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Intervju: Calvin Johnson

Calvin Johnson er i Norge, og det er høsttakkefest for alle nordboersjeler med forkjærlighet for kreativitet, demokrati og rock n roll i utvidet forståelse.

Det er mandag ettermiddag, og de voksne er på vei hjem fra sitt daglige driv på et utall t-baner, trikker, busser, bysykler. Det middelaldrende folket skal hjem til middag, hundehalsbånd, barnevogner og joggesko. Noen av dem er kanskje ute og flyr til og fra høstferie under et eller annet himmelstrøk.

I samme stund lander en av de voksne på Gardermoen. Han reiser som turist, tilsynelatende lik de fleste andre, men har en enslig gitar med i håndbagasjen. Han skal bare ut i verden og spille noen konserter. Nettopp det har han gjort i over 30 år, først med band som Beat Happening, Halo Benders og The Go Team, og nå under eget navn. Han er 53 år, og definerer det han driver med som ”indigenous pop music” og ”exploding the teenage underground into passionate revolt against the corporate ogre.”

– I am Calvin Johnson, and it’s the 5th of October 2015, five o’clock. 

Tomorrow’s Oslo concert at Ingensteds is the first of this fall’s European tour, and it’s your first concert in Oslo as a solo artist. What kind of music is Calvin Johnson solo?

It’s just me and the guitar. So that part is different from before. The songs are created in the same way – in that there is no “one way”. It’s always an adventure. The songs come about in all kinds of different ways.

Do you have a specific source of inspiration when you do these solo records? As in, do you set out to create a certain type of music?

Sometimes. It happens that you hear a song and become inspired by it to create something with a similar feeling, but it always comes out different than you thought it would. The source of inspiration is just a starting place, but you end up somewhere totally different.

At the KAOS radio station in Olympia, where you worked during the early 80s, there was a policy that the radio hosts always should look for the artists that inspired the artists that they liked. Would you say it is most important to seek inspiration, or to try and liberate yourself from inspiration and create something entirely new?

I consider myself a cultural archaeologist. I’m interested in these lines of inspiration as a fan, and I consider my role in music to be that of a fan. Exploring music, researching, listening. Whenever I hear something, I wonder where it comes from – when I listened to the Beatles as a child, I eventually discovered that half of their songs were written by other people. Then I had to find out who those people where. I always do this with records I listen to, but that’s just me – the most important and interesting music is always the music that’s happening now.

You haven’t been interested in showcasing your inspirations by doing more covers?

Well, I’m not much of a musician. The only music I know how to play are the songs I make myself. In the case of the covers I’ve done, I’ve always had other people show me the songs.

When it comes to your vocals, I feel that they have evolved from your early days. Whereas you used a lot of verse and rhymes earlier, your solo records have a more free approach to the vocal performance.

That’s an interesting observation. During the 1980s I took a lot of inspiration from the Japanese band Shonen Knife. They had the catchiest sing-along pop tunes, yet suddenly it struck me that they almost never rhyme. They sound like they rhyme because of the structure of the vocals, but they don’t. That was really liberating, since rhymes easily become formulaic.

So you ended up rhyming unintentionally?

I’ve tried to adapt some of those songwriting techniques and free the listener from the tyranny of the rhyme, and I still do. But I’m not as good as Shonen Knife. I still have lots of rhymes.

But now your vocals, in my ears, have a more free structure.

When I first started writing songs, I thought I had to structure them a certain way. I’ve managed to free myself, yet I still have lots of rhymes. Maybe someday.

Your lyrics have gotten increasingly personal and intimate in your latest records. I was wondering why you, with your outspoken views on culture and politics, have chosen to not include these topics in your lyrics?

It just doesn’t feel natural. Some people can write songs that are political and it comes off really well, but it just doesn’t come off naturally if I try to do that. For some reason those topics don’t flow that way for me in a song form. Maybe they will eventually, but I’m still getting there. I’ve only just begun to learn how to write songs.

You feel like the songs you do now are more musically skilled than before?

No, not at all. Every time is like starting fresh.

I want to talk a bit about your record label, K Records. It has strong roots in the local cultural scene in Olympia, but you’ve grown global these 30 years. Do you still think of it as a local record label?

Yes. We are still based in Olympia. Not all our artists are from Olympia, but they have a connection to the city in some way. It’s important because it’s hard to communicate when people don’t live nearby, even with modern technology.

The “teenage spirit” is central to the K Records mantra. Is there room for this spirit in a label that is over 30 years old, with many older people running it?

