K Records: Bands Over the Years
In his new book Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music, author Mark Baumgarten explores the independent music scene of the mid-1980s to the present through the story of Calvin Johnson's seminal record label.
K Records, co-founded by Johnson in the early '80s in Olympia, Washington, is a small label that helped define modern independent music. Adopting a punk, "there are no rules" manifesto, the label championed avant-garde artists, including Johnson's band Beat Happening, as well as Mecca Normal and Some Velvet Sidewalk, that challenged convention and created a rich underground community.
At that time, to find artists that weren't on the radio, fans had to search — without Google. They had to go to shows, get mix tapes from cousins or ask record store employees about "underground" bands. But once they found what they were looking for, there was a whole world to explore. It was the heyday of zines and newsletters, when independent bands toured in vans across the country, blazing trails down the interstate, winning new fans over one small town at a time.
As Baumgarten explained to Think Out Loud's Dave Miller, during the early days of K, the label wasn't producing records, but cassettes. "The cassettes sort of get romanticized as being the purest essence of what this music is." In reality, Baumgarten said, "Not many of those early cassettes were sold." Nonetheless, "the people who did hear them and saw what was going on in the small community in Olympia were inspired."
One of the artists influenced by these tapes was a young man from Aberdeen, Washington. The music and DIY philosophy of K Records would drive him to tattoo the logo of the company on his arm. His name was Kurt Cobain and his band, Nirvana, helped bring the underground to the mainstream.
With the extraordinary success of Nirvana's Nevermind, the independent music landscape was forever changed. And at the time, K Records benefited. The small label was seen as an anchor for inspiration and creativity on the West Coast. "Olympia was beginning to have this mythic sort of quality to it," explains Baumgarten. "It was becoming the capital of the indie underground."
One of the artists who sought out K Records was Beck Hansen. His record One Foot in the Grave, recorded in 1994, would become the bestselling record in K's catalog.
The company would later help launch the careers of Northwest titans like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse, but it influenced countless more — an entire constellation of artists who would come to define the musical underground for an entire generation. Baumgarten also suggested it may have influenced the city of Portland.
In 1989, Al Larsen, a pillar in the K Records community, wrote a manifesto:
"Through Love Rock, he concluded, the future would be filled with Cooking. Canning. Composting. All-ages shows in Grange Halls across the land. Engaging. Enacting. Ennobling. A dance party on docks. Root cellar. Dry pack. Do it yourself. A free press. Custom bicycles, streamers flying, cards clacking in the spokes. Let's. We. Free. Go, love rocker."
"That's Portland right there," said Baumgarten. "As Olympia winds down at the end of the '90s, a lot of those artists and culture-makers move to Portland, and Portland becomes Olympia on steroids... What Al's writing there is a re-definition of punk rock that is sustainable and cultural and can actually create a community."
Listen to the full conversation on with Mark Baumgarten on Think Out Loud.