You Cut Off One Head and Two More Grow in its Place, an Interview with Steve Krakow about the Million Tongues Festival, 2004

Matt Mehlan

The Creative Audio Archive (CAA) at Experimental Sound Studio is a Chicago-based center for the preservation and investigation of innovative and experimental sonic arts and music. The CAA was formed for the historical preservation of recordings, print, and visual ephemera related to avant-garde and exploratory sound and music. Collections include the Sun Ra/El Saturn Collection, Links Hall Archive, the Malachi Ritscher Collection, the Studio Henry Collection, and the archive of Experimental Sound Studio, among others.

Since the fall of 2017, I have been working with Experimental Sound Studio and the CAA to highlight recordings contained within the archives and create programs for public access and awareness around the collections. One of the ways we are doing this is by asking guest curators, with ties to a particular CAA collection, to assemble a playlist of recordings around a theme and present them at a live listening event. Between and beside historic sounds, curators provide first-hand stories and conversation, offering further insight into important recordings of avant-garde music makers. 

Our first event was with the artist, writer, and musician Steve Krakow, a.k.a. Plastic Crimewave, a fixture in the Chicago music scene and curator of the Million Tongues Festival—which took place annually from 2004 to 2007 at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. Million Tongues featured major artists at the convergence of the folk, noise, rock, and experimental music scenes, such as Simon Finn, Michael Yonkers, Six Organs of Admittance, Paul Flaherty & Chris Corsano, Espers, Josephine Foster, Tony Conrad, Michael Chapman, Jack Rose, No-Neck Blues Band, Bert Jansch, Smegma, Burning Star Core, Jackie-O Motherfucker, Angel Olsen, Jutok Kaneko, and many more during its initial four-year run.

The inaugural Million Tongues Festival was recorded nearly in its entirety by Malachi Ritscher—a musician, sound engineer, and political activist who documented thousands of concerts in Chicago from the 1980s until his death in 2006. The Malachi Ritscher Collection, which contains close to 5,000 recordings, is housed in the Creative Audio Archive at ESS and available to the public by appointment. The playlist, curated by Steve Krakow, will be available to stream via the Database of Recorded American Music (DRAM).

My conversation with Steve, which took place live at the Ace Hotel Chicago, October 28, 2018, is excerpted below.

MM So Steve, where were you at in 2004 ? What led you to program a festival like Million Tongues ? What was the guiding premise ? What kinds of artists were you bringing together ?

SK All right, first of all I want to apologize to people who were just here to have mimosas and didn’t know that this was going to be happening. You’re going to hear people talking and I’m sorry. You’ll get to hear some weird music, it’s going to be a very Chicago experience. 

I moved to the city in ’95, and I’ve been playing in bands and booking shows [since then]. I worked in a record store in the late ’90s. Basically, I got fired in 2004, and I had a friend say, “Hey, why don’t you have a festival ?” And I was like, “Hey, I have time for a festival !” and that was pretty much what did it. I talked to the Empty Bottle, who I had a very good relationship with, and was like, “Can we do this thing ?” 

The first one was five days [long], which now as a 45-year-old man, I can’t really imagine how I took that on [or even] wanted to do that. 

When I first moved to Chicago there was the Table of the Elements Festival in 1996, and I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. They had Tony Conrad, Keiji Haino, John Fahey—people from all over. I was like, “Chicago rules. We have the best festival.” And then there was just never another one like it for like ten years. And I said, I’m going to try and do something kind of like that, with my own sort of biases and focus. 

There was this whole kind of little scene there in the early 2000s . . . I think now they call it “New Weird America” or “Freak Folk” or whatever—they tried to give it a name and none of it really stuck, because it was [such] a large variety of music. There was stuff that was really noisy and rocking, and then there was stuff that was really quiet. [There were a group of bands who] all played together and opened for each other in other towns, there was this whole little network.

It was a time when bands could just burn a CD-R of their jams and sell it. Bands supported themselves that way. I helped support myself that way, for a while. There were distributors [at the time] that would take [CD-Rs] and they would sell. Which now just seems sort of incomprehensible.

MM Politics exists so dramatically for us right now. I wonder if you have any memories about what was going on politically in 2004, or just culturally or nationally, and how it played into what this music was and how these people were coming together into a community ? 

SK Even though it was post-9/11, I think it was still a more lawless time, where things could happen. There seemed to be more DIY spaces without the cops cracking down. I remember going to a festival in Boston that [featured] Sunburned Hand of the Man and Six Organs of Admittance, who played Million Tongues, and a lot of the same bands we had [that were hosted by illegal venues]. I know now in Boston that’s just impossible, the police have cracked down so hard on everything. 

