Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Initial disclaimer: Sweep The Leg Johnny (“Sweep”) originated in the early 1990’s on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. Following graduation, the band moved to Chicago, continued playing for several years, and recorded a handful of albums on both Divot and Southern records. While in Chicago, the band underwent several lineup changes. Given the purpose of this blog, this discussion of Sweep will focus only on the band as they existed while in South Bend. If you are looking for additional discussion of the band’s lineups that included Matt Alicea, John Brady, Mitch Chaney, or any of their label-produced albums, you will not find that here.
No history of Sweep would be complete without first acknowledging the band Victoria's Real Secret. When a shake-up struck VRS’ lineup, and new drummer James Bukow (aka “the battery”) joined the band, Sweep was born. Steve Sostak (vocals, sax); Chris Daly (guitar, vocals); Ryan Hallford (guitar, vocals); and Wil Freve (bass) rounded out Sweep’s founding lineup. These five played together for a short period before creative differences (ever-present since VRS days) finally took a toll, and Ryan left the band. Sweep stuck together as a foursome, completing our sophomore year at Notre Dame playing some new material, coupled with some re-worked remnants from VRS.
At the beginning of our junior year at Notre Dame (1993) we started fresh, scrapped the old VRS material and began an intense and refreshing phase of writing new material. During this period, there was a marked difference and cohesion in our musical focus with Sweep. This time around, we seemed much more pointed in the same direction than we did with VRS. Perhaps we had “grown together” in our musical interests a little more...or perhaps (with Ryan’s absence) the creative duo of Steve and CD subtly took the opportunity to exert more control over the musical direction of the band. In the end, the combination of these factors and our collective experience during the VRS days laid the foundation for Sweep’s music.
The band’s evolution continued at a fast pace throughout our time at Notre Dame and beyond, never becoming asymptotic. Steve began incorporating punctuated saxophone as a unique textural element for our music. CD shined as the band’s sole guitarist, stretching his playing ability and style, as well as readily accepted the role of main creative director. Jim brought a new level of precision and sophistication to the rhythm section, and I simply did my best to keep up with the others’ musical growth.
Our music gracefully surrendered our youthful, starry-eyed attitude, and adopted a cynical, angst-filled vibe. It grew noticeably “darker”, abandoning the sometimes poppy power chords for dissonant, accidental-laden rifts. Despite these changes, the concepts of “unpredictability” and “intensity” survived the transformation from VRS to Sweep, and they remained central to our musical vision. However, with a more unified musical direction, the incorporation of these concepts became more subtle. Instead of experimenting with “intra-album” dynamic shifts (whole songs being loud or quiet), we began incorporating polarizing, “intra-song” dynamic variations. The constant battle between pianissimo and fortissimo within our songs became a calling card of Sweep. The overall native tempo of our songs slowed, as we realized that intensity could be born of other factors besides raw speed. Individually, we became more self-confident, and lost the need to “show off” by forcing complex, self-indulgent rifts into our music. We began viewing songs in their entirety, and contemplating the emotional response a listener would have. Simply stated, we became more musically mature, and this evolution was reflected in our music.
Sweep finished out its time at Notre Dame feverishly writing, evolving, and playing as many shows as we could. Our repertoire seemed to stay a constant size, as new material replaced older, dated works in our rotations. Following school, we collectively decided to move to Chicago, and the four of us (plus Ali) rented a house together in Wicker Park (aka “The Estate”). During our first year here, the combination of living together and working together in the same house again took its toll, eventually leading to the rhythm section calling it quits. Steve and CD remained, replaced Jim and me, and kept playing as Sweep the Leg Johnny. For several years after, the band continued its darkened and tension-filled evolution, underwent more lineup changes, and carved out a unique and lasting place in the college indie-rock scene. They garnered a strong Chicago fan base, and surprisingly drew fans on an international level, touring as far away as Tokyo, Japan, before finally disbanding in 2002. Before achieving such notoriety, however, Sweep the Leg Johnny managed to record a variety of material from their early years in “The Bend.”
