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The Story of K Records

The Shield Around the K

by Frank Mullen

Lo-fi rules! And what better way for a young filmmaker to tell the story of indie icon record label K Records, than with a single video camera, primitive sound gear, and a box full of video tapes?

    K is an Olympia, Washington label known for primitive-sounding releases and their DIY ethic. Run by indie warlord Calvin Johnson (who is also a member of many bands on the K roster), they've fostered a homemade approach to music that may not be as crisp and clean as some people might like, but enables a more direct channel between artist and listener. Songwriters as respected and diverse as Elliott Smith and Kurt Cobain have paid homage to the label.

   Heather Rose Dominic became fixated on K Records and their bands (like Dub Narcotic Sound System and Satisfact), and decided to make a movie. The film, The Shield Around the K features performances by many of the "K" bands, as well as interviews with Calvin Johnson, Ian MacKaye of Fugazi and Minor Threat, Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 and Luna, and a host of musicians and others connected with the label or the Seattle/Olympia music scene.

   She's now achieving some measure of success -- recently accepted to the NY Underground Film Festival, the film being distributed through the label itself, national exposure and a growing audience.

How did you get started in filmmaking?

I did all kinds of traveling theater in upstate New York when I was growing up -- I was sort of born into a theater family. I moved down to New York when I was sixteen and worked on films, either in production or as a stand-in, for almost a decade. Once I moved to New York, that was how I supported myself, and I fell in love with that whole environment. I always loved theaters and that whole feeling, but film sets [were] a whole different thing.

I made one short film on video in about 1993 -- it won a small award at a local film festival, and that was the extent of my actually making films. The equipment that I used on that short little video is the equipment that I used on this documentary -- just a Panasonic video camera, a Radio Shack microphone, and a kind of a ratty tripod. That was it. That's the extent of my experience in that world.

So you've got sort of the same lo-fi approach that the label is known for.

Yes, it had to be. I originally wanted to do it on 16mm film, of course, but the project never would have been finished.

How much did you spend on the film?

Well, the tapes were $1.49 each, that kind of says it all. I was working at HMV Records at the time, and I got an employee discount on the two-hour videotapes. I had all the equipment already -- with no lighting -- so my budget was for things like airfare, the hotel once I got out there, and those tapes. Once I got back, the post-production was a little expensive -- I did pay an editor to assist me and so forth.

But you've now been accepted to the New York Underground Film Festival...

Yeah, we've got a wonderful night, it's on a Thursday night at the top time, and then Calvin's flying in to perform after the screening.

What was it about that story that attracted you -- were you doing things with bands and music before this?

My father was a folk musician, and he really introduced me to music to begin with; like Bob Dylan and Marianne Faithfull, Buddy Holly and all that kind of music. Then I had a boyfriend who had a wall of vinyl, a room packed with music. He was trying to show me what he loved and what he felt passionate about, and he finally got around to playing Beat Happening -- I think it was that first yellow album -- and Mecca Normal. These were two bands that meant an enormous amount to him, and I fell in love with both the bands instantly -- it was like being hit with something -- and I started listening to everything by those two bands.

One Sunday morning, I had off from work and I just started pulling out everything that had the "K" label on it. It only took me a few days because I spent whole nights listening to all this music. In any case, I'm not sure why, but I just felt that Calvin and all these bands deserved some kind of a profile. I thought it would be extremely fun to do, and also the back of the album had listed where all these songs that I was falling in love with were recorded: people's apartments, firehouses -- strange, cryptic places that I just couldn't imagine songs being recorded in. And I just thought in the back of my mind, "I really want to see where these places are, I want to see what they look like, I want to see if it's the truth or if it's a joke," and I thought that my friends and other people might get a kick out of that, too. So, that's where the film came from.

So already you had some ideas about the music and its connection to you, and positive feelings about all that. Did you find out anything during the filming that surprised you?

I guess one thing did surprise me, and I'm not sure how interesting this is, but the new Dub Narcotic studio upstairs is the size of a football stadium. My mouth just dropped. They've sanded the floors and there's a wall of graffiti that they're keeping up out of respect, but that space is gigantic. The town itself was a little quieter than I expected, but it was wintertime.

Which of the more recent "K" bands do you like?

Well, the Halobenders, I adore. Lois, I absolutely love. There are some bands that don't exist anymore -- that's the funny thing about K. They'll put out one song or one seven-inch or one short album, and then they dismantle and they become a new band. There was a band that I really wanted to delve into, and that was Link. I think some of the members of Link have gone on to Love As Laughter.

Were people cooperative, or hesitant to talk with you?

What I never understood was that there I was, with my tripod under my right arm, my camera in my left hand, and people were worried about lights coming in -- and I kept saying, "I wish I had a light to pop up there... whatever you have is what I'm using." But people were still nervous.

Usually after the interview, then they brought out cake and tea and they wanted to hang out, but by then the interview was over. It was so odd being someone that someone would be frightened of. I was standing five feet away from Donna Dresch, and she wanted to do it, and she said she wanted to talk, but she just couldn't do it. She couldn't have been kinder, but she was not eager to talk. She was someone else I would have liked to have spoken to.

What are your goals for the film?

I sent a preview copy to Calvin and about six or seven other people at K, just to see what they thought, to see if they hated certain things -- I was desperate for any kind of thought that they had, and I never heard from anybody. I didn't hear from them for a couple of months, actually, and in those two months I thought that the whole world had ended.

I wrote a little note and I said if K would distribute 200 copies -- and I thought that was a huge number -- I will feel like all my goals have been met. I didn't think they'd go for that.

In my heart, I also wanted to have a screening at the Cinema Village, which is a beautiful little theater in the Village of New York. So I thought I'd take out a Village Voice ad, have as many people come to that screening as possible, have K distribute 200 copies, and that would be the end.

Since then, K finally did call, and they took two thousand copies right off the bat. I had to scrounge money from a very good friend of mine in order to make the copies. Then the New York Underground Film Festival is having this great screening, and it's all just way more than I ever expected.

That's the funny thing -- I hoped that my little home grown paper, The Village Voice , would pick up on it, and they haven't come near me, but everyone else has been more than kind.

What's next?

Well, we're going out to Oklahoma in October to shoot the next one. I'm extremely excited about that -- I get to use some of my favorite country music, and more of Calvin's music. Calvin has small part in that -- it's a punk rock western road story. I don't know if that genre exists, but I've created it if it hasn't.

For more information, write heatherdominic@hotmail.com. Copies of the video can be ordered from Heather, or through the K Records web site at http://www.kpunk.com.