Last July, kids from all over the world flocked to Olympia, Washington -- a city with a population half that of Denton -- solely to see music, specifically the bands performing at the semi-regular Yoyo A Go Go festival. But even without a festival to spur them on, kids still come to Olympia. The reason: Over the past 10 years, the most notorious eruptions in rock music have had roots in the Northwest, with Olympia at their core. From the outside, the town can be romanticized as indie-rock Vegas, a place where things are unquestionably cool and influential. Nirvana played their earliest shows at house parties and art studios downtown. Unwound began as three Olympia high schoolers. And at the local Evergreen State College, Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy first practiced in the dorms, Lynda Barry and Matt Groening were newspaper nerds, and Calvin Johnson and Lois Maffeo met as college-radio dorks.
Yet the fact is, Nirvana isn't and wasn't as influential as the dopey older-brother types who write about music for news magazines and work as radio programmers tell us they were. And to people with at least an idea of what's going on in underground music, they haven't mattered for years. They certainly haven't mattered for a long time in Olympia, a city where musicians do what they want and do it themselves.
"We're pretty much sheltered from the mainstream," Dub Narcotic Sound System frontman and K Records founder Calvin Johnson tries to explain. He's long been a fixture in and around Olympia's music scene, as a fan more than anything else. Before starting K in the early '80s, he also helped set up a fanzine called Subterranean Pop. The 'zine later spawned Sub Pop, which became one of the most influential independent record labels around, but by then, Johnson was already working on his own label. "The fact that mainstream culture recognizes the underground is OK, but it's still underground..." He trails off, looking for the right words.
Ranking high in the realm of punk celebrities, Johnson is hesitant when he tries to articulate what separates his hometown from every other. It would be easy to categorize Johnson as an Important Rock Dude. Heading K Records with friend Candice Pedersen, he's handled some of the most acclaimed underground acts, such as Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, Heavenly, Mocket, and the Softies. On top of that, he's made some amazing records himself, beginning with Beat Happening through much of the '80s and continuing with The Halo Benders and Dub Narcotic Sound System more recently. He's recorded an album with Beck (1994's One Foot in the Grave), and engineered, mixed, added his vocals, or played keyboards, bass, drums, or even melodica on countless others. In the Northwest, his name appears on more albums than bar codes. Johnson's current group, Dub Narcotic Sound System, is less a band than it is an ongoing project involving Johnson and the people who wander into K's basement recording studio. Among those who've stopped by is Jon Spencer, who was brought into the fold for Dub Narcotic's last recording, last year's Sideways Soul.
"I'm not really a musician," Johnson admits in the same deep voice as that heard on Beat Happening's near-legendary 1989 album, Black Candy. "I'm just a fan, really. I got into music like everyone else. I listened to records I liked and thought I could make some myself."
It didn't take much more training than that for Johnson to form Beat Happening. The band, his most celebrated project, helped popularize the notion that you didn't have to be talented to make amazing records. In fact, Beat Happening didn't even use their own equipment; they just played on whatever happened to be there. The group took the punk ideal of anyone being able to make music if they wanted and stripped it down even further, becoming the center of a collection of like-minded groups dubbed the International Pop Underground. But it didn't last. As Johnson said in a Punk Planet interview, "Hardcore messed things up, because you had to play your instrument well enough to play it really fast."
But Johnson still makes music and still considers himself more fan than musician. It's an approach that puts musicians at the same level as those who buy their records and come see their shows. It's also an attitude foreign to most cities -- including Dallas, where tacky murals of mediocre bands unheard of 100 miles away peer down at liquored-up crowds who have paid almost 10 bucks to see something they don't really care about. That's one of the reasons Johnson is adamant about playing only all-ages shows, where liquor is less prevalent and the fans actually want to see the bands onstage. "I remember not being able to go and see bands I liked because I wasn't old enough, and standing outside the bar, talking to the people in the band, and just hearing 'Yeah, that sucks,'" Johnson says. "I don't want to be lame like that. It's unfortunate that in cities as big as Dallas, someone can't just do something about that."
That's partly the reason why hundreds of kids who feel helpless in their own towns have descended upon Olympia for the small-scale rock festivals held in the past summers. K Records held the first, the International Pop Underground Convention, in 1991. Yoyo a Go Go has been held three times since, bringing dozens of bands from Olympia and all over to wider attention. Ladyfest 2000 is in the works now, a similar festival that, obviously, focuses on women. The equality stance can only go so far, however, and you can't help but feel a bit starstruck when you're hobnobbing with the folks whose records you've worn out. At Yoyo A Go Go last summer, one of my friends was nearly mowed down by Corin Tucker (of Sleater-Kinney and Heavens to Betsy fame) as she and Fugazi vocalist and straight-edge icon Ian MacKaye ran toward each other to hug.
Underground Rock has become especially passive as of late, with bands waiting for someone to put out their records and book their tours, contrary to the do-it-yourself spirit that has helped it thrive. But to Johnson, it's not a problem. "It comes in cycles," he says. "The last one [Yoyo A Go Go] seemed like sort of a spectator sport." The answer to passivity, of course, is to get out and do things for yourself. "I think that when people get inspired by each other's work, [the barrier between fan and musician] is broken." And it could happen anywhere. "We go on tour and kids say, 'Nothing ever happens here,'" he continues. "Why don't you make something happen?"
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