Circles All Around was the first step in Sweep’s musical evolution, becoming the earliest “official” recording we made as a band. The tape was made at Studio X in Chicago and is the result of a whirlwind day in the studio. All songs were recorded and mixed in one day (not surprising, considering our college budgets). One of the musical objectives we had during this album was to de-emphasize the vocals in our songs; we wanted the vocals in our music to have equal weight with all of the other instruments, not supersede them. In addition, Steve began incorporating his saxophone playing into the mix in a very non-traditional way. The saxophone was typically not intended to be another “melodic” or “vocal” element... instead it was intended to be a rhythmic, textural addition. At the time Circles was recorded, I think Steve was still finding the balance of how best to incorporate the sax into the music. Its inclusion seems sometimes forced, and the focus on this instrument eventually lessened.
Track 1: An instrumental, “The Rolling O”, kicks off this recording. One of our friends at Notre Dame (we’ll refer to him as “Mikey”... ”B.D.”... ”Brrrummmm-Skiiii!”) owned a powder blue cargo minivan, which was surmised to contain a mattress in the back section. This vehicle therefore earned the nicknamed “The Rolling Orgasm”--hence the origin of this song’s title. The song is a straight forward composition, incorporating several different parts in a traditional song structure. The guitar varies from clean power chords to heavily distorted and bent notes. The dynamics of the song shift subtly at time, and at others slap you in the face with a wall of cymbals and Marshall generated distortion. The tension seems to build throughout the song, eventually being released in a final, chaotic series of random chords and cymbal crashes. There’s a brief moment of calm resolution before the second song on the album picks up.
Track 2: “Sunday” introduces the first lyrics of the album. The song begins with a syncopated drum rhythm that is soon joined by a bouncy low-high bass line. CD’s guitar plays around for a few moments before kicking into full-throttle, crunchy chords for several measures. These chords are then muffled to allow Steve’s vocals some space. Following the verses, the bass, sax, and some swanky guitar form a quiet, subdued section before the cymbals and distortion crash back in. This pattern is repeated a few times in the song until the ultimate conclusion of the song. The vocals of this song are noticeably lower in volume than they were on Pasta (VRS). Additionally, Steve’s vocal technique had improved significantly since that album, and this song afforded him an opportunity to sing in a more natural range.
Track 3: The final track on this album, “Teach”, was one of the first songs written by the band following Ryan’s departure, and it had a surprisingly long lifespan. This was one of the only songs written during our junior year that we played through our senior year and beyond. In fact, this is the only Sweep song that was recorded more than once (on this album, and again on a 1995 demo). Although this song followed the familiar quiet-loud, quiet-loud pattern found on Circles All Around, it was generally packaged in a more traditional “emo” structure. Musically, the song flows fairly well and was always well received by audiences. Lyrically, the message of this song always resonated strongly with me (and other members of the band)... a plea for patience, teaching, and sharing over selfishness and competition. I think the combination of the song’s mainstream feel and classic message kept it as a fan favorite for a long time.
Sweep is now defunct, and the five original members are scattered across North America. Steve Sostak is located southernmost, living with his wife in Peru. I believe they are both English teachers. Chris Daly stayed in Chicago, and is now married, with child, and continues to pursue other musical interests (see: Haymarket Riot) while working as a paramedic. Ryan Hallford spent many years in Scottsdale, AZ, where he also married and had two children, but he has since returned to his home state of Texas. Ry-Guy is an established alternative-medicine practitioner that serves the Dallas community. James P. Bukow moved back to his Boston roots, and is also married with three children. Jimmy-Jam is an electrical engineer that designs things that keep us safe at night. I have stayed in Chicago-land, and have transitioned to suburbia with my wonderful wife and daughter. I’m a recovering civil engineer, working for a national developer in primarily west coast markets. Questions or comments? I may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Welcome to a very special holiday edition of Friends of The Bend...
Drink a Cup of Whiskey-Beer, or The Night Tackleloco Saved Christmas
By Robert Dahl
We never planned to save Christmas. But sometimes things need savin’. That’s when real men have to step up, stiffen their spines, and boldly relive their childhoods.
In the summer of 1999 I’d been out of college for a couple of years, was living in New York NY, and was ready for a change. When I say “ready,” I of course mean “desperate, clamoring, and ready to jump a train to anywhere” for something other than the clotted streets and scintillating odors of our nation’s most famous city. Circumstances conspired to send me to Washington DC, where I had several good friends and the promise of a better life.
