Calvin Johnson of Selector Dub Narcotic
Back in the day, making music with a do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude was tricky. While the current era can be considered a triumph of the DIY ethos, with every home a potential recording/film/programming studio, it was a more complex endeavor forty-odd years ago. That was when an independent spirit named Calvin Johnson
first got into the music scene around Olympia, Washington, and, having founded the K Records label in 1982, he's carried the DIY torch ever since.
Through that label, he helped promote and facilitate many bands from the Pacific Northwest, and, as a performer, rubbed shoulders with such pioneers as Modest Mouse, Beck, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and Built to Spill. And according to Nirvana: the True Story
, by Everett True, Kurt Cobain even had the K Records logo tattooed on his forearm. Johnson's Dub Narcotic Sound System, the studio he began in the mid-90s, led to tours and notoriety, and despite his involvement with other bands and side projects, he's still widely known under that project's name.
Given the explosion of tools available to DIY artists nowadays, it's not surprising that Johnson's current work has a bit more polish than it once did. But there's still plenty of attitude, in that the stripped-down techno/disco dance beats, full of imaginative bursts of synth noise and hooks, are undercut with Johnson's wry lyrical utterances. The effect is reminiscent of the B-52's Fred Schneider, but with a drier delivery and perhaps greater comic impact. Most importantly, the music never descends into formula, and this is the truest expression of the DIY approach.
It's fitting that Johnson and Selector Dub Narcotic
will make their Memphis debut tonight, not at a traditional club, but at one of the most promising DIY spaces in the city, The Beach House. Situated near the warehouse district just south of E.H. Crump Boulevard, the space's very name comes front-loaded with a hint of irony. But in fact it's an earnest expression of the DIY attitude that has always guided founder Kelley Anderson, onetime member of Those Darlins and relatively recent transplant to Memphis. Hosting an act with the international profile of Selector Dub Narcotic is somewhat of a coup for the modest space, which is most definitely not a rock club. To get a better idea of how the space came together and where it's headed, I recently swapped questions with Anderson.
Memphis Flyer: What does it mean to have a DIY space?
Kelley Anderson: When I was an undergrad in Murfreesboro, there's was a really fantastic space called Grand Palace. And it was a group of friends that worked together on this space, and they had a recording studio, a screen printing shop, a record store in the front, and then a live room where they would occasionally put on events and concerts and stuff. And I was super inspired by their work ethic, and to see what a group of committed people could pull off. And I was really inspired by that idea. I thought then that one day I'd love to run a space just to be able to do events, and put on things that I think are important, and that may not have an outlet elsewhere. Because not all music fits in a bar. Or a traditional venue. I love rock n roll, and it's fun to go listen to rock and roll at clubs or bars. But there's a lot of music that, even if it's just a little outside of that, then it can find a very resistant reception. Or sometimes even hostile reception at a traditional bar.
But then the alternative, if you go to a visual art space or studio type space, I've found that doing music events in spaces like that can often feel very dry and stale. Which then doesn't give service to the art or the music. So just having a space that fits the content is what I was going for. And really it started out as just needing rehearsal space. A lot of bands in town will use like storage units, and when I looked at that option, not only was it very expensive, but when I went up with a friend to check out her space, there were two metal bands rehearsing at the same time. And it's like, you can't write a song in that environment, or record anything, or get anything done. And space is so available in Memphis. Unlike a lot of cities where space is a real issue. Here, that's not an issue. The space is there, it's just a matter of, what do people wanna do with it?
How did the show with Selector Dub Narcotic come about? It seems Calvin Johnson epitomizes the DIY approach.
Yeah, he called Shangri La [Records] to find out if there were any spaces to do an all ages show. I love that it happened through the traditional channels of how DIY kind of used to work. You didn't necessarily just hop on Facebook or the internet, you looked up places, you talked to other bands that had toured, or you called a local record store.
