A few years ago Jeremy Bushnell and Chris Miller, who perform together as the drone-noise duo Number None, started putting out CD-Rs of their music on their own Rebis label. But in 2005 they decided to go legit and release proper CDs by other bands–in large part to document a scene they saw emerging around them. “The tag we started using as an organizing principle was the New Electronic Sublime,” says Bushnell. “The old version of the music was John Cale’s early stuff with the Dream Syndicate, La Monte Young, and those people.” Lately, he says, a new crop of artists has arisen–Axolotl and the Skaters on the west coast, for instance, and Double Leopards on the east. “It seemed like there was a group of people all over the country working with a heavy drone, electrically charged with a lot of distortion, but aiming for this transcendence or this sublimity.”

Rebis’s first formal release was a compilation that featured tracks from Number None and the Skaters, among others. Since then they’ve paid more attention to the circle of locals working with drone–they’ve put out an album by White/Light and a two-disc comp called Lead Into Gold, which includes White/Light along with the Zoo Wheel and a cooperative effort from Bird Show and Lichens. Many of Chicago’s drone-based bands are side projects, and incestuous collaborations are the norm: White/Light is the duo of sound engineer and keyboardist Jeremy Lemos and Ambulette guitarist Matt Clark, Bird Show and the Zoo Wheel are solo efforts from Town and Country members Ben Vida and Liz Payne, respectively, and Lichens is Robert Lowe of the barely extant 90 Day Men, who sometimes plays with Lemos and Clark as White/Lichens. The scene’s flagship group, Dreamweapon, is essentially Town and Country plus several other musicians, including Lowe. Each act has a distinctive sound, but hovering, meditative long tones pervade every one.

This weekend’s Three Million Tongues Festival, hosted by the Empty Bottle and organized by Galactic Zoo Dossier creator Steve Krakow, is as close to a showcase as this scene has had–the lineup includes Dreamweapon, White/Lichens, and Th’ Exceptional Child, a solo project from Chris Miller of Number None.

“I think it’s good that it’s happening,” says Krakow, “and I wanted to represent it at the festival.” Though he’s better known as the leader of Plastic Crimewave Sound, Krakow has a drone-oriented project of his own called Goldblood, where he plays with occasional Joan of Arc member Amy Cargill and a revolving cast of guests. He’s also organized several smaller concerts over the past couple years for like-minded bands, including one in late 2004 at Sonotheque with Lichens, Dreamweapon, White/Light, and Goldblood. It was after that show that Lowe decided to join Dreamweapon.

“I definitely think there is a community,” says Lowe, “and it seems like a lot of the people involved in it are drawing from each other in a totally positive way. There does seem to be a movement, which I think is great. A lot of people are discovering music that isn’t Western, and I think that might be the biggest part of it.”

Lowe has an interest in Indian classical music, where drone instruments are ubiquitous, and in Dreamweapon he often plays tamboura. But Matt Clark of White/Light came by his love for extended passages of dense, hovering guitar noise a different way–as a teenager he listened devotionally to bootlegs of Jimi Hendrix. When he first started rehearsing with Lemos as White/Light back in 2001, they weren’t too sure what they wanted to accomplish beyond improvising together. “We never started out with the idea that we were going to be a drone thing,” Clark says. “That’s just where it settled into.”

Dreamweapon began in spring 2004, when Town and Country was trying to figure out how to do a European tour without bassist Josh Abrams, who couldn’t go. The rest of the band–Payne, Vida, and multi-instrumentalist Jim Dorling–started working as a trio, and even though the tour never happened they were happy enough with the music they made to keep the project alive. Just a few weeks later Dreamweapon got a huge injection of inspiration when Town and Country played a handful of dates in New York State with violinist Tony Conrad, a key member of La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music, and at the end of each gig he’d join them for a collaborative piece. Over the next year or so the group expanded–Abrams and Lowe joined, along with percussionist Michael Zerang, drummer Adam Vida, and violinist Mahjabeen. For a performance last month guitarist Emmett Kelly made it a nonet, playing hammer dulcimer, but he won’t be in town for the Three Million Tongues show.

Dreamweapon’s repertoire, on the other hand, hasn’t grown at all. They play the same “piece” at every show, if 35 to 45 minutes of two overlapping chords and lots of overtones can be called a piece. Dorling sometimes sings, Zerang plays hand percussion, and Adam Vida comes and goes on the drum kit, but despite the pulsing rhythms and occasional shifts from note to note, the heart of Dreamweapon’s sound is one long moan. “You take something and you start doing it, and then you just keep doing it and let it change and evolve,” says Dorling, “instead of just writing a song and then writing another one.” But recent performances have been radically different from early all-acoustic sets, now that the guitar and bass are amplified, and because everyone improvises their embroideries of the core drone, every show is unique.

The same can be said for all the groups in this scene–the overarching idea doesn’t change, but from one gig to the next they might vary their instrumentation, rely more or less heavily on prewritten material, or organize the material they’ve got along different lines. As the Zoo Wheel, Payne sometimes plays viola and sometimes uses guitar and electronics, imitating overdubs with stacked samples; as Lichens, Lowe augments his looped and layered vocals with electric or acoustic guitar or nothing at all. As Clark says, “It’s got to change at some point. There’s only so many times you can go out and play that thing.”

But so far no one seems to be running out of ideas, even within the obvious limitations of the genre. This year two acts have put out solid full-lengths: Bird Show’s Lightning Ghost came out on Kranky, the Zoo Wheel’s First Born, Grand Days on Lucky Kitchen. Lowe has been especially busy–a new Lichens disc on Kranky and a new White/Lichens album on Holy Mountain are both due in early 2007, and a collaborative recording with Bird Show is in the works.

Dreamweapon (see the Treatment for more) plays Three Million Tongues on Saturday, and Th’ Exceptional Child performs a “sideshow” set on Sunday, before a main-stage appearance by White/Lichens. For a complete festival schedule, see page 26.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.