Underground Man: Chinese art rock. Real-world music school. Punk attitude. Industrial legend Martin Atkins brings them all to the South Side.

“Boy Scouts. Girl Scouts. On crack.”

That’s how Martin Atkins describes the music business boot camp he’s got floating around in his head right now–a crash course that would take the admonition to “be prepared” to a new level, grooming the entrepreneurially uninitiated to be ready for the cold, hard world he sees waiting for them.
“I see a lot of music business education that’s like, ‘Okay, let’s get ready to play a game of checkers,” he explains. “Well, the music business I’m in is three-dimensional chess. With a blindfold. On a skateboard. Balancing five hot cups of coffee. Riding the El.”

If the real music world is anywhere near as exhilarating as Atkins’s analogy would suggest, he deserves partial credit. The former drummer for acts from Public Image Ltd. to Ministry and lots in between, Atkins now seems to exclusively spend his days dreaming up new ways to be on the musical and cultural vanguard. Take his 2006 trip to Beijing, for instance. He went, essentially, on a whim–“it would have been insane to go over there looking for something,” he says emphatically. At the least, he hoped to make some good connections through his friendship with the owners of D-22, a bar and music venue that doubles as a workshop and support system for local bands. If the trip was a bust, he figured he could get some deals on wholesale T-shirts and resell them so that the plane ticket would at least pay for itself.

Lucky for Atkins (and even luckier for music audiences looking for a taste of something intriguing), he got a lot more than bootleg salesman credentials out of his sixteen days: three new acts on his record label Invisible, a documentary film about the trip, an acclaimed compilation album of Chinese up-and-comers, and a few more LPs on the way, not to mention an experience he’s called “a watershed two weeks in my life and in music.”

“I was very surprised by the bands, and how they spoke to me,” he says. Atkins found himself experiencing an energy he hadn’t truly felt in decades, the thrill of being in the midst of something you know is going to make big waves, a feeling he last recalls having in the buzz of early-eighties New York music culture. “There’s a scene [in Beijing],” he says, “a cohesive scene,” with bands interchanging members and collaborating supportively in a way, he laments, that “you just don’t see” in New York or Los Angeles anymore. So, he did the only sensible thing he could do: he got the eight-track rolling.

“We entered the world that I love being in,” he recalls, “the world of the unexpected. Here’s five people I’ve never been in a studio with before, that I’ve never met before, and they don’t speak English, and they’re playing instruments I’ve never seen before. Great! Let’s add a scratch DJ and play in 19/4 time signature and see what happens.”

He envisioned a music video in which he would play drums alongside the most ancient-looking monks he could find. “Like something from a kung-fu series,” he explains, “with these old guys, like, a hundred years old, hitting these drums all slowly and spiritually, and me jumping up and down in a tracksuit like a maniac.” But this didn’t end up happening after his assistant botched the instructions and brought, in lieu of centenarian monks, local schoolgirls wielding traditional Chinese orchestral instruments. Attracted to unpredictability, and a firm believer that there’s no such thing as a mistake, Atkins took the mishap as a learning opportunity. “Either freak out and scream at my assistant,” he says, “or just welcome those people into the studio and begin to discover what this instrument is called, how it sounds, how you play it.”

If the potential of spontaneity weren’t enough to enrapture an aging rock star, the earnestness he found in the bands at D-22 sealed the deal. “The girl that sings with Subs,” one of the bands Atkins eventually signed to Invisible, “she said, ‘I just want to burn my passport and stay on the road forever.’” He pauses, enchanted all over again, before continuing. “You’re just not used to hearing stuff like that over here! I don’t know the words anymore that come out of bands’ mouths, but it’s probably something lame that somebody said before, and it’s just kind of strategized for maximum increase of record sales. None of the experience over there felt strategized.” Atkins acknowledges that many of the musicians he encountered claim the same arsenal of influences as American bands, but believes that “whereas in America that can be a pose… [in Beijing] it was just music that these people had stumbled upon that they were delighted to explore.”

Since returning home with the spoils of his adventure, Atkins has released the compilation album “Look Directly into the Sun,” featuring eighteen different artists and a compelling taste of the albums forthcoming from the three bands he signed: Subs, Tookoo, and Snapline (his personal favorite). Always the innovator, Atkins has packaged each CD with a free T-shirt and a pass good for one free admission to D-22. He is pleased with the potential that a music fan traveling to Beijing could stop in the club when they wouldn’t otherwise, and even if the pass-bearer is “someone who isn’t planning to go to China, just the idea that they can” seems magical.

As if that weren’t generous enough, Atkins has more to share. Remember the blindfolded, coffee-juggling, skateboarding, El-bound chess game? He wants to teach you to play. Whether your aspirations lie in music, theater, social activism, or anything else, he believes you “need to acquire the skill of acquiring skills. I don’t know anybody that can be one thing anymore,” he adds. “You have to be ten things.” Headquartered in a 6400-square-foot Bridgeport building that Atkins claims “wants to be a school,” his Underground, Inc. compound includes, in addition to Invisible Records, a publishing company, the Mattress Factory recording studio, screenprinting equipment, a merchandising office, and film production facilities. “This is as real world as it gets,” he says, and as far as Atkins is concerned, it all amounts to one big classroom, albeit one with a shot at a shakeup.

“The world is changing every day,” says Atkins, and, he claims, traditional business education doesn’t make the cut anymore. “Education feels like it’s a huge oil tanker… like, ‘Quick, make a left turn!’ and the captain says, ‘Yep, we’re gonna turn left in about six miles,’ and by the time you get there you don’t need to turn left anymore.” Fed up with that behemoth, Atkins wants to show people how to respond like “a speedboat in a James Bond film.” He hopes his pupils will “immerse themselves, and find opportunities so they’ll have a diverse array of skills and an understanding of what they need to succeed in 2008 and beyond….To me that’s entrepreneurial skills, software skills, language skills, marketing… analytical ability, logistical ability, and not being afraid to roll up their sleeves and literally or figuratively get their hands dirty.” In fact, it’s that willingness to “roll up your sleeves” that has kept Atkins in town. “I’ve lived in London, Manhattan, and Los Angeles, and I moved here because I love it here and I love the attitude here of like, ‘this is fixable… let’s roll up our sleeves and fix it.’ That always struck me as the Chicago attitude and I like that.”

Forever attracted to uncertainty, Atkins can’t allow himself to speculate on the future of music, or of any of his enterprises. “I’ve given up on that,” he says. “I’m just happy to be on the rollercoaster; I don’t know where it’s going.” In the meantime, he’s practicing his guerilla education methods on his two young sons, to whom he’s assigned the task of researching the lives of a hundred people (Steve Jobs, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin brand, among them) in search of common threads. As usual, he’s willing to experiment. “If it turns out that every one of these successful, entrepreneurial, think-on-your-feet, plate-spinning people took, say, needlework classes when they were 11…well, I don’t know why it made a difference, but maybe it did, and I’d put needlework on the curriculum.” Between moving through the planning stages to add courses to the Underground, Inc. roster and his continuing work with the Beijing artists, it doesn’t seem like Atkins has much time to hone his embroidery skills, although he certainly would be willing to learn. “Our brains are turned on,” he says excitedly. “Our eyes are open. Let’s take a look!”