This new life in DC first became manifest in the form of a makeshift band we called Tackleloco (no, not “Taco Loco.” We were not a mariachi punk band. Tackleloco was a game one of us used to play growing up. From what I understand it involved little more than a group of kids running around tackling each other (not unlike Aussie rules football)). This band was originally formed by a good friend of mine from way back (among those mentioned above) named Mike Larmoyeux, and a friend of his from college named Jim McNamee. Jim and Mike had played in various bands at Notre Dame, and Mike and I had played in various bands in high school down in Jacksonville, Florida (actually, Mike and I had played in only one band, but we kept changing the name. So it really counted as like 8-10 different bands. I stand firmly by this). The instrumentation was odd, but we were confident that it would work: Mike and I played guitar, and Jim played clarinet.
No singing. No rules. That’s how we rolled. Word to your mother/nearest female kin.
Jim and Mike already had a few originals written by the time I came along, so I was happy to be included and did my best to augment what they’d already put together. Some of the songs included such hits as “Away to Me, Fly,” inspired by the sheepdoging movie Babe, and “Broderick,” a very somber number written by Mike in a fit of despair after seeing Godzilla and wondering what the hell had happened to Ferris Bueller’s career. I started adding some material of my own, writing the unforgettable “I’m Not the Spaz You Know Me As,” and collaborating on “Well, I Never Knew a Rufus.” We had an iron-clad songwriting process… Mike and I would come up with the oddest arrhythmic guitar harmonies we could, and Jim would hold it all together with the melody. We did one cover early on, which was Brittany Spears’s incomparable “Hit Me Baby One More Time.” With our instrumentation and the speed at which we played it, it sounded oddly similar to “Hava Nagila.” That is to say, it was exactly what we were shooting for. Let us rejoice.
We recorded a demo and played out here and there, and had a great time. But the first big project we wanted to undertake was, naturally, to record a Christmas album. Doesn’t every young band want as much? Good artists borrow, great artists steal, and immortal artists record Christmas albums. Just ask Lawrence Welk. Why not us? By the Autumn of 2000, it was on. We would record The Night Tackleloco Saved Christmas.
We began figuring out “Skating” from said special, and away we went. “We Three Kings.” “Carol of the Bells.” “Ding Dong Merrily on High.” We tried to keep songs recognizable, but also to infuse each of them with that special “Tackleloco” something. Since we didn’t really know what that “something” was, we just mixed it up and tried keep it interesting. It was all exceptionally fun, and the best part was that we got to think back to what we loved about Christmas as children, find songs that captured that feeling, and then play them in musical ways that we’d learned and cultivated in early adulthood.
That all came to a head when we began figuring out how to end the album. How do we close this deal? With what song can we end such a project and have it bring everything home? We needed one more song. It had to be good, and it had to be fun (and don’t forget, also playable and awesome). Fortunately, we were able to benefit from the expertise of another Notre Dame musical alum, Doug MacEachern. He lived in DC at the time as well, and he came over one evening to help out with some of the recording. As many of our dear readers are aware, he is not only a good recording engineer, he is also a spectabulous percussionist. He came over, and the four of us sat down to figure something out. We decided to take the last song in an entirely different direction.
We decided to play Twisted Sister’s inspiration for “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and returned the favor on their behalf. “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” heavy distortion, clarinet, and banging on whatever bits of percussion we could cobble together in our basement. In figuring it out, we realized that not only were the chord progressions of “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Faithful” very similar, they were both very much like “Auld Lang Syne.” So we turned it into a two-tune medley. And we decided to sing. But none of us knew the words. So we did what any self-respecting band would do… we hit “record” and started playing. Here’s how Auld Lang Syne came out, near as I can figure, Tackleloco style:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
And we’ve done sing to mine?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
Just don’t forget about auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne,
Yeah, auld lang syne,
We’ll drink a cup of whiskey-beer,
For auld lang syne.
Done. Hit “save.” Make copies. Wonder what “whiskey-beer” is and try to figure out where to find some.
In any case, we finished the album, gave it away to whoever would take it, and kept playing for as long as we could. We never broke up, and we later added a fourth member (my brother Taylor Dahl), but we haven’t done anything for a long while.
