Music » Music Column

Sharp Darts: One-Man Music Machine

Brenmar makes beats that don't fit in a box.

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Alex Delivery, Brenmar, Mira Mira
WHEN Thu 4/26, 9:30 PM
WHERE Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
PRICE $8
INFO 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401

Bill Salas, the 21-year-old musician known simply as Brenmar, says his whole life is "broken up into a series of phases," but I think obsessions would be a better word. "When I was really young I was a total geek," he says, "into action figures and dressing up like Spider-Man. I lost half of my thumb because I was trying to be Spider-Man." At around age five he was trying to swing from the cord for the blinds in his parents' living room and decided that tying it around his thumb might help. When he fell, the cord tightened and popped off the last joint, nail and all. After superheroes it was skateboarding. "That was all I thought about every day. Then I got into drugs for a while. Then I got into music."

At eight years and counting, music is his longest-lived obsession so far--not to mention the least dangerous--but it can be divided into phases too. "I fell in love with indie hip-hop when I was 13," he says. A friend's older brother had a stash of vinyl he could borrow from, and he soon started learning to DJ. At age 14 he bought "a really shitty Gemini eight-second sampler" at a garage sale and began making his own tracks. A restless listener, he branched out from Wu-Tang and Gang Starr into Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and the rest of the highbrow electronica Warp was pushing in the 90s, and from there he made the leap into indie rock and punk. By the time he started calling himself Brenmar Someday, about three years ago, all those sounds had seeped into one another in his head. These days his material veers from meditative tribal percussion to delicate drone to thrashy, damaged-sounding pileups of beats and electronic noise.

Salas got his alias from his little brother, then two, who came up with his own names for everyone in the family. "He had this speech impediment, and he had a hard time pronouncing certain letters," Salas says. "My name was--I don't know what it was, but it sounded like 'Brenmar.'" The "Someday," which he's recently phased out, came later: when he started playing his early recordings for friends, he kept having to tell them he'd think of a name for the project someday.

In 2005 Salas and his friend Elissa Pociask collaborated on a seven-inch and a CD-R EP, developing a pleasantly disheveled take on post-Postal Service bedroom electro-pop. His most recent release (and his first as just Brenmar) sounds totally different: the EP A Husk of Hares, issued in an edition of 100 by the local Terry Plumming label in January and just reissued by Salas on his Candy Animals imprint, jumps between straight-up noise, stretches of meditative, chiming ambience, and multitracked electronic skronking that sounds impressively like free jazz. He says film is a major influence--he specifically cites megafreaky director Alejandro Jodorowsky--and several of the pieces come off like soundtrack music for an unfinished (and presumably very strange) movie, drifting between moods and hints of melody.

Salas still has about two albums of unreleased music from the sessions that produced A Husk of Hares--he records prolifically in his Logan Square home studio--and the next Brenmar disc will probably be drawn from that material. In keeping with his wild inconsistency to date, he's looking at a set of more subdued songs that nod to trip-hop and include a bit of African-sounding percussion, which surprises even him--although he's been drumming for years, he doesn't make a point of listening to African music. "I don't know where it comes from," he says, "but I'm into it."

Though the range of music he's released has made it hard for Brenmar to develop a reputation for anything in particular, Salas isn't interested in narrowing his approach. He recently accompanied a modern-dance piece at Link's Hall with music he'd composed to fit the performance, and he's in the middle of assembling an ambient album from vinyl samples and found sounds, inspired by the abstract films of Stan Brakhage. For a May 4 show that's part of the Version multimedia art festival (see Section 2), he's putting together an actual band, instead of going it alone with synths, samplers, and a few drums.

Even at one-man Brenmar shows, like the one this coming Thursday at the Empty Bottle, Salas says he always plays a new song in case anyone in the crowd has gotten tired of his older stuff. It's hard to see how that could happen, since those old songs never come out the same way twice: because Salas builds up the music layer by layer, stacking looped samples of himself while accompanying the machines in real time, there's a lot of randomness and improvisation built into the process. All the same, he frets that this method may be forcing him into predictable patterns. That's when I realize that the most powerful force driving his music--stronger than his love of the Wu-Tang Clan, Aphex Twin, or Alejandro Jodorowsky--is his own addiction to novelty. "You get bored easily, don't you?" I ask. He laughs.


Malachi Ritscher Was a Man

The mainstream media treated the public suicide of Chicago music archivist and political activist Malachi Ritscher--who set himself on fire alongside the Kennedy in November--like morbid local color if they covered it at all. And though his story spread anyway, mostly on blogs, thanks to the midterm elections it barely registered as a blip on the national consciousness. But some of those who've heard it have since been inspired to ponder the man's life as well as his gruesome death.

Last month at Theatre Building Chicago, Theatre 5.2.1 opened The Silence of Malachi Ritscher, which attempts to grasp Ritscher's death by imagining a series of interactions he might've had with other people in the weeks leading up to it. In early April playwright Kevin Kilroy told Chicago Public Radio, "I want people to start discussing with themselves, with other people, how to bring politics into their daily life. For me that seems to be the best way to understand what Malachi did and actually try to act on it." The closing performance is this Saturday, and afterward the troupe will burn a copy of the script. They don't intend to mount the play again.

Recently a small British documentary crew started work on its own profile of Ritscher, hoping to describe the impact his death has had not only on the antiwar movement but on the avant-garde music community. So far their interview subjects have included local saxophonists Dave Rempis and Bruce Lamont and Okka Disk head Bruno Johnson, who got Ritscher's apartment keys in the mail and helped execute his will. According to Lamont and Johnson, the filmmakers are looking to balance Ritscher's musical and political sides. "They felt like what he was doing was being swept under the rug by the mainstream media," says Lamont.

Ritscher left behind an archive of thousands of live recordings, several of which saw release in some form while he was alive. Last month Okka Disk issued what's probably the first Ritscher recording to be released since his death--it's hard to be certain, since he gave so many artists CD-Rs of their shows. Fragments is a duo performance by Peter Brotzmann and Sonny Sharrock taped at the Elbo Room in 1989. With the amount of crowd noise that comes through, it's easy to imagine Ritscher in the middle of a room full of jazz fans--and there are plenty of people who'd prefer to remember him that way.

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

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