Like a modern-day voodoo doll, the figure of the Underground Man serves as a psychic talisman for the fears of the post-industrial age. He's a bogey man, a social misfit, a victim of going-postal psychosis, and he's also a template for the cosmic archetype that stretches from the bitter, nameless hero of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground to Taxi Driver's alienated nihilist Travis Bickle. The message driving the model is clear: There's no getting around the social contract. You may not like the way humanity works, but your only alternative is retreating into the complete isolation of a subterranean world. It's society's way, or the absolute loneliness of the highway.
Of course, the Underground Man is also just as much of a romantic myth as the Lonesome Cowboy. The underground isn't always filled with estranged loners--in fact, it brings outsiders together to build an even stronger sense of community than the world above ground. The annual Destijl/Freedom From Festival of Music--which, this year, transports dozens of underground musicians like Jackie O Motherfucker, Arthur Doyle, Bridget St. John, and Angelblood to the surprisingly clean and bright environs of the Fine Line Music Café--is proof: The two-day showcase features artists who use the same Laundromats, search the same newspaper job listings, and shop for groceries in the same stores that you do. Some of them just happen to prefer wiring bleach bottles into bleeping tone generators rather than, well, using said bottles as receptacles for bleach.
To the uninitiated, even a brief glance at the festival lineup (which runs 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. on Saturday, October 4 and Sunday, October 5) is a head-spinning blur of strange words like Borbetomagus, Metalux, and Nmperign. But don't be discouraged: These band names are just a series of signs and ciphers that constitute the language of underground music. Decode the signifiers and you'll be on your way to understanding the thrilling sound of the best music that the radio will never play. Of course, the key to comprehending the method behind the madness lies in finding the right translators. Digging through the hidden legion of zines and mailing lists to discover these bands and then working out how the hell they made that noise is all part of the fun. Take Borbetomagus: Their name may suggest a lost character from Lord of the Rings, but they're a fierce double-sax-and-drums trio from upstate New York who lock their saxes together, connect rubber hoses to them, and basically adapt any strategy necessary to summon the molten energy of free jazz and the raw power of noise. Or take Fursaxa, which has a Dungeons and Dragons ring to it, but which is actually the solo project of Philadelphia-based artist Tara Burke--who, alongside a string of collaborators, forges a disarmingly beautiful collision of haunted folk and free-form psychedelic freakout.
Between these artists, you can trace the back-and-forth flow of a community in action, stretching from state to state and beyond. Start with Tony Conrad, who plays the Destijl/Freedom From Festival on Saturday, October 4: Since the '60s, he has sculpted vast chasms of roaring-then-tranquil violin drones. Conrad also lent some hiss-and-scrape violin on Gastr del Sol's gorgeous track "Our Exquisite Replica of 'Eternity'" (from 1996's Upgrade Afterlife), which was co-written by David Grubbs and erstwhile Sonic Youth member Jim O'Rourke. At the festival, O'Rourke performs alongside Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore in the noise collective Aktion Unit, which will not be the first time he's worked in a supergroup: On a 2001 release by the laid-back jam-rock band Drag City Supersession, O'Rourke performed alongside Royal Trux's Neil Michael Haggerty, who appears at the Destijl festival to perform stoner rock in solo mode. The links go on forever, defining a group of artists more interested in collaboration than Me-Me-Me mindgames.
Still, the incestuous, slightly confusing who-played-with-who of this showcase is only one of the ways these artists affect one another's work: Influence can be both conscious and unconscious. Start back at Tony Conrad again, whose pioneering work with the amplified violin can be heard in the skewed metal of Noxagt, a Norwegian group who meld searing viola with bass and drums into an atonal mass on their 2003 debut Turning It Down Since 2001. That record was released on Load, a scum-rock Michigan label that draws upon the aesthetic of the dyspeptic cassette-trading underground that flourished in the pre-Napster '80s, a phenomenon that still drives the cassette releases of bands like Ann Arbor's no wave outfit Wolf Eyes, whose multi-instrumentalist Aaron Dilloway performs solo at Destijl. Wolf Eyes also paved the way for the synth-monster mashup of Neon Hunk, a drum-and-keyboards duo who will take a break from appearing in Jane magazine to grace the Fine Line's stage.
All this begs the question: If these artists are so well-connected, why has no one heard their albums? The answer--which could easily fuel a graduate-level thesis paper--would tell you less about the beauty of the underground than the sad state of the current major label production system, with five companies controlling 85 percent of record sales, not to mention Clear Channel and Viacom's real-deal monopoly of the airwaves. Perhaps, in a more optimistic sense, this system helps define the modus operandi of the underground: to produce spectacular, heartbreaking music that's fuelled not by record sales but by the artists' will to blow their own minds. Let the cynics call it "underground." It will still be thriving when the overground is over.