Globetrotting through Music: Sean Joyce, Chicagoan of the Week

Sean Joyce waves happily at me on a Tuesday afternoon as he unlocks the front door to Jake’s Pub in Lakeview. It’s 3 p.m., opening time. I’ve popped my share of PBR cans over his counter, but today I don’t want (just) a beer. I’m here to learn more about the friendly neighborhood bartender whose life thus far is the epitome of circular — he was raised in Chicago, traveled the world as tour manager for several bands (Soundgarden, anyone?), and now he’s back in his hometown ’hood. Lots to cover; let’s start from the root of it.

In the late 1970s, after “harassing the owners” for a few years, the 16-year-old Joyce landed a job at Wax Trax! Records, an independent label in Lincoln Park that was the center of the punk and New Wave scenes in the 80s and 90s. Networking through the company led to a couple decades of touring with bands with little credentials to major names like Ministry and Soundgarden.

His first tour was 1988 with Articles of Faith, a local punk band.

“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he joked. “The most important thing I did was sleep in the van to watch the band equipment while the band slept in some cheap hotel.” There must be a glorified title for that, I probed.

“Roadie. I was just a roadie,” he laughed.

The record store kept him on staff as he toured, allowing him a flexible schedule. He got a big gig with Ministry after their lead singer overheard him telling a friend about his experience on his lunch break. That began a 10-year stint working for Ministry. He learned to string guitars, hook up the band’s equipment for performances, and more.

“Of course this was the late 80’s, so the equipment was a bit antiquated by today’s standards, but the basic skills for set up are the same.” Ministry appeared at Lollapalooza in 1992, and Joyce became closer friends with them and with other bands on the tour. He developed an exceptionally close relationship with members of Soundgarden; when they needed a drum tech for a 1993 tour, they offered Joyce the gig. He spent the next few years touring off and on with Peg Boys, Babes in Toyland, Sweet 75, Revolting Cocks, and Filter, among others. He was quick to trace his success back to the day he started working for Wax Trax! Records.

“It was all through that record label. And man, what a life,” he said. “It was a great way to see the world. And drink beer along the way.” But around 1998 life on the road started to wear on him. He was in Seattle on tour with Soundgarden when he felt a draw back to Chicago.

“I hit a point where I just yearned to wake up in my own bed every morning, you know, have a girlfriend, all the simple things in life,” he smiled. “But at the same time, I couldn’t imagine a job that suited the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to.” That’s where bartending came in. He had a friend in Chicago who worked at Jake’s who helped Joyce get his foot in the door. Within a year his boss made him the Master Beer Buyer, a funny title that allows him to stock the bar’s shelves as he sees fit.

“It’s great to be back in the neighborhood where I grew up, and to work at the bar where I used to drink,” he said. “And I’ve got a passport full of stamps and three gold records. I wouldn’t trade my life for anything.” While traveling is a passion, and he wouldn’t mind living abroad for a while, he sees Chicago as his permanent pad.

His Chicago roots run through memories of skateboarding through Lincoln Park to Wax Trax! Records as a kid and hanging at the Irish American Heritage Center (if his surname didn’t give it away…). His favorite memory as a young Chicagoan is going to the gorilla house at the Lincoln Park Zoo with his dad.

“When I was little my Dad and I went often. That’s always stuck with me. And it’s so unbelievable that a city this size still has a free zoo.” But it’s not just the happy reminisces that keep Joyce in the Windy City.

“This is such a beautiful, walking city,” he said. “Nothing beats a long walk to work with my favorite album on the ipod on a warm day, criss-crossing different neighborhoods and seeing how things have changed over the years.”

“Chicago is my home.”

About Cheryl Thomas

Cheryl grew up in rural northern Indiana, where everyone is somehow related to a farmer and horse and buggy stations are in the Wal-Mart parking lots. She moved to Chicago a few months after graduating from IU and has since fallen hopelessly in love with the city. She likes trying new deep dish places, exploring used bookstores and dive bars, chatting with strangers on public transit, and all sorts of writing - especially fiction and playwriting.


  • Kelly Joyce
    February 24, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    Congrats Cuz….luv ya. You’re the best Chicagoan I know.

  • R
    June 22, 2011 | Permalink | Reply

    Nice to read that Sean is still around. . . .
    His contribution to chicago electronic , new beat and acid house should not go unnoticed…
    He was the ‘gatekeeper’ letting us know what new records came in….what was hot…and what we should take a listen to. . . . His short time at Crash Palace was instrumental is intruducing many (suburban punk rock kids) to what was (back then) a new electronic sound…..

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