Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Sweep The Leg Johnny - Circles All Around
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.