In 1981 Calvin Johnson began putting out cassettes on his label K and started a revolution and an empire... Shawn Parke gets the story while John Baccigaluppi shoots the film...
...Since that time, he has produced and released records for a huge list of folks, including Beck, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Modest Mouse. I recently sat down with him in his Dub Narcotic studio located in a large building in Olympia, Washington, where the K offices and warehouse are also housed. In 1988, he moved into the building after years of recording in the basement of his home. We talked about recording, music and he told some great stories.
What stuff are you excited about that you've recorded recently?
I've been doing some stuff with Dub Narcotic [Sound System], sort of an ongoing drama. We have a single that's coming out in September. It's the first thing we've put out in four years, which I didn't even realize 'til we finished it. It was like, "Wait, we haven't done anything for a long time."
Did you engineer the new single?
Adam [Forkner, of Yumu Bitsu] worked on it. Around Dub Narcotic, there's pretty much me, Phil [Elvrum, of The Microphones], Adam, Mirah [Yom Tov Zeitlyn], Khaela [Maricich, of The Blow], and Diana Arens has done some stuff with people. Those are, pretty much, the engineers that work here. I used to engineer all the Dub Narcotic stuff, but it just seemed like maybe it would be good to have another perspective. Adam actually is the person who helped me build a lot of the stuff. When we put the studio together, originally in this room, I just kind of threw it all in here, and we did the Halo Benders record. After that, I thought, "Maybe I should try to organize this thing." So he built the snake that goes to the other end of the room, he built the patchbay, he wired everything up and he had a lot to do with getting the 16-track set up. Even before Yumu Bitsu recorded, he had done a lot of work here. It's interesting because there's all this crap here, but everybody has there own feeling about what they like to use. I like to use the RCA stuff, and Phil pretty much only uses the Altec, and everyone has their own thing.
What are the dimensions of the room?
I think it's like 110 ft by 45, [the ceilings are] 11 1/2 feet. The thing about this room that's really cool, is that there're no columns or beams or anything at all. It's a completely open space, and there're windows on three sides, so the light's really amazing. All of us, every day, are just like, "Thank god we get to work here." I really like the idea that people are using it. It has multiple uses. There have seriously been times when people have been recording, mixing, silk-screening, painting. It's all happening at the same time, and that's just part of it. My idea for a studio is just getting an atmosphere where people will feel like they are going to be able to be creative. I think that the way I did that before, in the basement when we first started, and here, also, is to try to create a situation that is really different from what people may have experienced in a studio. But, also, make them feel like — maybe not consciously — "Hey I'm gonna do some really good work here." I think part of [where that feeling comes from] is that we don't have a clock anywhere in the studio, and part of [it] is that no one's paying anything for it [the studio]. Everyone who records here, pretty much it's for K. I think when you go into a real studio, it's so enclosed and encased, and there's this feeling like, "Okay, we got to get in here, and we gotta do it!" I think there's a little bit of an adrenaline rush that might be helpful, but I think, a lot of times, there's a stress level that gets people off edge. Some people can work really well in that air. Other people walk in and go [shifting head around quickly and nervously], "Oh wow this is the real thing!" You get somebody's cassette release and it's really cool, "Wow, I can't wait for the record to come out." Then, the record comes out, and it's all really flat and weird sounding. When they made the cassette, they just did it, and it's great. When they made the real record, it's all uptight and it just didn't have any...
They are out of their element, and it just doesn't come across.
Yeah, totally. So, if we get a place that's going to be outside of where you normally are, but you're...