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Talking about Love Rock Revolution and the history of K Records with author Mark Baumgarten

K Records put out its first record in 1982. It was cassette only release of an Olympia band called Supreme Cool Beings. For thirty years since, it has been one of the most notable independent labels in the US, with a longevity that predates labels like Sub Pop, Matador and Merge. To date, it’s released almost 250 LPs (and countless more EPs and singles) by some of independent music’s most interesting acts, including Phil Elverum’s Mount Eerie and The Microphones projects, Mecca Normal, IQU, The Blow, Mirah and founder Calvin Johnson’s bands Beat Happening and The Halo Benders.

The story of K Records is told in an excellent new book that comes out next week by Seattle music journalist Mark Baumgarten, the editor at large of City Arts Magazine. Baumgarten’s book is called Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music (Sasquatch Books).

The book is largely about K and Calvin Johnson (who was only 19 when he started the label), but it also serves as an important study of an independent scene that flourished largely because of, and around, Johnson. He’s one of the most unique characters in independent music and one who has inspired and encouraged countless other artists. Love Rock Revolution details K’s fascinating history, including Johnson’s partnership with co-owner Candice Pederson, its most well-known albums (including one by Beck just as he was beginning his ascent as a cultural figure), the story of the International Pop Underground conference in 1991 and the Dub Narcotic Studio, where Calvin Johnson recorded hundreds of artists. It’s a fascinating and thoroughly-researched book that should interest anyone curious about independent music, the Northwest, or the growth of a community or scene.

I met with Mark Baumgarten at a café on Eastlake to talk about Love Rock Revolution, Calvin Johnson, indie music and why K Records has endured for as long as it has.

K Records is turning thirty years old this year, and in your book you write about some things that might not lead one to believe it’s the most efficiently run business: Candice Pederson left the label as co-owner in 1999 when she had been handling most of its operations for several years, when (riot grrrl band) Bikini Kill signed with Kill Rock Stars, they insisted that K not handle their distribution and there really hasn’t been an artist that has sold a lot of records on the label, save for that one by Beck. Why do you think that K has endured so long, being around longer than indie labels like Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop and Matador?

I think operating out of Olympia doesn’t hurt. It’s quite cheap to operate in downtown Olympia, but I think the reason the label has survived is because of the passion of Calvin Johnson. Not to detract from what Candice brought to the label in the years that she was with it as a co-owner, but the label really is Calvin. K Records will be around as long as Calvin is around. That’s the answer. As the book lays out, K has fluctuated with staff numbers and cultural import and momentum, but it has never quit because Calvin doesn’t quit. It sounds like a silly answer, but that’s what the core of the book is: things happen because people make them happen. The label will survive because someone is making it happen. It’s as simple as that.

What drew you to Calvin Johnson and K Records, versus another Northwest label like Kill Rock Stars or Sub Pop?

[It was] because it hadn’t been told. I don’t want to create the perception that I’ve told Calvin’s story because I know much of the book reads as a biography of him, but if I was writing a biography of Calvin Johnson, it would be a much different book. It would be about him and what this book is about is a story of a community. The biographical aspects of Calvin’s story are the parts of this story are the parts that helped create the context how something like this could be created, and what the inspiration was is both the ethic and the aesthetic.

The other thing is that I feel like, and I didn’t realize this at first, was that by telling the story of K, I really am telling the story of the origins of Kill Rock Stars and, in a way, the origins of Sub Pop. That was happenstance; I didn’t know that was going to happen. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest ten years ago and started to work as a music journalist in Portland and started to dig into the stories of the bands in this region, more often than not, the bands whose stories I was interested in would always go back to K Records.

You first told me you were writing this book over a year ago when we ran into each other at some press event and you said that you were just starting to get Calvin to open up to you. It seems like you couldn’t tell this story without his cooperation. Did you approach him about the book before you started writing it?

When I proposed the book to Sasquatch, I told them I had Calvin, and I didn’t and I hadn’t told him. When they told me they were interested in publishing the book, I called Calvin and I told him I was going to write this book about K Records. I told myself beforehand that if he wasn’t willing to talk, there was no book. I called him and I said, “Hey Calvin, I’m writing a book about K Records. I want to talk to as many people as possible and stitch together this narrative of what you created and what this story is.” He told me that it sounded like a boring book. I said, “No, I think it’ll be an interesting book with a story to tell.” He responded by saying he didn’t know anyone who would read that book. I said I’d send him an e-mail next week and to think about. He said, “Okay, let’s get together.” He didn’t go into it with any sort of notable enthusiasm, but he was willing to talk. Once it became clear to him that I wanted him to tell the story instead of just talking about the famous people that had been associated with K, he started to open up to telling details about what happened with how K Records came out.

How long did you spend with him altogether?

I probably spent 13-15 hours. I had like 5 long, two hour sessions with him and a series of phone interviews with. It was more than I thought I was going to get. He was definitely willing to talk more. In the future, we might continue the conversation and there may be something more to come out of it.

Has he read it?

No, he’s not going to read the book. I offered him an advanced galley of the book and he said he wasn’t interested in reading it. But Mariella (Luz), the general manager of K, read it. I wanted someone there to read it, not so they could manipulate the story, but so I could make sure I had the facts right. I wasn’t present for any of the stuff so it was crucial for me to get the story right. I understand that there is going to be different accounts of certain events. These are peoples’ forty year memories, sometimes, we’re dealing with. I was a little bummed Calvin said he wasn’t interested in reading it.

Were there people you couldn’t get to talk to you?

