JANUARY 13, 2013
IN THE FORM of a prominent tattoo on Kurt Cobain’s arm, the logo of K Records — a hand-inked logo around a capital K — has entered musical and cultural history, though largely as a footnote to grunge. There have been previous attempts to tell the story of the Olympia, Washington–based independent label in its own right: Heather Rose Dominic’s documentary feature The Shield Around the K appeared in 2000, and Michael Azzerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, which concluded with a chapter on K’s flagship band Beat Happening, followed in 2002. Despite such efforts, both the label and the Pacific Northwest scene that surrounded it have remained the underchronicled property of participants and superfans. Mark Baumgarten’s Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music is an ambitious attempt to rectify this, both by reconstructing the label’s history through the eyes of its founder (and Beat Happening member) Calvin Johnson, and by arguing for the label’s influence on the musical and cultural underground that flourished, with little or no mainstream media attention, in the 1980s and 1990s.
By the mid-90s, when K Records was in full flower, the sound (and look) of bands on the label ranged from dingy hardcore to twee pop confection. One release might be based around two aggressive, distorted guitar chords; on the next, you might find the same two chords played on a toy piano, a whispery female vocal floating over the top. It could all be called “punk,” but in a sense that referred to a feeling and an ethos, not a particular sound. Love Rock Revolution reflects that feeling by describing not only the music itself, but the economies of culture, resources, and personality that made it possible. Similar economies inform recent manifestations of DIY culture in niches all over the world, and this makes the book’s subject larger and more important than the story of a single independent record label — even though that story, skillfully and entertainingly told, is its major focus.
As for the “love rock” of the title: the phrase was coined by Olympia (by way of Eugene) musician and visual artist Al Larsen in a 1989 manifesto, published in the Eugene music paper Snipehunt, that insisted on a version of punk free from nihilism. Larsen imagined an engaged, community-based punk inflected with politics, especially feminist politics, and that included a range of activities — not just music — that could create a better world. Baumgarten quotes Larsen’s “Love Rock and Why I Am”: “It’s a scary world, but we don’t need to be scared anymore. We need active visionary protest, we need to grab hold and make the transformation, from complaining that there is NO FUTURE to insisting there be a future.” The insistence that anyone could be part of this future bore fruit in the anti–rock star stance of the early K scene: anyone could make a band, be a band, play music, dance, connect. Nerve, passion, and improvisation trumped musical training, technical skill, and even amplification, and helped to expand conceptions of punk beyond the stylistic constraints of hardcore progenitors like Black Flag and Minor Threat.
This vision was also Johnson’s, and it has proved widely influential. The Etsy explosion, locavore food movements and urban agriculture, bartering networks, and rock camps for girls all owe a debt to the K ethos, and to the countercultural energies that led to the founding of Olympia’s left-leaning Evergreen State College a generation earlier. The college’s radio staion, KAOS, requires a rotation of mostly independent music, and its curriculum has always allowed students to create their own goals and learning practices. Johnson, label cofounder Candice Pederson, and other key participants all attended Evergreen, and the school’s values are essential to the ideological underpinnings of the label.
Johnson’s personality and perspective dominate in Baumgarten’s telling: their interviews are wideranging and candid, and on this count alone, Love Rock Revolution is valuable for accurately and ably characterizing an idiosyncratic voice. Johnson’s Forrest Gump–like ability to be in the right place and the right time (London in 1977; Washington, DC for Minor Threat’s first show) make for some fascinating details; as does his spectacular curiosity and devotion to local, live music, not just in Olympia itself but all along the I-5 corridor — from Eugene, Oregon to Anacortes, Washington — and beyond. Johnson’s pursuits eventually led to the label’s connections with bands you’ve probably heard of, like Beck, Built to Spill, and Modest Mouse, and those you may not have, from Heavens To Betsy to Mecca Normal. With 50/50 profit splits between artist and label replacing standard royalty arrangements, and no contracts beyond a handshake, the professional relationships K fostered were built on an ethic of trust and human connection that was both utopian and functional, at least to a point. Johnson (and Baumgarten) have rather less to say about the cases in which these casual arrangements didn’t work out, leading to recriminations, rivalries, and — most notably — the founding of Kill Rock Stars, Olympia’s other significant indie label.
