Q&A: Calvin Johnson Of The Hive Dwellers On Running K Records, Beat Happening, And How He's Always Wanted To Play Staten Island

Calvin Johnson is one forward-looking dude. He brought strict punk rock ethos and DIY aesthetics—supporting community, contributing to 'zines, booking shows—to underground rock, and played an integral role in revolutionizing it. Johnson's K Records (which he launched in the early '80s) was one-third of the trifecta of Amerindie godhead labels (along with SST and Dischord) that set forth the principles and expression of independent punk rock—playing only all-ages shows, putting out cheap records and cassettes, doing whatever the fuck they want.

And Johnson didn't stop there. With Olympia buddies Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford, he formed Beat Happening, which put forth a blueprint for '80s punk—the band didn't use aggression and rage, but instead played playful candy pop that helped define the lo-fi movement.

But instead of looking back, Johnson would prefer to talk about his newish band The Hive Dwellers and the artists currently releasing records on K. Sound of the City caught up with him on the phone from the K Records office.

So, The Hive Dwellers are sort of a new project for you?

No... I've been playing with the Hive Dwellers for about three years now. We did a US tour in 2009 with Chain and the Gang and we played all over. We played in Manhattan and Brooklyn on that tour. But that was three years ago. This is the first time we've gone out across the country since then, but we've been playing around the Northwest a lot.

And the Hive Dwellers have a new record coming out?

Yes, there's a new album that's going to be out in June. It's called Hewn From The Wilderness. With this tour it made sense for us, because of our work schedule, to do the tour before the record came out instead of after. But you know, that's the way it goes.

How did you go about choosing the two places Hive Dwellers are playing in New York? Staten Island seems like a really weird place to play.

Well, I've always wanted to play in Staten Island. I think it's cool there are a lot of shows in Brooklyn now, because in the '80s I used to say, "Why don't we play in Brooklyn? What difference does it make if it's Brooklyn? It's just two subway stops; it's just getting on the subway. But now a lot of shows happen in Brooklyn. I think, "Why not have a show in the Bronx? What about Staten Island?" So, Todd [Patrick] was like, "Yeah, I've been meaning to book something on Staten Island." But this place we're playing on Staten Island, they have a lot of shows there and lot of music events. Most people in Manhattan don't really think of the boroughs as part of New York; technically they are and that's how people used to feel about Brooklyn. Now, it's the people in Brooklyn who feel that about the rest of New York. They're like "What? Go to Manhattan? That's so far."

But Staten Island is tougher to get to than, say, the Bronx, Queens or anywhere in Brooklyn.

It is a challenge. It takes a real commitment. There's also a ferry. And it's free.

I remember Beat Happening playing Maxwell's in Hoboken a lot.

Our first show in the New York area was at a place called ABC No Rio. Actually our first two shows... it was in 1984... no, 1986 and 1987 we played at ABC No Rio.

And that place still exists.

Cool. Then we played Maxwell's and the CBGB Canteen, which was next door to CBGB's. It was like a record store/coffee shop type place. Because we only played all ages shows, we never actually played in CBGB's.

Besides the Hive Dwellers, you have a lot of other projects going on, like Dub Narcotic Sound System, and you've released albums under your own name. Are you still going to do the other stuff?

I do have a series of singles I've been putting out called Dub Narcotic Disco Plate, and that's where I record a band on the A-side at [Dub Narcotic Studio] and then I re-mix it as Selector Dub Narcotic as the B-side. The most recent volumes of that series were Bobby Birdman, LAKE, Kendl Winter and Mount Eerie.

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