At 40, Calvin Johnson isn't an old man by any stretch. Still, it seems like the guy's been around forever. Witness Beat Happening's visionary junkyard-pop back in '83, and, later, Dub Narcotic Sound System's witty exploration of white-boy funk. Check out his show-stealing interview on the Songs for Cassavetes documentary, and his production skills on records like the Make-Up's I Want Some and Modest Mouse's Lonesome Crowded West. He even made The All-Girl Summer Fun Band and C.O.C.O sound good, incredible as that is.
Most recently, the founder of K Records has been busy promoting his new solo release, What Was Me, while taking, well, a road trip. All right, it's a tour. But, to hear Johnson tell it, it sounds more like a couple of fun-loving dudes on a breezy jaunt down the coast, nary a care in the world.
It's just Johnson and his buddy Kyle Field from Little Wings as the opening act. And when the need for more musicians arises, the two simply enlist the other bands on the bill.
“Last night we recruited two people from the opening band to play along,” says Johnson in a sleepy mumble. “Like, ‘Here's the chords, here's the songs.' That was it. We even made up a couple songs on the spot.”
If you saw Johnson's show last August in San Diego, you were part of a crowd he'd probably like to forget. In fact, he says he doesn't even remember the name of the empty coffeehouse he played in, but the reception was far less than accommodating.
Still, bad turnouts shouldn't surprise someone who's made a career of creating difficult music. On What Was Me, we hear Johnson playing rugged, Appalachian-leaning folk and going a cappella so often that it seems he's singing unaccompanied half the time. But while that may seem like an unwise choice for entertaining fickle indie-rock crowds, Johnson says audiences on this tour have been pretty cool about him belting it out, sans guitar.
“It's been OK so far. People don't seem to mind. At least I haven't seen it,” he says before stopping, chuckling, and taking on a sly tone that makes you wonder if maybe he wants more confrontation.
“I mean, nobody's walked out... yet.”