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Chicago freaks out again: Steve Krakow and a Million Tongues

Two decades ago, Million Tongues burrowed into Chicago. If that sounds weird to you, it’s supposed to — Million Tongues is, more or less, the “annual convergence of “freak”-folksters and grassroots “noisicians,” coined by Anne Houlb, poet and fan herself. Over 30 freak-o, psychedelic and cultish bands came from all over the world to play here, at the Empty Bottle in Ukranian Village. 

The man who organized it is named Steve Krakow — although he played at the festival under the name Plastic Crimewave Sound. Krakow is from Chicago, though he wasn’t always this psychedelic. He grew up in the Northwest suburbs, reading comics and listening to ‘50s music on his parents’ radio. It wasn’t until his aunt gifted him her collection of records when he was ten that he finally realized what he was supposed to be doing. “There, I finally got through,” he said. He lifted the Doors and Jimi Hendrix from his aunt’s record collection, and then he was off to raid the Palatine, Arlington Heights and Schaumburg libraries for Velvet Underground LPs.

When he moved to Chicago in 1995 at the age of 23, one of the first things he saw was the Table of the Elements festival — a precursor to Million Tongues — organized by a record label of the same name, full of experimental noise and acid punk with guest appearances by John Fahey, Jim O’Rourke, Wire co-founder Bruce Gilbert. The list goes on. “It was insane. I’m like, I’m gonna see fests like this all the time. Chicago’s gonna rule. Then, nothing. For ten years,” he said. 

So, after he got fired from Reckless Records — it’s a funny story, really — “I swear I’m not Mr. Cosmic, but I had a dream. I was gonna go in that day, and I was gonna get canned,” he said. With the newfound free time on his hands, he went to friend and Empty Bottle booker Pete Toalson who, according to Steve, “loved [and] lived the weird stuff,” and they indulged him in five paid-for days of weird music from across the globe. 

The festival was a success, and had a couple spin offs, but the last one took place in 2016 — until now. Now 20 years later, he’s still making Chicago home for any freaksters who want to crash here with the return of Million Tongues, coming back to the Empty Bottle in August. If you’re strange and in Chicago, it’s an exciting time. 

To this day, Krakow is still a mythological figure in the local music scene. He’s been rocking the same horseshoe mustache for more or less 20 years, though it’s graying now. His wild, curly hair is longer than ever and when he talks, he wraps it around his fingers like he’s 30 years younger. He rides a big red bike with custom handlebars and all of his clothes seem to just slightly clash in color. He still makes music under the Plastic Crimewave name — though now it’s a supergroup, Plastic Crimewave Syndicate, with Rob Rodak and Jose Bernal. On top of that, he writes “Secret History of Chicago Music,” where he digs out every underrated musician you can think of from the city and spotlights them in a bi-monthly column in the Chicago Reader. 

There’s something to be said about sustaining creativity for this long. He went to University of Illinois for a painting degree, and his parents thought for sure that was going to be the career he’d stick with. But, he’s still doing whatever he needs to make ends meet — anything to keep from selling one of his million stacks of records. “I feel like I’ve always got to keep irons in the fire, you know, whether I want to or not,” he said. “But, I think if you put your thing out there, and you follow your passion, things find you, you know?”

Hilariously, he’s listening to Supertramp right now, which he admits is “incredibly pedestrian.” But it’s not Supertramp that tells you what you need to know about Steve — it’s the fact that he found someone’s secondhand classic rock cassette collection at the thrift (with his same “dorko prog pop tastes,” he said), popped them into his Walkman, and has been listening ever since. 

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