Lois (Maffeo). I wish I could have spoken with Lois. I had gone to some talks that she gave with Calvin about the International Pop Underground convention and I spoke with her at one. She gave me her e-mail and I contacted her after that, but it just didn’t happen. I know she’s a really important person in the story and I hope the book reflects that she is, but I wish I could have gotten some perspective from her. She was the big one that I’m bummed wasn’t a bigger part of the book.

How important was the International Pop Underground conference to K Records, in 1991?

K really took off after that, but it wasn’t necessarily because of the convention. As I understand it, it was an expression of what was happening in the Olympia underground in the eighties, or maybe the culmination. It’s so tough because the eighties and nineties are different times for the underground. Calvin talks about this in the book. In the eighties, there was the underground and the mainstream and never shall the twain meet, and that’s the way it is. In the nineties, the underground sort of becomes the farm team for the mainstream after Nirvana. The convention was sort of the underground’s last celebration. I’m trying to not call it a wake because I don’t think the underground died, but I do think it transformed radically after that. Two days after the convention ended, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was released to college radio. It took a long for it to climb up the pop charts, but the timing was coincidental, but you could sense that something was coming to a head. The underground got to have its celebration and then the mainstream sort of took over from there.

I think that how Calvin and Candice maintained that there was going to be only one convention is a significant statement that it was about a moment. It wasn’t about starting a tradition, but marking a moment, and that moment was the transformation of the underground into something larger.

That was interesting because you have a quote about a member of a newer K band, I think LAKE, saying that he was into mainstream bands like Fleetwood Mac when he grew up, as well as other underground bands.

That was Jean Smith of Mecca Normal who said that.

One of the things I’m happy with is the depiction of Calvin’s childhood in the beginning because it shows a young music fan who is definitely influenced by the mainstream and understands how the mainstream works and decides to disregard it with access to punk rock. I feel like that anecdote of what that member of LAKE said is spot on. It’s kind of sad, but it is what it is.

What I’ve noticed in both your book and the book I’m currently reading, Sara Marcus’ book about the history of riot grrrl, is that Calvin would invite people to play shows with him without even hearing the bands, like saying “Oh, you have a band? Come play with us in two weeks.” Often times, the bands didn’t actually have any songs written and would have to come up with something in a short period of time.

Calvin was just about creating a space where people could create their own culture and he didn’t care what that was. That’s part of why K is such an uneven record label. Calvin isn’t curating a sound, he’s interested in finding people he likes and saying, “Here’s a stage, you should get on it and do something.” I think it results in pure expression, and horrible musicianship. There’s the story of the first gig he got, or not the first but one of his first, but he was asked by Gary Allen May to play at a show at the New Deli and he didn’t have a band, he just had a band name. It was The Cool Rays. It was a different world then, man. It wasn’t the way it was now, where we take the platform for granted, everybody has a platform where you can create music or write shit, make a message and send it out into the world. You really had to will it into being thirty years ago, or you needed someone looking you in the face and saying, “You can do this, get up on that stage with a guitar and it’s music.” I think it’s easy to take it for granted now how difficult it was for young people back then.

Right. I was thinking about this when reading the book, and this might be a bit hyperbolic, but (Corin Tucker’s first band) Heavens to Betsy played their very first show at the International Pop Underground and if that didn’t happen, my very favorite band (Sleater-Kinney) might not have existed.

Yeah, that Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now night changed everything. There are plenty of other moments within the story that changed a lot of people’s lives, but that story in particular is really notable.

Was the most surprising thing you learned from the book how interconnected K was with labels like Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop? Or was it something else?

One of the things that was most surprising was the Kill Rock Stars origin, just how tightly woven those two labels are. I knew Sub Pop and K had intertwined origin story, but I never knew how Kill Rock Stars was such a child of K. I just thought it was inspired by K, but Slim Moon actually called up Calvin and asked him, “How do I put out a record?” and Calvin gave him point by point details and contact phone numbers of manufacturers. That was a surprising story.

The other thing is that the story that had never been told is the story of Candice. Candice has been left out of the story, and one of the things I’m really proud of is that [the book] recognizes her contribution and recognizes that it was a complicated relationship that had some difficult times. I don’t sugarcoat it. Everybody was very forthcoming and willing to talk. Candice had no problem that I was having Calvin tell his side of the story and Calvin had no problem that I was having Candice tell her side of the story. They agree on a lot of things… and they disagree on a lot.

This sounds like a bit of a cliché, but I’ve always admired that Calvin has his own value system and has done this on his own terms, including refusing to play 21+ shows.

He has a code of conduct. To say that he doesn’t deviate from it, some parts he doesn’t deviate from, but there are some aspects where reality and ideology collide and that’s where things get complicated. Definitely, the things he’s able to keep control of, like whether or not he’s going to play a 21+ show, he has stuck to his guns on and that makes him a very unique character. There aren’t lots of people in the music industry who have codes of conduct and stick to their guns, but I’ve never heard of anybody being as strict with themselves as he is.

We talked earlier about how you think that K Records will exist as long as Calvin is interested in keeping it going. Do you have any idea how long he’ll keep it going? Thirty years is an impressive run.

As long as he’s able to run the label. I don’t see him doing anything but the label because it’s just who he is, it’s his life. It’s hard to imagine K Records without Calvin and it’s hard to imagine Calvin without K Records. I got no indication that either one was on the wane.

{Mark Baumgarten reads from Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music at the Henry Art Gallery on Friday, July 13 at 6pm and at Elliott Bay Book Company on Wednesday, July 18 at 7pm.}


Chris Burlingame is the editor of Another Rainy Saturday.