Tackleloco is not dead, Tackleloco merely sleeps. Like Arthur and his England, Tackleloco will rise again in Christmas’s time of great need, should such a time come.
Tackeloco on MySpace
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Before Mike went off to London for the spring 1995 semester, we booked time at Miami Street Studios to record as much as we could in the little time we had. John, the owner of the studio, offered us a discount rate because he claimed to never make any money off of us since we worked so quickly. In the end, we recorded 16 songs (plus one throw away improvised noise track to kill off one of the reels) in the space of a weekend during October 1994. Five songs went to our second seven inch, Tinkertoy, and another five songs went to a short tape we put out as a self-titled release. Well, it was officially self-titled, but the unofficial title is The "Dwayne Dibbley" EP, in honor of the uncool alter-ego of Cat from the BBC sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf.
Speaking of cats, the actual cover photo is Edgar and Puck, the two cats who lived at the Miner Street house where Doug and Joe also resided. The actual tape covers were printed on either red or green cardstock, and then the emiLy logo (a lightbuld with an "e" in the middle, originally drawn by Lael T. for the Finer Time cover) was silkscreened over the cats. The tape was also notable for being the first emiLy release to include a lyric sheet. The second, and last, emiLy release with printed lyrics was the riverrun CD.
As far as the songs go, this tape rivals the CD for my favorite collection of songs. It starts off with the tense "Beef" before kicking into "Red Line Metro", written by Joe for his younger sister. "Tactical" is one of my very favorite emiLy songs, built out of one of Mike's bass lines that I recall having to hear a ridiculous number of times before I sorted out the timing of the intro. When we played "Fearless" at a house party for the first time, there was a guy standing in front of Joe the entire time who blurted out something along the lines of "MAN, IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU'RE PLAYING TWO GUITARS!" in the middle of the song. "He Had A Loud Mind" was written for Dave M. of hace frio, and musically inspired in large part by the NJ hardcore band Merel.
emiLy on MySpace
emiLy on last.fm
Friday, December 12, 2008
Taking their name from a Simpsons parody on the Freemasons, The Stonecutters were a fun yet short-lived poppy punk endeavor from an assortment of South Bend rock regulars. The band consisted of Kate B. (July) on vocals, Mike C. (decaf) on guitar, James J. (Hace Frio) on bass, Mark H. (Tacklebox, True North) on drums. A couple of these folks were kind enough to weigh in on this recording:
The Stonecutters wrote 11 songs in 11 days then played our first show at the Green House. We then proceeded to play a handful shows (Archi party, Angela Blvd) and recorded and mixed this cassette of 12 songs, including a cover of emiLy's song "Red Line Metro," in about 2 hours in Mark's basement. I remember each practice we'd hit a store to buy cigarettes, a 40 oz for each of us, then we'd drive to Mark's parents house out in Mishawaka to practice. I think we existed for just about 2 months. It was quite a fun experience. -- James J.
The song "Humans" was written the day we made the tape, and was recorded the second time we had played it. Also, there was no PA so I had to sing directly into the 4-track, for better or for worse. Great, great fun, I really miss that summer. -- Kate B.
You gotta admire a band that has the stones to cover an emiLy tune ("Red Line Metro") and do a pretty decent job of it at that. "Blister" is a snappy little ditty that shines in it's pleasant simplicity. "East Race" refers to either the kayak course in the middle of downtown South Bend on the St. Joe River, or the liquor store that was around the corner from the Red Star house. Album closer "August" alternates nicely between a peppy ska-beat and some serious hard rock chops. Also worth noting, the track "Shameless" is a take-off of Heavens To Betsy's "My Red Self," a song originally written about menstruation.
This self-titled cassette was recorded on a 4-track and mixed in two hours in Mark's basement in May of 1996. It was released on Rent To Own Records as RTO12.
