Calvin Johnson is unlike any musician I've spoken to before, and I've spoken to many. This characteristic has nothing to do with his status as a musician but rather the way he talks. Johnson is best known as the stoic-voiced presence behind Beat Happening, the Halo Benders and a handful of other bands floating around the fringes of indie rock, and as the founder of the Olympia, Wash.-based K Records (a small, respected indie/punk label that's housed Modest Mouse, Bikini Kill and Kimya Dawson). Hypothetically, Johnson should make for an impulsive, brassy character in a phone interview, as K Records has been pushing on since 1982 (being involved in a DIY enterprise for decades takes some fieriness) and his own music reveals a smart, youthful spunkiness that sounds like it didn't require too much planning. Turns out, said hypothesis is junk. Instead, Johnson talks in a very measured, careful manner — a style that prefers succinct sentences, politeness, minimal joking around and prolonged periods of silence.
That last detail particularly sticks out from my conversation with Johnson before his new band the Hive Dwellers hits Hartford's new venue Roots Music Hall this Monday. At one point, he describes the Dwellers' ambitions as such: "Because I'd been doing solo records and having bands on one song or something, I wanted to do more like [an actual] band. It's like a rock 'n' roll band. I love rock 'n' roll." He offers a more colorful portrayal of the group minutes later ("It's like Lesley Gore, Bo Diddley, Annette Funicello andHowlin' Wolf"), but his use of the term "rock 'n' roll" is intriguing.
In contemporary shorthand, calling yourself a rock 'n' roll band either means you make hard rock and play up those clichés of debauchery, or you create raw, old-school-sounding, distortion-guzzling music. The Dwellers really do neither of those things. (Johnson's also been vocal about his distaste for playing rock clubs, which isn't an outright contradiction in terms but does seem to belie the rock 'n' roll spirit.) Despite his above roll call of artists associated with the '50s and '60s, his group's record Hewn from the Wilderness specializes in a quirky, lightweight kind of psychedelia (it's easy to mentally dissect the arrangements) that doesn't feel particularly "rock 'n' roll." Johnson, meanwhile, usually vocalizes with the unpolished form of someone doing karaoke just because they love singing so much, but he does hit some strong notes here and there by channeling the paternal confidence of John Wayne (no, really) or Eric Burdon when he spazzed out during War's "Spill the Wine." Johnson has the strange ability to deliver any lyric in a carefree manner, even when the subject matter goes dark ("Lord gave me Hell and a woman named Trudy" goes one refrain; another song finds him reciting insult after insult like some twisted grocery-store list). The Dwellers play with the sweet imprecision of a band hired for a summer evening lawn party hosted by thirty-somethings who all know each other from a small-town library, but the whimsy works, and if motivated enough, the act can become decisive and sharp.
Anyhow, back to the rock 'n' roll comment. I ask Johnson about the most rock 'n' roll thing about his group and silence kicks in. It lingers for a couple seconds, which soon turns into twelve. I pull the phone away from my ear to check if it's dead. It's not, so I go, "Hello?" Johnson indicates he's still there, stammers a bit, compliments the question and requests a moment to contemplate it. "Well, the most rock 'n' roll thing is that we're always breaking our own rules." Well, then, what are those rules in the first place? "Oh well, you know I can't reveal all our secrets," he say teasingly, momentarily playing against that deadpan interviewee. "Come to our show and find out."
The Hive Dwellers
w/ Curious Mystery and the Furors. $8, doors 7 p.m., 8 p.m. showtime, Apr. 9. Roots Music Hall, 20 Bartholomew Dr., Hartford, rootsmusichartford.com
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