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If you close your eyes at a Sticky Thang show, it's not hard to transport yourself back nearly ten years in time to a place called Madison Square Gardens. As the local group jams out a fine-tuned garage sound even grittier than its filthy metropolis-in-a-desert surroundings, you can almost see the wrestling arena where punk and underground groups ruled in the early Eighties.
Sticky Thang guitarist Todd Joseph doesn't have to close his eyes to remember Mad Gardens. "It was my playground, man," says Joseph, who jammed in the Gardens ring as a member of Vandalism, Fatal Allegiance, and Junior Achievement.
If Joseph seems to long for the long-gone heyday of the Phoenix underground, it's understandable. After all, his band's been playing arguably the scrappiest rock 'n' roll in town without the kind of large local following that probably would've been its due back at the Gardens.
"There's a lot of good bands around, but the music scene itself is so small, it's hard to get any kind of base of support going," says guitarist-vocalist Chris Keenan, once a member of Gardens rockers the Nova Boys. "It seems like this town doesn't have time for any more than one or two bands at a time."
He notes that even Phoenix's favorites receive a considerably smaller response from their hometown audience than they do anywhere else. "Look at the Meat Puppets, for example," Joseph complains. "They've been around like ten years or something, and any other city they go to, they're huge."
The band sees a general apathy in the scene. With the Gardens gone, the punk movement has shriveled, and Sticky Thang fears that a lot of musical magic has disappeared with it. "The scene has just kinda degenerated into where's a nice place to take your date, as opposed to `Let's go check out this new band.'"
That's why Sticky Thang bassist Tom Jones recently moved to Seattle, where the locals do celebrate the latest additions to the scene. (The group hasn't yet decided on Jones' replacement.)
In the meantime, Sticky Thang continues to carry the torch that ignited the locals back when Mad Gardens was blooming. But it's not because the band's caught up in its own nostalgia trip. "If you were really affected by it when it first happened, then it never leaves you," Keenan says. "It's just about playing music, just going out there with the attitude that there's nothing else in this world that matters to you and that's what you do, that's what you have to do."
But even with the band's decidedly deep punk roots, its music is more than the unrestrained distortion and undecipherable thrash typical of that genre. The band blends classic styles with punk attitude and feeling, Keenan says. "I think our sound is pretty modern and up-to-date, but . . . I pretty much take from every period in rock 'n' roll, anything that was loud, and just in your face, and just real rhythmic. It's all essentially the same to me, whether it was Elvis Presley or the Rolling Stones or the Sex Pistols."
The key ingredient that Sticky Thang distills from all of these varied performers is a constantly charged, high-energy stage presence, even if that means sacrificing technical performance in the meantime. Keenan's idea of a successful gig: "When I come off that stage at the end of the night, I wanna be totally out of my head. I don't even want to know what I did up there."
Of course, this "let it loose" philosophy has inherent drawbacks, most notably an unpredictable outcome, but to Sticky Thang, that's part of the charm. "It's like you have to work yourself into a state to do that, and sometimes you don't always hit it, but when you do, there's nothing better," says Keenan.
"Puttin' Out the Fire," which appeared on the recently released 357 Miles East of L.A. Phoenix compilation tape, is one of the songs the group uses to reach rock 'n' roll nirvana. The rough and rowdy ditty (which features current drummer Bobby Lerma's predecessor, Al Penzone) was taken from Keenan's own stormy adolescence. "That's basically me just flashing back to being seventeen, and having my devout Catholic parents rag on me for every single little thing I do," he says.
The band's other songs also put a premium on emotion. The tune "1001" takes the standard "my baby left me" theme and rocks it into a Sticky Thang thing. "It's a battle-scarred love song, is what it is," says Jones.
"It's a snotty little song about being totally fucked over by this girl," elaborates Keenan, "and then you realize that you're really stupid because there was at least a thousand examples that came before you, so you should have figured out it was gonna happen to you, too."
That Sticky Thang's brand of intelligent post-punk hasn't stuck onto the Phoenix scene doesn't exactly have the band searching for a new formula.
"We're just bullheaded enough to keep doing it our way," says Keenan. "And it really bothers some people, and some people really like it."
But in a town where even popular bands have a hard time breaking even playing clubs, a group whose music isn't widely accepted is fighting an uphill battle, says the band. For this and other reasons, Jones says he packed his bags and headed for the greener musical pastures of Seattle.