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Feature Thu Jan 04 2007

Swansong Echoes & Unsung Heroes: Digging Between the Roots with Steve Krakow

"This is a real 'pay your dues' kind of town," Steve Krakow tells me. We're in his darkened Ukrainian Village apartment, the divebombing guitars and skyward-straining vocals of Stray's "Jericho" tumbling from the speakers of his vintage stereo. "You gotta pay some dues here. Or at least that's what some people'll tell you. That you've got to cut your teeth doing things for a while before you get your props—before you get paid, get recognition or credit that's due."

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Steve Krakow in his Ukrainian Village apartment.

Krakow himself is no stranger to cutting one's teeth on the local music scene. Under his alias Plastic Crimewave, he's the guitarist and frontman for the psychedelic rockers Plastic Crimewave Sound and is also a member of the drone-folk duo Goldblood. He's organized the Million Tongues festival—the annual convergence of "freak"-folksters and grassroots noisicians—that's been held at the Empty Bottle for the past three years. And for over a decade, he's been publishing his own music zine.

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Plastic Crimewave Sound (left to right: R. Mark Lux, Lawrence Peters, Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow), and Amy Cargill.)

He also knows a good amount about the misfortunes of languishing in obscurity, or of fading away without due recognition. That, after all, is the premise of his "Secret History of Chicago Music," an illustrated strip that frequently runs in the Chicago Reader. Perhaps you've happened across it as you were paging to find "Life in Hell" or Dan Savage or skimming the classifieds. As its banner proclaims, the strip is devoted to "Pivotal Chicago Musicians That Have Somehow Not Gotten Their Just Dues." Each installment offers a crash course on the careers of homegrown garage bands, folk-rockers, funkateers, and avant-jazzsters from decades gone by. Previous editions of the strip have focused on the likes of The Five Stairsteps (of "Ooh Child" fame), producer Charles Stepney, soul vocalist Terry Callier, AACM and former Sun Ra saxophonist Phil Cohran, psych-rockers H.P. Lovecraft, and even one on the late seventies all-girl metal band Bitch.

The most attention-grabbing aspect of the strip, however, is its look. Each installment includes a pen-and-ink portrait of the featured artist and meticulously hand-lettered text. But as labor-intensive as it appears, "Secret History" is only a small part of Krakow's illustrative output. It initially began as an offshoot of his zine, Galactic Zoo Dossier. Described by some as a "psychedelic Bible," Galactic Zoo is an elaborately crafted affair. Krakow illustrates and writes the bulk of each issue by hand, page after page of artist interviews and profiles—all of it mixed and adorned with swirling arabesques and psychedelic graphics, pinched and twisted balloon lettering, surreal comics, and op-art backdrops.

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The origin of the zine and the comic was an organic one, forming from a collision of Krakow's two passions—music and comic illustration. "I was priming myself back in high school for a straight comic book career," he explains, "I taught myself how to letter and everything." His interest in comics ranged from such Marvel fare as Dr. Strange and The Avengers to the complex and surreal artwork of classic comics such as "Krazy Kat" and Winsor McKay's "Little Nemo. " But at some point after going off to college, the ambition of being a comics artist had lost some of its luster. "I realized I wasn't going to be satisfied just following someone else's script," he says, "Just drawing superhero dudes and whatever."

Instead, he began applying his drawing skills to other thing—mostly music-related—such as drawing and designing flyers for shows and contributed his own "underground comics" to various zines. After a while, Krakow decided to try and put out his own publication, and the first issue of Galactic Zoo Dossier appeared in 1995. Given the extensive amount of effort that went into each edition, he managed to produce an issue a year throughout the latter half of the nineties. Recently, Galactic Zoo has grown thicker and more elaborate. These days it features all of the usual articles, interviews, comics and such, but also includes extra bonuses like decks of trading cards devoted to "Damaged Guitar Gods" and a double-CD compilation that Krakow single-handedly put together.

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Musically, Krakow's early years began pretty innocuously. He was raised on what he describes as the standard midwestern diet of classic rock—The Beatles, The Doors, Hendrix, Aerosmith, and such. At some point in his teens that canon was broadened and corrupted when he was exposed to the work of artists like Syd Barrett, Captain Beefheart, and The Stooges. From there it was all an outward arc into the realms of freakish and frenzied fare—developing into a head-effing, pulse-quickening affinity for all things involving heavy riffs, exploratory guitarwork, freak-out solos, and effects-soaked sound. Through it all, Krakow found that he was continually drawn to the music and culture of the late sixties and early seventies. "It was kind of weird when I realized that, because it wasn't as if it was a conscious effort on my part," he confesses. "I just never went through that hate-your-parents'-music phase that most kids go through."

Hence the retrophilic look and focus of Krakow's zine work, and the crux of its appeal. Over the years, GZD has developed its own cult following. It's long been essential reading among psych-rock and acid-folk enthusiasts. And given the zine's unique style and format, some consider it a loaded statement of sorts—perhaps a rustic, visionary epistle to the "New Weird America" set. But from Krakow's perspective, his preferred em-oh has as much to do with immediate creative control and comfort as it does with adhering to any old-school DIY aesthetic of zine publishing. "Some people want to read some grand, philosophical statement into why I do it this way," he muses, "And there is, slightly, I guess. But ultimately, it's just quicker and easier for me to work this way—lettering everything myself and whatnot. I guess I could do some of it on computer, but it's just easier this way." He shrugs. "I'm basically a hands-on, cut-and-paste kind of guy."

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To date, Krakow's done over two dozen entries of the "Secret History" series for the Reader. A good many of the subjects he spotlights are drawn from his own favorite musicians. He says he also gets ideas and recommendations from fellow music fanatics and record-collector friends, and has sometimes taken suggestions from readers. Considering the amount of source material—the rich, highly active garage rock, jazz, soul, and blues scenes that Chicago spawned back in the day—Krakow doesn't foresee falling short of subject matter. "It seems like a bottomless well," he says. "I don't think I'll run out of material anytime soon."
-Graham Sanford


Note: The seventh issue of Galactic Zoo Dossier is currently in the works—"about 95% completed," according to Krakow. Issues 1-4 of the zine were collected and published in a deluxe compendium edition in 2004 (which has since sold out). The most recent issues of GZD are available via Drag City, or can be found on the racks at Reckless and Chicago Comics. Plastic Crimewave Sound has finished a new album, which will soon be released on Eclipse Records.

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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Transmission is the music section of Gapers Block. It aims to highlight Chicago music in its many varied forms, as well as cover touring acts performing in the city. More...
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