Independent record labels are often guided by a singular vision, but few instantly evoke a particular artist’s voice. It’s hard not to associate K Records, though, with the sly, sensual baritone of Calvin Johnson. Founded in 1982 while Johnson was a student at Evergreen State College in his hometown of Olympia, Washington, K was initially a cassette-only label; by the early ’90s, it had grown into something more ambitious, even as two other labels founded in Olympia—Sub Pop in 1986 and Kill Rock Stars in 1991—formed a relationship that presented a united front of Northwest indie rock that spanned the loudest bands to the quietest.
The hushed heart of K was Johnson’s own band, Beat Happening. Along with fellow Evergreen students Heather Lewis and Bret Lunsford, Johnson turned Beat Happening from a ramshackle trio of lo-fi, punk-folk oddballs—as heard on the group’s self-titled, debut full-length from 1985, which drew from The Cramps, Half Japanese, and Jonathan Richman—to a more polished and focused outfit. By the time Beat Happening’s fifth and final album, You Turn Me On (released jointly by K and Sub Pop), came out in 1992, the band sounded distorted, ethereal, and huge in its own humble way. Johnson’s voice had become an elemental force: deep, mysterious, at times childishly naïve, at other times lasciviously sexy. That arc has been documented numerous times: In the 2000 documentary The Shield Around The K: The Story Of K Records by director Heather Rose Dominic; in the new 33 1/3 book Beat Happening’s Beat Happening by Bryan C. Parker; and in an upcoming, career-spanning anthology of Beat Happening’s music titled Look Around.
Lewis also sang lead in Beat Happening, and between her crystalline winsomeness and Johnson’s chesty groan, a singular chemistry was established—and a vastly influential one. Legions of bands (some signed to K, many others not) picked up on Beat Happening’s devotion to simple songs, sloppy exuberance, and delicious ambiguity. Just as grunge and alternative rock were ascending the highest echelons of pop music, Beat Happening and K Records led a subterranean revolution—although few of the label’s signees were destined for the kind of mainstream recognition that Beat Happening always shunned as a matter of both principle and aesthetic.
K gained a reputation over the years for being one of the foremost proponents of twee: the musical style and counterculture that exalts all things meek, sugary, and antiquated. But K was never that obvious. The label has released everything from funk to hardcore, shoegaze to electro, garage rock to sludge. That eclecticism and adventurousness is born out by Johnson’s other projects for the label. After Beat Happening went on an endless hiatus in the early ’90s—the group has never officially broken up—he formed Dub Narcotic Sound System, a funky ensemble that pitted Johnson’s unmistakable voice (not to mention his legendary onstage dancing skills) against loopy, playful grooves. He also released solo albums as well as collaborating with Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail under the name The Go Team, with whom Kurt Cobain—a documented K Records fan—recorded. And in Halo Benders, a group Johnson formed with Built To Spill’s frontman Doug Martsch, the Beat Happening leader stretched his voice into more elastic indie-rock shapes, pitting his baritone against Martsch’s helium-high voice in the process.
Despite K’s embrace of gleeful unprofessionalism, the label couldn’t help but cross paths with at least a few stars (or stars-to-be). In addition to the Cobain connection in The Go Team, Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney released Introducing Cadallaca, the first album by her side project Cadallaca, on K in 1998. And future author and indie filmmaker Miranda July recorded extensively for K in the late ’90s; a decade later, Kimya Dawson released three albums on K, just as “Anyone Else But You,” her song with her outfit The Moldy Peaches, blew up thanks to its inclusion in the film Juno. (Dawson’s 2008 children’s album, Alphabutt, also bears the distinction of being the only release on K to feature a member of Third Eye Blind.) Modest Mouse’s Sad Sappy Sucker, recorded as the group’s debut but shelved until being issued by K in 2001, may not be Isaac Brock’s best work, but it captures Modest Mouse’s baby steps for posterity. K’s biggest release, though, is by Beck. In 1994, just three months after Mellow Gold was taking the nation lazily by storm, K released One Foot In The Grave, a far scrappier affair that includes Johnson on backup vocals—and lead on the song “Atmospheric Conditions.”
For every appearance of Beck, Brock, or Cobain in K’s sprawling discography, there are dozens of lesser known artists—although some are legendary in their own right. The stalwart duo Mecca Normal was one of K’s early staples, although the band moved on from the label in the mid-’90s. The all-female band Tiger Trap released just one full-length, 1993’s Tiger Trap, that winningly captured the post-adolescent clash of hyperactivity and heartsickness. On Lync’s 1994 album These Are Not Fall Colors was an early crossover between scratchy post-hardcore and the kind of quirky indie rock that Modest Mouse would later make famous. Even heavier was Karp, a band that nailed down the low end on K with a bludgeoning sound that ventured into the Melvins’ territory (in fact, Karp’s bassist Jared Warren would go on to join the Melvins). And one of Washington, D.C.’s most incendiary groups of the ’90s, The Make-Up, loaned its funky garage-rock to K for two albums, part of the label’s occasional partnership with D.C.’s venerable punk label Dischord.
In recent years, K has not slackened its output or its experimental spirit. Old Time Relijun, one of the most challenging bands on the K roster, has long trafficked in a blistering form of mutant punk-folk that touches on noise, free jazz, and shadowy ritualism. Singer-songwriters like Mirah and Jason Anderson have kept K grounded in its no-bones basics, while electronic artists such as The Blow and Karl Blau help the label maintain a more future-forward edge. The most striking success of K’s latter-day period, however, is Phil Elverum. Under the name The Microphones, and subsequently Mount Eerie, Elverum has crafted symphonic masterpieces full of shoegaze majesty, lo-fi grit, and fierce emotional intensity. Like so much of what K has championed over the decades, “twee” doesn’t even come close to describing it.
1. Beat Happening, Jamboree (1988)
Not only does Beat Happening’s powerful second album, Jamboree, contain the trio’s best known song, “Indian Summer,” it covers Johnson and crew’s full range: from winsome and innocent to brooding and sexy, and from sweet and melodic to abrasive and noisy.
2. Tiger Trap, Tiger Trap (1993)
Sometimes punk and frantic, other times gentle and melancholy, Tiger Trap’s eponymous debut embodies twee—but it’s also a forceful, potent, consummately melodic complement to the more strident sounds of riot grrrl that were raging around them at the time.
3. Old Time Relijun, Uterus & Fire (1999)
An outlier on a label of outliers, Old Time Relijun’s leader Arrington De Dionyso channels demons and angels as he belts out an elemental spasm of avant-garage abandon. If K had a Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, it’d be Old Time Relijun.
4. The Microphones, The Glow Pt. 2 (2001)
A worthy heir of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea (a record that was heavily influenced by K Records in the first place), The Microphones’ The Glow Pt. 2 beautifully bottles confusion, catharsis, and deceptively erratic songcraft and studio wizardry.
5. The Blow, Paper Television (2006)
Buoyed by the hit “True Affection,” The Blow’s Paper Television is an album-length earworm packed with skeletal, squiggly electro-pop topped off by Khaela Maricich’s conversational lyrics and breathy charm.