Steve Krakow is a one-man cultural industry. Under the alias Plastic Crimewave he leads a grimy psych-rock band that bears his name (the latest of many such groups), plays psychedelic banjo solos, and creates a hand-drawn Reader comic called the Secret History of Chicago Music about underappreciated local musicians. He also writes Galactic Zoo Dossier, an extremely intermittent but lavishly lettered periodical that celebrates mind-altering music from around the globe, some of which he’s released via his Galactic Zoo Disk label, an imprint of Drag City. The Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, the opening act at many a Hideout Block Party, invites anyone with an instrument, amplifier, and power strip to raise the roof with a free-form drone jam in the key of E. And last but not least, since 2004 Krakow has been organizing the more or less annual Million Tongues Festival.
The first Million Tongues, in August 2004, ran for five days at the Empty Bottle. Subsequent festivals have been smaller, traveling from venue to venue, and during a few years Krakow didn’t manage to put one together at all. But as part of the Bottle’s yearlong celebration of its 25th anniversary, he’s returned the festival to its first home—and its two-day lineup this Friday and Saturday includes some performers who played the original incarnation.
“I guess my model from years back was that Table of the Elements festival,” says Krakow, referring to events that the Atlanta experimental label organized in Chicago in 1995 and ’96. “That was when I’d first moved here—you had Fushitsusha, you had John Fahey, you had Tony Conrad, and you had Jim O’Rourke, who was a young guy at the time. It was like, ‘This rules—Chicago rules!’ And then there wasn’t another festival like that for a decade.”
Krakow’s Million Tongues lineups reflect his own eclectic tastes. The first was a varied menu of psychedelic rock, acid folk, ecstatic drone, and free jazz, including Espers, Charalambides, Nisennenmondai, Spires That in the Sunset Rise, Fursaxa, and the Paul Flaherty/Chris Corsano Duo. This year Spires, Fursaxa, and Charalambides return; Heron Oblivion, a San Francisco-based quartet that includes former Espers vocalist Meg Baird on drums, make their Million Tongues debut. Munehiro Narita, late of Japanese speed-fuzz ensembles High Rise and Mainliner, plays a rare stateside set backed by members of Los Angeles band Over-Gain Optimal Death.
“I’ve always thought that it would be really great to have someone with a long, extended career, who doesn’t really play out much anymore—someone from overseas,” says Krakow. “I don’t know how I fell into the ‘psychedelic Japanese ambassador to Chicago’ role, but somehow it happened in the late 90s, and I was as thrilled as anyone because I love that stuff. It’s exciting for me to get something that you couldn’t normally see. And I go over to Japan every once in a while, and I interviewed Narita when I was over there last time. He’s still doing stuff in Japan, and there are so many people who worship High Rise—so get this guy over here!
“He has really wanted to come back to America. He grew up on Davie Allan & the Arrows and Link Wray, and he really worships that stuff—it’s so huge for him. The weirdest thing he had come out recently was [the 2014 album] Psyche De Loid. He recorded covers of 60s psychedelic hits like Shocking Blue’s ‘Venus’ and ‘Born to Be Wild’ with his trademark guitar style, and then he did this Japanese thing where you get a premade voice—you pay for this manga-character girl voice. So it’s like this weird robot voice going ‘Born to be wild’ with him shredding on guitar.” [Editor’s note: The voice Narita used was produced by Vocaloid software, which can be a compelling instrument in its own right.]
While past festivals have featured leading lights of British folk such as Michael Chapman and Bert Jansch, Narita is the only overseas performer this time. “The visa stuff was really hard. Getting a visa is like a thousand dollars, or two thousand dollars, and you may or may not get it. But right away Mike [Gebel] at the Bottle was like, ‘Should we have a kind of historical thing and get some acts who have played before?’ So I thought it would be cool to have this New Weird America homecoming, because I think that stuff still shines.”
This year it falls to a pair of festival first-timers to hold up the folk side. Californian singer-songwriter Itasca plans to perform a mostly solo set, with Matt Schneider of Moon Bros. sitting in on a few tunes, and Kentucky-bred musician Mark Fosson will play material from his new LP, Solo Guitar (Drag City), which revisits the acoustic instrumental approach that convinced John Fahey to sign Fosson to Takoma Records in the 70s. Veteran local ensemble Ono will bring their libidinous, subversive electric-gospel theater to the fest—founded in 1980, they’d been on hiatus for decades when Krakow helped engineer their ongoing reunion ten years ago.
“We wanted at least one awesome, out-there local opener, and they just fit the bill,” says Krakow. “I guess if there’s anything in the world that I’m proud of—I don’t toot my horn all that much, but I covered Ono in the strip in 2007. They hadn’t played together, and they all met up so that I could interview them. And I booked this weird thing where they played on [public-access children’s dance show] Chic-a-Go-Go. Then they were like, ‘Let’s do this again.’ It’s just been amazing to watch it grow. I see youngsters look at them and know that they are contented old freaks—that they have been doing this forever, and they are serious about it—and I can just see it on their faces: it’s inspirational to them.”