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Sweep the Leg Johnny with Selten Ubel

Thursday, April 12 at 9 p.m.

The Pilot Light

How Much:$5 cover. 18+.

Potential of the Sax

STLJ adds a new element to the rock grammar

by John Sewell

Throughout rock history, musicians have employed a variety of instruments to add color to their songs—especially in the studio setting. But the standard lineup of guitar, bass and drums is still the essential blueprint for the vocabulary of rock.

Though the instrument is most commonly used in the supposedly "sexy" passages (see Rod Stewart's solo material) or to promote a bluesy, urban feel, the saxophone's sonic screech seems form-fitted for more far-flung extremities of avant rock. With rare exceptions, the aggro potential of the sax has been left untapped.

Rock is as much (or more) about visual imagery as it is music, and saxophones just don't seem to carry the necessary phallic/machine gun connotations. And besides, the damn things just aren't nearly as easy to play as guitars.

Chicago's Sweep The Leg Johnny is a band with few predecessors. Led by saxophonist/vocalist Steve Sostak, STLJ has no jazz-rock fusion tendencies whatsoever—with the possible exception of their instrumentation. An in-your-face, punk-influenced combo, the band has been winning over fans of adventurous, aggressive rock worldwide.

"I think the hardest thing for us is that we never set a goal to be an arty kind of band," says Sostak. "Even today, it's weird for us insofar as just where we fit into the rock scene. A lot of people misinterpret what we're trying to do because we're just a rock 'n' roll, punk rock band. We just do things a little differently—we do what we're comfortable with. We just try to play music that feels good to us and it just so happens that it's a little bit diverse.

"The music can be a problem because it's not your usual thing and that can keep the audiences kind of thin. But the people who do get it become great fans and we're very tight-knit with those people. It seems like 50 percent of our audience has become good friends of ours."

A somewhat demanding outfit, STLJ is one of those groups that requires repeated listenings to understand. After a few exposures to the band's musical language, something mysteriously clicks and you realize that it's just energetic rock with a slightly skewed rhythmic sense and one different instrument. Imagine the postpunk sounds of June of 44 or any Dischord band coupled with a sax, and you just might have a vague idea of the STLJ paradigm.

"When we first started playing, we were into a lot of the bizarro kind of indie rock," explains Sostak. "Bands like Polvo and a lot of punk rock stuff kind of combined and erupted into what we're doing now. And it seems to have floated between a lot of different sounds in the process. I think we're all starting to get a little more focused and mature now—getting comfortable with being more of a bizarre band."

Don't let any of this put you off. STLJ is essentially a meat and potatoes rock 'n' roll unit that eschews art for art's sake.

Hot on the heels of a recent 30-day stint in Europe, Sostak says that listeners across the big pond are a bit less tied to trends and therefore more receptive to STLJ's vision. "They're [European audiences] more willing to let down their walls a bit, whereas American kids really seem to define themselves too much by what kind of music they're into. Not fitting into a niche is kind of a difficult thing for us in America, or at least it has been so far."

STLJ's latest opus, Sto Cazzo! (Southern Records) is an absolutely frenetic, paint-peeling scream of an album. Sostak plays a precarious balancing act between his vocal and sax duties, and it's sometimes hard to differentiate from the two. Whatever he can't communicate through the lyrics is channeled through the sax in a more primal, direct manner. It's as if his horn offers a direct line to his emotions without the stumbling blocks of verbiage. The band's relentless precision offers an excellent counterpoint to Sostak's caterwaul. Like any STLJ live show, the album's tension-and-release stratagem takes listeners through several build-ups and climaxes, eventually leaving them drained and happy.

"In Europe, we're almost considered a hardcore band," Sostak enthuses. "Energy-wise, I think that makes sense in a weird way. The sweat and the stage show and the volume—the hardcore kids are very accepting of it. They're like, 'Oh my god—a hardcore band that does something different!' It's really great to me that they can be so open to at least consider what we're doing with an open mind."

April 12, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 15
© 2001 Metro Pulse