Since giving birth to house in the 80s Chicago has pumped out a steady stream of high-caliber dance DJs. But they haven’t always gotten to stretch out creatively–most crowds are unreceptive to experimentation, and club owners demand a packed dance floor at all times, which often means aiming for the lowest common denominator. Joe Bryl knows this as well as anyone. He’s been a DJ for 20 years, struggling for the past 10 or so to play the music he loves at places like the China Club, Vinyl, and the Funky Buddha Lounge.

“Sometimes you want to do things that really reflect your own personal sensibility,” Bryl says. “You want to wake up and feel good about what you’re doing.” So when restaurateurs Donnie Madia (Blackbird) and Terry Alexander (Mia Francesca, Soul Kitchen, Tizi Melloul, Mod, and Danny’s Tavern) approached him with an idea for a new club that emphasized the DJ’s creative autonomy, he signed on as a partner.

The result is Sonotheque, a slick little lounge at 1444 W. Chicago (former home of Casey’s Liquors) that’s built for listening, not dancing. Designed by Suhail, who’s also put his cutting-edge stamp on Mod, Tizi Melloul, and MTV’s Real World house, it incorporates sound-absorbing materials as design elements–acoustic tiles, cut into narrow strips, are arranged in funky patterns behind the bar, and cushionlike panels line the walls. The main section of the long room is furnished in cool gray and paneled with dark wood. “Normally when people create nightclubs they start with the design and halfway through they think, ‘Oh, where should we put the DJ?’ or ‘Where should we put the speakers?'” says Madia. “When we approached the designers, Joe and Anthony [Nicholson, the club’s assistant musical director] had already mapped all of that out.”

Nicholson sums up the club’s philosophy: “I think it’s more important for people to adapt to the environment, versus you trying to accommodate people. In a certain way you have to envision saving people from themselves.” But that’s a tall order. Alexander and Madia should know by now that imposing one’s taste on one’s customers can be risky. Both have tried incorporating DJs into their restaurant ventures–in the early 90s Madia hired Bryl to spin at Oo-La-La in Lakeview, and Alexander prominently featured DJs at the short-lived Okno in Wicker Park–and both came to the conclusion that the mix didn’t work in Chicago. People wanted to eat, or they wanted to hear a DJ, but they didn’t want to do both at the same time. Yet the two men still wanted to do something that involved music as more than background. They began plotting Sonotheque late in the summer of 2001.

Despite its educational mission, the owners insist there will be nothing elitist or exclusive about Sonotheque. “Everyone is welcome here,” says Madia. “We didn’t want this to be an expensive night out. We want to invite the skate rat or one of the kids that goes to the Empty Bottle as well as our clientele that we’d like to invite after they’ve had dinner.” Although the club offers an extensive selection of wines and liquors, it’s also got PBR for two bucks a bottle. There’s no dress code and, except for special performances, no cover charge. “There’s no guy playing God out front with a velvet rope. You just walk in,” says Madia. The owners expect Sonotheque to draw Chicago’s trendy club-and-restaurant clique in its first six months. But, says Madia, “after those six months, after the shakeout and another cool place opens up, that’s when our real customer comes in.”

Though the club opened just last weekend the owners already have big plans for the future. Bryl hopes to present live music regularly and bring in international DJs. They’ve also discussed launching a record label, a la Eighteenth Street Lounge (the D.C. club and label operated by Thievery Corporation) and Germany’s Compost (a label and club night run by the influential DJ collective Jazzanova).

Byrl wants to showcase a wide range of music. “I like to tell people that it will be similar to a Straight No Chaser vibe,” he says, referring to the British magazine that served as the bible for the acid-jazz movement in the early 90s. At the Funky Buddha he was sporadically allowed to work in this direction, mixing jazzy textures, hard funk, international grooves, 70s fusion, and soul. He also presented live shows by Antibalas, Fertile Ground, and Weldon Irvine and DJs like England’s Giles Peterson and Germany’s Truby Trio. “We’ll show the connections between that rare track that came out on a west-coast label in 1955 and something that’s breaking right now in Finland,” he says. “It’s going to be jazz based. At 12 o’clock the music doesn’t have to have a pulsating beat. It could be a rare Brazilian track from 1972 that you would hear no place else.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.