Music: Z How it Goes

ZZZZ makes a singular sound at the end of the alphabet

Jun 29, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Building a Buzzzz: Chicago's ZZZZ started as a pressure-free jam outlet, but when classically-trained pianist Ellen Bunch (second from left) joined, things started getting serious.

There's no wrong way to pronounce the name of the Chicago quartet ZZZZ, according to drummer Greg Sharp. He's heard it in every conceivable permutation, from the distinct enunciation of each individual letter to simple pluralization to the onomatopoeic sound of a bee or a zipper. The band will answer to any of them, since the sound of the name wasn't the reason for christening the band ZZZZ.

"We just say Zs because it's easy, but it's open to however you want to say it," Sharp says as the band departs Chicago for their current Midwest jaunt. "We thought it looked kind of nice, it read kind of nice and we knew it would be at the end of the CDs at a record store or listings online, which it always is. And phonetically we thought it would be fun to mess around with."

For ZZZZ, the fun just begins with the name. For the past two years, audiences in Chicago have become enraptured by their danceable and driving amalgam of gypsy Jazz, No Wave noise and Punk-fueled energy. It's a surprising and singular sound that stems from a number of unexpected sources.

In 2002, alto saxophonist/vocalist Steve Sostak was idled when both of his bands, the highly acclaimed Sweep the Leg Johnny and the lesser known but also well regarded Check Engine, dissolved within weeks of each other. Around that same time, Sharp's band Tekulvi also disbanded with the arrival of guitarist Chris Almodovar's twins.

Sostak enlisted Sharp, Almodovar and Swing Kids/STLJ bassist John Brady to join him in a pressure-free jam arrangement in his rehearsal space with no real designs on starting another band. Although they had no real band aspirations, they did come to the project with definite ideas about what would happen sonically.

"We've always done things that are adventurous and, if there was anything we wanted to retain, it was that adventurousness and wanting to take risks," Sharp says. "We really wanted to do something we hadn't done before, where people wouldn't necessarily think of our old bands. We also wanted to get away from our old type of arrangements of our songs. Tekulvi and Sweep the Leg and Check Engine would do these long kind of Math Rock songs, which was great, but we wanted to get away from it as well — still adventurous but more straight ahead with more of a Pop structure."

The de facto band sharpened their chops for several months before Almodovar relocated his family to New York, leaving the quartet a guitarless trio. Sostak, Sharp and Brady soldiered on with a parade of interim guitarists through most of 2003, still maintaining a jammy atmosphere with no intention of creating a working band from their efforts. But that changed when a mutual friend introduced Sostak to classically trained keyboardist Ellen Bunch. Sostak invited Bunch, who had never been in a band previously, to join their non-band on electric piano, and the results stunned everyone.

"When we heard she was a classically trained pianist, we thought, 'This could work out amazingly,' " Sharp says about the first sessions with Bunch on board. "We'd played with a few guitarists, and it just wasn't sounding right. When she came, it just jived perfectly. The parts she played were so different from what the guitar players were playing, it made it sound that much more different and interesting. It gave us a lot of melody, and we could tell the sax and keyboards would complement each other.

"From that moment on, we were really excited that this would be a band that sounded really interesting. The other thing was the vocals, having both Ellen and Steve sing, doing the call-and-response, boy/girl thing. It was almost like adding another instrument."

Sostak had begun experimenting with running his sax through delay and distortion pedals from the start, and the addition of Bunch's piano reinforced the idea that the rehearsal space quartet had become an actual band. December 2003 found the band seeking out show opportunities around Chicago, which eventually led to opening gigs for Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Faun Fables and a stunning set in front of a sold-out TV on the Radio crowd that garnered the attention of Polyvinyl Records, which signed the band.

"We're all very familiar with Polyvinyl and their history," Sharp says of the fizzy Pop-heavy label. "We were shocked we were even contacted by them. They wanted to diversify their roster, so it seemed to make sense. And the more we talked to them, it seemed like it was something that could work out. First and foremost, they're just really great people. They've really made us feel like family, they've been working with us a lot and they're really caring."

The spring release of ZZZZ's debut disc, Palm Reader, is the natural end result of the band's incredible journey. Working with producer John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, The Paper Chase), ZZZZ's primary motivation was to attempt to re-create the excitement of their rehearsal time and the manic energy of their live presentation when they entered the studio, a feat they've largely accomplished with the album's frenetic and highly charged atmosphere.

"We wanted it to be a massive, fun, loud record," Sharp says. "When we played live, we wanted it to translate well from what we were doing in the rehearsal space and wanted the record to translate well in that same respect. We feel like the music is party music. It's bombastic, it's fun, it's kind of crazy, and we wanted it to almost feel like a live record."

ZZZZ plays The Comet Sunday with The Invitational.