The Stonecutters on MySpace
Monday, December 1, 2008
Victoria’s Real Secret (“VRS”) was the precursor to the later, better known band, Sweep the Leg Johnny (“Sweep”). VRS featured the creative nucleus of Steve Sostak on vocals and Chris Daly (aka “CD”) on guitar. Ryan Hallford supplemented this pair as a hybrid “lead” guitarist and occasional vocalist. Marty (Master of Time) Mennes on drums and yours truly, Wil Freve on bass rounded out the lineup. We played as VRS during our sophomore year at ND (1993-94). This band was young, inexperienced... metaphorically in its adolescence. The members brought some semblance of individual talent, though admittedly less than we all thought (save, perhaps, for Ryan). We shared a love of playing music; however we lacked a cohesive creative direction. Each of us attempted to pull the band towards our individual musical interests and styles; our songs reflected this, becoming syntheses of many rock ‘n roll styles including indie, alternative, progressive, punk, blues, and classic rock. Everything we did was a new experience, and frankly, a musical experiment. VRS developed a reputation as a unique, eclectic, and stylistically diverse band.
Fifteen years later, I listen to some of VRS’ songs and instantly remember the individual who crafted the song’s main concept, and the creative battles that ensued. Albeit counter-intuitive, I personally believe this stylistic tug-of-war became the primary strength of the band. The resulting musical library was a melting pot of musical genres, styles, and influences. In the end, we all agreed that whatever musical styles would be combined within a song, they would be done so with intensity. This became the unifying concept for our music. Perhaps it was this intensity, and our predictable unpredictability that shored up a consistent (and passionate) following for VRS’ live shows. Although I look back on our music and think it unpolished, and sometimes clumsy, it represents a musical time capsule that appropriately captures our early development as musicians. Much like reading a term paper written during high school, listening to Pasta reminds me how green we were, and how much we grew in the years to come.
It has been ten plus years since I last listened to this album. One thing in particular struck me when hearing it again: I loved the layering and interplay of the guitars in this album. Both CD and Ryan complemented each other extremely well. From their styles and training right down to the gear and stage presence, each brought unique contributions to the band. Although I generally consider our VRS compositions to be of lesser “quality” than those of Sweep, being able to play with a tremendous guitar duo was a definite bright spot of my experience with VRS, and something that was noticeably missed with Sweep.
Track 1: This album starts with the driving and energetic song, “It Depends.” VRS did its best not to have a consistent, signature “sound;” although, if we did, this song embodies what that would have been. After a brief guitar introduction, Marty, Master of Time, reveals the songs true tempo with a punishing, percussive barrage. CD kicks in with the song’s primary guitar rift, and he is eventually mimicked by Ryan (playing it with a blues-twist, of course). These crunchy, Marshall-produced power chords are underlain with a bouncy, octaval bass line that has an annoying habit of falling one chromatic step short of the root note... an unexpected juxtaposition of indie-rock accidentals with major-scale, blues chords. For this song, VRS borrowed from traditional blues theory, then sucker punched it, turned up the tempo three notches, ran away and never looked back.
Track 2: The album starts in fifth gear, but “Stained Glass Window” dramatically downshifts, showcasing certain band members’ “emo” influences (in fact, the song’s name is a tribute to Buffalo Tom, who had a knack of randomly naming their songs). The songs ethereal introduction begins with Ryan’s restrained and melodic guitar part accompanied by CD’s screeching background guitar and my harmonic tappings (inspired by Alex Lifeson’s harmonics in the song “Red Barchetta”). When the drums and bass finally kick the song into full swing, I still get chills down my spine. The song progresses through a fairly conventional song structure, rewarding the listener with variations of the main melody and some notable textural breaks. When the song resolves back to its final chorus, this transition feels nothing short of triumphant (Marty’s syncopated ride cymbal is like icing on the cake). I always loved this song...although it is more a “mainstream” than we were used to. This song has an organic quality and just seemed to “work.” During the creation of this song, our musings were operating at a higher level, and it felt like the song wrote itself. The end result was, in my humble opinion, powerful and expressive. My biggest regret of this song was trying to cram too much into my bass part. I learned later in my musical study to appreciate moments of understated bass and the incorporation of rests and silence. Used appropriately, these concepts can be powerful additions to a song, augmenting rhythms and varying texture. I wish I recognized this better before recording this song; the end result might have been very special.