So Calvin Johnson only plays all ages shows. 'Cos otherwise it's discriminating based on age. Shangri La mentioned the Beach House and he looked me up and asked about a show. It happens to be on a Monday, but we're gonna do it a little early. The main reason I said yes is because I respect his work ethic so much, and K Records and all the work he's done to not just put out his own music, and do his own thing, but to support a whole community of artists. The impact that he's had is really inspiring. He put out a lot of artists from the Pacific Northwest.
So many bands just avoid Memphis altogether, yet he reached out in the dark, so to speak, so he could play here.
Yeah, third tier market and all that jazz. It just depends on what you're trying to do. I understand how the industry and the business works. and how you need certain numbers to make things work. But the beauty of working outside that paradigm is you don't have to care about that. You can focus on creating real connections with people. Not that that doesn't happen within the industry, but with DIY it can be the primary motivator for your decisions rather than playing the cities that maybe have the biggest draw.
Once you get into DIY, it's often gonna involve eclectic sounds. Your band, Crystal Shrine, doesn't sound like Johnson's music, but I suspect that's not gonna throw the audience.
I grew up in Myrtle Beach South Carolina, and it was such a small music community that we didn't have separate scenes for a punk scene or a hardcore scene or an indie scene. Everyone played in everyone's bands and everyone played with each other and booked each other's shows. Basically it was such a small scene that it felt like, if you didn't show up, then there wouldn't be shows anymore. Which was kind of true. And if you didn't book the shows there would not be a show. So I didn't have as many issues... I was reading zines at the time about women in Boston or DC or some of the larger punk scenes that were not really treated like their efforts were equal or as important. And I didn't have directly that same experience. I understood what they were saying, but in our community it required everyone to be involved. You had to literally do it yourself 'cos no one was gonna do it for you. No one was gonna book that show if you didn't, so that was really good training. I've been booking shows since I was 15 and I have pretty strong opinions about how a show should run. Details matter.
Have you found that that space is working? That you're getting people down there?
Well, there have been really unintended consequences. I mean, I definitely don't want to be part of a wave of gentrification into a neighborhood where people live. But in this case, I feel like it's very different because it's in an industrial warehouse district. And unfortunately most of the homes that were there probably in the '30s and '40s are already gone. The house itself was sitting empty for I think three years before I came across it, and it was just ruined. Sometimes people would squat there, and there was furniture all over the place and it was dirty. And it's not like it was gonna necessarily become housing again.
And so what's interesting and what was appealing to me was, basically I needed a place to be loud, where I could make noise and do creative work. So it's original intent is a creative work space. And then we have events just because we can. So I don't care much how it works business wise for the events. I mean i want the artists to be supported and for people to come out and experience other people's work. But it's really about community building. the space has been a good connector. I've been wanting to work with more people in film in Memphis, and more visual artists. And they're excited about this space so I've gotten to meet people through the events. And that's really the key. I don't care about getting people out to a new part of Memphis or trying to create a new scene in a space where stuff wasn't happening. I mean if it were closer to Midtown it'd be way more convenient! But the beauty is you can be loud out there, and there's just an open field. The Budweiser distributor across the street makes more noise, with the trucks and everything, than we do. So as long as we're not bothering anybody, that's kinda the goal.
Ultimately it's a creative workspace. I've had people express interest in filming music videos out there. And so one of the things we do at each of the shows is we switch up the whole setting of the show. So visually every show is different. The space is always changing. And it provides for really good props and background for either live music videos , or if someone wanted to come and do a full on video. 'Cos they can completely manipulate the space and change it and paint and put up props and whatever they wanna do to create whatever visual space they want. That's more what I'd like to see come out of it, is recordings and videos and creating new work. And then if we need a place to exhibit the work, well then we have a space.
And you can stockpile props ...
The mannequin heads have been taken down, but they're in a box in a back room if anybody needs 'em!
Selector Dub Narcotic plays tonight, January 22, at The Beach House, 41 West DeSoto Ave., at 9:15 pm, with openers Sunday at 8:30 and closers Crystal Shrine at 10:00.