I’ve always appreciated artists that have a large body of work created over a long period of time, such as John Lee Hooker and The Fall. But I also love bands who only have one, perfect seven-inch in their discography. That’s not a contradiction. They exist in the same world. The “teenage spirit” is about people who have exciting, fresh ideas, and are exuberant in expressing them.

How is K Records organised internally? Is there a clear hierarchy?

We are a very small group of people. That’s part of why it’s important that people live nearby. It also makes for a good creative environment in our studios, Dub Narcotic Studio, which our artists use for free, if only to experiment with recording techniques or such.

In the biography “Love Rock Revolution” you refer to the vinyl single as “the ultimate format”. Do you still believe that?

Oh yeah! I love phonograph records. The seven-inch is my favourite.

Like the single, streaming is song-oriented. Do you consider streaming as a revival of the vinyl single?

The whole digital distribution is a refocus on the song, which I think is neat. A more song-oriented focus goes back to what punk started as: a singles revolution.

How do you feel about doing albums when you like singles most?

I do albums because they’re like a collection of songs. Every album I’ve ever done has been saying “here’s the 10 songs from this last year that seem like they go together”. Albums started out as an actual photo album of seven-inch records anyway.

Would you say streaming is a more shallow format? Many people think that streaming degrades music as an art form.

I’d say streaming is like the classic pop radio. It’s playing songs. But instead of having at most 100 and usually 25-30 songs to hear, as with the radio, you have access to an incredible catalogue of music. Maybe people take it for granted. That’s fine. Most people probably listen to the 20-25 songs that they like. They don’t want to hear a bunch of weird African records from 1970 or whatever– but if they DO, it’s there. So streaming is interesting as a listener.

How do you feel about streaming from a record label point of view?

It’s awesome. It gives people an opportunity to hear our music if they want to. The context in which I’m saying this is having grown up in a time when you couldn’t hear so much music, and the wait between hearing about something and actually hearing it was much longer. Now, it’s immediate.

You think that’s a good thing?

Yeah! People have much better access.

How about as a musician?

Also awesome. People get to hear your music. You can release stuff so that it’s instantly available to the whole word. Before, your records would dust in a closet unless you got a label to put it out there. People make music because they have something to say and want people to hear it. Now there is a format where people actually can hear it.

Is it harder to make ends meet economically when people stream your music instead of buying records?

Well, it’s never been easy for the label. As a band, it’s never even been possible. It’s all a giant house of cards. We’ll just keep going wherever we can, chewing gum.

You did a Q&A session on Reddit some years ago. Why did you choose to reach people through this forum?

We had an intern at K who said, ”You should do a Q&A on Reddit”. I said OK, and he set it up.

Did you do any research on what Reddit is?

No. The intern said, “this is the webpage that people do these kind of things on”. And I said OK. Is Reddit objectionable to you?

No, but it’s interesting because Reddit is a controversial website. It gathers many of the extreme viewpoints on the Internet. It’s an interesting place to have a Q&A.

Well, I was struck by how unappealing it was visually. That’s the only impression I got. I didn’t explore the site further.

You’ve said that mainstream and underground culture never can meet. But you’ve also commented on how new bands on K Records refer to both independent culture and Fleetwood Mac. Isn’t this mainstream and underground culture meeting up?

It’s disturbing to me that many contemporary artists feel that it is acceptable to listen to or reference what we considered in the 1970s to be the enemy. But you know, it’s a different generation with different criteria. But as far as I’m concerned, those bands will always be the enemy. Fleetwood Mac, Yes, Steely Dan, Billy Joel – all those terrible bands. They will always suck. There is no redemption for them. Just like the Bush family. NO redemption. But that’s just me. The new generation has a more forgiving attitude.

Can you give any advice for the youth of today who are trying to make creative communities, with the difficulties in terms of covering expenses through selling fanzines and releasing physical albums?

The way I see it, people today are so much further than I ever was, and have a starting point way beyond me. Multi-track recording is in your blood by the time you’re 14. The ability to contact like-minded people and peers is so much greater. But I appreciate your question. What can I offer to people who are younger? Well, I feel like that I am the one learning. That’s one of the benefits of having a record label. I get to learn from other creative people who are around me. I get to watch them work together, make their records, see their interaction. So your question about what advice I have for the younger generation? They don’t need my advice. They’re already way beyond any advice I can give them.

 Foto: Jørgen Myhr Stokke

Erik Johan Egenes , 6.oktober 2015

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