As central as Johnson inarguably is to any version of the K Records story, neither the label or its guiding, community-based ethics and aesthetics were ever a one-man show, and Baumgarten is less successful in giving the web of musicians, artists, and other participants that played other important roles their due. Pederson, Johnson’s business and creative partner throughout the label’s existence, is interviewed at some length, but her presence is dwarfed by Johnson’s throughout. Baumgarten admits that his attempts to interview some other colleagues and collaborators were stymied, and that the story he presents is not the only one that might be told. Even with this admission, some omissions are problematic. The absence of firsthand interviews with Lois Maffeo, a first-wave K recording artist who was one of the prime architects of the feminist and folk-as-punk sides of “love rock,” is especially disappointing; Maffeo wrote extensively about bands associated with the label for The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, and her perspective could only have lent balance to the Baumgarten’s account. A roll call of other notable absentees would include musician and artist Tae Won Yu (who created many of the label’s most striking and characteristic sleeves and graphics), Nikki McClure (another longtime Olympian and one of the scene’s most active solo performers), Pat Castaldo (whose technical wizardry helped the label and its artists transition to digital platforms), and K’s current general manager Mariella Luz.
In their place, Baumgarten devotes a good deal of space to rock band patrilineage, tracing at length the relationships among Johnson, Beat Happening bandmate Bret Lundsford, and the younger Anacortes-based musician Phil Elverum. Though relationships of this kind, familiar from other punk histories, are significant to the story Baumgarten wants to tell, they don’t do justice to the networks of connection and collaboration nurtured by the label, especially among women musicians. Even the book’s occasional factual errors tend to concern women: at one point, Baumgarten misidentifies Tinuviel, a feminist artist who later released Sleater-Kinney’s first seven inch on her Villa VillaKulla Records, as “Genouvial.” Though several bands associated with the riot grrrl movement are more closely linked to Kill Rock Stars, K itself was and is an encouraging place for women playing punk (of whatever description), and their relationships are not explored with the depth they deserve — for that, readers must consult Sara Marcus’ recent Girls to the Front: the True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.
Despite these troubling omissions, Baumgarten largely succeeds in bringing the energy and atmosphere around the label, and especially Johnson’s role in creating and focusing them, to life. His introduction makes clear that the author was not a firsthand, real-time observer of the history he chronicles: born in 1978, he moved to the Pacific Northwest as a college student and came to understand the Olympia milieu through his love of indie rock and his work as a music journalist in Seattle and Portland. Being part of a scene is no prerequisite for writing about it; still, it is difficult not to measure Baumgarten’s perspective on the label against my own. I put out a solo album on K in 1999, and two of my former bands (The Crabs and Cadallaca) also released music through the label. I spent many long weekends in Olympia during one of the label’s most active periods, and even lived there for a time. I’ve always respected, if not completely understood, K’s modus operandi, and — like other participants — have many vivid memories of playing shows at grange halls in rural Washington state, making homemade banners welcoming friends back from tour, and baking pies with September blackberries picked from the side of the road. Such snapshots are pre-Instagram, but the hazy romanticism that now glosses that world for me came startlingly back to life when I read Love Rock Revolution.
Baumgarten does not pretend to be exhaustive, but his clear enthusiasm for the K millieu is contagious, making newcomers feel as though they could have been in on the scene themselves. For a reading at Powell’s Books in Portland, Baumgarten even went to the trouble of distributing a download code for a K records sampler full of songs he discusses, and the book itself includes interludes explaining facets of music history I tend to take for granted, such as the politics of punk and the importance of cassette releases. Some of these sections are not well integrated into the text, and some are too brief; though I’d have preferred “thicker” description, I also realize that many questions of detail can now be answered with a quick Internet search. A downside of Baumgarten’s focus on the label’s halcyon days, however, is that he shies away from discussing its changing fortunes over the last 10 years or so, and the impact of digital culture and the face-to-face values of the Olympia scene. K itself has been downsized, and no longer attracts acts whose economic success can buoy more obscure but equally worthy artists; at the same time, the Internet has increased the reach of the ideas on which the label was founded. These issues suggest another, somewhat more depressing story, one that Love Rock Revolution is not equipped to tell.
I don’t spend as much time in Olympia as I once did, but I still live and play music in Portland, where the vigorous embrace of 1990s nostalgia by music fans demonstrates that the earnestness and inclusiveness that characterized so many K bands is alive and well, even among younger musicians who create and distribute their music digitally and virtually. Late in the book, Johnson asserts that the Internet provides people the opportunity of “almost directly singing to each other […] It’s really the most basic form of the punk rock revolution.” The career-launching YouTube videos of Justin Bieber busking on the steps of a theater in Stratford, Ontario may not have been what Johnson, Larsen, and so many others had in mind, but revolutions don’t always take the form their makers expect.