to create the sound of my albums when Im up there performing them live. Why would I?" he laughs. "I havent had any complaints!"