It's not easy to get Calvin Johnson talking about anything, much less the Halo Benders, his off-and-on collaboration with Built to Spill's Doug Martsch. Of course, Johnson's enigmatic ways are central to his charm, a peculiar blend of innocence and detachment which has sustained him through bands (Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System, the Benders), countless productions and the grassroots success of his own label, K Records.
However, suggest that he's any sort of revered indie-rock icon, and he just shuts down. Cold.
"I don't really notice that too much," he says with typical impenetrability. "When does that happen? I haven't seen that."
"I can't pay attention to that kind of stuff," he goes on, calling from the K offices in Olympia, Washington. "I'm really busy. I'm making many records at once in different roles, being the person making the record, producing it or whatever. If I sat around thinking about stuff like that...whatever. That's not part of my world. I'm busy making records. It has nothing to do with me, what people say or think about me. I have no control over it, so I'm not going to get too concerned."
Don't expect Johnson to acknowledge his irksome reputation as a rock 'n' roll primitive or the endless comments about his startlingly deep voice, either. Image is nothing. He's here to make music. In fact, the new Halo Benders album, The Rebels Not In, is already ancient history to him -- he's busy working on upcoming K releases by ICU, D+, Gaze and Cadillaca, plus a various-artists compilation titled Selector Dub Narcotic. There won't be any Halo Benders tour, and after recording this album last July, Martsch quickly re-immersed himself in Built to Spill. Johnson just moves from project to project, tirelessly churning out a variety of underground sounds with remarkable focus and determination.
It's a shame that his crowded schedule doesn't have more room for The Rebels Not In, because it might be the best record ever to bear his name. Noticeably more consistent than the first two Halo Benders albums (1994's God Don't Make No Junk and 1996's Don't Tell Me Now), Rebels is where the band's creative tension truly sparks into flame, as Martsch's reedy voice and spacy guitar explorations perfectly accent Johnson's oddball baritone and spartan pop hooks. Deftly switching between droning grooves ("Virginia Reel Around the Fountain"), dreamy country-western odes ("Lonesome Sundown"), singsong pop ("Your Asterisk"), melancholy balladry ("Love Travels Faster"), a hypnotic instrumental processional ("Rebels Got a Hole In It") and the irregular faux-violin stumble of "Surfers Haze," the album draws much of its magic from its unusual two-pronged melodies, in which Johnson and Martsch brilliantly layer contrasting lines and lyrics. Fleshing out the songs are bassist Wayne Flower, drummer Ralf Youtz and keyboardist Steve Fisk (a versatile, prolific figure in his own right).
"We did it at the Dub Narcotic studio," Johnson explains blankly. "The other two records were done at my house, in the basement. For this record, we moved the studio up to this huge loft space. It was fun to have a little more elbow room than we had before. It gave us a lot of room to stretch out. Basically, the control room and the band were all in one big space, where they were playing and I was recording."
"It seems like the songs were written more collectively," he continues, "as opposed to the first two records, which Doug and I pretty much wrote together by ourselves and then brought to the other people. On this record, Wayne and Ralf were involved with the making up of the music more. Or, on at least half of the songs."
But how are those strange tunes actually worked out, with their interlocking double melodies? "Well, we each write the part we sing," Johnson intones. Are he and Martsch even aware of each other's ideas, as they write different parts for the same track? "Not really," he says, this time with a hint of a smile.
Try to ask Johnson about his future direction, either within or without the Halo Benders, and he goes non-commital again. Does he now consider this group his central musical project, over Dub Narcotic Sound System and his production work? "No," he says, then adds opaquely, "It's all just me, being me. It's just what I spend my time doing."
Approach from a different angle. Then does he consider the Halo Benders a career band, or just an occasional experiment?
"Well, I'm happy to continue working with Doug, and we plan to continue working together," he reasons slowly. "It seems to be working out OK."
That's about as close to a revelation as you can get from Calvin Johnson.
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