In anticipation of his upcoming 33 1/3 on Beat Happening, writer Byran C. Parker (who happens to share his July 8th birthday with series editor Ally Jane – happy belated birthday to them!) brings news from the Anacortes Unknown music festival in Washington State.
At the southern extremity of the Puget Sound lies Washington’s capital of Olympia, the small city where Calvin Johnson and a cast of musicians and artists launched the enormously influential K Records label in the early 80s. Beat Happening was the first band to release a vinyl LP on the label, with their eponymous full-length debut, issued in 1985. At the northern extremity of the Puget Sound, Beat Happening member Bret Lunsford grew up in the small fishing village of Anacortes, Washington.
The strong, mysterious, and continuing connection between these two towns can’t be overstated. Many years after the first K LP, another Anacortian, Phil Elverum, would release a series of highly praised and beloved albums under the monikers The Microphones and Mount Eerie while living in Olympia and attending the Evergreen College. After relocating back to his hometown of Anacortes, Elverum started his own label, and now organizes a small annual festival, Anacortes Unknown, organized around a city-wide rummage sale.
In a conversation with me, Elverum calls the festival the “current incarnation of that bond between Anacortes and Olympia,” and he’s quick to point out that Calvin organized his own festival in the 90s—the International Pop Underground Convention. Each year, the forerunners and pioneers of the always active Northwest music scene still show up at these reunions—people like Al Larsen of Some Velvet Sidewalk, K Records stalwart Lois, and of course, Bret Lunsford and Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening. These days, Bret plays in a band called D+ with Phil Elverum and Karl Blau. Calvin’s newest project is called the Hive Dwellers, and they just released their second LP. That’s one of the amazing things about this community—the creative forces here just keep working on new projects; little has changed in actuality from the 1980s.
Wednesday night Calvin will do a DJ set in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood as Selector Dub Narcotic. The next night, Calvin and Lois, along with Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt, will be part of a panel discussion in Olympia regarding the Northwest’s music history. There is no posturing here and little strategic marketing. People are still creating art and discussing it relentlessly. It’s still off the radar, largely by choice, but resides just under the surface, waiting to be discovered by anyone who comes looking. Brush away the leaves to reveal the rich soil beneath.
No one here has last names. Calvin, Bret, and Heather, the members of Beat Happening, were among the first to start that trend thirty years ago, and it has remained. It makes for a more intimate environment, and it also allows people to be free of inflated ego. He’s not Calvin Johnson, founder of K Records and member of Beat Happening. He’s just Calvin. After visiting the fest for the last several years, I’ve been amazed at the community’s kindness—how quickly they have been willing to incorporate Bryan into that collection of names they use easily with affection and sincerity.
I’ve spent the last three weeks around Seattle, Anacortes, and Olympia. These people have opened their homes to me, shared food with me. With them, I’ve held long philosophical conversations, some about art and music, but as many about politics, culture, education, and the nature of existence. I’ve had the opportunity to interview many of the figures most active during the creation of Beat Happening’s first LP—Pat Maley, owner of Yo Yo Studios; Calvin Johnson; Bret Lunsford; Steve Fisk; John Foster; and many more. However, this cultural archeology has also afforded the intrinsic benefit of coming to know a close-knit group of people well, and to be included among them.