We had three bands from Japan that came in without visas at all. And now that’s impossible to do. Simon Finn, who we had [for the first festival in 2004], almost didn’t get in. They grilled him at the border, but he just charmed his way through. I don’t know if people are charming their way through immigration these days. 

MM So, you didn’t pay for visas, but how did you get these people [from other countries] to come over and play this festival ? 

SK It’s called : Not My Money. It was not my money at all. Empty Bottle fronted everything. I remember sitting there, figuring out the numbers and the budget. And they were kind of figuring every night was going to be sold out, and I’m thinking, “That’s not going to happen, but okay . . .”

MM You mentioned earlier that you worked at a record store here in Chicago. Record stores in Chicago have been so important to me, growing up, and throughout my entire life. They were like this cultural center for a certain type of person. I wonder if you feel like it still exists in that way. Do you think that the music community of Chicago is still held together and connected in any way, through the record stores that exist here ?

SK I mean obviously there’s this whole, “I heard vinyl’s on the rise again . . .” thing so there’s that . . . at least people can physically touch something and go through it all even if it’s just to buy a $30 reissue of the first Doors [record] at Whole Foods. So that’s a whole other weird world. You can. I saw a $30 reissue the first Doors record at Whole Foods. I really did. 

I think it’s still important and I don’t think it will die. It seems like in Chicago in particular, a couple go down and then new ones pop up.

MM How much do you think changes are affected by format, the way that people listen to music, experience music, or the way that music is sold to people ? You were describing the handmade CD-Rs. That was a total scene. People were making like 50 releases in a year. 

SK I have very mixed feelings about it. [Streaming] has made people aware of way more obscure music, but at the same time I think they value it less. It’s just something sort of passing through.

MM I was thinking about this era of music, and, particularly in Chicago, there was this combining of the improvised music and jazz scenes with the rock scene in a pretty particular way. I wonder if you feel like that was [special] to that moment, or whether that’s still happening ?

SK I guess Chicago is a little bit of a free jazz town. I think it always sort of flourished here and there is crossover with the rock world, like you said, people who do rock bands, but yeah people didn’t really think twice [about that kind of combination on a bill]. You also had in the ’90s the Flying Luttenbachers and Ken Vandermark, and sometimes they’d collaborate. . . . Maybe there was more of a punk and free jazz sort of crossover. 

I remember playing a bill with Paul Flaherty & Chris Corsano [duo] in Boston in one of those unlicensed art spaces I was talking about, with Sunburned Hand of the Man and Comets on Fire and my band [Plastic Crimewave Sound]. So that was like a total rock bill, but everyone was friends, and everyone was chill. I remember we got there super late because we got lost, and Paul Flaherty was just like, “Tell you what, we’re going to go first. You guys just got here, you guys chill. I’m going to go drink in my car.” And then he went to his car and drank schnapps. He was just so chill and nice and he kind of looked like Santa Claus. But most of the free jazz guys who play the harshest music are just sweet. 

MM I like to think about the trajectories of these musical movements, where there’s coalescing of a certain type of artist around a sound or an energy or whatever. . . . There’s one version of that with “noise music” and “folk music” coming together in a sort of space that’s like an extension of rock music or an extension of punk music. It seems like, [for whatever reason], the energy of the noise or “freak folk” moment came to an end and shifted into something else . . . and I wonder why or how the trajectory has changed. . . . I’ve also heard people say that people don’t like shocking or difficult art right now because the world and politics is shocking us so much, and so then we need [a kind of music] that’s not so intense. Do you think we’ll see this sort of scene come back around a sound like this again, or is it going to be radically different ? 

SK I do think folk and noise in a way are intrinsically sort of punk forms of music because they’re just using whatever means you have at your disposal. Like, noise you can use junk, and folk you just need an acoustic guitar to say whatever you want. You don’t need electricity you don’t need anything. It’s transportable. I don’t think that will ever die or change. 

I guess I always thought maybe the music got more aggressive when the [political] climate got more aggressive, but maybe not. I guess during World War II people wanted sort of escapist entertainment. 

But I still play in bands and play music at DIY spots, and I feel like you cut off one head and like two more grow in its place as far as the scene [goes]. Maybe the focus changes, but it seems to still flourish. 

You Cut Off One Head and Two More Grow in its Place, an Interview with Steve Krakow about the Million Tongues Festival, 2004