Track 3: “Why Ask, ‘Why Ask Why?’” begins with an obviously Chilli-Peper-esque bass introduction. Although I love the funk & slap style of bass, this song represents the one time Steve and CD let me bring (ehh... bastardize) that style into one of our songs. What can I say... we made the most of it and had lots of fun with our funky selves. Eventually all of us indulged our funky sides and viewed this song as a welcome departure from our other work. My favorite part includes the popping and tapping bass breakdown in the middle of the song, followed by a tidal wave of distortion and percussion that crashes in, culminating in a blistering guitar solo by Ryan. As a side note, at the end of his solo, Ryan was unhappy with his track and he casually slid his hand up his guitars neck, thinking he would be re-record the solo. CD and Steve liked the way this sounded and eventually persuaded him to keep this in the recorded version.
Track 4: “Backwards” is the final song on the first side of the album. This song mimics the mellow feel of “Stained Glass Window,” but in my opinion falls short on energy and intensity. When I first heard CD’s guitar part, I thought it sounded like a rift that The Edge from U2 would play. Therefore, as a quasi-tribute to that band, I modeled my bass line after Adam Clayton’s simple, legato style. I don’t regret experimenting with our music, but with such one must expect a few failures. In my opinion, this song is the weakest on the album. It has an overly simplistic structure, a completely uninspired bass breakdown, and an incredibly misplaced distorted guitar part at the very end of the song (every time I hear it, I think of the old theme song for “Entertainment Tonight”). This song had potential, but overall, it severely underachieved.
Track 5: “Proper pH” thankfully picks up the tempo on the second side of the album. This work features lightning fast guitar riffs, alternating tempos, and a pulsing, intentionally staccato bass line. There’s a lot of dynamic variations in this song, and at times the bass switches from being intensely “in your face” to being a rolling, subdued ditty, on which the guitars gradually rebuild the song’s intensity. I feel obliged to point out that the slowed bridge portion of this song was intentionally crafted to be “cheesy” and “poppy”... a satirical counterpoint to the unconventional remainder of the song. After hearing many fans’ critiques of this part, I am convinced that the members of VRS were the only ones that were “in on the joke.” This song is a fitting introduction to the second half of the album, and provides a representative foreshadowing of the tempo and dynamic changes that would eventually become mainstays of Sweep.
Track 6: The final three songs on the album are older songs whose creation predated my time in VRS. When I came aboard, I was asked to respect their original bass lines, so these remained largely intact. The first song, “The Green Iguana,” needs to be listened to, as no description will do it justice. I might futilely try to describe it as acid-numbed Primus meets Pavement, getting their asses kicked by a speed metal band strung out on cocaine. The inspiration for the song came from Steve’s pet iguana, and he penned lyrics that contemplated living life crawling around like an iguana. It’s weird. Just listen to it.
Track 7: “Been Around the Block” has a straightforward song structure like “Backwards;” however it triggers a more effective emotional response. I’ve always been a fan of hypnotic grooves, and this song brings a Fugazi-like bass line that tries its best to get your head subtly bobbing. For this alone, I enjoy this song. Although I’m not crazy about the guitar’s flange effect on the recorded version, I think this helped the mood of the song when played live. Given this song was a remnant of Schwa (that’s a whole ‘nother review), VRS sure got a lot of mileage out of it.
Track 8: “Fish” is another one of the first songs written by VRS. Steve conceived the song’s lyrics to chronicle the cyclical romance of two of the band’s close friends. It contains poppy and lively guitar with some acoustics layered in. The rhythm section pushes the tempo, but generally allows the guitars and vocals to carry the song. Although a simple composition, this was just an up-tempo song we always had fun with. Ryan throws in an over-qualified guitar solo to complete the song, and thus, the album. I feel that ending the album with such an early song was an appropriate reflection of how the band started, and an acknowledgment of how far we had come.
In conclusion, Pasta was a joy to record. Not all the songs were first rate, but it’s a good demonstration of the diversity of styles, tempos, dynamics, textures, and moods that VRS brought. More than anything else, I remember VRS as a band that was FUN to see live. We always had a great time stirring the audience into a frenzy and playing off each other. This album is a product that I feel is still pretty unique, and I’m thankful for having my experience and memories with the band. Questions or comments? Feel free to contact me at email@example.com.
-- Wil Freve
Victoria's Real Secret on MySpace