In the early ’80s Calvin Johnson blazed a trail through hardcore and hair metal, making way for more lo-fi, gosh darn cute indie rock than the average record collecting cynic could handle. Everyone from Japanese girl bands to Kurt Cobain took cues from Johnson, and after years of performing behind big names like Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, and The Halo Benders, he’s pared his act down to a one-man show. Johnson has been known to hold Q&A sessions at his shows, so here are a few things you don’t have to ask if you catch him at the Co-Prosperity Sphere tonight:
Supriya Sinhababu: Could you explain the premise of your last album, Calvin Johnson and the Sons of the Soil?
Calvin Johnson: The idea was that Jason Anderson—who is a recording artist on K—he had this idea that, “Oh, if only you could do these songs with a band,” because I only perform them solo with an acoustic guitar, like I’m going to be doing next week. And he said, “Man, it would be great to have a band backing you up.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’d be fun.” So he put together a band and we went on tour together. And then at the end of the tour we just said, “We’re all practiced up, why don’t we record?” So we did. So after we got back, we went to Dub Narcotic Studio and played them. And that’s how the album came about: We had all these recordings we made with the band. The band was only together for one tour. But we just documented that. We said, “Might as well make an album.” So we did.
SS: Do you think you’re going to miss not having a band to back you up on this tour?
CJ: Well, I’m okay without it. I did a tour last summer with the drummer. And that was fun. I think this time around I’m just going to freeball it.
SS: The Co-Prosperity Sphere’s a pretty unconventional place to play. Do you choose the venues yourself?
CJ: Yes, I was very excited to play there because I was there in October when they had just moved in. They hadn’t even done any shows yet at that point. They were just setting up the space to be a gallery and to have some performances and things. And I said “I want to play here.” And they said “Yeah man, whenever you want!” And then it turned out I was doing this tour and I thought I could stop in Chicago and play the Sphere. And so I got a hold of them and they were like, “Groovy, baby.” So, that’s happening…. I played a previous space that was called Buddy. It was over where Edmar and Lumpen Magazine were based out of there before they moved to the Co-Prosperity Sphere. And I played there once, and I DJ’d a party there once, so I knew those guys from before, from a previous incarnation. And of course Mahjjong—Hunter from Mahjjong lives in the apartment upstairs from the Co-Prosperity Sphere. And we’re going to be touring with Mahjjong later on this trip.
SS: How do you feel about what Lumpen does in general?
CJ: It’s great. It’s very deep though. It’s more than fun.
SS: You wrote in New York Rocker a long time ago that rock ‘n’ roll is a teenage sport. Do you still feel like a teenager?
CJ: No. I’m happy to leave that behind.
SS: Have you been back to Japan after your infamous Beat Happening tour?
CJ: Oh yeah, I toured there with Dub Narcotic Sound System. I went there as a solo person with the Little Wings and the Microphones a couple of years ago, which is documented on the live Microphones album we put out a couple years ago. In fact, we saw people that we’d met back in ’84 who came to our shows.
SS: Many people have attributed you with making rock less macho. How do you feel about the state of women in rock music today?
CJ: I think they’re doing pretty good. There’s a lot of them. They’re making the best records.
SS: Which ones are the best records?
CJ: Well, I really like the ones we’ve put out. Mirah, The Blow, Kimya. And actually I really like the new Cat Power album. She’s a woman, Chan Marshall.
SS: Yes. She is.
CJ: Yeah, quite a woman. But all over the place, there’s a lot of people making music. It’s a great time for music right now, 2008.
SS: Why do you say that?
CJ: There’s just lots of people making good music, and it’s fun.
SS: Okay. Anything more specific than that?
CJ: Um. Well…I may be biased, but I always think whatever time we’re in now is the best time for music. I saw that movie Juno and one of the characters says, “1993 is the best time for music ever,” and then the other character disagrees, “What? No way! 1977!” I just think, “No way! Right now!”
SS: Do you think Olympia still has a healthy music scene?
CJ: Definitely. And I’m not just saying that because I think now is always the best time. There really are so many different events, so many different labels. There’s lots of people making music. It’s just more thriving. I mean, that has nothing to do with the quality of the music, I’m just saying the level of activity is the highest I’ve ever seen. There’s just so many record labels here, it’s great.
SS: Do you feel like you’re in competition with them?
CJ: Well, I don’t see it that way. It’s more like, the more the merrier. Everyone benefits from the activity. The more that people are doing, the more that people are inspired to do what they’re doing. So it’s what makes a scene viable, that there’s activity, and everyone feels the excitement and the creative energy flowing.